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)

driveyourplow.jpg

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.

The Language of Birds by Norbert Scheuer (tr. Stephen Brown)

Language-of-the-Birds-e1531841747522.jpg

Inspired by the travels of his ancestor Ambrosius Arimond, and haunted by his own past that is gradually revealed to the reader, Paul works as an army paramedic in Afghanistan. It’s 2003, and he’s surrounded by the atrocities of war. Paul’s coping mechanism amidst the brutality is drawing pictures of local birds: “Many ornithologists photograph the birds they watch. But photographs would make me lose the memory of what I have seen.” These numerous drawings are presented on the pages of The Language of Birds, a fine and short novel by the German author Norbert Scheuer, translated into English by Stephen Brown. In a series of diary entries, Paul logs not only birds but the ever-growing feeling of suffocation working in the spatially restricted container. He wishes to travel to a lake outside the base, and plans an escape route through all the barbed wires, walls, and electronic barriers that populate the text throughout. The imagery of confinement is evidently juxtaposed with the freedom of birds, and results in a beautiful exploration of constraints, freedom, and death. The diary scenes in Afghanistan are interspersed with scenes from Paul’s native Germany, which are a minor source of confusion due to the number of characters in an otherwise succinct novel. A third level consists of Ambrosius Arimond’s letters from the 18th century as he explores the Orient, deepening the theme of enclosures: “In the bazaar I catch sight of birdcages elaborately wrought out of silver wire; tradition tells us that the Mughal emperors had sumptuous aviaries built in their palace gardens.” The Language of Birds is an atmospheric and poignant novel that packs a lot inside its 170 pages. While it may bewilder at first because of multifarious formats (drawings, diary entries, different centuries and countries), it is a thematically coherent whole.

The Language of Birds, 179 pp, is published by Haus Publishing in September 2018.

Concice Reviews is a new series in the HBR that aims to capture what’s most essential in a book in no more than 300 words.