The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

TheWanderingFalconThere’s a lot of talk among bloggers and reviewers about the importance of translation and International literature.  Some of the most concise criticisms have been written by Tim Parks for the New York Review of Books blog.  He makes good points that the idea that translation/international literature opens up  cultures is exaggerated and a convincing case that literature as a whole is becoming homogenized.  This may be true for most Western countries, but parts of the East may be an entirely different matter.  Aspects of some societies and governments may have the unintended benefit of preserving a country’s literary traditions by the simple fact that exposure to outside influences is limited.   In many ways Jamil Ahmad is the perfect counter argument to Tim Parks.  He is a 79-year old former Pakistani civil servant.  The Wandering Falcon is his first novel, written in the 1970’s.  Here is an author who is clearly not connected to the Western literary tradition.

There was a full moon, and it hung half hidden behind the northern cliff.  The moonlight was strong and dazzling to the eyes.  His wife silently pointed at the moon.  A long distance away on the mountain crest, he could see small antlike figures silhouetted against its orb.  There was a long chain of them moving slowly with loads on their backs.  These were the ice cutters.  They were men who lived in the highest village, whose main occupation was cutting blocks of ice from the glaciers and carrying them on their backs down into the valley, where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities, to people living in warmer regions.

Take for example the titular character of the novel, Tor Baz,who laughingly dubs himself as the wandering falcon in one of the stories in this collection.  He is always a secondary character.  There is not a single  story in these pages that is all his own.  Ahmad uses him is an unusual framing device, having him make Hitchcock-ian cameos in every story. Tor Baz is our escort and guide.  Through the course of the narrative we learn about the events that led to his birth, his strange upbringing and coming of age.  The author hints at the man he might ultimately become, but he is never given a plotline to be resolved.

Most reviews describe The Wandering Falcon as a collection of linked short stories.  The protagonist of this collection isn’t Tor Baz.  It’s a specific culture .  I have to believe that Jamil Ahmad set out to describe a way of life that once (perhaps still?) existed in the  Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  FATA is an isolated region that shares its borders with both Afghanistan and Iran.  And although The Wandering Falcon was written in the 1970’s – before this area became associated with U.S. drone attacks and the Taliban – modern readers will link what they read to the place constantly in the media.

The porous borders reported on the evening news feature prominently in The Death of Camels (my favorite story), but from a flipped perspective.  The Kharots depend on their ability to travel unmolested between Pakistan and Afghanistan with their camels.  They need to stay on the move, using watering holes and grazing pastures located on both sides of the border.  (It’s really a simple equation – staying too long in one place will deplete the area’s resources and the camels die).  This is how they’ve survived for generations.  The closing of the borders equals disaster for their way of life.   Ahmad constructs a heartbreaking portrait of how the tribal structure struggles to function in a world changing too quickly.  On another level he is telling a heartbreaking story about a father and son.

This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever.  It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself.  Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state, settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.

The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die.  In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual.  The new way of life triumphed over the old.  The clash came about first in Soviet Russia.  After a few years, the nomad died in both China and Iran.

By the autumn of 1958, with the British Empire dismantled and the once fluid international boundaries of high Asia becoming ever more rigid, both Pakistan and Afghanistan challenged the nomads.  Restraints were imposed on the free movement of the Powindas, the “foot people.”

In Ahmad’s stories a woman’s fate is usually dependent on the whims of some man – husbands, fathers, brothers and even complete strangers hold the power.  We meet women who are sold into slavery, valued by their husband as less than a performing bear or hunted for adultery.   They make choices, fully aware of the consequences attached to them.  Again, the perspective is different from what I’m used to.  The situations are often brutal, but the women are never depicted as down-trodden.  They show no self-pity.  They are not necessarily unloved.  Ahmad portrays them as dignified and courageous…not as victims.  The men they encounter are not caricatures.  And so Ahmad shows us both right and wrong, hope and despair, honor and depravity – often within the same character.   His judgements are all the more powerful because they remain unwritten.

Ahmad describes events as if he has personally witnessed them, slowly and steadily pulling us deeper into the culture of the “foot people”.  What happens in one story has repercussions in another.  (Much like what happens in one part of the world has repercussions in another).  When I finished I felt I had a better understanding of a place I’ve heard about, but never seen.  Don’t misunderstand me – I am not trying to claim reading The Wandering Falcon made me an overnight expert on Pakistan.  It’s a step in the right direction, though.  And perhaps an American or a British author could have written this book which isn’t even a translation.  But a Pakistani author did.  30+ years later, an American woman has the opportunity to read it and it is completely relevant to the state of the world she lives in.  I think that’s important.  Actually, I think it’s pretty incredible.

Note:  The Wandering Falcon was just shortlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  In 2011 it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Publisher:  Riverhead Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59448 827 6

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Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

'Ilustrado' was the name given to Filipino intellectuals during that country's Spanish Colonial period.

The premise behind Miguel Syjuco’s award-winning novel Ilustrado appears promising at the outset.  The body of Crispin Salvador, a legendary Filipino author, is found floating in the Hudson River.  The manuscript of his latest (and last) novel, a scathing roman à clef inditing the rich & powerful of Filipino society has disappeared.

Enter Crispin’s protegé:  an aspiring author and troubled young man who doesn’t buy the official report that his mentor committed suicide.  He travels back to the Philippines for answers. He’s formed a half-baked plan to become Crispin’s biographer.  The missing manuscript holds the key… to something.

It never becomes clear exactly what the missing manuscript holds the key to, and so the plot is lost in a cacophony of literary tricks that follow.  It’ll be quicker if I just list them –

  • Syjuco names his protagonist after himself.
  • The story is told using traditional narrative.  And then, seemingly inexplicably, a scene is revised and repeated from a different narrative point of view.
  • Filipino blog entries are inserted into the story, complete with multiple comments.
  • In one section our protagonist (who, by the way, is sporadically referred to as “our protagonist” throughout the novel) channel surfs and the reader is treated to flashes of Filipino television programming.
  • A series of jokes, so racist they made my skin crawl, are scattered throughout.
  • There are dream sequences
  • Syjuco (the author) even went so far as to create a fake Wikipedia entry & Facebook page for the fictional Crispin Salvador

Miguel Syjuco (our protagonist) isn’t a particularly sympathetic character or a reliable one (add unreliable narrator to the above list).  He quickly emerges as a spoiled rich kid, estranged from his family, who poses as a struggling writer between lines of coke.  His research into Crispin’s past and hunt for Crispin’s lost novel seem opportunistic at best.  While it may not be part of the original plan, this trip back to the Philippines will forcehim to confront himself, his family and his Filipino heritage.  None of which look good under close scrutiny.

Ilustrado is as much about Miguel as it is about Crispin.  The similarities between the two men only highlight their differences. There is a certain nostalgia for Crispin’s generation and the Philippines’ revolutionary past.  There is an obvious disgust with the present.  The novel attempts to relay some of that history, as well as the current events, but if you’re not already familiar it’s almost impossible to follow the timeline. In fact, I believe there is a deliberate blurring of time, happenings and even characters.  The obscuration makes sense when the author reveals a plot twist – very Ian McEwan – in the final pages. It would have been shocking had I not been too mentally exhausted to appreciate the house of cards Syjuco constructed for his readers.

Ilustrado contains some excellent writing.  Miguel Syjuco (the author) handles each of the individual components well and obviously has put a great deal of planning into his novel’s construction.  Parts are entertaining, in the way that novelties are entertaining.  He even succeeds in establishing a sense of the national culture:  particularly that of the capital city, Manila.  But ultimately, there is too much going on at once.  “The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts”.  In the case of Ilustrado, I’d go so far as to say that the sum of those parts obscures the whole.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 312 57293 8

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