In Review

Six eras in one novel

Published 22 Dec, 2017 01:20pm
A schist relief panel from Gandhara shows Buddha dining with monks | Creative Commons
A schist relief panel from Gandhara shows Buddha dining with monks | Creative Commons

Osama Siddique’s Snuffing Out the Moon is an elaborately structured novel of epic proportions. So it is not surprising that, in recent interviews, the author has cited Qurratulain Hyder as a writer he deeply admires. Here, I must lay my cards on the table as a reviewer: I have not read Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. I also have not read British author Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum or any of American writer James A Michener’s epic sagas that chronicle the history of one specific region through many eras, as Snuffing Out the Moon does.

I make this admission to acknowledge that I am restricted in my ability to examine how Siddique draws from the tradition of a very specific kind of epic novel. Now, Snuffing Out the Moon is not a standard work of historical fiction, but even if it were, my unfamiliarity with Aag Ka Darya should not hinder me from writing about this debut novel.

Did I mention that this novel is very elaborately structured? Let me explain: its 400 or so pages are subdivided into five ‘books’ (‘The Book of Illusions’, ‘The Book of Omens’, ‘The Book of Ardour’, and so on). Each ‘book’ is further divided into six chapters. Each chapter is dedicated to a different time period. In the first, third and fifth books, the chapters move chronologically. The chapters in the remaining two books are in reverse chronological order. Each book begins with two epigraphs — one by a Western poet (like Shelley, Auden or Yeats) and one by a South Asian poet (like Ghalib, Iqbal or Faiz).

The novel begins in 2084 BC and ends in 2084 CE. Along the way, we visit monks in late fifth-century Gandhara, observe political intrigues develop in British-ruled India and learn about corruption in Pakistan’s contemporary legal system.

Expectedly, the novel presents the reader with multiple protagonists and storylines. That its individual plots do not cohere into a broader storyline has been pointed out as a shortcoming in some reviews, but it is not something that I necessarily have a problem with in itself. After all, it is not as if Proust meticulously planned In Search of Lost Time in accordance with German critic Gustav Freytag’s plot pyramid, and there are plenty of novels that are admired especially because of their episodic narratives (for example, Even S Connel’s Mrs Bridge) or fragmentary quality (Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway).

A few other reviewers – Aditya Sudarshan of The Hindu in particular – have pointed out that its characters are not fully fleshed out. This, again, is not always an indication of failure. The Booker Prize winning The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, for instance, is full of flat characters. And I mention this book in particular because despite many, many differences, it has some stylistic commonalities with Snuffing Out the Moon. To get the obvious ones out of the way, both have titles that refer to the same celestial body, both are conceit-driven and both rely heavily on very formal prose. So here is my concern: Snuffing Out the Moon, despite all its ambitions (and perhaps because of all its ambitions), feels somewhat lifeless. The lack of coherence in the novel as a whole could have been saved by vivid characterisation. Lack of vivid characterisation could have been saved by a striking prose style. And the lack of a striking prose style could have been saved by a coherent story. But, unfortunately, all three left me wanting in this book.

Here are a few examples to illustrate my point:

In the first few pages of the novel, we are introduced to one of its many protagonists: Prkaa. He is atop a tree, spying on Sthui, a dancer. Siddique writes: “The girl paused mid-step. Arms akimbo, her weight resting on her bent right leg with her left foot hovering above the ground insouciantly.” A few lines earlier, we had been told that she wore metal bracelets and that her hair was tied in a bun that hung on one side of her head. Any discerning reader would recognise this as an allusion to the bronze Dancing Girl statue of Mohenjodaro.

The famous 'Dancing Girl' statue from the ancient city of Mohenjodaro
The famous 'Dancing Girl' statue from the ancient city of Mohenjodaro

A few hundred pages later – and this is hopefully not a spoiler – Prkaa discovers the bronze statue itself and Siddique (somewhat needlessly) states that this statue was lost till 1926 when it was discovered by a British archaeologist. The very beauty of historical fiction is that it brings figures from books and museums to life for the reader. But the novelist wastes the opportunity to do so here.

The Sthui we see in the novel is not much more than the Sthui we see in the statue. Instead of developing her character, the writer emphasises her mysteriousness and attractiveness. In the first book, at the end of a chapter, he writes: “Like a jungle spirit – willowy, brisk and evasive – she skipped through the wet vegetation, her dress clinging to her shapely frame, her hair undone…” And when she does stop to look back at Prkaa, “her gaze was wistful”. Towards the middle of the novel, there is an unusual and somewhat feverish passage in which Prkaa addresses Sthui in his mind: “Where do you seek your colours, Sthui? ... You are not just a dancer who moves in rhythms of weary convention to please the deities … Who are you, Sthui?”

I ask the same question.

Later on in the novel, three yakshas (nature spirits) try to tempt a young monk. Granted, they are spirits, but we get the same physical descriptions that we got for Sthui. One spirit is “a pretty girl in yellow” while another a “comely, dusky damsel in blue”. It is unfortunate that this novel can travel through millennia and take us from the Bronze Age to a future time of human colonies on various moons of the solar system, but still struggles to balance out the depiction of male and female members of the cast as human characters.

The prose is another concern. Around five years ago, I interviewed Siddique over the phone regarding a cover story about Pakistan’s judicial system for Newsline magazine. I distinctly remember that, while transcribing the interview, I pressed pause on the tape and told a colleague that I was so in awe of Siddique because he was the first person I had interviewed who spoke in perfect sentences. This polish, this perfection, that I so admire in him as a speaker is something I feel works against him in the novel. Formality can be wielded deliberately (as The Luminaries does to emphasise that it is a pastiche of the Victorian novel). Here, it creates a sense of distance between the reader and the world(s) of the novel.

When Prkaa meets his childhood friend Motla, he calls him, “O spherical friend of mine”. Admittedly, this is one of the main concerns of historical fiction: how to capture the naturalness of dialogue without making it sound too contemporary. But often in the historical sections of this novel, the balance is skewed too much in favour of old timey-ness.

Elsewhere, there is an unevenness in how Siddique captures a character’s voice through free indirect speech. For example: “Rafiya Begum felt more elevated at that moment than she had done for quite a long time. God Bless Shagufta Parveen! Not just because of her respected father, who was indeed a fine man, but for her own resolve and the quiet, unassuming diligence with which she had taken up her cause. Especially for her empathy. The Merciful One was finally smiling down on her. How else could things have happened so fortuitously?”

That short exclamatory phrase obviously represents Rafiya Begum’s thought process, as does the reference to God’s magnanimity. But everything else is written so formally that it feels disconnected from the character.

But it would be wrong to end the review without acknowledging that Siddique does provide moments of levity in the novel and that there are characters that jump from the page. I could read an entire novel about Sikander-e-Sani and Mirza Ferasta Beg, two bickering swindlers living during the time of Emperor Jahangir’s rule. Then there is Billa aka Billa Bantian Wala aka Babu aka Saleem Pistol (and so on…) who likes to visit his lover in Hotel Stylish Dreams and gift her QMobile phones to win her affection (I am sure you can tell that this is not from the Mohenjodaro or Taxila sections of the novel).

Any of the six eras presented in the novel could serve as compelling stories on their own. It is the structuring and juxtaposing of the disparate narratives that undermine the novel’s strengths. Ultimately, Snuffing Out the Moon is tremendous and ambitious and imperfect. And, in a way, a debut novelist should aspire to have all three of these qualities.

This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a former assistant editor of Newsline and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the John Hopkins University.