Book Review: Scenes from Early Life
Faber and Faber, 2013
An acquaintance approaches you with a manuscript and solemnly tells you she’d like you to read it. You’re flattered, you respond, what’s it about? “It’s about a courageous homesteader who fought for years to establish a life for herself and her eight children on the Arkansas frontier.” Sounds gripping, you say. “Yes,” the acquaintance says. “The courageous homesteader was my grandmother. Who had just been diagnosed with consumption. And who was slaughtered by Choctaw Indians. In front of her children. I’m named after her.” You begin to see the trap into which you’ve wandered, but by then it’s too late. The acquaintance slams the trap door closed with the words “I’d really like your honest opinion of it.” And she locks the trap door with, “Oh, by the way, I’ve just been diagnosed with consumption too.”
A fairly unlikely scenario, you might say, but it happens to book critics on a regular basis. A winsome young man writes a memoir about how he destroyed his life in an orgy of gay sex and cocaine addiction – and what, you’re supposed to say “Great, but the third act is weak”? An Iraq war veteran writes a heartfelt novel about an Iraq war veteran (published on September 11, of course) – and what, you’re supposed to say “Yeah, yeah, but your dialogue stinks”? Elie Wiesel writes … well, anything at all, and you’re supposed to kvetch about his narrative flow? Some books – an increasing number of them, in our age of the Tell All (About Nothing) blur-zone between fiction and memoir – virtually come with warning signs saying “Book Critics Will Be Prosecuted to the Full Extent of the Law.”
People perhaps not as knowledgeable as they should be tend to point to writers like James Patterson or Jackie Collins and say “Oh, you can’t really review their books,” but nothing could be further from the truth; those dear old battleaxes love getting reviewed, because they know how to smile for the cameras and they’ve got a tire iron in their glove box – they can hold their own against some Writers Workshop snot who wants to twit them about their plot development.
No, it’s the blind fathers of autistic children, the burn victims with learning disabilities, the quadriplegics who had to map an entire alphabet onto nostril-twiches … these are the rhetorical equivalents of “Falling Rocks” signs on the highway: by the time you know the danger, you’re committed. If the burn victim writes a memoir about his tragedy, that’s one thing (any therapy that works is good therapy, after all), but if the burn victim writes a novel about a burn victim, that’s ever so much worse. That’s when one of the falling rocks flattens your car – and then asks you for your honest opinion of the whole experience.
Most readers became acquainted with Philip Hensher through his eerily accomplished novel The Northern Clemency, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2008 (and certainly was more deserving than that year’s winner, however astutely some of its critics praised it). He’s a prolific journalist and the writer of several other novels, including 2011’s extremely good (if extremely problematic) King of the Badgers – so he’s walked both sides of the fiction/nonfiction divide and can be assumed to know the difference.
Which makes his decision to call his new book, Scenes from Early Life, a “novel” utterly baffling, since the thing is, on the surface, exactly the kind of trap a chronic stutterer or a sex-stroke victim might spring: it’s the story of Hensher’s husband, United Nations lawyer Zahved Mahmood and his extended family as they lived through the 1971 civil war in which Bangladesh broke away from Western Pakistan and established its own nationhood. The book is referred to as “an autobiography, a novel, and, in part, a history,” but in his Acknowledgements, Hensher calls it “the rendering of a family’s passionately held memories” and thanks many members of Mahmood’s family for their help and their stories. As anyone who’s ever dared to experience it can attest, Begalis take their storytelling very seriously (make even a casual Tagore reference and see what happens) – Hensher might have been allowed to move a knick knack or transpose a month or two, but with so many aunts looking over his shoulder, he would not have been allowed more. The book has snapshots, for Pete’s sake. Calling it a novel doesn’t make it so, any more than calling it a butterfly would make it flutter away on the next breeze.
At best, it’s a very, very thinly ficionalized family history, and that threatens to make it sacrosanct in a way the autobiographical elements in The Northern Clemency, for example, never approached.
Luckily – and here critics can breathe an enormous sigh of relief – the whole enterprise is salvaged by the fact that Hensher is one of our most intelligent and talented living writers. Regardless of where the subject matter originated, regardless of how many millimeters it’s allowed to deviate from the collective memories of the aunties involved, Scenes from Early Life is from first to last an unaffectedly moving and heartfelt story. Collection of stories, really, since this is the Mahmood family’s greatest hits, more or less all told from the viewpoint of Mahmood’s fictionalized stand-in Saadi, child of a relatively prosperous family in Dacca on the eve of the civil war which has already percolated its tensions even to Saadi’s childhood games. He and his friends play-act American TV shows like Starsky and Hutch or Roots, but they know to be wary of a neighborhood boy named Assad:
His uncle and his father had taken money from the Pakistanis, and had told them where they could find intellectuals – musicians, poets, scholars, professors, schoolteachers – to kill. Everyone knew that, and knew that they would never be prosecuted for it.
Saadi’s father is an overworked lawyer (the father, the mother, the grandparents, the aunts and cousins, the in-laws of every extrapolation – all are here, painted with such warm and affectionate detail that they live on the page) who sometimes invites his son to visit his office and observe the constant stream of litigants that shuffle in and out:
The clients, as usual, would have been what I thought of as ‘poor people’ – people who came to a lawyer’s office in long shirts and loose pyjama trousers, or with lungis wrapped about their middle and their legs. They were people who did not even think of putting on shoes other than sandals and chappals. Their disputes and feuds were endless, and a steady source of income for my father. They were not, in fact, as I thought them, poor. When the time came to pay, they would delve meditatively into the depths of their lungis, brightly eyeing the clerk as he turned, with his invoice before him, for the cashbox; what they produced was a fist solid with banknotes, held by a rubber band or a bulldog clip, as thick as a cream roll.
The book’s narrative is necessarily episodic, and its chapters are more self-contained than those of a regular novel would be. The reader can sense Hensher’s novelist instincts sifting through all this raw material for the best stories, and the result is a certain unevenness in the overall flow. Some chapters – “The Song the Flower Sang” and “Nadira’s Wedding,” for instance – are considerably better-realized than others. The strongest segment is “Altaf and Amit,” about two best-friend musicians – one Muslim, the other Hindu – whose close bonds are tested and transformed by the war.
The war itself, though brief, also gets vivid treatment as Hensher’s narrative follows some of his ordinary individuals into scenes of violence and hardship for which their previous lives did nothing to prepare them:
Like all the others, he ate the vegetables, rice and lentils. They drank water from the ponds when they could find no well, and cooked the food in old, battered pots which made everything taste of mud. Once, he had eaten chicken from clean white plates, inside, in a warm room.
Critics have likened Scenes from Early Life to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children for its personal, panoramic look inside one country’s turmoil, a comparison that does a slight injustice both to Rushdie’s invention and Hensher’s verisimilitude. A much closer progenitor might be the autobiographical writings of Sean O’Casey, where precisely verifiable events are given a Joycean burnish. And in all cases, the one essential responsibility of any writer is upheld: this is great reading.