- Jamie Diamond
Hari Kunzru was born in 1969, and grew up in Essex. He studied English at Oxford University, then gained an MA in Philosophy and Literature from Warwick University.
In 1999 he was named The Observer Young Travel Writer of the Year, and in 2004 he became a member of the Executive Council of English PEN. He is on the editorial board of Mute, the culture and technology magazine.
He has had short stories published in various magazines, and his first novel, The Impressionist (2002), won the 2002 Betty Trask Prize and the 2003 Somerset Maugham award and was also shortlisted for several awards, including the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award. His second novel, Transmission (2004), centres on Arjun Mehta, a computer programmer, who lands a new job in America's Silicon Valley, only to find things do not turn out as he imagines. This won him the inaugural 'decibel' award at the British Book Awards and was named a New York Times notable book of the year. In 2005 he published Noise, a short story collection, and his third novel, My Revolutions, in 2007.
In 2003, Hari Kunzru was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'. His latest novel is Gods Without Men (2011). He is the deputy president of English PEN.
In 2013 he participated in a collaborative exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 20 internationally acclaimed illustrators, graphic designers and typographers turned a story of Kunzru's Memory Palace into a walk-in story visualised by a series of commissions. The 10,000 word novella, which formed the basis of the exhibition, was published by the V&A in 2013.
His prose essay on his experiences of the music of New York, Twice Upon A Time: Listening to New York, was published by Atavist Books in 2014.
Hari Kunzru’s writings explore the controversial legacies of colonialism and empire and the impact of today’s globalised world on the formation of individual identities.
Appropriating the theme of passing, a recurring motif in ethnic literature, Kunzru’s epic, first novel, The Impressionist, shows the absurdity of a world based on racial classifications and challenges the institutions of the British Empire exposing their oppressive and cruel foundations. Transmissions, his second novel, shifts its focus from the heyday of the British Empire to our contemporary world dominated by a different, but equally lethal, type of empire, that of powerful transnational corporations. My Revolutions continues to explore the author’s concern on identity and the changing relationship between the mainstream and the counterculture starting from the 60s and 70s up to the 1990s.
Kunzru’s fourth novel, Gods Without Men, not unlike David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, spans throughout epochs intersecting several narratives that took place in the Mojave Desert at different historical moments in the twenty-first, twentieth, nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Kunzru’s articles and public statements challenge economic and cultural globalization, calling attention to its most problematic aspects such as the decline of civil and democratic rights and to those who are constantly left out from its benefits.
Kunzru’s concerns for those who are forced to live on the margins of society with little or no rights at all are far from being merely literary. “Sometimes, writes Kunzru, questions of literary value are inseparable from politics”. It is this impossibility of separating literature and politics that has led Kunzru to refuse the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which had been awarded to him for his debut novel, The Impressionist. The prize was sponsored by the Mail on Sunday, which, according to Kunzru, was responsible, with its sister paper Daily Mail, of pursuing “an editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum-seekers”. Such editorial policy contributed to the establishment of “a pervasive atmosphere of hostility towards black and Asian British people”. It would have been hypocritical, the writer argues, to accept a prize sponsored by “a publication that has over many years shown itself to be extremely xenophobic” and awarded for a novel that disputes the accuracy of racial definitions. The same urge to explore how personal the political can become must have played an important role in the genesis of My Revolutions, whose protagonist, the middle-class Michael Frame of the 1990s has a secret past as the idealist-turned-revolutionary-turned-terrorist Chris Carver of the 60s and 70s.
The Impressionist follows the transformation of Pran Nath, conceived out of wedlock by an Indian woman married to a high-caste man and a British colonial officer, into the white Jonathan Bridgeman. Set in the 1920s, Pran Nath’s narrative develops from his family’s rejection when he is revealed as a “darky-white” to the streets of Bombay where, as “Pretty Bobby”, he works as a pimp and starts passing for white. During an anti-British riot, Pran is unable to save the life of an Oxford student, Jonathan Bridgeman, whose identity he assumes. As Pran learns that he can easily transgress racial and sexual lines, he also becomes painfully aware that he is increasingly resembling an impressionist he sees in Paris. Between impersonations, the impressionist’s face is completely blank, denoting a lack of personality which Pran thinks is what characterises him too.
The Impressionist explicitly recalls the epic tales of the British Empire by Forster, Waugh and Kipling. Kunzru appropriates and reverses these tales which made India and Eastern subjects exotic. In particular, Kipling’s Kim provides the epigraph for the novel and Kunzru defines The Impressionist as an attempt to turn Kipling’s novel on its head: “Kim is the fantasy of the white subject who can see the hidden easternness of things. I wanted to change that round, to make western whiteness the exotic thing. I have worried in the past that I’ve not felt anchored to things, not felt committed. Part of it is being mixed-race, but part of it is temperamental. I’ve always been very scared of people who are certain. Nothing terrifies me more than a religious fundamentalist who really knows what right is and is prepared to do violence to what they consider is wrong. Claiming that degree of moral certainty is more or less a form of mental illness. I wanted to write in praise of the unformed and fluid.”
Kunzru has admitted to being prey to “ ‘Jane Austen moments’ when I just couldn’t stand the thought of anything futuristic, and I’d go off and read an 18th- or 19th-century book”. However, his second novel Transmission targets the high-tech world of contemporary powerful corporations who live off the cheap work of cyber-coolies like Arjun Metha, one of the novel’s protagonists. A computer programmer, Metha has come from India to Silicon Valley in pursuit of his own American Dream. Yet, he soon discovers he has little rights in America and that he is simply regarded as cheap labour. When the anti-virus corporation for which he works fires him, Arjun starts creating powerful computer viruses named after his favourite Bollywood star Leela Zahir which throw the entire world in state of paranoia over impending terrorist attacks. Arjun’s progress from cyber-geek to FBI suspect is interwoven with the stories of Leela Zahir, Guy Swift, a London marketing executive, and PEBA, the Pan European Border Agency, a group of bureaucrats whose mission is to safeguard European borders from immigrants. The novel presents a contemporary world whose citizens are manipulated by marketing slogans and big corporations. The global economy controls their movements and uproots them. The characters in Transmission have lost their sense of place and space. The particular and the local have no sense in today’s world: in Dubai, Guy stays in a hotel with “a choice of seventeen restaurants (Lebanese, Argentinian, the Vietnamese Café, the Dhow and Anchor British Pub …)” and finally ends up “eating at the Main Street USA Bar and Grill, where it was New Orleans week”. Even those characters like Guy who are able to profit from globalization seem to suffer from this loss of contact with the local.
Transmission also shows how the apparently perfect surface of our globalised world is easily disrupted. The spread of the different variants of the Leela virus was “an informational disaster, a holocaust of bits” which caused “the communal depression of network administrators yearning for perfection while faced with appalling losses, drop-outs, crashes and absences of every kind”. Due to the virus, the systems of control which help to perpetuate an unfair world order are disrupted. Tellingly, Guy, who is working with PEBA on a campaign for a more exclusive Europe without asylum-seekers, is wrongly identified by the police computer system as Gjergj Ruli, “Albanian national, suspected pyramid fraudster and failed asylum seeker in Germany”. Perhaps it is this possibility for sudden reversal of hierarchies which, for all the satire against today’s fully wired world contained in Transmission, attracts Kunzru to the high technology and the post-modern chaos that he playfully depicts.
My Revolutions and Gods Without Men continue to explore post-modern chaos and multiple identities, seeking an almost Brechtian estrangement effect on the reader. My Revolutions follows the downfall of David Frame who has constructed for himself a middle-class identity in the 1990s as his obscure past as a terrorist, when Frame’s name was Carver, begins to catch up on him. Using the technique of multiple flashbacks, the novel parallels Frame’s blackmail at the hands of fellow comrades with Carver’s fated transition from idealist to terrorist, a parable that illustrates the dramatic curve of the 1960s counterculture into the violence of the late 1970s. Gods Without Men centers on Jaz, a Punjabi-American, who becomes yet another victim of the American Dream as his hopes of social mobility and inclusion into the cultural and economic mainstream are frustrated in an unhappy marriage who produces an autistic boy. As the child gets lost in the Mojave Desert, the book starts to unravel different narratives that took place in that same place at different historical moments: the foundation of a mission by an Aragonese friar in the eighteenth century, the death of a Mormon miner during the Gold Rush, the transformation of an academic into a jealous murderer in the 1920s and the ensuing investigation in the 1940s, the establishment of a UFO cult in the 1960s and the training of military forces in a reconstructed Iranian village on American soil.
The book has been described by fellow novelist Douglas Coupland as “Translit literature”, a term that can be used for Kunzru’s oeuvre as a whole. To Coupland, this type of literature collapses time and space to engage the reader’s mind: “It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.”
Luca Prono, 2006