The Study Circle by Haroun Khan

 Dead Ink, October 2018

Dead Ink, October 2018

“Many English novelists have had the luxury of turning to the interior. The comfort of seeing the individual as … independent from all around them: the book as an excavation of the self.” In a recent essay accompanying the publication of his first novel The Study Circle, Haroun Khan explicates the motivations behind his political novel. His remark is interestingly close to what Richards Powers recently said about the privileging of the psychological over the outer experience in literary fiction. But times are changing, or, at least, novels are branching to different directions. Powers’ environmental epoch The Overstory was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year, whereas Guy Ganaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, portraying a more heterogeneous London, was longlisted for the same prize. Speaking of Powers in the context of Ganaratne and Khan might seem odd, but they all share the anxiety of living in a self-centered world, and all are more or less desperate for change.

Gunaratne’s novel is easily comparable to Khan’s The Study Circle. Whereas the former navigates around the northern parts of London, Khan depicts South London with great detail. He charts the experience of living in estate housing around Tooting and Streatham, and follows a group of characters in an increasingly hostile environment where, for instance, the English Defence League is gaining ground. Ishaq is a university student who’s not sure whether to pursue a doctorate when an auspicious but morally questionable opportunity arises; Shams is looking for work which turns out to be quite a challenge for someone with a background like his. Khan’s writing is often atmospheric, not rushing to move the plot forward as the protagonists move in the city:

For the first time in its history the southern side of the river was rapidly gentrifying, to mirror the north, but echoes of what had been still lingered. It held narrow streets that had once hosted boozy inns, whorehouses, docks, and a wretched prison. He wondered whether people from that other time looked across the water in the same way. Unimaginable wealth poured through those offices, in instruments and methods that the general public could hardly imagine. Everything was centred around servicing the needs of those few. Maybe that was the real London.

These descriptions are accompanied by incisive critiques of white, well-off Londoners, as, for instance, Ishaq notes:

As if they got everything right? All that wealth and the English were still miserable bastards. They had lost any religion; they poured scorn on any spirituality. The void couldn’t be filled by intellectualism, as they distrusted that too. They had no real shared culture across their classes except for crap television and consuming in excess. They were inhospitable to foreigners, sometimes to the point of being hateful. But then they did not seem to like each other too much either, or even themselves for that matter.

It is good to remember that these are the thoughts of a character, who, over the course of the novel, is also shown to find glimpses of sympathy for the people he initially despises. Things are not just black and white, quite literally, and this is what Khan explores in The Study Circle, a novel largely built around conversations between different people in London. Included are protesters from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as members of the eponymous Koran study circle. Some sections I found predictable (Ishaq is carried off by security at a conference when he contests the speakers’ ineffectual blabber along the lines of “we need to work together for a brighter future”), while some other dialogue was thrilling to follow and fittingly shook me a little as a white reader. As an outside observer not living in the UK, I enjoyed the ways that Khan captures the wide array of Muslims living in London:

Taking in the full vista, he could see all the varieties of Muslim. To an acute observer, a believer’s choice of clothing and grooming habits helped indicate their religious and political leanings. For men: length and type of beard, whether they were clean shaven, the presence of turban or type of hat, a full face of hair, a shaven moustache line, wearing leather socks, wearing trousers that stopped above the ankle, western clothing, type of foreign clothing, were they openly wearing something silk or gold. For women: presence of a head or face covering, if so how they wore it, was it patterned or plain, an abaya or a burka or skirt, use of jewellery and make up. And so it went on and on. All formats in all types of configurations were present, but nowadays it was just a free-for-all. Cultures within cultures, a din of apparel and clashing accoutrements like some mystifying border town.

What signals to me that The Study Circle is a debut work are the occasional overwritten parts, by which I mean the successive repetition of a sentence with different wording, like here: “They were truly assimilated, in that they would make wonderful British politicians. They were better off in their natural abode, the Houses of Parliament.” There is nothing necessarily wrong with this (I think it mirrors the ways our consciousness works, rewording thoughts in order to make sense of reality), but it does add up and lengthen the novel to over three hundred pages, while I could vision it as a sharper whole if just trimmed a little more. In many ways I find it more successful and, somehow, more real than Gunaratne’s novel, which felt constricted in its form. The Study Circle is a free-flowing novel of many ideas: there is relatively little to follow in terms of plot, but Khan writes good dialogue and interesting characters, resulting in a text that kept me intrigued throughout. I’m sensing Khan is a writer to look out for – his honesty is surely a welcome addition to the current climate of self-centered literary fiction, slowly crumbling as our world is changing.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

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There is a man called Oddball in Olga Tokarczuk’s newly translated novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, and the word is quite an apt description of her writing in general. The Man Booker International winning Flights was a conglomeration of things and characters slightly awry, and the same crookedness is visible here too, when an elderly woman, housesitting locals’ summer houses over the winter, gets involved in the investigation of a series of murders occurring in her vicinity. The plot is much more coherent than in its predecessor, and the novel could be broadly categorized as a murder mystery, but, knowing Tokarczuk, it transgresses all generic categorizations. It is a story of an eccentric woman who is frowned upon by men: as she names the men around her according to her own will (one she names Mustachio, for instance), she takes agency over the conventions largely set by the men she deals with in red tape. Her penchant for nomenclature is linked to the other essential theme, animals: Tokarczuk deliberately blurs the dichotomy between people and animals by giving nonhuman creatures/creations names with capital letters. (Her car is a Samurai). While the overarching presence of William Blake feels somehow disconnected from the main story, and although the story’s denouement falls a little flat, Drive Your Plow is a masterful work, as witty, weird, and ingenious as its predecessor, but with an environmentally relevant element added in. Tokarczuk’s sharp observations shine through the protagonist’s various “Theories” such as testosterone autism: “He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.” How brilliant, how true!

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, 269 pp, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2018.

All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

 MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

In All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy unites the private and the public, the local and the global, the East and the West. The story is set in 1920s’ India, and follows a woman who unexpectedly flees the country with a European man, leaving behind her bewildered husband and son.

The son’s pet name is Myshkin, which goes to show how far Western influence may reach. The name derives from Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot – my favorite novel by him – here given to the boy protagonist by his grandfather. In these sort of ways, the Occident and the Orient intertwine in every nook and cranny of the novel. To give another example, a real-life German artist, Walter Spies, comes to play a big role over the course of the novel, as he meets the fleeing woman, Gayatri. Germany ends up playing a role on a global scale, as well, with the emergence of Nazi Germany and its disastrous consequences.

Roy also mingles the past with the present with the very outline of her novel: Myshkin is an older man in the present (whose “now” remains, to my disappointment, largely unexplored), reminiscing the past through memories. As a symbol of the link between the past and the present, there are all the letters Gayatri sent to her abandoned son. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly epistolary, as her long letters are presented on the page. It is here, in Gayatri’s unmediated words, where All the Lives We Never Lived is at its best, to the detriment of the surrounding sections narrated by Myshkin, who somehow remains a constrained character. I cannot help feeling that were the narrator’s reins given to Gayatri herself, without the construction of Myshkin and the framework of looking back, All the Lives We Never Lived would have become a more vivid story.

Nonetheless, so much of important historical matter is packed into the novel that it would be unfair to dwell merely on the negative aspects. The limited freedom of women in a largely patriarchal culture is explored fantastically here, for one. Of his parents marriage Myshkin has not many positive things to say: “They were like two people stranded on an island with no common language.” This remark is followed by a memory, which also gives life to the novel’s beautiful UK cover (and worthy of quoting in full to give a sense of the subtlety of Roy’s writing):

An incident concerning a paintbox comes back to me. My mother once ordered paints and brushes from a shop in Calcutta, which in turn ordered the goods for her from England. After a long, impatient wait, the paints arrived in a brown paper package tied with twine. The plump new tubes of cobalt blue, viridian green and her favourite, burnt umber, lay newly exposed to the world in a bed of torn paper. My mother admired the perfection of those tubes for several days, picking them up, putting them back into her box of paints, before she could bring herself to twist open one of the lids and squeeze out the first slug of colour.

Then one day my father took those paints with him to his college and put them away – I cannot remember why, perhaps to teach her the difference between hobbies and higher matters. He brought them back after a week, left them on the dining table and walked into the bathroom as if he had done nothing that could be construed a violation. My mother saw her paintbox, dropped what she was doing, and picking it up stalked outside and flung it into a corner of the back garden. The precious tubes and squirrel-hair brushes were strewn far into the undergrowth. “They’re gone for good. Happy?” she shouted at the bathroom’s closed door.

Some weeks later the father brings home a luxurious artbook as a peace offering. This scenario shows the sort of “fragile contentment,” as Myshkin puts it, that holds the family together up to the point of Gayatri’s leaving.

All the Lives We Never Lived contains multitudes, and dives deep into the history of India’s independence. Many real-life figures make an appearance, including the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. I’m partially uncertain of the extent to which Roy has wanted to explore real history, and to which extent embellish it with fiction. I acknowledge my own ignorance in the subject matter, and assume that someone more knowledgeable in India and its history may understand, and therefore appreciate, All the Lives We Never Lived more than I managed in the end. But even through the lens of a novice I can clearly see that Anuradha Roy is an accomplished writer who taps into the psychology of her characters with expertise.