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Through his various "careers", we explore different facets of Indian and English life. I enjoyed being able to see more of a zenana since it's an aspect of Indian life that is often quite private. Prostitution is also something hasn't been discussed in other books about India that I've read and it was disturbing to see how the English used the local people.
I think it's an unbeliveable story since I don't think that a young man could assume so many different personae between ages 15 to 21. Certain aspects of the story were quite ridiculous and they allowed Pran to transition from one life to another. In particular, at the beginning of the book, Pran was about to rape his servant. By the time he became "English", he began to feel sorry for his servants. Pran had not encountered anything that would imbue him with a sense of morals so it didn't make a lot of sense that he would start caring about his effect on others. Pran's journey towards a more English way of life just increased his hypocrisy and his confusion.
I would suggest reading this book with the expectation that it's not out of any particular genre. I would consider it to be in the "A Son of a Circus" genre, if that exists. India, England and Africa are just settings in this book, they don't typify it. Overall, an intriguing read.
First was John Irving, as the story centered on Pran's ousting from his life of privilege as he is discovered to be a 'half-breed' product of his mother's illicit behavior, and not the true heir of the master of the house. As has been evidenced in Irving novels I have read...the conflict arises from death and loss. After being banished from the house, Pran is summarily taken in at a brothel, then sold into another house where he serves much the same function. He becomes embroiled in a plot to frame a noted military figure who has a penchant for young males, with humorous results.
Then along came Sarah Smith, as Pran escapes his sexual servitude and reinvents himself as Pretty Bobby, desperately trying to escape his past and live under an assumed identity. Bobby insinuates himself into the lives of the Macfarlanes and fit into a society he left behind long ago, but with highly differing results.
Next up was Thomas Hardy, as Bobby morphs into Jonathan Bridgeman, an identity assumed from a drunken schoolboy about to inherit his father's estate and attend school in London. Jonathan falls for Astarte Chapel, and does everything possible to insinuate himself into her life and win her heart. But, in true Hardy-esque fashion, great love ends up great despair. Astarte vacillates and toys with Jonathan's heart time and again, only to break it in the end.
And finally, Rudyard Kipling, as Bridgeman accompanies his true love's father on an expedition to Africa to conduct a study and census of the Fotse, a previously uncharted and unrecorded tribe of African natives. Bridgeman and company find themselves surrounded by an untrusting people, jaded by prior interference of white men, as they came to take the Fotse people as porters and slaves.
The book is extremely well written, and highly original and entertaining for a first novel. The only fault that I find with it is in the ending, which seems a little abrupt. One would expect that after so many transformations, Pran might have reached some epiphany about the need to be yourself, or at least have begun a quest to find the real man inside him....but perhaps I, too, am jaded by the usual Hollywood endings served up in films and much popular fiction. Either way, the book ended on a flat note for such an ambitious debut from a promising writer.
However, don't let that deter you from reading this fine piece of fiction. Hopefully Hari Kunzru is not a one trick pony, and there are many more stories to come from this impressive new talent.
Although he is the child of an Englishman, Pran Nath Razdan, is presented by his mother as the offspring of her wealthy Indian husband. It is the early 1900s, and the boy is raised with every advantage. However, in his early teens, Pran's real father is discovered by the affluent man, and the boy is thrown into the streets to fare as best he can.
His sanctuary is a brothel where he is dressed in women's clothes and offered as such. Later, for the satisfaction of a deviant military man he transforms himself into perfection incarnate in the guise of an English schoolboy. Following his escape to Bombay he adopts a double life as the compliant son of a missionary couple, and as an errand boy for the prostitutes of the city.
Pran has learned his lessons well - he knows how to reinvent himself in order to survive, and later learns that these same transformations can be used for his baser, more selfish desires.
With a story that ranges throughout the globe, Kunzru takes readers on an unforgettable journey through distant locales while examining our awareness of what is perceived and what is real.
- Gail Cooke