A Vista of Fog

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Bloomsbury, 352pp, 16.99, ISBN 9781408828113

reviewed by James Pulford

When the judges of the 2008 Frank O'Connor Award didn't bother reducing their longlist to a shortlist, deciding instead that Jhumpa Lahiri's collection Unaccustomed Earth should win outright, the decision was marked by a refreshing levity. Why even pretend to enter into the pointless discussions about readability when major book prizes are doled out arbitrarily anyway? Debate about whether or not the collection should have won is irrelevant, but what can be said of Unaccustomed Earth is that it is full of the joy of a true talent coming to realise itself. Each story is a miniature masterpiece, detailing the lives of Bengali diaspora and immigrants uprooted and replanted in American soil.

For fans of Unaccustomed Earth, the premise of Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, seems a sweet promise: again it focuses on a Bengali family, this time split between India and America, but here the canvas is bigger - as is the scope for Lahiri’s talent to stretch itself. The book is built around the relationship of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in a newly independent India. They are bright, active, intimate but distinct, and the dynamic between the two is clearly illustrated when, as children, they break into an old country club left over from the days of the Empire:

Subhash gripped the wall with his hands, hugging it to his chest, scraping his knees. As usual he was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring, or with himself for his lack of it. Subhash was thirteen, older by fifteen months. But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.

Once inside they are caught by a policeman, and Subhash is savagely beaten from behind while his younger brother desperately tries to take the blame. As children one is 'perpetually confused with the other,’ but when they’re old enough to attend university, their paths diverge. They go to separate institutions to study different subjects, though both remain in Calcutta.

What keeps the boys close is their home-made transistor radio. Evenings are spent in their parents’ home listening to news reports from around the world: America is at war with Vietnam, a military coup has swept across Brazil and closer to home in the north of India the Naxalite Rebellion is seeking to end the brutal oppression of peasants and implement a version of communism. One day they hear that the police have killed unarmed Naxalite insurgents. The younger boy's reaction is telling: ‘Udayan sprang up from the chair where he’d been sitting, pushing a pile of books and papers away from him in disgust… reacting as if it was a personal affront, a physical blow.’ Subhash, however, stays still. He is studious and passive where Udayan is spirited and active.

The news deeply affects Udayan – he ditches his physics textbooks for tracts by Mao and Lenin, and joins the revolutionaries. Just as he is the first of the boys to climb the fence and land on unfamiliar ground, he is the first to engage with the world around him, the first to marry, the first to father a child and the first to die. While Udayan becomes increasingly interested in politics and India’s future, Subhash finishes his chemical engineering degree and moves to the US to start a postgraduate course. The narration follows him there.

The move to America makes space for the masterly depictions of dislocation found in Unaccustomed Earth, but they never materialise. At one point Subhash meets Holly, an American single mother, and marvels at ‘the self-sufficient nature of her life,’ but his passive, muted existence prevents him from thinking about more than her ‘rounded breasts, set wide apart’ and her ‘shoulders spotted with freckles.’ They have an affair, and when it ends he goes back to his quiet university life. Occasionally, the prose enjoys a lift, as when Subhash boards a boat for a research trip: ‘the ship pulled away, the water cleaved a foaming trail that vanished even as it was being formed.’ Largely, though, it mirrors Subhash’s life: sparse, bare, quiet. And then news arrives of Udayan’s death.

Those who survive Udayan – his parents, Subhash, his pregnant widow (who agrees to marry Subhash in a sexless, joyless, plotless union that protects her from his parents), his Naxalite comrades and the generations of the family that follow – are left to make sense of his death, but the period of mourning never truly ends and in the remaining three quarters of the book the narrative never recovers. Even while Udayan is alive the scenes of conflict and jeopardy, essential for all good fiction, are noticeably absent or off-stage (Udayan's involvement with the Naxalites is bundled away in a few paragraphs composed in summary) and once he’s dead they give way to complete passivity. The details of his death, too, remain hidden until the end of the novel when they’ve become largely irrelevant anyway.

In place of moments that could give the narrative life there are long scenes devoted to trivialities, as when Gauri, Udayan’s widow, mistakenly buys cream cheese thinking it is chocolate and eats it anyway in the car park of a supermarket. Elsewhere, dialogue that could lead to characters opening up or interacting beyond the barriers of their own stilted repression is promptly stamped out. When Subhash asks Gauri why she won’t spend time with the Americans he knows and she says: ‘I have nothing in common with them,’ his reply is swallowed by an ellipsis and the scene changes. Always there’s the sense that something more interesting is happening elsewhere, or in an earlier scene, or that the novel’s focus is poised over the shoulder of the wrong brother.

Part of what makes the pared-back passivity so frustrating is that Udayan’s radical ideology never feels far away. In one of the first conversations they have, before they are married, Udayan says to Gauri ‘a degree has become meaningless in this country.’ Udayan’s view of theory is that its importance lies in its practical, political application. But for Udayan, and latterly for Gauri, books and the academy are a retreat from the world around them. They might help make sense of the world, but they offer no more than that. Together, without any shared affection, Subhash and Gauri indulge in the bourgeois comforts offered by the US: the house, the car, the university post, the childcare – none of which make for good fiction.

What Udayan says about the meaningless of education may, at best, point to his idealism and, at worst, the idiocy that leads to his death, but his ideas are still more interesting than anything uttered by his brother. Supposing the narrative followed him instead, it’s hard to imagine that the story of a character interested in implementing Marx’s ideas in the north of India would result in a worse novel than a story about two people studying postgraduate degrees. Gauri and Subhash aren’t unaware of this and occasionally they’re haunted by Udayan’s ghost and reminded of how bland they are, as when Gauri remembers that ‘long ago she’d wanted her work to be in deference to Udayan, but by now it was a betrayal of everything he had believed in. All the ways he had influenced and inspired her, shrewdly cultivated for her own intellectual gain.’

In an attempt to resist the plotlessness of her dull life, Gauri pushes against the confines of her life. She masturbates in the cubicle of a public toilet and starts an affair with a female academic, but these are no more than token gestures, dalliances that permit her to return to the comforts of college life. And as Gauri and Subhash stray further from Udayan, they stray further from each other and further from where the real story is.

With the details of Udayan’s death, the skeleton of a better book emerges. He was arrested and killed by the police soon after he and his friends had murdered a policeman themselves. Their bold act was based on the rationale that policemen ‘were symbols of brutality, trained by foreigners. They are not Indians, they do not belong to India.’ This line of thought links back to the earlier scenes of conflict between Udayan and the police, and sets up a chronology: he watches his brother get beaten by a policeman when they break into the golf club as boys, he hears the reports on the radio of police brutality against unarmed Naxalites, he reacts.

Udayan’s relationship with these instruments of the Empire is meaningful because it takes place at a time when the Empire’s authority is supposed to have disappeared. In truth, though, that authority turns out to be much harder to wash away than anyone thought. Gauri feeds into this too, as the embodiment of Alexander Herzen’s aphorism that when an old order falls, ‘the departing world leaves behind not an heir, but a pregnant widow.’ The frequency with which these kinds of details are touched on, however, become infuriating as ultimately they amount to so little in the context of Udayan’s struggle. In a different draft they are drawn together, Udayan’s story is told, and the better book is realised.

One of John Updike’s most apposite rules for reviewing fiction is that the reviewer ought not to criticise a book for it not being the book they wanted it to be. What makes reading The Lowland so frustrating, though, is that the promise of the other story, the story that would make a great novel, is never far away. Lahiri is endlessly circling it, drawing around it, but the centre remains obscured by a vista of fog.
James Pulford is an editor and publisher based in London.