The idea of the novel is good, its execution tiresome, even irritating. This is a pity because there is a very good novel lurking behind a haze of words. The pace is slow, even lethargic. Adiga might have made an excellent novella of his material, because a novella does not permit such self-indulgence.
The central figure, Danny, is a young, intelligent and attractive character. Having come to Australia as a student, he quickly dropped out of what seems to have been a somewhat bogus university. Being no longer a student, his visa was invalid. So he is now classed as an illegal immigrant, liable to be expelled if he comes to official notice. Accordingly he has entered the black economy and lives below the radar. He works as a cleaner and lives in a room above a grocery kept by a Greek who, knowing his status, take a hefty cut of his earnings. He is an efficient and reliable worker, carrying his own vacuum cleaner on his back. He has regular clients who trust him to clean their apartments when they are at work themselves, and collect the cash they have left for him. He becomes quite friendly with some of them – one pair take him on trips on their days off. Danny also has an attractive Vietnamese girlfriend. All would be well, his future bright and rosy, if it wasn’t for his illegal status. This means, for instance, that he can’t even buy himself a new iPhone because of the information that must be divulged when he signs a contract, information that will be passed on to the authorities, thus alerting them to his unwelcome presence in Australia.
Now comes the drama, the key moment in the story. One of his clients is murdered and a jacket left by the body. From reports he suspects that the jacket belonged to the dead woman’s lover, another of his clients. He recognizes that he has a duty – a moral duty – to tell the police of his suspicion – suspicion which, to his mind, amounts to near-certainty. But he is, of course, afraid of the police. Contacting them will mean he is questioned. He will be dragged from his life in the shadows out into the open air. The immigration authorities will be alerted to his existence. He will then be deported. The law in Australia is strict. So what should he do? Act in accordance with his conscience or say nothing and remain out of sight below the radar?
This is a very nice moral dilemma and one can think of novelists such as Sebastian Barry, Andrew O’Hagan or, perhaps most of all, Australia’s own Thomas Keneally, who would dramatise it compellingly. But while Adiga highlights the problems of an illegal immigrant very well, the novel, moving back and forward in time and place, everything presented hotch-potch from Danny’s point of view, strangely lacks tension. What should be a taut and gripping story becomes slack and diffuse. One is so overwhelmed with the incidental details of Danny’s wandering in the city, his memories of childhood, and generalisations about the invisibility of brown people to white Australians, that the essential question the novel puts becomes blurred.
That Adiga is a fine and intelligent writer isn’t in doubt. There are many good things here and a pleasing sense of felt life. Yet this is a disappointing book, one also which has many repetitive and therefore boring passages. It is very rare to find yourself reading an ambitious novel and thinking that it might make a better film, but that’s how it seems. As a novel Amnesty goes astray. As a film it might be more dramatically compelling.
Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga, Picador, 253pp, £16.99