Vineet Gill in The Guardian:
The narrator of V.S. Naipaul’s 1987 novel, The Enigma of Arrival, is a man twice displaced—first by forces of history and then by the drive of ambition. India, the home of his ancestors, has no real meaning for him since he has never lived there. His childhood home, Trinidad, he had abandoned years ago, seeking a better alternative, better suited to his idea of the writer’s life, in the West. And after having spent two decades in London as a writer of some renown, he has now moved to Wiltshire in the English countryside, hoping to find another, more hospitable home. To be “a man in tune with the seasons and his landscape”, he says, is “…an especially happy condition”. But do writers have any use for this at-homeness that Naipaul’s narrator pines for?
At its core, Amitava Kumar’s new novel, The Lovers, is an attempt to address some version of that question. The novel’s protagonist, Kailash, is an immigrant in 1990s America—a college student with an eye on an academic career, as well as an apprentice writer trying, in the usual Naipaulean vein, to find his subject and voice. America makes him feel like an outsider. It is always, he writes, “someone else’s country”. As for India, it acquires a special place in memory, a distant dream accessible only through stories and legends, through aerogrammes and international calls, through self-cooked meals and kitschy American adverts featuring images of the Taj Mahal or of Gandhi.
“For so many years,” Kailash tells us at the beginning of his narrative, “the idea of writing has meant for me recognising and even addressing a division in my life: the gap between India, the land of my birth, and the US, where I came as a young adult.” So the deracinated writer refuses to choose between the two subjects of home and away, mining his material rather in that culturally-rich divide that lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s not much use stressing the point that the trajectory of Kailash’s life—especially his journey from India to America—mirrors that of Kumar’s. Naipaul was pulling a similar trick in The Enigma of Arrival, which, for all its autobiographical conceits, teasingly carries the tagline “A Novel” on its cover (as does The Lovers, by the way). What’s important is that both these books remind us, each in its own way, that in literature, ambiguities are always more welcome, and more resonant than certitudes.