Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri

Reviewed by Rob Spence

I read most of this novel on a plane, and it struck me that it was appropriate to consume it in the transient, somehow timeless and ambiguous environment of a journey by air. Chaudhuri’s themes are memory, time, self-knowledge, and how they can all be distorted and modified by an individual’s perception of their own place in the world. It is a teasing, complex reflection on how the mind works on the matter of human existence, and it more than once reminded me of Proust. Chaudhuri’s brief novel does not come close to Proust in length and depth of narrative, but does evoke a Proustian spirit in a central narrator concerned with excavating his past and examining its impact on the present.

Proust fights shy of naming his narrator, who is, in all respects, very much like himself. Chaudhuri, in a perhaps too artfully postmodern way, draws the reader’s attention to the correspondence between author and character. His writer-protagonist is a novelist called Amit Chaudhuri, who hails, like his creator, from Bombay (not Mumbai) and who now resides in Calcutta (not Kolkata). His life is to all intents and purposes identical to the author’s, and the occasion of his narrative is a trip to the city of his birth to promote a novel which shares a title, The Immortals, with one written by ‘our’ author. There’s a danger that this could all disappear in a whiff of metafictional smoke, but it doesn’t, because Chaudhuri’s narrative (both the author’s and the character’s) is so finely detailed and realised.

The question remains as to whether this is a novel or a memoir. Chaudhuri, typically, addresses this head on. Towards the end of the text, he writes:

The book is a novel, I’m pretty sure of that. What marks it out as a novel is this: the author and the narrator are not one. Even if, by coincidence, they share the same name. The narrator’s views, thoughts, observations – essentially, the narrator’s life – are his or her own. The narrator might be created by the author, but is a mystery to him. The provenance of his or her remarks and actions is never plain.

Even here, there’s a playfulness in the author’s claim. The context of his remark is regarding the work he is writing now, with the title Friend of My Youth, a title he disarmingly admits he stole from an Alice Munro short story which he’s never read. The implication is, of course, that this is the volume we have in front of us. So, is this ludic and precisely observed narrative just about itself? No, because it locates the author’s personal life and history in a much broader context. The friend of the title, Ramu, not much more than an acquaintance in childhood, and whose life has been a slow drug-fuelled car crash, is now Chaudhuri’s one fixed point of contact in Bombay. The friends circle round their common past and their differing present in a narrative that fluidly moves between timeframes, intermingling the sensuous perception of immediate reality with a more distanced, reflective and philosophical mode. Thus, Chaudhuri can move quickly from a richly detailed account of regional cuisine to a melancholy rumination on the changes precipitated by the terror attacks of 2008. Indeed, those attacks, taking place two years before the main action of the novel in 2010, cast a heavy shadow over the book.

In the end, though, there is a feeling of lightness, impermanence and insubstantiality about this text. The novel is really a series of short vignettes, in which the author/character examines different aspects of his, and his friend’s lives. In doing so, Chaudhuri produces something that, in its deeply personal nature, paradoxically offers some universal truths about how we live.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk, or find him on Twitter @spencro

Amit Chaudhuri, Friend of My Youth (Faber & Faber, 2017) 978-0571337590, 164pp., hardback.

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