Hari Kunzru, author of the award-winning and bestselling novel The Impressionist, was named as one of Granta’s “20 Best Fiction Writers Under 40.” The Impressionist was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist; was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and a British Book Award; and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Novels of 2002. Kunzru has written for a variety of English and international publications, including The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, and Wired.
At the turn of the century in a remote corner of India, an English civil servant and a reluctant Hindu bride cross paths during a cataclysmic rainstorm. Nine months later a boy is born. The astrologer’s chart does not bode well.
Described by the Observer as ‘The most eagerly awaited British debut of 2002′ Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist is an epic tale of adventure and discovery. Here, we asked Hari about inspiration, identity and the cultural legacy of the British Empire.
How would you describe The Impressionist?
The Impressionist is a black comedy about race and identity. It goes from India to England to Paris to Africa following one character, Pran, who assumes a great deal of different identities and never quite fits into any of them.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
Part of the idea came from my own experience of being the child of an Indian father and an English mother. I’ve grown up in England and feel pretty English in my upbringing, but there’s always been an aspect of my experience that hasn’t quite fitted. I wanted to write something about a character like that, only I’ve reversed the polarities in a way. Pran is the child of an English father and an Indian mother and I’ve set the book at a time (the 1920s) – maybe the last time – when the Empire really mattered. It’s at a crisis point in the story of the British Empire, which of course is kind of why I’m here. My father would never have come to Britain if there wasn’t the historical connection between the two countries.
The book also looks at debates around cultural identity today, which makes it a contemporary novel as well as an historical one.
I suppose it is a contemporary book as well. It’s a coded way for me to unpick all the weird debates about race and identity that are floating around at the moment. People talk so much about multiculturalism, which is a term I have a terrible problem with, already being multicultural in a way. The more I looked at ideas of race with my own life the less stable it all became and so my central character is somebody for whom all these categories are totally up in the air.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of writers on British colonialism?
Inevitably if you’re going to write about India, especially somebody with Indian heritage living in Britain, you’re firstly faced with a wall in the video shop of Merchant Ivory classics full of beautiful English ladies having cream teas served by silent Indians in turbans. Behind that there’s a much richer tradition of English language writing about India, and also about the colonial experience more generally, so my book has ended up being a dialogue with a really major strand of British literary writing. Kipling’s Kim is a figure that haunts The Impressionist very much – the white boy who can pass as Indian among the bazaars of India and see a side of this exotic location that the English can’t. Conrad is an influence as well, there’s a lot of the book set in Africa and you can’t do that without Heart of Darkness.
How consciously did you think about style when writing the book?
The style is very worked over. The central character in this book is in many ways a cipher, he’s an empty space trying to fill himself up with all the material that’s around him. Trying to find a point of view where I could tell this so it didn’t become a kind of existential tragedy or a kind of Carry on Up the Khyber was very difficult.
How did you go about researching the book?
I’m lucky in that I really like libraries and I discovered the Indian and Oriental collection in the British Library. It was a goldmine of odd information about the texture of life in the British colonies, and so a lot of the book has come out of that sort of reading. Also there are a lot of stories from the Indian side of my family which are quite extraordinary, and while I haven’t really retold them in any straight way in The Impressionist, there are a lot of echoes of things that have happened in my Indian family history. The third source of material for the book is a much more immediate, personal source of weird stuff that has happened to me over the years. Inevitably any book is a big box into which you put all your odd material, and the character of Pran going in this slightly quizzical way through life is very like some of my experiences of trying to come to terms with my racial identity.
Were you surprised at the level of attention that you received from publishers?
Of course I was surprised that there was so much excitement. Everybody hopes that there’ll be a response, but I was steeled for a small trickle of interest and the interest I got was incredible, it’s been very gratifying.
Who was the first person to read it?
I circulated the first section of the book to a few friends, including some who work in publishing. The positive feedback I got from them was really important in getting me to carry on.
Are there any writers that you particularly admire?
Currently I’m interested in W G Sebald whose Austerlitz I’m reading at the moment. I adore his writing, and it’s almost all in the gaps, everything’s in the silences between what he’s telling you. In general I like a lot of contemporary American writing, I‘ve recently been reading Rick Moody who I think is very good.
Do you think about writers differently now that you’re published?
I suppose my nasty secret is that I’ve always been arrogant enough to think of myself as a practitioner rather than just a reader. I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was a teenager and I’ve been writing with varying degrees of success since.
Was the transition from journalism to writing books difficult?
I was a journalist for quite a long time and I never wanted to be. I was the original reluctant journalist. If somebody will pay you money to write then that is a good thing, but I actually found that much more difficult than just writing stories.
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