Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri review – a delirious, disorienting vision of Berlin

Show caption The unnamed narrator of Sojourn ‘muses on offbeat details of Berlin life’. Photograph: Zimthiger Photography/Getty Images Amit Chaudhuri Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri review – a delirious, disorienting vision of Berlin The writer’s intriguing, uneven novel follows an academic as he meanders through the streets of the city and in and out of reality Killian Fox Sun 28 Aug 2022 13.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It sounds like a handsomely prestigious assignment. The year is 2005 and the unnamed narrator of Amit Chaudhuri’s latest novel has moved to Berlin for four months to occupy the role of Böll professor at an unnamed university. Awarded a generous stipend, he is put up in a spacious flat that once housed the Nobel prizewinning author Kenzaburō Ōe. He has a minder who handles his admin, frets over his cultural intake and introduces him to luminaries in the department.

But the narrator is under no great illusions. At his inaugural talk, where he “rambled on why India was a ‘modern’ idea, not a colonial or postcolonial one” – a subject that Chaudhuri has written about in the past – he notes that his hosts have to pretend he is a scholar of significance and not, as he believes, “an ornament to an international initiative”. Teaching a class later on, he “holds forth” to a dwindling number of students “but wasn’t authoritative”.

If the narrator is bothered by these self-professed inadequacies, or feels any pressure to overcome them, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he spends his time drifting around the city and musing on offbeat details of Berlin life, often in the company of a roguish poet named Faqrul. At times, he loses grip on reality altogether.

This lands us in familiar territory for Chaudhuri, who, in his novels (there are eight others, as well as works of nonfiction, poetry and music), tends to avoid tackling political and social issues head-on. Rather, he comes at them obliquely, through a focus on the everyday, the domestic, the almost comically mundane, often tilted so that the ordinary tips over into the perplexingly strange.

Chaudhuri comes at political issues obliquely, through a focus on the everyday, the domestic, the almost comically mundane

In his flat, the narrator fixates on the slab-like lavatory on which Ōe’s bum must have rested (he is later told it’s designed with a flat bowl because “Germans like to inspect their poo”). Visiting Tempelhof, he wonders “why so many airports in Berlin abdicated their responsibility to perform a function”. He bemoans the reluctance of German waiters to serve tap water.

Faqrul, who was “booted out of Bangladesh in 1975 for insulting the prophet Muhammad in a poem”, and later befriended by Günter Grass, takes him on a tour of the city, exploring its Indian restaurants as well as the darker moments of its recent past. The two men contemplate a synagogue attacked on Kristallnacht and the remains of the Berlin Wall, though these landmarks and the events they memorialise are oddly distant, filtered through the irrepressible Faqrul (who recalls the overbearing uncle in Chaudhuri’s 2014 novel Odysseus Abroad – both characters get teeth knocked out by racists) or shrouded in a fog that threatens to consume the narrator’s sense of what’s real.

This disorientation is present from the outset and in the opening pages it threatens to derail Chaudhuri’s usually sure-footed prose. Faqrul’s arrival at the narrator’s talk provokes a flurry of similes, none of which quite land as they ought to. Speaking of people like Faqrul, Chaudhuri writes: “It’s as if they believe that not being aware of themselves is a guarantee that others can’t see them.” (How can you be aware and not aware of yourself at the same time?) Faqrul has “a bridegroom’s thick skin”, we are told, while some street vendors a few pages later “received me with shy approval; the way bridegrooms are”. Is this a reflection of the narrator’s shaky mental state or just subpar writing?

No matter. The prose soon regains its footing and as the narrator meanders around Berlin, visiting department stores, museums and an old-style dancehall (presumably Clärchens Ballhaus), the novel weaves its befuddling spell. A woman named Birgit enters his orbit and a romance slowly takes root, but then she disappears, to be replaced, without explanation, by a white-haired woman who emerges from a spare bedroom. The narrator loses track of his own identity and Berlin’s turbulent history begins to bleed together, the walls between periods crumbling around him.

We’re left with an impression of a man untethered in reality, but also of a world drained of significance, of consequence, of strong feelings or at least their outward expression. Even when the narrator is finally seized by the desire to make love, he “won’t say it outright” and the moment passes unconsummated.

With that, he leaves the object of his affections behind and sinks deeper into the city – and through the cracks of his own disordered mind.

Sojourn by Amit Chaudhuri is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply