x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In the Orchard, the Swallows: Painful reflections

Peter Hobbs's triumphantly uplifting second novel is a tale of a man's slow, arduous recovery after years of imprisonment and torture that mirrors his own decade-long bout with serious illness.

In the Orchard, the Swallows
Peter Hobbs
Faber and Faber
Dh39
In the Orchard, the Swallows Peter Hobbs Faber and Faber Dh39

I have always enjoyed thinking that there’s something fundamentally wrong with people who become writers of fiction. A wobbly pet theory, sure, but I’ve never been convinced that something as simple as talent and a love of literature fully explain the impulse behind the mind-chewing desperation of professional novel writing.

Mikhail Bakunin’s old anarchist dictum comes to mind here. “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.” Indeed, and vice versa, I would think. Novel writing is hardly the most sustainable career path, financially, personally or psychologically. It’s dictatorial and self-obsessed; the act of pulling in and reordering consciousness, experience and impressions of the world day after day, alone in a room, just you and your illusions. It’s only really healthy if you’re coming from someplace a bit sick to begin with.

Sometimes, quite literally. In 1997, British author Peter Hobbs, 22 years old and fresh out of Oxford, was set to embark on a Middle Eastern diplomatic career. Before taking up his post, he decided to travel through Pakistan. There, he was struck down by a serious illness. In 2008, Hobbs told the magazine Granta about it: “It defined every second of my life for the best part of 10 years, no question. When you’re seriously ill, that’s it, that’s the only story there is about your life. I guess that phase lasted about three years, and I was still pretty ill but convalescing over another five years. Illness is solitary, because suffering is something you always do alone. It impacts phenomenally on your world view and on your experiences and on how you see the external world. It creates all kinds of limitations on the freedoms you have.”

Future paths eradicated along with his health, Hobbs began to write fiction. Over the course of the past decade he has become one of the most exquisite and wise writers on the nature of suffering, both of the body and the spirit.

Hobbs’ first novel, the Dublin IMPAC shortlisted The Short Day Dying, emerged from this in 2005. Narrated by Charles Wenmoth, a young Methodist preacher in 1870, the voice of the novel is unforgettable from the very first paragraph: “Our time is stolen from us and we are blind to its loss neither will we see it again mine hours have been wasted.” Both earthy and spiritual, Hobbs’ non-use of commas evokes not only the internal landscape of his character, the topography of consciousness, but also, incredibly, the external space and time of the 19th century Cornwall countryside. You feel the cold, the wide-open spaces, the fields and the low-hanging sky inside Wenmoth’s narration. In a sense, it is nature writing, but of a sort that places man’s own nature among the mysteries of creation; character and place are intertwined in Hobbs’ tonal landscapes. As Wenmoth says when exposed to Romantic poetry, “And then among the poems there are several in praise of Nature but the verses seem to me false and overly refined everything that Nature is not. I do not have a liking for it.”

Hobbs’ new novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows, manages the same feat, but with an entirely different voice. Loathe as anyone should be to quote a back-of-the-book blurb, I can think of no better way of putting this than Libyan author Hisham Matar’s praise that the book “contains more light than seems possible”. Where The Short Day Dying grammatically captured its foggy, wet environment, Hobbs’ new novel does the same with its clean, piercingly simple prose, every sentence exposed and true under the glare of the Pakistani sunlight. “There is a nakedness to imprisonment,” the unnamed narrator says. “No part of yourself can remain hidden.” The novel is a perfect distillation of this.

In the Orchard, the Swallows – its title alone contains more commas than Hobbs’ entire first novel – is set in present-day Pakistan. The narrator, 29 years old at the time of the telling, has returned to the village of his birth after being incarcerated and tortured for 15 years. Physically, he is a broken man. But by holding on to his capacity to love, and his love of the natural world, it is likely that he has returned wiser. The chapters, like the novel itself, are short. Each exposes a present-day occurrence or memory under the interrogatory spotlight of perfunctory titles such as The Orchard, The Garden, The Prison, The Wedding, and The Swallows. The novel is foregrounded by the tale of the narrator’s re-emergence into life. Found on the side of the road, half dead, he is nursed back to health by Abbas, a retired “government poet”, and his daughter, Alifa.

“I was so dehydrated I could hardly speak. When they tried to give me water my body would not keep it down [...] And he gave me pills, antibiotics, sour lozenges the size and shape of almonds. Even as it knew how much I needed them, my body tried to reject them, as it purged almost everything from it in those days. I wonder if there was something in me that did not want to return from illness. Something that preferred to remain latched closely to it, resigned to circle down into darkness, to be consumed.”

The narrator’s family is now gone, disappeared, and their beloved orchard is sold and untended. Aged by his years of torture, he is unrecognisable to the villagers of his hometown, which has gone through its own terrifying transformation: world events have broken through. A bomb is hurled over the wall of a school in a neighbouring valley; war is everywhere and people live in fear of strangers. He is now a stranger.

The novel takes the form of a journal written to the narrator’s beloved, Saba, a girl he hardly knew but the memory of whom has allowed him to remain human in prison where others “became inhabited by some vacancy, as though some crucial part of them was gone”. Among other things, the book is a love story. His love for Saba is both the cause of his imprisonment and, in a sense, what kept him sane. “I have said that I do not know the boy I once was. In truth, all that remains of him is this love for you. It was the only thing that survived.” He has come of age through powerlessness and physical suffering.

The construction of the novel feels at once perfectly calibrated, shorn of all but the most necessary details, and yet also free, mimicking the twists of memory. This is an accomplished feat. We’re taken from poetic descriptions of childhood and nature, from heartbreaking memories of dancing with his father in the orchard to the grotesquery of imprisonment. It’s hard to say what is more important to the narrator; descriptions of swallows in flight are given almost equal weight to descriptions of torture.

“Every instinct of the body is to recoil from pain, but they allowed us no escape. An awful sense of powerlessness grew steadily, as though I were inhaling a great breath of air and was unable to stop. The horror became overwhelming, and from some hidden place in my mind I felt a darkness, something huge and unnameable, begin to form. [...] I would wonder how many days I had been tormented, only to find, on being returned to the cell, that I had been gone no more than an hour or two.”

To be honest, that an English novelist chose as a subject a Pakistani man’s imprisonment initially rang some alarm bells for me. This, I thought, was not a case of writing what you know. In the end, however, it is exactly that – in a broad sense. Hobbs has homed in on a universal kernel of experience and truth, a love and suffering, and the force of a character shaped by events outside his control.

It’s hard not to read Hobbs’ own emergence as a writer from his debilitating illness into the story of a man recovering from 15 years of torture through the composition of a journal. Surely his own experience has given this devastating and gorgeous short novel its weight.

“All things are possible,” the narrator concludes towards the end of the book, and a line that might seem the slightest of clichés in the hands of another writer, another book, feels hard won in the context of In the Orchard, the Swallows – and, improbably, triumphantly uplifting.

Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.