August Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Recently translated into English by Bilal Tanweer, Ibn-e Safi’s enthralling The House of Fear is now available to a much wider audience interested in detective mysteries. World-renowned Agatha Christie paid Ibn-e Safi a huge compliment when she said, “I don’t know Urdu but have knowledge of detective novels in the subcontinent. There is only one original writer — Ibn-e Safi.”

Born on July 26, 1928, Ibn-e Safi was a famous novelist and poet who incorporated a wide variety of moods into his work from intense mystery to lighthearted humour. His most well known works are the 125-book series, The Spy World, and his 120-book series, The Imran Series. The House of Fearforms part of the latter.

This story, The House of Fear, is the first of two stories in the book. The second story is calledShootout at the Rocks. The House of Fear centres on the protagonist, Imran, and his partner in solving crimes, Fayyaz, as they are confronted by a mystery involving a dead body that has three identical wounds and is found in an abandoned building to which very few people have access. The three wounds are separated by a distance of exactly five inches and have the same depth. Readers are made to believe that this mystery is the main one, but other problems emerge as Imran and Fayyaz embark on their crime-solving journey.

The action in this story is not developed well. It’s one thing to have a startling shocker, but quite another to have every climactic point come so abruptly. This could be due to the translation, but ultimately the plot of the book comes across as something bordering on silly.

Stylistically, however, this book has a very natural flow. What’s so enthralling about it is the fact that Ibn-e Safi has achieved something that most writers find impossible to do: integrate the worlds of comedy and suspense into a serious book. Also, Ibn-e Safi makes references to beautiful poetry but many of these phrases seem anomalistic as his character Imran appears to go off on tangents when reciting the verses. Perhaps these verses added to the richness of the novel in the original text, but they certainly seemed odd in the English translation.

However, when reading just one book in the entire Imran Series, it is vital to keep one fact in mind: the true purpose of each novel is to showcase the endearing character of Imran, the spy. At first, it’s really not the plot that glues one to the story but the amusing and lovable protagonist. Ibn-e Safi’s development of Imran’s character makes the reader feel like Imran is a childhood friend, and, at times, the reader will find that he or she can relate to Imran. With his clumsiness and absentmindedness, Imran is that particular character whose personality is tangled in his unusual quirks, thus making him the endearing character that every novel needs. Moreover, the hidden intelligence and agility that Imran possesses can be fascinating. Constantly caught in situations drenched in drama, Imran does not let the heaviness of his job weigh him down. Even with an intense crime to solve, he can still milk the situation to its fullest extent including one in which he tries to meet up with the woman he claims to love. Often enough, though, it ends up being counterproductive. At this point, Ibn-e Safi uses Imran’s hyperbolic confessions of love to elevate the humour. However, while Imran’s almost bipolar personality is amusing the first few times, it begins to get old as the story progresses. The storyline often seems unrealistic as Imran’s erratic behaviour regularly transforms into intellect that is superior to that of those around him — this is despite the fact that Imran’s dimness is put on by design.

Thankfully, Ibn-e Safi does not let Imran’s awkward goofiness and slapstick attitude run the entire story. He has manoeuvred it such that there is also a balance of rationality and seriousness, introduced via Fayyaz’s character. This adds a sensible approach to the investigations yet still allows Imran’s lightheartedness to shine through.

All in all, the characterisation in the novel is well planned. Whether you’re the Imran in your life or the Fayyaz, you will definitely find yourself engrossed by the fact that your life is, in fact, quite similar to one of theirs.

Ibn-e Safi died thirty years ago in July, 1980. He had outbreaks of schizophrenia during his life, which makes one wonder if there were echoes of Ibn-e Safi’s troubles in Imran’s life. Decades later, Ibn-e Safi has still managed to sustain his name in the world of literature and reflect himself in his books, his poems and the extraordinarily real (yet unreal) characters he has so finely developed.