Dhananjaya Rajaratnam has lived in Sydney for four years. He goes by the name Danny, has blond-tipped hair and has long abandoned the course that once qualified him for a student visa. Now he cleans houses for inner-city professionals and lives in the storeroom of a convenience store. Danny is invisible to most Australians around him, but lives in constant fear of being deported. This fear is mixed with Danny’s quirky reflections on English idioms and the physical traits and mannerisms of the locals he wants to blend in with.
In sections marked by time stamps, Amnesty unfolds over one day in 2002 when Danny discovers that one of his clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered. He realises he knows Radha’s killer and grapples with whether to tell the police. It would mean outing himself as an “illegal”, but he’s been trying to build a home in this country, and his body remembers what happened in the interview room when he was interrogated by Sri Lankan officials all those years ago.
The reader learns Radha was having an affair with Dr Prakash, and she had invited Danny along on many outings with her lover, seemingly for their entertainment. Radha and Prakash are also from the subcontinent, but they’re legal citizens, and they’re not Tamil like Danny, who constantly observes the differences between himself, other migrants and white settler Australians. The class and cultural chasms between Danny and Radha are made very clear.
Amnesty, Aravind Adiga’s fourth novel, offers a range of emotional temperatures. The dominant irreverent tone, particularly with the outlandish turn of events as the story progresses, is interspersed with the painful realities of Danny’s situation, such as when a hostile character threatens to dob him in to the Border Watch hotline. Time stamps are frequently mere minutes apart, separated by lengthy internal monologue, which sets a conflicting sense of pace.
In Danny, Adiga has created a singular, peculiar character, but he has given his protagonist a mammoth task: to humanise an immigrant’s experience in Australia in the wake of the Tampa affair. Unfortunately, this bumps up against the novel’s competing moods – it’s unclear whether Amnesty is political commentary, thriller, comedy or fable. The result of this unevenness is a somewhat enjoyable but not entirely riveting read.
Picador, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Aravind Adiga, Amnesty".
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