Friday 23 March 2018

Review: Scenes From Early Life by Philip Hensher

Fourth Estate, €25.85


In a recent interview, the English author Philip Hensher stressed that the novel is capable of taking many forms. He was speaking in response to a query about Scenes From Early Life, a new work described in a promotional blurb as entwining "memoir, fiction and history". As far as Hensher is concerned, it qualifies as a fictional novel because it contains "lots of made-up stuff".

From childhood, Hensher learnt at an accelerated level to his peers and is said to have been able to read fluently by three. He would go on to become very much a written-word Rembrandt in the Oxbridge mould, lecturing in creative writing and nabbing a Man Booker nomination in 2008 for The Northern Clemency. When he says such things about what constitutes a novel, it comes with a degree of authority.

But isn't it fundamental that a novel entertains, first and foremost? Hensher doesn't seem fussed in this ninth release, indulging himself in banal details and barely significant comings-and-goings with only the odd phase of gravity, action or inspiration to catch the eye.

The well he draws from is a compelling one. Since 2009, he has been in a civil partnership with one Zaved Mahmood. Mahmood was born at the start of the 1970s in the city of Dhaka (then Dacca), during the bloody nine-month civil war that led to the establishment of an independent Bangladesh from East Pakistan.

Until then, Pakistan had encompassed the Bengali population and used vigorous means to suppress their language and traditions (despite there being far more people speaking Bengali than Urdu in the country). Over the dinner table, Mahmood recited memories of his childhood and family stories to Hensher, who embellished and sculpted them into publishable shape.

Saadi (a variation on Zaved) is our first-person lens, jumping gently back and forth through time frames as he narrates and packing his toothcomb as he does. Colour is not a problem with Hensher; his prose is full of it, whether meditating vibrantly on Saadi's sister climbing a mango tree or telling a touching side-story about two musicians with an indomitable friendship. At this pace, Hensher is a joy to be with.

Elsewhere, he knows how to lower the thermostat. By the final third, a military curfew and vicious state-sponsored attacks on Bengalis force Saadi's family to remain indoors much of the time, their ranking in society now inconsequential, given the dangers outside.

"The tea was brought, and for some moments they talked of trivialities. There were few trivialities to be had in those days. Future plans, current activities, social life, mutual friends -- all seemed to be tinged with disaster." We're drip-fed chilling, atonal passages about soldiers roaming the streets, shooting anyone they saw out after curfew and raping whole families. University buildings and Hindu-owned stores are torched, and intellectuals are rounded up.

Gripping this may suddenly be, but the problem is that there have been wads of kitchen-sinky bumf to sit through in between. It can seem like whole tracts of Scenes From Early Life have passed without anything really of note taking place. Here, he's telling us about the minutiae of life with his parents and various aunts. There, he's looking back on how relatives liked to take afternoon tea or the nattering over nothing in particular of the womenfolk in his family. "Someone do something," you may groan as you watch the momentum die repeatedly and things flatline for lengthy stretches.

We'll probably never know what the ratio of "made-up stuff" to Mahmood's transcribed stories is. For this reason, a conundrum presents itself: either Hensher's imagination was unable to maintain an engaging stamina or Mahmood's dinner table accounts were a laborious raw material in the first place.

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