Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 204 pages

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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

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