Monday, August 30, 2010
Review - No Space for Further Burials by Feryal Ali Gauhar
No Space for Further Burials by Feryal Ali Gauhar, published by Akashic Press
No Space for Further Burials is a successful novel, in great part because of its disciplined approach to pace and prose. I could replace the word prose with poetry in that sentence, for the control that Feryal Ali Gauhar exerts over diction and cadence consistently yields the effects of verse, and her book, which is from a certain perspective the unfolding of the stories that are not the narrator’s own, is a persuasive scaffold, an elegant cage, for a menagerie of souls driven mad by war.
The story of sanity and madness confused is not a new one but it remains a good one. Here the key is that the first person narrator, an American medic, taken prisoner by some ambiguous group of Afghan soldiers-marauders, is held in a dilapidated and distressed asylum. Slowly, his physical bonds are loosed and the American Firangi comes to play his role in trying to sustain the good work of the place. That good work is simple survival for all who are there. This includes keeping bandits out by repairing the wall, coping with the lack of medical and basic supplies, especially through the Afghan winter, and increasingly dealing with the sickness and disease threatening them from the front as well as the tragedies following behind them.
Those tragedies arise from the stories told by most of the characters, mainly inmates of the asylum. Over time these stories--set in italics that generally indicate we hear their own words—teaach the narrator and reader what “these people” were and what they suffered and lost, generally body parts, family members, self respect or honour in the time of war. Insanity is the least of it, so it often seems. Like most serious novels, the book is about understanding people. So here, each character emerges from the murk and grime of the insane asylum--which means from the label mad--to become a person, a story, sometimes a friend, even as the captured medic loses a proper grip on himself. We are all interchangeable, yet uniquely worth a tale, a cup of the weak tea or thin gruel that sustains life.
Insanity is merely the compulsion of suffering when the reasons for war have been lost or never existed. People are safest in the asylum that the war drove them into--some deep into the dark of the asylum’s dungeon, some into silence or blindness. The meaning of sanity is called into question, at least that is the novel’s architecture, as the narrator doubts his ability to survive, to come out of there, to get home. Over time, each of the inmates, even some of those stirred out of the dark, comes to seem less insane than fatally beleaguered. Psychologists might doubt this, but the fiction is triumphant, marching towards its disturbing but not surprising conclusion.
Shocking but not surprising could be a summary for the book. To fill the pages with so many alarming stories without jading or wholly terrifying the reader requires the rather stately, controlled, prose in which Gauhar writes. It is like reading with the handbrake on a little, for safety, providing a place for the reader to exist separate from the madness on display. The narrator, who eventually admits that he wanted to be a writer, is given the genius for such language, revealed in these journal entries. Nothing we learn about him quite allows us to believe his education or cultivation would make such writing natural for him, so if we think it plausible it’s because the force of war has linked with the American’s natural gift, his poetic nature, as it were. But either way, the novel needed this slightly chaste voice to encompass all the horrors as well as the subtleties of love that are in the path. No Space for Burials’ language is in that limited sense, in the mode of a detached traveller, flexible but only rarely coarse, always slightly elevated and therefore drenching all it sees, however mundane or vicious or mad, with human significance; but something is held back, alien, careful. On the other hand, the novel has a distinct inward turn, away from knowledge, away for the most part from philosophy or history—one character aside--and towards experience and the more recent trauma. It is not always a pleasant book, so grim are its tales, but it is a profoundly good book about bad things and lives rendered not quite futile.