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Basti by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett and published by NYRB Classics
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Intizar Husain, despite being widely regarded as the most significant living writer of Urdu fiction, is likely to have flown under the radar for most English-language readers prior to his recent nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fortuitous, then, that the redoubtable team at NYRB Classics chose to issue Basti earlier this year, the only one of Husain’s five novels to have been published in English translation.
The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist Zakir as a child in the fictional town of Rupnagar, a place of harmony whose existence is predicated upon its timelessness and isolation from the outside world. As he grows up, Zakir forms an ambiguous yet touching attachment to his cousin Sabirah, from whom he is later separated when she chooses to remain behind in India post-partition. Zakir, now living in Lahore with his parents, is nominally a teacher of history but spends the majority of his time bickering with his friends in coffee houses as, outside, political slogans resound as the country descends into the madness of war. As Zakir’s narration comes to a close, the frequently-promised moment of revelation remains, as ever, tantalisingly just out of reach.
The fundamental disjunction between a semi-mythical past of harmonious tolerance and the all-too-present realities of political violence and the horrors of Partition is represented both structurally and linguistically in Basti, and refracted through the increasingly insular consciousness of its protagonist (particularly towards the latter stages of the novel, in which interior monologue plays an increasing role, blended with passages from what we are told is Zakir’s diary). Husain makes use of his vast knowledge of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions by quoting from their texts and alluding to their histories both classical and modern, weaving a shimmering tapestry of tone and register by turns lyrical, dreamy, prophetic, and fervid.
Frances W. Pritchett’s translation grapples admirably with a novel bursting with ambitious linguistic effects. The frequent repetition of the vocative yar, which Pritchett has chosen to retain, while initially jarring, becomes over the course of the novel an invaluable evocation of place for the reader, who is also, thanks to the sensitivity of the translator, not shut out from the subtle ways in which the characters’ various relationships are constructed and indicated in the original. That this visionary, modernist masterpiece is now made available in a translation which matches the ambition of the original is a truly impressive achievement.
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