Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mohammed Hanif writes an astonishing account of life on the streets of Pakistan.

I read a review of this novel that made it sound both brutal and beautifully written.  It certainly is both.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Mohammed Hanif’s second novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (256 pages, Knopf, $25.95) recounts life among Pakistan’s poorest of the poor.  These are crazy erratic lives, as played out in and around Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments.  Alice Bhatti is a nurse in this institution and the life and death she sees around her all the time are brutal and, at times, electrifying.

We get her life in bits and pieces: she is from the poorest class in Pakistan and her father spends his life cleaning gutters.  Because of an accident of geography—she has been born in what is called The French Colony—she is brought up Catholic, and that is perhaps part of the reason that she is taken on as a nurse at the hospital.

Brought up in a borstal and at times violent in defense of herself and what she loves, she seems so close to the edge that it is amazing that she survives from day to day.

But survive she does, and her story is very beautiful even as it fulfills its inevitable tragic arch.  She is friends with a teenager called Noor, who helps out at the hospital and watches his mother slowly slip to death from cancer.  The relation between Alice and Noor is wonderful to behold, but it offers neither of them more than a solid, if sometimes misunderstood, friendship.

Alice Bhatti also gets close to an older nurse, who tries to toughen her and give her something of a mother’s guidance.  This works to an extent, and the two women together do a lot to save lives and counteract the forces of malevolence that hover round the hospital.

Out of this malevolence emerges a man that Alice comes to love.  Teddy Butt is a body builder and a petty hooligan, who gets involved with an underhand kind of law enforcement that leaves endless young men dead in the outskirts of town.  Alice doesn’t know about this side of his life, but she gets frustrated about how often he spends nights out with his colleagues.

Mohammed Hanif writes with a beautiful and vividly descriptive style that makes it possible almost to smell the world that Alice inhabits.  When it seems that she has performed a miracle in the obstetrics ward, the novel moves into an almost spiritual mode that is both moving and debilitating.

The climax of the novel is as rich as it is painful, but it brings the forces of the story together in the kind of catastrophe that the novel has been preparing us for all along.

Alice Bhatti is one of the great creations of contemporary literature, to be sure.  Read this novel if you read any novel this year!  I will go back and read Mohammed Hanif’s first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Mohammed Hanif

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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