‘Scenes from Early Life’ by Philip Hensher
Late in Scenes from Early Life, a character declares: “It is quite an ordinary story, but the implications are tremendous.” This summarizes Philip Hensher’s memoir-like novel perfectly. While the individual chapters describe conventional life and seemingly mundane events as understood by a young boy, the setting of the novel is what makes it extraordinary. The start of the Bangladesh Liberation War drives much of the action and makes for often devastating circumstances. The narrator Saadi—whose well-to-do family lovingly calls “Churchill”—depicts day-to-day life during the political turmoil of 1971 Pakistan.
Hensher is perhaps most well-known for his epic books predominantly set in modern England, such as his 2008 Man Booker-nominated novel The Northern Clemency. However, in Scenes from Early Life, Hensher assuredly assumes the voice of his real-life husband, Zaved Mahmood, to retell the events that Mahmood remembers from his childhood in Pakistan and the often exciting experiences that his family recalls when they gather.
Saadi–Mahmood’s fictional avatar– is born months before the Bangladesh Liberation War so the politics of East and West Pakistan are ever-present. It was during this period that the British separated Pakistan from India in an attempt to resolve a political issue but which unintentionally created a disastrous geographical problem. Saadi explains:
Pakistan was to be for the Muslims, and India for the rest. Pakistan was a single nation, but anyone could see that it was split in two. To the left was West Pakistan, where they ruled, and spoke Urdu, and wrote in an alphabet that flowed like water under wind. To the right was East Pakistan, where the Bengalis live. They spoke Bengali, which chatters like a falling xylophone…. The two new countries – India and Pakistan, East and West – they looked on the map like a broad-shouldered ape with two coconuts, one on its right shoulder, one under its left armpit.
Saadi comes from a large family that gathers at his grandfather’s house on weekends and in times of crisis. His paternal grandfather has two wives, which remains largely uncommented on by the narrator. His maternal grandmother has six sisters and two brothers who live together at the beginning of the novel. With the addition of other aunts, uncles, and cousins, it is often hard to keep track of every character—though, within each chapter, the characters and their motivations are clear.
A number of the chapters explore the lives of servants and non-family members. In one section, Saadi touchingly describes how his family gained a new servant when her marriage fell apart because her father couldn’t supply a large-enough dowry for her selected husband. In another, Saadi shares the story of two musicians, Altaf and Amit, who move in together after a casual meeting, become popular teachers and performers, and, after being separated by the war, reunite. Though Saadi does not recognize it, these two performers may be the only gay characters he comes across in his chaotic childhood.
The story of Altaf and Amit highlights a narrative device that Hensher successfully adopts to advance his storytelling—-the young narrator doesn’t always completely understand what’s going on around him. Like the story of the two musicians, Saadi also describes several feuds that keep some members of the family apart for years but that are later resolved with minor contrivance. He doesn’t grasp the underlying conditions that create such family squabbles or the problems that result from them. Similarly, he is oblivious to the politics and serious danger that the full-blown war brings to his housebound family. Hensher uses this narrative ploy to exploit Saadi’s naïve voice and bring complexity to the novel.
The misleading chapter titles add an amusing note to Heshner’s episodic narrative. “How I Was Allowed to Eat as Much as I Liked” actually describes how the family hid from invading soldiers. “How Amit Went to Calcutta” illustrates how the ruling government monitored a school for political correctness. Because the latter story takes place before Saadi is born, it is also an example of how the narrator propagates tales, getting the physical elements generally right but missing some of the significance of the events.
Scenes from Early Life offers a huge tapestry of elements: the busy capital of Dacca, the political situation under which the Bengalis live, the repeated coming and going of relatives and friends, and the struggles between cultures that never should have been at war. Heshner adopts the voice of the young Saadi so well that readers may forget that this is a novel rather than a memoir. It is with great skill that Hensher cannily invokes this young voice to weave a tale that simultaneously contains a grand historical sweep and a grounded domesticity.
Scenes from Early Life
By Philip Hensher
Faber & Faber
Hardcover, 9780865477612, 320 pp.