“He had never thought about it but the feeling of not being in the right place, not being the right shape, not being the right anything, had followed him all his life.”

Midway through The Education of Yuri, Bhavna, the young woman who is about to become Yuri Fonseca’s first girlfriend, tells him that he belongs to a tribe – the tribe of those who don’t belong. She seems to mean it as the bantering kind of put-down. But Yuri isn’t offended. He’s stunned – by the rightness of the charge.

Later, about to take up his first paying job, as a private tutor, he thinks of the teachers he has met in Evelyn Waugh and James Hilton and Charles Dickens and Susan M Coolidge. “A mixed bag,” he reflects. “He tried to throw himself into the bag. He didn’t seem to fit. But into which bag would he fit?”

That “had never thought about it” is Yuri telling himself a commonplace white lie. Not only has he thought about it; he has spent most of his life thinking of little else. When the novel begins, Yuri is 15, and about to leave home and school for Elphinstone College, a dozen kilometres, and a world, away from Mahim. The night before his first day of junior college, Yuri doesn’t pray for academic or romantic success. He prays for something he has never had: a friend.

The end of the beginning

As with many things in this deeply moving novel, we encounter Yuri’s desperate need first as comedy. The book opens with a dream – usually a fatally dull business in fiction – the dream from which Yuri wakes on that first morning of college. In the dream, Yuri is standing in the doorway, and the whole class is laughing at his underwear.

Unlike his future classmates, Yuri wears not Y-fronts, but a khadi langot. This is thanks (or the opposite of thanks) to the man who raised him, who makes up the entirety of his family: Tio Julio. Tio (“uncle” in Portuguese), Yuri’s mother’s brother, is an intimidatingly erudite and almost preposterously saintly fellow who was on his way to becoming a priest when his sister and her husband were killed in a car accident.

Entrusted with an infant nephew, he joins an order of chaste worshippers leading semi-holy lives, a sort of “buffer zone” between the priesthood and the laity, like the community in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell. Such distinctions are too much for Yuri’s classmates at school, who call him, without affection, padri ka baccha.

Jerry Pinto’s third novel is about a different kind of buffer zone, the one between childhood and adulthood. Yuri is 15 when the book opens, and 20 as it closes. Novels like this are usually called “coming-of-age novels” in English, or bildungsromans, from the German. The German term, which the book’s title openly refers to, is the better one. “Coming-of-age” suggests an arrival, a completion; bildung, which means education in the broadest sense, offers the much truer notion of an unending process. The formation of the self doesn’t end with graduation of university, or with the end of a book. At the end of The Education of Yuri, we haven’t come to the end of his education but to what Churchill might call the end of the beginning.

Still, the enduring appeal to writers and readers of novels that deal with this specific life-stage is hard to deny. Partly it is a business of receptivity. Between 15 and 20 most people want to be formed. Later they’re more likely to declare themselves formed (if our characters are eventually fixed, it is not through age per se but through self-fulling narratives of this kind). In the age of receptivity, we tell ourselves we are “open to new experiences”, which in practice means a lot of intense reflection about what each experience means for us.

I am describing Yuri, who thinks about himself constantly, whose life is endlessly examined in a way that is neither Socratic nor narcissistic but simply normal; but I am also describing what readers will recognise in him. More than almost any genre, bildungsromans offer to the reader the pleasure of recognition, the feeling of “That’s exactly what it was like for me.” This is, I suspect, why Norwegian Wood is the most popular of Haruki Murakami’s novels in Japan, but not necessarily elsewhere, and in a very different way why Chetan Bhagat’s early novels were not just bestsellers but widely loved.

Many of the classic elements of the genre can be found in The Education of Yuri. The interplay of close-third-person (the only mind we ever inhabit is Yuri’s) and ironic distance; anxious, inept, shame-stained and yet genuinely exhilarating sexual encounters (Pinto is reliably brilliant at these); dozens, maybe hundreds of characters. Two deserve particular mention. One, the greater intensity, pleasure and ultimately meaning that attach to friendship by comparison with romance. Two, the relationship between the young person and the big city, each of whom seem to be constantly taking the measure of each other.

All or most of it is there in this paragraph:

 “It seemed then like the city could be anything you wanted it to be, your life could be anything you wanted it to be, and they wandered through the city as afternoon turned to evening and he wondered if this could be love.”  

Books, Bombay, and Yuri

That the city is Bombay (not Mumbai, as the novel ends in the late 1980s) places the book in a second tradition. In English, at any rate, this is unique in India to Bombay. There are plenty of novels set in Delhi, but there is no “Delhi novel”, just as there are poets from Delhi but no “Delhi poets”, and the same for other cities. But there is a Bombay novel, and there are of course Bombay poets, some of whom appear in The Education of Yuri as characters under their own names.

The literary distinctiveness of Bombay stems in part from sheer continuity of output (just in the past few years we’ve had Amrita Mahale and Rehana Munir and Jane Borges and Tanuj Solanki, to name only four); I doubt a year passes without at least one new English-language novel set in Bombay in which the city is “a character”. But Bombay can also reliably count on its writers to be hype-artists. Bombay writers will indict their city on any number of counts, but never call it overrated. Or dull.

More unusually – and illustrated by The Education of Yuri Bombay writers seem to get along. I don’t mean that they’re all friends or live free from the usual pettiness and resentments that attend literary careers. But they have an attachment to their city, and through it to each other. I am thinking in particular of the Bombay poets, and of their statistically freakish intergenerational amity. Aren’t young poets supposed to be motivated by hatred of their predecessors, rather than feel affection or awe? Pinto, and his contemporaries such as Ranjit Hoskote and Jeet Thayil, have instead been model literary citizens, doing everything possible to enhance the reputation of the older Bombay poets – and the availability of their work – in India and abroad.

Nissim Ezekiel’s cameo in The Education of Yuri is the furthest thing imaginable from Octavio Paz’s cameo in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Bolaño’s young poet, Ulises Lima, does feel awe for Paz, but it’s hidden under a carefully knitted coat of intergenerational rivalry. The job of the young is to displace the old, and therefore both must fear and hate each other. But here we have Ezekiel, responding to the earnest doggerel of teenagers with gentle detachment, and not a trace of impatience. And they are merely thrilled to be in his presence.

When Ezekiel decides to offer some generalised wisdom about the writing of poetry, all that comes out is watery cliché: “Poetry does not have to deal with literal truth. It must deal with higher truth.” Bolaño’s savage detectives would have pelted him with verbal tomatoes. The young poets of Elphinstone are an easier crowd.

The Bombay of The Education of Yuri is, for the most part, south Bombay. Yuri and Tio Julio live in Mahim, which at the time the novel is set was considered remote, not Bombay proper, both by the book’s South Bombay characters as well as by Yuri. It is bourgeois; there are some sharply observed accounts of the difference between Yuri and his Pedder Road-living, ICSE peers, but even the poorer students at Elphinstone are privileged by most measures. It is the Bombay of Samovar, the Milk Bar, Strand Book Stall.

It is matter-of-factly secular, and English-speaking. It is at a somewhat underappreciated point of social and economic transition: the “internal liberalisation” era of the 1980s, with an emergent consumerism and America beginning to displace Britain as the epicentre of glamour and indeed culture. A pair of Wrangler jeans may never, before or since, have signified as much.

Above all it is literary, and intellectual, and cosmopolitan, and progressive, to an extent that may shock some readers. In Yuri’s case this has to do with the oddity of his upbringing. Tio Julio is one of those people who seems to have read literally everything, and the Yuri who takes the train out of Mahim in 1982 has already read Albert Camus and Raymond Carver (the latter a writer only just becoming famous in the US at the time). Interestingly, he tends to read mostly foreign novelists and mostly Indian poetry.

The people he meets at Elphinstone are scarcely less well-read, and the more privileged, unlike him, also arrive with educations in Hollywood, world cinema, and pop and rock music. They don’t sound much like the way the reader of 2022 might expect them to; but nor do they sound like the teenagers of today. The frequency and passion with which they trade world-cultural references belong, paradoxically, to a pre-internet world where such knowledge was hard-won.

I don’t mean to be describing some sort of south Bombay Dead Poets Society. The world of The Education of Yuri is not so enclosed, in part because this is a college of day scholars. They study at Elphinstone, but they live in Bombay. As they move from junior college to BA, politics become as real and as important as culture. They spend days at a research archive called the ECD (its real-life analogue was the CED) and some of them more than flirt with Naxalism. Of the novel’s huge cast of minor characters, few are as vivid as Tarun Gadre, the quietly menacing Naxal who aims to recruit Yuri.

But books are inescapably at the heart of the novel and of its Bombay. Books are how Yuri makes sense of the world, and of himself. The lessons they provide tend to be clearer to him than those given by life. In his first week at Elphinstone, he befriends a pavement bookseller called Premadasa. “A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard”, wrote Herman Melville; Yuri learns as much or more through Premadasa as through Bombay University, although he may not know it at the time. This is a particular flavour of bildungsroman – the how-I-became-a-writer kind.

A higher realism

It is a morally deficient way to read a book, and certainly to write about it, but it is harder to avoid with some books than others: to look at a book and think that it contains a better book trying to get out. There were times when I couldn’t help feeling this way about The Education of Yuri.

Sometimes this was to do with the slackness of its language. There are moments (not a few) of brilliant writing, and areas of sustained excellence: dialogue, internal monologue, and youthful poetry of both the no-talent and real-talent kinds. But the book keeps returning to a flat, functional, journalistic register in which the chosen word or phrase is the most worn available; a register in which smells “waft”, people make “mental notes” and “swear by” things and “get them out of their system”, accents are “cut-glass”, ideas are “half-baked” and compartments “filled to bursting”.

If there are no good arguments in favour of writing of this kind, nor is it necessarily inimical to good storytelling or emotional effect. Jonathan Franzen’s recent novels are but one example. But this novel’s prose contains a problem of its own creation. It isn’t just that Yuri reads constantly, and wants, although he doesn’t quite know it, to be a writer. It’s that we watch the scrutiny he applies to his own writing. In this way, the prose of The Education of Yuri and the sensibility of its protagonist are too often at odds.

Yet the prose is in a way the least of the differences between this Yuri and the one I found myself imagining. That book would have been shorter; it would have given us more Tio Julio, a character of bewildering depth and charisma who deserves his own book; it would have done away with Arif, the human equivalent of an anecdote for which you had to be there.

It would have focused on two relationships – Yuri and Tio Julio, and Yuri’s friendship with Muzammil. For the hundred or so pages that feature Muzammil, The Education of Yuri reaches a pitch of joy and intensity and emotional weight that it does not approach again until near the end of the novel. For the two hundred in between, Muzammil is almost entirely off-page.

But, as I said, this is a morally deficient way to read, and aesthetically deficient as well. This fantasy-Yuri would not be a better book. It would be a different book, and likely a worse one; narrower, more conventional, offering the reader easier pleasures while taking away much of what makes the novel Pinto actually wrote special.

Much of the difference between the two lies in how we understand the word “realism”. Critics of literary realism – the complaint is an old one, but every decade or so someone thinks they are making it for the first time – claim that behind supposedly “realistic” writing is a huge amount of artifice and selection. “Realism” is not a transcription of reality but a set of devices used to create what Roland Barthes called “the reality effect”. Realist novels smoothen out life, give it a false shape, and rely on manipulative emotional tricks, such as epiphanies.

So goes the charge, which is true enough, even if it misconstrues the aims and misses the achievements of the best realist fiction.

The Education of Yuri could be accused of almost none of this. Its pace and structure actually are lifelike, not novel-like (unlike those of my imaginary alternative). The plot of life, for better or worse, is uneven. Muzammil disappears because that is in fact what tends to happen with friendships, which can end suddenly and without a reckoning – not only at that age. What matters is what is important to Yuri, not obviously interesting to the reader – and everything is important to Yuri.

Its departures from conventional novelistic realism are, as Nissim Ezekiel might put it, in the service of a higher realism. They are also in a long, explicitly “realist” tradition (Karl Ove Knausgaard did not invent the novel in which everything is important). In George Gissing’s great novel of Victorian literary life, New Grub Street, the character always described as “the realist” is Harold Biffen, who wants to strip fiction of artifical neatness and drama in order to achieve true realism.

With the crucial caveat of the prose, the novel The Education of Yuri most reminded me of was written by the patron saint of literary realism: Gustave Flaubert. Sentimental Education is langorous, and uneven, often thrilling, sometimes genuinely dull. Its protagonist, too, comes from the suburbs to the heart of “town”, is well-read, relatively privileged, but precariously bourgeois. It has always had fewer readers than Madame Bovary, because it is less perfect.

The Education of Yuri is twice as long as Em and the Big Hoom, and considerably less perfect. But there is no shame in that. For one thing, in the decade since Em appeared, it’s news to me if any Indian has written a novel in English to match it. For another, The Education of Yuri brushes aside comparisons to its predecessor simply by being its own book.

The Education of Yuri, Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.