|Jan/Feb 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Friend of my Youth.
Faber. 2017. 164 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 33759 0.
This is a novel in which the narrator has the same name as the author and shares his profession, background, experiences, and family. Yet it is not truly an autobiography. That sounds confusing, and if you begin this book expecting a conventional novel, it will be.
The author (and probably the narrator, too) believes in travelling between genres. In interviews, Chaudhuri has said he has always "explored the edges of what is conventionally called fiction," and that he is uneasy with accepting certain stable categories. He believes there is always an element of imagination in non-fiction and that there is always an element of truth in imaginative writing.
So, Friend of my Youth is more like an imaginative memoir than a novel. Amit, the narrator, returns to his homeland, India, and to places where he once lived, and he sees them anew while remembering his earlier impressions and recording new ones.
Amit's "friend of his youth," Ramu, is his "oldest surviving friend in Bombay." Not that other friends are dead, but they have just lost touch. Ramu is not a close friend, just someone Amit always expects to see again, someone who is reliably always there. But on this current visit to Bombay, Ramu is in rehab for his long-term drug addiction and is not to be contacted. Amit ponders their casual reliance on each other, remembers things about their past meetings, and when Ramu is unexpectedly released from rehab, their meetings with each other are both familiar and strange.
Amit remembers the terrorist attack that partly destroyed the Taj Hotel in Bombay. He sees the new reconstruction that strangely recreates remembered rooms, restaurants, and meals. Much has gone, but there are still shops where he has always shopped for his mother, shopkeepers who know the family, hotel staff who recognize him and who knew his father. Past and present merge. So it seems that "In the Taj, time moves both backward and forward. I check out; someone else arrives. Suitcases follow the bell boy's trolley. Nothing has changed." And exploring the area around the hotel with Ramu, it seems things "haven't changed very much. Yet it's all different." In many ways this offers a parallel to the way Amit remembers the past and views the present.
Amit Chaudhuri, the author, writes like the poet he is. His prose is simple but rich. His memories and descriptions are vivid and arresting. And the boundaries between fact and fiction are so blurred, there is a seductive allure to this near autobiography, near memoir. You feel you are getting to know the author and his life, but his philosophy of travelling between genres and of self-representation through art make it impossible to know what imagination has woven into his story.
In the end, the unattributed quotation from a work by Benjamin Franklin with which this book begins is a guide to the source of Chaudhuri's approach to novel-writing. He clearly supports Franklin's view that "In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest the tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it." Friend of my Youth is nothing like a traditional novel, and should be read with Franklin's view in mind.