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Published on: 04/8/24 3:05 AM

Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life by Upamanyu Chatterjee

The quest for a higher spiritual purpose

This story charts the spiritual journey of Lorenzo, who as the title states, is on a quest to find the meaning of life. The author says in his note at the start, ‘This is a true story. That is to say, like many true stories, it is a work of fiction. It is based, though, on the life of Fabrizio Senesi, a good friend of mine.’ The book, then, can be viewed through a dual prism, as both fiction and non-fiction.

It`s a very different book from the author’s previous ones which were India-centric. Not so this one, here the story spans continents. In tone and topic too, it is unlike what he has written before. Perhaps it signals a new phase in this prolific author’s ouvre. The astute observation combined with droll wit that characterised his brilliant debut novel ‘English August’ and the others that followed, are very much present in this tale, too.

Nineteen- year- old Lorenzo Senesi of Aquilina in Italy has an accident while driving his Vespa. An enforced month of convalescence has him pondering on the course of his life. He then enrols for a course of physiotherapy, unaware of how this is going to become of immense help later. He is also part of a prayer group and after a few trial periods of staying at the Praglia Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, decides to join it.

Lorenzo’s ten years in Praglia mark the first important phase of his life. The author describes in detail the life of ora et labora that defines the everyday life of a Benedictine monk. The ora being the prayers, seven communal ones, that the day is divided into. The labora alludes to the manual work that the monks have to toil at. This could range from working in the fields, gardening, doing the laundry or working in the vineyards owned by the monastery. There is the banality that comes from following a fixed routine every day and the quotidian rhythm of monastic life. But one also gets the sense of peace that prevails in living an austere life, given for the most part to reflection, meditation and prayer.

The reader is privy to the fact that Lorenzo is soon going to join the Praglia Abbey. His family is not. A child who joins a religious order is, in a sense, lost to the family. And this is exactly what Lorenzo’s father expresses when he says, ‘The chosen, from one perspective, are simply, from another, lost.’ This is quite what happens the way Lorenzo’s life pans out. There is a distance both physical and mental. And though there is sorrow and loss where his family is concerned, that seems to be the trade- off in choosing a life of higher spiritual purpose.

Local flavour

We may not fully understand what moves Lorenzo to take the decisions that he does. What is clear is his commitment to a course of action once he has embarked on it.

The narrative moves at a faster pace in the later parts of Lorenzo’s life. This could also be because much happens to him when he decides to leave Praglia. There is a brief stopover in London to learn English. From there, he proceeds to join a fledgling Benedictine monastery all the way in Khulna, Bangladesh. He then leaves the Benedictine order to join an NGO in Rishilpi. And there is another very different move he makes at the end; the monk becomes a layman again, a life lived in reverse, as it were.

The parts set in Khulna are full of local flavour and keen observation. Lorenzo is far from being painted as a white saviour here. His foibles are gently brought to light. The author’s discerning eye for those that people a small place, evident in his earlier books, is displayed here too. There is a whole host of characters and a gentle gaze is turned on them and their quirks. His trademark acerbic wit is woven through the book.

There are parts that make you laugh out loud while other lines make you chuckle or smile. The descriptions of a place also include minute details; the reader can easily picture it all, whether it is Lorenzo’s spartan room at Praglia or the lush green and wet environment at Khulna.

There is a sense of serenity, grace and simplicity, that one encounters in this story. The narrative contains Biblical metaphors, poetical allusions, and much else. Some lines, like those of the Italian writer and mystic Carlo Corretto, are most illuminating.

The author’s prose and storytelling make Lorenzo’s journey revelatory to both him and the reader. A quote by Dostoyevsky in the story seems apt. “A monastic is not a special sort of person. He is simply what every person ought to be.”

Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Speaking Tiger. 318 pages. Rs  699.

This appeared in the Sunday Express magazine of 7 April 2024.

Related Links:

Book review: Villainy by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Book review: Fairy Tales at Fifty by Upamanyu Chatterjee

a monastic lifea spiritual storyLorenzo searches for the meaning of lifeSpeaking Tiger BooksUpamanyu Chatterjee

Sheila Kumar • April 8, 2024

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