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Monday, March 1, 2010

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Class Struggles in Pakistan

You've never read anything like this slim volume of eight interconnected short stories about life in modern Pakistan. I can almost guarantee it. Rescued from obscurity by its 2009 National Book Award nomination, Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a blend of portraits of Pakistani people, both rich and poor. The effect is a holistic image of everyday life in a country stuck in an seemingly endless loop of feudalism and class struggle.

Mueenuddin, who was born to a Pakistani father and American mother, spent seven years after college at Dartmouth trying to untangle the twisted network of kickbacks, favors, and below-the-level law enforcement at his father's farm in Pakistan. This experience — the basis for these stories — seems to have jaded Muennuddin a bit, as evidenced by a theme-setting Punjabi proverb included at the beginning of the book: "Three things for which we kill — Land, women and gold."

The strength of the book, no doubt due to Mueenuddin's dual nationality, is how these stories cross the cultural divide. When a story focuses on the servant class, American readers have no trouble understanding these Pakistanis, their lot in life and their struggle to rise. That's true even if you're revolted by the male-dominated society and poor treatment of women. When these characters do bad things — like commit adultery, or steal from their bosses — it's still not hard to comprehend why. Sometimes there is no other choice. Sometimes it's a calculated strategy to try to move up.

In one story, a young woman, whose previously rich family has fallen on tough times, believes herself to be entitled to wealth and comfort. So she seduces the rich landowner Harouni (who is the common denominator in all the stories), takes him as her lover, and takes advantage of his generosity. However, when he dies, Harouni's scornful family turns her out completely. Now, her poverty is accompanied by even more shame. Similarly, in one heartbreaking story, a woman finally turns her life around by working hard as a servant at the rich landowner's house, only to wind up back on the streets as a heroin-addicted prostitute when  Harouni dies.

So, the idea seems to be that if you're among the lower class, even if you adapt to the system, your margins still are rather thin. Your entire life and well-being is dependent on the whims and fate of your landowning boss. My favorite passage in the book sums up the dependency of servants on their masters. It is also emblematic of Mueenuddin's beautiful, elegant prose: "Gone, and they the servants would never find another berth like this one, the gravity of the house, the gentleness of the master, the vast damp rooms, the slow lugubrious pace, the order within disorder."

Several stories also focus on the upper class. The longest story in the collection, for instance, is about a rich Paris Hilton-like character who spends all her time partying, ordering servants around and living off her parents' wealth. Another story focuses on the son of a rich landowner, who is dating an American girl. These stories are okay, but don't match the pathos and poignancy of the stories about the servants.

Mueenuddin's writing and storytelling reach their pinnacle in the last story of the collection, my favorite. An old man, who has worked hard his whole life, finally catches a break when he's hired on as gardener at one of Harouni's farms. Newly wealthy (in relative terms), he hopes to sire a son, so he takes a deal to marry a mentally challenged girl, believing it to be his only chance to carry forth his name. The "simple" girl, though, promptly runs away. When he reports this to the police, he is beaten and accused of killing her. So even when things begin to look up for the poor man, the system beats him back down. It's the sad reality for life in the lower class in Pakistan, and these stories illuminate that brilliantly. This is an important book, and highly, highly recommended!

11 comments:

  1. hi greg,

    I work as a marketing manager at harper perennial. Someone sent me a link to your review of Jess Walter's book (we publish him in paperback) and I was wondering if you'd like to be added to our outreach list, where every eight weeks or so we offer books for review. Let me know! (erica DOT barmash AT harpercollins DOT com.)

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  2. Ooh, looks like you are going to be on HarperCollins' review list :-) That is a dangerous email, just so you know...

    In any case, I am glad you read and enjoyed this one. I agree that the stories about the upper class aren't as hard-hitting, but that may be because those people are so full of ennui and don't really seem to face real problems. I really, really enjoyed this book. I think the author's writing style is fantastic, and I enjoyed a glimpse of somewhat-feudal Pakistan as well.

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  3. @Aarti - Uh oh, I just responded opting in. Was that a mistake? ;)

    Yeah, you're right - when compared with the REAL, life-threatening problems of the poorer class, being "trapped" in a marriage or dealing with overbearing parents doesn't seem quite as urgent.

    I hope Muennuddin's well isn't dry - maybe he'll have a novel for us?

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  4. I actually have been eyeing this one after seeing it on NPR's best of 2009 list for book club books. I used to not give short stories a chance but after reading Olive Kitteridge, which are stories, often unrelated, but all involving Olive in some small way, and Too Much Happiness, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, short stories have me intrigued. Thanks for the review of this one. I hope to fit it in my long list of books to read.

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  5. @Julie - I have similar reservations about short stories - one of my favorite parts about reading is growing into characters and a story over the course of several hundred pages. But "In Other Rooms..." is the rare short story collection I really enjoyed. The writing is fantastic and the stories are simple in their complexity, complex in their simplicity (to steal a review cliche). Also, it's not a huge commitment of time if you're not a fan. It's only about 240 pages. Check it out!

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  6. This sounds really good! I don't read a lot of short story collections, so I'd probably read these individually over a long period of time, but I'm fascinated by that part of the world.

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  7. Hey,Greg,congrats on being asked to join that Harpercollins list;I've gotten some great review copies from them and they really have an interesting line-up there(and no,I don't work for them,not that lucky,I'm afraid).

    In Other Rooms,Other Wonders sounds good and I will look out for it as soon as some of my TBR pile gets whittled down to size(no end in sight,alas!).

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  8. @Amanda - Yeah, me either. But these are easy, and since they're sort of interconnected, it pays to read them quickly one after another.

    @Jillian - Ah, thanks!

    @lady T - Looking forward to being part of what seems like an exclusive "club." Thanks for the congrats!

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  9. This sounds like a super intriguing book. My best friend growing up was actually Pakistani and spent every summer in Pakistan.
    She regularly told me stories about her experiences with her family there, but they mostly fell on death ears. Still, I've always wondered about some of the things she used to say to me, and it sounds to me like some of the stories in this book might give me an idea of the kind of life she lead while there.
    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention!

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  10. i have visited to this site which is very informative and interested.

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