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Karma Chameleon

In Hari Kunzru's much-ballyhooed debut, a subcontinental changeling allows the writer to explore the prison of identity; Sarah Waters slyly reworks two nineteenth-century classics.

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At first glance, Hari Kunzru's terrifically entertaining debut novel, The Impressionist, looks like a disjointed collection of novellas with just enough of a unifying theme -- race and colonialism in India -- to justify one of those exquisitely done Masterpiece Theatre four-parters featuring lots of mournful elephants and assertive pith helmets. Each of the book's major sections centers, after all, on a completely different character; all have some connection to the subcontinent. There's Pran Nath Razdan, a spoiled, well-born Indian boy at the turn of the century who grows up just downriver from the Taj Mahal; Rukhsana, an exotically beautiful hijra, or transvestite eunuch, who is forced by his master to perform sexual favors for an influential English officer; the charming white boy, Pretty Bobby, the ward of a Scottish missionary couple in Bombay who is also a demimonde kingpin; and, finally, Jonathan Bridgeman, an aristocratic Oxford student who unwillingly accompanies a famed anthropologist to Africa on a mission to study African tribesmen -- the black people whom Jonathan so detests.

What connects the four wildly divergent characters, and tales, is much more than the constant, corrosive confrontation between English and Indian, between white and black. The surprise of Kunzru's expert and ambitious book is that all of those disparate characters are, in fact, the same person: the "impressionist" of the title, a half-Indian, half-English boy who has the uncanny ability to pass as either white or black.

The plot follows the chameleon-like Pran from his idyllic childhood to his expulsion from home (following the revelation that he's the child of his mother's English lover) onto the streets, from his days as street beggar to his years as sex slave catering to the bizarre tastes of his white clients (one of whom masturbates while forcing Rukhsana to recite Kipling), from his apprenticeship as a kind of lab assistant to the fanatical missionary (who collects the skulls of members of "inferior" races and measures their cranial capacity) to his stint as Jonathan. Through all this, Pran comes to realize that identity can be a lot more fluid than many of the people he encounters like to think -- a self-serving fabrication of the powerful. It's with no little shock that he sees one day how easy it is to make his way into "white" institutions: "They hear an accent and see a face and a set of clothes, and put them together into a person."

That realization poignantly exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of imperialistic racism. With great verve and an admirably light touch -- Kunzru's tone is always one of amused detachment -- the author uses his protagonist's hybrid nature to show just how intellectually, morally, and politically shaky the structures of colonialism were. In each of the environments through which he travels, Pran's ability to cross boundaries is pointedly contrasted with the manic energies of a character who's desperate to maintain order. Pran's adoptive father, a distinguished attorney of high caste, is an obsessive-compulsive who manically devotes himself to "the maintenance of impermeable boundaries"; masquerading as Jonathan, Pran attends a boarding school in England where his headmaster, a botanist, lectures his pupil, a hybrid if ever there was one, on the dangers of cross-pollination: "The flowers would lose their identities in a hybrid swarm, and nature would be in a desperate mess."

The most desperate mess you encounter in this book is, inevitably, Pran himself, a person whose (wholly understandable) interest in, and expertise at, manipulating surface appearances comes at the cost of a truly authentic personality. The Impressionist is often so filled with intriguing incident and excellent details that you can sometimes lose track of the larger theme, but not so toward the end, when you see how expertly Kunzru has manipulated his plot in order to demonstrate the moral corrosion that is imperialism's greatest legacy. For even as Pran achieves the ultimate in "passing," successfully impersonating a well-to-do English Oxford undergraduate, he's deprived of the thing he covets most: his mentor's daughter, who represents everything English, "Elgar and tea roses." At the very moment when he tries to consummate his love for her, he realizes that his blooming English rose prefers black men. When she dismisses Jonathan as "the most conventional person" she knows, and he desperately tries to tell her the exotic truth of who he is, his predicament goes beyond the poignant to the tragic.

The book isn't perfect: If anything, it shares some of its hero's flaws. You're likely to buzz through Kunzru's 400 pages in a rush of pleasure, and only afterward might you wonder, as I did, why it doesn't affect you more -- why what you remember is your pleasure in the author's craftsmanship rather than the tragedy of the wrenching tale he tells. The reason, in the end, has to do with Pran himself, a character whose belief that surfaces are everything makes him not only "utterly unavailable to himself" but unavailable, ultimately, to the reader. If you were able to care about Pran more, to feel with him (as opposed to merely for him), this remarkable debut would be great instead of very good. Still, if The Impressionist is better at surfaces than at depths, it's a remarkable book that should leave a lasting impression.

Readers who have been impressed in the past by Sarah Waters won't be disappointed by her latest excursion into Victorian England, following the award-winning Tipping the Velvet and its possibly even better successor, Affinity. Part of the pleasure of reading Waters is her expert, playful allusions to real nineteenth-century British novels: In Fingersmith, it's Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, that eerie tale of switched identities, madhouses, and doppelgängers, that seems to be on the author's mind -- with a clever nod to Oliver Twist thrown into the bargain.

Sue Trinder is a teenage orphan raised by an amiably Dickensian gang of minor thieves and con men (fingersmith is Victorian slang for "pickpocket"); at the beginning of Fingersmith, the goodhearted Sue is persuaded by a handsome crony called Gentleman to take part in an elaborate con. (She's supposed to pose as a maid to the young heiress whom Gentleman plans first to marry and then to shut up in an asylum.) As in a Mamet play, the con is more deliciously convoluted than even the con men realize; at the end of the first part of this sometimes slow-burning book, it's Sue who turns out to be the dupe, as the wrong girl ends up in the asylum. But Sue also has a few tricks up her sleeve. Suffice it to say that her burgeoning awareness of her lesbian nature ends up playing a crucial role in a novel that through slyness and inexhaustible sleights-of-hand more than lives up to its nimble title.

The Impressionist
By Hari Kunzru
Dutton; 383 pages; $24.95.
Fingersmith
By Sarah Waters
Riverhead; 503 pages; $25.95.

Photo by Michael Kraus.


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