By Aravind Adiga
Scribner. 272 pp. $26
When complex human stories are carved into the style of a thriller, the probability of reductionism increases. With his fifth book, “Amnesty,” Aravind Adiga examines systemic and individual impunity through one bad day of a working man’s life. But does Adiga create characters only to exploit their paradigms?
Highlighting his hair to appear modern, hiding his accent along with his undocumented status, the Tamil protagonist Dhananjaya Rajaratnam lives as Danny.
Caught in a double bind familiar to many migrants, Danny entered Australia on a student visa to attend a for-profit academic institution that he was soon convinced would convey neither a good education nor access to real jobs. Afraid to be indebted without recourse, he dropped out and plowed his achievement mentality into becoming a “Legendary Cleaner.”
He cannot shake what he has left behind. Tortured in Sri Lanka, Danny’s trauma is made manifest by a raised scar on his forearm, which he touches repeatedly, plagued by the memory of a police officer’s burning cigarette. To risk applying for Australian asylum could invite deportation to that same fate.
Danny operates in a state of constant surveillance that goes unrecognized by people desensitized to the comforts of their citizenship. “Mimicking a man with an Australian spine, wearing shorts in public, enjoying the low-class thrill of looking like a child again,” Danny does his best to pass as someone he is not. But $47.50 highlights cannot obscure his cracked teeth.
Danny wants to relax enough to enjoy the forced assimilation over which he pretends to have agency. For that, Adiga needs a foil – a legal, leftist, vegan, Vietnamese Australian girlfriend named Sonja, her “eyes eager for otherness,” whose affections are too precarious for Danny to disclose either his undocumented status or his proclivity for eating meat. Disappointed that he’s not Muslim, which would, in Danny’s eyes, compel Australian sympathy for his refugee status, Sonja says, “At least you’re not a (BEGIN ITAL)suit(END ITAL).”
Adiga shines when documenting the ways in which immigrants are marginalized by those who claim to care about them, for “Danny had always thought of himself as a man who had come to Sydney to wear suits.”
Flabbergasted that he lives in a grocery storeroom that she refuses to visit, Sonja cannot understand why he would give up the beauty of his native Batticaloa. In response to her questions, Danny knows he’ll “have to start lying.” His actual thoughts are too caustic to earn the pity she would offer in lieu of acceptance, and to tell his true story could expose him to betrayal.
With crisp dialogue, constant movement and occasional flashbacks, Adiga shows Danny’s choice to close himself off as reasonable. Facing desperate consequences occasioned by one misplaced secret, Danny cannot afford to trust.
The scarcity of kindness in “Amnesty” is the author’s lasting accusation. Adiga faced backlash for his depiction of the “darkness” of Indian society in his brilliant debut novel “The White Tiger,” which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize by featuring an abused servant turned cutthroat entrepreneur. In a poignant series of sarcastic letters addressed to a Chinese premier by Adiga’s garrulous, dangerous and hilarious narrator, the author skewered the unprosecuted corruption of the upper classes.
Those same tropes govern the Australian present and Sri Lankan past of “Amnesty,” in which Danny is befriended by clients Radha Thomas and Prakash Wadhwa, compulsive Indian lovers who in their adopted country have acquired nothing like the societal recognition and emotional comfort they crave and so they cling to their affair and other addictions.
During bouts on the town, Danny becomes more, and also less, than their housekeeper – an unseen seer of society and its unhappiness, beginning with his own, which is temporarily displaced, then enhanced, by their drama. Radha – “Strong woman, House Number Five, Radha: wide-hipped, muscled” – is beyond Danny’s romantic reach, which imbues their relationship with pathos and degradation.
Radha is cheating on her Australian husband, who sustains and controls her after the scandal she wrought when she bilked her Medicare workplace for gambling money. Prakash is a lover whose regard comes cheap, although he looks expensive in his signature red leather jacket. Reliant on Radha for his rental apartment and living expenses, Prakash nevertheless hates her authority and resents her marital obligations. And then she turns up dead.
Time-stamped like a Michael Crichton novel, “Amnesty” unspools over 11 tense hours during which Danny debates telling the police what he knows: the murdered woman’s lover liked to take her to the creek where her lacerated body was found, wrapped in that telltale leather jacket, weighted with stones.
Allegory is a soulful premise and a possible remedy for how global economic discourse retreats into statistics. In Danny, Adiga creates an archetype of the human condition – a manual laborer trapped by his basic needs, mired in lost hope for the flourishing of a botched migration. But no matter how taut the plot, Adiga’s spare secondary characters failed to break free of two dimensions.
Should Danny phone it in? Or had Adiga already done so?
While “Amnesty” succeeds in wrenching attention toward systemic injustice, its stylized, iterative interactions are too cursory to move past being concept demonstrations. Adiga provides just enough character development to support the assertion that yes, people are so like that, and here’s an antagonist to prove it.
Like many crime dramas that create an audience for serious ideas through the lens of entertainment, “Amnesty” lures the reader into considering how any one person might navigate such unjust governance. To engage with the courts is to put yourself at their unproven mercy, a hard fact that may need fiction to gain traction in the public imagination.
It doesn’t spoil the denouement to which “Amnesty” incessantly marches to posit that Danny’s position is impossible. He can either ruin his own life or he can ruin his idea of himself, which may be worse.
What, then, did he envision? What kind of man did he want to be? And what kind of society do we want to create? Denied the meager gratifications of a costly assimilation and haunted by never becoming more than myriad countries wanted for him, Danny makes a hard choice, knowing he could pay in blood.
What would you do?