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May 09, 2008

Review of Moazzam Sheikh's The Idol Lover and other Stories from Pakistan

This collection of short stories has a very distinctive voice, and a particularly masculine consciousness. For such a slim volume, it packs in a surprising amount of sex, lust, violence, profanity. But more than that, it packs in unsettling amounts of longing, restlessness, anger, fear, menace, confusion.

The first half of the collection is mostly set in the East, and comes across as a series of snapshots, capturing various male protagonists; apartment dweller, soldier, the son of a gardener, etc. Each protagonist may be in different arenas of life, but the uniting theme is that each seems lost, flailing about in their lives for purpose and meaning, living vividly while watching themselves with dissatisfaction, discontent and an inarticulate longing for an unexpressed, undefined, only dimly glimpsed, alternative. This in part contributes to the complex texture of these stories, which are written with such a sense of immediacy, and yet have a will-o’-wisp quality to them.

The first story, ‘Monsoon Rains’, is perhaps the most unforgettable. Not because of its protagonist, who is such an everyday character that one could easily ‘pass him by again without recognition’, as are indeed all the protagonists in this collection. The charm of Sheikh’s writing is precisely in these very average, ordinary characters, whose experiences are rendered so vividly in his stories, whose internal turbulences and dramas are played out in the narrative with immediacy and violence. No, the charm of Monsoon Rains is in both its structure and its selection of narratives. It depicts the sordid with exceptional beauty and translucence, focusing in on minute details until the intensity of the focus reveals the hidden fragility and terrifyingly knife-edge-balance contained within those details.

It is the atmosphere Moazzam Sheikh is able to create which set him apart from so many other short story writers. Amidst the mess and grime and grey-browns of the landscape, this author brings us flashes of colour, as troubling as they are compelling.

The 2nd half of the collection features 4 stories of diasporic Pakistanis in USA. Once again, the stories have a very internal resonance to them, following the workings of the protagonist’s mind, observing the external details and how they impact upon him, while constantly threaded through with the musings and interpretations of the protagonist. That internal, mental, quality of Sheikh’s writings has an echo of Anita Desai’s work (such as Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day, etc), though the stream of consciousness here is much less feminine and flowing, and much more jagged and stark. Sheikh’s depiction of a diasporic person’s sense of alienation, confusion, loss, and longing are quite different from those which have gone before in the genre; this depiction pushes the boat further, dramatizes the sense of displacement and despair to a higher level, and is charged with an undercurrent of the dark and the sardonic, which characterizes this writing voice.

However, not every story in this collection was of the same standard. ‘Snakeskins’, for example, was one which merged the real with the surreal, which would have worked if the story had a clearer purpose or meaning within it. ‘The Idol Lover’ was another which lacked the elegance of the rest; it is one of the longer stories in this collection, and very delicately conveyed a particular experience and character, but its form was problematic and threw its own internal rhythm off beat a little.

That said, the majority of the stories in this collection had a luminescence which draws the reader in, an originality which renders it a good reading experience, and a strength of personality combining dark humour and a very light touch.

Posted by Lisa Lau at May 9, 2008 04:17 AM

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Posted by: Anonymous at May 9, 2008 04:17 AM

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