Saturday, March 20, 2010

daniyal mueenuddin: in other rooms, other wonders

#24 In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin

I began this book with extremely high expectations, given all the reviews and prizes, and ended it with all of them met because this really is an unusually good book. The writing does justice to its form - the short story - as well as to its own scope. You come away after it feeling like it has satisfied some vital enquiry into the human character, and into writing itself. It's the sort of feeling you get when you read the great psychological writers of the nineteenth century, like James or Chekhov; writers who have shaped the way you read interiority as well as the material condition.

The book is a set of eight short stories, revolving around the life and estate of Pakistani landowner K K Harouni. Harouni himself appears only as a supporting character: the stories are about his servants, retainers, family members, and his circle of friends among the upper classes of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The classes are connected intimately but never fluidly: their resources to grapple with the crises of life - births, deaths, scandal - may vary but at the core they retain a similar sort of corruption and clarity. These layers unspool with gentleness and a certain amount of tender impassivity in the lives of several astonishingly well-realised characters.

But impassivity is also brutal, and the beautiful trick in many of these stories is the way Mueenuddin draws them to a close. In Nawabdin Electrician, we examine the life and milieu of the title character over a hypnotically well-controlled and evocative narrative, until we are led in the last four pages to see what happens to Nawabdin when an armed thief attempts to rob him of his motorcycle. It is a stunning conclusion. The next story, Saleema, is almost one of my favourites, with its complicated love story between the maid Saleema and KK Harouni's valet, the old man Rafik, until something happens at the end to make your blood curdle - something so inevitable, but so little foreshadowed in the narrative, that its occurrence is astounding. The last story, A Spoiled Man, also makes use of the same device, of bringing the story around to an end that seems inevitable but never drives or bullies the story.

To find a style so free of mannerism, of cleverness and of sentimentality is a wonder. My favourite story is Provide, Provide, about Harouni's corrupt estate manager Jaglani, and his relationship with the seemingly helpless Zainab, who turns up as his maidservant, but whom he eventually marries in secret. Marriage and sex are the prime movers of the relationships between men and women in this book, but Mueenuddin is successful - again - at describing manipulation and disingenuity without becoming manipulative himself. His female characters are as human and vivid as the male. They are not the bearers of illusion: agency, mobility, freedom, these things are even more limited for them then they are to their lovers and husbands. Even ones who exist outside the landscape, like an American girlfriend, eventually succumb or are lost in some way. Here the grand impassivity of Mueenuddin's narration touches on something dreadfully uneasy without comment. There are no easy lives in this book, no simple gifts of redemption. The women suffer for this the most - again, as they do in the great European novels of the late nineteenth century - and their deaths, or the facts of their survival, are always subordinate to thir weaknesses of thought and action. Mueenuddin has an enormous capacity to describe their ambitions and desperations, and his female characters are in many ways much more sympathetic than the men. Perhaps this is necessarily because within these stories, they are always more isolated. In such a stiflingly patriarchal world, the old maxim about individualism as the preserve of the male and community being a female creation is turned on its head. What country, what network of power, what circle of friends could Zainab or Husna [the young mistress of K K Harouni] possibly belong to? What is destiny in the face of fate?

I've touched on the stories that deal with the less-privileged characters of the world of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders because I liked them the most: while the achievements of stories like Lily, about the courtship and marriage of two lonely young people from the swish set, are varied and impressive [although the one set in Paris, with the American girlfriend, is the only story with sections of writing that are almost, almost pedestrian], I found them less moving. In fact, I wonder if part of the power of this book is because its stories are set in a country and society relatively unexplored in English-language fiction. What are the odds that I would have shut the book or flung it against a wall if Lily was set in England or the US, or India? High. In Other Rooms... would go on a bonfire of the vanities, alright. But a book's worth as the proverbial mirror to society can only rank alongside a judgment of its own integrity, and In Other Rooms... is tremendously truthful to itself. It is superb.

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