INDEFATIGABLE READER and autodidact, Samar, the dolefully endearing narrator of Pankaj Mishra's first novel, "gobbles down books without any sense of the larger civilisation that lay behind them". Gauche and vulnerably lonely, in Benares where he studies, he learns from a chance encounter with the works of Edmund Wilson to read great books both for their artistry and for those historical backgrounds they illuminate. Reread under Wilson's phantom tutelage, Flaubert's Sentimental Education yields another dimension: it unveils lives and loves that go nowhere, dreams that self-destruct, "a chilling intimation of the life that lay ahead".
Samar identifies with the novel's protagonist; he also, in one of Mishra's neat cultural conflations, recognises in Flaubert's bleak vision the fatalism of the Hindu philosophy embodied in the sacred river city. Caught in an elliptical relationship with Rajesh, a shady student demagogue with whom he shares little more than the burden of their Brahmin-ness, Samar hears him proclaim that our task is to learn to live somewhere in between illusion and the void.
Samar hands Rajesh Flaubert and Wilson. While one experiences in the first person the philosophical lessons of maya and sunyata, the other discovers in Flaubert a bitter portrait of the "self- deception, falsehood, sycophancy and bribery" of his lower-middle- class provincial Indian life.
This is only one rich vein in a novel which, while it sometimes meanders like its protagonist's fancies, demands a nuanced reading to uncover its network of echoes and recurrences. Perhaps the most potentially popular of these is the European presence in search of an "Indian" truth. Mishra quietly pits this against a geophysical truth that manifests itself from the Himalayas to the Indian ocean, always returning, like a reincarnated soul, to the banks of the Ganges.
Characters disappear and reappear at random. There's Miss West, Samar's housemate, and a bevy of colleagues, students, acquaintances. The melancholy of Samar's widower father suggests one possible reason for the son's introversion and desperate yearning to relate. Most significant in Samar's life - albeit briefly - the Frenchwoman Catherine seduces him, during an escapade in the mountains away from her musician lover. She initiates his sentimental education, only to despatch a curt vote of dismissal …