Subjectivity as a Void in The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

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Author: Radek Glabazňa
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,837 words

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[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, Glabazňa argues that The Impressionist demonstrates how a “decentred, free-floating and performative character of human subjectivity,” though celebrated by postcolonial theorists, can in fact be a burdensome experience for the individual subject.]

Hari Kunzru’s debut novel The Impressionist positions uncertainty, the unknown and non-identity as the initial conditions of its main character’s journey through life. Very early on in the text the theme of subjectivity is foreshadowed by a rather sinister description of Ronald Forrester, an Englishman and the father of the novel’s main character, riding aimlessly through the tree-less and desolate landscape of South India: “And so he rides through the ravines, a khaki-clad vacancy, dreaming of trees and waiting for something, anything, to fill him up” (Kunzru 3). That “something, anything” takes shape of a woman, the rich and spoilt Indian girl Amrita, who accidentally crosses Forrester’s way during a particularly violent monsoon in 1903. The result of their encounter is the conception of Pran Nath, the main protagonist of The Impressionist and one of the most elusive and mysterious characters one can meet in the world of fiction—elusive and mysterious to the point of being an unanswerable question even to himself. As Amrita watches Forrester being swept away by the torrential rain, “heading downstream” (16), the reader of The Impressionist cannot help the feeling that the unknown into which Forrester’s unconscious body is now flowing can only give rise to a life that will completely lack substance and will be just another vacancy to be filled with ‘something, anything.’

Indeed, it can be said about Pran Nath, the child of the watery intercourse between Amrita and Forrester, that his very being is nothing but a perpetual process of becoming in which the boundaries of the self constantly shift in response to where in the world Pran finds himself and what kind of socio-political reality he lives in. However, this does not make him a common opportunist who puts on masques in order to profit from the changing circumstances of his life. Pran’s masques are not just superficial façades behind which his coherent essence lies untouched. His masques form the very texture of his existence. As Maya Jaggi explains in her review of The Impressionist: “Pran blurs categories in a world obsessed by classification. As a chameleon with a talent for mimicry, he … is also a ghost, a creature of surface.” It is never fully transparent to what extent Pran’s masquerading is a conscious, volitional activity. This ambiguity largely contributes to the disruptive appeal of Hari Kunzru’s debut novel. The critic James Procter writes that “[Pran] survives, precariously, as an endlessly drifting impressionist, a new breed of mimic man” (64). The word “survive” from Procter’s quote is particularly apt for The Impressionist, because Pran’s varied identities seldom bring him tangible benefit apart from the right to live at all. Throughout the novel Pran Nath, who was born into a distinguished Indian family in Agra, takes on so many identities...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123825