AMNESTYBy Aravind Adiga
Halfway through “Amnesty,” Aravind Adiga’s relentless new novel, there is a Coca-Cola sign, standing “like a referee” between the red-light district and the Darlinghurst suburb in Sydney, Australia. If Danny — born Dhananjaya Rajaratnam: an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka, house cleaner, a man trying to reinvent himself in a hostile world — takes a right, he will arrive at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where his vegan girlfriend, Sonja, is working her shift; if he takes a left, it will be to heed the call of Dr. Prakash, a complicated man with a violent temper and a gambling problem who may or may not have been involved in the murder of one of Danny’s clients. Rarely does a metaphorical crossroads take place at such a literal one. “Decision!” shouts the novel. “Throwing its mouth wide open, the road demanded: And make that decision now.”
“Amnesty” is carefully built on these probing moments. It is, it wants to be, a moral novel, not merely unfolding but inventing itself through its hero’s minute choices — some banal, some life-changing. For Danny, the first one of those choices — the original sin, so to speak — was becoming an “illegal.” After fleeing his country, where the violence of a civil war seeped into the crevices of every private life (and Danny’s arm carries the scars to prove it), Danny lets his student visa expire; he chooses to remain in Australia, seeking status as a refugee and failing to get it; and then a complex machinery made of law and resentments, authority and xenophobia, turns him into an illegal. His best bet for survival is not to be noticed: dyeing his hair in an effort to blend in, living clandestinely in a room on top of a grocery store, learning accents and turns of phrase and small idiosyncrasies that will allow him to tiptoe through life as a migrant while waiting for the miracle of his legalization (I use my italics advisedly) summed up in the novel’s title. He watches the world, he makes meticulous notes: about posture and beards, about the correct pronunciation of idioms and interjections, but also about paunches, which young Australians never have, and about spitting in public, which Australians never do. “No one,” writes Adiga, “would ever again mistake him for someone born outside Australia.”
“Amnesty” excels at the portrayal of this apparent paradox: In order to be invisible among these people, Danny must observe them obsessively. Look if you don’t want to be looked at. But of course, even in invisibility there are hierarchies. “Easiest thing in the world,” Danny reflects, “becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter what.” Some of the best pages in the novel explore what French sociologists call la cascade du mépris: the cascade of contempt. Locals despise immigrants; legal immigrants despise illegal ones; illegal immigrants in a position of relative strength despise those who are weaker and more vulnerable. One of the novel’s victories is that Adiga’s understanding of these (not so subtle) dynamics, while unflinching, manages to circumvent the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of political correctness. His sentences are moved by a reliable moral compass and his perception is clearsighted, but what the reader sees and feels is the solid, urgent predicament of one man: this Danny, this fully formed, cliché-breaking, flawed and endearing migrant in search of a new identity, of a place in the world he can call his own. A man who, while striving to tell his own story, becomes painfully aware that only those who have power can do so. If you are powerless, he understands, your story will always be told by somebody else.
This delicate balance of power in a society of immigrants, the myriad ways in which it is unevenly distributed, the use and abuse of it and the daily enaction of that use and abuse is, to my mind, the main theme of “Amnesty,” or at least its main source of preoccupation. If decisions ensnare Danny, if each crossroads is a threat to his objectives, it is because he is powerless: When it comes to the bigger questions, other forces decide on his behalf. Power, we are asked to remember, means among other things the right to one’s own story. Danny’s past is entertainment for others: for an old neighbor who learned about it and couldn’t have enough (“Torture? Our Danny? Oh, tell me again”); for his lover, who listens closely to the stories Danny tells but doesn’t know he is omitting the central event in his life: his illegality. “This,” Danny thinks, “is what I really want you to know: my own story.” But he cannot make it known. His own story involves a secret — the fact that he is illegal — and those who do know it wield power over him, and exert it to the point of humiliation. The amnesty he is pursuing means a certain kind of freedom, freedom from humiliation, freedom from the control of others.