Anis Shivani’s latest collection, long-listed for the 2013 Frank O’ Connor Award, shares many of the virtues of his debut, “Anatolia and Other Stories.” Both portray a complex, multicultural world. However, whereas the first collection roams around a kaleidoscope of cultures, “The Fifth Lash and Other Stories” concentrates on the Muslim world, with tales set in Pakistan or revolving around Muslim immigrants in the U.S. Shivani guides his readers into an Islamic world more nuanced and more human than the one we know from the western media.
Shivani, who lives in Houston, knows how strong Muslim women can be, for example. In “The Abscess of the World”, a student of Islamic law at Princeton visits Pakistan with a fellow student and meets the latter’s 16-year-old sister, Saima, who turns out to be not only his intellectual equal or superior, but also more matures. “Would That Be an Nonstop Flight?” is about Shakira, an “old maid” of 28 who manages a travel agency and is, like Saima, strong, savvy and has an ironic viewpoint. In fact, irony is one of the delights of this collection. A particularly striking example is the mosaic story, “Censor,” which details with delicious humor the changing vicissitudes of the rules a censor has to follow in Islamabad.
Another of Shivani’s strengths is his ability to find the human dramas in politics. In the gripping title story, an aide of the first president Bhutto observes the corruption of Pakistani politics from an insider’s viewpoint reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” again with irony — General Zia cannot imagine the Iranians ever supporting fanatical clerics, and America is cooperating with Pakistan to wipe out terror in Afghanistan.
There are a couple of stories about the plight of good Muslim citizens in the United States, too, coping with post 9/11 suspicion. However, Shivani is not heavy-handed; he never writes a story merely to get across a message. In “What It’s Like to Be a Stranger in Your Own Home,” for instance, Mo, an Egyptian computer programmer, tries to adjust to his recent divorce at the same time as he finds himself forced to redefine who he is. And in the one story — a condensed novel in scope and depth — that threatens to deal with the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist, “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy,” the protagonist is a complex, conflicted young man who ends up changing unpredictably. Shivani is a master of the surprise ending, often to humorous effect, as in “The Rug Seller’s Daughter,” or “The House on Bahadur Shah Road”, which have sting-in-the-tail denouements that bring to mind Ring Lardner’s or Kate Chopin’s.
And yet many of the stories are poignant narratives of loss and disappointment, of characters longing for love and not finding it, sometimes because of poverty, or of losing it through infidelity and incomprehension; several stories examine the difficulty of fully knowing one’s partner, as in “Jealousy” and “Growing Up Blind in a Hotly Contested State.”
What are the weaknesses of the collection? In “Anatolia and Other Stories,” Shivani’s language was occasionally florid or awkward, but his voice has matured since then. If a reader has any complaint, it may be that one or two of the stories lack resolution and seem more like vivid vignettes than truly developed, as in “They Stand Up and Serve Too,” about an Indian servant on board a British ship during the Raj, to whom little happens.
But this is a minor fault in a readable, vivid collection. One reason for reading fiction is to be plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and Shivani does this with skill. You feel that you’ve been in Pakistan, where “it is always four in the afternoon … the temperature a hundred degrees in the shade, the sherbet seller or the gola-gandwala broken by the heat,” just as you’ll feel you’ve been there after reading “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin, perhaps the only writer whose stories bear close comparison.
Finally, talking of writers, here is Mehreen in “Jealousy”: “Writers these days came in brands: the Rushdie brand, the DeLillo brand, the Foster Wallace brand.” That is true of mediocre writers, of course, but not of the first-rate. Shivani comes in none of these brands: He is an original, and whether you love him or loathe him, his voice matters.
The Fifth Lash and Other Stories
C & R Press, $19.95