It begins simply enough: a man in a pool gets word of a coup and will attempt, we’re told, to take over an airport.
This is Fatima Bhutto’s latest work of fiction — a short story titled ‘Democracy’ sold as a Kindle single. When Bhutto first announced the book’s release on Twitter and Instagram the impulse to lapse into pun-laden mockery was irresistible and many succumbed to temptation. “Bhutto brings ‘Democracy’ to Pakistan,” was the resounding cry heard across the internet. After that there was mostly... silence.
I’ll venture to suggest a couple of reasons for this disinterest. First, Kindles aren’t terribly ubiquitous in Pakistan so many people who would’ve liked to read the story weren’t able to. Second, Pakistanis who did read the story lived through the events of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup and saw little reason to rehash the episode quite as literally as Bhutto insists we do.
This brings us to the first of several bones I have to pick with ‘Democracy’.
To those who argue that history, politics and religion are the very stuff of life and so can’t be untangled from creative endeavours I’d say yes: I wholeheartedly agree. There’s a world of a difference, however, between fiction that makes this symbiosis work — that is, seamlessly blends character, history and plot into a thrilling narrative — and fiction that doesn’t. The latter is lazy, and depends almost wholly on externalities to lend it weight in the absence of beautiful prose and compelling characterisations.
‘Democracy’ is largely a lazy story. It ineffectively and unimaginatively co-opts history and politics for inspiration as much of mediocre Pakistani fiction in English has done before. It asks us to follow one Brigadier Azad for a few hours as he goes about securing Pakistan for military rule. Brigadier Azad is in Karachi, swimming in Sind Club’s pool, when he’s instructed to take over and secure Karachi’s airport. This is what’s happened: the president has decided to sack the chief of army staff (COAS) while he’s abroad for military training exercises. The COAS has none of it and sends word to his commanders to initiate a coup while he flies back to Pakistan. As you can see, Bhutto hasn’t set out to reinvent the wheel.
|Pakistan army soldiers enter the state television building in Islamabad following the 1999 coup. — AFP.|
We don’t stray far from Brigadier Azad’s thoughts, which reveal he’s been cheating on his wife with a well-known TV presenter, Sharmila. We swing back and forth between the brigadier and Sharmila — while he’s taking over the airport she’s announcing the coup on television under duress. We also get to see Major Jamshed, Brigadier Azad’s second-in-command, and the Brigadier’s wife, Kiran, for a brief moment. So, the story’s setting is familiar, but that isn’t the only sticking point. The other problem is that Brigadier Azad’s internal monologue is painfully predictable.
Before I’d seriously delved into the story I thought it curious that Bhutto would choose to try to pick apart the inner workings of an army man, a brigadier at that. Here I must admit my bias — my first thought was: “How uninteresting. Army men like the brigadier have no inner workings at all. They’ve had that stuff sluiced out of them decades of training ago.” Recognising this thought for what it was — prejudice — I resolved to push on without judgment. I hoped to find Brigadier Azad a conflicted soul, or, if the opposite, I hoped he’d be served to me with a heavy dose of irony.
Neither desire stood fulfilled.
The brigadier was as I feared: a man of common interests and unified ambition. When thrust into the thick of a defining moment in Pakistan’s history he behaves exactly as is expected of him — like a good little soldier. He is maddeningly predictable in his personal life too: he calls his annoyance of a wife ‘darling’ and sleeps with a ‘modern’ woman on the side. I suppose he likes his scotch neat and thinks feminism is a sanitary pad.
In the absence of a compelling character reading ‘Democracy’ is like watching CCTV footage of jawans climbing over PTV’s walls in 1999. Nothing is extraordinary, everything is known.
Which brings me back to my earlier point: isn’t it time for Pakistani writers to move beyond such literal interpretations of the political? As for Bhutto — yes, her experience of politics has been cruelly personal and devastating — but I wonder if we’ll ever see the woman behind the façade, a woman who can write beyond history and not to it, as an homage. I’d like to see Bhutto write fiction drawn from the well of her experience of things other than high politics: to write intimately of families, of men and relationships, of sexuality and strong women.
|Bhutto's previous work of fiction, 'The Shadow of The Crescent Moon.' — Photo: Instagram|
But this is all talk about ideals that transcend the bones of a book — a book’s bones being the writer’s choice of diction, of rhythm and sentence structure, her clarity and her tone. Even here I have to say Bhutto disappoints.
‘Democracy’ is littered with tics that shouldn’t burden an experienced writer, such as overuse of articles. Worst of all, Bhutto falls into the mention-itis trap: in an attempt to appear worldly or relevant, she references ‘Old Karachi’ and ‘Abroad’ far too often, and with too heavy a hand. Mentions of Sind Club, bearers and bootleggers, lesbianism at Smith and “strolls along the Thames” are served offhandedly enough to assure us of Bhutto’s globetrotter credentials but lack the specificity required to add depth to ‘Democracy’ in any meaningful way.
At the close, I’m reminded of what Jorge Luis Borges said of writing as a young person: “When a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is saying is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament, under words taken from the 17th-century writers; or, if not, and he sets out to be modern, then he does the contrary: he’s inventing words all the time, or alluding to airplanes, railway trains, or the telegraph and telephone because he’s doing his best to be modern.”
‘Democracy’ is trying to be modern, to take a regrettable moment in history and caricature it.
But I fear that until Bhutto allows herself the freedom to move beyond the confines of Pakistani politics, her work will only ever be a caricature of itself.
The reviewer is an editor at Dawn.com and co-curator of The Unpublished Reading Series in New York City.
(SHORT STORY, E-SINGLE)
By Fatima Bhutto
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