Saturday, February 23, 2019

‘Verily, memory is a tricky wench’ (and other wisdom in HM Naqvi’s The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack)

[Did this book review for Scroll]

Reading HM Naqvi’s second novel The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, I was faced with a tricky question, which goes something like this: what if an author does a good, authentic-seeming job of capturing a narrator’s distinct, idiosyncratic voice – and yet this voice itself is so affected, so rambling and at times grating, that even as you admire the book’s achievement and seriousness of purpose, the reading experience often becomes a drag? **

I speak of the narrator-protagonist Abdullah K, known as the Cossack (we learn why around a hundred pages in), a 70-year-old resident of Karachi, or as he writes it, Currachee. (“This orthographic tic can be attributed to my affinity for the sonorous, indeed alliterative quality of the colonial appellation for the city – after all, I came of age during the Raj – but the long and short of it is that it’s my city and I’ll call it what I want.”) Abdullah is a brilliant man in many ways, but a notably unaccomplished one – if you define “unaccomplished” as having little tangible to show for the grand projects he has been working on or contemplating. “I am more phenomenologist than historian,” he tells us; he claims to be writing “a mythopoetic legacy” of his city’s patron saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi.

Now, as the book opens, a few situations descend on him, creating both peril and a renewed sense of purpose. First his old friend Felix Pinto (“the Last Trumpeter of Currachee”) asks him to look after his adolescent grandson Bosco for some time. (“You know things. Teach him something. Character building and all that jazz.”) Then, Abdullah learns that three of his four brothers are planning to dispose of their ancient family estate, the Sunset Lodge, the only place he has ever known as home; the fourth brother, Tony, may be his only hope, if he can locate him. Meanwhile fate also throws into his path a young woman named Jugnu, obsidian-eyed and caught in gangland trouble, and the possibility of a dangerous romance arises.

So here is a man who, at an advanced age, is at risk of losing his moorings – and his most prized possessions, including his library – but has also at the very same time acquired a surrogate family, which brings with it new responsibilities and new fire. It’s almost as if fate had said: let’s get this chap to stop pottering around and procrastinating and theorising, and give him things to do, as well as new things to think about.


Conceptually, there is much to relish in this ambitious novel, which arrives eight years after Naqvi’s award-winning debut, the dynamic Home Boy. If that book was about three young Pakistanis in post-9/11 New York, this one has another protagonist who is an outsider in his own way, even though he is a Muslim in Pakistan. The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack is filled with memories of a cosmopolitan Karachi, made up of jazz clubs, bars, cabarets and musicians with such nicknames as Caliph of Cool (I was reminded a little of the smoky, glamorous world described by the Urdu writer Ibn-e Safi in his Jasoosi Duniya series) – a place that might be less inclusive today than it was in the 1950s and 60s heyday of Abdullah and Felix. It’s clear that they miss that world and feel sorely out of place in the current one.

Along with its many references to the city’s cultural and sociological history, this book is also a study of a complex man. Naqvi conveys the sympathetic side of Abdullah – we see his loneliness, his eagerness to please beneath the pedantry and archness that might easily put people off, his fear that he might lose his new “family”, his sense that time has passed him by. “You will be judged by what you finish, not what you begin,” he recalls his dying father say, and those words hang over his life like a giant neon sign. A running motif is the difference between knowing and doing – between, say, providing a scholarly discourse on the culinary history of a region and cooking a meal yourself in the thrill of new love.

All this is so promising. And yet, there is the matter of Abdullah’s actual prose, which may test the patience of even readers who have a high threshold for showy writing. I would have to quote entire passages to properly make my case, but consider even short declarations like “Verily, memory is a tricky wench.” (There are many occurrences of “verily” and “veritable” in this book.) Or “Nobody has offered me any biscuits & I do relish a biscuit, a splendid genus incorporating everything from the modest saline to the vanilla wafer.” Or the random appearance, in the middle of a regular sentence, of an all-capitalised observation like “Apparel Doth Maketh the Man”. Or this bit about a woman who is suspected of being a 'transvestite': "What to do? Discreetly explore the topography of her nether lands with my divining rod whilst she is asleep? What if I discover a bitter gourd in the brush?"

It bears mentioning that The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack has a Foreword and an Afterword, which present the main text of this novel as an actual written manuscript, received by one of Abdullah’s acquaintances (I won’t say who) and edited together. In other words, perhaps this is his lifetime’s accomplishment, his mythopoetic legacy, the thing that he sat down and completed, making him something more than a dabbler or a dallier. And this makes the floridity of the writing more plausible: one can believe that someone like Abdullah would, when putting pen to paper, make conversations more ornate than they actually were, allow himself to get carried away, or just amuse himself by repeatedly using words like “espy” where “see” would do.

Up to a point, this sort of thing can be cute or create a drolly comical effect – but to me at least, it started to feel tired after a while. The writing in Home Boy had many stylistic flourishes too – the main characters, who think of themselves as global citizens until hard reality strikes, speak a language that mixes the rhythms of gangsta-rap with Punjabi slang – but there was an energy and an internal rhythm to that book, which I felt lacking here.

Perhaps it’s the burden of expectations: I went in thinking this book would be wildly funny, and on that score I was disappointed. Take the prolific use of footnotes. This is a device that can be put to very good use in a humorous narrative requiring sharp or witty asides, but here the footnotes often just contain random information, including things that could have been added as a paragraph in the main text without affecting the narrative flow. (Incidentally, the one footnote I was genuinely grateful for is a detailed recipe for orange pulao!) This again is something that might be “true” to the meandering thought process of a narrator like Abdullah, showing off his store of knowledge on various subjects including his city’s history. But we, the readers, must still deal with it.


Eventually the prose became such a barrier that I only dimly registered what was happening at the plot level in the book’s second half – as Abdullah reunites with his brother Tony (and his new wife) while also trying to stay clear of gunmen, and figure out what Jugnu is up to. And yet, somehow, I never quite lost interest in this protagonist, or stopped feeling concerned for him.

Reading some passages, I thought of a certain variety of old gentleman (it’s always a man) who routinely stands up from the audience at the end of a literature-festival session, ostensibly to ask a question but really to supply autobiographical detail in a baroque tone. The wannabe poet, now 86 years old but convinced as early as age 10 that he was destined for great things. (It didn’t work out, of course: now, decades later, he is fated to sit among the audience, watching pretenders.) Or more specifically, the gentleman I once saw at a Chandigarh fest who, apropos of nothing, stood up and went on about how he had been the first man in his city to get a vasectomy.

The point is, it’s possible to be irritated by such people and their self-obsessed hijacking of an occasion, while also feeling sorry for them and realizing how, with just a minor twist in fortunes or personality, they might have been the ones sitting on stage, blabbering about their bestselling books.

I felt a comparable sympathy for Abdullah, who, beneath the occasional pomposity of his tone, is like a lost, lonely child. Little wonder that one of the book’s most resonant passages – a very short one – has him walking through a house during a mourning ceremony for a distant relative and overhearing a conversation about someone with great promise and potential but fated to be a failure. We realise, though he himself does not, that it is him being discussed. It is one of the rare times in this book where we get a break from Abdullah's constant expounding and information-imparting and are privy to someone else’s perspective on him – and the results are unexpectedly moving.


** This might be likened to an actor playing a screechy or obnoxious character as the lead role in a film. The empathetic viewer might recognize that the performance (and the script) is honest, not an exercise in overacting; but what does one do with such knowledge if this unlikable or irritating person occupies nearly every minute of the film’s running time?

[Some of my earlier book reviews and author interviews for Scroll are here]

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