Although The Romantics is Pankaj Mishra’s first novel, it establishes him as one of India’s literary leaders. His nonfiction and criticism are highly regarded, and he is also admired for having discovered such outstanding young novelists as Arundhati Roy, who was awarded the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things (1997), and Raj Kamal Jha, whose book The Blue Bedspread (1999) has been acclaimed by critics.
The Romantics is patterned on another coming-of-age novel, L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education, 1898), by the French author Gustave Flaubert. There are many likenesses between the two works. The protagonist of each work is a young man who, having completed his general education, is expected to prepare for a profession. At eighteen, Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau is in Paris to read law; at twenty, Mishra’s Samar is in Benares to prepare for his civil service examinations. However, both of them become involved in the world around them, where everyone is interesting and anything seems possible. Like Frédéric, Samar becomes obsessed with a woman he cannot have, and though unlike Frédéric he ultimately attains a degree of serenity, Samar, too, settles for a diminished life.
In the latter half of The Romantics, Samar mentions L’Éducation sentimentale as a book that he has only recently come to appreciate, thanks in part to his discovery of an illuminating essay by Edmund Wilson on Flaubert’s politics, in part to his own experiences among people unlike any he has known before. In Frédéric, Samar can see himself. Moreover, like Flaubert and the Hindu fatalists, Samar comes to believe that life has no meaning and that people have no control over their destinies.
Flaubert’s novel and Edmund Wilson’s criticism also have a profound influence on Samar’s friend Rajesh. He, too, admits that he can identify with Frédéric; moreover, when he realizes how similar his own corrupt society is to that depicted by Flaubert, Rajesh loses hope and abandons his efforts at reform. At their first meeting, Rajesh lectures Samar about a Brahmin’s duty; seven years later, Samar learns that the once idealistic Rajesh has become a contract killer.
However, there are several major differences between the two novels. Flaubert writes as an omniscient author, while Mishra limits himself to a single perspective, that of Samar, his first-person narrator. Moreover, L’Éducation sentimentale takes place over a period of twenty-seven years, and The Romantics just seven.
The fact that Mishra’s title is plural indicates an even more important dissimilarity. Though Samar is the central figure in the novel, he is not the only character who has what Mishra calls a romantic view of life, that is, who assumes that anything one dreams, hopes, or imagines can become a reality. By this definition, almost everyone Samar meets through his fellow lodger Diana West is a romantic. Catherine, a young, wealthy Frenchwoman, has drawn her naïve Indian lover Anand into her dream. They are both convinced that when she takes him to France, his skill as a sitar player will bring him fame and fortune, while his status as her husband will gain him acceptance by her family and admission to the highest levels of French society. Another friend of Samar’s “Miss West” is an American, Mark, who has persuaded himself and a succession of girlfriends that he is a person of extreme sensitivity and admirable depth, despite the fact that he drifts regularly from job and job and from place to place. Among the other romantics in Miss West’s circle are Sarah, a young German woman who, like many Westerners, believes that she has found the truth in an Eastern religion, in her case Buddhism, and Mark’s current lover, Debbie, who likes to dabble in ideas but is not bright enough to form a coherent thought, much less a philosophy of life.
Perhaps it is only natural to be a romantic when one is young, but it is unusual to find a middle-aged person who has not come to terms with reality. It is even more surprising when that individual is someone such as Miss West, who is clear-sighted enough to assess Debbie accurately and to predict the problems Catherine, Anand, and Samar do indeed encounter when they refuse to face the truth. However, for all her insights into the other characters, Miss West cannot see her own life for the waste that it is. For twenty years she has been the mistress of a British corporate executive who will never divorce his wife, using as an excuse the possibility that he may go into politics. It was his idea that Miss West should live in Benares, where he feels there is less chance of their liaison...
(The entire section is 1929 words.)