Distinguished senator and politician Mian Raza Rabbani transmutes his awareness of social inequities and the need for greater justice into his fiction. His 2017 short story collection Invisible People — winner of the Patras Bokhari Award and the Parveen Shakir Best Fiction Award — was praised for its fable-like quality and for giving voice to the marginalised and dispossessed.

His new work, the novel The Smile Snatchers, was shortlisted for the 2021 Karachi Literature Festival Getz Pharma Fiction Prize and provides a fascinating exploration of art and creativity through the experiences of an accomplished artist named Zaheer Nazir, who finds himself overtaken by experiences — real and surreal — that highlight the suffering of innocent children in a cruel, violent world and transform his work.

The Smile Snatchers begins with a quote from Italian Renaissance sculptor and painter Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. Every block of stone has a statue inside, and the task of the sculptor is to discover it.”

Michelangelo’s words remind Zaheer of his unfinished painting, and “of a certain smile that he longs to recreate.” The reference to “smile” suggests Italian artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic and elusive ‘Mona Lisa’, but the mystery that Zaheer has been battling with is his inability to complete his portrait of an innocent six-year-old girl. He considers this while driving along his favourite mountain track lined with tall pine trees, where sunlight occasionally glimmers through. This spectacular landscape — defined by nature and not by country or culture — indicates the universalism that permeates the novel.

Similarly, Zaheer’s reflections on the European artists he admires assume a quiet, timeless resonance, particularly the reference to 19th century French painter and sculptor Gustave Courbet. Zaheer “traces his [own] philosophy of art” to Courbet and his emphasis on realism; Zaheer “wants his work to suggest psychological insight through heightened naturalism” — as does that of Courbet.

An unusual debut novel weaves together fantasy and harsh reality in the service of a vision of a more humane world

The reference to Zaheer’s revolutionary, egalitarian ideas, and his concern for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, also engages with Courbet’s 1849 painting ‘The Stonebreakers’, which portrays the suffering of working-class labourers.

Interestingly, Rabbani’s novel provides several unstated and nuanced parallels within its structure, between the trajectory of Courbet’s life and that of Zaheer two centuries later, including officialdom’s response to his work and the artist’s battle to remain true to his subject and to himself. In the process, The Smile Snatchers raises some thought-provoking questions on the nature of imagination, passion, creativity, commitment and art, and it moves from Courbet to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who was brilliant, but said to be disturbed. At one point, Zaheer recalls van Gogh’s words: “I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream.”

The sudden landslide that overtakes Zaheer during his scenic mountain drive, and his fortuitous escape, also symbolises the lives overtaken by chance and fate and the disruption of assumed certainties. Zaheer’s rescue of little ducklings buried under the rubble, whose mother has not survived the landslide, foreshadows, and becomes a metaphor for the suffering children, the victims of mankind’s inhumanities, that Zaheer later encounters and who give his paintings an entirely new dimension.

The first such child appears to him shortly after Zaheer is overtaken by another landslide on the mountain. A little boy with a round, pudgy face, covered in streaks of blood and blue bruises, emerges from a cloud of dust. He speaks to Zaheer and says that he is the five-year-old survivor of an air raid that occurred in Aleppo, Syria, which killed his brother. He asks Zaheer, “Why is this world so cruel that it snatches the smiles from our faces?”

The boy is Omran Daqneesh, about whom Zaheer has read in the newspapers, as he has about the others who appear to him as visions at different times. These suffering children include Alan (originally reported as Aylan) Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian toddler whose lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey in September 2015, and the many killed in the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar.

This interweaving of factual detail with the fantastic adds to the narrative’s power. The many boys and girls that Zaheer encounters are victims of great savagery and come from many conflict-riven lands, including Africa, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Central Asia.

One of the most imaginative episodes in the novel describes Zaheer being accosted in a park by Jamil, a boy from the Army Public School, who shows him the dead faces of pupils in the flowers and who can walk through the boundary wall of the park. Jamil helps Zaheer walk over a black and red rainbow into a city of tents, dotted with bombed out craters and starving, shabby children. There, Jamil sits on a seesaw with an invisible, dead friend.

As a contrast to these visions, Zaheer also encounters actual children who have been victims of age-old customs and social injustices in his homeland which, despite being nameless, has the clear ambience of being Pakistan. He rescues a beggar boy with a deformed face from being taunted and terrorised, only to find that both the boy and his mother had acid thrown on their faces by vengeful relatives.

Another encounter takes place in a children’s playground, with a seven-year-old boy with no arms or legs. The child’s negotiation of his way up the ladder of a slide, encouraged by his supportive mother, and then gliding down with joy, leads to the shocking discovery that, in his village, the boy had been blamed for an accident and the jirga, or the local tribal council, had decreed the amputation of his limbs as “justice.”

All these images contribute to Zaheer’s obsession with portraying the truth and transforming society through his art. At the same time, the novel weaves in details of his family life, including references to his own children, his relationship with his supportive gynaecologist wife Dr Noori, and his memories of their years together at school and college. He also recalls his own childhood when, as an orphan, he was brought up by a foster father — a painter of signboards — who introduced him to the language of colours, the rhythm of the brush and hand, and the magic they could create together.

All together, The Smile Snatchers is an unusual and imaginative novel that aspires to a more humane and compassionate world, going beyond borders and boundaries.

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

The Smile Snatchers
By Raza Rabbani
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693532845
114pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 23rd, 2021

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