The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A wonder of a book

If you're still looking for Christmas presents, I recommend Daniyal Mueenuddin's quite amazing In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The book is a collection of linked short stories (characters that are central in one, will flitter through the background of another). Two of them had appeared previously in the New Yorker, and they are both magnificent.

Mueenuddin is a great talent: his writing seems to overflow with wonderful, memorable images; his stories take swift, striking turns. For example, describing a secondary character, an old man: "The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it."

The book has received many positive reviews. The stories are set in Pakistan, between the 1970s and the present. Mueenuddin presents a view of Pakistani society that is deeply divided between haves and have-nots, absolutely ruthless, and in which sex is a form of leverage and romantic love is often a delusion and the beginning of a downfall. Yet--despite the fact that almost everyone involved is fighting desperately for a foothold of some sort, and generally losing that fight--there are moments of beauty, hope and tenderness.

In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda writes that "Because of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, to mention just a few of the most prominent authors, American readers have long been able to enjoy one terrific Indian novel after another. But Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is likely to be the first widely read book by a Pakistani writer."

Yet as Amit Chaidhuri, in a review of Nadeem Aslam's latest book, points out, Pakistani writing has had a growing international audience for some time now:

What is Pakistani writing? Whatever it might be, it seems to have taken up newsprint lately. Things have been changing quickly and irrevocably over the last seven or eight years: a great symbol of American capitalism was destroyed by two aeroplanes; this was followed, some years later, by a crash in the market no less resounding and sudden; in South Asia, Pakistan (marginalised and nearly abandoned by post-Cold War politics) has been veering between being a frail democracy and becoming a basket case. In no obvious way connected to all this, a handful of Anglophone writers has recently been emerging from that country. Most of them are young, and have written one or two or three books; some, like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, have successful careers and lives elsewhere. Their work is not part of the long 20th century; they are not a necessary component of a post-colonial efflorescence, as Indian Anglophone writing appeared to be in the 1980s; they are not in any clear way a part of a national literature; they do not bring with them the promise of offering to the reader the ‘sights and sounds’ of what used to be, in Kipling’s time, North-West India. They are a 21st-century phenomenon, appearing at a time when the new supposed fundamentals of this century – free-market dominance, the end of history, the clash of civilisations – suddenly seem frayed and ephemeral. Pakistani writers are interestingly poised: implicated in both the unfolding and the unravelling of our age.