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THE IMPRESSIONIST , A Novel By Hari Kunzru, Dutton: 388 pp., $24.95

April 07, 2002|JAMIE JAMES | Jamie James is the author of a novel, "Andrew and Joey."

The production of great doorstopping novels about the Raj has become a minor industry in British fiction. Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet," drawing on classics of the colonial era, was the prototype, and Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy" perhaps the champion in the teeming-tapestry-of-life Olympics. As do many other formulas, the Raj novel provides ample scope for incisive literature, although few works in the field rise to the level of those novels.

That genre is also ripe for satire, as British journalist Hari Kunzru proves with his witty, engrossing fictional debut, "The Impressionist." His narration takes a perennial character of the genre, the protagonist of mixed race, and wraps the plot around one of the classic themes of 19th century melodrama, the outcast wanderer, as famously exemplified by Charles Maturin's gothic chiller "Melmoth the Wanderer" and Eugene Sue's "The Wandering Jew."

True to its type, "The Impressionist" begins with an invocation of the devastating power of nature, a flash flood in which our hero is conceived by a British officer (who promptly drowns) and an aristocratic Kashmiri girl on her way to be married. She dies in childbirth, and her son, Pran, grows up as the cosseted, pale-skinned darling of his putative father. When the boy reaches puberty, the old man falls sick, and on his deathbed a vengeful nursemaid reveals the truth of Pran's parentage. The boy is cast out, and his wandering begins.

Pran innocently seeks shelter in a brothel, where he is drugged, kidnapped and dressed as a girl, under constant threat of being made a eunuch by a mad madam's knife. Because of his pallid good looks, Pran is sold to the harem of a tiny mountain sultanate called Fatehpur, which appears to be modeled on the daft gay princedom in J.R. Ackerley's 1932 Indian memoir, "Hindoo Holiday." The boy's assignment is to bait a blackmail trap for the Crown's pedophilic, alcoholic representative, Maj. Augustus Privett-Clampe, who holds Fatehpur's future in his quavering hands.

Privett-Clampe has Pran, now known as Rukhsana, dress as an English schoolboy and recite patriotic verse for his erotic delectation. The demented officer gives the confused young man some advice: "You've got some white blood in you," he says. "The thing is, boy, you have to learn to listen to it. It's calling to you through all the black, telling you to stiffen your resolve. If you listen to what the white is telling you, you can't go wrong."

The lad escapes the clutches of Privett-Clampe during a disastrous tiger hunt, and the narrative careens forward in mad earnest, as its shadowy protagonist transforms his identity time and again to survive.

In each of Pran's incarnations, Kunzru deftly sends up one literary cliche after another, from a lustful fundamentalist preacher, who might have graced the pages of a story by Somerset Maugham, to spiritualist seances to the gilded youth of Oxford (complete with yet another cameo appearance by Harold Acton).

Young Pran, who now passes for white, ventures to West Africa, where he has joined a doomed anthropological expedition. Kunzru here flirts with danger, mingling the muscular derring-do of John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard with the borderline racism of Evelyn Waugh's exotic farces--an irony all the more piquant because of Pran's own ethnic ambiguity.

At the story's end, Pran is seen drifting through the desert wearing a burnoose, leading his camel on to the next stage of his exile--"Return of the Impressionist," no doubt.

Kunzru brilliantly succeeds at the first requirement of satire: that it respect the canons of its targets. "The Impressionist" is every bit as colorful and suspenseful a tale as the best of the originals it spoofs; and for all its ironic fun, the book's psychological insights and emotional texture are on a par with or exceed most of the earnest confessional novels that dominate the literary scene.

Moreover, as artificial as much of the novel's humor is, each of its far-flung locales has a palpable, racy vivacity. If anything, one wishes that the book were heftier, even more packed; Kunzru is clearly aiming for the generous amplitude of a Victorian mystery in the mold of Wilkie Collins or late Dickens, but his narrative seems slightly rushed at times, particularly in the African section.

The book's principal failure, if that's what it is, is that its protean protagonist never comes fully to life: Like his predecessors in the great 19th century wanderer epics, Pran is a symbol more than a lifelike character, representing in this 21st century narrative conflicting attitudes toward race rather than the demands of Christian morality. The problem inherent in Kunzru's bracingly insouciant approach is that most modern readers, when the subject is race, finally demand something more substantial than wit, however inventive it might be.

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