A tragedy of Middle Eastern manners

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The Independent Culture

Mirage by Bandula Chandraratna (Serendip Publishers, £6.75)

Mirage by Bandula Chandraratna (Serendip Publishers, £6.75)

THIS YEAR, as invariably happens, most of the media palaver generated by the Booker Prize has focused on a few well-known names. Yet one of the joys of the judging process lies - as I discovered - in the sudden revelation of fresh talent from a quite unexpected source. In his speech at the Booker dinner on Monday, Gerald Kaufman spoke of his special affection for Mirage - a first, self-published novel from a Northamptonshire-based writer. Other judges admired it deeply, and it came close to gaining a place on the shortlist.

Bandula Chandraratna worked for several years in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. That closed kingdom, poised nervously and often violently between ancient hierarchy and modern wealth, gives Mirage its firmly painted setting (although it is never named).

Sayeed, the novel's good-natured hero, is a poor man, prematurely aged, who migrates to the city from his distant desert village. He lands a comparatively well-paid job as a porter in a sleek new hospital and builds himself a makeshift home in the nearby shanty town.

With great skill, and plenty of sly comedy, Chandraratna sketches the impact of such a gleaming flagship of technology on the traditional lives that encircle it. The expat doctors and technicians bicker, gossip and (in the case of a couple of Scots) brew up some illegal hooch; Sayeed quietly rejoices that a few drops of this new prosperity have trickled down to him. Kind and diligent, he dreams the honest dreams of the devout: to "live in a big house, with one or two beautiful wives", so that "then he too could give large sums of paper money to the beggars".

A visit back home transforms Sayeed's life. His relatives decide that he should marry, and they find a local wife for him - a young widow with a little daughter. Sayeed believes that hope, "like his youth, had come back after a long absence to make him happy".

Yet Latifa, his bride-to-be, can feel only disgust at the prospect of marriage to this ageing stranger. After the perfunctory wedding feast, she and little Leila are whisked by truck from their well-watered oasis to the squalid shanty town where Sayeed has to live. Unruly goats, surly neighbours and nosy religious elders plague her at every turn. "This is almost like camping in the desert," she bitterly complains.

So the stage is set for a peasant tragedy of the kind often narrated by European novelists of the late 19th century. Thomas Hardy himself might feel at home with this well-intentioned, ill-matched pair. The difference is that, here, an antique code of honour runs slap-bang into the glittering temptations of urban life, just as the desert sands instantly give way to "rows of shops with pink and green fluorescent lights" at the city's edge. The book's ending has a heartbreaking logic to it but still strikes with a terrible force.

Most people in the West will read little about a society such as that of Saudi Arabia beyond the stereotypes, laced with scandal, that the media deliver from time to time. And that hi-tech tyranny itself has no interest in exposing to outsiders the cost of its forced march to a sort of feudal postmodernity. For that, we need novels as lucid, moving and compassionate as this one. I would urge you to read it.