AMit Chaudhuri’s eighth novel reminded me of 1993’s Afternoon Raag, about an alienated English literature student in Oxford, or 2014’s Odysseus Abroad, about Ananda, a drifting poet in London. Sojourn has the same impressionistic tone – everything feels dreamlike, illusory and yet carefully portrayed. There is a similar winding, languorous style that likes to examine the minor details of everyday life, interweaving them and imbuing them with the larger meanings of history. This time we are in Berlin, however, and our anonymous protagonist is no longer a student but a visiting professor at the university.
Sojourn is an even slimmer book than those previous works – more compact and stripped down, as if it seeks to do more with less. Chaudhuri is now 60 years old. He was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), grew up in Bombay (Mumbai) and studied in London and Oxford. I have to say up front that you don’t read his work for intrigue or determination. He avoids conflict or fictional drama; his literary preoccupation is best characterized as “to belong and not to belong”. And in this book – as in the others – he meditates on identity; identity evoked or dissipated in a context.
Some things happen. Our narrator makes friends – including Faqrul and Birgit, and Peter from Toronto. They stroll through Berlin and share several meals. (Food is something Chaudhuri likes to put on the page — her narrator can “spot bratwurst carts” from a distance.) There’s a vaguely intimate relationship. There is a scene with the narrator’s cleaner. There are some interesting routes on the U3, for those familiar with the city’s U-Bahn. But the script, as it stands, is really a kind of build-up broadcast. “I keep walking – in which direction I’m not sure,” says Chaudhuri’s narrator. “I lost my bearings – not in town; in its history. Toronto’s Peter, meanwhile, “seemed quite content – as you might when you begin to understand your place in the world.”
Berlin is popping up a lot in fiction these days. Hari Kunzru, Helon Habila and Chris Power are among those who have set novels in the city over the past two years, but these writers evoke and engage the German capital in more kinetic, tangible and realized ways. Chaudhuri’s narrator, on the other hand, experiences Berlin as something that cannot quite be apprehended. “The Brandenburg Gate has appeared. Lit, resplendent, an aimless ruler. Elsewhere, he gets off at the wrong U-Bahn station and is “surprised” by “the quiet absence I find myself in. Is the absence Rüdesheimer Platz?” In the scene with the housekeeper, the narrator asks if she has any plans for the weekend; but she does not understand English. She replies “radiantly” in German (which he doesn’t understand either) that her towels are dirty and that there’s no more detergent but that she’s going to buy some more.
The pleasure of reading comes more from the turns of observation. I loved the narrator’s description of Faqrul’s “preemptive air” or the way he and Birgit climb the stairs with “the urgency of childhood friends”. Faqrul examines a pair of shoes: “‘They are good,’ he says, squinting as if evaluating weapons.” The novel is peppered with such moments; you need to change your reading mode from “what is going on and why are humans like this?” to a more zen style “life is unknowable and yet we breathe, eat and sleep”.
Chaudhuri in this novel is not quite the master of Proustian prose that he was in his earlier works. Near the start of the book, Faqrul telephones, trying to convince the narrator to interview him, and Chaudhuri describes him as a man who “had thick groom skin”, not an attribute associated with bride and groom on their big day. About ten pages later, Faqrul “brandishes” the narrator to the sellers of souvenirs from the Berlin Wall, who “receive [him] with timid approval; as are married people. Later, Faqrul is described as “indirect, like a groom with his bride”. For a writer of this level of sensitivity to use such an image three times in such a short novel – and, frankly, to mutilate it – speaks of a lack of attention.
It’s like I didn’t like the book. I did it. In the end, I ended up liking the hushed tone and disconcerting calm. Still, I can’t help but feel that the reader rarely comes first in Chaudhuri’s mind. There is a moment when the narrator comes down the stairs and says, “I had forgotten what Faqrul looked like, but he smiled at me and I smiled back with distance.” I underlined the sentence and scribbled down “the exact relationship between Chaudhuri and the reader”.