October 08, 2015

Of Identity Politics and War: Uzma Aslam Khan's Thinner Than Skin bores

In Pakistan, it was hard to know which tragedy to dwell on most.

This book suffers from the problem of too-much-but-not-enough. Uzma Aslam Khan takes on expats and citizens, city life and country life, fugitives and bombers, policemen and tree-cutters, and mixes them all in with international politics, local politics, relationship politics. And the result is a mess not worth going through.

That’s not to say that the book is completely, ridiculously bad. A bad book can be entertaining in its own frustrating ways. Badly written characters, thin plotlines or ridiculous dialogue can be the source of much hysterical laughter, shared misery and the chance to give vent to one’s sarcastic side. It can be cathartic, the way picking on a scab can be. This book doesn’t even have the dignity to provide its readers with a good time. Instead, it bores.

The Summary

Many times in those days I thought of my interview with the man who said I was lucky to come from a place always in the news. If he only knew how rapidly the glamour of chaos recedes the closer you come to it. 

It’s hard to write a summary for a novel in which you had to struggle to keep your eyes open long enough to turn the page. We have our eternally-whiny, perpetually-confused protagonist Nadir, a Pakistani photographer in America, and his half-Pakistani American girlfriend Farhana who wants to go study glaciers in Northern Pakistan. They are joined by Irfan, Nadir’s childhood best friend and all-purpose trip guide, and Wes, an American tagging along for the glacier study. And along their trip, disaster strikes. More characters join in; there’s a lot of grief and remonstration and thoughts of revenge. I’m sure it’s more poignant and devastating than I’m making it sound, but I couldn’t care less. Not when five pages into the story I was ready to doze off.  

People in Karachi spent a lot of time looking around, trying not to slip in a city damaged not by one but a series of attacks, each more malevolent, each more multi-pronged.

Uzma Aslam Khan takes her time with the story, and a long, long time it is. Sure, there are moments of stark, noticeable brilliance. When the novel tackles memory or lost dreams or the strain that plagues Pakistanis and their lives, it sounds familiar and comforting. ‘Yes,’ you say. ‘This is how it is’. Rhetoric and reminiscences work well. Fiction writing, in this case, really doesn’t.

On any given day, the target would be a mosque and a hotel; on another, a bus and a train. The next, Chinese officials in Balochistan and Pakistani generals in Punjab. Soon, it was just about everything except the two everyone resented most, the army on the ground, and the drones in the air, because you can’t kill a drone, it’s a drone. And you can’t kill an army, it’s an army.

The novel follows a quick fast-forward, quick step-back method of storytelling which jerks you back and forth at warp speed. One second we are in Karachi, the other in America, next we are in Kaghan, and then suddenly we are back in Karachi. Or this time in the Northern Mountains, climbing a glacier. Back in America, lost in a desert. Back again to Karachi, with a different conversation, among different people. It’s whip lash, and it’s not fun to read.

The Characters

They walked steadily and heavily away from me, as though in me they had stumbled upon an unexploded mine. I was entranced by their mistake. They were afraid of me. The weak one, the one to always bring up the read, the one who ran away.

The story follows multiple protagonists, from Nadir, a Pakistani man trying vainly to earn a living as a photographer in America, to Maryam, a herder’s wife who migrates with her family to the northern plains on Pakistan during the summers, to Ghafoor, a man outcast from his own society who flits between the Chinese, American, Indian, the Uzbeks and Uyghars, the Armenians and Kashmiris to the Gujjars themselves, trying to find a place to fit in. And not a single character manages to make a connection.

He did not know how to explain that it had been a while, a very long while indeed, since he felt he had a country ... He had tried to fight for it, once, this country that had never been his, as though by fighting for it, he might earn it, but this had only resulted in his own people telling him to leave.

It’s sad that the characters are so hit-and-miss, because the setting is a minefield waiting to be excavated. Because the Northern areas of Pakistan, where we spend the majority of the story, are populated by multiple religions, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures. There’s gold to be found in terms of complex, multi dimensional characters, and while the story tries to tie them all together, ultimately it gets too confused and forgets what point it was trying to make.

It was after nine o’clock but the market was still crammed and I heard more languages spoken here than at an international airport. I learned that some of the people milling around here had come from as far away as Andijaan and Jashgar, either with bales of cloth, or with no clothes except the ones on their backs.

The Writing

It took two years before the mare forgave her, and by then Kiran had learned that forgiveness was thinner than skin.

The writing was what, ultimately, led to my most dominating thought being an average of fifteen ‘mehs’ per page. I yawned, I slumped down, I tried to keep the book straight as I struggled to keep reading. I guess the nicest thing I could say about the writing is that it might win awards: it has that kind of pretentious, put-upon style that seems to attract critics in droves.

In the days since her return from the lake, it seemed she did not even have enough time to retreat into darkness to grieve. Her sorrow was swiftly turning to fear for her remaining children, her remaining land, and also, for that palpitation in her chest, warning her of her remaining love for Ghafoor.

The book stretches tension into the story, and then it stretches it too thin. All through the narrative there’s an idea that things are bad and they’re going to get worse. It induces discomfort, and not that kind where you wait in anticipation for times to get better. It’s the kind of discomfort that bothers simply because you want it to end, more out of boredom than out of any actual distress.

One could argue that the crux of the story is in the anxiety that prevails over everything. Everyone is falling apart, Nadir and Farhana are caught in a nightmare, Maryam weeps over her heartache, corrupt policemen and maulanas and tree fellers grab money and charge exorbitant rates. Yes, yes and okay that’s all true. That’s all valid. But where’s my compassion? If you can’t care enough to not fall asleep, then you don’t care enough. And this is where the writing fails.

The Recommendation

The story doesn’t know what it wants to say, the character motivations are hard to understand, the genre is equally harder to pin down (Were there threads of magic realism? Or was that supposed to be allegorical? Or a metaphor? What does the flying owl or dead horse or single feather mean?). Unless you’re particular interested in trying to untangle the ethnicities and nationalities of inhabitants of Pakistan’s northern areas, I suggest you give this one a miss.