Thursday, September 30, 2010

2010 readings kick off with book award finalist

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 21, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

Knowing little very little about Pakistani literature, I'm not qualified to evaluate how Daniyal Mueenuddin translates the images and archetypes of that nation's traditional literature for an American audience. But I can say that American readers will feel right at home -- almost disturbingly so -- in the fictional landscape Mueenuddin offers in his short-story collection, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders"

Raised in both Lahore, Pakistan, and Elroy, Wis., Mueenuddin writes in a familiar literary prose that sweeps through of a cross-section of economic and social classes. His stories provide an "Upstairs, Downstairs"/"Gosford Park" examination of Pakistani society in and around Lahore. They interlock to become a Pakistani-American version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County -- one tied together not only through shared geography but also through the characters' many links to the aging patriarch, K.K. Harouni. The stories tell the recent history of Pakistan by charting the quick rise and slow fall of the Harouni family, who consolidated their land and influence under the British and who now see their money and power dwindling in a postcolonial nation in a postindustrial world.

By organizing his stories primarily by character, Mueenuddin tries to give voice to a new community. The collection begins with "Nawabdin Electrician," telling the story of a poor but resourceful electrician who has to provide for his 13 daughters. It goes on with "Saleema," telling the story of the daughter of a heroin addict who becomes a maid in K.K. Harouni's Lahore mansion and begins an affair with the household chief of staff, Rafik. It continues with "Provide, Provide," telling the story of Jaglani, a manager who has cheated the Harounis out of much of their land, but who risks his new found wealth and power when he falls under the spell of his faithful driver's sister, Zainab. Other stories tell of servants, Western ex-patriots and Harouni family descendants looking to live in, to love in and to rebel against the West.

Some of the stories take place over the course of a week; others take place over generations. But readers never feel rushed, and they never feel that details are left missing. Mueenuddin's story-telling ability constantly reassures readers that all the pertinent information will be revealed in good time.

Take when K.K. Harouni ignores his children's accusations that Jaglani is cheating him. Mueenuddin's narrator observes, "The old man sentimentally thought that the people of Dunyapur, the village in the heart of the Harouni lands, revered his family, whose roots had been in that soil for a mere hundred years."

By quickly bringing up that "mere" hundred-year history -- and by alluding to the pre-British history that came before it -- Mueenuddin highlights how he is turning his fictional focus from the Harounis of the past to the Jaglanis of the present and to the unknown families of the future. But he also shows how, at every stage, the region's distant past erupts in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.

The mixture of past, present and future can be seen in a paragraph describing how Jaglani, who gets elected to public office, travels to visit the people he represents.

"Another year passed. Jaglani had been elected to the provincial assembly by a wide margin, and thus spent his time either in Lahore attending sessions or at the farm, hearing the petitions and complaints of his constituents, the people from his area. His district ran along both sides of the Indus River, and the people on the far side came across on a wooden ferry, flat-bottomed and long enough to hold twenty people, pushed along on long sweeps by an old man, whose body had remained muscular, but whose skin hung off him wherever the muscles didn't extend."

There are no happy endings in the fictional "other rooms" imagined by Mueenuddin. There are only happy, content, pleasant, wondrous moments that eventually dissolve into the reality of our unfair world.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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