April 06, 2020
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Refreshingly Foreign

Despite some amateur fumbling, a slick debut set in Hungary

Refreshingly Foreign
The Gabriel Club
By Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya
Penguin Rs: 250;Pages:396
FOR a novel by an Indian, this book is unique. Set in communist Budapest, it doesn't have a word about India or an Indian in it. Lovely. About time we got out of our imaginative ghettos. Let foreigners talk of the corpse-littered Ganges and the dung in our streets. Let the Indian writer move to other pastures.

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, born in Jamshedpur in 1962, moved from Calcutta to the University of Pennsylvania. He's lived in London, Prague and Amsterdam and now divides his time between America and East Europe. He knows his milieu well - languages, music - the works. That's what gives the novel the kind of authenticity it has.

The novel deals with a nucleus of four people, all brilliant and artistic, who decide to resist the communist regime. At the centre stands the glamorous and reclusive Immanuele Emperhazy, the musician. Her forefather's owned Slovakia, never mind her penury now. Everyone is in love with her. The others in the ring are Andras, the writer and hero of the book and Immanuele's lover, Janos Szegedy who blows himself up in a car and Stefan Vajda, the poet, who shoots himself later, also because of Immanuele.

The novel is not about resistance and heroic individuals battling with the state. We are not in Koestler-land. Once in while we get a staccato reference to Imre Nagy or Sandor Petofi. The group comes out with no revelatory indictments of the system, no apocalyptic condemnation. (Trust the author to use two phrases where one would suffice). The state intrudes only in the person of the police inspector Szegedy, Janoss brother, who investigates the group. In fact Janos blows himself up to prove his loyalty to the group.

The book starts with Immanuele's diary, full of dreams and threatening portents. Nocturnal intruders move in and out of her house and dreams. Except there's no mention of the man who eventually kills her.

The characters are weird and live on the edge of hysteria. Andras likes candle-lit baths in a metal trunk, coated with bitumen to keep it water-tight. Ami or America, Andra's twin sister wants an incestuous relationship with him, failing which she seduces his lover, Immanuele. Her moods change like quicksilver. Once she is shown kissing a mirror, saying, I am your sun. She was a proton-woman, electron, neutron, turn-on, everything. But the way she courts Immanuele is portrayed very sensitively in the diary. Gabriel, incidentally, is Immanuele's still-born twin.

From 1976 we jump to 1994. But the same wretched Szegedy is in charge of the police and hes now investigating Immanuele's disappearance. Meanwhile her wax effigy has been disinterred and theres much excitement. Her diary is found, and lost again. If it was to get lost once more, why was the damned thing recovered in the first place? We are promised many skeletons from the cupboard but at the end of it all one does not get to the bones.

Probably one wants to do too many things with a first novel. A good editor, unavailable to either Granta or Penguin, could've made it a leaner book. Or how could such pseudo poetic flourishes get through: The overcast sky hung low over the Danube, impressing the nights skeleton on its black waters.

Yet its slickly written, packed with dialogues, time-switches, a chapter ending mid-sentence and the next starting from the bitten-off half. Bhattacharya handles language well, though he tries too hard at times. The book never palls and has some great moments: a banner reading Today the Berlin Wall, Tomorrow Infinity or an observation like shouldnt one be suspicious of any writing that makes sense in a world that obviously doesnt. A splendid effort has been made to pierce to the heart of artistic characters, locked in desperate struggle with themselves and their environment. Were going to hear more about Bhattacharya in the future.

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