Desire, decadence and death in Lahore

The legendary feuds of the Mughal Empire underlie this teasing novel of love and corruption.

Moth Smoke begins with a parable from Mughal India, evoking the encounter of the Emperor Shah Jehan with a Sufi saint who predicts the war of succession that will make a ruler of one of his sons and an apostate corpse of another. Lahore-born, New York-based Mohsin Hamid's ambitious and unusual first novel names its multiple narrators after the main players in the Mughal family drama. Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb (otherwise Ro and Lain, for Hero and Villain) are the friends separated by capital and class in contemporary Pakistan. Mumtaz, lover of one and wife of the other, is the novel's catalyst and, as we later discover, its orchestrator.

That Mumtaz is named after the mother of the warring siblings seems, at first, a case of oblique Oedipal symbolism that doesn't quite come off. It probably indicates that Hamid is not attempting a strict reworking of the historical melodrama. The main thrust of the novel, for all its social satire, is towards timeless tragedy: a drama of crime, punishment and redemption. Dara, the little man, Aurangzeb's childhood friend and first (platonic) love, drifts into a life of sleazy hash-peddling and has a passionate affair with Mumtaz. He is undone when society, through the machinations of the corrupt plutocrat Aurangzeb, accuses him of the hit-and-run killing of a child for which, so he insists, Aurangzeb himself is responsible. Mumtaz, at the gripping climax, steps in with a new literary strategy of revenge - and yet another narrative twist.

Mumtaz, wife of one of Lahore's ultra-rich, is also a journalist. She deploys the pseudonym of Zulfikar Manto: a reminder of the radical, alcoholic storyteller Saadai Hasan, who, under that name, portrayed the urban low-life of early Pakistan. Hamid has Aurangzeb giving his wife a collection of Manto's stories - in translation. This is probably an intended irony, since Pakistan's Anglophone elite prides itself on its ignorance of Urdu.

That a woman journalist should take a male nom de plume in a country whose pioneering newswomen have become legendary remains baffling, but this is a novel full of narrative teases: at least two false starts, intricate timing, an array of perspectives, occasionally overblown language. There is also a virtuoso chapter on the joys of air-conditioning, a denunciation of Pakistan's lop-sided class system, and Aurangzeb's semi-serious indictment of the Nobel Prize, the Rhodes Scholarship and global banking.

But, in spite of its careful chronology (the nuclear tests of 1998 take place in the background), this is not a novel of realistic motivation, nor a photograph of Pakistan's decadent society. Its central metaphor, borrowed from Urdu poetry, is of the moth's love for the flame which will consume it. Towards the end, Hamid deftly replaces this moribund image with a gruesome depiction of a lizard dining on a moth the candle has spared. It's a terse summary of his concern with the workings of obsession, and the lust for power.

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by Saqi