The Wandering Falcon (2011) – Jamil AHMAD

This late in the Man Asian Literary Prize timeline, I guess those following the books are at least vaguely aware of the story behind each one. The Wandering Falcon interested me for a number of reasons – first, Ahmad wrote this more than thirty years ago, but has only just had it published, at the ripe age of 79. Secondly, it’s won a number of other prizes, including the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India. Finally, it deals with the border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the tribes that live there. I have a fairly vested interest in border studies, so I was interested to see how Ahmed pulled this off.

In a time before terrorism, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, live various tribes of people, outside the mainstream. Their lives are dependent on good weather in the mountain landscape, on the goodwill of their neighbouring tribes, and of the governments in the cities below not trying to force them into a life they do not want to lead. Their lives are hard, and in this insight into a world rarely glimpsed, Ahmad provides snippets of these lives, spanning several decades.

Obviously we need to talk a little about the structure of the novel first. Ahmad has written what is essentially a collection of linked short stories – the one, mysterious common element is the boy (and later, man) Tor Baz, or the eponymous wandering falcon. I’m still not quite sure just how old he is supposed to be by the end, but there are several decades of history covered in these nine tales. In several – including the excellent opening chapter/story – Tor Baz features quite heavily. In others, he barely rates a mention – in fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t appear in one of them, though I can’t remember exactly which one that is.

Each story deals with a different aspect of tribal life in the vast wilderness between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, as one may expect, there are several universal themes that make this collection of tales more cohesive than a simple short story collection. Arguably the overarching theme is the harsh and unforgiving nature of life away from big cities, in a land that is, quite frankly, close to uninhabitable. It is a testament to the human spirit that people have managed to eck out an existence here, and though Ahmad pulls no punches in highlighting the brutal and sometimes fatal lifestyle that is simply the norm for these people.

I’m glad, too, he wrote the last chapter, “Sale Completed”,  and in many ways leaving it until the end, as the final message, was clever. For a long time, I was wondering if he was going to talk in detail about the role women play in traditional bedouin tribes like the ones outlined in The Wandering Falcon, and was worried he was just going to skip it. But when he turns his hand to writing about the brutal treatment of women in the name of “tradition,” he brings up a whole new set of questions that leave you wondering after you’ve finished the novel. Because, let’s face it, a culture that views women as nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged for money and sexual favours is one that needs to be examined closely.

In some ways, this constant onslaught of the worst of what it means to be human left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The cold, almost clinical style in which Ahmad writes leaves no room for any kind of hope, and ultimately, the whole thing left me cold. The fact that this has been sitting in his desk for thirty years, and the fact that he was unsure whether to publish it as fiction or non-fiction leaves me wondering whether it would have been better off to publish it as a kind of travelogue – maybe his style would have worked better there.

Reading The Wandering Falcon left me informed, but not inspired. This was a part of the world about which I knew almost nothing, so to see a different kind of existence portrayed so diligently was nice. But as a piece of fiction, as a work that should let me into people’s lives and make me feel something – I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me.

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10 thoughts on “The Wandering Falcon (2011) – Jamil AHMAD

  1. I am sorry to hear that it didn’t work for you. The premise of the book definitely seems interesting, and it seems like the way in which the author has chosen to structure his book brings to light many of the realities faced by the people in that region. It’s always a little disappointing when you recognise something good, but it doesn’t really tug at your emotions.

  2. markbooks says:

    As you know, I loved this book. I guess his writing style boils down to personal preference. For me, it possessed a brevity of which the likes of Marukami and Ghosh can only dream, while retaining plenty of emotional contexts. I wouldn’t be surprised if this polarises opinion in the same way among the judges. That’s why I think Please Look After Mother – whose strengths I think we both broadly agree on! – will win the Prize.

    • Ha, I’ve only read three of the shortlisted books to date but I’ve read the two you mention Mark. I’m with you on The wandering falcon. I loved the writing style — it didn’t leave me cold at all though of course you aren’t able to become vested in characters because their stories aren’t fully told. Even Tor Baz is pretty shadowy. Great review though Matt, all the same. You make good points about the women issue, as I recollect, did Lisa in her review. I think all three of us like Please look after mom, but there is dissension in the ranks. I think we are going to learn first hand the challenges – and perhaps compromises – involved in being on a jury!

  3. Justine says:

    Looking forward to reading this … what’s your interest in Border Studies? (Sorry, kids on holidays and not enough time to trawl through your blog to find out myself!!) ((Miraculous that I actually managed to get access to my computer … had to stand in line!))

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It’s ok – I’m on the West Coast of NZ South Island, and am typing this out on my phone.

      The border studies thing isn’t on this blog. It’s just something that’s interested me at uni, and now I’m writing an honours thesis about border literature in Japan. There’s a really excellent book by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, called Reinventing Japan, that you should check out if this kind of stuff interests you too.

  4. […] Ahmad’s The wandering falcon (Pakistan) by Matt of A Novel Approach. He thought it was an interesting description of time and […]

  5. winstonsdad says:

    sorry Matt this didn’t grab you like Mark I loved this I just felt it was a hinest view of these people for once we see so much that is negative or just untrue it was nice to read a book by some one that has lived and worked with the tribes people all his life ,all the best stu

  6. […] The Wandering Falcon – Jamil AHMAD Rebirth – Jahnavi BARUA The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul BHATTACHARYA River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke The Lake – YOSHIMOTO Banana […]

  7. […] See my ANZ LitLovers review, Stu’s at Winston’s Dad, Mark’s at Eleutherophobia, Sue’s at Whispering Gums and Matt’s at A Novel Approach. […]

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