The nameless first person narrator of Peter Hobbs's second novel is 14 when he is imprisoned for falling in love with the daughter of a powerful politician in Northern Pakistan.
When he emerges – almost broken mentally and physically after 15 years of torture, disease, overcrowding, sexual abuse and malnutrition – his voice combines the wary watchfulness of a victim of abuse robbed of their childhood with the tranquil wisdom of a sage. Most potent of all, though, is the unwavering flame of his pure love for Saba, the girl he barely knew.
This wisp of a book is an achingly moving account of our protagonist's experience, written as an ode to his lost beloved. In soft, yearning tones, he speaks to the girl with whom he only ever spent a few chaste minutes in his father's pomegranate orchard, and for whom he risked his life.
Peter Hobbs's first novel, The Short Day Dying, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and won a Betty Trask Award. From the quality of his prose, it's easy to see why. Hobbs makes beautiful writing look simple; his sentences are clean, spare, unladen with excess baggage, and yet they shine like jewels. So evocative are his words that it is almost possible to inhale the fragrance of fresh mountain and chill dawn: "The air, though, is blissful and clear. It brings the ragged mountains close, chisels their details finely to my eye. The peaks are yellow in the early sun. Later, the sunlight will climb down from the mountains ... restoring the colours that were lost to the pale washed night."
The simplicity of the tale belies the wisdom beneath the lines. The peasant boy falling for the wealthy girl is, like other great love-tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, an allegory of the meaninglessness of society's definition of "difference"; the unjust obstacles between individuals separated by colour, religion, nationality or socio-economic status. "Saba, we were just children then, and knew nothing of the boundaries that contour the world of adults. We did not know that the world is formed by walls and bars, that people are divided from one another." And later: "Your father would say that we had no business being together, that we belonged to different worlds. But we come from the same earth, you and I, the same people. So if even we must be divided from one another, what hope is there for the rest of the world?"
Even as our narrator writes, more divisions are springing up in the world around him. His survival after release is largely down to the altruism and kindness of Abbas, a retired poet who takes him in. But when the war in Afghanistan escalates, the Taliban infiltrate the area, bomb girls' schools, impose sharia and kill pupils and teachers. Corrupt individuals motivated by money or malice exploit the US thirst for vengeance denouncing innocent men as terrorists and selling them into interrogatory hell.
The deep sadness of loss pervades the story. When the narrator remembers the hazy delights of his childhood – dancing to music with his father in the outdoors, for example – his memory is suffused with grief, since he knows he will never regain or repeat those experiences.
The greatest tragedy is that these monumental losses are wholly preventable, and only brought about by the whims and wrath of those in power. He castigates himself for being an unworthy brother, and regrets the shame he inflicted on his family.
There are natural philosophical asides in the book. On the effects of adversity, our hero muses, with heartbreaking lack of drama: "The boy I once was is a stranger to me, and sometimes I wonder if terrible experiences are enough to change a person – I mean fundamentally to change a person's nature – or if they merely subdue it, and it endures there beneath, and will reassert itself in time." This thought is later expressed, with elegiac elegance: "My pleasures have gone from me, like petals pulled from a flower head, or lost to a winter frost." There are also musings on the nature of memory; the way that those who have suffered are tempted to substitute dreams for reality: "The dream was so clear. I remember precisely the happiness I felt. Even now I can still feel the warmth of it, as though it were something I experienced. Perhaps one day I will come to choose that it was true, so that it will become a memory, and I will forget that it was just a dream."
Despite the harrowing adversities, the story is equally a testament to the endurance of love, loyalty and hope. Even in the stinking, over-crowded cell, punctuated by spells in the torture chamber, friendship was possible. And our narrator's survival is down to the benevolence of Abbas, indicating the omnipresence of kindness. This is a simple tale, beautifully told.
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