We’re introduced to Happy Singh Soni via his letter of application to be a freelance shepherd in Sardinia. He is currently working (he says) in central Italy, on the largest radish farm in Europe, and would like to work somewhere easier on his back. Ever the 21st-century professional, he includes his Myers-Briggs personality type and love-language. Given that Happy is essentially in indentured slavery to a sinister group of organised criminals, it doesn’t quite come off.
Happy, the eponymous hero of Celina Baljeet Basra’s radiant and exhilarating debut novel, originally left his family and farming village in Punjab one year ago, not out of economic necessity but ambition. He wants to be an actor: “The first step will be to attend as many castings as I can.” His passion is for New Wave cinema, and the bygone era of the auteur actor/filmmaker; he particularly loves Godard and ruminates on the doomed, romantic leads of Bande à part.
His old life in India is presented lovingly: a great family, as many sugary rotis as he can eat, a boundless imagination, relentless optimism, and an active social life that he documents via interviews on his phone as episodes of Happy TV, which he never quite gets round to uploading to YouTube. But he’s fired from a brief unpaid role at a stationery shop for secretly starting an independent publishing house in the back room, essentially to publish his own collections of poetry and screenplays. (He includes that bibliography on his CV.)
Then, in his eagerness to escape the mundane, Happy looks for help online – for work abroad, affordable transport, any possible getaway. After several late-night chats via instant messenger, he unwittingly volunteers to be trafficked to Italy and sold into labour by “the coordinators”: organised criminals with a friendly corporate shopfront: “For quality assurance, we reserve the right to record all conversations…”
For Happy, this is a means to an end: a place to live, and temporary work while he pursues his true thespian calling. The journey between continents, though, is horrendous: two out of the six travellers die en route. Happy spends several months as a fry-cook at a rustic but popular fish restaurant in Rome, but just as he’s starting to grow accustomed to the work and form meaningful relationships with his colleagues – the chef gives him her husband’s old clothes; he learns to dance, and charms his customers and colleagues with his indefatigable optimism – the coordinators transfer him to the radish farm.
Basra’s novel is delivered in short, lyrical chapters, largely from Happy’s perspective, but occasionally from his mother, brother or sister in the form of transcribed voice-notes: they sound concerned, but supportive and excited. Their doubts give us an alternative to Happy’s upbeat self-image, but ultimately the warnings only fuel his sense that he’s a plucky outsider bound to succeed against all odds.
Some chapters are symbolist prose poems that trace the history and implications of objects and phenomena: a sack of flour, a black Sardinian sheep. Still others are works of ekphrasis, decoding works of art for their cultural connotations. On top of this, Happy himself engages in constant fantasy dialogues: back in Punjab, an imaginary journalist from Jodhpur News interviews him when he’s on the toilet, pre-emptively celebrating his on-screen success. He even receives visitations from Europe itself, a spirit of benign indifference who offers advice: “You know, people might take you more seriously if you weren’t always so… kind. So very smiley. Do you know what I mean?”
Such eclecticism in a novel might have been distracting, but it’s all seamlessly integrated into a remarkably tight plot. The above sections have a vital function, tracking Happy’s own imaginative leaps, poetic connections and insights. The attention to detail in Basra’s writing is exceptional: a van with seats that “smell like cold lard”; a school report from his teacher who avers that Happy “unfortunately, is unable to distinguish the important from the unimportant in his writing”; the hilarious theme park, Wonderland, that springs up beside his family home.
In a sense, there are two novels going on here: one of nightmarish circularity and inexorable forces of evil, and, in parallel, one of Happy’s brightness and hopefulness, ever undefeated. Even in the Lazio region – in a “room with no view” – reduced to circumstances far worse than the radish farm, Happy finds camaraderie, community and joy, opening a makeshift restaurant for the workers, masterminding “Underground Paneer Production”. This leads to an uprising that’s eventually violently suppressed by the coordinators and their paid thugs. The achievement of Basra’s prose is that this arc neither exploits Happy nor the reader.
We might look back to Happy’s own beloved era of cinema for forerunners who dance to the beat of a different drum, outsiders who insist a better world is possible, protagonists who, if fantasists, possess the resourcefulness to survive a brutal and callous world. We can claim that we respect the humanity of the dispossessed, the exploited or the systematically oppressed, but to recognise it in fiction, as Basra has, takes this level of depth and artfulness. Despite the devastating conclusion, this is not so much a tragedy as a weaponised comedy. Politically, it’s an essential novel, with an urgency that avoids the didactic – preaching neither to the converted nor the apostate.
Happy is published by Wildfire at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books