Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (Picador 2020)
Danny is an illegal immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney. Like the thousands of undocumented workers discussed on The Drum on the ABC the other night, he came to Australia on a student visa and then stay on beyond the visa’s expiry date. He arrived by plane, so he’s not one of the visible–invisible ‘boat people’ who are held indefinitely in detention. His application for refugee status was rejected (being a Tamil from Sri Lanka who has been tortured wasn’t enough to qualify him), and now he has now spent four years working cash in hand, observing Sydney customs so as to pass unnoticed, and reading books on Australian law in a local library so he and his fellow illegals can better understand their options.
His precarious equilibrium is shaken when a previous client is killed, and – mild spoiler alert – he knows who did it. But the murderer knows that he knows, and threatens to dob him in as an illegal immigrant if he goes to the police. Should he do the right thing by the murdered woman, or should he opt for self-preservation? This moral quandary and the cat-and-mouse game with the murderer play out in short sections time-stamped from 8.45 am to 7.03 pm on a single day. During the day we learn details of Danny’s story: the circumstances of his torture and migration to Australia, his exploitative work set-up, his history with the murdered woman and her murderer. We also get to see Sydney through his eyes, as he wanders erratically around the inner suburbs.
I was less than enthralled.
Danny’s dilemma doesn’t become any more complex as the novel progresses. We know from early on what the stakes are; there’s no mystery, no intensifying danger, no real suspense. The interest lies in the way the novel shows Sydney and Australia from a different point of view. In the episode of The Drum I mentioned earlier, the panellists all agreed that the visa overstayers were beneficiaries of a well-known scam. That’s not how it appears in this book. There’s a scam all right, but Danny, like others we glimpse through his eyes, is trapped, living precariously, and vulnerable to exploitation. He lives in a room above a convenience store in a kind of indentured servitude to the owner of the store. He has a girlfriend but hasn’t dared tell her about his illegal status.
Danny knows that you don’t pronounce the p in receipt. When he hears another brown man pronounce it, he knows that that man is a legal immigrant who doesn’t have to worry about such things. Several times in the course of the day, there is the look of recognition between brown men that happens in a white-dominated place like Sydney, but for Danny it’s not a simple matter of like recognising like. He is more vulnerable than legal immigrants, and he needs to be wary of them as much as of anyone.
This could have been compelling. But I was yanked out of the narrative too often by things that were weirdly wrong.
Some, I think, are the result of intrusive and culturally arrogant copy-editing. Though my copy of the book says it was published in London, North American spelling prevails, most egregiously for Sydney Harbor and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (I would find it just as jarring to find a reference to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.) This is almost certainly not Aravind Adiga’s doing.
Some of the weirdly wrong things may be Danny’s mistakes, part of the characterisation. For example, ibises are near-ubiquitous in the inner suburbs of Sydney in real life. Here they are called jabirus, completely different birds, though a Google image search might not make that clear. When there’s a mention of sulphur-breasted cockatoos, a kind reader would think Danny had misheard ‘crested’ (until the name turns up correctly 100 pages later). These errors took the shine off the pleasure given by Danny’s nice observations about ‘Aussie mynas’, which until recently Australians called Indian mynas.
Most disturbingly wrong are a number of geographic impossibilities. There are several references to ‘the cliffs that rise up at Pyrmont’ – it’s a huge stretch to describe the cuttings in Pyrmont as cliffs. There are palm trees down the middle of William Street. Parramatta seems to be awfully close to Erskineville. Danny stands at Hyde Park looking east, and has the Harbour, which in real life would be on his left, on his right. And there’s this:
He turned around and looped back aimlessly, down into the area known as East Sydney, which had a view of Sydney Harbor [sic] … Through a vista of palm trees, he saw blue ocean and, near it, the white opera house.(page 92)
You can’t see the Harbour from East Sydney; he probably means Woolloomooloo. But no matter how you slice it, the Sydney Opera House is nowhere near the ocean. And what are these palm trees Danny keep seeing? It’s like Saving Mr Banks‘s version of North Queensland.
It’s easy to see how these things can happen: it looks as if the author didn’t get to revisit Sydney when the novel was in manuscript, and depended on friends with no experience as proofreaders to correct any errors. And none of it would matter, except that the narrative meticulously names places, even down to street numbers, and when the geography doesn’t work, the whole world of the novel begins to feel untrustworthy. In the end I struggled to take any of it seriously.