What connects Kilgore Trout, Lalmohan Ganguli and Pierre Menard? They are all writers that other writers dreamed up. Trout was a frequent presence in Kurt Vonnegut's world, an affectionate parody partially based on his friend and fellow science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. Ganguli, better known by his pen-name "Jatayu", was a writer of lurid murder mysteries in the world of Satyajit Ray's ace sleuth Feluda, who he often assisted on his cases. Menard was a much stranger beast: he was a particularly idealist author who sought to "re-create" Don Quixote, in the Borges short story Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote. Nobody has read the books written by these all-too-real phantoms. And yet, we know these works intimately. We know the adrenaline rush and the blood-spattered thrills of Jatayu's stories. We know the loneliness of being a Kilgore Trout fan, of obsessively following a man who remains obscure despite having written 117 novels. We know the void at the heart of a man like Menard; seeking literary perfection for its own sake.
In Aamer Hussein's near-perfect short story The Tree at the Limit, we meet an artist that the author has made up: Marya Mahmud, an Italian-born Pakistani painter. Through a narrative peppered with art catalogue entries, descriptions of paintings and brief interviews with her children, Hussein divines a long and productive life, its ups and downs, its serendipitous segues and artistic inspirations with uncommon assurance. And this isn't even the best story in the collection 37 Bridges and Other Stories, published recently by HarperCollins. The stories here are condensed little gems: like Alice Munro, his shorts sometimes have the emotional wallop packed by 500-page baggy monsters. But a much closer analogue is Lydia Davis, whose stories are not so much about plot as they are about a certain meticulous mining of the soul.
The last lines of the story (this isn’t really one of those stories that are possible to spoil) are classic Hussein: gently humorous, imbued with worldly wisdom and just the hint of melancholia. “I fell in love with you the moment we met, he’d wanted to tell Humaira that day by the winter fire in Oxford, but even love at first sight was retrospective, a reinvention.
Consider the story Two Old Friends on a Stormy Afternoon. Colonel Jami and Dr Kazi are two septuagenarians who like to share a whiskey-and-cigars afternoon over pots and pots of gossip and the occasional spoonful of self-criticism. Even in their idle banter, there's always a kernel of something deeper struggling to come to the surface. Here, for instance, they ogle the much younger wife of an acquaintance:
"Through a curtain of rain, the garden's still visible beyond it, white-capped waves. A young woman, blonde and tall, sweeps by, twinkling her fingers at them. Her shoulders are bare, her legs revealed almost to the knee in short white trousers. 'That's old Burhan's wife,' Jami says. 'Looks younger every day and she's been married at least 10 years. I saw her in a swimming costume last week. Look at her clothes. And yesterday she wrote a letter to the London Times defending Islamic headgear—'
'Did you hear what I said? They think the storm's going to reach us soon.'
'God's punishment, they say.'"
There's so much going on here that as a reader, you are forced to slow down and pay attention to the finer points. The two men clearly have very complex views on religion, sexuality and free will. It's no coincidence that the explanation provided for the storm is "God's punishment"; similar to the kind of claptrap often provided as rationale for asking women to dress conservatively.
Love and the Seasons was my favourite story. Hussein's felicitous prose reaches dizzying heights here and nowhere is his compassion more plainly visible than in this fable-like examination of a somewhat awkward friendship between two young men. Where an American short story would typically tend to bury the unsaid amidst dollops of hedonism passages, Hussein keeps his focus firmly on the silence, the in-between, the liminal spaces where friendships are forged, dissolved or allowed to quietly drift away like paper boats.
"Fabi and Umair behaved like a married couple. Fabi often cooked dinner for his friends as well as Umair's. Since the woman who loved swans defected, they had spent even more time together. And like many couples, Fabi and Umair spent most of their shared times with others. They didn't talk much when they were together alone, which was usually on Sunday afternoons."
The last lines of the story (this isn't really one of those stories that are possible to spoil) are classic Hussein: gently humorous, imbued with worldly wisdom and just the hint of melancholia. "I fell in love with you the moment we met, he'd wanted to tell Humaira that day by the winter fire in Oxford, but even love at first sight was retrospective, a reinvention. If every spark became a fire, we'd be burning all the time."
A word about the production of the book, which readers of these pages will remember as a recurring concern. 37 Bridges is a smallish hardback with a superb matte finish and an even better cover illustration. It's almost the same shape and size as You Are Neera, another top-notch HarperCollins release from last year. This chic style of production reminds me of imprints like Everyman's Poetry, with its beautiful, petite volumes of Keats, John Donne and others. An impeccably written collection like this one deserves no less.