Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga: Amnesty

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Danny is a Tamil from Sri Lanka and now living in Sydney Australia as an ‘illegal’.  Initially, he came to Sydney on a student visa but, after failing to be granted refugee status, he abandoned his studies and became an ‘illegal’.

Danny is the protagonist of this latest novel by the Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga [for The White Tiger].  Like the protagonist in that novel, Danny is seeking a better life for himself. 

In a rather moving introductory chapter, Danny recounts an experience he had when he was fifteen.  He and a friend discovered that a lagoon which they believed was closed off from the sea actually was not and the water flowed freely to the ocean.  In the light of what follows, perhaps this is an allegory – that perceived limitations on our lives are illusory and that if we search hard enough, the limitations will evaporate.

Subsequently, Danny breaks through the illusory limitations, away from his family and a harsh punitive father in Sri Lanka and travels to Australia.  He is determined to become as Australian as a ‘brown skin’ can be.  Over a period of four years, he rids himself of his Sri Lankan accent and has put blonde highlights in his hair.

He works as a cleaner and is living in a storage room at the back of a grocery store.  The store is owned by ‘Tommo’ Tsavdaridis – a Greek immigrant who takes one third of Danny’s earnings as ongoing payment for his facilitating Danny’s transition from student to illegal.

Danny has a number of clients whose apartments he cleans daily.  One of his clients is murdered and Danny believes he knows who the killer is.  This knowledge and what to do with it is the central plot device in the novel.  If Danny goes to the police with his knowledge, he will be inevitably exposed as an illegal immigrant and will most likely be deported back to Sri Lanka.  If he chooses not to go to the police, he will be acting contrary to his personal morality.

In this picaresque novel in which the subsequent events take place in real time over a twelve-hour period, Danny moves around various locations in the Sydney CBD all the while debating with himself what decision he should make.  In his travels, he also talks to Tommo, the suspected killer, and his girlfriend Sonya on an outdated mobile phone.  When he is not attempting to resolve this moral dilemma, he is describing to himself what it takes to be an Australian and – more relevantly for him – to be seen to be Australian.

To add a sense of urgency to his deliberations, a number of sections are headed by the time [such as 11.43am, 12.03pm] so the reader almost is alongside Danny as he struggles with his moral dilemma.

Danny’s inner dialogue is almost stream of consciousness as in the following:

The tongue of an Australian.  Never say receipt with the P.  Be generous with I reckon.  Add a loud Look – at the start of the sentence, and ridiculous at the end.  If you are happy, talk about rugby: ‘Go Eels.’  If you are unhappy, talk about rugby: ‘What about the Rabbitohs?’

And do not ever call it rugby. [37]

The reader also gains a fresh cultural perspective on Australia as in Danny’s description of ‘three white men’:

They weren’t the kind of men you sometimes saw on a Saturday in Sydney – ribands of Aryan protein, sodden, tattoo-sedimented, puffed with talk of Anzac and Gallipoli and the wealth of their race and the poverty of all other races.  [105]

But this rather jaundiced view of a certain type of Australian man is balanced by the following passage about asylum seekers and their nemeses.

In this game, people were running from countries that were burning to not-yet-burning ones; catching boats, cutting barbed wire, snuggling into containers at the bottoms of ships, while another set of people were trying to stop, stall, catch, or turn them back.  [182]

While the heart of the novel is the moral dilemma in which Danny finds himself and its ultimate resolution, there are many sharp insights of Australian culture which may give pause to the reader who takes our culture for granted.  The novel can also be quite humorous and Danny is a very likeable and engaging character with a certain self-deprecating sense of self.  Not only does he see through our pretensions, he is also well aware of his own.

Amnesty is an engaging and intelligent novel and well worth reading.

Aravind Adiga was born in Madras [now Chennai] in 1974 and was educated at Columbia University [New York] and Magdalen College Oxford.  He lived in Australia for a period of time.  His first novel White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2008.

Amnesty

[2020]

by Aravind Adiga

Pan MacMillan

ISBN 978 15098 790 45

$29.99; 253pp

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