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Shady characters

A great deal of time in Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart and Max Schaefer’s Children of the Sun is spent in gents’ public toilets — cottaging being a key feature of both debuts — and yet such is the elegance and intelligence of their prose, the reader comes away feeling educated rather than soiled.

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

A Life Apart Neel Mukherjee

Constable, pp.12.99, 342

Children of the Sun Max Schaefer

Granta, pp.387, 12.99

A great deal of time in Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart and Max Schaefer’s Children of the Sun is spent in gents’ public toilets — cottaging being a key feature of both debuts — and yet such is the elegance and intelligence of their prose, the reader comes away feeling educated rather than soiled.

A great deal of time in Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart and Max Schaefer’s Children of the Sun is spent in gents’ public toilets — cottaging being a key feature of both debuts — and yet such is the elegance and intelligence of their prose, the reader comes away feeling educated rather than soiled.

A Life Apart follows the highly unsentimental education of Ritwik Ghosh, a poor but clever boy from Calcutta, who wins a scholarship to study English at Oxford but overstays his visa and winds up scratching a living as an illegal farmworker and eventually as a rent boy. Ritwik’s engaging story is spliced with the less enthralling tale that he is writing about Miss Gilby, a minor character from a novel by the Indian Nobel prize- winner Rabindranath Tagore, who is the governess to a Bengali woman during the first partition of India.


Though there are parallels between the two characters — both are innocents abroad, ill-at-ease in the culture they come from and the culture they have entered — Miss Gilby is an unnecessary distraction and the link between her and Anne Cameron, the old lady for whom Ritwik acts as a live-in carer, feels both strained and under-explored. However, Ritwik’s tender but exasperating relationship with Anne is one of the best aspects of the book.

Similarly absorbing are the scenes with the shady Zafar bin Hashm, a married Arab businessman, who picks Ritwik up in King’s Cross and keeps him on a retainer. When he settles into the details of the moment, Mukherjee is an atmospheric writer but his talents are dissipated by trying to focus on too many, admittedly interesting, strands. A Life Apart won the Indian equivalent of the Booker prize last year and while this accolade seems excessive given the book’s flaws, it is still an ambitious and well-written debut.

Children of the Sun is similarly ambitious, also flicking between two stories in two different time-frames, and equally unsqueamish in its exploration of London’s underworld, but Max Schaefer marshals his material more successfully. The historical element — the secret gay membership of the British fascist movement in the 1970s and 1980s — is an integral part of the contemporary strand, in which James, an aspiring screenwriter, decides to research Nicky Crane, one of the British Movement’s principal thugs, who, when not beating up people like Ritwik, was a regular at gay clubs like Heaven. Crane came out to The Sun in July 1992 in a story headlined ‘Nazi Nick is a Panzi’. Eighteen months later he was dead from Aids, aged 35.

Schaefer’s novel gives a fascinating insight into a dark episode of British history that some parts of the country seem to be returning to. The book captures not only the unpleasantness of neo-Nazism but also its adolescent silliness: the hotch-potch of bastardised Viking myths, Aleister Crowley occultism and terrible music. Tony, the central character of the 1970s sections, attends a far right music festival hosted by an earnest young man on his father’s huge Suffolk farm — ‘He is mid-twenties … in an open-necked shirt and student jacket. With some facial hair he could be a communist’. It is none other than Nick Griffin, the current leader of the BNP, in his youthful incarnation. Surprisingly, given his sweatily inarticulate turn on Newsnight last autumn, ‘Nick’ is considered to be too full of ‘academic niceties’ by Tony, who shoves him into a moshpit of skinheads sieg-heiling to Skrewdriver: ‘Don’t you ever fucking shut up and dance?’

This visceral hedonism, all muscles and male bonding, is at the heart of the far right’s homoerotic appeal. James is both appalled and aroused by his research. He starts communicating with neo-Nazis in gay chatrooms and disports himself on a webcam with a swastika drawn on his penis for the delectation of a man with the online moniker arealnazi, who claims to have known Nicky Crane. Even James’ boyfriend, who shaves his head, wears 20-hole bovver boots (for aesthetic rather than political reasons) and goes to skin nights in Vauxhall begins to feel James is worryingly obsessed.

The novel’s two sections are interspersed with real research clippings — Oi! album covers, fanzine articles, even a pert NME review by Julie Burchill of a Skrewdriver gig — which add to the vividness. Real events and people are subtly woven into fiction — as well as Nick Griffin, one brilliantly creepy episode features Savitri Devi, a ‘mad Greek Hindu woman who created a sort of Hitler religion’, who has a stroke while Tony is minding her — and yet the research rarely feels undigested. In an otherwise excellent debut, the only disappointment is that Nicky Crane remains as elusive to the reader as he does to James.


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