Dacca Dreams

Ali Sethi in The New York Times:

Somewhere in the middle of “Scenes From Early Life,” Philip Hensher’s circuitous new novel of wartime Bangladesh, a lawyer and his wife are arguing over the chilies and tomatoes and mangos that have been left out to dry on their balcony. “My balcony is full of rubbish and detritus,” the lawyer complains. “If there is no pickling and preserving,” says the wife to her daughters, “what does he think we are all going to eat the next time we can’t leave the house? We have no idea how long it will go on for, next time.” She is referring to the soldiers who have begun to stalk the streets outside her house. We are in Dacca circa 1970. It is the capital of East Pakistan, then one of that country’s two wings, long inflamed by political grievance and now on the verge of a violent secession. The West Pakistani military is about to start Operation Searchlight — a euphemism for the massacre of Bengali nationalists. There are roadblocks in the city; soon there will be tanks and air raids. And in one leafy neighborhood, this lawyer and his wife are squabbling over the placement of their chilies.

Hensher doesn’t mean to trivialize such arguments; rather, he gives them pride of place in his narrative. “This is not a history of the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence,” the author writes in the acknowledgments, “but the rendering of a family’s passionately held memories. It does not pretend to be an account of the millions who died in the war and the famines.” So, the lawyer and his wife are the maternal grandparents of Saadi, a character modeled on the author’s own Bangladeshi husband. It is Saadi who is looking back on his childhood in Dacca, Saadi who is recalling the antics of his “immense extended family” and narrating the book to a quietly receptive Westerner, a stand-in for Hensher. For most of the novel, it is Saadi’s subjectivity that will give Hensher his method — the staging of interconnected memories, some more closely bound up with public events than others — to tell a now-personal, now-political story.

The method works best when it reveals the war obliquely, as one of many strands in a personal history.

More here.