The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

In his impressive and successful novel, Hari Kunzru explores the nature of identity. For some people a sense of belonging is very strong, whereas for others such feelings are mere illusion. The former group may cite social group, language, culture or religion as evidence of their stance, while the latter group, perhaps, may cite exactly the same subject matter to prove the opposite. The more politically inclined may even cite our relationship to the means of production as the primary source or personal and social identity. In that case, the way that we make our living provides much of what we perceive as identity, and, in Hari Kunzru's book, The Impressionist works through several quite different lives.

It's not that The Impressionist, the principal character of Hari Kunzru's novel, has no identity. Indeed, The Impressionist has a whole host of them, and all of them are both complex and, at the same time, completely credible. It is those around him who endow him with the trappings that confirm who he is. And he, of course, responds, donning new lives according to each new coat he wears.

The book's style seems to owe much to the magical realism of Salman Rushdie. There is also a superficial similarity of subject matter, since The Impressionist begins in colonial India where we witness our hero's chance conception. There are royal parlours, low-life slums and chance encounter. We see the inside of an English public school, a prestigious university and eventually travel to Africa in a professional but doomed role. And throughout, The Impressionist seems to do no more than merely fit into the niches that have apparently been prepared for him. Everything he tries on fits him well.

So, as we follow The Impressionist on his personal travels through multiple identities, we are challenged by the transformations. They are opened up by chance encounters, but yet they also seem inevitable. We are thus encouraged to look at our own lives and ask how many times we might have changed our own spots. A reader with a strong sense of identity might find such a challenge quite threatening. But then it's just a story, isn't it?


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