Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 204 pages
Odysseus Abroad, the sixth novel by author, musician, and professor Amit Chaudhuri, is flooded with literary references, starting with the title. The novel’s protagonist is a twenty-two-year-old aspiring poet who came to London from India two years prior, in 1983, to study literature. Ananda is a modernist, dulled by “walls of prose” and invigorated by the demands of Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot: “The Emmas and Fannys and Rochesters — they were of a closed English household where he’d never been welcome or at home.” “Modern man,” by contrast, “with his retinue of habits, like getting on to buses ... or going to the dentist” lives in an era “at once tragic and playful, so incredible and unparalleled, yet so familiar.”
Of course, Ananda is just such a modern man, and perhaps part of his fascination with modernism derives from his starring role in his own everyday narrative. He gets on buses, goes into shops, and complains about neighbors and noise. The novel’s plot comprises his daily routines, and throughout, an unshakable sense of isolation hangs over him. Ananda is firmly rooted in a particular historical context (Margaret Thatcher’s England, post-partition India) and literary context (forebears include Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom, while Bengali poet Tagore is at the center of numerous debates). Nonetheless, he is a wanderer, roaming the city as a traveler, traversing parts of town that suggest “the haunting of Empire” and others that illustrate “a new internationalism afoot in London.”
He is isolated, but not alone. Ananda’s uncle, Radhesh, shares some of his wanderings, including those that take up the second half of Chaudhuri’s slim novel. Radhesh has been in London for 26 years, living alone and sending money to relatives in India. He is a could-have-been, whose wisdom and insights Ananda reluctantly respects; he is also a bachelor who regularly contemplates past unconsummated love, a prototype Ananda could either follow or distance himself from.
Odysseus Abroad is a contemplative and often funny reflection on alienation and what identity means when people are separated from everything that shaped them. Both Ananda and Radhesh parse who they are amid London’s masses. Ananda refuses to be identified as Asian, while Radhesh tries to distinguish himself from the “Bengali bhadralok” by declaring himself to be a “black Englishman.” Ananda observes the “racial empathy” that is shared by nonwhite Londoners; “the stubborn conflicts — between Indian and Chinese, Pakistani and Indian — melted and became irrelevant.”
Neither plot nor character propels the novel forward. (Ananda, appropriately for a modernist poet, is somewhat fragmented in his characterization, with hints of arrogance and ego mixed with a longing for maternal guidance, and an uneasy conjunction of romantic and violent impulses.) What moves the story along is the narrator’s observations, crafted in a meandering prose befitting the novel’s heroes. The prose does have its intermittent stops and starts — for instance, some statements seem untethered to the ones around them, and references are sometimes introduced without much in the way of textual clues. That works in modernist poetry (especially if your copy of The Waste Land is annotated) but it can stymie forward momentum, as it does on occasion here. A book whose name recalls two canonical works — The Odyssey and
Ulysses — has a great deal to live up to. Odysseus Abroad is not nearly as weighty as those antecedents, but it does offer its own small, meditative treasures. — Grace Labatt