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In ‘Amnesty,’ an Immigrant’s View Conveyed With Authority and Wit

Danny cleans houses and works in a grocery store. His life is a series of subaltern tasks. He lives in the grocery store, too, in the stockroom. When a regular customer says, “I’ve never seen you,” Danny thinks: “Because I’m just the brown man working at the back of the store.”

Credit…Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

This novel has a simmering plot: One of Danny’s former housecleaning clients is murdered. Danny thinks he knows who did it. The suspect knows Danny is in the country illegally. They have kompromat on one another. Perhaps they will each turn the other in, in a kind of mutually assured destruction pact.

Adiga’s plot clicks the novel forward along its tracks, but it’s packed with small implausibilities. You come to this novel for other reasons, notably for its author’s authority, wit and feeling on the subject of immigrants’ lives.

“Amnesty” has a lot to say about the desire to be seen. Sometimes, Adiga suggests, immigrants see one another all too plainly. “There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney — a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressive society.”

One of the novel’s characters, the ostensible murderer, compares the plight of even legal people from India in Australia to certain sea creatures. This man says to Danny about the Great Barrier Reef:

“You’ve gone in the glass-bottomed boat to see all the corals, right? And what do you see? There’s that filthy stingray, hiding squat on the ocean floor, and kicks up mud and it goes fleeing under the glass-bottomed boat with its forked tail, just the most frightened vermin you ever saw. I’m never going to live like that.” A pungent expletive trots along behind these sentences.

This man’s name is Prakash, and he alone is worth the price of admission. The contents of his character are alluring but suspicious, like the contents of Claude Rains’s wine cellar in “Notorious.”

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