January 3, 2012 by markstani
My latest review from this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize longlist. It has also been reviewed by my fellow Shadow Prize judges Lisa, Matt and Fay. We are in broad agreement: it is a strong contender for the shortlist.
For her second novel, following 2007’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner ‘A Golden Age’, Tahmima Anam tackles the not inconsiderable, and certainly timely, topics of revolution and fundamentalism in her native Bangladesh. As the Arab Spring turns cold in Egypt, The Good Muslim (pub. Canongate) begs the question of whether so-called liberation is ever entirely achieved by mass rallies in public squares or newsreel footage of toppling statues.
In Bangladesh, which achieved independence after a short war with Pakistan that ended in 1971, the first decade-and-a-bit as a sovereign state were anything but liberal. War wounds festered, and a series of assassinations and attempted coups seemed designed to shatter hopes of stability. It is best described by Anam:
Thirteen. Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn’t sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Modhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.
Anam’s narrative is split between the immediate aftermath of the war, and the mid-1980s, when religious radicalism is on the rise and the concept of liberation is beginning to mean very different things to different people.
Anam frames her story around a single family: primarily the headstrong Maya, returned from her war work as a nurse brimming with revolutionary principles, and harbouring disdain for those who pursue divisive agendas in the name of God; and Sohail, her beloved brother, whose harrowing wartime experiences have sent him down a fundamentalist path.
When Sohail effectively reinvents himself as a prophet, and sends his young son Zaid to a madrasa, Maya is determined to convince him to see the error of his ways by any means necessary, but the dark secrets she digs up threaten to destroy her dream of some kind of united future.
The narrow focus of Anam’s novel is a clever one, turning the post-independence problems faced by nations both past and present into broadly personal ones, highlighting the raw emotions and paradoxes which prevail in every household; the difficulty of remaining true to one’s principles when war wounds are yet to heal.
It does, however, come at a price: the reader is afforded only perfunctory glimpses of daily life in Bangladesh during this period of tumult. These precious glimpses of a nation striving for some kind of normality – moments when Maya and her ailing mother prepare to watch an episode of Dallas, or when they share chilli-hot phuchkas by the roadside while an anti-government demonstration is dispersed by tear-gas close by – are too few and far between.
At times, this lack of evocation can make Anam’s writing seem strangely flat, and yet such drawbacks can be largely forgiven thanks to a blistering second half of the novel, in which Anam wrenches her characters towards a rousing, deeply emotional finale: Maya, in particular, evolves into a stunning paradox, her resistance to religion becoming more acute, yet still feeling its strange pull: wishing, in her darkest times, that she had “surrendered to its practicality”.
‘The Good Muslim’ is a brave and important book, and if the pertinence of its message lingers longer than some of the characters themselves, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. Anam is clearly a writer for the future: someone with lots to say, and the ability, and time, to say it. That, too, ought to be something to celebrate.