This first novel by the much-touted young Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra is something of an enigma. In offering a well-rehearsed worthiness, a prose style that is intelligent, accomplished and aspiring of literary status, Mishra seems to have overlooked the dynamics of his plot. And in its mix of genres - travelogue, memoir, history - the book isn't always coherent. Yet his voice sustains such a calm and measured tone that you may want to read on regardless.
It is 1989. We are in Benares, a city where "the decaying palaces and pillared pavilions" symbolise a past all but eradicated by the new middle-class affluence of this "noisy little commercial town". Disenchanted students rally against the specious merits of India's independence ("it had merely replaced foreign oppressors with home-grown ones") and they clash violently with the police.
The narrator, Samar, a young Brahmin intellectual, finds himself trembling with the tensions of his age. How can he reconcile the "incongruity" he feels all about him with his religion's ethos of serenity and retreat? And how can he address "the great chasm" between the life he enjoys with his wealthy ex-pat friends and the life he endures on campus amid poverty and chaos?
Well, for a start, he can write about it. As a student deeply impressed by European literature and philosophy, Samar composes a narrative that's ponderous, often dispassionate, and slightly archaic in its literary meanderings and old-fashioned English. His earnest attempt to link the disparate events and emotions of his day is frequently distracted by a kind of poetic revisionism, a naive yearning for radical change. He is a romantic. He needs a cause. And, he decides, what better cause than love?
Catherine is a French sophisticate, a bohemian of sorts, who is engaged to an Indian man of limited prospects. In Catherine's "enormous longing for love", Samar sees a potential soulmate, and she soon becomes a symbol of the composure that his country has lost. As the two grow closer, Samar yields to a wispy romanticism, and this overplayed pining drains the story of its dramatic promise.
Although writing is clearly Samar's defence strategy, his fawning sentences here run the risk of alienating the reader. The author should have intervened by tempering Samar's account with a little more action, perhaps concentrating on the pragmatics of political activism or the complexities of cross-cultural affairs. That Mishra allows the narrator a free rein suggests that there's not much to distinguish him from his hero. It's the first-time novelist in memoir-mode, and another first novel about procrastination.
It is here that the book's other registers come to the rescue. Mishra writes about landscape with the vividness of a densely packed dream. Other passages, with their lengthy character descriptions and abundance of observed detail, are as crowded as the trains he pictures rumbling over his country's flatlands. It is sometimes too much. A word should have gone here and there, maybe two, maybe three; yet, with its rhythm and intensity, the writing takes you on.
Mishra also finds room for a light invective against "tourists without spiritual ambitions" who perceive India as "an exotic hotbed of illiteracy, poverty and religion". At the same time, he is happy to describe "half-naked child beggars with stringy rust-brown hair" who "tugged at people's clothes". Such contradictions are symptomatic of the narrator's cultural ambivalence. He has outgrown his Brahmin upbringing, but he has nothing to replace it with, nothing except a vicarious European intellectualism and a profoundly hollow yearning.
This is the novel's biggest disappointment. After his affair with Catherine, Samar seems none the wiser. "I travelled everywhere and nowhere," he says, pre-empting the reader's response to the book's final 50 pages. We're left with a hazy meditation on love, solitude and melancholy; the characters merely pass through, but the reader might demand a little more.