I just received my three complimentary copies of the latest issue of of The Missouri Review. Ta-dah! My review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August appears in their Lost Classic column. I read the book as a high school student eighteen years ago when it first appeared, and I’ve rediscovered it now thanks to The New York Review of Books, who published it in April 2006 for the benefit of the American reading public.
The text of my review isn’t available online, but here’s an excerpt:
Isolated by his intelligence, apathy, and lack of gratitude for his much-prized job, Agastya’s only consolations are marijuana, masturbation, and the Maxims of Marcus Aurelius, where he finds a curious echo of his loneliness. Agastya’s unhappiness, however, never comes across to the reader as self-pity; Chatterjee’s keen sense of the ridiculous manages to encompass Agastya’s condition without diminishing it.
Agastya’s dislocation in rural India is exacerbated by his Westernization–a consequence of his urban upbringing. His name has been anglicized by his childhood friends to “August” (and sometimes, simply, “English”), and he “speaks English better than any Indian language,” though he’s never left India. Upon hearing of a senior officer’s rumored affair, Agastya’s first thought is inevitably Peyton Place. The concerns of rural India he sees at work–bank loans for purchasing cattle, territory disputes, caste politics, transfers of primary school teachers–are so unfamiliar as to seem surreal to him.
Circumstance and artistic preference, rather than a rejection of his Indian identity, are the cornerstone of Agastya’s Westernization; he has no desire, for instance, to move to Europe or America, visualizing them instead as “a passage through clean beautiful places with faces looking through him.” One of the novel’s characters, when considering E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, says “…India’s darling Englishman—most of us seem so grateful he wrote that novel about India.” Agastya, it is evident, harbors no such gratitude.
I wondered if the book might be a bit dated when I picked it up last year, but it’s just as fierce and funny and truthful as I remember.