Anita Desai | Critical Review by Paul West

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 1,134 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul West

Critical Review by Paul West

SOURCE: "The Many Who Didn't Belong," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1989, p. 3.

West is a British novelist and critic. Below, he praises Baumgartner's Bombay, calling Desai a "superb observer of the human race."

This [Baumgartner's Bombay] is a daring, colorful novel almost impossible to absorb in one reading, and rightly so because it's about imperfect knowledge. The very title, with its quasi-guidebook roll, set me wondering. Does it, like a Fodor's Beijing, flirt with completeness, or does it remind us how subjective all knowledge is and therefore how unreliable? Like Anita Desai, who has a subtle mind, we can get the best of both notions, if we make the key phrase into a title: Baumgartner's Bombay sounds at once authoritative and tentative. If, however, we gently offer Fagin's London or Heathcliff's Liverpool (he was found there, remember), the phrase implies the mellow dignities of bias. What Ms. Desai depicts here is how one particular man's presence in a city alters that city for everyone in it, himself too; and then he thinks: Since I change it, I know it. What can a mote know? We savor Ms. Desai's title as a thoughtful emblem of the novel it adorns.

Hugo Baumgartner, a Berlin Jew who came all the way to India to escape the Nazis, has a seedy apartment behind Bombay's Taj Hotel. He lives for his cats, going out each day with a plastic bag to forage for them, shoving his way past the berserk family camped on the sidewalk where he lives, they themselves refugees from India's famines and droughts. Mixed in with neighbors called Hiramani, Taraporevala, Barodekar, Coelho, da Silva and Patel, he still does not know which language to use, but mumbles an all-purpose, inadequate "Good morning, salaam." How do you politely say hello to a polyglot country, never mind an entire planet? Imagine someone so sensitive and selfless that he spends most of his day saying hello in all the languages there are.

Hugo does not belong at this address, or in the down-at-heel Cafe de Paris next door. He didn't belong in the detention camp for Germans that the Indians held him in for six years during World War II. And he didn't belong in Calcutta, where he lived happily enough before the war. He didn't even belong in Berlin, where life became increasingly complex and hazardous, Hugo's father, who owned a furniture showroom, tramped the streets with an ivory-knobbed cane, "his head held high, his hat gleaming like the wing of an airborne beetle," only to end up in Dachau, from which he returns "a fortnight later," shivering and with nothing to say. "In that early year," we read, "it was still possible to leave Dachau," yet not, one thinks, even in the presence of such a miracle, to know Berlin fully or even to know his son, Hugo Baumgartner.

But Ms. Desai, who rejoices in density of milieu, does her best, giving us a lot that will enable us to guess at more, as if her abiding passion on whatever continent were the opaqueness of people linked with our fever to know them, to have them know us. The Hugo who comes home with a hedgehog in his pocket, who runs home with the butter, who finds his mother awaiting him after his first day at school "holding the traditional cone of bonbons," is also the Hugo who knows he does not belong to the picture-book world of the Christmas tree, or to the world of his father's suicide, or to the world of a foreigner (Firanghi) in India, trying to seem always a customer and not a beggar.

Ms. Desai writes about him, after she has shown us his album, so to speak, with articulate audacity. "Now the habits of a hermit were growing upon him like some crustaceous effluent." She does not shrink from using the language on his behalf, any more than she shrinks—she the daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother—from incorporating a whole series of German songs into the text in German, for their poignant, constricting effect.

Whatever happens to you, that's your life—such seems the theme of this novel, in which Ms. Desai enacts a quarrel with plot, apparently to argue that, since life has no plot, we should deal with life as it is, never yielding to the temptation to subordinate everything else to the few moments (if any) when a pattern emerges, as when a young German drug addict crosses paths with Hugo to Hugo's cost. Ms. Desai does not glory in such things, as Dickens would have, but makes us look again and again, until we are almost blinded and surfeited, at the few bits of joy in Hugo's terra firma, at the scores of things that hem him in and, by almost stifling him, make him feel secure. "Like a mournful turtle … he carried everything with him; perhaps it was the only way he knew how to remain himself."

The most precious and inebriating relics in this novel happen to be postcards from his mother, which abruptly stop in 1941; his lover-friend Lotte acquires them while in a paroxysm of grief about his death, and we realize the true insolence of fate: in the old days, Hugo's mother never sent postcards, and German is the one language, her own, that Lotte wants nothing more to do with.

Ms. Desai is a superb observer of the human race, achieving coloratura runs where most writers would have managed only a gasp or a gape. Like all serious novelists she puts her best energy into fingering the texture of someone's life, getting a few solid answers to the incessant question "What is it like to be them?" She reminds us of how tractable real-life people are, at least when compared with characters in fiction. She reminds us of how much guessing we have to do in order to stay in touch. With brio and tenderness, she installs her Hugo among the underground men, the Steppenwolfs, the misfits, the mutiles, the ditherers, the accidental men, all who have a not quite certain relationship with civilization. In his moldy clothes and slit shoes, sunburned as a farmer, Hugo is every bit as incongruous as the Taj Hotel itself, built by mistake with "its back to the ravishing sea-front, thus driving the architect, an Italian, to suicide."

Anita Desai is a fluent artist, working from one vivid salience to the next. She knows the different lights of India, and she sees everything under the sun, from the brown slippery lump the sidewalk squatters' child is licking to the "nettles" that mosquitoes sting with. She knows her own mind about everything she touches and makes that certainty serve her symphonic bent. We can only relish the outcome and be wonderingly moved.

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This section contains 1,134 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul West