Fatima Bhutto’s artfully drawn debut novel provides fascinating insights into Pakistan’s internal conflicts through the tribulations of three brothers over the course of a single morning, writes Malcolm Forbes.
There is a moment in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story Spring in Fialta when the tetchy narrator declares that “art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash”.
One hundred years earlier, in The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal was more specific about the art and more charitable about the effect of the fusion: “Politics, in a literary work, is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert.”
In writer and campaigner Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, set in Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas, politics is a pistol shot. The centrifugal drama and violence plays out from the dusty, flyblown border town of Mir Ali and its mountainous environs. Semiautonomy is not enough. Armed separatists are prepared to die for breakaway independence. On the first page, Bhutto provides two vital details of a morning street scene to inform the reader of where we are and what is at stake: a bazaar is slowly opening to cater for Eid’s last-minute shoppers; on the rooftops, looking down on those shoppers, vigilant snipers lie in their sandbag nests. So continues a novel steeped in political upheaval and mined with hidden dangers, a novel in which ordinary lives are swept up and engulfed by extraordinary events.
Bhutto’s first work, Songs of Blood and Sword (2010), published when she was only 28, was a memoir that covered the murder of Murtaza Bhutto, her father, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, her aunt. Rather than focus solely on the tragedies of the family dynasty, Bhutto prudently branched out and also traced the ragged trajectory of her equally riven nation, from partition to the war on terror. Her own biography is punctuated with stays and schooling in Kabul, Damascus, New York, London and Karachi. Unlike many debut writers, Bhutto has experienced enough – lived enough – to pen a novel. She can authentically portray for the reader a backwoods North Waziristan village and is clearly au fait with the messy tribal tensions, religious conflict and skewed loyalties. But can she make the more demanding transition from fact to fiction and tell a tale with characters that count in prose that entrances?
The novel unfolds over a single morning and revolves around three very different brothers. After sitting down to breakfast, all go their separate ways. The eldest, Aman Erum, hails a taxi to a local mosque. The second, Sikandar, a doctor, heads off to work at his hospital. The youngest, Hayat, rides out of town on his motorbike. So far, so mundane. But over the course of discrete narrative strands, Bhutto stealthily, incrementally, fleshes each man out.
Aman Erum, we learn, has recently returned from studying in America. Key flashbacks in the cab incorporate his time with his childhood sweetheart, Samarra, his father’s stories of fighting for Mir Ali in the 1950s, and, in contrast, Aman Erum’s disgust for “his strangled home” and his desperation to be rid of it. A brilliant section follows whereby we track a younger, more nervous Aman Erum in his bespoke polyester suit to the American Embassy in Islamabad. Permission to enter and temporarily reside in America hinges on his answers to pertinent questions: What did he think of 9/11? How did he feel about the fall of the Taliban? Suddenly he realises the answers inculcated in him are not the replies his desired host country is looking for.
The more headstrong Hayat, on the other hand, is his fighter-father’s son, now continuing his work as a senior operator in the Mir Ali underground. Fellow cadres – not to mention victims who have been “disappeared” by the military police – include firebrand students and radical professors, legions of militant fathers and impressionable sons. Hayat’s superior is the beguiling Samarra, who has gravitated from the eldest brother to forge an alliance with the youngest. The movement’s latest operation to assassinate the visiting Pakistani chief minister will be their boldest yet. “It will change the situation,” Samarra explains. “It will be too large an assault. They will have to reconfigure everything.”
Sikandar, straddling the sensibilities of his two brothers, continues to administer to the sick (or, more typically, the wounded) while coming to terms with his dead son, a casualty of fanatical terror. In one skilfully stretched out and nail-biting set-piece, he is stopped in his ambulance by Talib rebels, beaten and, with a Kalashnikov aimed at his head, made to answer the life-or-death question: “Are you Sunni or Shia?”
Bhutto crafts her tale from these three segments, tugging the reader this way and that, from one character’s perspective to another. We also flit backwards and forwards in time, with formative years giving rise to present wisdom or idealism or disenchantment.
Along the way, rogue, seemingly irrelevant characters pop up and die down, only for their significance to dawn on us pages later. Samarra is one, the mysterious Colonel Tarik another. Sikandar’s wife is arguably the most striking secondary character. Still mourning her son, she spends her days first scouring the newspapers’ obituary sections and then turning up unannounced at funerals of war victims or washing the dead before burials.
All three strands are synthesised into an innovative and impassioned whole. Bhutto’s three leads are finely drawn, but what makes the book truly stand out is her location. Mir Ali, off the radar for so many of us, is so perfectly realised it appears like a fourth character and one that steals the majority of the scenes to which it forms a backdrop. The place is so dangerous that the brothers are obliged to travel separately. A federal order has banned gatherings in public spaces. “No one prays together, travels in pairs, or eats out in groups. It is how they live now, alone.” Even Allah has forsaken the citizens, “exempted and misplaced and forgotten everything that came to Him from Mir Ali, from the frontiers of this country within a country”.
And then there are the descriptions containing bright, pointillist detail. There are comic touches redolent of scenes from Mohsin Hamid: the tailor who hands female customers a measuring tape, turns his back and copies down the measurements they shyly read out; or the boys in internet cafes, clad in counterfeit jeans and hidden behind sunglasses, trawling through sites of “midriff-baring, miniskirted Bollywood starlets”. Other, sharper details attest to the desolation of the town: the hospital with its out-of-date antibiotics – medicines that “are older than most of the doctors” – and scrawny cats prowling the corridors, raiding the bins and making off with discarded placentas; the scavenging street kids submerged beneath mounds of rot; the butcher’s with its cages stuffed with live, plucked birds and display of lamb skulls covered in flies.
Bhutto’s prose is elliptical, as gap-filled as her pockmarked, bullet-ridden streets, and there is great pleasure to be had in inferring and imagining. Where have all the town’s men gone? Who is in cahoots with whom? Just what exactly has Aman Erum been recruited to do?
Even an interrogation scene has the bulk of its violence withheld –invisible but implied, performed offstage – with the reader as in the dark as the gunnysack-shrouded victim. Bhutto’s way of only exposing so much leads naturally to surprises, unveiled informers and a taut and urgent finale, her closing chapters darting quickly from brother to brother to brother to heighten the excitement and bring us closer to the shock outcome. Bhutto’s chapters are times – 09:25, 10:12, etc – culminating with a showdown at noon, but, thanks to her pacing and those last frenetic chapters, the book reads less like time ticking sluggishly on and more like an exhilarating countdown.
The rare occasions that Bhutto’s prose backfires are when it veers towards the saccharine (“Inayat thought his son would find belonging in this cartography of the heart”) or lingers too long in the gloom. As crisis-hit as Mir Ali is, and as keen as Bhutto is to provide the whole unadulterated truth, we could have done with some chinks of light between scenes of funeral-crashers and rubbish-pickers. The narrative is also not as poetic as it wants to be, a dearth of grace-notes unable to counterpoint the dominance of stark overtones.
But The Shadow of the Crescent Moon succeeds far more than it fails. At its best, it is stunning. Few debut novels can adequately explore such colossal themes as betrayal and allegiance, or persuasively render fear, doubt and determination.
Bhutto immerses us in her scarred landscapes and impresses on us the stain of corruption and injustice. The scenes are graphic (the assault on Sikandar’s hospital particularly harrowing) but real, and conveyed thrillingly and poignantly.
Stendhal went on to qualify his politics-and-literature pistol-shot analogy, describing it as “something loud and out of place to which we are nonetheless compelled to pay attention”.
The brutality of governance is never far away in Bhutto’s novel, and as violence underscores policymaking and is applied to keep the fractured peace, the compelled reader pays full attention until the book’s powerful end.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.