Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad follows the protagonist, Ananda, a young Indian man studying poetry in London, as he strolls through the city, completing errands, reminiscing, before meeting his uncle and striking out together. A single day, á la Ulysses, although the protagonist often predicts what his uncle will do — what he will say about his too-many morning cups of coffee, how he will behave at dinner time — and then the text invariably fulfills those expectations with no deviation from what Ananda knows will happen. Which expands the scope of the novel to a four-year tenure at the university filled with twice-weekly near-equivalent days. Time will progress and the same things will happen. Indeed, the story ends with a half-question whether they will meet each other again soon: only half a question, because the protagonist already knows the answer, the same as he can predict the answer to almost any question he might ask of his uncle.
But the uncle is charming; here is a passage from the beginning of the book describing him:
He saw his uncle once or twice a week. They got on each other’s nerves, but had grown fond of the frisson. He was Ananda’s sole friend in London — and Ananda his. “Friend” was right; because his uncle was capable of being neither uncle, nor father, nor brother. He mainly needed a person to have a conversation with — specifically, for someone to be present, listening and nodding, as he talked. When his sister and brother-in-law had returned to India in 1961, the deprivation of such a person in his life had, slowly, changed him. As his basic requirement was an avid companion, he didn’t get married, because the distractions of sex and administering a family would leave less time to talk about himself. Deprivation had already turned him — when Ananda visited London in 1973 with his parents — into a hermit in a dressing-gown.
Despite the Ulysses-esque structure, I was reminded most of Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square: a mash note from the author to a beloved character of youth. In Harvard Square the avuncular eccentric is even more luminous — he is introduced with the following (brilliant!) monologue:
At the moment he was fulminating against white Americans, les amerloques, as he called them. Americans loved all things jumbo and ersatz, he was saying. As long as it was artificial and double the value if you bought five times the size you’d ever need, no white American homemaker could resist. Their continental breakfasts are jumbo-ersatz, their extra-long cigarettes are jumbo-ersatz, their huge steak dinners with whopping all-you-can-eat salads are jumbo-ersatz, their refilled mugs of all-you-can-drink coffee, their faux-mint mouthwash with triple-pack toothpaste and extra toothbrushes thrown in for the value, their cars, their malls, their universities, even their monster television sets and spectacular big-screen epics, all, all of it, jumbo-ersatz. American women with breast implants, nose jobs, and perennially tanned figures–jumbo-ersatz. American women with smaller breasts, contact lenses, mouth spray, hair spray, nose spray, foot spray, scent spray, vaginal spray–no less ersatz than their oversized sisters. American women who were just happy to have found a man to talk to in a crowded cafe on a midsummer afternoon in Cambridge, Mass. would sooner or later turn out to be jumbo-ersatz all the same. Their lank, freckled toddlers fed on sapless, bland-ersatz, white-ersatz bread and swaddled in ready-to-wear, over-the-counter, prefab, preshrunk, one-size-fits-all, poly-reinforced clothes couldn’t be more bland-ersatz than their big, tall, fast-food lumbering football giant daddies with outsized shoes, penis enlargers, and sculpted, washboard, eight-pack abs who personify the essence of all that was ever jumbo-synthetic on God’s ill-fated, jittery little planet.
I can’t imagine ever failing to think of Harvard Square when I see “ersatz.” Aciman has conquered the word, using it to impugn both American consumerism and his character’s boorish chauvinism simultaneously and beautifully.
The only problem — and this holds true for Odysseus Abroad and Harvard Square both — is that the shambling beloved monsters are so delightful on the page that the books sag whenever those characters aren’t around. Which, if it’s a flaw at all, is a great flaw to have — to so enthrall readers that they’re flipping pages, reading in a rush, hoping to find your friend again.