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A novel with a profound sense of serenity and grace

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘Lorenzo Searches For The Meaning Of Life’ is a cleverly self-reflexive novel that wears its scholarship lightly

Trieste is one of the settings of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel. Photo courtesy Wikidata
Trieste is one of the settings of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel. Photo courtesy Wikidata

If there’s a common theme that runs through the novels of Upamanyu Chatterjee, it is his enduring, some would say endearing, interest in the lives of social misfits. Starting with the unforgettable Agastya Sen of English, August (1988), his debut novel, each of Chatterjee’s protagonists, all men, is a study in eccentricity, twisted appetites, and an insatiable capacity for Rabelaisian humour.

Between Jamun in The Last Burden (2000) and Way To Go (2010), Bhola in Weight Loss (2006), Nirip in Fairy Tales At Fifty (2015), and Parmatma in Villainy (2022), Chatterjee has covered the whole gamut of human experience, all the seven deadly sins and every unspeakable horror that lies beyond. For his heroes (or anti-heroes, if you prefer), no fantasy is beyond the pale, every weakness of the flesh is to be indulged in, and the rulebook of morality exists only to be violated, in word and deed.

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It is for this reason that Chatterjee’s new novel, Lorenzo Searches For The Meaning Of Life, comes to readers, especially his long-term admirers, as a bit of shock. Based on the true story of Fabrizio Senesi, who, Chatterjee claims, is “a good friend” of his, it is his most sober book by far. Instead of Chatterjee’s trademark acerbic wit, we encounter a gentle soul in the omniscient narrator, who speaks in a prissily measured tone. Is it softness that’s been wrought by time (Chatterjee turns 65 this year), or a masterly Houdini act by one of the most original voices of his generation?

Either way, Lorenzo is a delight to read, especially the first half, which is set in Trieste, Italy. As the story begins, the eponymous protagonist is a youth of 21, earnest and serious, but scarred by the wounds of a road accident that has left him with a steel plate in one of his limbs. As with any near-fatal trauma, Lorenzo is led to reflect on the Big Questions of existence as he lies recuperating.

His life, so far, has been unremarkable. A dutiful son of a devout Catholic family, Lorenzo appears to be a well-adjusted individual, liked by his parents and community alike—a real oddball by the standards of Chatterjee’s most memorable characters—until one day he decides to join a sect of Benedictine monks in an abbey outside Trieste.

'Lorenzo Searches For The Meaning Of Life' by Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
'Lorenzo Searches For The Meaning Of Life' by Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books, 699

For Lorenzo, the followership of Saint Benedict, who preached “the virtues (to name only a few) of dispossession, chastity, obedience, labour, learning, solitude and silence,” is a slow but steadfast process, enabled by his cautious curiosity. He seeks out the company of like-minded laity, reads and rereads the treatises of Carlo Carretto, and keeps returning to the Praglia Abbey, until he is ready to leave the world behind and move in with the reclusive Brothers and Fathers.

Lorenzo’s decision to become a man of faith causes much upheaval. “Selfish. He is not going to forget his mother’s reaction on first hearing the news of his decision,” writes Chatterjee, “even for the devout, it is selfish to renounce one’s family for the Lord.” Simple, yet sharp as a razor, this sentiment cuts to the core of the philosophical dilemma of the novel. Is the pursuit of God, to the exclusion of all else, antithetical to the purpose of our existence on earth? Can we serve God if we don’t serve others?

Lorenzo’s quest for the answer to these questions leads him to spend nearly a decade at the abbey in Praglia, live in London for several months learning English, before travelling to Khulna, a small town in Bangladesh, to work at a dependent monastery.

During his travels, he meets an unusual cast of compatriots, starting with Luca Rossini from Bergamo, who, like an angel, upturns Lorenzo’s life by teaching him Bengali and transporting him to a country beyond his wildest imagination.

Chatterjee’s description of Lorenzo’s life as a monk, especially the many trials and tribulations he overcomes as a novitiate at Praglia, is absorbing, not only for the vividness with which he recreates the particularities of Lorenzo’s experiences, but also for Chatterjee’s unique gift of irony, even when the subject at hand is as weighty as theology. The statue of Time at the abbey appears, through his droll gaze, to have “the physique of a young man who spends twenty hours a day at the gym with a personal trainer”. More amusingly, the “sort of double bedcover” that guards his modesty, lets on some unexpected details about his private parts. We are told, “The viewer is to be forgiven for being distracted by the realization that Time has found the time, so to speak, to shave his pubis.”

When it isn’t incarnated as a sexy marmoreal hunk, Time continues to haunt the story in other ways. As Lorenzo grapples with his personal epiphanies, the world outside the abbey is on fire. The Gulf War breaks out, there is ethnic violence in Yugoslavia (in a town that’s just a few kilometres away from Lorenzo’s home in Trieste), the Soviet Union falls, the Irish Republican Army unleashes terror on London, and an angry mob destroys an ancient mosque in India.

Chatterjee mentions these geopolitical catastrophes in passing like milestones that are witnesses to the passage of time, but his attention never wavers from Lorenzo, who continues to find, lose, and rediscover himself, as he moves from one act to the next of the unpredictably intense drama that plays on in his mind. In the final reckoning, when his protagonist crosses another major threshold, Chatterjee merely notes it as “the typical fate of human life but lived in reverse”.

Lorenzo is a cleverly self-reflexive novel, intellectually rigorous while wearing its scholarship lightly. Not only does Chatterjee pre-empt potential criticism of “white saviour complex”, he also never seeks to make his protagonist more than a fallible human being. If Lorenzo is “a man of god”, so is each one of us, in our own ways, a man or woman of god, even when we do not don the monk’s habit.

Reading Chatterjee’s novel in the India of today, when religion is being weaponised and spirituality is a word tainted by cynical associations, one is touched by a profound sense of serenity, grace and mystery, an intimation of the inner goodness that each of us carries. As one of Lorenzo’s spiritual mentors says quoting Father Zossima from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “a monastic is not a special sort of person. He is simply what every person ought to be.”

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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