Friend of My Youth

Amit Chaudhuri

Faber & Faber, £12.99

Review by Nick Major

WHEN Kingsley Amis read Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money he was so outraged when a character called Martin Amis appeared in the story that, allegedly, he threw his son’s masterpiece across the room. True or not, it demonstrates the disdain some readers have for writers who cause havoc with the novel form. Those readers might want to avoid Amit Chaudhuri’s fiercely intelligent new novel, Friend of My Youth. If they do, more fool them.

Part way through this elegant book, the main character, a novelist called Amit Chaudhuri, is talking to an interviewer about Frank O’Connor’s distinction between the short story and the novel. “The short story is about the…moment, and the novel – I think he had the nineteenth-century novel in mind – about the passage of time…though there are, by O’Connor’s guidelines, short stories that do the job novels are supposed to: give us a sense of a lifetime having passed." Although there is a light irony to the conversation – we are never sure of the extent to which Chaudhuri is mocking writerly pretensions – it is an enlightening guide to what is happening within the pages of Friend of My Youth.

Chaudhuri has travelled to Bombay on a short trip to promote his new book, The Immortals. It is the city where he grew up. His childhood, however, feels like a different country. The places he knows are still being reconstituted following the 2008 terrorist attacks. There is The Taj Mahal Hotel, for instance, which, strangely, is being re-formed as though nothing has happened: “what they have tried to do is follow the example of the moving image of the disintegrating object or edifice played backward, so that the shards and fragments, as you keep watching, fly up instantaneously and regain their old places until completion is achieved, and, at last, there’s no discontinuity between past and present.”

Chaudhuri is psychologically trapped between multiple time periods jostling for dominance in his mind. Although he is only in Bombay for a few days, his movements through the city expand into episodes of his earlier life. His reflections on his youth force him to acknowledge that humans are just the playthings of time. At one point, he recollects returning to his school gates with his friend Ramu. As they peer through the bars, Ramu says, “It’s not for everyone." When Chaudhuri asks what is not for everyone, Ramu replies, “life…it’s not everyone’s cup of tea" There is, of course, a light humour to this. But there is also a profundity, compounded by our knowledge that Ramu is a recovering heroin addict and what his remark reveals to Chaudhuri: "during our time in the world – fifty or sixty or eighty years – we simply pretend to be exactly where we are."

What unites Chaudhuri and Ramu is not really their childhood. They only become good friends later in life. Their bond is formed from a synchronicity of character. In some ways, writing and taking drugs are two different forms of escapism: “We’re both fantasists,” writes Chaudhuri, “we need to be taken out of who and where we are. What we see prompts in us not a desire for the thing itself, but another time and place.” In fluid lapidary prose like this, Chaudhuri combines a serious reflection on psychology and friendship with an examination for the artist’s relationship to real life.

But there is enough frivolity in the story to offset the serious stuff. Unlike his previous novel, Odysseus Abroad, about a young poet in London, the narrator of Friend of My Youth is a witty cynic, not a boring one. One of Chaudhuri’s tasks in Bombay is to take some footwear back to a shop called Joy Shoes. “Inside, there’s a picture Husain [the owner] painted especially for the shop. One of his incandescent horses. Why an animal that flies off the earth when it runs should be appropriate symbol for footwear is beyond me. Will these shoes make us fleet-footed? Are they to be hammered into our soles?”

Chaudhuri frequently undermines his surroundings, which include the words conjuring him into being. So, Friend of My Youth becomes a novel that also undermines itself, asking us: when does a novel cease to be a novel? Chaudhuri manages to combine this essayistic line of enquiry whilst remaining true to the spirit of the form and his imagination. That is an impressive achievement. Some might want to throw metafiction like this across the room, towards the bin. The only place I will be throwing this book is into the hands of other readers.