IT IS a quiet street. The house is large, but not immodestly so. Like
its new owner, it is in many ways easy to miss.
The door open, the shaven head behind it tilts pensively. The eyes are
recessed within brown sockets, giving the impression of deep thought.
The face is long. Then he laughs and the youthful Hari Kunzru emerges
from the perma-cool exterior. Come on in, he beckons, turning
his back on the East End behind us.
Pots of paint, boxes, scattered pieces of art give little clue to an occupation.
Ive only been here a week-and-a-half, Kunzru
offers by way of explanation. Just moved. There is a characteristic
laconic drawl, an ever so slight nasal twang to his voice. He is fond
of saying urrr
as he pauses for thought. Friend to luminous
contemporaries such as Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Monica Ali (Brick
Lane) and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius),
books have brought Hari Kunzru upward mobility: £1.25m of it, if
the stories of his two-book advance are true.
Kunzru was the man who burst onto the literary scene two years ago with
an audacious debut novel, The Impressionist. The comic tale of an Anglo-Indian
boy constantly swapping identities, it placed his literary credentials
firmly on the map. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and Guardian
First Book Award as a result. Yet it was less the character of Pran and
his (sometimes explicit) exploits, more the rumoured advance that had
the literary world agog and which initially guaranteed so many column
inches. (The Impressionist is an ambitious first novel, marred
only by a deliberate, says Kunzru emptiness in its protagonist.)
Had the publishing world gone mad? Could publishers ever recoup such vast
figures? Kunzru is reported to have said Oh
when told of the deal by his agent as he was sitting in a London café.
Prior to this a struggling freelance journalist, he was used to filling
out tax exemption status due to his low earnings.
Now the second book is out, Transmission. Naysayers should be assuaged.
A witty and at times moving satire on the emptiness and difficulties caused
by globalisation, it also very obviously has a heart: the story of Indian
computer programmer Arjun Mehta, who travels to the States, then writes
a devastating virus after being fired from his job. Those affected include
the vapidly hollow agency director Guy Swift (a man who wants marketing
transcendence says Kunzru talking about all the young Brit
execs hes observed and whose company Tomorrow* promotes such
nonsensical concepts as Total Brand Mutability) as well as the lonely
Bollywood superstar Leela Zahir. The backdrop is global, the writing impressive
and the imagination at times remarkable.
There are some wonderfully ironic moments in the book, too, including
the panic when Mehtas fellow programmers try and answer an email
questionnaire about Aspbergers Syndrome (its clear most of
them are autistic). It is also in some ways both familiar and very different
territory to The Impressionist: more in fitting, perhaps, with
those who knew Kunzru as a former editor of the technology magazine, Wired.
Although it feels a little teflon by the end, no-one should doubt that
the man can write.
I think each book creates a new audience, he explains. People
who liked the Merchant Ivoriness of the first book arent necessarily
going to be into reading this. And thats what The Impressionist
was about: a response to a slightly fake version of India that Id
grown up with in Essex [where his father is a retired surgeon, a Kashmiri
Hindu pandit married to his English mother]. That was pretty much the
major source of images on television, that nostalgic sepia image. Theres
a hokeyness to The Impressionist thats very deliberate, theres
a fakeness to it, its a book about books. This book doesnt
have that response, its a straighter attempt to talk about the condition
of people under a globalised world.
So what prompted the choice? Well
I had an image in my head
of a guy walking down the side of the road in California, he says
by way of inspiration, referring to a particular poignant moment in the
book. Ive done that, Ive been the non-driver. I travelled
around the States with a backpack as a youth. Everyone has a car; even
the size of the blocks is car-designed, the entire space automobile dictated.
If youre suddenly a pedestrian in that space, its incredibly
He spent six weeks driving from Seattle down to the Mexican border researching
material for Transmission. He would spot homeless guys with shopping
trolleys and headsets walking by the side of the Interstate. You
realise these guys are travelling hundreds of miles, on foot, over a period
of weeks or months, migrating with these trolleys of stuff. Their version
of California is so utterly different.
Writing with the fresh eyes of the immigrant seems very much
Kunzrus style. He has become known (perhaps his choice, perhaps
not) as a spokesperson on racial and diversity issues, as well as cheerleader
for groups such as the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission and the imprisoned
writers charity International PEN. Last year he very publicly turned down
(and some say embarrassed) the John Llewellyn Rhys [literary] Prize, based
on its sponsorship by the Mail on Sunday tabloid newspaper:
Along with its sister paper the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday has
consistently pursued an editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees
and asylum-seekers, and throughout their political and social coverage
there is a pervasive atmosphere of hostility towards black and Asian British
people, his agent read out at the ceremony. As the child of
an immigrant I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail's
His public profile may now be higher, but Kunzru claims his life hasnt
changed much. He has more or less the same friends, the same East End
stomping grounds and claims to be pretty much sociable, I dont
require meditative concentration 24 hours a day. His close friend
and fellow novelist James Flint,
author of Habitus and the forthcoming Book of Ash (Viking), says:
Hes become more confident and self-assured. I think success
has removed any hesitancy. And hes much better dressed.
Kunzru also still contributes to the social justice/technology magazine
MUTE, set up by arts school colleagues and he has some tentative links
to the broad anti-capitalist network. Some people did resent his success
though. Im published by a corporate publisher and have access
to the mainstream media. For gods sake, I write things for the Daily
Telegraph sometimes! he answers.
Our emails, too, seem to be shared between his increasingly exotic transatlantic
locations. The money must have had some transforming effect. I travel
a lot, he explains, rather simply, theres a sense of
control over your own destiny, youve stripped your life down to
the things you can carry.
He has a partner, the artist Francis
Upritchard, whose 'smoking mummy' was shortlisted for last year's
Beck's Futures prize, and to whom his new novel is dedicated. Curiously,
the Oxford-educated writer seems reluctant to discuss her, though is happy
to talk about issues during his Essex past I got the
hell out at 18, although there is a part of me that will always be wearing
white slip-on shoes (he laughs, raucously) as well as
the politics of the Kashmir valley. Were the Hindus who have
now almost all been displaced from Kashmir and on the right of our community
theres a narrative that says bloody Muslims have kicked us
out of our country and India must get it back. But theres
another part to do with Hindus and Muslims very happily co-existing. Its
one of the sad parts of the last 20 years, the completion of a process
Switching to the future, we discuss the likely development of print-on-demand
publishing technology where you literally print each copy
of a book demanded, rather than hold tons of stock and how the
economics of the book trade could change to level the playing field of
the publishing world. Certainly, it is something that already has
Kunzru currently fends off media offers of columns and articles, claiming
I dont want it to pollute my writing, although he is
shortly to host a BBC4 show on Islamic art. He is also preparing for book
three: Im reading a lot of political material from the early
Seventies, Im interested in a story about somebody who hitches his
colours to the mast of revolution in that time. Im interested in
what made people want to change things, political things, and why that
feels very distant now.
For now, his life goes on: I still go on marches sometimes
run away from cops down the Mall once or twice, he laughs. My
main interest though is trying to imagine another world, another set of
possibilities. Thats what Ill continue to do.
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