“You’re either with us or against us,” declared George W. Bush at the start of the War on Terror. Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, Fire in the Unnameable Country, gives the lie to that formula, throwing into question the reality of the terms “you,” “us,” “with,” “against,” and even “are.” While much recent literature has been about defining identity, Islam’s book hurtles us beyond identity – into the unnameable country.
According to its narrator, Hedayat, an owlish man if not an actual owl, the book is composed of the “necessary portions” of a “confessional history,” tracing his family’s past from his great-grandfather, a rebel “Maroon” who fights the imperialist “slaver” John Quincy, to his father, debilitated by his career in the unnameable country’s Department of Records and Sources, wherein lie the “thoughtreels” of every inhabitant. Reigned over by a series of dictators, the vaguely equatorial, strangely cosmopolitan country is occupied by the American army, which manically installs mirrors everywhere, turning the land into an “impassable funhouse.” The Hollywood enterprise The Mirror has moved in, slowly developing the unnameable country into a gigantic movie set, so that between the mirrors and the constant camera gaze, “the locals forgot the feeling of living real lives.” Rebels wearing ballet slippers smash mirrors and blow things up, disguised in masks of spidersilk, the country’s main resource. Early in the text, cobwebs are associated with memories; the American occupiers destroy spidersilk cultivation, and the citizens of the unnameable country are forced by the maze of reflection to focus on the immediate present.
Islam’s defiance of almost every rule of realistic storytelling is breathtaking and marked by beauty. A suicide bombing fills a room with “grey clotted plumage”; Hedayat’s poet-grandfather wants only “to live inside the womb of language and to eat the light of dusk”; dark plots are “whispered Iagian” into ears; people take “Euridice-like” steps. Monty Python stalks these pages together with Shakespeare and the Greeks: Hedayat’s father Mamun becomes so addicted to raisins it’s “raisins raisins your pockets full, sell your mother for a sack of raisins.” The language is pulsing, hilarious, hybridizing, with cadences borrowed now from Binglish, now from epic poetry. Citizens of the unnameable country use a global and ahistorical creole (“adda, nada, yada, yada”) as they climb up walls, float up to the sky, and shrink in size. Somehow it all works. We instinctively recognize our citizenship in this nation whose inhabitants “turned mad from looking at themselves” and compete involuntarily for cars and houses in a giant lottery.
The text’s exuberance is laced by a gravity that reminds us it is no mere display of magic. In an early section we are wryly told that Hedayat’s grandmother is chronically suicidal; later we read a painful description of her torture when young for associating with suspected terrorists. “Recall,” announces Hedayat with uncharacteristic clarity, “as you may have heard, no woman in my family wore a hijab before 1990… No one was stoned… Remember that the cruelties that followed were different.” The unnameable country’s fires have always been burning. His grandfather, who ends up working for the repressive state, develops two identities, “one directly concerned with the world at large, and the other internal and secret, doing the work of poetry.” Mamun, studying his father’s thoughtreel for some explanation of how he could have transformed from poet to “butcher-functionary,” notes that all the thoughtreels, from all periods, are “documents of suffering.” The narrator recasts the War on Terror as one that is timeless and everywhere, whether it proliferates fires or mirrors, bombs or social media: a war on the life within, the life of “hidden organs,” the unnameable life.
Reading Fire in the Unnameable Country is exhilarating but taxing. First, it is infused with what Hedayat calls “glossolalia,” an incessant, dream-inspired nattering. Second, the narration owlishly circles and swoops down on half-eaten subnarratives, exploring stories within stories, veering backward, forward, to the side.
This complexity is compounded by a large cast of characters, and great density of metaphor and theme. Islam broaches not just issues of empire and freedom, but of dream and reality, fiction and fact, memory and forgetting, life and death. Such breadth, coupled with the jagged (if ingenious) narration, hinders the reader from becoming invested in specific characters or plotlines. None of the relationships described are deeply developed. The air is a bit thin in the heights where Islam takes us, and the momentum of “what happens next?” flags.
But when a book like this springs out of the ether, so indifferent to convention, so much itself, and manifests new and powerful tendencies, even its flaws hint at greater possibilities. Such originality can only be reviewed with difficulty. You must report it, as you would a natural event.
Aparna Sanyal is the former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.