Tag Archives: Pakistan

The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) – Nadeem ASLAM

My pick for last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, was a beautiful evocation of a less-than-well-travelled part of the world—the dangerous mountains on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reading that opened my eyes to a part of the world about which I know nothing. I was excited, then, to see that Nadeen Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden was set in the same place.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, two Pakistani brothers walk across the border into Afghanistan. They are not there to take up arms, but to help the wounded civilians caught up in the American invasion.

It tries to reach similar heights to one ones Khan’s achieves, but never manages to provide the reader with an emotional centre into which we can fully immerse ourselves. The story itself should be touching—it is the story of mistaken identity in a world torn apart by sectarian violence, where protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. It is not limited to American misunderstanding of who is a terrorist and who isn’t—the Taliban are on the warpath, and anyone considered to be an American sympathiser is not safe.

Ostensibly the biggest problem with the novel is the way in which it is structured. In the first section, we are introduced to a family—the father, Rohan, whose wife’s death has forced him to question his beliefs in God; his biological son, and his adopted son. After the attack on New York on 9 September 2001, the two brothers decide to go to Afghanistan to help the sick and the injured.

So we spend almost a quarter of the book getting to know these two characters, only for at least one of them to be torn away from us. Why should we, as readers, continue to invest our emotion and thoughts into a novel that is willing to kill off a character it has set up as a protagonist so early?

The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of this death. This, in itself, is not a bad choice, but I am yet to understand why Aslam waited this long to get to the heart of the narrative. Many of the reactions to his death are touching, and recounted deftly by Aslam, whose control of the English language is exquisite.

Most of my problems with the novel could easily be solved in one of two ways. The first is to simply eliminate the first section, and let the reader deal only with the fallout of an undeserved death on a grieving family. The other option is simply to rearrange the chapters slightly so Jeo’s story is told in flashback, slowly allowing us to understand who he was to those who remain.

Form and function are always bound tightly. The function of Aslam’s novel is to highlight to us the grey nature of right and wrong in a world where violence begets violence. It’s an admirable theme, and one that we would all do well to consider more often, particularly in the case of religious extremism. But his choice of form lets him down, and the meat of the novel doesn’t start until well after it should have. It is this that remains the fatal flaw for The Blind Man’s Garden.

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) – Mohsin HAMID

I went to a conference for emerging Asian Studies scholars at the end of last year (don’t ask me how I got an invite—I felt horribly out of place), and there were two buzz words/phrases that got pulled out at almost every lecture. The first was “Asian Century”, a reference to the Australian Government’s recent White Paper; the second was “rising Asia”, a term to describe the  many emerging and developing economies of South East and West Asia.

This obsession is not isolated to academia. In the past few months, two novels from prominent Asian authors have dealt with this idea of “rising Asia”, of people coming to terms with rapidly developing economies, and finding their place in this new paradigm. While Tash Aw’s excellent Five Star Billionaire took a somewhat dim view of the way of life brought about in developed Shanghai, Mohsin Hamid seems to revel in it.

Much like Aw’s book, Hamid’s novel is also based around the dodgy advice doled out by self-help books that seem to litter bookstores and airport shops all around the world. But Hamid’s novel is a little more biting, choosing to mercilessly mock these ridiculous books, by subverting the aphorisms they so love to dole out.

I can’t review Filthy Rich without mentioning some stylistic features. anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel—where you get to be the protagonist!—will find themselves in familiar territory. The narrator is ostensibly Hamid, who is having a conversation with “you”, the reader. He tells you the story of your life, in sections corresponding to what we might see in a real-life how-to-get-rich guide, from the first step (“Move to the city”) to the last (“Have an exit strategy”). Each is a snippet of your life, an important moment in time as you move from poor village dweller to one of the richest people in the country, having control of many slightly shady drinking water deals with the local government.

Somehow, your life seems to be blessed. You manage to get all the opportunities everyone in rising Asia wants. You get into a good school, at the expense of your sister; you get into university, dabbling in religious extremism, but never committing; you start a dodgy water cleaning business, selling to enough businesses for you to hire staff; and by the end, you

What this novel does, though, is manage to transcend its cultural and temporal surroundings. It is not only the protagonist that has no name—the country we are in, even the city, are left unnamed. Though there are enough clues to suggest it is probably somewhere in the subcontinent, there is enough ambiguity that it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the action take place in south east Asia, or even Africa.

Drawing on the traditions of authors like Italo Calvino, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has a depth of both style and substance, and should be a strong contender for this year’s batch of prizes. Along with the recent film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it should mark Mohsin Hamid out as one of the rising stars of contemporary postmodern literature.

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The City of Devi (2013) – Manil SURI

The recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the flashpoints of the future are not in Europe or America—they are in Asia. From North Korean tinpot tyrants to Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it seems likely that the next major international conflict will come from the developing Asian world. So it’s interesting to see a potential future from an Asian writer.

Mumbai. The city of Devi. A city on the brink. As news of an imminent nuclear attack hits the streets, so too does Sarita. Her husband has been missing for a few days, and she has decided to find him. But someone else is trying to find the same man. Jaz is following Sarita in the hope that she will lead him to Karun. As they weave through the battered streets of Mumbai, though, both begin to realise that bigger problems are looming.

Taking this on board, Suri paints a world where this has happened. Just like Tarun J Tejpal in The Valley of Masks, Suri uses a uniquely Indian context to create speculative fiction to revitalise many of the tired clichés dragged out by other writers. One film which takes the Hindu god Devi and turns her into a modern-day superhero, aptly named Superdevi, has taken India—and the rest of the world—by storm. As the local government in Mumbai decides to use Devi as a symbol of the city—despite the secular nature of said government—the local Muslim population find the use of a Hindu symbol to represent them less than ideal. Egged on by extremists in Pakistan and anti-democracy protestors in China, violence rapidly erupts, a road that once taken can’t be unmade.

Mumbai, then, is transformed into a city teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. As the purported deadline for Pakistan’s impending nuclear attack comes closer and closer, people begin to act more irrationally. Bombs and violence become an almost daily certainty, so by the time we as readers arrive on the scene, Sarita finds herself hiding in the bomb shelter of a hospital. People are terrified—though the internet is no longer working, word of mouth has spread rumours that  Pakistan is planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Mumbai in the next three days. Needless to say, people are nervous, and even in the small confined space of a bomb shelter, Muslims are being hunted down by Hindus. And how do you know when you find a Muslim? Same way you can tell someone is Jewish.

Unbeknownst to Sarita, Jaz, our other narrator, is also present. But Sarita has more pressing concerns—she thinks she knows where Karun is, and begins to run through the desolate streets of Mumbai to find him. As she runs, we get flashbacks to the beginning of Sarita and Karun’s relationship. Both in their early thirties, their families willing them on to find someone to settle down with, they find themselves actually falling in love. But Sarita feels that Karun is holding something back, particularly when they try to consummate their relationship. Even after they marry, it takes Sarita a lot of time to get Karun to perform sexually. She feels that something is holding him back, but she can’t work out what it is.

When we shift to Jaz’s perspective, everything crystallises. Karun’s secret is hardly surprising—anyone with half a brain can guess he’s having an affair with a man from about 30 pages in. So it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t confirmed by Jaz until almost 100 pages later. It makes Sarita come off as less than the naïvely-in-love woman she is supposed to be, and more of an idiot. Though perhaps this is an Indian thing? I know the Indian take on homosexuality is not the most positive or prominent, so perhaps this more like the case of the 1950s housewife being genuinely surprised that her husband like dudes.

The treatment of sexuality in India—particularly in Muslim communities—adds another dimension to the novel. Suri paints the isolation and persecution faced by gay men in India well, and Jaz’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is made simpler by the fact that he is brought up in Europe, where attitudes are a little more liberal. His transformation from sex-crazed teenager forced to skulk in parks to find partners to a man in love and in a mature relationship is nicely realised, and really makes you feel for Jaz. Having found someone to love in a society that frowns upon it is hard, and the fact that Karun is skittish about the whole thing makes it seem even more unfair.

No doubt Cory Bernardi would be unimpressed by the ending of this novel. As signposted fairly early on, Suri presents us with a future that does not rely on contemporary ideals of family and relationships. Karun becomes the centre of a relationship between three people, with him in the middle—literally and figuratively. Haring back to the alternative Hindu holy trinity presented at the beginning of the novel, Suri suggests that each of us needs not just one other person in our lives, but two, to provide a more balanced approach to life. It’s an interesting idea that actually qorks quite well in this context.

Perhaps the most important job of a speculative fiction writer is to make sure that the world they create never becomes too unbelievable. It’s a fine line, and only occasionally does Suri falter. There are one or two moments where Suri has to write his way out of dead-ends he has written himself into. But for the most part, this is an excellent post-apocalyptic novel with an arguably more realistic take on potential future conflicts.

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Between Clay and Dust (2012) – Musharraf Ali FAROOQI

Staying in Pakistan, though admittedly with a complete shift in tone, today’s longlisted Man Asian Literary Prize novel is Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, published by small Indian press Alpha Books. I don’t have a particular interest in sport novels, but then again, I read Chinaman and loved it, so I’m willing to be wowed again.

The old city, standing at the centre of the new city, is home to many people who have lived through a lot. One of the these people is Ustad Ramzi, well-known champion pahalwan, clinging to the old noble ways of wrestling. Another is Gohar Jan, an ageing courtesan, who is also hoping for a return to the old times. But the rest of society is moving past them, and together, they must weather the changes.

If Anjali Joseph’s novel is about the youth of today, then Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust provides us with a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. His characters are elderly and tired, having spent their lives in the service of their respective careers.

There’s probably little better in the world to act as a metaphor for fragility and ageing than sport. It doesn’t matter which sport it is—the idea of someone falling hard and fast from their physical and mental prime, falling from the ultimate symbol of (in this case) male strength and virility is a powerful one. In this case, Farooqi uses wrestling, complete with the trappings of culture and tradition that are inherent in these kinds of things to tell the story of modernisation, of young against old, of an old man realising he has no place in the modern world.

This is played out in the relationship between the two brothers that run the akhara. Ustad Ramzi, the older, has been reigning regional champion for many years, but he has come to realise that he can no longer handle the physical and mental demands of his chosen profession. But he cannot give the reigns of running the stables to his much younger brother, Tamami, who has spent his life living in the shadow of his much more successful older brother. And so Farooqi tells the story of an age-old tension—two brothers with different points of view and different agendas.

In many ways Ustad Ramzi create the Tamami he doesn’t like and cannot trust. He refuses to let his younger brother take over any duties or activities of the akhara, and so Tamami turns to acting out, to not taking wrestling seriously, as a way to kill time, or perhaps to attract the attention of his older brother. Neither trust the other to do what they want, because of the history between them. There is no easy way out for either of them to break this cycle.

But it is Ramzi who is the first to break. He allows Tamami to take the mantle of head fighter of the family stable, and there is a montage scene (because, what sporting story is complete without a good training montage?) in which Tamami bulks up in preparation for the bout against a representative of the opposing stable. Of course, Tamami loves the attention and the training he is getting, because he feels like he has deserved this for a long time. The ensuing fight is tough, and Tamami has been so trained, so conditioned to get angry when he fights, he snaps, and accidentally kills his opponent.

Ironically, it is Ramzi’s driving away of Tamami that causes the eventual collapse of the akhara, not the fact that Tamami is a new breed of pahalwan, willing to do things Ramzi might not once have been willing to do. His intense training for the bout caused his anger to rise, and he lashed out at his opponent. Wracked with guilt over what he as done, he turns to drugs, and so beginning a spiral to the bottom.

The sport itself is changing, too. There are promoters now, people trying to sell tickets and make the sport more exciting for those who pay good money for an evening’s entertainment. In many ways, it is no longer about the sport, but about the spectacle of the sport. People want to see something exciting, even if it means sacrificing traditions and long-held ideas about how the sport should be played. Gulab Deen sets up a stable of wrestlers willing to sacrifice some of the more traditional aspects of wrestling to make it more exciting, to have exhibition matches, to occasionally know the outcome of the match before it has even begun. Needless to say, Ustad Ramzi does not approve of Gulab Deen and his ways, but Tamami, someone willing to rebel against Ustad Ramzi in any way he can, finds himself a part of this merry band of wrestlers.

The side plot to all this is Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gohar Jan, the head of the local brothel—though that might be too strong a word. She, too, is finding her age catching up with her: as the world changes, she finds fewer people needing her services, or the services of her girls. Much of their relationship is left unsaid, but Ramzi finds solace in a woman he has known for a long time, and together, they enjoy traditional dance and music. These are nice scenes, and I would have liked to see more of this pushed throughout the novel.

It’s interesting to note that both main characters uphold what could politely be termed as traditional gender roles. Ustad Ramzi has spent his life riding on the fact that he is physically strong and imposing, using his masculinity to frighten others inside the ring, giving him celebrity and respect outside the ring. Meanwhile, Gohar Jan uses her femininity to make money from men looking for physical and emotional comfort.

Farooqi pulls these strands together in a very short novel(la). Many scenes are little more than a page long, lending the work a sense of control and precision usually seen in good short stories. But this is a full-length work, and Farooqi tackles his themes with aplomb. A small, but well-formed meditation on what it means to get old.

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Thinner Than Skin (2012) – Uzma Aslam KHAN

I’m heading west, away from the holy trinity of North East Asia to the mountains of Pakistan. This is Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, the second to be published by small American press, Clockroot Books.

Having decided to go to Pakistan to research glaciers deep in the mountains of the wild north, Farhana and Nadir quickly find themselves out of their comfort zone. Already living an unstable relationship, their lives quickly spiral out of their own control, leaving them in a strange country, surrounded by even stranger people, moving away from safety, hoping against all hope that things will get better.

How much blame can we ascribe to one event? Can one event, one moment in time, truly affect us more than the accumulation of the smaller bits and pieces of our everyday lives? These are the questions Khan is seeking to answer, while at the same time, leading us on a tour of what must be one of the most beautiful, dangerous and underexplored parts of the globe.

Saif-ul-Maluk (جھیل سیف الملوک) is a lake in northern Pakistan, near the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India. It is a glacial lake, formed by the melt from the glaciers in the mountain ranges surrounding it. Saif-ul-Maluk is also the spiritual, physical and literary heart of the novel. It is easy to trace every event in the novel to and from the shores of Saif-ul-Maluk

Critics often talk about landscape and place becoming a character in a book, and while it often sounds wanky and ridiculous, there is a school of writing that foregrounds the environments in which stories take place. Cormac McCarthy, for example, uses southern USA in his work, while Tim Winton evokes Western Australia in his. Just like this, then, Khan makes full use of the area in which she has set her tale to inform and enrich her own tale. From the descriptions of the lake itself, to the evocations of San Francisco, to the final third, which is set on a mountain face in the Himalayas, Khan connects her story to the environments in which it is set. This adds a dimension not seen in so many novels, a dimension that pays huge dividends.

Farhana and Nadir have come to Pakistan with another American friend, Wes, despite Nadir’s misgivings. It is ostensibly a reason for Farhana to come to the country of her mother, to find an identity she feels she has lost having been brought up in America, though this is not a theme Khan seems to pursue with any particular enthusiasm—something I am grateful for. She is more concerned with far more universal themes, one in particular.


People do bad things every day. They do things that hurt the people they love the most; they do things that hurt complete strangers. How do we react to these moments of wrongdoing? Do we forgive the people who hurt us? And so we don’t just get the first person musings of Nadir, who is consumed with guilt over the events on the lake, though his recollections seem to be open to questions. Khan gives us alternating chapters told in third person, with Maryam the focus. In fact, it is Maryam that opens the novel, and her reflections on family and fate are what tie the novel to the mountains against which it is set.

Inevitably, then, the opposite of forgiveness is also explored—revenge. This is certainly the preoccupation of Maryam’s story strand, even if she herself does not necessarily want to undertake the act herself. Payment must be made for the death of her daughter, and as Irfan points out at one stage, this would usually be in the form of a court system or a police force, but because of where they are, nothing like this exists. Instead, it is up to the people to hand out justice/revenge. Interestingly, it is Nadir who eventually becomes the target of this justice, because Farhana is a woman, so cannot be touched. Or so he thinks—as with all first-person narrators, his recollection of events is not exactly accurate.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it makes me want to go to Saif-ul-Maluk, which is probably not a good life choice, because it’s a deeply unsafe part of the world—something that provides yet another layer to the backdrop of these intensely personal events taking place. The threat of sectarian violence—the kind we see on the news with depressing regularity—is mentioned again and again by all the characters, though three of our main four seem quite blasé about it. Of course, as with all good Chekov’s guns, if you refer to something again and again, chances are it’s going to become important by the end of the text. So, inevitably, terrorism rears its ugly head at the end of the novel, nicely tying in with other themes. Nadir and Farhana have not escaped cleanly from the crime they committed: as with all small communities—even ones that are constantly on the move—word gets around, and the option for revenge, for payback is taken. It takes time to eventuate, but Nadir discovers much too late that people have been watching him, ever since they left the lake.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, it is revenge that eventually wins out, in ways not entirely expected. Nadir and Farhana are finally made to pay for what they did to Maryam’s family, by a man who professes to be a friend; while lingering questions are finally answered as someone else chooses the path of revenge, though in a far more public manner. It is easy to plan revenge, but much harder to allow forgiveness in: it is, of course, thinner than skin.

Dealing with themes of forgiveness and revenge—base human emotions that we all experience, Thinner Than Skin is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers. It is perfectly constructed, both structurally and thematically, devoid of unnecessary words and ideas. Khan is in control of the language she uses to tell her story, leaving the reader blown away both by the power of the English language to describe both the natural and the internal.

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American Dervish (2012) – Ayad AKHTAR

When I wrote a post about what it meant to be Asian, as part of the Man Asian Literary Prize, I lamented the fact that immigrant experiences, and stories of the Asian diaspora weren’t included in the field. I totally understand why this happened, but I have always been fascinated by immigrant stories, and that inherent tension between the culture of one’s parents, and the culture of one’s living space. Which is what made American Dervish such a promising read.

Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, trying to make a new life in America. His father is a doctor, his mother a housewife. When circumstances force his mother’s best friend, Mina, to move to America and live with his family, nothing will ever be the same again. Introducing him to the world of Islamic mysticism, Mina encourages Hayat’s growing interest in the religion of his homeland, and sets him on a path that could destroy the family.

Hayat, as a young boy struggling to find his own identity, trapped between an overbearing mother and a drunk, adulterous father, finds it easy to confide in Mina, who is clearly very attractive, both physically and mentally. As Hayat moves into puberty, a time that wrecks havoc upon the teenage brain, his own feelings towards her become more and more confused. It’s easy to see why he is attracted to her as a mentor and mother figure – his father is barely home, preferring to spend his nights getting drunk with young white girls, while his mother seems unable to see him as her son, instead pouring her marital problems onto him, despite his not wanting to know.

And then walks in a beautiful woman, willing to pay him attention, to see him as a real person, not just a kid. She shows him the mystic side of Islamic tradition, complete with whirling dervishes, and stories of an all powerful being, able to make your life better if you pray hard, and learn the Qu’ran by heart. One cannot help but wonder if she knew the damage she was doing – teaching religion to vulnerable people, offering them a way out of their unhappy lives, will always have consequences, particularly if the one doing the teaching is blindly unaware of the true limits of their influence.

There are some subtle character developments throughout the novel that show Akhtar as a promising storyteller. Perhaps my favourite is the fact that Hayat’s father is not the insane Islamic fundamentalist we are so used to seeing in Islamic stories. Instead, his refusal to be drawn into the bickering infighting of the Pakistani community, as well as his horror at many parts of the Islamic tradition sit uneasily with his alcoholic, womanising ways. As Hayat slowly moves to a path of dangerous fundamentalism, his father is watching, making sure he never goes too far. And then, when he finally does, it’s not an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.

It’s funny that, while we all applaud the idea of immigration as a way for people to escape the persecution and bigotry of their homelands, this is not really something that ever happens. More than anything, this novel demonstrates just how ingrained some prejudices are and how, even in a country thousands of kilometres away from the actual conflict, the Arab-Israeli fighting has consequences around the world. Old world prejudices in the new world, are handed down from generation to generation, breeding a new kind of prejudice.

No one, it seems, escapes unscathed from the influence of religion in this novel. Hayat ruins the lives of many people courtesy of his desire to become a hafiz. His mother has spent most of her life blaming her husband’s behaviour on the simple fact that he is a Muslim man – she takes a very view dim of the traditional male/female roles outlined in Islamic culture. His father has been cast aside by the Pakistani community because he dares to call himself an atheist, finding little common ground between his own pursuits as a doctor and the more militant Islamism espoused by the leaders of the community. Mina’s life is ruined – no, that’s not the right word – decimated, by the fact she is ostracised to the point whereby she must reject the man she loves, in order to marry a man who – well, you’ll find out. Nathan, Mina’s Jewish boyfriend, too, finds being a Jewish man willing to convert to Islam for the sake of his love not as easy as he may have expected.

Whether this message was Akhtar’s original intention, or simply the way my views on religion have affected my reading of the novel, I’m not sure. But what is clear is that, in the end, Hayat can only find peace as a non-believer. And despite all that goes on, American Dervish doesn’t strike me as an angry novel. There is a sense of resignation, that it is simply impossible for people to move forward while still clinging on to old ways of thinking, old prejudices, old religions.

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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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The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) – Mohsin HAMID

I’ve just finished a stressful essay on Modernist poetry, and needed something to take my mind off the depression such an essay can cause. Not literal depression, mind, just the despair of realising you have absolutely no idea what on earth these poets are trying to say. So, I dipped into the small pile of unread books on my shelf, and this one popped out at me. Shotlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, I see. Well, Darkmans was good. Surely this one, too?

Two mysterious men – one Pakistani, one American – meet in a cafe in the streets of Lahore, both with secrets to hide, and both with a story to tell. It is up to the Pakistani man, Changez, however, to tell the other the story of his recent life in America, and what led him to be the person that he is today. Being a foreigner in America immediately after the September 11 attacks, he tells the other man of his comfortable life being interrupted by racism, attacks, and the depression of his on-again, off-again American girlfriend.

Well, I wasn’t expecting this book to be as good as it is. I read it in two sittings, staying up late last night to finish. It’s like an extended short story, helped no doubt by the trick of the narrator actually speaking to “you”, for the reader becomes the American man to whom this story is narrated. It’s a nice touch, and the interruptions to the actual story, with the sub-plot of what is actually going on in this little cafe, are excellently done. I can imagine exactly how this small, polite Pakistani man might come up to me and start telling me the story of his life.

The story of Changez’s life in America is very well done, and the pun in the title of the book is a nice touch – while fundamentalist might conjure up images of suicide bombers and the such in today’s world, he actually becomes an economic fundamentalist – working for a company for whom the bottom dollar, the truth of each transaction, is vital, fundamental, even. His slowly growing disillusion with the way America works, and then responds to these events, unfolds perfectly, and you certainly understand exactly where he is coming from. While this could have so easily turned into an anti-American rant, Hamid restrains himself (far more than I think I ever could), and convincingly and calmly argues his point. Which, yes, is anti-American in its final message.

Perhaps most interesting is the ending. While the normal thing to do would be to end with Changez becoming some kind of fundamental American hater, he becomes a university lecturer, who holds classes that are not exactly pro-American in their leanings. To say that he becomes a terrorist is to deny what happens, though, granted, he could be lying. It just seems to be unfortunate that he ends up caught up in this world that tags him as a terrorist, simply because he is from Pakistan, and because he doesn’t like America. And yet, just as the American man to whom he is speaking doesn’t trust him, or anyone else around him for that matter, there is a sense that perhaps Changez is not telling the whole truth – the man doth protest too much, and all that. The ending doesn’t help to solve the ultimate uncertainty of what Changez’s role in all of this is, but I like to think that an intelligent reader will extrapolate that he isn’t an extremist – the rest of the book would certainly indicate that he does not have the ability to do something extreme.

What an excellent look at how the rest of the world currently views America. From an author who clearly has experience from both sides of the fence, this is a surprisingly though-provoking novel that deals with problems that are amazingly pertinent in today’s world. Short and sweet, but it will certainly make you think.

And I’m sorry about that terrible rhyme. My bad.

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