What makes this book a necessary read is its powerful portrayal of the immigrant experience. There are glimpses of Adiga’s trademark lacerating wit but they are few and far between. He reprimands the attention-hungry social workers whose goodwill is akin to giving you a chocolate bar as you were being handcuffed. “White people would be lecturing you on your rights all the way to the deportation vehicle.” Amnesty is a vital human story for our times about morality and justice which gives enlightening insight about the plight of immigrants.
Reminiscent of Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (2012) and A .S. Patrić’s Black Rock, White City (2015), Amnesty is attuned to the myopias, hypocrisies and complacencies of contemporary Australia: “a civilisation built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago”. Adiga conjures up a nation bathing in the gleaming blond light of the Rule of Law, while its true machinery “grumbles and growls” away in the shadows: thousands of sham colleges charging foreign students exorbitant fees for the slim promise of a post-qualification visa; farmers who – year after year – fill their fields and orchards with undocumented workers and then call immigration when wages are due; cities full of lawyers, accountants and real estate agents who look the other way while their hypoallergenic homes are cleaned on the cheap.
Amnesty takes place over the course of a few hours, from 8:46 in the morning through to the evening, but Adiga’s structured timing does not always work — for instance, it’s hard to believe that in 20 minutes Danny cleans an entire flat (earning A$60) and discovers a murder has been committed. However, it is a tremendously humane read. Adiga underlines that it is the legitimate fear of being detained for an extended length of time that forces migrants underground. Despite Danny’s impoverished circumstances, he is safe, has managed to build a life and found love with Sonja, his vegan Vietnamese girlfriend, although he is too ashamed to tell her he is undocumented.
That Adiga is a fine and intelligent writer isn’t in doubt. There are many good things here and a pleasing sense of felt life. Yet this is a disappointing book, one also which has many repetitive and therefore boring passages. It is very rare to find yourself reading an ambitious novel and thinking that it might make a better film, but that’s how it seems. As a novel Amnesty goes astray. As a film it might be more dramatically compelling.
Adiga is a nimble storyteller and builds a likeable, layered character in Danny. He charts his crisis of conscience over the course of a day, marked out with a tension-driving ticking clock device, and sketches in his past with flashbacks. We follow Danny as he ducks and dives around a hostile city, choking on the smoke from nearby bushfires and clutching a cactus to represent his thorny problem. Memories of home well up with increasing frequency, creating a woozy sense of discombobulation.
These are acute sociological insights, but in terms of a novelist’s more traditional skillset, Adiga is a little lacking in psychological intuition or stylistic craft. One of the few metaphors in Amnesty does, however, capture something of the migrant’s pulsing paranoia, when zebra crossings converge in Danny’s mind to make the cityscape resemble the “tattooed war body of [a] hunter”. Danny isn’t the murderer, but will always be a fugitive.Adiga unwisely burdens himself with a 24-hour structure, which is stymied by life’s inevitable mundanity. In Joyce’s Ulysses – progenitor of this form – or in recent works by others who have risen to the challenge, such as Amit Chaudhuri, the banal is burnished with an aesthetic charge.
As the novel roams the city with him, there’s plenty of scope for the kind of sharp social anthropology at which Adiga excels. Observation of Sydney’s white citizens ranges from tattooed racists “eager to bump into bodies that were not white” to complacent liberals with “progressive slogans” on their fridges but pampered, self-centred lifestyles. Among the different types of “brown men” watching one another in “a white man’s city”, Danny is struck by “the ostentatiously indifferent I’ve got nothing in common with you, mate glances” of Australian-born “Icebox Indians”, as he calls them because “they always wore dark glasses and never seemed to sweat”. The city itself, acrid with smoke from surrounding bushfires, becomes vividly present, too.
Slipping between flashbacks of Danny's past life in Sri Lanka and his four fugitive years in Australia, Adiga, author of Booker-winning The White Tiger, depicts extremely well his haunted, determined state of mind as an ambitious young man desperate to stand up and be counted and, at the same time, not be noticed at all.
The plot is digressive, sometimes frustratingly so, and there's an implied epic grandeur to the men's relationship that never feels fully justified, but Danny's voice, in its sheer everyday ordinariness, will stay with you a long time.