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Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad

Ananda Sen is studying English literature at the University of London. We know the date, because he tells us that it is six days after LiveAid, so it is 19 July 1985. The novel takes place entirely during this day though, of course, we have numerous references to previous events. Ananda did not like LiveAid (Didn’t the exulting crowds in Wembley and in Philadelphia see their heroes’ and their own complicity in the famine?) But then there are lots of things he does not like.

His second year at university has finished, though, during the course of the day, he will visit one of his university tutors. He lives in a flat which is bigger than it was, as his mother, whom he loves dearly and who has only recently returned to India after visiting him, persuaded the landlord to change the configuration. While he likes this, he is not entirely happy with the flat, because of his neighbours. The group upstairs seem to party at night, keeping him awake, while another neighbour, who works as a part-time barmaid, comes home in the early hours of the morning and bangs her door. He, however, practises raga singing at 9.30 every morning which annoys her but he considers his behaviour quite reasonable, as it is daytime.

Ananda muddles along, not necessarily happy but content to get by. He really has only one friend and that is his uncle Radhesh, who lives in Belsize Park, in a basement bedsit, a relatively short tube ride from Warren Street, where Ananda lives. His uncle never married and, Ananda suspects, is still a virgin. He used to work in the city and was hoping to be made a director of the firm where he worked. Instead he was made redundant. However, he has a very generous index-linked pension and helps Ananda. Indeed, the pair see each other regularly, going out to eat (Radhesh pays) and to go the cinema (they both like James Bond films).

Ananda reads the paper, masturbates, sings his ragas, occasionally studies, wanders round the neighbourhood (where he often goes to porn shops), and ruminates. He only has one real, serious interest and that is writing poetry. One of his greats regrets is that Stephen Spender retired just before Ananda came to the university, as he would love to have met and talked to him. Spender would, of course, have recognised Annda’s great poetic gift. He has tried to have poems published but without success. However, Ananda preferred Larkin to Spender as a poet.

His visit to his tutor is, in part, about his poetry. He has sent him some of his poems to review. Nestor Davidson is, in fact, his substitute tutor, as his normal tutor has taken time off to look after his dying mother. Davidson is a published writer (of prose, not poetry) though Ananda is not impressed with his stories, feeling something is missing (it was their very craftedness that went against them, giving them the slightest hint of artificiality). Ananda is hoping for a First, not because he wants to become an academic but because he feels it will open doors for his poetry. When he asks Davidson about his prospects, Davidson says he does not read enough, particularly novels. Indeed, it seems that all he has read is All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, and the later, almost comical tragedies of Thomas Hardy.

Davidson’s proposals are, inevitably met with disdain. Gullivers Travels and Jane Eyre? Children’s books. Journal of the Plague Year? He had a premonition of dullness. Clearly, the world is at fault for not recognising him rather than these works. Was it something about the world, that promoted the second-rate and left the genuinely talented unrewarded?

There are other issues that concern him. One, of course, is sex. He has never had a girlfriend though he regularly masturbates. In his first year, he had to study Anglo-Saxon. His tutor was Dr. Hilary Burton. He was certainly attracted to her and thought she was sending signals to show that she was attracted to him. This appears to be sheer arrogance. However, he was never brave enough to test her reactions and, for health reasons, she withdrew from teaching. He does, however, favour love. He was a passionate apologist for love. He was like a virginal Victorian girl: love and sex existed in separate compartments.

His uncle also had his sexual yearnings. While in the city, he had fallen for Gilberta, the sixteen-year old daughter of the cleaning lady where he worked. He stayed late at work to see her. He loved her, and believed that—if he’d had the courage, the temerity—she would have loved him. He did not have the courage.

Not surprisingly, one of Ananda’s other concerns is with the English. He makes a string of comments throughout the book about the strange ways of the English. When at a café with his uncle, he comments The English hadn’t been made for serving but for nannying, to remind you punctiliously to cross your t’s; most people who served were foreigners. Of the English ways he struggles with, he mentions its zebra crossings, where cars slowed down and waited, pulsating, its assortment of tea bags and cheese and pickle sandwiches, its dry, clipped way of speaking. There are many other examples of his struggle with the English and Englishness.

Radhesh, too, is somewhat out of place. He is happy to have done better than expected when he was a child. Indeed, he was brilliant as child but also his own worst enemy. For example, when he asked his chemistry teacher how to succeed at chemistry he was told to read every word of his chemistry text-book. He did and mastered it all. Unfortunately, he did not turn up for the exam. There are several other examples of such behaviour during his life.

Like his uncle, Ananda is more or less a hermit: no friends, no girlfriends, at something of a loss in a foreign country, which he does not really understand. However, he muddles along, seeing his uncle, reading poetry, masturbating, wandering round the neighbourhood, complaining, contemplating his own superiority, and being opinionated about politics (he dislikes Thatcher and miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill) and many other things. Ultimately, he is just an ordinary man.

Publishing history

First published in English 2014 by Hamish Hamilton