Sunday, January 10, 2010
I heard Daniyal Mueenuddin interviewed on NPR recently and that made me check out this book. I see now that it’s getting a lot of press, which it deserves. The book is a series of connected short stories centered around one powerful family in Punjab: their patriarch, his employees, and their families. Some characters pop up in multiple stories while others do not. I like this kind of device. The common threads unify the whole package, while the shifting protagonists provide variety. (Observant blog readers will notice I contradict myself; I complained about this very device in this post a few weeks ago. But while the characters in Olive Kitteridge were underdeveloped and interchangeable, Mueenuddin's characters are sharply drawn and memorable.)
I’ve read a lot of books about India but never one about Pakistan. I was struck by the similarities in the two cultures. For some reason I had thought of Pakistan as being very different from India. But a lot of the themes of this book (class inequities, gender and family relationships, remnants of colonialism) are present in much of the Indian literature that I’ve read. And everyone was eating the same food!
Another theme that runs through the book is the corruption of Pakistani society. Several stories deal with rigged elections, biased judges, sweetheart deals, and cronyism. Mueenuddin manages to frame these issues around convincing, sympathetic characters (who exist on either side of the line), leading us like a tour guide through the gray areas of Pakistani business and society. Along the same lines, women don’t fare particularly well. Many of his female characters use their sexuality skillfully, though often not to their own best interests in the end. But you get the feeling they don’t have a lot of choices.
(Book 45, 2009)