Profile | Fatima Bhutto4 min read . Updated: 08 Nov 2013, 05:54 PM IST
Fatima Bhutto's first novel shines through in fits and startsbut it also tends to lose its way in a labyrinth of clichs
Fatima Bhutto did the sensible thing of writing a book of narrative non-fiction before venturing into the realm of fiction. Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir (2010) was a straightforward account of the brutal killing of her father, Mir Murtaza, allegedly by a conspiracy hatched by her aunt, Benazir. Narrated in a style charged with the dramatic energy of the title, the book was set mostly in Karachi’s Old Clifton area, the seat of Pakistan’s most prominent as well as most blighted political family.
In spite of the mixed responses it received, Songs of Blood and Sword ushered in a distinctive voice, one that could be crisp, like a seasoned investigative journalist’s, but also break out into purple prose. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Bhutto’s first novel, continues to struggle to balance these twin modes, though the best thing about it is a conspicuous, perhaps self-conscious, rejection of the impulse to present autobiography dressed up as fiction.
Set in the small town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, located in the hinterland of Pakistan, among people who are victims of the state government’s apathy and the Taliban’s oppression, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an ambitious work, aspiring to be a novel of ideas. Although it may have been a blessing for Bhutto to get the personal stuff out of the way, it did not necessarily make the task of writing of the novel any easier.
But thankfully, Bhutto doesn’t try to be James Joyce.
“I’ve always had an eye on this region," she says. “As a child, I had frequent opportunities to travel outside urban Pakistan, and I continue to do so as a journalist." The reporter’s gaze is palpable in the gritty realism of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, a story of three brothers, each holding up a distinct way of life.
The eldest, Aman Erum, is desperate to secure a US visa that will pave the way to a life of comfort and prosperity. He is willing to betray his own people to secure it. The middle one, Sikandar, is a mild-mannered doctor, trying to get through each day without courting trouble. And Hayat, the youngest, is a member of a clandestine separatist group fighting for the liberation of Mir Ali from Pakistan.
The novel opens on the morning of Eid, and braids the past and the present, with the disparate aspirations of the three brothers, and works its way up to a finale that feels emotionally depleting.
“I started writing The Shadow of the Crescent Moon before Songs of Blood and Sword, though I was supposed to be working on a book about Karachi at the time," Bhutto giggles in mock guilt. She had been reading several city books in preparation for this project that never took off. V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, Joan Didion’s Salvador, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile, Bhutto rattles off the names, before pausing on a seemingly unlikely one—Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.
For the reader of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon though, the mention of Burton won’t be much of a surprise.
Perhaps the most intimately realized character in the novel is Mina, Sikandar’s wife, a former academic who has become an abject funeral-crasher following the death of her young son, Zalan, in a Taliban attack. Mina’s grief is the still centre of a world in flux; her determination to commiserate with strangers for their loss remains unshaken in spite of society’s disapproval. Mina’s trials, together with her chilling confrontation with a group of Taliban soldiers in the middle of a forest, leap out of the novel with a force that renders whatever else is left of the plot dull and lifeless.
“I did not like Mina when I started writing her," says Bhutto, when I tell her how moved I was by her story. “She irritated me, though by the time I was done, I could not stop thinking about Mina," Bhutto adds. Mina’s stubborn resolve to follow her impulses, in spite of causing offence, gives her an edge over the other characters, especially the men, who, with the exception of Sikandar, come across as props used to bolster certain ideas in the plot. Unlike Mina, they are on the brink of coming into their own but never quite able to outgrow the clichés they embody.
Hayat comes across as a sterile imitation of a certain type of young radical, one who does not hesitate to use violence to further the cause of Mir Ali’s independence. He is “tired of sacrificing and living among the ghosts of history", has predictably fallen in love with Samarra, Aman Erum’s childhood sweetheart, after his own brother decided to shift his allegiances to the enemy camp, and deplores the “lazy generation" to which people like Aman Erum belonged (“Freedom meant nothing to this generation. It was easily bartered for convenience"). Samarra, tortured by the army for abetting dissidence in Mir Ali, is the perfect foil to Hayat, refusing to leave her hometown for the promise of a better life that Aman Erum tries to tempt her with.
At her best, Bhutto can be acute and perceptive.
There is a memorable section in the book when Aman Erum travels to Islamabad for his visa interview. Bhutto reports this visit through Aman Erum’s eyes, as he observes burly US marines guarding the embassy, wealthy pregnant women waiting for a visa that will allow them a chance to give birth in America and bestow on their offspring a foreign passport, and the Day-Glo army of Hindu women sweeping the streets early in the morning.
For a brief while, the reality of these scenes in the capital allows the reader a glimpse of the interiority of Aman Erum’s character—before he goes back to being a cardboard figure again.