Fire in the Unnameable Country, Ghalib Islam, Hamish Hamilton Canada (Penguin)
From the outset, Fire In the Unnameable Country hinted at possible deception.
Neatly packaged in a FedEx Express envelope from Mr. Penguin himself, a rain-shielding plastic shell concealed an information sheet presented in an environmentally conscious (or cost-effective) font and a 448-page book that crawled smoothly from its tan envelope.
An easy read and a swift review had been assumed, until a quick glance at the red and black cover revealed Jonathan Garfinkel’s blurb, “A post-apocalyptic mind-fuck, a wild ride through the netherworlds of the war on terror.”
Powerful words, enough to retrigger fears of the sort experienced by virgins setting foot in their first brothel.
The novel’s narrator, Hedayat, is on an excursion to demystify his troubled country’s history and the roots of its crises by invoking the memories of his parents and grandparents, meanwhile fictionalizing the American influence on people’s psyches.
In Hedayat’s world, the inhabitants forget any feeling of living real lives and instead face a heightened sense of surveillance.
“No, we could not love the Americans, because they had imprisoned us with mirror-streets and spied on us with everywhere cameras of a counterfeit movie set; they had burned us with a deceptive phosphorescent fire, which resisted water, and had deprived us of the ability to earn an honest living and driven us to hidden organs of income,” narrates Hedayat.
In fictionalizing surveillance, he hits on a widely analyzed phenomenon. As Noam Chomsky says, “For state power and thus private economic power, the enemy must be fully exposed to state authority.”
In an interview, Islam had said he started to identify as a Muslim post 9/11. Assuredly, this was not to do with religious conviction as much as political dynamics.
Islam’s Fire in an Unnameable Country does more than blaze through illusory countries with phony borders drawn up to reflect elite interests. He moves on to articulate a whole other space far from the perceptions of reality formed by our external senses.
With the limitations on our sensory spectrum, is there not something greater within, reflecting reality? As English actor and media figure Russell Brand wonders, is this not the agenda of power, chaining us to the mundane, preventing us from awakening and persisting in a superficial but fearful paradigm, with greed and selfishness exacerbated?
This is an original tale, to say the least. Reading even the first few pages produces the sensation that this book is the byproduct of an exploding dictionary in which many of the words miraculously fall into a bizarre narrative. Islam’s story goes back and forth, crossing multiple generations, with zigzagging grammar. In a blink of an eye, the third person reverts to the first person, and so on.
Further on, readers may begin questioning if this is, in fact, a never-ending puzzle where no two pieces connect. I was hopeful that turning the pages would cause my frustrations to subside so that I could find an incipient pathway when figuratively lost in the deep woods. Subsequent pages revealed Islam’s idiosyncratic prose, atypical characters and dark humour.
With his last words, his last few sentences, everything suddenly and sublimely comes together, revealing Islam’s artistic genius.
Photo by Unid army personnel, Wikimedia Commons