Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2011  



Granta Or The Stuttering Corpse


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, Issue 112, Autumn 2010, Pakistan, illustrated, London, ISBN 978-1-905881-21-5, 288 pages, $16.99.


"Whether Pakistani artists like it or not, the question of their identity now has geopolitical significance. Who are the inhabitants of this young country? What do they believe? Unmanned drones hover over the North West Frontier to mete out punishment to those who answer incorrectly, while men who have no time for representation of any kind, and who hate art for its advance into the territory of religion, are waiting in the wings. As the confusion and carnage on Pakistan's northern border threatens to move southwards, the long-standing preoccupations of post-colonial cultural politics are pushed aside by more pressing concerns."

—Hari Kunzru, High Noon


(Swans - January 31, 2011)   Picking up a fresh Granta, the reader says, "We're not totally fucked over yet when a literary review can last thirty-one years." Then he opens it and wonders if sleepwalking like this is survival. The long list of guilty staff published on the masthead have apparently never heard of euthanasia. But Numero Uno, the editor John Freeman, can't still be alive. His editorial hand didn't finger Issue 112, even in a glove.

Was Pakistan so redoubtable a subject that no one dared to write an introduction that would put what was to follow in some rough context? The authors are simply thrown at us as if they are natives of London's Hampstead or New York's Upper East Side, whose backgrounds, mores, and, for heaven's sake, gender, we could guess. The two page afterthought at the back devoted to the twenty or so contributors is little more than a cut and paste job from publishers' lists. But readers aren't ready for an unaccompanied tour. Pakistan isn't the Channel Islands or British Columbia.

Granta, which appears four times yearly, couldn't cover the Indus River basin floods that put one fifth of Pakistan's total land area under water. But that disaster began in July and deserved at least a mention in an autumn publication. How can we approach Pakistan's "new writing" without someone, preferably an editor, filling us in, even briefly, on regional issues like Islamabad's nuclear weapons and the long standoff with India?

As suggestive as the sideway glances of fiction writers and poets can be in such matters, their perceptions are fragmentary. We soon understand, as we read, that Pakistan is something of a mystery to its writers too. We need a chatty uncle of our own, an editor, to establish some order among the scribblers. He also owes us basic information. When a poem is tagged as "translated by," we want to be told what language it comes from (page 190). Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, but native to only 8% of the population. Four other languages have more native speakers. English may be the lingua franca of the nation but the very different way authors use it here means we need more information about them and their creative tool.

It's not that decent production values are wanting in Granta. Issue 112 presents a striking cover by Islam Gull. He's a veteran of truck painting, a thriving art form in South East Asia as it used to be in Sicily. Moreover, the stout volume is full of shiny pages, few of them ads, and includes a section of graphics and photos. This is the contribution of Green Cardamon, a London gallery devoted to Indian Ocean art. In High Noon, the novelist Hari Kunzru comments:

Sometimes one feels the artists have internalized the categories of post-colonialism and are now doing what is expected of them as Pakistan artists, by reproducing them in the hope of critical approbation. Yet even the failure to represent oneself authentically, the impossibility of seeing oneself except as belated, constructed, supplicatory, is significant.

Granta may have felt that the half-dozen pieces of reporting included gave readers enough current history to go on with. But the reportage is literary. Powerful enough in its way -- often outshining the fiction -- it never gives us the larger picture. It portrays memorable individuals or picks at the knots of single problems. It evokes the feel of places and their moral temper. But its scope is limited and produces, however interesting, only more fragments.

Declan Walsh, a Guardian reporter, in Arithmetic on the Frontier, befriends and follows a powerful politician of the Marwat tribe from the southern reaches of Pakistan's Pashtun territories. Walsh's fascination with tribal values uncovers much about the area that was hived off from Afghanistan by colonial map makers and now weighs heavily on the Afghan war. The Marwat have touchy relations with the Taliban as well as with Islamabad. They are a warrior people, given to tribal conflicts, and their devotion to Islam is subordinate to the code of their tribe.

In Mangho Pir, Fatima Bhutto, daughter of a notable Karachi family, leaves her affluent neighborhood to visit that of the Sheedi. These pariah people seem to have their origin in East Africa. There are traces of Swahili in their language and their devotion to drumming makes them unique in Pakistan. They live in almost total exclusion and deprivation. One of their holy men is said on his death to have descended into a family of crocodiles. The animals have survived and the general public comes to throw bloody meat to them in a festival. It's the only time of the year any notice is taken of the Sheedi, whose existence gives us a hint of the diversity in Pakistan's ethnic makeup.

Basharat Peer in Kashmir's Forever War tries to understand a conflict that has killed seventy thousand since 1990. What was a struggle between two national states has engendered a desire for separation from both of them. Several generations have been shaped by the pressure from Pakistan and the brutal occupation by India. Peer fixes his attention on a teenage stone-thrower, probing his motives and predicting his fate.

Jane Perlez's Portrait of Jinnah brings us closer to an enigmatic historical figure. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a Westernized lawyer who is honored as Pakistan's founding father. A Shia who couldn't speak Urdu, he was no theocrat. Negotiating at the time of partition, he sought political guarantees for Muslims. He wanted autonomy and protection for them, not necessarily a separate country. He had two hundred Savile Row suits in his wardrobe, chain-smoked Craven As, and liked a drink. But he died too soon to fight for his idea of a secular Pakistan.

In The House by the Gallows Intizar Hussain tells us how hopes were killed off for a Pakistan free of state religion. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had flirted with Islamism in a vain attempt to strengthen his position. But once Ali Bhutto was assassinated, it was the dictator General Zia ul-Haq who turned Pakistan into an Islamic state (1977). Ironically, since the USA backed Zia and his military takeover to the hilt, they were an important factor in Islamizing Pakistan. At the same time, America's covert war against the USSR in Afghanistan was laying the foundation of the Taliban.

Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nasir look at two would-be terrorists in The Trials of Faisal Shahzdad. Their understanding is enhanced by an interview with a New York City Police Department Intelligence Officer born in Pakistan. He tells them it's ridiculous to attribute the failed Times Square bomber's radicalization to problems with his job as an account analyst or his unpaid mortgage. When Shahzdad went back to stay with his parents, there were forty-seven drone attacks in Wazirastan that killed 411 people. He decided to fight terror with terror. The enquirers also reviewed the case of Shahawar Matin Siraj who was found guilty of intending to attack the Herald Square subway station in 2004. The retarded Siraj was clearly the victim of entrapment.

With Mohsin Hamid's A Beheading we leave reporting with a bang to witness an execution by extremists from, as it were, the inside. Other testimony is less bloody. In White Girls we are into a typical immigrant story. Sarfraz Manzoor is caught between his mother's expectations and his own taste for local girls in the London suburbs. Aamer Hussein, in the same vein, with Restless tells how he arrived in London at fifteen and began a long exercise in winning girls' friendships. In Pop Idols Kamila Shamsie looks back on her infatuation with pop music and notes how its development in Pakistan was abruptly cut short:

The reason for this dissonance was the dramatic shift that took place in Pakistan's cultural life between the early seventies and early eighties. The shift had a name -- "Islamization" -- and a face -- heavy-lidded, oily-haired, pencil-moustached. That face belonged to Pakistan's military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, ally of the Saudis and the Americans. As the alliance with the Americans brought guns into Karachi, so the alliance with the Saudis brought a vast increase in the number of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas: these preached a puritanical version of religion at odds with the Sufism that had traditionally been the dominant expression of Islam in much of the subcontinent.

But it's fiction that has the place of honor in this volume of "new writing." The lead story, of fifty pages, is Leila in the Wilderness by Nadeem Aslam. It's a fairy tale full of thoroughly good people and thoroughly bad people. The good -- and poor -- are victims that end up on top because of their naturalness. The bad -- and rich -- twist religion to their evil ends and live in superstitious confusion. First love survives five impregnations by a bluebeard mother's boy. The unspeakable abuse of women, sometimes by other women, underlies all the action. There are poetic moments, but they get smeared over by events that belong in a video game.

Uzma Aslam Khan writes Ice, Mating in another order of English, not sounding like a translation, and full of a poet's verbal finds. She looks at the Diaspora, the relationship between a photographer who still has one foot in Pakistan and his lover, a Pakistani girl brought to California as an infant. Insights, poetry, and abrupt narrative shifts there are, but no shaped story. Butt and Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif reads more like a classic short story. It evokes the big-city aspect of Pakistan: gun culture, brutal policemen, women holding their own, Christians living amongst Muslims, and a blare of urban noise.

The mere sixty-three lines of poetry in this thick volume are such a feeble editorial concession that the three poems are best passed over in silence (poets Yasmeen Hameed, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Hasina Gul). The curious, however, might like to know that the Dalkey Archive will publish Modern Poetry of Pakistan early in 2011. It's the first anthology of its kind to appear in English and contains a hundred and forty-two poems translated from seven major languages.

With a lapidary short story, The Sins of the Mother, Jamil Ahmad closes the volume with a sobriety that stuns. For hundreds of pages we have rubbed shoulders with people far from us in every way. Some of their traditions horrify us. But their endurance, their dignified suffering, their loyalties, their everyday humanity and attachment to life, can only fill us with awe.


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Published January 31, 2011