Thursday, June 09, 2011

Love of literature and the literature of love in Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger

Although they are asked, more frequently than anything else, if their books are autobiographical, all writers of fiction (and indeed all good readers) know that their work and their imagination are doubly rooted, half in life and half in literature. Over time, these two sources are intermixed so deeply that it is hard to think of one without the other: hard to experience a feeling that does not raise a phrase from a book or a line from a poem or the memory of a work as a whole, and hard to read a novel or track a poem's winding path without having a window opened onto one's own memories.

But of course novels themselves, being usually about neither writers or even readers in any significant way (perhaps the most characteristic act of reading found in novels is the typical one of someone reading a newspaper) rarely explore this double-sided condition, its truths, its failings: to do so is to risk a kind of solipsism. Very rarely there appears inside novels a finely drawn map of a literature-loving self and its relationship with the world. Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger is one such book.

The novel is narrated by a man in London, Mehran, looking back on his life from the vantage of late middle age. Like most of Hussein's fictions it carries a mood both elliptical and elegiac. But what Hussein enjoys in this book, more so than the short stories for which he is thus far best-known, is a wider expanse of narrative space, a space he finesses in a quite distinctive way. Very early on in the book a number of highly suggestive triangles appear, particularly those of cities  the disparate worlds of Karachi, Indore (where Mehran's mother was born) and London  and languages: English, Urdu, and Farsi. Cities and languages are characters in this book as much as people are (something that is emphasised when we read that Karachi had given Mehran "his sense of a city's life", not just a sense of his own life). All throughout we see the protagonist being spun and shunted not just between people but also between place and tongue, a nomad in every sense of the word.

It is this complex texture and rich field of reference that gives the love stories at the centre of the novel their particular sweetness and poignancy. Over his twenties and thirties, Mehran falls in love with, and is later unable to escape the claims of, two very distinctive women -- the beautiful, flighty, and enigmatic concert pianist and photographer Riccarda, whom he meets while he is studying for a degree in Farsi, and the brilliant, tempestuous, sensation-seeking economist Marvi. Both are married when he meets them, and in a kind of flight from the facts of their life. Their arrangements with Mehran must necessarily be unorthodox; sometimes it takes years for a patch of blue sky to appear over them, and then it vanishes just as fast.

In one of the book's most beautiful passages, Mehran is suddenly summoned by Riccarda to Rome. The very look of the city  "Rome, in August, was drowsy, apricot-gold; sultrily abandoned to its silver fountains and its deep blue skies. For the first time in years, I began to imagine what it might be like to live away from London"  seems to promise a fulfilling of every call of body and soul. Mehran and Riccarda spend a few days together rapt upon wings (or, to borrow from the book's central metaphor, clouds) that appear only once or twice in life. The protagonist is seen imagining a lasting peace and stability when a call from Riccarda's husband suddenly shatters their idyll. She leaves in a rush, leaving behind Mehran to find his way back to London. On the journey back, Mehran experiences not just all the pain of heartbreak but also its resentful energy, the impulse to stoke a hundred new beginnings:
It took me thirty-six hours or more to get back to London; I travelled via Milan, changed stations at Paris, took the ferry at Calais. I cried on the boat and pretended I had hay fever in the sunny August weather. After Riccarda's sudden flight I knew that our relationship would always be full of interruptions and breaks. I had always wanted to hold on to her, missed her when she was away and found her elusive, so I gambled my body for her love, thinking that once we were lovers I would have a bigger place in her heart. I had failed. Looking at the whitish waters of the Channel now, I was making other plans: dreaming, for the first time since 1979, the year I dreamed of going off to Shiraz or Isfahan to study Persian literature there. [...] Now, again, I wanted to travel, to write essays or poems, or a short film script, perhaps, to live for a while in another country. I thought I should write a doctoral thesis or at least go along with my tutor's suggestion that I write one. Then I would settle down with someone or have a child, or adopt one, while I was still young. No room in my life for a secretive lover. I took the train from Dover to Victoria, and reached home dirty and dishevelled.
But Mehran continues to stay in touch with Riccarda, even to love her; as we see later in his relationship with the economist Marvi, in relationships he is very much the giver and not the taker. Yet as time passes, he proves much more resilient than his partners, as if nourished by a dozen wellsprings and redeemed by the grace of his own imagination. Some of this has to do with his ability to immerse himself willingly in prosaic tasks and to keep a kind of inner discipline, but some of his equanimity is also a result of the consolations of literature: a love of words, the knowledge that others have been in the same place as him and more are to come. Indeed, many of the novel's most ringing sentences have to do with Mehran's perceptions of books or writers, his precise evocation of the spirit that guides a single soul or a tradition in literature.

As a student in England, Mehran comes to realize that, although English is his first language, it an English that drinks at the fountain of another tradition: "the rolling cadences of Keats and Tennyson had always been a music as distant from my ear as the assonances of Mir and Ghalib or Faiz were close." His literary explorations take him out not just towards the great Urdu literary tradition of the subcontinent, but also the less-known one of Sindh handed down to him by his mother: "What I really wanted was to understand the work of Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast and Khwaja Ghulam Farid, the great poets of the Indus Valley who used those age-old tales of blighted loves my mother had told us to map the experiences of the soul's longing for its origins." The voices and veneration of poets are something that he also shares in his relationship with Marvi, whose Urdu is as good as his and whose Sindhi is better; they arrive at an understanding of their condition through art's infinite power to permeate and clarify human realities:
The discipline in [Parveen] Shakir's syntax and the almost Persian grace of her complex vocabulary drew me to her verses; something else in her voice  a yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique, born of our time and our generation  spoke to Marvi. (And there were verses that could have been about our relationship: 'We ought to have met/in a kinder age/in the hope of a dream/in another sky/in another land.")
But it was Shakir's broken marriage, her life as a single mother, her charisma, and most of all her early death that Marvi was drawn to.
That same "yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique" can be heard at some points in Hussein's own narrative, as when Mehran comes to see that his essential condition is solitude, and that, unlike the cloud messenger of Kalidasa's Meghduta who carries a message from the lover to his beloved, in his own case he must "be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place, and back again from present to past."

Last, it is worth dwelling upon the book's idiosyncratic narrative technique, one that stands at an angle to the large embrace, and smoothened surfaces and transitions, of conventional realism (although conventional realism, too, can be endlessly complex). In his short stories Hussein has always revealed a love of the fragment, of allusive passages that stand alone and whose relationship to the rest of the text must be resolved by the reader.

In the more expansive, detailed narrative world of The Cloud Messenger this distinctive tendency is used to complicate the story and to vary its pace and rhythm, large chapters of continuous narration being followed by single-paragraph ones that make no apology for either lyric flight or mysterious reticence. The glories of both literature and love are emphatically and memorably sounded in this most independent-minded novel, which seems like both the coming together of many themes and strands in the author's past work, and at the same time a new beginning.


Dr Malpani said...

I really liked the cover page. It gives a kind of symphonic feel to you.

Leela Soma said...

I have just finished this book in one sitting. Lyrical, poetic, beautifully and skillfully written. Like you say in your review 'the protagonist is spun between people, place and tongue , a nomad in every sense of the word.' The book became more poignant to me as I finished reading it and driving an hour later, found clouds that were stunning. It was drizzling and suddenly an amazing rainbow and its reflection (never seen two at the same time) came into view. I could see all the seven colours and the entire semicircle of bounteous nature's creation. The clouds beside them were a messenger in so many ways. This was my first book of Hussein's and I'll certainly look out for his short stories.

Your review of his book is so good that I am going to mention your review in my blog with your kind permission.