In his new novel Immigrant, Montana, Amitava Kumar’s narrator admits to considering at least three other titles for the book we are now fortunate to hold in our hands. One: Migrants, clear and simple. Another: The Man Without a Nation. The third: The History of Pleasure, a phrase borrowed from another writer for whom sex was an essential topic, Philip Roth.
These graveyard titles are three of the major columns on which Montana, Kumar’s second novel, stands (he is also the author of many works of journalism and one book of poetry). The result is an intelligent and intimate novel which employs the increasingly popular techniques of auto-fiction and melds the bawdry humor of Hanif Kureishi with a W.G. Sebaldian wandering consciousness that cannibalizes—and analyzes—every image, cultural object, and idea it encounters.
Montana charts the intellectual and sexual becoming of Kailash, a recent arrival to the United States from eastern India. Kailash—often called “AK” by Americans who have rechristened him first “Kalashnikov,” then “AK-47,” and, finally, “AK”—is a graduate student at Columbia studying under a leftist Pakistani transplant (who is a buddy of Edward Said’s). At the start of the novel, Kailash is a goofy virgin in a Delhi hostel room inquiring about the escapades of his sole sexually initiated friend. At its close, Kailash has loved, lost, and hurt several women. Oh, and he’s an American citizen.
For every dip Montana takes into pleasure, it wades deeper into politics, displaying a concern for larger questions of exile. (In the latter, it’s reminiscent of Kumar’s friend Teju Cole, to whom Montana is both dedicated and stylistically indebted.)
Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK…you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.”
Indeed, Kailash finds his humanity in love. There’s Jennifer, who “recognized a hidden part of me.” There’s Nina: “I have entered the body of America,” Kailash mischievously tells his judge of sleeping with her. “I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her.” Nina “gave me a map of the world in which we lived!” The couple road trips through Middle America; later Kailash learns they traveled near the town of Immigrant, Montana (Kumar’s invention, though Emigrant, near Bozeman, is real). There’s also Cai Yan, a Chinese student who does fieldwork in India; Kailash in turn spends a semester China. Both new immigrants, they chart American idioms and form a touching if temporary life together.
Kailash finds a home in other surprising places—he gives thanks to the cult leader Osho: “An Indian was holding forth on the English language, offering a sermon from below, an unholy discourse on how sex was the new divine, and all the white people couldn’t have enough of it! Fuck, we belonged!”
While Montana expertly reveals how desire houses us, it also explores how the same desire estranges us from our roots. Kailash’s family remains distant the whole novel, mere memories and voices on long-distance AT&T lines; they can never understand his new life, which contributes to Kailash’s protracted boyish self-centeredness. And Kumar always reminds us that belonging is fragile. The same Jennifer who “recognized” Kailash jokes that he’ll have his fill of white women and return to India for an arranged marriage. Late in the novel, at a point when a more sentimental book would have let the protagonist be happy already, Kailash returns to an English translation of a book he once read in Hindi. “I felt stranded in language. I had become a translated man, no longer able to connect with my own past. What else had I forgotten?” A page later, after weeping onto Cai Yan’s shirt, he calms as they fuck. There it is: the balm of sex, how it tends the wounds of exile.
An obvious critique of Montana is of its use of women’s bodies as metaphors for nationhood. I was prepared to lodge such a complaint upon seeing the table of contents, which I presumed to be a catalogue of the women Kailash seduces. And while some chapters are organized around a love affair, others address the book’s more surprising, yet no less affecting, erogenous zones: those of radical political history—India’s, America’s, and China’s. A corollary arises to Kailash’s assertion that to be recognized sexually is to be afforded belonging: “the plot of history is advanced through the acts of lovers,” he tells us, in writing about a priest and nun who fall in love over their shared anti-Vietnam politics. The sentiment is echoed in the chapter “Agnes Smedley,” as Kailash narrates the story of an American woman besotted by the Indian independence struggle.
Ah, and then there are the pleasures of the novel’s form and style, which befit its subject matter. Many lovely and satisfying immigrant novels by authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Sunjeev Sahota have hewn to traditional narrative structure. Kumar’s is a different, not necessarily superior but certainly refreshing, stylistic approach. He pleasantly crowds Montana with found objects (recalling another Sebaldian inheritor, Ben Lerner): snippets from Kailash’s (Kumar’s?) own notebooks, snaps of the Indian sex columnist on whom Kailash grew up, an ekphrasis on the photographs of Raghu Rai, auto rickshaw signs, Economist clippings, Gandhi and Gramsci quotes, letters from the anti-colonial revolutionary Har Dayal, Satyajit Ray’s sketches for the film Pather Panchali. Particularly pleasurable are the idiosyncratic celebrity cameos: Said plays Bach; Grace Paley leads a teach-in against the Gulf War.
Here is Cole, in Open City: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?” At a moment when protectionist and populist politics worldwide threaten free going and coming, Kumar sets the immigrant novel loose on our beds and base impulses. Kailash’s thesis advisor Ehsaan tells him he must “remain mindful of the present moment” and its politics even as he explores archive and fieldwork. Kumar has heeded this advice. Without mentioning the politics of 2018, he responds to our present moment. He liberates the immigrant mind, and the immigrant artist, to move freely through geographies, bodies, and memories. Kumar affords Kailash the right to both be angry at American intolerance and to respond to what modern readers might call microaggressions with irreverence. The book contains India and America, nostalgia and humor. Ambitious artistic undertakings like Kumar’s are how the literature of exile secures its place in the new country, becoming not immigrant novels but free American novels.