Friday, 9 September 2011

curfewed night [basharat peer]

For all the fiction that I read, and it seems sometimes unlimited in its requirement for consumption, I'm a fictional gas guzzler, I can't help thinking that you sometimes learn more about narrative from reading non-fiction. I don't care what my post-post-moderns say, there's no such thing as a text without a story, or at least the implication of a story. I dimly remember Nietzsche saying something about how even his laundry lists or his shopping lists were part of an oeuvre (or was it someone saying that of him? It's all so long ago now, all that); and now, in an age when they can deduce or plan your life history from your supermarket receipts, isn't this even more evident? Likewise, the manual for assembling the thing-you-don't-quite-know-what-it's-supposed-to-be from Ikea, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a world with Ikeas, contains a story: the parts that should become a whole, the dream that is within your grasp, waiting to be realised. Not to mention, when it comes to it, all the literary detritus of our lives, the unloved emails; text messages; tweets and sundry which contain the gory details of the lives we lead.

So clearly a non-fiction book will also contain its narrative. In a work of fiction, that narrative is worn on the sleeve. (Even if the writer seeks to avoid wearing it on their sleeve). In a work of non-fiction, the apparent demands of beginning, middle, end; development; deconstruction; wholeness; the angst of perfection; these all seem apparently more remote. The objective is to account or theorise, and accounts and theories can take any shape or size. However, having read of late a few works of non-fiction, the importance of narrative to the book's success in meeting its objectives seems patent; and the the failure of the author to manage the demands of narrative remind the reader strongly of both the necessity and the glory of a consciously managed narrative.

Peer's book treads similar territory to Waheed's Collaborator, detailing the conflict in Kashmir from the perspective of a young man who has had to live though it. Similarly to Waheed, Peer's book opens with an evocative description of Kashmiri village life in the days before the conflict really took wing. However, Peer is a journalist, and his account is non-fictional. It is a loose, anecdotal ramble though his life and relationship with the land he came from. Peer left Kashmir to go to university in Delhi. He eventually gives up the job so he can return to Kashmir in the second part of the book and research the stories which will go into the writing of Curfewed Night. The author talks of the need to capture and document a conflict that the world has ignored. He skips from chapter to chapter, moving from town to village, trying to catch up the ghosts of his past and find out what has happened to them, revealing at the same time the way in which Kashmir has been altered and damaged over the course of the last twenty years.

However, this is a hotch-potch voyage. Peer doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what he's trying to say. Perhaps because, in spite of his protestations, he seems to have adapted to mainstream Indian culture so successfully, where so many of those he grew up with haven't. The book feels as though it might be fuelled by survivor's guilt; a kind of therapeutic journey which the author lacks the perspective to really describe. What exactly Peer's story is remains nebulous; and so, therefore, does his account of the Kashmiri conflict. Where anger suffused Waheed's book, Peer's seems predicated by a failed search to locate that anger. Had he been more conscious of this, this might have lent his narrative a clearer shape. Or something else might have informed it. As it stands, Curfewed Night does its job; but it seems to me the author's literary duty remains unfulfilled; in the margins of this book there lies another, waiting to be told, the one that squares the exile's life with the struggle he cannot help but leave behind.

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