While I claim to be a historian, a part of me really enjoys reading and writing about contemporary literature more. When you’re contributing to conferences on, say, the Stagnation Era in the Soviet Union, you learn, both in writing your own paper as well as reading other contributors’ pieces, a great amount about other eras, and about how historians help to confirm or break down stereotypes of past periods. Being anything like a ‘complete’ historian of the Soviet Union or Russia demands that you not only know, say, the economic history of the period in question, but that you can relate what was going on structurally in the economy or politics to the literary scene of the period – but even if you do all of this, you run into the problem that I think haunts many historians. Even if you’ve devised some grand theory of how Soviet novels of the Stalinist period can be read to produce a sociology of élites in the 1940s and 1950s, there’s the risk of your voice sounding small, since we live in a world where often readers aren’t given the kind of introduction they need to obscure areas like … Soviet literature and sociology of the 1950s to fully appreciate it. You might produce a fantastic discussion of how literature reflects the politics and society of the day – literature as a “criticism of life” – but you’re not participating in a broader conversation of readers where things can get really exciting.
I think this tension between specialist research and bringing your obscurantia to bear on a public conversation is always a tension of historians, maybe, academics more broadly, but I try not to allow it to prevent me from indulging myself in armchair reviews of contemporary fiction. I’ve been on something of a South Asian fiction kick over the last few months – checking out books like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Aatish Taseer’s Noon. (I’m told that the Granta collection of Pakistani literature is also quite good.) This kick might partly reflect a harmless, dilettantish and faddish cosmopolitanism on the part of a naïve Western reader, but I suppose that part of my interest stems from the proposition that given that there is so much change – and violence, and terror – in Pakistan and India today, this ought to produce some interesting literature, or that even mediocre literature coming out of these countries (or, more precisely, the various literary élites in centers like Lahore, Mumbai, Kolkata, etc.) could tell us something interesting about those societies.
Along these lines, I recently had the pleasure to read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders, a collection of short stories that focuses on several individuals’ connections with a wealthy Punjabi landowner in and around Lahore, the capital of wealthy Punjab and the cultural center of the country.
Before I get into a discussion of Mueenuddin as a commentator on Pakistani society in this excellent collection, I’d like to frame my discussion of the book within some of the concepts that Tim Parks, a writer who has written several pieces on contemporary fiction and ‘world literature’ for the NYRB. This January, Parks wrote what I thought was a beautiful essay, ‘Writing Adrift in the World,’ on where fiction is today.
Parks starts with the observation that many of the international students who study creative writing with him in Italy (he teaches at ILUM in Milan) have a strong acquaintance with contemporary international fiction. They ‘have taken courses in world literature, or at least post-colonial literature. They are familiar with the big international names—Kundera, Pamuk, Eco, Vargas Llosa, Roth, Murakami; they know who won the Nobel, the Man Booker International Prize, the IMPAC, the Pulitzer.’
But none of this reading is particularly helpful, Parks argues, to a young Serbian author seeking to write a novel that really unpacks contemporary Serbian society in an exciting way. The issue isn’t so much that none of these famous authors are good as that they address themselves to an international audience: they seek first (so Parks would argue in the case of Pamuk for Turkey, or Eco for Italy) to explain their home country to a sophisticated international audience, and only second to participate in a national (or regional, within their own country) conversation on how things are going.
The ubiquity of this kind of fiction – so common in the high-brow sections of airport bookstores but not exactly a literary canon in the classic sense – and the desire of young people in a globalized, connected age, to be part of an ‘international’ conversation even before they are part of a ‘national’ conversation, makes it hard for those young authors to become good authors. It’s a truism, Parks observes, that no matter how intelligent, wealthy, or ambitious we are, we grow up and have experiences in a local and regional context before we can ever hope to think of ourselves as sophisticated ‘global citizens.’ I, for example, might have sort of quixotic interests (Germany, Russia, Central Asia, etc. …) that really have nothing to do with my own personal background.
But no matter how passionate I might be about, say, Kazakhstan in the 1960s, no matter how good I get at learning Kazakh, and no matter how hard I strive to be a cosmopolitan American historian of Kazakhstan or whatever, perhaps the richest set of images and memories I have to work with are those of the local or regional context I grew up in – a very particular local geography in the Los Angeles metro area, and to a lesser extent the geography and stories of Palm Springs, a resort desert city where I have family and have frequently visited throughout my life. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunities to look at, in this example, the Kazakh material, but if I had ambitions of writing a really good novel, I’d probably focus on something relating to Los Angeles, Palos Verdes, or Palm Springs, simply because I feel that I know the setting far better.
The problem, Parks suggests, is that it’s unfashionable for young authors to choose the Southern California option. They look around to role models, and it’s apparent to them that today’s élite fashionable readers are looking for ‘global’ stories, or at least stories that are semi-distant from the places they inhabit – London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, etc. Writers like Gary Shteyngart, Elif Batuman, Tea Obreht got famous, these young writers think, basically, less by writing severely grounded local stories than explorations of exotic places: Turkmenistan, Russia/Uzbekistan/Turkey, or the Balkans. (Note that much fewer people read these authors in Turkmenistan, Russia, Turkey, or the Balkans than in Brooklyn or London …) ‘Successful’ or ‘interesting’ authors don’t write works like William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, which exist “inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions”; instead, they know how to forge ‘a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.’
Two students of Parks’ illustrate this dilemma perfectly. One is “is writing a historical literary thriller set in the Mongol Empire of the 13th century. He is talented, he does his research; he knows how to establish a narrative rhythm, mix dialogue and description, keep the ball rolling and the suspense tightening. Still, it is only when he writes about his warrior hero’s being intimidated by his wife and attracted to his dead son’s widow that I suddenly feel that something really interesting is beginning to happen, something that matters to the author.” Here we have a superficial exoticism, designed to appeal to a ‘universal’ world reader – but only once the author is able to tap into moments from, say, his haunted adolescence in Hungary, does his prose actually work. But given the universalist pitch, Parks writes, ‘I feel fairly sure he will find a publisher.’
Another student, on the other hand, is trying to write a novel more grounded in a very specific place in England. His characters aren’t world-historic or epic in the way that the former student’s are, but he’s writing about a real place that he knows well (something that can’t be said of the first student and Eurasia in the 1200s). But there’s a problem. He’s quite well read, but it’s in the international fiction that Parks highlighted earlier – Bolaño, Eco, etc. Models from a canon of literature that has treated provincial England have eluded him. As a result, “despite an excellent ear and fine memory for the idiosyncrasies of speech, he isn’t aware of a range of possible models [within a specifically English canon] that might help him structure this material and pace it well.”
I bring up Parks and his thoughts on global literature because it highlights for me why I enjoyed Mueenuddin’s short stories so much. I have to admit that before diving in that I was a bit skeptical of Mr Mueenuddin. His biography was full of red flags marking him as the kind of writer almost designed to appeal to pathetic self-consciously sophisticated Western readers interested in exotic places – myself being a good example of this phenomenon. After being born in the USA to an élite Pakistani family, he grew up attending American schools in Lahore, where he was able to enjoy the privileges of upper-class Pakistanis: game hunting, horse rides, and camping and adventures in the Thar Desert. An élite education followed: Groton, Dartmouth, Yale Law School, University of Arizona MFA. (In between, Mueenuddin worked as a corporate lawyer, a human rights activist, and spent a year in Norway on a Fulbright Scholarship.) It was only after the frustrations of the corporate life (similarly to Mohsin Hamid, who worked at McKinsey) that Mueenuddin felt compelled to return to Pakistan, manage the family feudal estate, and become a serious writer.
Not only that, while I enjoyed much of the South Asian fiction I had read prior, much of this output felt overly addressed to an international audience, literally explicitly so in the case of Adiga’s The White Tiger (addressed to the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party) and Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (addressed to an interlocutor in a Lahore restaurant).
So was my bigotry justified? In a word, no. In Other Rooms Other Wonders is cosmopolitan enough in stories like ‘Our Lady of Paris’ and ‘Lily’ (which describe an abortive relationship in Paris between a member of the Pakistani élite and an American girl, and the debauchery of a young entitled upper-class Pakistani woman) to satisfy the airport bookstore crowd; his characters in these stories are Pakistani at the same time that they’re off in the glamorous international world: Paris, London, Karachi to a lesser extent. But in these more international stories, Mueenuddin both criticizes the spoiled Pakistani upper clases that he knows so well and makes a neat observation about the ‘cosmopolitan’ tastes of these élites that might apply to the ‘global literature’ problem Parks highlighted above. Characters like Sohail, the Yale Law-educated Pakistani young man who takes his girlfriend to Paris in the former story, is superficially a citizen of the world, speaking fluent English, educated in the right schools, and appreciative of the French countryside and sights of Paris. But he’s ultimately grounded in Pakistan, loyal to his family’s estate, and the moments of cosmopolitanism (the romance with the Yale girl and the love for Paris) give away to his return to a more conventional Pakistani woman of his caste status, and tending the feudal family estate. In ‘Lily,’ meanwhile, we encounter someone who’s also theoretically a ‘citizen of the world’ and a cosmopolitan, herself born in London.
But Lily and her entourage are really more keen to treat London (or Karachi, for that matter) less as a place with its own history, culture, and traditions, than as a landing pad to party in before leaving at 6 AM, on to the next frivolous entertainment. Here are stories where, true, Mueenuddin isn’t writing about ‘a specific place [in Pakistan],’ to quote Tim Parks. But maybe that’s part of the point. These wealthy feudal élites are like the bacchanalian, spoiled equivalents of Parks’ ‘cosmopolitan’ creative writers. They claim to be part of a trans-national élite equally comfortable in London, Dubai, or Lahore; but they’re utterly ignorant of the country (Pakistan) or specific place (the Punjabi countryside) that they’re from.
The contrast between these two stories and the rest of Mueenuddin’s collection – tales of the travails of an interconnected group of mostly poor Pakistanis who are connected in some way with the influential Punjabi landowner K.K. Harrouni – highlights why I liked In Other Rooms Other Wonders so much. Moreso than the other works of South Asian fiction I have read recently, Mueenuddin’s stories are unapologetically grounded in a very specific place (rural Punjab), and in a way that I never got the sense he was pitching that Punjab to me as an international, non-Pakistani reader. Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things bases much of her novel in coastal Kerala (in India), and similarly terrible things happen to her characters as do Mueenuddin’s Pakistani serfs, servants, and prostitutes, but one gets the sense much more so with Roy that she’s aiming at pulling tears from Western book club readers at points; Mueenuddin seems more content to hold our hands through the Punjabi countryside and narrate to us the brutality and unfairness of landlord-servant relations in this world, without the sense that he’s trying to build up to any climax targeted at book-of-the-month selectors. Terrible things (getting shot, wives disappearing, adultery, falling into destitution on the streets of Lahore) happen routinely to characters in In Other Rooms Other Wonders, but the power of Mueenuddin’s stories comes from how quotidian and taken-for-granted all of this unfairness seems. The collection begins with a Punjabi proverb: “Three things for which we kill – / Land, women and gold,” and the real despair of these stories comes less from any one single episode as how entrapped almost everyone is in the feudal networks for which “anything can be arranged” (in the words of a Pakistani judge in the stories), usually for one of the three commodities in the proverb.
The book hardly refrains from pulling some political punches; there’s an episode in which Mueenuddin describes how a Punjabi landowner has managed to re-route the path of a ferry across a river in a way that’s beneficial to his estate, in what I am told is a veiled criticism of the M-2 (Islamabad-Lahore) motorway in Pakistan, which was built under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s. The M-2 is less than direct from Lahore to Islamabad, reportedly because the Sharif family (major landowners in Pakistan) did not want a more direct route going through its own farmlands. As a result, what is a one-hour flight is a four-hour drive (and an expensive one, too – most poorer Pakistanis take a slower but more direct route along the old trunk road).
And yet India, or rather the psychosis of India, that Western readers read about the Pakistani military complex or certain parts of the intelligentsia, is almost totally absent from this novel. Why, I’m not entirely sure, but I wonder what this relative absence tells us about the diversity of Pakistani society. Harrouni’s clan appears to be long-time Punjabi landowners, resentful of the industrialist class that emerged more under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. But unlike the martial Punjabi Rajput families of northwestern Punjab that we learn about in books like Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan, who view themselves as a sort of anti-India mamluk class whose historic role is to defend the Pakistani state, the Harrounis appear much more comfortable resigned to being a marginal (within the élite) genteel family. They haven’t been wronged personally by the Indian state in the way that Karachi muhajirs were when their families moved during Partition, and strategic calculations about Afghanistan, the Pashtunistan issue, and ‘encirclement’ aren’t really a part of their world.
Unlike the family at the center of Aatish Taseer’s Noon, moreover, they have no family in Delhi or Mumbai, and so, oddly, while characters like Lily or Sohail are more than happy to spend large chunks of their life in London, New York, New Haven, Cambridge, etc., India basically doesn’t exist for them. Mueenuddin doesn’t explicitly highlight this strange provincialism / cosmopolitanism in the Harrounis’ life experiences, but I found it quite interesting vis-a-vis Parks’ observations. These are people who grounded in a regional (Punjab) and, in some ways, international (London-Karachi-Paris-Lahore) context. But they’re hardly ‘South Asian’ in the way that I might identify as being from ‘the West Coast’ or even ‘western North America’ in the way that places like Vancouver, the San Juan Islands, Ensenada, or Oaxaca have some emotional resonance as being ‘home’ for me.
I’m excited to see what Mueenuddin has up his sleeve next. If prior literary trajectories are any guide, after this collection of stories (which appeared in all of the ‘right’ outlets like The Paris Review and The New Yorker) a more ambitious novel will be on the way. I confess that a certain part of me would like nothing more than to read it over coffee in a snotty café in Brooklyn or Boston, positioning myself as a ‘cosmopolitan’ reader interested in ‘this CRAZY Pakistani novel that you’ve never heard of …!’
But I want, and suspect that Mueenuddin, can be different, and can continue to find a way to write stories that appeal to international, non-Pakistani readers like myself while still feeling intensely grounded in an actual place, and only incidentally read by non-Pakistani readers. That might bring us to a literature less ‘adrift in the world,’ as Parks put it, to one that’s simultaneously global and grounded. Which reminds me to get back to work on my Kazakhstan masterpiece …