Even among symbolic fruit, the pomegranate carries a weight of allegorical history so heavy that Atlas would be hard-pressed to bear it. In his novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows, Peter Hobbs takes full advantage of this, beginning his story of lost love and loss in a pomegranate orchard, using it as the setting for where love takes a dramatically wrong turn. This story is, like Romeo and Juliet, not a romance: it is a tragedy, and an overwhelming one at that. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, often simultaneously; a love letter to both an individual and to the world at large. And much like the pomegranate that features prominently in the novella, it is startling in its juxtaposition of sweet and tart, of the seeds of beauty nestling in a story that is fundamentally bitter and difficult to process.
Doomed lovers are hardly a rare occurrence in literature; at a rough guess, it’s likely that well over 69 per cent of worthwhile literature — and 100 per cent of teenage diaries — originates in and from tales of unrequited passion. What makes this novel special, and so immensely successful as a story, is Hobbs’ uncanny ability to infuse his narrative with a realism that verges on the uncanny. You — or at least I, for certain — don’t expect a “foreigner” to show this much understanding of Pakistan and how things work here, and Hobbs’ insights will likely leave most readers feeling discombobulated, if not embarrassed outright.
Set in a region akin to Northern Pakistan, In the Orchard, the Swallows opens with an unnamed narrator who has been rescued from almost-certain death by a stranger who finds him lying unconscious by the side of the road. No surprise this insensate moment, given that the narrator has only recently been released from prison after 15 years. Enervated and broken — both literally and figuratively — by over a decade of torture and deprivation, he is nursed back to mental and physical health by Abbas, the aforementioned stranger.
Something of a hermit, Abbas is a former government servant with “no more poems to write”, who lives with his young daughter near the pomegranate orchards from where the narrator’s tale originally begins, and where his life — for all intents and purposes — came to an end. As Abbas and his daughter take care of him, the narrator tells us his story, which centres on Saba, the daughter of a local politician.
As a farmer’s 14-year-old son, the narrator finds himself enchanted by Saba, to whom he introduces himself with, instead of words, a pomegranate. It is in his father’s pomegranate orchards that he shares with her a sunrise, and it is in this earthly Paradise that they are separated by Saba’s father’s men, who quite literally steal her away. When the narrator goes to Saba’s house, he is beaten by her father for daring to declare his affections; enraged and fearful that his beloved might be the next recipient of her father’s rage, he hits back, thereby sealing his fate for the next 15 years. Brutally thrashed and tormented by the police into signing fictitious confessions of guilt, he is jailed under false pretences, enduring the sort of horrors that are characteristic of the Pakistani authorities: disease, sexual abuse and malnutrition; his life, such as it is, becomes delineated by the confines of a gulag. This is the most disturbing and moving part of Hobbs’ novel, not just for its realism, but for the matter-of-fact way in which it is recounted. There is no anger in this account: just the sense of a child’s betrayal and the callous indifference of people in power who warp and twist everything around them to serve their own ends.
Grief is endemic to this book, and Hobbs walks the fine line necessary to maintain this sense of anguish without letting or making it spill over into rage. The only thing that jars the harmony of his prose is that there is, at the end of it all, no sense of closure. One could argue that this is wholly appropriate for the story of a teenager who has spent most of his life in a jail — what resolutions can he possibly bring forth? After all, what sort of “happy ending” can we really expect? It should — yet isn’t — be enough for us that the boy is alive, that he can still find his father’s old orchard and evoke memories of happier times, but it is, nonetheless, heartbreaking. I found myself wanting to find some way to overwrite this horrific reality, of broken bones and shattered dreams and what is almost survivor’s guilt, to seek out a happy ending. Where, you will find yourself wondering, is the reward for someone who is possessed of so much grace? Where is the redemption?
But perhaps it is impossible to find redemption in this day and age. No writing about Pakistan would be complete without a nod to post-9/11 situation, and Hobbs is no exception to this. To his credit however, he approaches the topic with a far more delicate touch than many Pakistani authors who seem to take the global “war on terror” as a personal calumny: beginning with incarceration, during which the narrator witnesses the crowding of Pakistani prisons with Middle Easterners who are being sold to Americans as “terrorists” or “insurgents”, Hobbs moves on to the present day, in which the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into the region where Abbas lives; where the Taliban bomb girls’ schools and force the imposition of their own interpretation of sharia. The devastation of “little people”, subject to the whims of greater forces, is underscored by Hobbs’ narrator, whose voice is refreshingly devoid of melodrama or angst, much like the sparrows that dart through the pomegranate orchards in which he grew up.
For a book this svelte, with prose this lucid, In the Orchard, the Swallows punches well above its weight class. This is completely due to Hobbs’ abilities as a writer. The simplicity of his tale is camouflage for the profundity that lies beneath: this is more than just a poor peasant falling in love with a rich girl. It is about corruption; not just on an individual level, but on a systemic one, as worlds and nations collude to not only lie, but to believe in their own false reimagining of the world. In keeping with its elegiac tone, with the sense that this story is an epilogue to one’s life, we see the narrator, sitting in his father’s former orchards, now overrun and mismanaged, fruit ripened and rotting.
He asks one question of the missing Saba: “If even we must be divided from one another, what hope is there for the rest of the world?” Very little, it would seem, yet even among this deep, overwhelming sadness, we catch glimpses of hope; of survival and worlds that continue to live on, in love and longing.
In the Orchard, the Swallows (NOVEL) By Peter Hobbs Faber and Faber, London ISBN 0571279279 160pp. Rs1,150