Writing historical fiction is a perilous practice. The novelist has to balance the imperative to present a plausible vision of the past and how it felt to live in it with the need to tell an amusing story. Too little back story and texture and the proceedings can feel a bit phony; too much and the apparatus of the novel bogs down.
With "The Impressionist," British writer Hari Kunzru errs on the side of storytelling, which probably explains why this, his first novel, commanded a record advance in England last year. In essence, it's a ripping yarn, the picaresque tale of a boy, half English and half Indian, and his adventures in his homeland and Britain in the early years of the 20th century. The boy -- originally named Pran, though he's given many other names in the course of his journeys -- is ejected from his childhood home and traipses through the following locales: a brothel, where he is force to dress as a girl; the court of a minor princeling, where he is ordered to lure a pederastic British major into a compromising situation; a Presbyterian mission in Bombay where he's fought over by the starchy minister and his estranged Indophile wife; a British boarding school where he steps in to impersonate a young Englishman who dies in an Indian alleyway; Oxford, where he strives to remain completely unexceptional; and, finally, the furthest reaches of Africa, where he ventures into the bush as part of an ethnographic expedition.
Pran's fate turns on his racial ambiguity; depending on his clothes, behavior and the expectations of those who meet him, he can appear either Indian or white. Gradually he conceives a contempt for "blacks" of all kinds, but like most of his emotions -- except for two delirious crushes, each on an elusive woman -- it's not a particularly strong feeling. Pran's survival depends on maintaining a ductile personality; he is whoever the occasion, and his own physical survival, require him to be. This is no doubt meant to be a Big Comment on mixed race identity -- a tragic mulatto scenario with the tragedy downgraded to pathos -- and it'll give book clubs an "issue" to discuss, but it's not in the least central to the book's fun, which is a good thing because the somewhat bland Pran doesn't make for a particularly compelling protagonist.
The pleasure in "The Impressionist" comes from the parade of supporting characters, each vibrantly drawn and often very funny. Many of them are also fairly preposterous, like a sinister chief eunuch who appears, knife in hand, to twirl around in a cloud of colored scarves incanting about the "wonderful infinity of sexes." Others are all too plausible, like the wastrel younger brother of the Nawab of Fatehpur, who fills the palace with coke-sniffing silent film starlets and Euro-trash as he petulantly schemes to take over from his traditionalist brother so he can spend the principality's wealth on sports cars instead of irrigation projects. The Scottish minister, with his side project documenting the physiological "evidence" of racial inferiority, and his wife, a proto-New Age enthusiast for ethnic garb and séances, are wonderful as well. Each episode in Pran's life carries the reader to another, equally diverting tableau, and sets in motion a subplot full of intrigues and scrapes.
By the time Pran gets to England to take the place of the doomed Jonathan Bridgeman, the proceedings become less fantastical and more pointed. The impostor diligently takes down notes to perfect his ruse: "Englishness is sameness," he writes. The weather in London leads him to understand "for the first time the English word 'cozy', the need their climate instills in them to pad their blue-veined bodies with layers of horsehair and mahogany, aspidistras and antimacassars, history, tradition and share certificates. Being British, he decides, is primarily a matter of insulation." While the Indian sections of "The Impressionist" are more or less caricatured, Kunzru (who grew up in Britain) has nailed the reflexive provinciality and entitlement of the English to the wall. If "The Impressionist" isn't always such a convincing portrait of the many milieus it careers through (it's unlikely, for instance, that a turn-of-the-century Indian child would think of people as "making eye contact"), the novel's headlong narrative momentum will carry most readers cheerfully through to its enigmatic conclusion.