Amnesty: A Novel
Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, also known as Danny, lives in Sydney, Australia. He’s an illegal immigrant trying to remain in the shadows, unnoticed and undiscovered. To make ends meet he works as a house cleaner, carrying around a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back. He forms relationships very cautiously and views every encounter as a potential disaster leading to his detection and deportation.
Danny’s precarious existence turns upside down when he learns that former client Radha Thomas (House 5 on his call list), has been found murdered. It’s quite probable that Danny’s the only one who knows she was carrying on an illicit love affair with a man named Prakash Wadhwa (House 6). An unstable individual with a gambling addiction and a bad temper, Prakash likely committed the murder and is now seeking out Danny to ensure his silence.
Danny faces an impossible choice. Will he tell the police everything he knows, thereby exposing himself to the authorities and making his deportation a certainty? Or will he remain silent and allow Radha’s killer to escape justice for his crime?
Amnesty is Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel. His debut, The White Tiger (2008) won the Booker Prize. As is often the case, he’s since been placed in the somewhat unenviable position of having to follow up initial success with equally brilliant subsequent work. So far, the results have been mixed.
Viewed as a rising star in the South Asian literary landscape, Adiga draws on his background and experiences in India and Australia to tackle one of the most important social issues of our time: the plight of illegals struggling to survive within the borders of a foreign country. The author successfully creates an atmosphere of unrelenting stress and paranoia that will remain in our mind long after reading his story.
There are, however, several problems with Amnesty, and foremost of these is Adiga’s management of his chosen narrative technique.
Fluctuating rather madly between interior monologue and exterior point of view, it peppers the reader with memories, fantasies, and current action in such a fractured presentation that it often confuses, zipping back and forth along Danny’s timeline in such a way as to interfere with the novel’s sense of continuity and its forward progress.
His decision to expand from mainstream literary fiction to dabble in a popular genre, i.e. crime fiction, is also problematic.
In his previous novel, Selection Day (2016), Adiga used the vehicle of sports fiction (cricket) to address issues surrounding masculine identity in India and the criminalization of homosexuality. Here, he’s using a murder mystery to highlight Danny’s own personal fears of capture and punishment. A good idea that suffers from uneven execution.
An effective mystery novel requires multiple suspects, a process of detection, and a heaping portion of suspense added to the mix. Amnesty skimps on the first two, and the jumbled narrative style continually chokes off effective development of the third.
Not to say that Amnesty is bereft of good writing. Danny is a character we experience and empathize with on multiple levels, and Adiga manipulates our sensibilities with regard to his protagonist in several ways.
His use of metaphor and symbolic imagery is, at times, extremely effective. Early the day Danny bought a small potted cactus from a woman sitting in a park, and as the story progresses and he continues to haul it around with him, it amplifies the pathos we feel for the character.
Also quite effective as a symbol of Danny’s plight is his vacuum cleaner:
“Strapped to his back was what resembled an astronaut’s jet-booster—a silver canister with a blue rubber nozzle peeping out and scarlet loops of wire wrapped around it.”
The more often the narrator refers to this “astronaut pack,” the more clearly we see it as a perfect metaphor for Danny’s sense of alienation as an illegal immigrant. He’s very much like an astronaut visiting a strange civilization on another world, trying desperately to blend in.
Other metaphors, however, don’t work as well. Danny asks himself at one point whether a circle can have more or less than 360 degrees. He considers the possibility that “The law was like a magic circle, and inside its protection, Australians surfed and swam and slept like children,” while in other countries “a circle did not add up to 360 degrees. In Dubai the law let employers cheat you of your wages. In Sri Lanka the law was a burning cigarette on your forearm.”
Since we don’t have to be mathematical geniuses to know that a circle has 360 degrees, period, the metaphor doesn’t quite work. Adiga would have been better off to have removed it during revision in favor of something else that would have been more effective.
At the end of the day, inconsistencies and lack of narrative control hold Amnesty back from achieving its full potential. It’s a good novel, and worthy of your consideration, but not a great one.