His literary biography is impressive at-a-glance. Even this, his first novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize. And he’s received a Lannan Literary Fellowship.
For readers, these are indications of quality, yes, but some might say that the number of times the word ‘Booker’ appears in an author’s bio might also be an indication of the need for greater amounts of patience required on the part of readers.
(For me, personally, the slimness of the volume was another indication that this seemingly short novel would take much longer to read than a novel twice its size by another, less-impressively-decorated author.)
But elegantly crafted? Yes, certainly. And the publisher’s blurb openly declares this. Well, ‘exquisitely’.
But there is talk of a murder, anxieties, and mysterious circumstances, all against an “ominous backdrop of religious tensions, assassinations, changing regimes, and faraway civil wars”.
The challenge with Season of the Rainbirds is that after reading this description, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of there being a sack of letters, lost nineteen years before, freshly discovered and leading to a series of dramatic and riveting and, wholly ominous, events.
I overlooked the phrase which came before: “masterful attention to detail and beautiful scenes set to the rhythms of daily life in Pakistan, Aslam creates a lush and timeless world”.
For me, that’s what was at the heart of Season of the Rainbirds. If I had not been preoccupied by the sense that there might be an assassination at any moment, I would have settled into the detailed and timeless world more quickly.
“The town was at the confluence of two of the province’s five rivers and Mujeeb Ali’s house stood in sight of the eastern branch. The interfluvial plain was considered the richest agricultural land in the country. And here most of it – orchards, vineyards, cornfields, rice-paddies – belonged to the Alis.”
It’s there, of course, even in those three simple sentences. Well, the beautiful and the lush are there, certainly. But the rest of it is there too. For most of all-this belongs to the Ali family, which means that most of the power in the region is held by the Alis, which means that there will be tension surrounding their privilege and the lack felt (relatively speaking) by other residents.
But the kind of tension that permeates Season of the Rainbirds is faraway (which, to be fair, the description does state), removed. It simmers beneath the beautiful and the lush, at a distance.
The novel, mind you, begins with the murder. Well, not straight off. The first scene is largely mysterious (but not an open, creaking-gate ‘mysterious’, but an unsettled-skewed-perspective ‘mysterious’); it is set apart from the narrative proper — italicized. The second scene actually unfolds after the murder has already occurred, but there is no reference until the end of the segment and, even then, it is simply referred to as a death.
Only then, do readers learn of the circumstances surrounding the death, the murder, the shot through the throat.
There is preamble, there is background, there is other information to be presented and understood. (And how appropriate this is, for even though life in this village in Pakistan might seem simple on the surface, there is a complex history of alliances and violence in the region’s history.)
“Maulana Hafeez leaned his head against the back of his armchair and looked up. High up, a female spider was knitting her hammock. Maulana Hafeez removed his glasses. He smoothed the soft hairs of his beard and turned his head sideways to stare through the open door of the bedroom on to the courtyard. Bright light filled the house and Maulana Hafeez could sense the impeding heat of the rising sun. The monsoon was continuing –now smooth and appeasable, now dramatic and capricious. There were colours on the washing line and a series of parallel bars of sunlight – filtered grainily through the screens – fringed the edge of the veranda.”
There it is, too. Even when the spider is methodically weaving, the heat of the sun is impending, the monsoon continuing. And the reader is viewing it all from the other side of a screen.
Nadeem Aslam has intricately constructed the screen between the reader and the events of his first novel. There are many unanswered questions surrounding the newly discovered sack of mail, the significance of what was left unsaid and unacknowledged freshly relevant, the murder, but knowledge is carefully controlled and dispersed. This, too, suits the story perfectly.
“Though if the General’s recent speeches are anything to go by, they’ll soon shut down every newspaper in the country under the pretext that they’re publishing letters of the alphabet that can be rearranged to form an anti-government message.”
One of the characters in the village refers to James Joyce’s belief that a novelist must write about ordinary things, that that is the duty of a novelist; if that is true, Nadeem Aslam has executed his task well. And the world he has created will seem extraordinary to many readers even without a shot through the throat.
This is a novel that I will enjoy much more on a second reading and, when I do read another of Nadeem Aslam’s highly acclaimed works (and I shall), I will expect the lush and beautiful rather than an excess of assassinations.
Note: This is the second of my IFOA focus posts, in anticipation of this year’s festival in Toronto; Nadeem Aslam will be attending, and I am curious to see in which events he will be participating.