In Baig’s surrealistic novel, an accountant embarks on an imaginative journey during his daily office commute
In Baig’s surrealistic novel, an accountant embarks on an imaginative journey during his daily office commute

There has always been plenty of world literature in translation in Urdu, from Russian classics to South American novels, but the same cannot be said about translation in the opposite direction, ie from Urdu into other world languages, particularly English. Without going into the details of the reasons, the resultant situation is that there is not an enough number of works translated from Urdu into English. The ratio goes down further, and dismally so, when it comes to literary fiction. Those writers who have been translated into English — the likes of Saadat Hassan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (in poetry) — can be counted on one’s fingers. This aspect of translation has long been overlooked, despite the emergence of postcolonial studies and its popularity in Pakistani academia.

The significance of the translation of any work of literature into English cannot be denied. Even Intizar Husain only acquired international recognition — and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize — after his magnum opus, Basti, was translated into English. The world outside Pakistan is unaware of the current corpus of literary works being written in Urdu.

Mirza Athar Baig has been a significant writer of Urdu fiction since the publication in 2006 of his debut novel Ghulam Bagh. As if the much-lauded Ghulam Bagh were not enough, he came up with his second novel, Sifr Sey Aik Tak [From Zero to One] in 2009 and the third, Hassan Ki Soorat-i-Haal: Khaali Jaghein Pur Karo in 2014. This last novel — reading which is an experience in itself for the reader — has now been translated into English by Shahbaz Haider, a young teacher of English literature in Lahore, as Hassan’s State of Affairs.

In one of his earlier interviews with this reviewer, Baig said that he had thrown a challenge to the reader and stretched the narrative approach to the breaking point through Hassan Ki Soorat-i-Haal. He had created an experience of surrealism, which sometimes appears like Beckettian absurdity as various situations unfold with the progress of the novel, and sometimes as an amalgam of dreamlike situations, and the story flows in between. But the novelist makes the challenging situation for the readers easy through comic situations and witty language. Though the story moves from the titular Hassan’s youth to his old age, the linear plot is not apparent and easily detected.

The story starts with Hassan, an accountant, embarking on an imaginative journey while commuting to his office on a daily basis. He starts thinking of the stories behind the fleeting sights and images that come into his focus during the travel. The process keeps bringing up new characters, including a professor and the film crew of ‘Masquerade Production’, who plan to make a film called “This Film Can’t Be Made.” As the title suggests, the project is destined to be as much of a disaster as the lives of the characters.

An English translation of Mirza Athar Baig’s surreal 2014 Urdu novel stays true to its source, bridging the gap between imagination and reality

However, it’s not the story or the characters that are important in this novel, but the experience that it offers to the readers. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, during his recent visit to Lahore, underlined the significance of details rather than story or character and Baig’s novel shows how details and description can successfully take centre stage instead of the story.

By bridging the gap between imagination and reality, the novelist looks to be trying to understand the complex condition of society, represented through intricate characters. However, the mind takes the central role in the process — the mind of the characters as well as that of the readers.

In his ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’, French writer Andre Breton had said: “The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason.” And imagination asserts itself with full force in Baig’s novel.

Such a surreal novel with its unconventional story was bound to pose a challenge to the translator, especially in the translation of humour and satire that come naturally to the writer, but not so to the translator. Taking upon oneself the mammoth task of translating such a tome of literature is, in itself, a courageous task and completing it within a timeframe is even more challenging, but Haider has done well to meet the challenge.

Any translation is an act of recreating what the writer has already written without digressions, keeping closest to what the writer says and Haider succeeds in doing that. He does not let the humour, irony and satire used by Baig be lost in translation. However, a surreal novel is bound to have its stumbles for any translator. Baig uses some terms in the original, such as “uchat’ti manzarbeeni” (translated as “displaced sightseeing”), “ataktay khauf kay lamhaat” (translated as “absent moments of halting time”), “basri lataullaqi” (translated as “unconnected seeing”) and “hairania” (translated as “wonderlogue”). These terms could have been worked on more; it seems the translator has been trapped in the stumbles that translation brings along and it also appears he tried too hard with the interpretation. However, Haider does well with most of the novel and stays as close to the original work as possible.

In the text of the novel, there is a sentence that might be relevant to the art of translation, too. Baig writes: “But we think that this interpretation is insufficient. It doesn’t allow for full understanding of Hassan’s State of Affairs.” One might agree to the first part of the statement when it comes to translation, but not with the second part, as the translation does allow full understanding of Hassan’s State of Affairs.

Reading this novel is a cerebral experience; the reader gets through the lived life of Hassan focused more on imagination, through which the reader understands his reality or hyperreality. It forces the reader to think by experiencing the process the characters go through, which helps us in understanding the condition that the novel portrays. In the words of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, we can understand the meanings of a thought through experiencing it and it is experience, more than just reading, that Hassan’s State of Affairs offers.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Hassan’s State of Affairs
By Mirza Athar Baig
Translated by Shahbaz Haider
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9353574727
616pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 19th, 2020