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FICTION: SONGS OF SILENCE

October 21, 2018

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Aamer Hussein grew up in Karachi and migrated to England in his early teens, an experience which is central to his fiction as is his intertextual engagement with diverse literary texts, both Western and Eastern: Anglo-American, European, South Asian, Arabic and Persian. To date, he has published more than 10 critically acclaimed story collections, a novel and a novella. His new collection, Hermitage, brings together 13 new and previously published stories. These tales also incorporate a new trend in his writing: English translations of short stories that he has recently started to write in Urdu. This includes ‘The Wounded Swan’, which was Hussein’s very first Urdu story and was published originally in the literary magazine Dunyazad, edited by Asif Farrukhi. The story was first translated into English as ‘The Swan’s Wife’ and gave its title to Hussein’s 2014 collection.

In Hermitage, ‘The Wounded Swan’, in an elegant translation by Shahbano Alvi that gives the story new nuances, draws on an Urdu legend but it is set in London and revolves around Maya, a young woman whose family migrated to Britain from Central Europe. Hussein’s tale of betrayal and friendship captures a complexity of emotions, including a migrant’s sense of limbo, and employs metaphor to great advantage, including Maya’s fascination for a black swan which inhabits a lake in a nearby park and which she names Silkie. In Hussein’s fiction, startlingly beautiful images of natural life are both a panacea and a foil to human suffering. He captures this with remarkable deftness in ‘Lake’ as well, which tells of a university student haunted by the trauma of childhood bullying.

The quietness with which Hussein portrays turmoil and self-doubt adds to the power of his stories such as the tight, intricate and moving ‘Lady of the Lotus’. This multi-layered tale vividly recreates Karachi in the 1950s: its elegant parties, cultural evenings and soirees. Hussein interweaves brief jottings from the diaries of his gifted mother, Sabiha Ahmed Hussein, capturing her profound love for classical music and her singing lessons by famous maestros. The narrative is skilfully constructed through a series of vignettes in the first- and third-person, which weld past and present to great effect, to tell of creativity, self-expression, self-doubt and loss. A brief reference to her longing for rain — so rare in Karachi but so abundant in her native Malwa, India — imbues the story with a myriad of metaphors, including an intertextual engagement with the famous Malwa folk legend which gives Hussein’s story its name. Music as an innate expression of the human experience also runs through ‘The Hermitage’. Here, the loud joyful singing of a nun and the painful soaring voice of a monk, juxtaposed against the disciplined, traditional chanting of their colleagues at a monastery, release the abbott Siddhant’s suppressed memories.

A new collection of 13 poignant short stories showcases the quietness with which Aamer Hussein portrays turmoil and self-doubt and his ability to traverse languages

Hermitage is the first book in Pakistani English literature to incorporate black and white photographs alongside fiction. The book includes a photograph of Hussein’s mother with her sitar; there are stunning images of natural life such as a swan, a dove, a lake, a flower and glimpses of historical architecture with its arches and spires; every one of these pictures highlights the mood of the specific story it illustrates. This is a technique frequently seen today in the novels of W.G. Sebald and Jonathan Tel, for example, though it was also used almost a century ago in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

Hussein continues his exploration of migration and exile in ‘Bridges’, which was originally written in Urdu. Translated by his mother (its earlier version ‘37 Bridges’ gave its title to his Karachi Literature Festival award-winning book) the story tells of Nermin, a writer of Turkish-Cypriot origin who left her strife-riven homeland as a child, has travelled the world over, lived in America and Turkey and finally relocated to Paris. Her experience of dislocation and her encounter with European attitudes towards Muslim migrants have resonances with that of the London-based narrator, a man of subcontinental origin, who has come to Paris to meet her. There she constantly visits each of the city’s 37 bridges, looking for answers to her inner conflicts, the links between past and present, illusion and reality, homeland and adopted land.

Hussein’s ability to traverse languages adds to the richness of his poetic fiction. He engages with the legend of Laila and Majnun in two different stories. The first, ‘The Man Who Stood Still’, consists of letters written by the nameless narrator to a woman called L, interspersed between his narrative in which he recalls M, the lover who betrayed her — or so she believes. The second story, titled ‘The Name’, captures an elderly, ailing Laila taunted by her husband for her ugliness and for the shame of a “madman” who sings songs to her and claims to ‘be’ her, but her answer silences her husband. Hussein’s reconstruction of the story was inspired by a line from the Persian poet Attar; he underpins it with an extract from Attar, translated by Hussein from the original Persian. This taut, two-page tale encapsulates entire worlds and a multitude of passions in a few understated paragraphs.

The collection includes brief, timeless and symbolic fables in ‘Tales from Attar’ and ‘Three Tales after Rumi’, which Hussein explains “are very slightly altered renditions of the original” and influenced by the “austere and lucid French prose translations of Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch.”

There are also four tales that tell of literary figures, literature and writing. ‘Dove’, a brief story of migration, creativity and change, draws on the autobiography of the late Urdu poet Ada Jafri. ‘The Life and Death of a Poet’ revolves around Mustafa Khan Bangash, best known as the poet Shefta. ‘Uncle Rafi’ is about the author’s discovery of a posthumously published story collection, Kehkashan, by his maternal grand-uncle Shaikh Rafiuddin Siddiqi who wrote under the name of Rafi Ajmeri and died at the age of 33. Hermitage culminates with a particularly fine creative memoir, ‘Annie’, which vividly captures the novelist Qurratulain Hyder, a family friend and her influence on Hussein’s gestation as a writer. Hussein called her “Annie Khala”. He first met her in Bombay [Mumbai] in 1968 and later in Delhi and London on numerous occasions. He refers to the literary magazines and books to which she introduced him. He describes his discovery of her Urdu fiction, the many memorable conversations with her and his participation in the 1998 London launch of The River of Fire, her famous translation of her novel Aag Ka Darya. She remains a pervasive influence on him throughout, a source of strength and encouragement, as he gradually finds his own distinct voice as a writer.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Hermitage
By Aamer Hussein
Ushba, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699154461
108pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 21st, 2018