Hari Kunzru: The Impressionist

The Impressionist

Hari Kunzru’s first novel is an ambitious and nuanced exploration of the destructive forces of empire, culture, and convention on the individual and society. Pran Nath, offspring of an upright but lost Englishman and a wild, doomed Indian woman, stands as a cipher for India’s paradoxical and destructive experience of Empire, and, eventually, for the futility of a life striving for conformity. Kunzru writes with great clarity and an eye for the telling detail in a story which sweeps from the Raj, through Oxford, to Paris and the plains of Africa, as Pran occupies successively more nuanced characters in an attempt to find a place of safety, of repose and belonging. In so doing Pran bears witness to the twin mirrored poles of the occupier and the occupied: mutual disgust paired with fascination and cultural misunderstanding. He eventually comes to personify that paradox and finds that it cannot ultimately be resolved.

For all that, Kunzru undercuts the pomposity of the English at almost every turn, that attachment to convention that is intensified and fetishized once the homeland is left behind. Such a fetishized conception of culture and etiquette finds its personification in Pran, who finds that the England he is trying to become, and that some he encounters still believe in, died on the battlefields of the Great War. In his attempts to out-English the English, he is ultimately left behind by the developing character of national identity and the youth he desperately wants to love and be loved by.

It is no surprise, then, that anthropology, the great homogenising tool of empire comes to the fore in the novel. The anthropological instinct of power is to catalogue, to generalise and generate regulating principles from the messy and recalcitrant mass of humanity. Kunzru gives the lie to that idea. Individuals are flashes of light playing on the surface of the world, lent depth by the flow of culture, history, geography. That fluidity of identity and the attendant problems of self-knowledge and belonging find expression in Pran’s inability to locate any core to his being: a problem many will recognise, but exaggerated here by the ceaseless search for stability and order in appearance and behaviour, for belonging. Such bad faith as Pran displays in his search for a role he can inhabit stands as an indictment both of doomed power – Britain after the Great War – and the corruption of national character through occupation.

To that extent, despite its depiction of repression, mutual distrust, and inhumanity, Kunzru’s novel is optimistic in its rejection of inauthenticity, its humour serving to emphasise the absurdities of attachment to convention whilst grounding each character’s humanity even as they stand as symbols for greater cultural currents, for visions of corrupted empire – as if there were any other kind.

It’s certainly very good indeed.

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Don’t Look Down

To celebrate our marvellous weather, a poem published at the rather lovely Æolian Revue.


Dizzied in the vertigo of clouds,

Falling through colours balanced in the air,

As the trees pay lip service to the wind.


Thoughtful rain.

Rain for thinking.

Swollen rain absorbing


The light, the colours, and splaying them on

Cracked-backed garden chairs, causing concussion

And bright spots before the eyes, soon rendering

Us Amnesiac, dry, until the sky stumbles again.

The Sacred Made Real (National Gallery 2010)

The Dead Christ

In the centre of a shadowed room lies a pale and bloodied corpse.  Hair, matted and tangled, is spread out on a pillow as the head lolls onto one shoulder open-mouthed, eyes open but staring into nothingness, freed from the pain of grievous and grizzly wounds.  Dirty fingernails and emaciated flesh are yet to be cleaned in preparation for entombment.  Only a piece of blue cloth saves this man from complete indignity in death.  The eye is drawn to puckered holes on hands and feet – to the sliced and deep hole in this man’s side, its leaked blood smeared down his stomach toward that blue cloth.  This was not an easy death. In the words of Isaiah,

He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.  Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, Continue reading

Sebald and James

This is a small thing I wrote for a series that never happened called Books That Made Me  on the Literature pages of The Bubble.

The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald

Cultural Amnesia – Clive James

 These books, one of essays on historical figures and ideologies, the other a strange ‘prose-fiction’ on the experience of walking the coast of East Anglia, have in common the interpenetration of cultural awareness with daily life: both probe the material from which you form a life, its breadth and depth and essential ambiguity.  Where they differ is in their manner of approaching the dangers and tragedies of history.

 Sebald’s view of history is symptomatic of depression: other lives stand in an allusive and elusive relationship to the narrator’s disintegrating character.  The fluent, meandering style evokes the heaviness at the centre of life: the weight of history, of self, of purpose.  Proustian in that  impressions strain with deeper meanings that cannot be resisted, Sebald’s is a poetic, arduous, potentially devastating experience.

More positively, James’ robust liberal humanist writing rescues individuals from oblivion. His  breadth is astonishing: from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig via Chaplin and Thatcher, James embodies and urges a concern for sincerity in human affairs.  Within the contingency of cultural amnesia lies a richness of thought that reveals the consolations and pitfalls of culture.

James and Sebald challenge us, ‘So much has gone before, what could possibly come next?’

Turner and the Masters (Tate Britain)

First published on The Bubble (June 2011).
ovid banished
Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)

There is a tiny portrait of J. M. W. Turner at the very end of the Tate Britain’s Turner and the Masters. It is by Charles West Cope and shows us Turner in 1837 when he was fifty-two years old: a hunched, somewhat scruffy man in his trademark stovepipe hat stands, as he was wont to do, on a platform barely an inch from the canvas whilst awed hangers-on stand at a respectful distance from this son of a barber and a mentally unstable mother. This is a man whom we can well believe never lost his cockney accent. It is also not the picture he would have wished you to remember.

Continue reading

The je ne sais quoi of the Eternal – Van Gogh at the RA

First published on The Bubble (May 2011): http://www.thebubble.org.uk/art-photography/the-je-ne-sais-quoi-of-the-eternal#!page=1

[This article was written while The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters was featured at the Royal Academy last year.]

A house, a street, burns against a cobalt sky, figures obliterated by a remorseless “sulphur sun”. A train crosses a bridge in the background, its plume of smoke swirling up and out of view. That movement is all the more striking for the stillness of buildings, trees, and people fixed by the unforgiving blaze of light.

The Yellow House was painted in Arles in 1888. The artist thought this place “tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue”. It is difficult to disagree.

Most of us think we know Vincent van Gogh: brightly coloured Provençal landscapes, rustic portraiture, and those sunflowers. This monumental exhibition – The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters – allows the real artist, a true intellectual, to shine through. Placing the works and the letters side by side allows each to shine a light on the other. They letters reveal a man deeply involved in all aspects of art, its philosophy, mechanics, discipline, and cost. We have no greater or more detailed record of an artist’s personal development and views of their work than this.

Continue reading

The Manner of Our Going

First published on The Bubble (January 2011): http://www.thebubble.org.uk/art-photography/the-manner-of-our-going

There is a poem in Andrew Motion’s collection The Cinder Path called “My Masterpiece”. The poet imagines that he is, in some other life, a Renaissance artist and describes his great work: a Madonna. This suggests not just the continuity of artistic endeavour across the centuries and between the arts, but something else as well. The master looks beyond his central motif, proudly informing us that,

… my real triumph
consists in the view
extending behind her,

the mile upon mile
of blue-green hills
with their miniature lives.

These lives are depicted in a few evocative and sympathetic strokes, showing us the importance of the everyday in creating a tapestry Continue reading