Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A World Far From Familiar

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenudin
W.W. Norton and Company (2009), 247 pp.

Daniyal Mueenudin’s debut title suggests a book that will force readers to step far outside their lives and enter unfamiliar worlds. Indeed perhaps the greatest reward in reading In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is gaining entrance to the largely unfamiliar, nearly dysfunctional world of contemporary Pakistan, a culture so stratified and so deadened to its own corruption that its inner-workings may well fascinate many American readers. Mueenudin, a Pakistani-born, American-educated newcomer on the literary scene, has garnered wide critical praise and a National Book Award nomination for this group of eight linked stories. The book is beautifully written and culturally enlightening, though the stories themselves may often prove to keep American readers too distant from its characters and events and sometimes struggles to bring closure to the individual stories. The characters are well crafted and identifiable, though the patterns of their lives may seem largely alien. The vision granted of the vivid and unflinching portraits of Pakistani culture—from its wealthiest landowners to their lowliest servants—can, for readers interested in places and people beyond their own immediate frame of reference, make up for the lack of closure and the grand scale of the collection.

The stories are all linked in one fashion or another to one of its principle characters, wealthy landowner K.K. Harouni. Whether exploring Harouni himself as his once vast landholdings are slowly sold off to low bidders in the effort to maintain his luxurious lifestyle or centering on the tales of his servants and managers, the linked stories eventually allow readers to recognize that everyone within Pakistan may share similar linkages. These stories are connected by association to Harouni and, more importantly, by themes that focus on bartering and greed and manipulation, by the sexual politics of advancement for women and the power hunger exhibited by those who can touch the fringes of wealth. It is not a collection of stories that assembles to form an alternative sort of novel, rather the stories offer the reader, as the title suggests, glimpses into rooms they have never inhabited. The Pakistan that Mueenudin introduces us to is one where corruption and near chaos exist at every social level, where middle managers skim profits from their employers, women attempt to sleep their way off village streets and into the manor house, where the educated and the powerful are often bored and harm themselves and others by their attempts to resolve boredom, and the peasants often mimic the wealthy they serve. While the stories sometimes fail to complete a storytelling arc that is comforting to American readers, the characters and their sometimes desperate measure to better their living conditions prove fascinating and likely universal. For literary readers who recognize the role essential elements of Pakistani culture will play in the West’s inevitable future interdependency within Pakistani politics, the book can prove particularly fulfilling.

Mueenudin sees his own culture with astonishing clarity (the author has returned to Pakistan after earning degrees from Dartmouth and Yale to run a family farm). Importantly, he refuses to be overtly charitable nor chastising with any of his characters. Nearly all seem deeply flawed individuals, characters whose very flaws may arise either from the expected “back-scratching” reality of their deeply stratified culture or by elemental human envy and desire for advancement. The tale Mueenudin tells is larger than any of these individual characters, larger than Harouni, larger perhaps even than Pakistan. While some Western readers may feel kept at arm’s length from the events that unfold, they will find themselves thinking about the world Mueenudin portrays long after they close the final story.

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