Jamil Ahmad, The wandering falcon (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)
I’m not sure how to describe Jamil Ahmad’s Man Asian Literary Prize novel, The wandering falcon. Is it a disjointed novel, a picaresque, or a collection of connected short stories? It doesn’t matter greatly – it is what it is – but at least by raising the question I’ve given you a sense of how it feels to read this book.
There’s much to fascinate here, not least of which is that this is a debut novel by an author who was born in 1933. Another late bloomer (though he apparently wrote the stories back in the 1970s). Ahmad worked in the Pakistani Civil Service and spent many years in the region he writes about. The book is set in the decades before the rise of the Taliban and presents – explores – life in the multi-tribal region on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Fascinating stuff for a reader whose knowledge of this area is general.
There are nine chapters/stories, each having a unique title like “The sins of the mother”, “A point of honour”, “A kidnapping” and each telling a story from the life of a tribe/clan in the region. What unifies these is the character, Tor Baz, who is the wandering falcon of the title. He is born in the first chapter to a couple on the run for disobeying tribal laws of marriage. This chapter, “The sins of the mother”, sets a rather brutal tone for the novel, a tone that carries through into many of the succeeding stories (or events). This is a region where people live by tribal loyalties (and, of course, rules) and where the imposition of borders cuts across tribal life, particularly for those tribes that are nomadic. In the third story, “The death of camels”, the nomadic Pawindahs want, indeed need, to cross borders as they always have, but are told they need travel documents. Their leader says to the government official:
‘… We are Pawindahs and belong to all countries or to none. [ …] What will happen to our herds? … Our animals have to move if they are to live. To stop would mean death for them. Our way of life harms nobody. Why do you wish for us to change?’
As you will have guessed from my opening sentence, this is not a strongly plot driven book. Ah, now this is where form becomes an issue. We don’t expect a collection of short stories (connected or otherwise) to have a strong plot and so this, probably, is what it is. But there is a linear chronology running through the book. It’s tracked through our falcon Tor Baz who pops up, for one reason or another, in different tribes, from his birth in the first chapter to the end when he’s a man. We see him in various roles, including informer and guide, but we never really get to know him – and for some reason this doesn’t seem to matter. It simply adds to the feel of the book, which is simultaneously fabular and grounded in reality.
The voice is third person, with the startling exception of one story that is told first person by an outsider, a part Afridi returning to his father’s birthplace. If I have a criticism of the book it’s that occasionally the voice becomes a little didactic, a little inclined to tell us some facts rather than show us, but this isn’t often and it’s not heavy-handed enough to spoil the read.
What makes this book stand out is the writing. It beautifully (if one can use such a word for the world it depicts) evokes the landscape we’ve become familiar with through television news and movies. Here is the novel’s second paragraph, describing a military post:
Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against each other, and no water other than a trickle among some salt-encrusted boulders which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility. (“The sins of the mother”)
Hmm … “lonely”, “frightening”, “crazily” and “hostility. With words like this on the first page, you know you are not in for something light and cheery. The interesting thing though is that the book does not read as a diatribe or even as a plea. It’s more a description of people who accept their lives, despite the harshness and difficulty, lives where, for example,
If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat, comfortable lives in the plains. To both sides, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. (“A kidnapping”)
The book chronicles this life – its unforgiving landscape and sometimes brutal justice – and the changes that are starting to threaten centuries old traditions:
The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die. In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual. The new way of life triumphed over the old. (“The death of camels”)
This is a mesmeric book. We feel the author’s affection for the people, their traditions and the land, and we go with his acceptance of lives whose bases are so different to ours. It’s a book born of the earth but its spirit won’t be pinned down. An eye-opener, in more ways than one – and a worthy contender for the prize.
The wandering falcon
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011