Absence, presence and the act of living in Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth
£500 is what you paid for it. We don’t know how much it cost us yet.
Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth exists in my edition by Faber & Faber over 161 pages. It took two fairly leisured days to read.
Three months later, I read the book again. I was interrupted by a phone call after hitting page 70:
I killed Ramu once. It was in school, after the finals. After keeping my literary endeavours to myself, and keeping them unnoticed, I had success after the boards. A poem came out in the school magazine, and two stories. The poem was a pastiche of Tagore, called ‘Gramercy’. One story was a mystery written in a Wodehousian mode. The other was a tragedy, with an O. Henry-style comeuppance. My doomed protagonist was a boy with a ‘coconut-shaped head’, and my mother recognised who it was at once. ‘Is it Ramu?’ I can’t recall what the ironic twist was, but the boy was accidentally electrocuted. An end engineered by fate. It was the pinnacle of my literary career.
And then nothing. The phone call was work and it went on for the best part of an hour. When it was over I had no thought of returning to Ramu and his ironic end.
I took notes the second time. I own particular notebook that sustains this habit, one I paid far too much for at Stansted duty-free an hour before boarding a flight to Naples. It started its life waiting to be filled by mediocre sketches of Neapolitan architectural detailing, although ‘waiting’ is a stupid word. No more did the book anticipate its first use than I anticipated its second: as a store for fragments snatched from a summer spent reading. It exists outside of the story.
Why should it occur to me to write about this? Not because of the parallels; of the coincidence where I buy a book to describe Naples and Amit Chaudhuri fills another with Bombay. Anything can be a coincidence given enough context. On the flight I skimmed Walter Benjamin’s reflection on Naples and then fell asleep. Chaudhuri, inheritor of Benjamin, inaugurates his reflections by quoting from One-Way Street. What does this say, except maybe that we should start reading more people who have written about cities? It says nothing. It, too, is outside of the story.
Some days after the first reading I was invited to write something about the book. I hadn’t written about a book since years before in high school, which really is writing about a book, to show understanding. To live and then to tell. Days after finishing Friend of My Youth I understood it – as far as I did understand it – in broad thematic terms. It appeared a book about memory; where the passage of time is acknowledged. This was a nothing conclusion. Writing is no more about memory than speech is about the vocal folds. And so this first, shared conclusion was no sooner arrived at than found deconstructed. In the rubble of this deconstructed idea of theme remained an altogether more mystifying, almost facile possibility: that this is a book about nothing at all.
It cannot be so. The book is rich, porous; its edges burst with matter. It is a book full with clothes: with short and sandals; with heels, slippers and trainers; with saris, sherwanis and kolhapuri chappals. It is a book full of food and drink: Darjeeling tea and biscuits; bhel puri, sev puri; mushroom vol au vents and cheese on toast. I have never been to Mumbai, but I have arrived with Chaudhuri into Bombay. Curious phrasing. His. Maybe this is a book into memory, whatever that means. One critic describes the narrator Chaudhuri as ‘unmoved by the memories Bombay evokes’. She then notes: ‘He also likes to eat’.
Susan Sontag wrote in ‘Against Interpretation’ of a distinction in art between ‘form’ and ‘content’; of an art caught forever between trying to be and trying to say. What is it for the abiding impression of a book to be the narrator’s appetite?
Sontag diagnoses a possible origin point of the interpreting urge. She traces it back to a moment in history when mythological understandings of reality could no longer account for what, materially, was apparent. Thus the improbable story of the Exodus, for example, became an allegory for the emancipation of the soul. In this way it was also conserved – preserved – for ever less credulous readers in ever less credulous futures. The unknowable workings of mythology and of the divine were allowed to rumble on, unknowable still but now at least relatable.
Later, in a Europe in the grip of scientific revolution suddenly taken with the Baconian method, a curious inversion of this phenomenon saw scientists attempt to give themselves credibility by framing discoveries in terms of an ‘experimental narrative’. So detached is Newton’s recount of having set up his room for the purpose of his prism experiments that the reader could not fail to see their validity. Thus the ineffable is held up by the mundane.
The conclusion is weighted by a sheer abundance of content. There is a moment in the sixteenth chapter of Kepler’s Astronomia nova where he apologises to the reader in case his lengthy calculations have left them bored. In a neat translation of injury he then asks the reader take pity on him for having had to repeat them seventy times. Narrative detail as a form of verisimilitude is parlayed into authenticity. Thus the recount gives authority to the real.
Amit Chaudhuri – not the narrator of Friend of My Youth but the professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia – gave a talk in the Spring of 2018 entitled ‘Storytelling and Forgetfulness’. There is a video of it on YouTube. Towards the end he reads a passage from Sartre’s Nausea:
This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.
But you have to choose: live or tell.
Chaudhuri sits alongside Sontag, for whom the modern interpretative urge is an aggressive and ‘philistine’ movement against art and the author, perpetually dissatisfied with the text and itching to plough it for subtext. No doubt he would reject the idea that his own work is anything more than that which is presented on the page. Friend of My Youth cannot be a book about memory because it is a book about nothing at all. The question of its meaning is immaterial: the idea of it being about anything is entirely invalid. It writes of life without valorising. There is no subtext because the text itself is plenty deep.
There is a distinction to be made between depth and weight. Chaudhuri begins his book by lifting from Benjamin: ‘We have long forgotten the ritual by which the house of our life was erected.’ But hovering always in the background, present just outside, is another Benjaminian idea: ‘To the great, their completed works weigh less than the fragments they work on throughout their lives.’ This is the Benjamin who through his essays spoke often of wanting to write a book entirely composed of quotes. Pieced together without explanatory context, each one would be isolated proof of having read and thus having begun to write. This writing potential is depth. Its weight is immaterial.
There exists a book review by David Foster Wallace entitled ‘The Empty Plenum’. I only barely followed it when I read it maybe three years ago. I didn’t know what ‘plenum’ meant. Now, I think of these words and recognise depth: a full space waiting to be re-filled.
Here, again, ‘He also likes to eat.’
Friend of My Youth is a book full of food and clothes, but it is neither a recounting of meals eaten nor outfits worn. Chaudhuri has not set out to re-present the ritual of his existence in Bombay. I am not convinced that he has tried with any great activity to present any sort of existence. This is not an ‘experimental’ narrative, leading teleologically to some eventual truth. There is no convincing to be done, nor telling neither. The accumulated weight of all the sherwanis and bhel puri is immaterial – in the book but not of it – merely signifiying the existence of some outside space where the potential for movement remains always reserved.
Chaudhuri makes a distinction between ‘in’ and ‘of’ – if not in these exact terms – in ‘Storytelling and Forgetfulness’. He talks about bad art and good art, and about inside and outside. Bad art, particularly bad storytelling, is that which contains all of its movement so that everything is inside. This is no tautology: Chaudhuri makes express reference to the idea of a ‘no outside’, which he relates to a kind of ‘lateral web of narrative’ born of the transactional basis of free market globalisation. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Chaudhuri contends, the free market grew to the extent that conception of living outside of its terms became impossible. Thus narrativity came to acquire a privileged position as that which gave meaning to an existence within this web. ‘Every person a storyteller’ became the mantra by which this new method of living was inaugurated: a comforting reaction against the banality of life’s infinite onward string of transactions.
This argument of the totality of the grip held on everyday life by capital in its various guises has been advanced over and over since the end of the Second World War. In many ways the argument has outgrown its original Marxist associations. Chaudhuri certainly does not rest his own argument on explicitly Marxian theses. He rests it, it has to be said, on very little at all. Yet it remains compelling all the same: anyone who has ever given a second thought to the writing of an Instagram caption can attest to the degree to which narrativisation has become a fact of living. Mark Fisher, in his essay ‘The Privatisation of Stress’, gives a name to this phenomenon as ‘competitive individualism’. This might be taken as the compulsion to ensure one’s own selfhood narrative is more engaging than that of some other third party. This idea of valorisation as the result of a process of negative definition against the other is implicit. In a closed system, with no possibility of the introduction of new references against which definition might take place, this is entirely inevitable. Every story possible is available already, therefore narratives become essays in the delimitation of difference. Always already present within a narrativised life is the trace of every other possible narrative, implicitly negated. Chaudhuri holds up good art as having the potential to overcome this containment by reserving space for the possibility of movement external to the story. It is the inverse of the no outside, moving beyond a simple rejection of narrative as a closed system to suggest that precisely the most fascinating part of a story is that which occurs outside of its boundaries.
This is an apparently infuriating conclusion, to imply that the reward of reading lies somehow and wilfully out of reach. Except of course this is not what Chaudhuri proposes: his entire conception of writing rejects the idea that a narrative is complete. He writes in response to this, aspiring to treat each paragraph as a potential beginning. He expresses the deep desire to write a book comprising only opening paragraphs, where nothing has yet been contained or bound by having been told; where everything remains unresolved, and where life exists ‘opening out onto something’. Chaudhuri sees the act of writing itself in these terms of beginning and opening out, rejecting the idea that the story begins at the typewriter – as in Hollywood – and offering the altogether more radically democratic possibility that it exists out in the world. ‘The moment of writing converges randomly with living . . . one arrives at a juncture where there is an unexpected sense of possibility.’ In Chaudhuri’s view not everyone is a storyteller, but open to everyone is the potential to encounter a moment where the act of writing begins. When I bought my notebook at Stansted Airport, this was a writing act. That I went on to half fill it with quotes and sketches becomes almost coincidental, although it surely does no harm that the act of quoting is another such juncture where possibility exists. To lift from one book a phrase or paragraph that seems to hold within it the germ of another is fundamentally a creative gesture.
I love the title, ‘Friend of My Youth’. From an Alice Munro story. I haven’t read the story. That’s because the title must have implied a possibility. When that happens – when the title or first paragraph contains a promise – I become spellbound and keep returning to it. The work becomes irrelevant, the writer in me takes over from the reader, and my inchoate premonition of what the story will be dominates the story itself. I’ve hoarded titles and paragraphs for this reason, but never followed through. Naturally, when I first fell in love with Alice Munro’s title, I had no idea that I would one day want to write about Ramu and Bombay. Ramu was still to vanish. The experience of feeling unexpectedly bereft was to come. So were the attacks of 26 November. As these and other events happened, it’s as if the title knew it had to meet them halfway; sensed it and they had been travelling towards each other.
It is enough to say that writing requires possibility for us to find the idea of narrativity deconstructed. The existence of possibility, particularly possibility characterised as both latent and external, negates the central idea of narrativity that history proceeds in one knowable stream. To some extent, it negates the idea that history proceeds at all. Chaudhuri’s idea of storytelling privileges the serial over the linear, its sense of continuity in fact an illusion generated by a series of discrete beginnings. The existence of unknown unknowns on which these beginnings might be predicated sits at odds with the survival of a total system whose every transaction is accounted for. Thus Chaudhuri, patronisingly described by one reviewer under the heading ‘Further praise for Friend of My Youth’ as an ‘Indian novelist’, does not write about memory or history, or globalisation, or the clash of East and West. Rather, in having written at all, he moves to act and interact with and against all of these phenomena and more besides. Chaudhuri does not tell. He lives.
Roland Barthes repeated an anecdote about Guy de Maupassant, who used to go for regular lunch at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower because it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to see it. Barthes uses this fairly literal example of the Eiffel Tower to make a wider point about the influence of structures within our lives: ‘just as there is no Parisian glance which is not compelled to encounter it, there is no fantasy which fails, sooner or later, to acknowledge its form and to be nourished by it’. The argument continues by suggesting that Maupassant, in having lunch on the Tower itself, was seeking to negate its influence upon him by finding for himself a space from which he was not compelled to defer to its presence.
I have deferred until now dealing with the word ‘novel’. ‘In Friend of My Youth, a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri visits his childhood home of Bombay.’ That’s from the synopsis on the back of my copy. Remarks from Esquire and the Times Literary Supplement line up underneath in further affirmation of the book’s novel status.
There is an instance early on in the book where Chaudhuri takes the time to give an outline of Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’. This is the imagined moment in our development as infants where we come to recognise the nature of our own reflections. In 1949, Lacan described an ‘eventually acquired control over the uselessness of the image’, which
immediately gives rise in a child to a series of gestures in which he playfully experiences the relationship between the movements made in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it duplicates—namely, the child’s own body, and the persons and even things around him.
Much later Chaudhuri describes a book, about Bombay, which he has been writing for over a year. The trip to Bombay has been a research trip – the research predominately phenomenological: ‘This stay in the Taj will be research. Going down the stairs will be research. So will looking out at the sea.’
The book is a novel. I’m pretty sure of that. What marks out a novel is this: the author and narrator are not one. Even if, by coincidence, they share the same name. The narrator’s views, thoughts, observations – essentially, the narrator’s life – are his or her own. The narrator might be created by the author, but is a mystery to him. The provenance of his or her remarks and actions is never plain.
When Kingsley Amis read his son Martin’s novel Money in 1984, literary world mythology holds that, so outraged was he by the appearance in the story of a character called Martin Amis, he threw his copy across the room. Amit Chaudhuri is at once so candid and so careful about having created space for the existence of another Amit Chaudhuri in Friend of My Youth that it is he, you sense, constantly on the verge of discarding the novel. But this is not an act of anger. Martin Amis’s presence in Money is essentially peripheral: clever in a way that’s too knowing to be properly funny, somehow never Martin Amis and always ‘Martin Amis’. He could just as well not be present and nothing, materially, would change. John Self would simply have to find someone else to talk to about his problems.
It’s an imperfect comparison to draw. The two stories answer markedly different questions, even if they do both circle around some idea of the self. Yet it is striking the degree to which Amit Chaudhuri constructs a presence for himself in the book, only to have us watch as its foundations are constantly undermined. What is so captivating about the mirror image is the difference, the trace of what it is not. There is a thrill in the leap of thought required to come to terms with the uncanny reality of the mirror image: this is not me, just a representation – forever barred from the assumption of some life-giving spirit of presence. ‘We have long forgotten the ritual by which the house of our life was erected.’ Chaudhuri makes no secret of the game he has set up. Nick Major in his review of the book for the Scottish Herald – it is Major who articulates the Amis link – proposes that Friend of My Youth has been constructed as an essay in answer to the question: when does a novel cease to be a novel? ‘But when it is under assault, what enervated, perverse antiquities do they not lay bare at the foundations!’ In order that he might imagine the logical conclusion of the novel, Chaudhuri must first absent himself from a position where he is susceptible to its influence. His solution is the same as Maupassant’s: to superpose himself upon the structure and begin the dismantling from within.
Amit Chaudhuri – exactly which point in the lateral web of ‘Amit Chaudhuri’ presence it becomes increasingly hard to articulate – presents himself as the person just about most convinced that he has in fact written a novel. Georgina Godwin says Friend of My Youth has ‘changed the novel’. Nadeem Aslam calls it a hymn; Francesca Angelini a ‘textured reflection’. I particularly like Deborah Levy’s assertion that it rearranged her nervous system, as if by reading we find the very processes of movement and responsiveness within the world reconstructed. As if before movement had been a certainty through homogeneous empty time, and now it has been recast as the always continuous response to unexpected flashes of potential.
There is a sequence about halfway through the book in which Chaudhuri puts himself through this sort of reflection exercise. He is being interviewed by a literary journalist about The Immortals, the book he has come to Bombay to promote. By Chaudhuri’s own later formulation, that this happens also to be the book which precedes Friend of My Youth is quite coincidental. It is a long book, far and away the longest Chaudhuri has written. ‘It took me a while, but I finally think I’ve learnt how to write novels’, he admits, before deferring by way of explanation to Frank O’Connor’s distinction between the novel and the poem or short story. The latter deals with the moment, he contends; the novel deals with the passage of time. The writer of poems or short stories reveals an endless fascination with beginnings, with the potential for opening out. A novelist is one who, through grim and patient determination, marks one moment at which the beginning is closed off and resolves to go on with the telling. Hence even in giving what might be considered a straight answer, Chaudhuri is revealed to offer nothing of the sort: he is a novelist under erasure, who writes his novels under erasure in impious deference to the dominance of the form. If the novel is about the passage of time, and even if Chaudhuri on some level is able to concede this, he reserves for himself one incontestable trump card: that the passage of time of his conception is no more than the reassertion of endless, serial beginnings. And therefore if this is a novel, it is a novel into which the momentary fascination of the short story has been infinitely folded; which does not pass but recurs, linking a self-sustaining chain of always new possibilities of origin. It is a novel which aims to meet the short story halfway; sensed it and the beginning had been travelling towards each other.
Chaudhuri illustrates this deconstruction by appealing, coincidentally, to Maupassant and his short story, ‘The Necklace’:
A succinct tale. But by the time you’ve reached the end and realized the mistake the woman’s made, you get a sensed of an entire life lived and possibly wasted. Length and brevity are matters of perception, and, when you realize at the end of many years that you were tortured by a delusion, those years might seem insubstantial, as they do at the end of ‘The Necklace’. Maupassant is good at doing in two pages what a novelist might achieve in over four hundred.
Unspoken is that Maupassant, in performing the actions of the novelist, comes to achieve novelist status. Or maybe that his short stories are in fact novels. Or maybe that’s too reductive and the fascination is revealed to lie outside of the problem entirely; that Maupassant’s genius – it might as well be called genius – is for giving shape to the ways in which the binary of the novel and the short story is unstable. His stories do not deny the possibility of the novel’s existence. On the contrary, they alert us to it. Maupassant wrote the traces of novels. The fact that so much must as a consequence be left outside of the web of narrative is entirely the point. To read ‘The Necklace’ is to begin to engage in the writing act.
A few years ago I bought an anthology of Maupassant stories. I read it on holiday, in that natural way that follows a mind already living the possibility of movement. ‘The Necklace’ takes up the volume’s last eleven pages. Now, prompted by Chaudhuri, I realise the deep joy to be found in stopping at these words:
Madame Forestier, clearly appalled, took her friend’s two hands in her own: ‘Oh my poor Mathilde!’ she said. ‘Mine wasn’t real! It was worth 500 francs at the most! . . .’
and finding not an ending, but another opening out.
DAVID: You paid £500 for this?
JULIET: That’s what it cost.
DAVID: No. That’s what you paid for it. £500 is what you paid for it. We don’t know how much it cost us yet.
Friend of My Youth is a book of time and a book of space. Through it, Amit Chaudhuri engages in the very creation of both. At first this sounds like an accommodation of – an acquiescence to – the narrativity myth: that which links writing to the shaping of a life and the marking out of its boundaries. Time is created easily by narrative because its forward linear movement, viewed uncritically, is asserted in the recounting. Space follows. To be in control of the story is to be in control, notionally, of its parameters – a spatial metaphor, greedily hungry. The lateral web of narrative strains ever outwards, subsuming more and more content into ever new territory. This territory is empty and homogeneous. In this version of the story, Amit Chaudhuri goes to Bombay on a book tour and records the whole thing on Instagram. ‘Coffee and sev puri at Kamala Nehru Park #TakeMeBack’.
If this idea appears absurd, it is because the juxtaposition of literature and social media – and the maintenance of the implied distinction between them – is so often used in the service of parody. The distinction is functionally useless, and parody usually reveals itself merely a prejudiced negation of the validity – or perhaps value – of digital communication. An endlessly more compelling binary exists, between artifice and its negation. Always already present in the language used on social media, whether in an acceptance of its terms or negatively as performative rejection, is an understanding of its artificiality. This artificiality stems from the inherent knowledge that to exist within social media is to exist within a space with no outside, self-contained and self-sustaining. Thus language is engaged simultaneously in the work of recounting and of constructing. If there is no outside to existence, inside must be made to seem infinitely compelling.
This is the problem Chaudhuri articulates in ‘Storytelling and Forgetfulness’ by describing this failure to account for externality as a function of bad fiction. The tendency of narrativity towards artifice within a culture that still prizes the idea of ‘authenticity’ creates an ever greater demand that the narrative prove its credibility. Thus every last detail of the story is annexed in the service of the production of verisimilitude, which is to say the greatest possible appearance of reality. The irony is that the result of this great effort of construction remains fundamentally bound within a frame of artifice – like polishing a mirror and expecting the reflected image to suddenly leap through the glass. As long as it excludes the possibility of an outside space in which contingency is left unaccounted for, bad fiction remains forever a representation of the real that excludes the material act of living.
Chaudhuri takes this phenomenon to the extreme with the example of the period piece, whose particular narrativity is aggravated by a damagingly historicist understanding of time. Here, narrative is impossibly aware of the fact of its own position within history. Chaudhuri cites Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 as demonstrative of the failures of this approach to storytelling: so much effort is expended in maintaining the appearance of the story’s existence in the future that, consequently, it never leaves the Sixties. The film’s reliance on comprehensible visual signifiers to convey an idea of ‘future’ results inevitably in the creation of a language entirely bounded by the limits of the present in which it was conceived. In the face of this pervasive ‘anti-present’ trapped forever in 1968, it becomes easy to discard the idea that the events of the film take place in the year 2001. The palpable artifice smothers any possibility of living.
As a counter-example Chaudhuri holds up the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, in whose films
each moment is actually a moment at the beginning where one does not know one lives. One only knows one lives in the present, if one knows at all. . . . Only the present has possibility.
This is the central aim of Chaudhuri’s fiction: the creation of space and time in which the living act remains ever possible.
I realise I have no idea when Friend of My Youth is meant to have taken place. This sounds facile: it is quite obvious that the events of the story occur in what might be called ‘today’. Even so, for a book which according to the back-cover synopsis asks the question: what does it mean to exist in both the past and the present?, it is striking the degree to which the past is characterised more than anything by its absence. It is not reanimated. It is certainly not put to work in the construction of an artificial representation of itself. If Friend of My Youth does ask the question – which, it has to be said, I dispute – then surely the answer it finds is: ‘premise invalid’. For Amit Chaudhuri, the past is inaccessible. This inaccessibility is part of what it means to live in the present: a fact of life, and of the act of living.
There is a moment in the book where Chaudhuri is able to reflect on Bombay’s own efforts to contend with the inaccessibility of the past. He considers reconstruction work being carried out in a hotel damaged in the attacks of 26 November.
How long will it take for the Crystal Room to be put together? They must be working on it at this very moment, although, as I turn right, I hear no sound; no hammering, no drilling. I’m back in the Sea Lounge. They’ve done a good job. It’s not so much a twin of the room that was destroyed, or a replacement. 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. Accustomed as we are to technology, we know it’s an illusion – the shards are all there somewhere; it’s just that the film has been reversed.
His response is to return to Walter Benjamin, this time to the angel of history: ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls it in front of his feet.’ Boyd Tonkin, writing for the Spectator, identifies the angel’s presence throughout Friend of My Youth. Like the angel, the book looks backwards while moving forwards. There is an alternative possibility. Far from situating the angel relative to past and future – which anyway places the book somewhere in historicist, empty homogeneous time – what the allegory opens up is the precise, radical presence of the angel in the present. The past is an ever increasing accumulation of debris, but external. The future is out of view, an unknowable potentiality. The angel is kept at a perpetual point of beginning, the past and the future left as fascinating, appalling outside spaces full of other life. The allegory undermines the idea that everything in history must, or indeed can, be accounted for. What is external is left unacknowledged, except where it pours through to the present as trace.
In the absence of an acknowledgement of the past, here, at last, we find forgetfulness. In ‘Storytelling and Forgetfulness’, Chaudhuri privileges the quality as a function of good art and good storytelling. It is in forgetfulness that space is created in time for the opening up of possibility – space which might otherwise have been occupied by memory or trauma. Chaudhuri criticises the habit of bad storytelling to remember and cling on to trauma. He contrasts this with Kafka. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, newly awoken as a giant insect, is still fretting about the necessity of train connections to his work as a travelling salesman. The metamorphosis event, far from traumatic, is in fact entirely banal. And in the absence of hysteria, life continues around Gregor Samsa. Life does not know that Gregor Samsa has awoken transformed. It does not know anything: here, life simply is.
Forgetfulness in Friend of My Youth is manifest as ambivalence. This is an exceptionally ambivalent book, ambivalent in its treatment of memory, of time, of change; of absence and of presence; of belonging or else just homesickness. It is ambivalent in its attitude towards globalisation. It is ambivalent in its relationship to form. It is ambivalent in the way it makes no distinction between Bombay and Mumbai; or maybe it makes every distinction and is instead ambivalent about the existence of Mumbai at all. Which is to say it is entirely ambivalent about questions of nation and probably also identity. The reception Amit Chaudhuri receives in returning to the city of his birth, both personally and professionally, is ambivalent – Bombay has not been waiting for his story. In return, Chaudhuri is ambivalent about shoe shopping, hotel interiors and the musical choices of cab drivers. Just about the only thing he isn’t definitively ambivalent about is Parsi cuisine. What does it say when the narrator of a book may be captured only by the food he eats? It says that no other methods of capture ever had any hope of succeeding. His life, like the life of all things, is immune to containment. It exists outside of the story.
Words spoken by Christopher Eccleston as David Stephens in Danny Boyle’s 1994 debut Shallow Grave keep returning to me. I can’t exactly say why. ‘£500 is what you paid for it. We don’t know what it will cost us yet.’
The words are spoken in anger – anger born of the inability to account for unknown unknowns. This is not what puts the words in mind. I keep returning to their insistent precision, and to what that precision says about the difference between cost and value; about the ways in which our methods of quantification and valorisation can be found so easily deconstructed.
Friend of My Youth exists too within this deconstruction of the certainties that surround value. Memory is found to be devalued; the past even more so and history most of all. The radical moment of the present is valuable, with its supplementary ideas of beginning and potential. Without potential even the future is held to be worthless. The value of the novel against the short story is destabilised. Narrative is called into question, and in Chaudhuri’s hands comes to see its persistent accumulation of content recast as the hoarding of worthless debris. Value is given to externality and to emptiness; to what is unreachable and what is unsaid; to what is forgotten; to that which is out of our control. The writing act itself is liberated; the origin equal at the very least to the formulated whole. The democracy of storytelling is revealed as an inadequate myth, and some effort is made towards its dismantling. Compensation may begin to be sought at last for the unenviable labour of telling.
I did not buy my copy. It was sent to me, as a gift.
I am re-reading some of the quotes I collected in preparation for the writing of this essay. Most of them remain untouched, proof maybe that the act is in the origin. Walter Benjamin’s love of quotations was founded on a disdain for the ‘pretentious, universal gesture of the book’. He thought that the truest literature – and by ‘truest’ he apparently wants to say ‘most present’ – was to be found in leaflets, brochures, articles and on placards.
Benjamin thought that quoting was a redemptive act, akin to a putting back together of the debris of history. Quoted language is liberated from any idea of itself as a commodity, and in the act of quoting a writer might come to life through a language reborn. This is a profoundly magical conception of the potential of the word. For Amit Chaudhuri, author of seven novels who reflects on being unmoved by prose until he saw single paragraphs quoted in other works, there may well be some truth in it. The desire of both Benjamin and Chaudhuri to write, one way or another, a book composed entirely of quotations speaks of a desire to keep a hold of the sense of beginning immanent in the abstracted paragraph. The abstracted paragraph I am lingering over comes from Hito Steyerl’s 2006 essay ‘The language of things’, a reflection on a mystical text by Benjamin dealing with the way in which things communicate:
Modest and even abject objects became hieroglyphs in whose dark prism the social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They were understood as nodes, in which the tensions of a historical moment materialised in a flash of awareness or grotesquely twisted into the commodity fetish. In this perspective, a thing is never just something, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces is petrified. According to Benjamin, things are never just inert objects, passive items or lifeless shucks at the disposal of the documentary gaze. But they consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, which keep being exchanged.
When I took this fragment for myself I had no idea of either Benjamin or Chaudhuri’s affinity for the paragraph, on a formal level the ‘thing’ of the novel. I had in mind the simple fact that Friend of My Youth is itself full of things, outside of the story but by no means inert. I love the image, ‘a constellation of forces, petrified.’ Watch it open out into something resembling Chaudhuri’s book – although the exact nature of the work being done by the word ‘petrified’ might require deconstruction. Nothing in Friend of My Youth is petrified; nothing is inert. Everything – absent or present – hums with an energy of movement. ‘Writing generates life’, the book’s Chaudhuri tells an interviewer. Reading, it becomes quite apparent just how sincere he’s being.