A follow-up to the Man Booker short-listed “The Lives of Others,” Neel Mukherjee’s new novel plays with literary form.
“A State of Freedom”
by Neel Mukherjee
W.W. Norton & Company, 289 pp., $25.95
Neel Mukherjee has a genius for storytelling. In his new novel, “A State of Freedom,” the narration is deceptively simple, transporting the reader to unexpected and wondrous places.
Mukherjee is the author of three novels, including “The Lives of Others,” which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
“A State of Freedom” is intended as a literary “conversation” with V.S. Naipaul’s novel, “In a Free State.” Like his celebrated Indian predecessor, Mukherjee plays with fictional form. His chapters vary in length from eight to nearly 100 pages with seemingly discrete stories and characters. As the novel progresses the reader makes subtle connections — a common character, a shared sensibility, a sequence of morals — and the book coheres in places as if by alchemy.
The stories are all set in contemporary India in varied urban and rural settings, and portray the lives of people in various circumstances of migration and dislocation. In the opening story, an Indian American takes his young son to the Taj Mahal, and the experience is unnerving in many ways. “Truth was, he felt, he was no longer a proper Indian,” he thinks when encountering beggars in the street. In the next chapter, a London-dwelling man returns to his family’s home in India to research a book on Indian cookery; thoroughly Westernized, he struggles with his elevated status in his home country and tries hard to assuage his guilt over living with servants. In another story, an indigent father leaves home to make money from street performances of his dancing bear; the suffering of both man and beast is parablelike, evoking an immutable cycle of tribulation. A fourth story follows the life of a girl who, from a young age, works as a live-in servant in the homes of rich families.
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The barriers between classes in India at first appear rigid and impenetrable, but Mukherjee finds commonality by thoroughly inhabiting their lives. The educated, Westernized son tries to converse and engage with his parents’ cook and servant with little success. He eventually visits the slum where the cook lives and learns surprising information about her family.
Mukherjee is a writer of abundant gifts. His descriptions are mostly spare and without artifice, but he can also deliver lustrous prose, as in this passage from the second chapter: “Despite the windscreen wipers semaphoring furiously back and forth, I could barely see anything in front and nothing very much at all through the streaking wall of water which was the passenger window. The whole world seemed to be deliquescing. After twenty minutes or so, the strafing abated somewhat although the rainfall continued; a seen-through-streams-of-liquid visibility was restored; the world became that of an Impressionist painting.” He also writes with stunning detail about slums of India and the misery of entrenched poverty.
Beyond the verbal flourishes, these stories have a redemptive quality. While particularly about India, they hint at universal truths. The book’s distinct and separate narratives can be seen as metaphor for the disjointed inner lives of people of all classes and backgrounds who also share much in common: suffering, family ties, and a powerful yearning for a better life.
The stories don’t always come together or relate to each other, but this hardly matters when the reader is so thoroughly entranced by the telling of the tales. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.