The action in “Amnesty,” the latest novel from Man Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga (“The White Tiger”), unfolds over a mere 12 hours — but it encompasses worlds within worlds as its protagonist, a Sri Lankan immigrant living illegally in Sydney, Australia, frets over whether to contact the authorities to alert them to the identity of a possible murderer.
“Amnesty,” which hits shelves Tuesday, isn’t exactly a whodunit, however.
Instead, it’s a quirky immersion in the sights and sounds of Sydney as viewed by a house cleaner who sees the city from a covert interloper’s point of view. To escape detection by the authorities, Dhananjaya “Danny” Rajaratnam keeps careful tabs of his surroundings as he goes from cleaning gig to cleaning gig. The resulting book is a near-hallucinatory guided tour of Australia’s largest city as observed by an endearing oddball who, out of necessity, keeps to the shadows. (“Hierarchies,” Danny philosophizes, “exist in invisibility; there are always better ways to stay unseen.”)
Adiga, who splits his time between India and Australia, persuasively conveys the realities of Danny’s refugee existence — Danny is a Tamil who, through no fault of his own, ran afoul of the Sri Lankan authorities — while also convincingly serving up both the sophistications and the vulgarities of an urban Australia that bewilders and impresses his protagonist.
Like an Alice on the run in an antipodean Wonderland, Danny approaches his new locale as a puzzle to be solved. He is, he says, “still learning things, still making notes to himself.” Nothing, however, prepares him for the peculiarities of his relationship with two of his former cleaning clients: House Number Five and House Number Six, as he calls them.
Those peculiarities take a sinister turn when Danny learns that House Number Five (real name: Radha Thomas) has been found stabbed to death in a creek bed near her home. Danny instantly suspects her adulterous lover, the dubious Dr. Prakash, as the culprit. Danny quit cleaning for them when the vibe between them — drinking, gambling, ridiculous quarrels — got too volatile for him to handle. But what should he do with this information?
In fresh and playful prose that’s sometimes eccentrically paragraphed and punctuated, Adiga places you smack in the middle of Danny’s buzzing mind. Danny is keenly aware of his risk in alerting the authorities to Dr. Prakash as a suspect (“if I tell the Law about him, I also tell the Law about myself”). But he feels an urge to do the right thing. He is, after all, an ardent admirer of his adopted city, and as “an honest man who survived a terrible torture,” he has a faith in his new home that’s in sharp contrast to his experience of strife-torn Sri Lanka. “Aussies are a logical people,” he believes, “mistakes can be undone in this country.”
Not every Australian he meets confirms this belief. Run-ins with bigots are inevitable. But there’s something about Australia that makes Danny want to put his best foot forward and blend in as best he can. A powerful work ethic also motivates him. “You will be judged by your toilets,” he tells himself. “And your toilets will be judged by the bowls.”
With the murder of Radha Thomas, alas, everything he has striven for is jeopardized. Danny makes the mistake of calling Dr. Prakash to dispel his suspicions — and only makes things worse for himself. A persistent sinus infection has him feeling foggy in his distress (it doesn’t help that bush fire smoke is blowing through the city), and the cactus he’s carrying around with him from gig to gig — to give to his Vietnamese girlfriend, Sonja, later in the day — may be making him conspicuous.
As the hours go by and Danny’s phone calls with Dr. Prakash take increasingly ominous turns, Sydney itself becomes “a city full of bad magic and interdictions.” Adiga’s street-corner specificity guarantees we experience the place in the same feverish way Danny does.
Some threads of the novel feel undeveloped, especially Sonja, who, eager for her boyfriend to improve his prospects and find some better profession than housecleaning, is too scarce a presence in the narrative to have much impact. And there’s one unfortunate gaffe in the book’s time scheme: Danny has vivid memories of the devastating 2004 tsunami hitting Sri Lanka, but the final page of the novel places all its action in 2002.
Still, Danny and the city where he finds himself “free forever” and “trapped forever” make a huge impression.
Danny may be naive in his way. But his fate will never be straightforward.
“Nothing is simple for a man like this,” Adiga writes. “Not being helpless. Not being harmless.” With its pleasurably off-kilter sympathies and style, “Amnesty” compellingly captures Danny’s tricky plight.
“Amnesty” by Aravind Adiga, out Feb. 18, Scribner, 255 pp., $26