Imagine that Cormac McCarthy wrote The God of Small Things, and you will have some sense of what awaits you in An Obedient Father. Akhil Sharma's book was the deserved winner of the most recent Pen/Hemingway Award (an annual literary prize for best debut fiction by an American writer).
In An Obedient Father, Sharma has created one of the most unrelentingly repulsive characters in fiction. The author has fleshed out this creature and surrounded him with a cast of characters with nary a redeeming feature among them, and yet has achieved the impossible by causing in the reader a seamless combination of empathy and disgust.
Ram Karan, the title character, is a fat and disgusting man, a corrupt minor official whose appetites are as deep as they are wide. He tells us his own story, a life of cowardice, bullying and dishonesty. Oddly, we feel almost privileged to be witnessing the one honest thing in Ram's life; he tells us the truth, warts and more warts, about what he does and who he is.
More importantly, he reports on the social, political and natural forces that cause him to act as he does. We feel almost bad for him. Ram hates himself as much as the reader does:
Along a wall I saw three old women, their faces covered with folds of their saris, squatting and urinating. I imagined the darkening dust beneath them and I felt again the inevitability of my nature. My mind was attracted to what is loathsome and humiliating.
He wants to do the right thing, especially when it follows the path of least resistance, but he simply cannot. Of course, though, he can, and that is what makes the book one big mind-fuck, and such is the power of Sharma's writing. This book is almost dangerous, artistically depicting the humanity present in evil (we already knew about the evil present in humanity).
Generally, in fiction, repulsive central characters are treated as over-the-top comic characters. Witness, for example, Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. But while that book is a dark comedy, An Obedient Father can better be described as a comical darkness. Though there is certainly some humor here, the discomfort it causes does not readily express itself in the form of laughter.
The plot revolves around Ram's job as an uncivil servant clumsily dabbling in disorganized crime, and focuses on his relationship with his daughter, Anita. Anita is a victim so damaged and paralyzed by her lot in life that she comes to stand for the unredemptive quality of mankind. Sharma allows her two opportunities to interrupt the narrative, two chapters in which she speaks and tells the story from her own point of view where she merely reveals the undignified inner life of the pettily vindictive.
Sharma was born in Delhi but brought up in the United States. The Indian Chamber of Commerce would not have open arms for Sharma, who portrays that country, post-partition, as a seething bed of corruption and brutality in which only suckers do the right thing. Evil acts are not only justifiable, but a necessary form of survival. If the boys from Lord of the Flies stayed there and grew up, their island might mirror Sharma's India.
An Obedient Father is thoroughly dark and disturbing, yet gorgeously written. Sharma's writing is brilliantly stunning, drawing the reader in with the power of a literary black hole. It will leave lovers of fine literary fiction gasping with its depth, while feeling hopeless about the human condition and the normalcy of evil. Caveat emptor.
-- Michael Salkind