January issue 2010
The Writers’ Pick
Renowned Pakistani authors choose their favourite reads of the past year.
Mirza Athar Baig
My experience with books during 2009 continued to be largely determined by the exigencies of my literary and academic pursuits, but less pedantically speaking, ultimately by the sheer joy reading affords. I would love to share briefly with the readers, my reading experience of at least three books: two novels and one non-fiction work.
Reading J.M.G. Le Clezio’s The Interrogation initially had Sartrean overtones for me and reminded me of Sartre’s Nausea, but then the resemblance faded at the level of the treatment of ‘reality.’ The narrative develops through multiple voices portraying the existence of Adam Pollo, who has just abandoned himself to the mercy of the event-generating forces of the world, as if letting things happen to him. The result, interestingly enough, is not completely surrealistic in any overtly Kafkaesque sense; it is rather a reading landscape where reality is not the real issue, and understandably so, as Le Clezio warns in his short foreword: “I have made very little attempt at realistic treatment (I have a stronger and stronger impression that there is no such thing as reality).”
Reality, in the old hackneyed sense of the philistine, might not be a big issue in the French tradition of the avant-garde, but it appears to be a matter of life and death for Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, desperately trying to understand the reality of the “suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head scarves” in Snow. The cultural and cognitive reality of the contemporary Muslim world in the mutually ambivalent perspectives of western modernity and Islam is the formidable question for Pamuk in almost all his writings. The literary stratagem employed by Pamuk is the creation of a godforsaken town named Kars, completely sealed off from the world not only because of its geographical location but more menacingly, through an apparently never-ending snow storm. A bit mechanical, or laboured at places, Snow is a fascinating read and, I daresay, especially instructive for writers juggling with the idea of writing fiction based on the present- day complex phenomena of the Muslim mind.
I had planned my reading of Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference by Thomas P. Kasulis as a part of my ongoing research aimed at exploring the cultural bases of knowledge and education in our parts of the world. However, the book proved to be of significance not only for the students of philosophy but for anyone interested in understanding the most explosive question of the time — how cultures generate ‘the realities’ of their own and how the worlds generated by them can come to war. In fact, the questions discussed by Kasulis through a conceptual comparison of the Japanese and American cognitive cultures, remain the same, which are at the heart of the two novels as well, and which are clearly stated in the introduction to the volume. How can I know something? How can I convince someone of the rightness of my position? What is artistic creativity? And of course, how does reality function?
Tehzibi Nargasiat by Mubarak Haider: Ever wondered why a certain kind of Musalman is always whining? This book has all the answers. If you have felt during this year that we as a nation suffer from some disease, this book provides the diagnosis. Tehzibi Nargasiat should be compulsory reading for high school students as well as our TV anchors.
Home by Marilynne Robinson: The slowest, saddest book I have read this year. It’s a painfully accurate but tender evocation of every home.
The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave: The most deliciously depraved book about a travelling salesperson you are ever likely to read. Bunny is a stomach-churning and disgusting character but you don’t want to leave him alone because you never know what he might do next.
Chalo by Masud Alam: A collection of very strange and endearing travel stories by debut Urdu writer Masud Alam.
Mitti Ki Kaan by Afzal Ahmed Syed: Collected works of Urdu’s best contemporary poet.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene: A feverish, twisted thriller. Its teenage villain-hero will haunt you long after you finish this book.
Pal Bhar Ka Behisht by Sarmad Sehbai: Brilliant, beautiful, sensuous poems and killer ghazals by Sarmad Sehbai. I think these poems should be read from mosque loudspeakers across the country. It would make us feel much better
I have been obsessed this year with reading and re-reading Graham Greene’s novels. I’ve devoured nearly a dozen of his novels this year. I highly recommend the following: A Burnt Out Case; The Ministry of Fear;Heart of the Matter; A Gun for Sale; Brighton Rock; The Power and the Glory and Travels with my Aunt. Graham Greene’s works, though set during a time of imperialism and fascism, make sense to me in these senseless times. He was such a master of political, social and criminal insight — such a master of words and the turn of phrase. I wonder why he didn’t get the Nobel Prize for Literature? He brings solace to me in these treacherous times. I had just finishing reading A Gun for Sale — around the time that the shootout incident happened at the US base, Fort Hood — and I came across this line in the novel: “The porter turned the pages looking for something. He said, Funny thing, isn’t it? Here we are going to war again and they fill up the front page with a murder. It’s driven the war on to a back page.”
I also read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; H.N. Naqvi’s Homeboy; Ghalib, Epistemologies of Elegance by Azra Raza; Sara Suleri’s Good year worksand Five Queens Road by Sorraya Khan.
I have read just one book — nothing else can stand with it.
The Veiled Suite — The Collected Poems of Agha Shahid Ali is a breathtaking, heart-shattering reminder of a much-missed poet. From his early work, The Half-Inch Himalayas, to his book of ghazals, Call Me Ishamel Tonight, this collection shows both the genius that existed from the start, and the demands he consistently made on himself, pushing his work both in terms of form and content: the two collections, The Country Without a Post Office and Rooms are Never Finished, which take their emotional heart from the suffering of Kashmir and the death of his mother, are even more extraordinary when placed beside each other.
The Veiled Suite takes its title from a previously unpublished poem, the last he ever wrote. It is brilliant.
My favourite book published in 2009 was In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Unusually for me, I haven’t read much contemporary fiction this year. But I saw Daniyal’s short story collection in pre-publication galleys in 2008, and it was excellent. Wonderfully crafted, deeply human — I highly recommend it.
Nadeem Aslam’s haunting, prescient novel The Wasted Vigil captures the tragedy of Afghanistan and foretells that of Pakistan, offering rare insights into the psyche of suicide bombers. Brimming with unforgettable images: books staked into a ceiling, a recumbent Buddha, a skein of brightly coloured thread rolling innocently down flights of stairs to connect two lovers, his story is both layered and timely.
Tariq Ali’s The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Powerprojects and consolidates the nightmare scenario for Pakistan in a finely balanced narrative that spares neither the American invaders nor the Pakistani elite and establishment, both political and military. Yet, he manages to retain his warmth and sympathy for her people and their plight.
Anita Mason’s The Right Hand of the Sun draws you in slowly but surely into the world of the Aztec empire, a million miles away in time and space, which she makes real with great vividness and intensity. Her formidable talent as a novelist is matched by the breadth of her empathy and her intellect. A rich tapestry of themes subtly enriches her narrative: language/translation, culture/history, power and colonisation, treachery/loyalty, belonging and un-belonging.
The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry(translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and others) is a tribute to the richness of the Tamil literary heritage as much as it is to the skills of the translators and editors. Romance, heroism, politics, war, love, domesticity and devotion, all filter through with remarkable grace and elegance revealing none of the residual creakiness of a translation.