“Sojourn” by Amit Chaudhuri


Halfway through Amit Chaudhuri’s compact novel(la) Sojourn, the protagonist, an Indian academic visiting Berlin for a semester fifteen years after the fall of the Wall, asks a German couple with whom he is travelling through the “East”, “‘Tell me’—I was peering into the rear-view mirror—‘what exactly is Heimat?’”

Homeland—the word itself is serious business in Germany, although the English translation doesn’t quite capture its history, complexity, or ambiguity. Long taboo due to its Nazi-era associations, it has reemerged in the public consciousness recently, with academics writing study after study about it, the media increasingly reporting on it, and politicians now referring once again to it. “‘It’s a kind of soap opera,’ said Geeta, The Germans love it!’” Chaudhuri is, of course, right on both counts: Heimat was a popular series of films about German history, and the concept itself has become something of a national soap opera.

Remnants of the past are everywhere in Chaudhuri’s Berlin (“part graveyard, part playground”). Oskar-Helene Heim, Wittenbergplatz, Potsdamer Platz, Hallesches Tor, Tempelhof, Uhlandstrasse, Adenauerplatz—Berlin’s streets, squares, and subway stations are inscribed with the country’s political and cultural history. If you look down, as the unnamed professor does, you will even see that history written on the paving stones or Stolpersteine, which bear a brass plate and the name of a victim of Nazi extermination or persecution. “You could even buy bits of the wall,” the narrator reflects on another occasion.

Even his honorary position, the “Böll Visiting Professor”, bears the weight of the past, in this case Germany’s Nobel Prize winning writer Heinrich Böll. One of the position’s perks is a flat in Dahlem, where Kenzaburo Oe (another Nobel Prize winner) had stayed previously. During his first few days in Berlin, the professor recalls, “Using that toilet, my first thought was, ‘Oe must have sat here.’”


Sojourn, Amit Chaudhuri (Faber & Faber, August 2022; New York Review Books, September 2022)
Sojourn, Amit Chaudhuri (Faber & Faber, August 2022; New York Review Books, September 2022)

In his essay collection Other Colors, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk described this awareness of how objects connect people across time. His father, a writer, had emigrated to Paris, but the family was soon reunited in Geneva, living in rented accommodations.


This was how I came to associate living in another country with sitting at tables where others had sat before, using glasses and plates on which strangers had dined, and sleeping in beds that sagged after years of cradling other sleepers. Another country meant a country that belonged to other people. We were to accept that these things we were using would never belong to us, and that this old country, this other land, would never belong to us either.


But what are the effects of such ever-present, second hand histories that crowd Chaudhuri’s Berlin? Shortly after his arrival, the professor meets Faqrul Haq, a Bangladeshi poet in extended exile—another type of sojourn, one much closer to Pamuk’s characteristically modernist sense of estrangement and alienation.

Walking through Berlin’s streets, Chaudhuri’s professor experiences a similar sense of disorientation. But rather than leading him into the modernist cul-de-sac of retrospection, he experiences the enigma of arrival. “We crossed the road. I felt a deep sense of homecoming,” he says, “I didn’t know where we were. I wanted to go deeper.” As the novel draws to a close, the professor increasingly loses his way as he wanders Berlin’s past and present streets and neighborhoods. Familiarity leads to confusion. He blacks out in public temporarily and is unable to remember his name when he awakens. There’s a memory of the moment, but it exists in the minds of others.

Three pages before the novel concludes, he reveals, “I keep walking—in which direction I’m not sure; Kreuzberg? I’ve lost my bearings—not in the city; in its history. The less sure I become of it, the more I know my way.” If the modernist novel was steadfastly preoccupied with time, Chaudhuri’s postmodern approach eschews the historical precisely in order to engage with a self-referential sense of space. Such structures of feeling (borrowing from Raymond Williams) draw him into the sinuosity of his own psycho-geography.

However, the discomfiture of the book’s final two sentences strikes a pessimistic note: “The paucity of choices, the familiar parameters—I don’t question them. I’ll probably die before anything changes.” How many in formerly East Berlin must have consigned themselves to a similar fate?

Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick in the UK and splits his time between China and Europe.