BORN: 1969, London
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The Impressionist (2002)
My Revolutions (2007)
Hari Kunzru. David Levenson / Getty Images
Though Hari Kunzru’s career is still relatively short, he has already achieved much acclaim. He is a major figure in England’s writing scene, working for various magazines, editorial boards, and publishing a steady stream of critically acclaimed books. In 1999 the Observer honored him as their Young Travel Writer of the Year, and in 2003 he was listed as one of Granta literary magazine’s Best Young British Novelists.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Inspired by Mixed Heritage. The son of a man from the Kashmir province in India and a British woman, Hari Kunzru grew up in Essex. He studied English at Oxford, earned a degree in philosophy and literature from the University of Warwick, and went on to work as a journalist for several periodicals. As a travel correspondent, he published essays in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and Time Out magazine, among others.
Kunzru’s familial background inspired him to write The Impressionist about an Indian-English young man, Pran Nath. Kunzru told Richard Alleyne of the London Daily Telegraph, ‘‘At Oxford, I noticed how much people play out a comedy of Englishness, which made me very interested in identity role-playing in post-colonial Britain.’’ Kunzru completed the work in a little more than two years, and the novel made headlines in the media even before it was published, due to Kunzru’s exceptionally large advance.
Part of what motivates The Impressionist is the openmindedness Kunzru gained from his mixed heritage. In one interview with the London Independent Sunday, he stated, ‘‘I’ve always been very scared of people who are certain.... Nothing terrifies me more than a religious fundamentalist who really knows what right is and is prepared to do violence to what they consider is wrong.... I wanted to write in praise of the unformed and fluid.’’
A Writer of Tomorrow. Exploring his varied cultural past—and once again, the culture of many people around the world—Kunzru published his second novel, Transmission, in 2004. The protagonist, a computer programmer who moves to America, was likely influenced by Kunzru’s personal experience working for Wired magazine, which focuses on new developments in technology. His first book of short stories, Noise, was published in 2005.
Kunzru declined the john Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Impressionist because it was awarded by the London Mail on Sunday, which he felt was a racist publication. He received a New York Times notable book of the year distinction for Transmission, and in 2007 he published My Revolutions, a novel about a former activist from the 1960s who has since gone underground. His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Kunzru has been called one of the world’s ‘‘fifty writers of tomorrow.’’
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Kunzru's famous contemporaries include:
Cate Blanchett (1969-): Born Catherine Elise Blanchett, the Australian actress is known for her award-winning roles in the films Elizabeth, The Lord of the Rings, and The Aviator.
Salman Rushdie (1947-): This Indian-British novelist received death threats from the Ayatollah Khomeini for his book Satanic Verses.
David Mitchell (1969-): This British author has won many of the same awards as Kunzru and also writes about the connectivity of people all over the world. His 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, perhaps best demonstrates this inclusiveness.
Zadie Smith (1975-): Most famous for White Teeth, this novelist moved to England from Jamaica as a child and continues to write about mixed races coming together.
Works in Literary Context
Travels in Search of Identity. Kunzru’s The Impressionist revolves around the efforts of a young man of mixed heritage to make a place for himself in the world. Travel as a theme becomes apparent as the protagonist sheds his identity and his belongings in each country. This same theme runs through Kunzru’s other works. In fact, on Kunzru’s personal Web site, he includes excerpts from his published travel essays, which span the years from 1998 to 2003, taking the reader from New Zealand and Azerbaijan to Benin and Finland. Kunzru seems to lose himself in the culture and custom of each place, as this excerpt from his visit to Jordan illustrates: Though I know (or at least believe) that I am alone—except for my guide Atiq and his placid camel—I have a peculiar feeling that the land itself is watching me. This is confirmed when a quivering forty-foot column of sand forms out of nothing and starts making its way towards me. I come to the conclusion that this would be an opportune moment to abandon my atheistical city ways and start grovelling to whatever desert spirit I have just disturbed.
The Unpredictable Pace of Technology. Kunzru’s experience as a techno-journalist resonates thematically through his work. In Transmission, brilliant computer programmer Arjun Mehta is lured, under false pretenses, to a fictitious job in the United States. He is hired at an antivirus company but writes and releases the Leela virus, an especially pernicious bug that shuts down vital utilities and devastates global business. But even before Transmission, in his 1997 essay, ‘‘You Are Cyborg,’’ Kunzru addressed important questions about the future of humankind, technology, and society: ‘‘When technology works on the body, our horror always mingles with intense fascination. But exactly how does technology do this work? And how far has it penetrated the membrane of our skin?’’ Kunzru was always interested in the intersection of people and machines, but his interest grew when he returned to school for a master’s degree in literature and philosophy. As Kunzru noted in a Book Page interview, ‘‘I ended up going down the corridor and hanging out with people interested in artificial intelligence and networks. I became fascinated with the way technology has an impact on society.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In both his fiction and nonfiction, Kunzru examines technology and what scientific progress does to interpersonal communication. Here are some other works that talk about computers while exploring human nature and that speculate about the future while investigating the present.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. HAL, a computer, tries to commandeer a spaceship in this groundbreaking film.
Blade Runner (1982), a film directed by Ridley Scott. In this film, nonhuman cyborg "replicants" attempt an uprising.
Neuromancer (1984), a novel by William Gibson. In this novel about a computer hacker, the word cyberspace makes its first appearance.
Emergence (2001), a book by Stephen Berlin Johnson. This book explores the habits and patterns of ants and cities, and relates them to the way we use the Internet.
Works in Critical Context
The award-winning Kunzru appeals to critics and readers alike. Publishers Weekly contributor Steven Zeitchik called Kunzru ‘‘an eloquent author who combines a precocious sweep of history with a keen eye for the future.’’ Similarly, many critics praise Kunzru’s unique blend of technological, racial, and historical issues, like Alden Mudge who, at first, does not see the ‘‘connection between an edgy interest in the broad societal impacts of technology and a fascination with the waning days of the British Empire’’ in The Impressionist, but then lauds the author for the way he combines these unlikely subjects.
The Impressionist. Kunzru’s first book The Impressio- nistmarked him as a mature writer with carefully crafted language, setting, and subject. The Impressionist ‘‘is a picaresque stitch,’’ wrote David Kipen in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘‘a deadly serious book about race and empire that can still put a reader on the floor with the exquisitely timed comic understatement of its language.’’ Although London Daily Telegraph critic David Flusfeder noted that ‘‘anachronisms abound,’’ he also commented on ‘‘some lovely writing.’’ New York Times contributor Janet Maslin concluded, ‘‘Nothing about The Impressionist flags it as a first effort. Mr. Kunzru writes with wry certitude and cinematic precision about identity, aspiration, and rootlessness, set against the backdrop of a Britannia that is pure mirage.’’
Transmission. Critics have differing opinions on Kunzru’s pacing in Transmission; however, they all applaud his attention to characterization and story development. ‘‘This is not a coming-of-age novel—it is a coming-apart novel,’’ commented Nora Seton about Transmission in the Houston Chronicle. ‘‘Like an old PC, the novel starts slow, but once it finally boots up, the momentum of the interconnected stories is impressive and engaging, bolstered by Kunzru’s carefully considered details and his lively portrayal of an increasingly globalized technocracy that blends the world’s cultures even as it further isolates its individuals,’’ observed Stephen M. Deusner in a review on the Book Reporter Web site. ‘‘Kunzru keeps his clever plot’s wheels spinning merrily, all the while tracing the social and emotional consequences of Arjun’s mingled indignation, guilt and fear,’’ stated Bruce Allen in Hollywood Reporter.
Responses to Literature
1. Think about how Kunzru’s views on how technology affects society are reflected in his fiction and nonfiction. Write a short story or personal essay that expresses your views on how technology affects society. If you choose to write a personal essay, you may use examples from Kunzru’s work to support your opinions.
2. Search on the Internet for one of Kunzru’s essays that focuses on technology. Write your own essay that describes how the ideas in that essay reflect ideas in Kunzru’s novel Transmission. Use examples from both texts to support your ideas.
3. Research Bollywood using resources on the Internet or from your library. Create an audio/visual report exploring how Kunzru’s protagonist views Bollywood in Transmission. Remember to define Bollywood for the class and to use examples from Kunzru’s text to support your ideas.
4. With a classmate, discuss whether or not you trust Pran Nath of The Impressionist. Does Kunzru want you to like him, or is he more of a symbolic character?
5. Kunzru has said he was influenced by Rudyard Kipling while writing The Impressionist. With a classmate, research Rudyard Kipling using resources on the Internet or from your library. Compile your findings and discuss how Kipling may have influenced Kunzru. Use texts from both Kipling and Kunzru to support your opinions.
Allen, Bruce. Review of Transmission. Hollywood Reporter (October 11, 2004): 10.
Alleyne, Richard. ‘‘Unknown Writer Paid Pounds 1.25 m for First Book.’’ Daily Telegraph (March 27, 2001).
Feay, Suzi. ‘‘The Man Who Would Be Kim.’’ Independent Sunday (March 31, 2002): 17.
Flusfeder, David. ‘‘Agra Saga.’’ Daily Telegraph (March 23, 2002): 6.
Huntley, Kristine. Review of The Impressionist. Booklist (November 15, 2001): 554.
Kipen, David. ‘‘Incarnation of Kunzru’s Part-Indian, Part-British Hero.’’ San Francisco Chronicle (April 7, 2002): 1.
Kirn, Walter. ‘‘Dateless in Seattle.’’ Review of Transmission. New York Times (May 23, 2004): 7.
Mars-Jones, Adam. ‘‘East Is East and West Is West and Here the Twain Shall Meet.’’ Observer (March 31, 2002): 13.
Maslin, Janet. ‘‘Changing Identities as Often as Socks.’’ New York Times (March 28, 2002): E10.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. ‘‘Karma Chameleon.’’ Review of The Impressionist. New York Magazine (April 8, 2002).
Seton, Nora. Review of Transmission.Houston Chronicle (April 13, 2004).
Walsh, Bryan. Review of The Impressionist. Time International (June 24, 2002): 72.
Zeitchik, Steven. ‘‘Hari Kunzru: Speeding toward a (Cloudy) Future.’’ Profile of Hari Kunzru. Publishers Weekly (June 21, 2004): 39.
Review of The Impressionist. Publishers Weekly (November 19, 2001): 45.
Biography of Hari Kunzru. Hari Kunzru Home Page. Accessed September 5, 2005, from http://www.harikunzru.com.
Robbins, Jen. Review of The Impressionist. Book Reporter. Accessed September 4, 2005, from http://www.bookreporter.com.
Deusner, Stephen M. Review of Transmission. Book Reporter. Accessed September 4, 2005, from http://www.bookreporter.com