FICTION: LAND OF THE PURE, THE FREE AND THE INSANE – Journal
By Zafar Qureshi
Farid Publishers, Karachi
Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was so appalled by stories of repression under General Rafael Trujillo’s rule in the Dominican Republic that he wrote the novel The Feast of the Goat to portray the control the dictator had over the society. In Pakistan, Mohammed Hanif wrote his magnum opus, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, about the times and eventual murder of General Ziaul Haq in his unique and humorous way.
Today, journalist and translator Zafar Qureshi has made General Zia’s regime and Pakistan’s outlandish Islamization campaign the subject of his debut novel Boom Basera. However, it is much more than a simple account of the repercussions of the military dictatorship which forces its protagonist to flee.
Half of the story depicts American life as Syed Qalab Ali Zaidi aka Dilawar Hussain emigrated to the United States but, despite Dilawar living in “the land of the free”, the focus remains “the land of the pure”, riddled as if by the radicalization project of the military dictator.
It is pertinent to mention here that we don’t really know why a man has two names; perhaps they are meant to symbolize the different avatars of the same person in different countries.
A debut novel follows a disillusioned journalist who escapes the suffocation of his homeland, only to find himself unable to truly put the past behind him.
Social transformation in the homeland of Dilawar is led by a politico-religious party, the Jamaatul Munafiqeen [The Party of Hypocrites]. It is obvious what real political outfit this is based on, the one that had a major influence under General Zia’s regime. Meanwhile, the dictator turns out to be the foundation upon which Qureshi’s character, Gen Zulmat-i-Zia, is built. Pushing the symbolic nomenclature further, the country is called Boom Basera, or “the land of the mad” as the novelist describes it.
Qureshi weaves three layers together into one narrative. These are: the hero’s life in Pakistan and the launch of his career as a journalist, his migration to the United States and life as it is lived there, and finally American society as reflected in the individual stories of various characters.
The novel begins with a flashback as Dilawar, working at a strip club, reminisces about his early life. He had grown very disillusioned in Boom Basera as journalism – his chosen profession – was infested with members of the Jamaatul Munafiqeen who, under the cover of journalists, were determinedly spreading their own agenda.
Depressed by this state of affairs, Dilawar emigrates and we follow his attempts to acclimatize to his new life, his difficulties are no different from those of the countless economic migrants who struggle to resettle in less than ideal living conditions.
At the time of this thread of the story, American society is undergoing its own transformations under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was strongly influenced by the screenwriter, novelist and self-styled philosopher Ayn Rand. The writer had declared that “greed is not bad” and in doing so had destroyed any chance of social service or building a society based on well-being.
The rest of the book traces the struggles of Dilawar and the people around him as they attempt to rise through the ranks in pursuit of the “American Dream”. But in each chapter, through flashbacks or otherwise, the author shifts the narrative to “Pakistan” to describe the appalling social and political situations there, or to draw comparisons.
At these times, the characters are left as simple spectators and the writer stands on the pedestal to begin his “sermons”. The reader begins to wonder if Dilawar is just a mouthpiece for Qureshi, or his punching bag. Such passages can be so long that one wonders if this is a non-fiction book on the socio-political history of Pakistan. That being said, we could consider this a positive, as it shows how not to write a novel, especially if it’s loaded with history.
Qureshi confronts the Pakistani diaspora in search of the American dream as Dilawar struggles to put down roots in a foreign land. The economic migrant has fled the suffocation of his own country and wants to find success in an unforgiving new capitalist world. But memory steeped in nostalgia becomes the mainstay of the story, as Dilawar clings to the home he cannot leave behind.
The story gets stuck after the first chapters and it continues until the 40th chapter. From the reader’s point of view, this part could have been truncated by at least half. Sometimes two characters engage in conversation to essentially repeat what readers already know or have read. This is an unfortunate flaw, as it shows that the writer is more interested in speaking to readers through his spokespersons than in the story, its movement, or its intricacies.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a slow story, but it requires the kind of mastery that shaped Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, a murder mystery about a miniaturist. Another example would be The Sea, The Sea by Irish-British novelist Iris Murdoch. This story – of a retired theater actor who chooses to live in isolation, far from the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan showbiz life – is over 500 pages and yet completely readable.
When Boom Basera’s story moves forward in the final chapters of the novel, it’s so fast that 20 years pass by in a jiffy, without any rationalization. At some point, it seems like the author has regained control of his book, but by then it’s too late.
The novel’s tragic flaw is the repetition of some specific things, especially issues related to the political history of Pakistan and the involvement of the Jamaatul Munafiqeen, at the mention of which the writer becomes emotional.
Qureshi also seems preoccupied with didacticism by placing too much emphasis on General Zia’s dictatorial regime and his support for the real life Jamaat-i-Islami. Each time the story moves on to more objective socio-political conditions, the author seems to address the audience directly and the characters become non-entities, mere tools for him to express his own emotions.
Ayn Rand’s socio-economic influence in the United States, which unleashed the curse of capitalism on the world, is an important sub-theme, and Qureshi’s juxtaposition of Pakistani and American societies is interesting, particularly as it relates to concerns the state of journalism in the first during the 1980s, when the military-led establishment infiltrated Pakistan’s independent media with Jamaat workers camouflaged as journalists whose sole intention was to serve their party and the establishment, and to steer Pakistani society in certain directions.
It is true that the Gen Zia dictatorship had lasting effects. Decades have passed, but Pakistan is still reeling from it. The Jamaat and the religion card were the tools the general used to the max to suppress sane voices, but the author doesn’t quite properly integrate them into the Boom Basera factory. Instead of having the intended effect, they become digressions.
The examiner is a staff member. He tweets @IrfaanAslam
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 20, 2022