FREEDOM SONGAmit Chaudhuri Alfred A. Knopf $24, 434pp.
Freedom Song is neither about liberty nor a melodic tune. Rather it is an immense, three-novel-in-one, 433 page tome stuffed with picaresque glimpses of life in modern India and Oxford.
Like a verbose Raymond Carver, author Amit Chaudhuri concerns himself with details of the everyday like the afternoon light as it casts a shadow against a dusty bureau. Chaudhuri's novels are more intimate and optimistic than Carver's tales of people mired in middle age depression. They focus on the unexceptional-impressions of people's lives rather than plot-driven Hollywood cliffhangers with dazzling denouements. There may be an occasional epiphany, a sudden realization about particular relationships between characters, but the "aha" factor is minute and quite understated. The arc of the three novels is practically flat, with no particular direction or resolution in mind. What Chaudhuri is more interested in is relishing every moment of a typical day, the sights, sounds and smells of his cities.
For readers with a short attention span, Chaudhuri offers paragraph-long summaries of each novel at the beginning of the text. Completely eliminating the entertainment value of the plot, this is his way of deterring thrill seekers in search of an action-packed sizzler. He cultivates a reading audience willing to linger and savor the sensations he painstakingly recreates. This is a man in love with language. Each of his sentences is a work of art, making it clear that it's the arrangement of syllables and not the plot that matters to Chaudhuri.
InA Strange and Sublime Addressa boy from Bombay visits his uncle's house in Calcutta for his summer vacation. The most enjoyable novel of the three, Address captures a 12-year old's ability to delight in the mundane with a narrative that manages to be at once child-like and worldly. A walk through town becomes a symphony of fragrance and image. The boy's naivete is amusingly depicted during a lazy afternoon when the boy regards a pigeon mating ritual as something akin to a World Wrestling Federation grudge match.
For readers fascinated with the South Asian culture, this read is vastly more enjoyable than the standard history text. Chaudhuri demystifies Indian exoticisms, transporting us into his rag-tag world where everything revolves around the late afternoon nap. This novel's evocative imagery is on par with Indian director Saityjit Rays' films in de-cloaking the mysterious world of the subcontinent.
In contrast to the Indian focus of the first novel,Afternoon Raagis a collection of suspiciously autobiographical sketches taken from student life at Oxford. Whatever plot might have strung the biographical snippets of this together has been lost under chapter upon chapter of description.
It is as if he compiled his collegiate memories, loosely and occasionally associating them with his former music teacher's amazing vocal ability (a connection just as random as it sounds). While Chaudhuri claims the novel attempts to reconcile the English world with the protagonists Indian childhood, the pages read more like an inventory of incidents enveloped in a romantic haze.
Jumping to a third unrelated topic,Freedom Songinvestigates the complex relationships of two families whose patriarchs are brothers. Chaudhuri's snapshot technique works against him in his attempt to create art from this cobweb of genealogical entanglements. He jumps from character to character without ever presenting the full picture. This confuses an already befuddled reader who has enough trouble sorting out the foreign names of the members of the families. Unlike the first novel where Chaudhuri acts as a benevolent guide, this story assumes a knowledge of Indian marriage matchmaking rituals and cultural customs that the lay reader simply does not possess.
While Chaudhuri's lyrical, descriptive passages are a refreshing change from the ready-made, movie script-like popular fiction of Elmore Leonard or Sidney Sheldon, he overstays his welcome by dragging out this style for over 400 pages. The reader becomes bewildered by the barrage of foreign names of the characters, especially in the last story where relationships amongst them are never clearly explicated. Even more puzzling is the reason for stringing the three novels in one giant volume in the first place. No solid connection among the stories is ever made, despite the obvious presence of an Indian protagonist. Perhaps the three novels are a study in contrasts between two different families, cities, and countries. Unfortunately, the delineation never crystallizes. Coupled with the fact that the stories are within themselves are a mish mash of free-standing descriptions,Freedom Song is ultimately a compilation on its way to a literary meltdown.