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Baumgartner's Bombay by Anita Desai

Baumgartner's Bombay (1988)

by Anita Desai

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Hugo Baumgartner is a German Jew who as a young man emigrated to India on the rise of Hitler. His life story, from childhood in Germany, to his internment in India with other German citizens during World War II, to his failed business enterprises after the war, alternates with scenes from his current life as an elderly man in Bombay, living in poverty and begging scraps of food from restaurants to feed the dozens of stray cats he cares for, both in his apartment and on the streets.

I've read other novels by Anita Desai which I've liked very much. She is an excellent writer. However, as I read the first parts of this novel, I was puzzled at why she, an Indian woman, would choose as her protagonist an elderly German Jewish man. It took me a while to suspend belief enough to feel that I was in Baumgartner's mind, not just seeing him from the outside. Also, for a novel with "Bombay" in its title, I didn't find the city itself (or even India--he lives in Calcutta at first) to be much of a presence, as it is, for example, present and permeating the entire lives of the characters in the novels of, say, Salman Rushdie.


My main problem with the novel, however, is that 5 or 6 pages from the end there is an abrupt and catastrophic event that comes out the blue, totally unexpected. I was unprepared, and felt that this just did not fit into the novel.

Although the book was engaging enough that I kept reading, it is not entirely successful, and it is not one I would recommend.

2 1/2 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Jan 5, 2017 |
The absorbing tale of Hugo Baumgartner, a German Jew who grows up in Berlin in the lead up to WW11. Leaving Germany for India just before WW11, he finds himself interned and on his release after the war having to come to terms with life in India as return to Germany is not an option. Desai conjures up the trauma of life in Nazi Germany & India for Baumgartner - very vivid story telling and a poignant tale with a tragic end. ( )
  sianpr | Jan 10, 2015 |
This book was just "okay." I honestly was expecting a lot more from this book, but the storyline was just so implausible. I mean, first Baumgartner leaves his widowed mother alone in war-torn Germany (oh, did I mention his dad kills himself by sticking his head in the oven???) to go all the way to India by himself, then he gets captured and put into a POW camp, right alonside Nazis. Then he leaves the camp, lives well into retirement in India, then takes in some drugged up kid who stabs him and steals his silver horse-racing cups (who in their right mind would take in an obvious drug addict? This is where I just lost faith in the story completely), and somewhere along the way he becomes friends with an extremely weird dancing girl of some sort. Their relationship is so awkward (I'm not sure what we're supposed to make of them sleeping together but not "sleeping together.").

The storyline just has way too much going on, and it was too unlikely for any of it to be truly believable. This story could have been wonderful in so many ways, but it just fell short of the mark. ( )
  artikaur | Feb 26, 2013 |
Hugo Baumgartner, a Berlin Jew who came all the way to India to escape the Nazis, has a seedy apartment behind Bombay's Taj Hotel. He lives for his cats, going out each day with a plastic bag to forage for them, shoving his way past the berserk family camped on the sidewalk where he lives, they themselves refugees from India's famines and droughts. Mixed in with neighbors called Hiramani, Taraporevala, Barodekar, Coelho, da Silva and Patel, he still does not know which language to use, but mumbles an all-purpose, inadequate ''Good morning, salaam.'' How do you politely say hello to a polyglot country, never mind an entire planet? Imagine someone so sensitive and selfless that he spends most of his day saying hello in all the languages there are.
Hugo does not belong at this address, or in the down-at-heel Cafe de Paris next door. He didn't belong in the detention camp for Germans that the Indians held him in for six years during World War II. And he didn't belong in Calcutta, where he lived happily enough before the war. He didn't even belong in Berlin, where life became increasingly complex and hazardous. Hugo's father, who owned a furniture showroom, tramped the streets with an ivory-knobbed cane, ''his head held high, his hat gleaming like the wing of an airborne beetle,'' only to end up in Dachau, from which he returns ''a fortnight later,'' shivering and with nothing to say. ''In that early year,'' we read, ''it was still possible to leave Dachau,'' yet not, one thinks, even in the presence of such a miracle, to know Berlin fully or even to know his son, Hugo Baumgartner.

But Ms. Desai, who rejoices in density of milieu, does her best, giving us a lot that will enable us to guess at more, as if her abiding passion on whatever continent were the opaqueness of people linked with our fever to know them, to have them know us. The Hugo who comes home with a hedgehog in his pocket, who runs home with the butter, who finds his mother awaiting him after his first day at school ''holding the traditional cone of bonbons,'' is also the Hugo who knows he does not belong to the picture-book world of the Christmas tree, or to the world of his father's suicide, or to the world of a foreigner (Firanghi) in India, trying to seem always a customer and not a beggar. ( )
  srl629 | Nov 14, 2012 |
I almost gave up on this book somewhere in the first 25 pages. I'm glad I didn't because halfway through, it just became unputdownable. Yes I know that's not a word. Anita Desai somehow manages to make us like this character who is almost character-less. He is grumpy, unambitious, dull, and lacks a zest for life. And yet, by the end of the book, you feel for him. He reminded me of the grumpy old man in the movie 'Up'. The book is littered with German poems and phrases which I had no clue about but to someone who does, these might add even more to the book. ( )
  florencecraye | Nov 25, 2011 |
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Information from the Swedish Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Mitt slut är min början. Efter vartannat växer och skövlas husen, vittrar, påbyggs, flyttas, rivs ner, restaureras... - T. S. Eliot "East Coker"
LJCRS Book Fair Selection 1990
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Fastän Lotte hade flytt den blodbestänkta scenen och flytt den samlade skocken identiskt lika individer - enbenta. näspetande, skådelystna - och skyndat bort längs gatan med en fart som var ovanlig för henne, en fart som ingen skulle ha tilltrott henne, på de höga klackarna som inte längre var stadiga utan vickade berusat under tyngden av hennes tjocka rödådrade ben, saktade hon in när hon närmade sig sin egen dörr.
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From Library Journal -
Born in Germany, protagonist Harry Baumgartner escapes to Calcutta as a boy after his family suffers the rise of Hitler and the simultaneous fall of the Baumgartner fine-furniture business, as well as the destruction of their Jewish heritage. Imprisoned during the war as a hostile alien, Hugo moves at war's end to Bombay, where the novel--told in flashbacks--begins. Here he eventually finds his main happiness in the many cats who take over his shabby rooms. The story becomes contrived when Hugo befriends Kurt, a young, blond German hippie and dope addict whose sordid adventures in India could not have been experienced by one so young in so short a time--though they are excellently described. Still, Desai merits strong praise for her compellingly realistic descriptions of Indian life.
- Glenn O. Carey, Eastern Kentucky Univ., Richmond
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618056807, Paperback)

A "beautifully written, richly textured, and haunting story" (Chaim Potok), BAUMGARTNER'S BOMBAY is Anita Desai's classic novel of the Holocaust era, a story of profound emotional wounds of war and its exiles. The novel follows Hugo Baumgartner as he flees Nazi Germany -- and his Jewish heritage -- for India, only to be imprisoned as a hostile alien and then released to Bombay at war's end. In this tale of a man who, "like a figure in a Greek tragedy . . . seems to elude his destiny" (NEW LEADER), Desai's "capacious intelligence, her unsentimental compassion" (NEW REPUBLIC) reach their full height.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:06 -0400)

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