Arts

Book Review

If Portnoy was an Indian immigrant writer

Arriving in a new country can sometimes involve sharp adjustments of one’s expectations.

At least that’s how it feels to Kailash, the narrator of Amitava Kumar’s second novel, “Immigrant, Montana.”

Within the first few months of coming to the United States from the state of Bihar in eastern India, Kailash is surprised to learn that “[p]overty or homelessness wasn’t something I needed to associate only with India” and, also, that in America “it was possible, figuratively speaking, to discuss genitalia in public.” 

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That last thought is triggered by hearing Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s sex advice on the radio. The effect of that advice on young Kailash is immediate: “Such relief. For more than one reason.” 

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“Immigrant, Montana” is billed as fiction, but has the same ambiguity of genre that W.G. Sebald’s work, Teju Cole’s “Open City,” and Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy have, blending as they do memoir, fiction, and history. It’s peppered with documentary-like photographs. It features real-life characters (Edward Said, Bhagwan Rajneesh). And some of its imagined characters have flesh-and-blood counterparts.

Chief among them is Kailash’s mentor Ehsaan Ali, who — as Kumar reveals in his author’s note — is patterned after Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani academic/activist who spent much of his career in the United States and once was charged with conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. 

Kailash, clearly, is Kumar’s alter ego. He and Kumar even have a writer’s career in common, starting with his/their first book, a 2000 essay collection titled “Passport Photos.” 

What exactly are we reading?

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“This is a work of fiction as well as nonfiction,” Kumar explains in his author’s note, “an in-between novel by an in-between writer.” 

Originally published as “The Lovers” in New Delhi, the book explores Kailash’s erotic history, his unstable cultural identity, and his profound uncertainty as to what he’s even doing in the United States. The book is as cerebral as it is sensual, and as slippery in nature as it is insightful. Even its dustjacket design bristles with conflicting information: It has a shadow title — “Lover, Bihar: A Meditation” — crossed out in favor of “Immigrant, Montana: A Novel.” (Montana, incidentally, figures only fleetingly in the book.)

Kailash has come to New York to embark on a scholarly career. But while “Immigrant, Montana” can be described as an academic novel, its eccentricities and erotic obsessions take it on unpredictable tangents. Within its first 10 pages, for instance, it digresses into a tale about a suicidal monkey.

Over the course of the book, Kailash muddles his way through several love affairs with women whom he portrays vividly without having much understanding of either them or himself (a neat trick on Kumar’s part). The tensions he feels between the land he left behind and the country he has adopted are considerable, too.

“My father had grown up in a hut,” he writes. “I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.” In trying to make sense of his journey from India to America, he acknowledges that he’s bent on a futile task: “It was easier to keep the worlds apart, even if doing so meant seeing myself as split or divided.” 

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It’s no surprise that a man as “divided” as Kailash has difficulty attaining any satisfaction in either work or love. The closest he comes to effectively analyzing his own behavior is when he digs into the archives and contemplates the parallels between his own volatility and that of figures from the past. One section of the book is devoted to writer-activist Agnes Smedley. She was the lover of Indian nationalist revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and author of “Daughter of Earth,” a book that, like the one in the reader’s hands, is “neither a memoir nor simply a novel.” 

Kailash/Kumar never lets you forget that you’re reading a text that someone painstakingly assembled. Most chapters are prefaced with photographed clippings from the “notebook for this novel.” Letting readers see how the sausage is made is part of Kumar’s point.

In addition to addressing readers directly, Kailash also frequently addresses an imaginary white judge who rules over “a court for those accused of false pretenses and indecent acts.” He’s driven by “the desire to explain who I am” to this looming presence in his mind, and some of his confidences are as revealing as they are mournful: “Airports, Your Honor, are the places where immigrants feel most at home. And also most uneasy.” 

“Immigrant, Montana” is intelligent, melancholy, quirky. At a time when feelings run high over which immigrants get to call themselves American, Kailash’s idiosyncratic voice adds a welcome tonic note to the debate.

“I had become a translated man, no longer able to connect with my own past,” he laments late in the novel. But there’s plenty of sanguine sentiment here, too. It’s hard to resist a character who wonders if “even my failures perhaps were teaching me how to see the world around me.”  IMMIGRANT, MONTANA

By Amitava Kumar

Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95

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Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.