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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Book review: Escape from Baghdad! showcases best of Saad Hossain's imagination

The novel offers a magnificent example of the ways in which the extreme and the ordinary, the ironic and the earnest, the comic and the ostensibly solemn, can be brought together in fiction

Djinn City is set in a crumbling mansion in the district of Wari, Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Getty Images / EyeEm
Djinn City is set in a crumbling mansion in the district of Wari, Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Getty Images / EyeEm

Saad Z Hossain is enraptured by the confluence of polarities: by the meeting of the sacred and the profane, the fantastic and the quotidian, the bewitchingly comic and the arrestingly serious.

In his debut novel of 2015, Escape from Baghdad!, these concerns are embraced in order to tell the story of life in Iraq following the military intervention of the United States and its allies.

The book shows us a society whose centre had been torn from its mooring, and in which ordinary men and women struggle to survive in an environment which has been made freshly vulnerable to the sublunary and celestial ambitions of crazed fabulists, moralising soldiers, errant mercenaries and crackpot occultists.

How, the story asks, are Dagr and Kinza – the former a professor of economics, the latter a savvy lout – to handle their recent acquisition of a prized captive, Captain Hamid, best known as the chief torturer of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime? A successful escape from the city will bring extreme riches.

Yet as Dagr and Kinza attempt to secure Hamid’s earthly liberation, they are made to reckon with artefacts from another realm: namely, an ancient watch that doesn’t tell the time.

Escape from Baghdad! offers a magnificent example of the ways in which the extreme and the ordinary, the ironic and the earnest, the comic and the ostensibly solemn, can be brought together in fiction to conjure worlds of discomfiting resonance and vigour.

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And in Hossain’s latest novel, Djinn City, we find those qualities present with characteristically vibrant force.

The book opens in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the district of Wari (where Hossain was born).

We are here acquainted with an almost mythologically resonant house that might have been lifted from the pages of a South-Asian 21st-century Dickens.

It is “a rambling building whose original outshape was no longer visible ... covered by outgrowths, add-ons, lean-tos, television towers, dish cables, animal shelters, and other superstructures of such fantastical nature that no sane human could discern their purpose … The entire thing was a decrepit, jagged fire trap, one fatuous giant’s stomp away from collapse.”

Yet the people who inhabit this building are not so much fatuous giants (the power of that phrase is indicative of Hossain’s prose in general) as they are hobbled wrecks.

Indelbed is a 10-year-old boy, poor in a poor city, convinced that his only distinction is that he is impoverished in an unusual way.

His family, he knows, have “fallen from grace”, and he intuits that his father is “responsible for this calamitous disaster … for which many members of his extended family still shunned him”.

This sense of exile and culpability is compounded by accusations that he is a child possessed of “tainted blood”, by his mother having died while giving birth to him (he wonders if her death might have been an attempt on her part at escape), by a loneliness so acute that he would sometimes try to buy himself siblings, and by his dreadful father’s wilfully destructive brand of eccentricity.

And what eccentricity it is. A doctor of mathematics, a physician, something close to a genius, and something even closer to a deluded and abusive alcoholic, Dr Kaikobad is a “drunkard so incoherent with rage that he was often bereft of speech altogether. In moments of lucidity he liked to expound on the misfortunes plaguing his life, one of which was Indelbed.”

Another is his home. Yet, determinedly mercurial, it is a place he also reveres, believing it a “kingdom filled with adventure, realms crowded with fairies and djinns and dragons”.

The story that unfolds from this situation is brilliantly preposterous.

Dr Kaikobad collapses into a supernatural coma and is exposed as an emissary to the world of the djinns.

The djinns get the hump and embark on a pursuit in which Indelbed figures as their quarry.

Great controversy ensues.

Hossain handles this tale with immense exuberance and an appealing superabundance of comic energy.

He shifts with elegance and ease between modes elegiac and plangent, and his prose is almost always enlivening and exact.

But the novel is not without shortcomings. Hossain can occasionally lapse into cliché (“heated argument”; “wild accusations”), and his story suffers from prolixity.

But perhaps that is the price you have to pay when your concerns are Hossain’s – when what you want to summon is a world entire and enlarged, with all its great and confounding polarities.

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