The Cloud Messenger, By Aamer Hussein

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The Independent Culture

Aamer Hussein's novel takes its title from Kalidasa's great Sanskrit poem "The Cloud Messenger". An exiled lover confides messages to a roving cloud, to be delivered to the beloved as life-giving rain. In Hussein's version, the narrator-hero, Mehran, is also a nomad, growing up in London far from his native Karachi and his mother's Indore, searching in a maze of tongues for the language of the heart.

As a transient upon the earth, Mehran comes to see people and their affection as "floating clouds: here one hour, gone the next". The novel charts his fruitless passions: for middle-aged Riccarda, wounded Marvi, mercurial Marco. And his fruitful passions for language: Persian, Urdu and English. Mehran's mother, a singer, haunts his childhood by her ragas, poems by Faiz or Ghalib, "heart-wrenching lyrics of separation". Hussein's novel tells of being out of place in many lands, seeking a love that is forever fugitive and elusive.

The prelude reads like a lyric poem: "I heard two gulls cry at dawn today". The narrator laments through the ancient symbols of birds: gulls that only fly inland, so it's fabled, after rainfall; a falcon that quits the beloved's book to perch on the reader's shoulder; a pearl-seeking swan.

The lush romanticism that characterises the story refers to the heart-sickness of Persian poetry. It also touches a vein of German romanticism: obsessive longing for the entfernte Geliebte, the search for the Ur-language.

This is a multicultural Bildungsroman, charting a culturally confused landscape, endlessly seeking to assimilate East and West. As the biography of a reader, the work bears fascinating comparison with Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.

In the afterword, the author explains that The Cloud Messenger has deep roots in his own young life as student in London of Persian and Urdu. Like Penelope Lively's anti-memoir, Making It Up, Hussein's book grows fresh narrative from his life story - but plot invention is not The Cloud Messenger's strength. This is rather a lyric fiction of mood, charting atmospheres, diffusions, mental weather. On the narrative level, the novel goes nowhere: where do clouds travel? They brood over all, deny borders, shape-shift and determine in rain. The techniques of the novel are rather lyric than narrative, close to those of the short story, for which Hussein is well-known.

The characters are not developed: we know little of them save in their movements between continents, in eternal flight from the banalities and rigours of the ordinary world until they abscond into the world of the dead: "My night guests, my dream visitors who died at dawn". They release Mehran, in a metafictional conclusion, to compose a version of the novel we have been reading, "an autobiographical novel... I wanted a title that echoed the rain".

Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'Into Suez' (Parthian)

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