May 20, 2018

Papercuts: Saqib Mansoor's The Lonely Tracks is the right kind of vague

This one was what you’d call a story with potential. It wasn’t necessarily writing that you’d write home about (hah!), but it also wasn’t half bad. There were ideas there, and an attempt at characterization, and even a climax. And even though I’m not usually a fan of stories that leave things to the interpretation of the reader, I still fairly enjoyed this one.

Jerome Barlow, a thief on the run, finds himself alone on a cold night running across mountains and hills, trying to escape his pursuers. They come with guns and dogs and he drags his cold body on and on until he reaches, inexplicably, train tracks in the middle of nowhere. Another man named Mackwell stands there waiting with a ticket, with no station around for miles and no sign of a train coming. When it finally does arrive, a sinister man descends with a thick ledger, to scrutinize our hero and his wayward company. And if the train in the middle of nowhere, with its dark windows and its silent passengers, wasn’t creepy enough, the ticket keeper really puts the stamp of eeriness on the story by knowing the name of the passengers before they pronounce it themselves.

“This is not your train,” he said flatly and slammed the book shut.
“This cannot be,” said Mackwell woefully. “I’ve been waiting for more than twenty years.”

There are hints of magic realism here, or out-and-out supernatural stuff. The train includes corpses of children, and scratches on walls, and a ticket serial that numbers in the billions. There are quite powerful strains of Hotel California by The Eagles, a song that affectively managed to creep me out at a very young age with its proclamation of ‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!'

To be fair, the ending is all kinds of vague, but for some reason, that’s fine in this story. You can tell, even as you read, that it’s not vague in order to be deep and mysterious but rather in order to let you interpret it however you want to. Which is a big change from whenever I read Usman Tanveer Malik’s stories, which manage to leave me utterly confused. I still recommend Tanveer Malik though, because he has great command over the language, and I definitely recommend any future works by this author, because there’s a possibility that he might create great stuff whenever he gets down to writing seriously.

Barlow fired at him, once, and then once again. The bullets penetrated the skull, leaving in their wake two wide openings. The conductor did not topple over. No blood oozed from the wounds. There was no cry of pain. “Yes Mr. Barlow, you have indeed earned your ticket,” was all Barlow got from him.

Even though we don’t find out anything else about Barlow – early life, family, personality, preferences – there’s only so much space a short story has in which to bring its characters to life. As a thief who made the mistake of staying an extra day with the people he was stealing from – why, though, did he stay that extra day? What did he steal? Where is he running to? – questions about Barlow rise and remain unanswered. The man he encounters near the missing train track, described as timid and wrinkled, also remains a mystery, and our final scene, where Barlow’s pursuers find an erstwhile flower growing near the train tracks, remains completely baffling to the reader. But these ideas, the characters, and the climax itself all feel coherent within the narrative. It only needed a bit of better writing to make it great. Recommendation: keep an eye out for Saqib Mansoor.

The Lonely Tracks by Saqib Mansoor is from Volume 15 of the magazine Papercuts, a biannual literary magazine by Desi Writers Lounge, a South Asian community of writers.