Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pakistan: "Moth Smoke" by Moshin Hamid

Given a choice, I will typically pick a first novel as my introduction to any writer. Moshin Hamid is well-known now in the U.S. for The Reluctant Fundamentalist but I skipped that book (and later movie) in favor of his first novel, Moth Smoke

Many first novels are assembled like furniture from IKEA; they have all of the parts but the edges show and things seem a bit wobbly when you are done. This book is nothing like that. It is like a very fine piece of furniture, with dovetail joints tightly interlocked and the finish perfectly smooth.

This level of craftspersonship is seldom achieved these days in furniture -- or in writing -- and it is a deep pleasure to see it in this book, first published in 2000. Here, the joinery is the intersplicing of a main narrator, Daru, and various "witnesses" to his immediate crisis. The narrative voice changes with every chapter, and while some commentators found that confusing, I reveled in the challenge and admire the inventiveness.

The action occurs from April through mid-summer of 1998, as Pakistan conducts its first nuclear weapons tests, following hard on "the neighbors." (India also conducted tests in spring 1998.) The metaphor of moth smoke arises from the inevitable "moth to flame" attraction between Daru and Mumtaz, whose stories are as interlocked as is the joint above -- and who share another kind of joint  as well, hash mixed with tobacco cigarettes.

With so much smoking going on, ash "fallout" is everywhere in the story, whether real ash from the joints; a simulacrum of ash, from the scales of smashed wings as Daru invents a game of "moth badminton"; or metaphorical ash, from the dangerous liaison Daru establishes with Mumtaz, his best friend's wife. In the end, there are no winners, only mutually assured self-destruction.

The story is a Fitzgeraldian (as in F. Scott and Gatsby) look at what Hamid calls "the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages" (p. 214). It is also a musing, possibly even an allegory, on the overall disintegration of Pakistani society in the 20th century. There are scenes of political corruption, rise of the "fundos" or fundamentalists, and general lawlessness, including thefts during the long-awaited monsoon and a brawl in the middle of a cinema, all of which draw Daru's not-very-critical eye.

Most noticeable is Daru's own descent into a drugged stupor, including pain-killers after serious injury and ultimately heroin, no longer just hash, mixed into the cigs.  One wonders if the "everyman" middle-class, locally educated, Daru is standing in for masses of Pakistanis who are caught, as he is, between a powerful, economic elite with almost no conscience and a rising, revolutionary sentiment.

If that is part of Hamid's message, Pakistan is likely to be in for wrenching social change, painful for its own citizens and, with its current standing in world politics, for many, many others as well. Given the prologue referencing a war of succession following the death of a Muhgal emperor, and the closing section about that war's winner and the struggle for succession at his death, I suspect much more than a story of adultery and drug abuse is at the heart of Moth Smoke

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