Tuesday January 22, 2013
BY KARIM RASLAN
Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid is a name to watch out for. His style is spare, taut and condensed. His sentences are crisp and spot-on. Nothing goes to waste.
WE are very used to seeing gratuitous violence and sex on our TV screens.
However, when we read it in books, especially supposedly “serious” novels, we get squeamish.
Well, there’s a new edgy school of Asian literature that mines the criminal underworld for material.
Let’s call it “Outsider Fiction”, with the Chinese dentist-turned writer Yu Hua and India’s Aravind Adiga (the author of the ground-breaking, Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger) leading the pack.
Their work rejects the traditional middle-class obsession of the literary world (marriage, adultery and status, as exemplified by Vikram Seth with A Suitable Boy) focusing instead on the gritty world beyond the bourgeois salon of ingénue unmarried maidens, anxious mothers and hesitant young men.
With these writers, it is as if we’re watching and in fact participating in the world behind the swing doors that separate “polite” society where tea is drunk from bone china cups from the hoi polloi where the same beverage (often sweetened and, at times, mind-numbingly milky as well) is downed from a cracked glass tumbler, or whatever vessel that happens to be available.
Then, stepping beyond the middle-class enclaves – the equivalent of Ampang Hilir, Kenny Hills and Damansara Heights – we’re among street-cleaners, petty gangsters, conmen, thugs, prostitutes and corrupt officials.
It’s a grim, ugly stage with our cramped and makeshift shanty towns spilling over into our Asian cities, with the countryside as a constant backdrop – though it’s a poverty-stricken, cash-poor countryside where people yearn desperately for the opportunities and glamour of the cities.
We’re going to have to welcome a new arrival into this group of intense and harrowing story-tellers: Pakistani-born novelist Mohsin Hamid.
Indeed 2013 will almost definitely be Mohsin Hamid’s year since a film version of his highly-regarded second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, with Mira Nair as director and starring Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland will be set for global release alongside his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Mohsin Hamid’s style is spare, taut and condensed. His sentences are crisp and spot-on. Nothing goes to waste. This no multiple-generational saga, loose baggy monster with countless narrative detours and peripheral characters.
Indeed, if his written work were an animal, it would be the leanest of the great cats – perhaps a leopard or a cheetah, rippling with muscularity and energy.
However, the elegance comes at a price; though I’m unsure whether this is a weakness or a strength. Essentially, and unlike either, Aravind Adiga or Yu Hua, Mohsin’s work is more deeply humanistic and hopeful.
Mohsin’s work doesn’t teeter and then fall into the abyss of violence and despair that typifies the other two authors.
His characters, indeed his world vision steps away from a head-to-head confrontation with the evil, malevolence that infuses The White Tiger and its amoral anti-hero, Balram.
Straddling as he does both East and West, Mohsin is a product of the best Ivy League institutions, he appears to nurture a surprisingly strong attachment to family bonds and love, especially romantic love, which remains transcendent and central, unlike Aravind who willingly allows his anti-hero to wash his hands of his Bihar-based family.
Mohsin’s ambitiousness in Filthy Rich is noteworthy and commendable. How many writers would seek to write and speak for an underclass of billions stretching from Beijing to Jakarta and Karachi?
However, in his desire to be all-encompassing and universal, his novel lacks the rootedness and specificity of the best “Outsider Fiction”.
We miss the specific, local texture. Is Mohsin talking about Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi? These differences matter. In fact, by trying to be too universal, he leaves the reader cold and disengaged.
Whatever the case, Mohsin Hamid is a name to watch out for in 2013 and yet another reminder to us in South-East Asia that we lag our counterparts in both China and the subcontinent when it comes to capturing the brilliance of our worlds in prose and fiction, whatever the genre.