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   William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

Hari Kunzru, The Impressionist

About the Author

Hari Kunzru

Born in London and raised in Essex, Hari Kunzru earned a BA in English and Oxford and an MA in philosophy from Warwick University. He has worked as host of The Lounge on the English satellite channel TV, where he interviewed guests ranging from techno musicians and MC's to web designers and installation artists. His other work experience includes a stint as the 'gadget guy' on a radio station, and Djing and contributing to the online radio stream Fallout Radio ( Currently a freelance journalist and editor living in London, Kunzru has written for a variety of English and international publications, including The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, The Economist, and Wired and was named Young Travel Writer of the Year by the Observer in 1999. The Impressionist is his first novel.

Critics / Reviews

Exotic in locale, Dickensian in scope, this first novel introduces a protagonist like no other in modern fiction. Pran Nath Razdan is the Impressionist, a young boy living a privileged and pampered life in 1918 Agra, a bustling Indian city just downriver from the Taj Mahal. Untouched by the influenza epidemic raging through this town, Pran enjoys all the advantages of belonging to one of the world's most exclusive Hindu castes. He is beautiful beyond measure, his pearly skin even more striking confirmation of his elite Kashmiri status. But Pran is not who he appears to be: Fifteen years earlier, his true father - an Englishman - died, and his Brahman mother passed their infant off as the son of her husband, a distinguished man of letters and the law. Only one person knows the truth about Pran's tainted blood: Jyoti, the family cook and a woman with her own agenda. When she reveals Pran's true parentage to his dying father the boy is tossed out into the street - a pariah and an outcast. Thus begins the extraordinary, near-mythical journey of a young man who must reinvent himself in order to survive… not once but many times.

As the Impressionist, he will roam the world, fulfilling people's secret fantasies, becoming whatever it is they want him to be. Until nothing of his own self is visible. The face behind the mask. The shadow behind the shadow. A shell game. An illusion. A trick of the light… Now you see him…

Set against a sweeping backdrop of world history and played out on a vast, teeming canvas, The Impressionist tells the unforgettable story of a boy who is born a lie and must adapt in order to survive. It is an astonishing work of gripping narrative power and dazzling imagination.
Penguin Putnam

Kunzru is an expert in crossing boundaries and The Impressionist is no exception. An epic adventure traversing through Raj India, 1920's Oxford and finally the imaginary 'Fotseland' in Africa, Kunzru navigates the issues of identity, Empire and race through the eyes of an ultimate conjurer, the 'rootless' outcaste Pran Nath.

The impressionist in Hari Kunzru's first novel creates self-portraits, just not on canvas. Pran Nath Razdan, born at roughly the same time as the 20th century out of a stormy encounter between a stray Indian beauty and an English functionary of the British Empire, reinvents himself several times. Each impression he does brings him closer to his ideal of a proper Oxonian and farther from his conflicted identity as a "blackie-whitie," a swarthy half-caste despised by both sides of an ethnic divide. Or so he believes.
Daily News, New York, April 7, 2002

The Impressionist is a picaresque stitch, a deadly serious book about race and empire that can still put a reader on the floor with the exquisitely timed comic understatement of its language. At times Kunzru seems almost too confidently in command of his themes, deploying Ellisonian images of light and shadow -- and the scary but heartening smudge where their boundaries blur -- with a facility that borders on the facile.
The San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2002

The Impressionist is a sprawling, ambitious, shape-shifting novel in which minor characters are given entire complex histories of their own and the restless protagonist, an Anglo-Indian boy named Pran Nath Rasdan, perpetually shrugs off personae, looking for an identity that feels just right. He's not unlike Patricia Highsmith's Ripley, though far less sinister. Pran is conceived one stormy night in 1903, the result of a "inexpert and violent" sexual encounter between a young Englishman and a 19-year-old Indian woman. She dies giving birth to Pran; he's raised by her aristocrat Kashmiri husband, who believes the beautiful boy is his own.

Kunzru uses the clumsy circumstances of Pran's birth to slyly examine issues of race, identity and home. The author has chosen an ideal place and time in which to set his ideas into play; in the early 20th century, the British were "technologists who [had] all India under their control." This was also when India was agitating for home rule, and when influenza spread devastation through the country.
The Washington Post, April 14, 2002

The Author about the Book

Traditionally the way you understand yourself is through some sort of spiritual interrogation and you look into 'your heart of hearts' or some other phrase like that. I wanted to write about a character who would not remain stable throughout every situation. It would be a way of interrogating whether we are actually immutable or are we much more context driven than we care to believe? So I wanted to push this to quite an extreme.

He is, especially when he is Jonathan, trying to inhabit this new cardboard self completely. I think this is what interested me even beyond any race thing about identity, I just wanted to write about the romantic notion of personality or character. All of us have a sense of social range and we tend to maybe modulate our voices differently depending on who we are talking to. We might behave in slightly different ways in different social contexts. I wondered just how far that goes and how much drift is possible? Especially for a non-introspective, deliberately blinkered, and unselfcritical person.

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