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One serious feller

All About H. Hatterr A Novel; G.V. Desani; New York Review Books Classics: 318 pp., $15.95 paper

October 28, 2007|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

"Literature is serious," scolds H. Hatterr's lawyer in the lengthy "critique" that author G.V. Desani tacked on to the 1972 edition of his 1948 novel, "All About H. Hatterr." Let us harrumph in agreement with that invented attorney. Then let us knit our brows, stroke our falling chins and consider whether such an admonition is appropriate to a work that so strives after truth that it begins every chapter with a philosophic quandary and then attempts to explicate the same. "Is Nature unsocial in intent?" Desani asks through his hero, the aforementioned Hatterr. "[C]an words ever communicate Truth?" "Why," he queries, "do innocent fellers get foxed?" Are Satan and Cupid, he wonders, "one and the same?" "By St Mungo," he demands, "is there any justice-giustizia in the Globe?" "Ach, mein Gott! are human beings fools or what?"

But who is this inquisitive soul, this H. Hatterr? "Biologically," he answers, "I am fifty-fifty of the species." Which is to say that his sire was a European merchant seaman and "[t]he other was an Oriental, a Malay Peninsula-resident lady, a steady non-voyaging, non-Christian human." Thus H. is "a mixed Oriental-Occidental sinfant," raised in India by English missionaries and destined to fit in precisely nowhere. The novel begins with his expulsion from a British gentlemen's club, which brings on a crisis of what we would now call identity. "Till this happened," he bewails, "I don't mind admitting that I had regarded life as a bed of roses: and thorns absent." Rejected by the West, he determines, "Damme, I will go Indian!"

Desani, Hatterr's creator, was likely similarly torn, splitting most of his very long life (he died in Texas in 2000, age 91) between England and India, studying, lecturing and acting as a correspondent for English and Indian newspapers. Salman Rushdie has called "Hatterr," which is at last in print again after two decades of unconscionable unavailability, "the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language." T.S. Eliot was a fan as well. It's hard to imagine in today's literary marketplace -- Desani showed little concern for such fashionable novelistic staples as plot -- but "Hatterr" was a huge bestseller when first released in Britain, one year after the subcontinent won its independence.

"I write rigmarole English," Desani taunts, "staining your goodly, godly tongue." Bless him, he does mash it up, bending orthography, stretching syntax, mixing in shards of Hindi, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German and a goodly dose of balderdash, whilst tossing in references to Whitman, Shakespeare, Socrates, Freud and appeals to Kama and Laxmi as well as to Allah and Christ. Only a quasi-outsider (an Irishman, say) could have such an irreverent ear for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. But "Hatterr" is more readable by miles than "Finnegans Wake," and a lot more fun.

For all its chaos -- and there is plenty -- "Hatterr" is an orderly affair. Each of its seven chapters begins with a dialogue between the protagonist and one of various wise men (the sages of Calcutta, Rangoon, Madras, etc., and ultimately the Sage of All-India, who advises, "Abscond from charlatans and deceivers as thou wouldst from venomous snakes!" at which point Hatterr promptly flees). A theme then emerges, which is expounded via a "Life Encounter," in which Hatterr learns a lesson, usually at the cost of considerable bruising.

If this sounds didactic, it is not. Hatterr often ends up in a loincloth. Jenkins, his cowardly, candy-eating dog, makes frequent appearances. His Anglophilic friend Banerrji is rarely far from the action and, to Hatterr's annoyance, never without an appropriate Shakespearean citation. "Damme, Banerrji, man," Hatterr protests, "don't quote me an Elizabethan writer feller, that's all I'm asking!"

Most chapters begin with Hatterr broke or in trouble. His friend intercedes to find him a job, or some distraction, which unfolds in a disastrous but highly comic manner that unfailingly and inexplicably makes Banerrji proud. His chorus: "I thank you! India thanks you!"

Take the second chapter, in which Hatterr has been fired yet again. His wife has left him. ("The Kiss-curl has absquatulated," he puts it.) Banerrji arrives and warns Hatterr of the dangers of excessive solitude: "You must attend to your libido, the elan vital. Otherwise, I very much regret, it will produce complexes in you." Banerrji proposes that Hatter meet one Bill Smythe, who runs a circus, and Smythe's wife, Miss Rosie, "the Gorgeous."

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