A perceptive observation about the human race cleverly constructed and told with Desai's opulent vocabulary.
This ninth novel by Desai ( Clear Light of Day ; Games at Twilight ), a professor at Mount Holyoke College, reflects the author's background: her mother was German, her father Indian. The novel's hero, Hugo Baumgartner, is a perpetual outsider. Raised in the comforts of a rich Berlin merchant family, he narrowly escapes the Nazis by fleeing to Calcutta. There, after some success at starting over, he is imprisoned alongside dedicated Nazis by indifferent Anglo-Indian authorities. After the war comes the upheaval of partition. Now, in the present, Baumgartner is spending his declining years in a seedy cat-filled room off a back street in Bombay. He accepts the hand life has dealt him: ``Acceptingbut not accepted; that was the story of his life. . . . In Germany, . . . his darkness had marked him the Jew. . . . In India, he was fairand that marked him the firanghi foreigner.'' Having survived so much, a chance encounter with a dissipated German hippie brings Baumgartner the fate he had seemed, until now, to have eluded. Desai's language reveals deep knowledge of both German and Indian ways, and her rich evocation of both settings is superb. This is a quirky book, occasionally irritating in its appropriation of history for its own purposes; but Desai's artful control of her narrative's agenda re sults in a compelling fiction.