Stendhal once wrote that “politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.” His own example suggested that it was possible to reconcile the guns and the music—like the cannons in the 1812 Overture, perhaps—but it is not easy. Recent fiction in English set in Pakistan has had to face the challenge squarely, however. The rule of law has been violated there so often, and the public trust plundered so extensively, that the country’s damaged political culture now taints much of private life.
In the 1993 novel Season of the Rainbirds, Nadeem Aslam, a Pakistani-born novelist who was raised in London, presents Pakistani politics as a puzzle so bewildering that not even the most astute locals can solve it. The book opens with the delivery of a bag of mail accidentally delayed for nineteen years, which prompts a town’s residents to struggle to remember how their political feuds have changed in the interval and whether anything they wrote then might get them into trouble today. A judge is murdered, perhaps on account of one of these feuds. A night watchman is arrested and tortured for the crime, though a local strongman seems the more likely culprit. “I wish we could find out who actually runs this country,” says a schoolteacher. “The army? The politicians? The industrialists? The landowners?” The case of the judge’s murder goes cold.
The schoolteacher in Aslam’s novel has an intrinsic decency, a quality shared by a few characters, including one of the town’s Muslim clerics. By contrast, such integrity seems unattainable in Moth Smoke, the 2000 novel by Mohsin Hamid, another young and talented Pakistani writer. Hamid describes a young heir living in Lahore who justifies his feelings of hopelessness by referring to the socioeconomic chaos around him:
Some say my dad’s corrupt and I’m his money launderer. Well, it’s true enough. People are robbing the country blind, and if the choice is between being held up at gunpoint or holding the gun, only a madman would choose to hand over his wallet rather than fill it with someone else’s cash…. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun with fundos who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad…. Thanks to electricity theft there will always be shortages, so you have to have a generator. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on.
This is a crude voice—selfish, venal, and lacking in honesty. Hamid’s cynic breaks the law merely for his own comfort, which seems to rank even higher with him than love: when …