“’It’s strange how many political poems are about things you find at home, even in the kitchen. Matches, burnt bread, boiled rice. “Rotten tooth!” he said grandly.’ The interplay of the public and private worlds is a source of interest for the anonymous narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel, Sojourn. A foreign scholar who has come to Berlin to take on a mostly ceremonial role at a university, he has little work to do and instead spends his time adrift in the city, going to dinner with an exiled Bangladeshi poet, having confusing conversations with his cleaner and say yes to the occasional date with an enigmatic woman called Birgit.
Faqrul, the poet, acts as the narrator’s guide for much of the book. He shows her around the different neighborhoods, tells her where to buy clothes, takes her to dinner. It is above all a good company, an intellectual stimulation, for the narrator and the reader. They analyze questions of art, identity and history. Faqrul’s fiery assertions are a foil to the narrator’s cold reflections, the distance with which he views his new home, the thoughtful perspective of a stranger. This distance will turn in the later parts into a real dislocation, but even in his most disconcerted moments, the narrator never seems disconcerted: “I couldn’t decide where I was. I was not confused. It’s just that I didn’t feel enough division – between the present and the past, between them and myself.
As he traverses the city, its fractured lines and its history, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company, like being transported to Berlin, without the hassle of airports and fares. There is the feeling of a man at the dawn of a discovery, waiting for answers, to habitual or profound questions. Where to buy a coat for the cold? And what is the meaning of life? Hilary Mantel compared Chaudhuri to Proust, calling him a “miniaturist” specializing in the art of the moment. Sojourn is full of these artistic moments, a short and compelling book where every encounter and remark seems charged with meaning.
Over a 30-year career, Chaudhuri has published essays, fiction, and poetry, generally to great acclaim. He is the author of seven novels, including Friend of My Youth.
Sojourn’s tone is ruminative, almost laconic, but the observations throughout the book are surprising. Chaudhuri is renowned for his style, the clarity of his prose. But he is also a master of figurative language. The book is rich in images that distance and then instantly connect: “Because he was a smoker, the laughter was like the whistling of a kettle. It filled the dark space… I tried on fur-lined shoes. The tips were rounded. They emanated a native sorrow… We have an appetite for the house, as flies have for food. We find it infallibly.
The precise prose is locked into an agile structure that moves gracefully between scenes. There are nuances of Rachel Cusk, especially Outline, in the way the narrator registers objects, people, moments in time. A stranger’s alienation in a European city is reminiscent of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man and Greg Baxter’s fiction. In Sojourn, Berlin is mysterious, impenetrable, surprising. The owner of an Indian restaurant recounts the fall of the wall in 1989: “’None of us knew, he said, that it would end. When it ended the next day, it was inevitable. The narrator lives in a university-funded apartment in an uninspiring suburb: “The monotony was historic. Dahlem had been created by the Americans to illustrate the tranquility of the suburbs.
There is a similar distinction to character. Faqrul is “a man who liked to share. He gave you food; he stood next to you in solidarity when you were trying on jackets”. The dialogue is full of ironic humor, as in this exchange between the non-German-speaking narrator and his non-English-speaking cleaner: no question of disagreement. We just agreed on everything. I’ve never had conversations in which I’ve been so in tune with the person I’m talking to.
When Faqrul disappears in the second half of the book, the narrator must find his own way through the city, a journey that is not without its accidents. The result is an intriguing and thought-provoking read about the pleasures and dangers of travel: “This morning, I don’t know my name. Half an hour passes. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I hear the hum of other names – Oe; Professor Bol. Not mine. It will come to me.