Anita Desai | Critical Review by Shirley Chew

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 941 words
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Critical Review by Shirley Chew

SOURCE: "Life on the Periphery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4450, July 15-21, 1988, p. 787.

In the review below, Chew discusses the themes in Baumgartner's Bombay.

Now that Baumgartner's Bombay has appeared, it seems it was inevitable that Anita Desai should have sought, at some point in her career, to draw together in explicit ways the two strands of her heritage, Indian on her father's side, German on her mother's. In this latest novel, she also takes up again a subject that has strong claims on her imagination: the role of the outsider, whether it is a person marginalized by society, or one who opts to live life on the periphery.

Hugo Baumgartner, moreover, is doubly exiled—a Jew who fled Nazi persecution to work and then settle in India, he is permanently estranged from Germany and yet can never be anything other than a foreigner in his adopted country. But, it seems to Baumgartner, such contradictions and ironies were an ingrained feature of his existence, even in childhood: the brash, business-minded father, the sensitive, rather impractical mother; the baby hedgehog killed with too much kindness and milk; the gleaming mirrors with their staid reflections in his father's show-room, the shattered pieces of glass in nightmares, letting loose the darkness and violence on the other side. Later on, there was his own darkness which branded him der Jude and which, halfway across the world, can never be dark enough to render him native; then his internment by the British at the outbreak of the war as a German and hostile alien; and finally, after six years of waiting, the victory that was also a defeat. In the midst of so many entrapments, Baumgartner's increasing concern is to negotiate a space for himself as best he can and, by the stratagems of silence and evasion, to avoid being plunged once more into chaos.

Desai's writing is at its liveliest and most inventive when she attempts to register this space in terms of the ambiguities of language. Like his Gujarati, Bengali and Parsee associates, Baumgartner soon abandons any pretence to standard English, and their exchanges are a wonderful mix of freewheeling transliterations ("ex-port", "ex-phott", "ex-pawt"), reckless stretches and turns of syntax ("All the time we are giving, giving … to bull walking in the street like a lord every morning … to the fakir who comes to my restaurant with tin can and marigold garland and snake round his neck so I give, give him money to go away and not trouble my customers"), and unrestrained pickings of vocabulary regardless of whether the words are English, Hindi or Bengali.

But such exuberance apart, the overall impression derived from this version of a life of non-commitment is dispiriting. True, there are affectionate moments—with Lotte, for example, the cabaret singer Baumgartner has known from prewar days in Calcutta, and with the maimed or starving cats rescued from the streets. And there are occasional bursts of spontaneity; but always, afterwards, there is recoil and retreat. The idea that it is "not for him, an outsider and a foreigner, to comment", let alone become involved, is underlined repeatedly and in various ways.

Desai appears to be in two minds about Baumgartner. On the one hand, he exemplifies the plight of the uprooted, adrift yet unable to shake off the shadow of the past. "In my beginning is my end"—the fatalistic note, struck in the epigraph from T. S. Eliot, is sustained throughout the narrative up till a terrible death at the hands of the blonde, maniacal German boy, Kurt, and "the circular track that began in Berlin" ends "here in Bombay".

Viewed in the light of Desai's readings of history, though, Baumgartner becomes the object of her quiet and steely irony. As is evident from, say, Clear Light of Day, one of the notable characteristics of Desai's fiction is the deftness with which she makes the commonplaces of a person's life coincident with events of public significance, and both mutually illuminating. Correspondences are continually being suggested between Baumgartner's youthful experiences in Berlin and his life in Calcutta and Bombay. The refugees who squat on the pavement outside Hira Niwas are reminiscent of the poor witnessed once in the streets of Berlin; the threats on Habibullah's property and life, the savage attacks on Muslim families in the period leading up to Partition recall the smashed windows of the furniture shop, the looting and mob anger, and Herr Baumgartner taken away by stormtroopers; even the internment camp with its barbed wire and barracks, its extremes of heat and cold, its vicious bullying, appears on occasions a grotesque parody of the labour camps in Europe.

Insulating himself from the harsh realities of India, Baumgartner also cordons off extensive areas of his past, and what lies behind this resistance to history is "a desperate wish that Germany were still what he had known as a child and that in that dream-country his mother continued to live the life they had lived there together". It is a measure of Desai's toughness of mind, and an example of her unerring touch, that all that remains of a life which spanned the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second World War, the break-up of the British Empire, the Partition of India and countless local disasters besides, should be a small packet of old postcards. Written almost fifty years ago, in a hand "so spidery as to form a web", they repeat the same messages that are at once achingly tender and fearfully laconic, and the same childish, foolish endearments to "mein Hugo" from his "Mama" which are, in every instance, discountenanced by the stamped and impersonal reference, J673/1.

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This section contains 941 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shirley Chew
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