Voices torn by war

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


Scenes from Early Life: A Novel
by Philip Hensher
Fourth Estate

It is only a year since Philip Hensher published his last novel, The King of the Badgers. The follow-up, Scenes from Early Life, can't be more different. The King of the Badgers is a vibrant, lopsided tale about the state of the British nation. Sparked by the kidnapping of a young girl, it's a fusion of hilarious small-town gossip, fizzy social criticism, moving personal tragedy and the darkest portrait of humanity imaginable.

Scenes from Early Life, by contrast, is set in Bangladesh (or East Pakistan for some of the action), and recounts a decade and a half of tumultuous, violent change told from the perspective of one family. Where Hensher's narrative voice in The King of the Badgers is a tonal crazy paving (comedy, bathos, pathos, satire and horror), here it is gentle and poetic - a mellifluous whisper into our imagination.

For example, this description of the narrator's sister, reading her beloved books in a mango tree: 'Wedged into a tree in a mango orchard, the red silk cushion behind her back, she could read for hours, the distant shouts of farmers and cousins not disturbing her, hardly noticing the song of the birds sitting at rest, like her, in the trees.'

The relationship between author and reader is complicated somewhat by external circumstances. As two postscripts point out (an 'author's note' and some 'acknowledgements') the 'I' who tells this meandering, charming story is based on Hensher's real-life husband, Zaved Mahmood - in the novel, known as 'Saadi' to his nearest and dearest.

This duality makes for occasionally muddy waters. One or two scenes from Mahmood's real life interpose themselves on that of Saadi. The chapter which recalls the wedding of Saadi's parents in 1959 (via descriptions of a meticulously arranged photograph album) is briefly interrupted by snapshots from Zaved's own 'very different' nuptials: '... there are images of my new husband feeding me cake; of some rather drunk guests dancing in globes of disco lighting; of serried ranks of canapes waiting for the party to begin; of many other things that did not happen at my parents' wedding, exactly fifty years before mine...'

It's unclear whether this blurring of art and life matters greatly, except to emphasise that the horrors which occur in the final third of the novel actually happened: this is the bloody civil war which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Hensher does remind us that distinguishing fact from fiction is never a straightforward task, especially where stories are concerned: 'This has been the story of my early life,' Saadi concludes (or confesses) at the end.

We also need to pay attention to a particularity in the title: Scenes from Early Life: A Novel. The story may be inspired by real events, but these real events are now also a story. Or rather, real events mediated by a series of storytellers - the Mahmood family retold by Saadi retold by Zaved retold by Hensher. It's a literary onion - and it will make you cry.

Moreover, he comes from a family and a culture, where telling tales - on one another, and about each other too - is as natural as breathing. There are songs (often by Tagore), poems and novels that punctuate Saadi's memories. There are the television shows (such as Knight Rider and Dallas) that he recreates in childish games with friends. And there are the versions of current events that family members tell one another. 'I have tried to be as good a storyteller as my mother was,' Saadi says quietly at the end.

As with The King of the Badgers, Proust is an obvious touchstone for Scenes from Early Life: the past recollected in immense detail, nowhere more clearly than family relations. Everything for Saadi is, quite literally, relative: from his literary sister to his practical engineer of a brother; from his aloof, but intense legal father to his warm and wise mother; from his powerful, reassuring Nana (grandfather) to his endlessly nostalgic Nani (grandmother). Like Proust's narrator, Saadi is a mummy's boy, possessive of his mother, who, aided and abetted by several aunts, spoils him rotten. Saadi's memory of his mother-love is as Proustian as possible: 'I wanted to have my mother to myself, with her warm iron-scented flesh, the ripple of silk against my face when she embraced me.' (The 10 or so black and white photographs that Hensher includes in the text suggest a second literary model, that of W.G. Sebald).

Except for one terrifyingly intense episode shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Saadi's parents play second fiddle to his grandparents. He recalls with loving detail the various houses in which his Nana and Nani lived: the balconies with 'jolpai and mango ... laid out for drying'; the meal times that were simultaneously ordered and anarchic; the chicken house, decorated by Saadi's painter-cousin Pultoo, which eventually housed his pet chicken, Piklu; and the friends, colleagues and servants from the great (including future founder of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) to the middling (the lazy but genial uncle, Boro-Mama) to the minor (Rustum the Chauffeur).

The family and indeed the family home represents the broader body politic in Bangladesh: the house and way of life it contains is either what survives the war of Bangladeshi independence, or is destroyed by it. Like the country itself, the Mahmoods are regular feuders: whether it is with Pakistani loyalists who live next door or members of their own family. It is as if the constant threat of national fracture seeps into every area of existence.

Hensher narrates this vulnerability beautifully, if partially, through the story of Amit and Altaf, musicians from opposite sides of the religious divide. Amit flees to India in fear of his life after a government campaign against the Bengali majority in East Pakistan escalates into violence. Decades before, the Muslim Altaf had made the same journey only in reverse: he fled Calcutta 'because of his religion and his family's religion ... That was how history worked: a good thing balanced by a bad thing.'

Scenes from Early Life marks a new high point in Hensher's exalted and diverse career. His prose is lyrical, elegant and tangy. Its precision, especially where domestic life is concerned, only emphasises the chaos and desolation of war. The episode in which Nana gathers his family around him, only for Saadi's father to go missing as gunfire strafes the neighbourhood, is superb: the tension derives much of its nerve-wracking power from the sight of Hensher's genial characters suddenly breaking down.

From time to time, he does falter. Occasionally, it feels as though he is doing an impersonation of someone writing in translation. And as with The King of the Badgers, some of the sub-plots don't climax or resolve themselves so much as peter out or vanish: Amit and Altaf's vivid double act, for example. Then again, East Pakistan in 1971 was a place in which people did disappear suddenly, and rarely for good reasons. Hensher's still, small voice memorialises a way of life in loving detail, but recognises that ways of life, like people, can be extinguished in an instant. Scenes from Early Life is a wonderful achievement. One can only hope that Saadi's later years will receive similar attention.