The simplest way to describe the narrative of Atther W. Qureshi's A Refugee in Switzerland would be to say that the grass is always ostensibly greener on the other side.
This work of fiction is the novelist's first venture and although he claims otherwise in his introductory remarks, there seem to be quite a few autobiographical elements present in the work which the readers would be able to identify as the story unfolds. For starters, the protagonist Jawad, much like the author, moves from Punjab to Europe and eventually settles down in Switzerland.
The plot of A Refugee in Switzerland is not intricate. In fact, it can be termed a single-plot book. It tells a simple story of a young person of humble background who lives in Lahore and yearns to take care of his aging parents by moving abroad - preferably to England. As is the story of millions in Pakistan, our hero's life is plagued with a bundle of problems such as unemployment, lack of money and the responsibilities of taking care of his parents and siblings. Added to this are his own dreams and ambitions.
The most intriguing part of the book is the character of the protagonist. Amid a number of rather flat characters such as Jawad's parents, his friends and family, and a number of other people that he comes across on his journey through Europe all the way to Switzerland (the locations keeps changing throughout the book), Jawad is arguably the best-sketched character in the story.
Like any other young person from Pakistan, Jawad initially sets some realistic goals for himself, such as a good education and employment. However, what sets him apart from many is that with the passage of time, and as he attains experience through his first job, he develops the courage and understanding to think beyond these standard aims - he starts to dream. He possesses the confidence to be ambitious in life and is willing to compete to achieve a better place for himself.
Of course, Jawad becomes distracted on multiple occasions and starts drinking as a result of the physical and mental stress that he is under. Other than serving as plot devices, these challenges help to keep the book realistic. Without facing these problems, Jawad may not have been able to accomplish what he does.
Another significant aspect of the novel is the spot-on depiction of Pakistani society. Qureshi does a commendable job of describing the way in which Lahore has been divided into two parts on either side of the canal, one economically better off than the other. What Jawad experiences when he travels from his side of the city to the other to meet some powerful people is quite a story in itself. In addition to this, the emotional trauma undergone by Jawad's parents, when he opts to study the arts instead of choosing to become either a doctor or an engineer, is another classic example of the way many parents still dream for their children in Pakistan.
To Qureshi's credit, some of the techniques that he has applied have made the narrative, despite being single-plotted, quite engaging. Instead of sticking to a linear timeframe, he resorts to flashback almost right at the outset. This somewhat remedies a relatively slow beginning of the book.
That said, some aspects of the novel could have been worked on a little more. For instance, description through action is a preferred way of telling a story, to 'show' the readers rather than penning down a number of words to 'paint' the whole scene for them. There are quite a few occasions in the book when the wordy descriptions of a particular place are taxing to read.
Similarly, more attention could have been paid to the editing of the book. Good language is one of the things readers are looking for in works of fiction.
A Refugee in Switzerland
By Atther W. Qureshi