(Just to get this out of the way first, this book is not about art. It’s about a different type of impressionist, something that dawned on me embarrassingly slowly as I read The Impressionist.)
This is a brilliant book. By the end I was quite literally jumping up and down with excitement, but I don’t want to give any of that away.
The Impressionist is less about a character, or characters as individual people, than a national type of character, a colonial (in this case, British) one that in many ways has not been left behind in the post-colonial era. The protagonist–for want of a better word, for he is not a sympathetic person, nor a unified individual, externally nor internally–is an Anglo-Indian boy, who is dejected from his Indian family when his true Anglo paternity is revealed. Left to his own devices, he assumes various identities throughout the novel as cunning, chance and mis/fortune present him with multiple avatars. Pran Nath becomes Rukhsana, who becomes Chandra-Robert-Pretty Bobby, who becomes Jonathan Bridgeman. These personalities take hom to various corners of the British Empire in the first half of the twentieth century, and the fact that they are places of empire, not places of their own accord, is significant: an independent northern Indian princely state, Amritsar during the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, Bombay, Oxford, West Africa.
One of the most amusing threads of The Impressionist is Kunzru’s fun-making of anthropology (and it is the old-school, colonialism-assisting form of anthropology that is ridiculed and dissected, so my anthropologist friends need only be as offended by this as I should be if digs were made of archaic, Shakespeare and Wordsworth-spouting Eng-lit types: that is, not at all).
Behind this fun-poking is a theme far deeper and more significant, however–humans’ desire to categorise, demarcate, purify, map, hierarchise and, ultimately, dominate. The attempts to structure, which can only end in disappointment. British anthropologists counting and categorising the black man abound in The Impressionist, but the tables are also twisted. During his incarnation as Oxford prep-student Jonathan Bridgeman, he keeps a detailed notebook (an ethnographic field diary, in effect) of all the unfamiliar customs and practices he needs to remember to understand and blend in as an upper-class English white boy:
“Jonathan notes all this down: nobility of discipline, respect for religion important but belief optional, check your plate first. His notes spread out into all areas of school life, from the rules of rugby football to the construction of a jam sandwhich. Week by week his understanding of this world improves, the white spaces on his map filling up with trails and landmarks.” (page 315)
It has dawned on me recently that I am a die-hard post-structuralist, a fact that had eluded me for so long because post-structuralism just seemed like common-sense, revealing that what I thought I didn’t have a firm intellectual grasp on was, in fact, informing my fundamental approach to everything. And this book reinforces why. As an undergraduate of history at Oxford, Jonathan Bridgeman falls in love with Astarte, whose father Henry is a famous anthropologist specialising in the primitive tribes of West Africa:
“Events (chiefly a poor grasp of mathematics) conspired against the adolescent Henry’s plan to become a physicist, and he was drawn to the study of cultures and peoples, applying to societies the rigorous classifying spirit he had hoped to use on stars or elementary particles. He did not mind too much, for the pleasure of fitting the messy shapes of life into the clean outlines of a theory was the same, whatever its object.” (page 368)
Even that which had initially irritated me in this book demonstrated that Kunzru was one step ahead of me–that is, Pran Nath’s (or whoever he may be to the reader by the end) stint as a sexual servant at a royal court. The constant scatological humour, anal rape and (what I mistakenly took to be) ridiculing of sexual and gender ambuguity, actually turned out to be an early instance of the exploration of fluid identity categories that comprises the heart of this novel. Take the following passage, in which Pran has been instructed of his duties by the princely court of Fatehpur’s chief hijra (eunuch):
“The Khwaja-sara hobbles towards him, kohl-rimmed eyes drilling into him from the rouged, wizened face. Quivering with excitement, it makes an effort to calm itself, with a toss of long hair and a flutter of a hand becoming a herself, then coughing and straightening up into a himself, then relaxing into something else, something complicated and fleeting, a self with no prefix.” (page 82)
These prefixes are something that the English language may never manage to lose, but there is no harm in trying–in fact, it is essential–to broaden the identities and personalities that can be contained within them.