August 2002

Michael Schaub


The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

One of the weirder developments in the literary world this year was the controversy surrounding the Booker Prize, the British fiction award that's roughly the equivalent of the American Pulitzer. After some on the Booker board considered opening the prize to Americans (it's currently given only to authors from the U.K. or the British Commonwealth), there was a mighty roar of indignation from a great deal of British literary aficionados. They thought that if Americans like Philip Roth and John Updike were allowed to compete, the poor Brits (and Irish, and Canadians, and Australians, etc.) wouldn't stand a chance.

It was curious, to say the least. The Commonwealth can boast such authors as Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Jamie O'Neill and Martin Amis, none of whom have anything to fear from an Attack of the Yanks. And although it's early in his career, Hari Kunzru makes a good case that he should be added to that list. The English journalist, DJ, and television (uh, "telly") personality has written what might well be the most stunning debut novel by an English author in years.

Set in India, England and Africa in the years following World War I, The Impressionist chronicles the early years of Pran Nath Razdan, born of an Indian mother and English father. His mother's attempt to hide his biracial heritage turns out to be fruitless, so Pran becomes the un-Pran, passing as a hundred percent white, going through a series of false identities that lead him to both whorehouses and prep schools, trying desperately to concoct a new life at each turn. If that seems like a lot for a young, first-time novelist to handle, it is. But Kunzru never falters, and it's a testament to his pure talent that even the bizarre seems believable in this novel.

Comparisons to Salman Rushdie are probably inevitable, but Kunzru is a much more understated writer, loath to draw attention to his own narrative tricks. Kunzru seems less enchanted by magical realism than Rushdie, putting him somewhere in the Paul Bowles school of level-headed literary exploration. That Kunzru can pull this off is fairly amazing, especially considering that he's barely past 30. It would have been easy to rewrite the same picaresque that authors have been retreading for years, but Pran is a wonderfully unique character, hard to get a handle on, but immediately sympathetic. It's a neat trick.

Whether this book inspires the same praise that Zadie Smith received for White Teeth remains to be seen, but it would be terribly unjust if Kunzru fades into obscurity as the markedly less talented Smith continues to be the poster child for the young literati. Novels this beautiful deserve more than attention; they deserve celebration. You'll hear Hari Kunzru's name again -- probably when he wins the Booker, or if there's any justice in the literary world (and there's not), something greater.

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru
Published by Dutton
383 Pages