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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Books | Review of: Hatterr - by HUA HSU

Writing in an adopted language is often described, rightly, as a very painful process, a reminder that one does not and cannot truly belong. For the Indian writer G.V. Desani, approaching English — the Queen's English, no less — as a second language allowed him to do astonishing things with it. His lone novel, the 1948 cult classic "All About H. Hatterr" (NYRB Classics, 320 pages, $15.95), tracks the misadventures of a clever misfit, Hatterr, half-British, half-Malay — a "fiftyfifty of the species" — through the mystical Orient, as he searches for enlightenment, but instead only narrowly averts having his pants stolen. It is a bizarre quest. And yet the plot barely rises to meet the radiant weirdness of the prose, which has wowed everyone from C.P. Snow to Salman Rushdie and Anthony Burgess. It was recently reissued, after falling out of print various times since its publication nearly 60 years ago.

Desani was born in 1909 to Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, and raised thereafter in India. A fitfully brilliant but "unteachable" student, he was expelled from school as a young teen and decided to educate himself, eventually traveling alone to England. He arrived there with only a dim understanding of the English language, but taught himself how to read and write. The bare facts of a teenage immigrant mastering a new language would be dazzling enough, but Desani's talent for speech was unusually sharp, as he bounded between the queen's proper tongue and the slangy "Indian English" cataloged in the colonial-era Hobson-Jobson dictionaries.

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