Readers familiar with Hari Kunzru’s provocative articles in Wired magazine will be surprised by the historical setting of his dazzling first novel, The Impressionist. At first blush there seems to be absolutely no connection between an edgy interest in the broad societal impacts of technology and a fascination with the waning days of the British Empire.
Dig a bit deeper, however, and the relationship between Kunzru’s Internet journalism and his novel about the amazing adventures of Pran Nath, a boy with an astonishing capacity to shape himself in order to conform to the expectations of those around him, becomes clear. Kunzru has questions about the whole idea of what it means to be a person.
"The origins of the book come from my interest in exploring the character of Pran," Kunzru says during a phone call to London, where he lives. "His identity is a function of how he is perceived by others. I’m very interested in our reliance on a Romantic conception of character. . . . We’re being asked to deal with a very complicated networked world using a set of 18th century beliefs about ourselves."
Kunzru’s method for exploring such a heady set of ideas is unexpected, to say the least. On its surface, The Impressionist is a rollicking tale of a young boy who comes of age at a critical moment in world history. Set in India, England and Africa in the 1920s, the novel follows the strange course of Pran’s life. Born of an almost incidental liaison between an Englishman and an Indian woman, who convinces her wealthy husband that the child is his, Pran lives an empty, pampered childhood. But when his mother’s betrayal is discovered 15 years later, Pran is thrown into the streets of Agra, India, and begins a journey that takes him through a series of identities as he passes from a half-caste Indian boy to a white, Oxford University educated member of the ruling class. Sent to West Africa on an expedition to study the legendary Fotse people (one of Kunzru’s more brilliant fictional inventions), Pran must finally confront the question of who he really is.
Kunzru’s own identity quest led him to fiction at a young age. "Writing fiction was such a comfort to me during a confusing adolescence," he says. "I remember the joy of being able to escape into a fully realized world when the world around me was uncontrollable and not doing what I wanted it to do." After completing a degree in English literature at Oxford, Kunzru "spent a couple of years drifting around doing lots of odd jobs and writing." He had no luck getting published and decided to return to school for a master’s degree in literature and philosophy. "I ended up going down the corridor and hanging out with people interested in artificial intelligence and networks. I became fascinated with the way technology has an impact on society."
Through a chance meeting at a party and some shrewd professional networking, Kunzru was able to parlay his interest in technology into a job with the British edition of Wired, where he quickly rose from "tea boy" to associate editor. He stopped writing fiction completely.
When the British Wired folded two years later, in 1997, Kunzru was almost relieved. "It gave me the kick that I needed to actually get back and start doing what I’m supposed to be doing." Kunzru patched together a series of travel writing jobs (he was named Young Travel Writer of the Year in 1999) and music reviews (he is still music editor for a design and lifestyle magazine called Wallpaper) to support himself, and in 1998 he started researching The Impressionist.
It was a daunting process. "I wasn’t initially confident that I could control the material or that I wouldn’t get sucked into a vortex of detail. When your writing is set in your own milieu, you have an awful lot of information at your fingertips—what a kitchen looks like, what your shaving routine is. Instantly all this had to be thought about and researched. I became a junkie for photographic material, for the domestic packaging of the era, for anything I could find that was part of the normal textures of everyday life."
Kunzru also became a regular at the Oriental and India Office Collection at the British Library. "British being British, the Empire was highly bureaucratized and everything was written down and annotated and signed off on numbered chits. Effectively you have the complete administrative records from the 18th century on. It’s a fantastic resource. . . . It was a good morning when I discovered that there was a theory that the sun’s rays interfered with your bone marrow so people wore thick pads under their safari shirts to protect their spines from harm. That’s the sort of peculiar detail I adored. I also got to be a big fan of the secret political files."
As a result of his evocative details and his highly polished prose, The Impressionist is a remarkably textured, often very funny novel that has generated a vast amount of prepublication buzz, both here and in England. It earned Kunzru a very hefty advance and a place in the constellation of important young British novelists writing about a very new, multi-racial, multi-ethnic Britain.
The Impressionist can be read simply as an adventure story as well as an examination of the very vexing issues of identity, especially racial and ethnic identity. On that issue, Kunzru says, "It’s a book about hybridity, disruption and disjunction. . . . I wanted to set the story at a time when the stakes were particularly high for racial identity. . . . I wanted to set this at the very last moment when this enormous system of control seemed possible. It’s kind of like Elmer Fudd when he runs off a cliff: until he looks down and sees that there’s no ground beneath him, he can keep running. That’s the kind of moment I was interested in."
For Kunzru there seems to be something of a personal, poignant edge to his interest in such moments. The son of an English nurse and an Indian doctor who immigrated to England in the ’60s, Kunzru was born in England and lived in Essex, just outside of London, until he went to Oxford. "Essex," he says jokingly, "has the same relationship to London that New Jersey has to New York. It’s known for its tastelessness." Throughout his life, Kunzru says, he’s been confronted by the classic question: where are you from? "When I’d say I’m from Essex,’ they’d say, No, where are you FROM?’ Suddenly this world of confusion opens for you.
"Within this material there was something I needed to find out. The act of writing The Impressionist allowed me to discover that. I think the question I turned out to be answering had very much to do with my own cultural identity and with my personal identity as well. I am now able to be articulate about thoughts and feelings I wasn’t able to talk about before. It was also a very practical way for me to think about India, a country and history without which I wouldn’t be here, but which wasn’t really very present in my childhood."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.