A short review, because it was originally meant to be for a newspaper. I haven’t been able to resist the urge to add more quotes to this version. Friends who happened to be around me (in person or over the internet) while I was reading the book will recognise some of them.
Leon Ali is a Kashmiri Muslim with a British passport, named after Trotsky, searching for the revolutionary father who went missing in Berlin in the 1980s. Keya Raina is an academic from a family of Kashmiri Pundits, who is caught up in Leon’s search for his father. Nitasha Kaul’s Residue moves between England, Germany and India in the months after 9/11 and centres itself on the mystery of Mir Ali’s disappearance.
It’s hard to say much that is new about the experience of being brown-skinned in the post-9/11 Western world, or about being Muslim in India post-December 1992, or even about the displacement that so many with ties to Kashmir feel; or how these issues tie in with larger questions of home and belonging and memory. Kaul’s choice to focus her novel around a central puzzle is a wise one as it imposes a particular narrative structure upon what might otherwise have been a set of not-very-original musings on identity. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, and it’s narratively ambitious, with its switches from first to third person and between past and present, an extended section in which Leon becomes Nobody and travels across Berlin on public transport (with maps included).
But Residue is badly let down by its prose. Far too often Kaul mistakes detail for insight; insignificant actions are described step-by-step, as when we’re told that Keya “connecting her laptop to a wireless network […] checks her university email”. We’re shown academic meetings where people say things like “Moreover, she had verified extenuating circumstances on one exam at least”. Weirdly enough, the text occasionally mocks Keya for speaking in just this way, so that it would be possible to read it as self-aware, if only we were not subjected to this sort of thing throughout the novel. Brand names, book titles, film directors all show up frequently as signifiers, but don’t add much weight. This isn’t writing that trusts the reader to do any work—when Kaul’s characters make a joke it must be followed by “I jest”. We’re offered lots of descriptors, often to the point of redundancy (“booming, sonorous voices”). So worried is the prose that it will not be understood that we’re given summaries of things that have just happened—at one spectacular moment, as the protagonists discover through conversation that they both have Kashmiri roots and have lived in Delhi and the UK, Kaul ends by having Leon think “we realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England”—for the benefit of the reader who has somehow found this too complex to grasp the first time around.
[Dropping the whole passage in here because I can.]
‘You grew up in India,’ I say neutrally, tone between a statement and a question.
‘Yes, I was born in India, though I have lived in England for many years now.’
Then she adds, ‘I am actually from Kashmir, but I grew up mostly in Delhi. You?’
‘I am from Kashmir too, though I was born in England. Like you, my city has been Delhi.’
We realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England.
‘So we are both from the same state in India, grew up in the same city, have connexions to the same country, and now meet in Berlin. That is some coincidence!’
This is not merely a question of aesthetics (if aesthetics are ever “merely” anything). Residue positions itself, both in terms of its subject matter and by having its characters frequently pontificate, as a serious novel of complex ideas. What these complex ideas are it’s hard to discern; I find it hard to believe that we’re expected to take Keya seriously when she has thoughts like this: “Keya formulates a statement: modernity was enabled by a mutation of speed”, or when she contemplates discussing French philosophy with a random Frenchman on a plane “but desisted. He didn’t seem intellectual and may not know,” and yet it seems the book does expect us to see these as deep thoughts.
Perhaps some continental philosophy would have been a good idea, if only for some of that famous prose. Very little can be achieved in the way of complexity if a book cannot trust its readers to follow a sentence.