Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 01/26/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Scenes from Early Life
By Philip Hensher
Faber & Faber, 320 pages, $30
This remarkable novel originates from a clever conceit. British author Philip Hensher has appropriated the personality, voice and personal history of his real-life gay partner, native Bengali Zaved Mahmood, as its narrator.
So it includes huge dollops of memoir of Mahmood's upper-middle-class family life, mixed with both fictive elements and actual historical events from the 1971 brutal civil war that saw the then East Pakistan split from West Pakistan and bloodily emerge as the new nation of Bangladesh.
Hensher is a London critic and columnist and the author of seven previous novels, including the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Northern Clemency (2008).
Most of the acutely drawn story is set in late 1960s and early 1970s Dacca, East Pakistan, then the regional capital city, and later capital of the nation of Bangladesh.
The backstory to the civil war that saw millions die in the fighting or due to starvation, and which ended only on India's decisive intervention in the conflict on the Bengali side, includes a finely rendered portrait of the workaday lives of Mahmood's family and extended family in the halcyon years prior to his birth on the very eve of war.
The narrative shifts back and forth in time. It starts in 1970s post-independence Bangladesh, with young Saadi, as his family calls him, going to school during the week but spending all and every weekend at his lawyer grandfather's spacious home.
He and local neighbourhood kids play television-inspired games in the streets of Dacca, re-enacting the plots of American TV programs -- Starsky and Hutch, Knight Rider, Kojak, Dallas, but always, and especially, Roots. (Disputes ensue when almost everyone wants to be Kunta Kinte.)
But obliquely, and strategically, the recent civil war and its betrayals intrude on their play.
"I was not sure I was really allowed to include him in the game," Saadi muses about one of his playmates. "His uncle and father had taken money from the Pakistanis, and had told them where they could find intellectuals -- musicians, poets, scholars, professors, schoolteachers -- to kill."
Eventually the story reverts to an earlier period in the family's life, and becomes, in part, a mise-en-scéne for depiction of the rise of Bengali nationalism.
That nationalism is at first only glimpsed in the daily lives of as-yet-unborn Mahmood's grandfather, grandmother and a flock of future aunts and uncles, all living under the same roof in a large house in a well-to-do Dacca neighbourhood.
Their offbeat relationships, familial politics and sundry comings-and-goings of unmarried daughters in a large, upscale urban retreat are related in engaging, almost Jane-Austenish, domestic detail. But as their lives evolve in tandem with political currents, and heightened Pakistani secret-police and military repression of Bengalis, the novel takes on a darker tone.
Ultimately the newborn Saadi and his family survive the Pakistani army's occupation of Dacca and the brutalization of its population, and family life seems to resume its pre-war niceties and observations.
But by story's end portraiture has long since taken a back seat to meditations on how only families -- and likewise societies -- that embrace civilized values care about the legacy they leave.
In Hensher's adroit and damning telling, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Bengalis cared quite a lot; the Pakistanis, not so much.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 J8
Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories? Please use the form below and let us know.
Having problems with the form?Contact Us Directly
Springsteen picture book out in November
Haruki Murakami tops Maclean's fiction list
Publisher acquires Robin Williams biography
Jamaica Kincaid wins American Book Award
William Shatner headed to Toronto for Fan Expo
Robert Hass wins $100,000 poetry prize
Review: 'Mean Streak' is filled with surprises
Rare Superman comic book fetches record $3.2M
Gregg Hurwitz delivers in 'Don't Look Back'
Review: 'Dirty Work' is nuanced, thoughtful story
Author's ode to crosswords is right on the mark
Dunham, Poehler among those with books this fall
American soccer player Tim Howard has book deal
Blank canvas: Murakami's latest a work of dreamy melancholy
Couple to share aneurysm experience
Like a rock: Newfoundland tale adds to province's CanLit canon
Fresh takes on Great War
Debut short-story collection a stunner
Simpson's fragments of language rewarding
Eloquent Vietnamese war tale lacks pace
Excoriating the executive: Nixon taken to task by former legal counsel
On the night table: Chris Barkman
Overcast vibe never gets dark and stormy
Bringing order to our cluttered minds
New in paper
WALL STREET JOURNAL-BEST SELLERS
USA TODAY Bestsellers
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY Bestsellers
'Outlander' TV saga features sizzling romance