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Global Village Rebel

He burst onto the literary scene with his ambitious debut novel The Impressionist. But with as much attention focused on his £1.25m advance as on his writing, will Hari Kunzru be able to sustain the hype with his second novel?

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. “I’ve 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…my…god…” 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 he’s 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 Mehta’s fellow programmers try and answer an email questionnaire about Aspberger’s Syndrome (it’s 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 aren’t necessarily going to be into reading this. And that’s what The Impressionist was about: a response to a slightly fake version of India that I’d 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. There’s a hokeyness to The Impressionist that’s very deliberate, there’s a fakeness to it, it’s a book about books. This book doesn’t have that response, it’s 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. “I’ve done that, I’ve 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 you’re suddenly a pedestrian in that space, it’s incredibly hostile!”

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 Kunzru’s 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 editorial line.”

His public profile may now be higher, but Kunzru claims his life hasn’t changed much. He has more or less the same friends, the same East End stomping grounds and claims to “be pretty much sociable, I don’t 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: “He’s become more confident and self-assured. I think success has removed any hesitancy. And he’s 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. “I’m published by a corporate publisher and have access to the mainstream media. For god’s 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, “there’s a sense of control over your own destiny, you’ve 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. “We’re the Hindus who have now almost all been displaced from Kashmir and on the right of our community there’s a narrative that says ‘bloody Muslims have kicked us out of our country and India must get it back’. But there’s another part to do with Hindus and Muslims very happily co-existing. It’s one of the sad parts of the last 20 years, the completion of a process of polarisation.”

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 many prophets.

Kunzru currently fends off media offers of columns and articles, claiming “I don’t 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: “I’m reading a lot of political material from the early Seventies, I’m interested in a story about somebody who hitches his colours to the mast of revolution in that time. I’m 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…I 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. That’s what I’ll continue to do.”

Versions of this article appeared in The Scotsman, The Big issue, the Globe & Mail, and The Week. ©2004

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