12 JUNE 1993, Page 46

Too little of a good thing

Francis King

AFTERNOON RAAG by Amit Chaudhuri Heinemann, £13.99, pp. 133 Two years ago I was a member of the jury which awarded the first prize in the Betty Trask awards to Amit Chaudhuri for his novel A Strange and Sublime Address. The year before the first prize had gone to a novel of undoubted literary merit but one which, experimental in style and full of obscenities, not merely failed to meet the criteria laid down by Betty Trask in her will but would certainly have bewildered and disgusted her. I was determined that, respecting her intentions, we should select a work of which she would have approved; and fortu- nately all my fellow judges agreed with me. Chaudhuri's book was the perfect choice. It was difficult to see how any reader addict- ed to Betty Trask's sort of novel could fail to enjoy it; but at the same time it was (as I described it in a review in this journal, 18 May 1991) 'a small jewel of a work, per- fectly cut and polished'.

Chaudhuri's second novel (or novella, as it should really be categorised) is a work which is shot through with the same deli- cate poetry as its predecessor and which displays the same ability to invest ordinary things with extraordinary magic. Little hap- pens in it. The Indian narrator comes up to Oxford; he makes friends with a male Indi- an student and has tentative affairs with two female Indian students; he walks about the city to observe the life of town and gown; intermittently he reverts, as a counterpoint to all this, to his family home in Bombay. But, despite this lack of drama, one has a sense of life in all its variety, rich- ness and mystery.

Throughout, the narrator constantly refers to classical Indian music, of which he is both performer and lover. Speaking of the raags, of which one, Madhuvanti, gives its title to the book, he declares:

No raag is so pure that it does not remind one of another raag, that it is not, in some elementary way, a variation or version of a raag sung at some other time of day, or some other season. . . . The seasons and hours have no absolute significance, but are defined by each other.

It is on this principle that the novella flows along, one incident producing a muf- fled echo of another incident across time or space, the particular and the general merg- ing into each other, immediate sensations and distant memories coalescing.

If Chaudhuri is a camera, then it is not a film one, snatching at whatever is in motion before it, but a still one, patiently focusing on a subject composed with infinite care in its view-finder. Characters develop little from one page to another. These are static portraits, the careful details of which tell one everything that is to be known about this or that person at the precise moment when, at long last, the shutter clicks. Inevitably, there is an almost total absence of either plot or theme.

It's been statistically proven that vegetarians live longer.' The evocation of Oxford, as seen by an Indian visitor, is strange and yet eventually convincing in its essential truthfulness. But even more striking is Chaudhuri's evoca- tion of his native India. Here he is return- ing to the territory of his previous book, with its descriptions of a leisurely, well-to- do Bengali life of obsequious servants, carefully prepared food, supportive rela- tives and friends, loved and loving parents, music.

My only criticism is that the book is so brief and that everything in it — character, incident, scene — is so evanescent. It can best be compared to a nouvelle cuisine meal prepared by a master chef. Everything looks beautiful and everything tastes delicious. But at the end one wants more, much more.