Not everyone at Penguin Canada liked Ghalib Islam’s manuscript, with its long, unpunctuated sentences, “unwieldy” cast of characters and unconventional use of time and structure. Maybe this is why Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House) published Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book drew discussion and controversy even before it was published. Not your conventional CanLit read.
Ghalib Islam himself seems to pose challenges. In his interview with Kelli Korducki for Quill and Quire, he “pulls out a notebook and pen. ‘What is your domain?’ he asks, referring to my area of journalistic focus, and doing away with any pretense of a casual chat.” When Anupa Mistry asks him about his long unpunctuated sentences in their interview for Hazlitt, he responds with, “What do you mean?” This reminded me of the early interviews with Margaret Atwood, long before she became the social media darling-savante we know now. For the record, I miss the crusty young Margaret Atwood, the one who would pause for uncomfortably long after a radio interviewer’s question and then respond with terse and often caustic replies. By the way, Margaret Atwood was Ghalib Islam’s MFA thesis supervisor and probably for that reason (because she has otherwise stopped doing it), she has blurbed his book.
Ghalib Islam, 32, was born in Bangladesh and moved to Toronto with his family when he was seven. He grew up in the densely populated and underserved area of Jane and Finch. According to Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country is in part a response to growing up amongst the imposed categories of race, religion and socioeconomic class.
Former Descant editorial intern Yusuf Saadi reviews Fire in the Unnameable Country. According to Yusuf, he and Ghalib “are family friends whose parents have known each other since immigrating to Canada from Bangladesh … Pretty much everyone in Bengali culture is related somehow.”
Language and Imagination: A Review of Fire in the Unnameable Country
by Yusuf Saadi
Early in his debut novel Fire in the Unnameable Country, Ghalib Islam presents a scene in which the narrator dreams of roaming the landscapes of an unnameable country “naked as Adam,” the first namer. Hedayat, who addresses himself as “your humble narrator,” then assigns names to things in the world that language hasn’t yet claimed. A tension emerges that haunts the novel between what can be named, controlled and monitored and what is beyond language’s ability to classify in any straightforward sense. The history of the unnameable country is “as precise as the wind;” to try and contort it into a realist narrative is impossible. Thus, the narrative moves in and out of time, switches languages, playfully disregards punctuation and changes tenses and points of view, often within a few sentences. For example:
immediate lightningflashes/ sounds climbed dendrites in my father’s skull, sounds that flecks of wind, pushed words, and my father could catch them, though most jagged syntax were sliced metal to the ears as nerves grow leaf and sepals from the bones in his hand.
When the roaming narrative works, and it mostly works, it’s almost vertiginous because it shapes itself from multiple angles simultaneously. Although there are moments when it feels unnecessarily wordy, the truths told slant defamiliarize the world, presenting it as frequently terrifying and often quite beautiful.
The unnameable country’s constantly changing borderlines are initially occupied by the Soviets and later invaded by the Americans, and embody the colonial histories of various countries. Hedayat decides to wait in his mother’s womb for several years for the wars to end before “passing endocrine signals to mother wanna get born now.” The novel follows Hedayat’s recursive genealogy with a postmodern self-consciousness that revises itself even as it is narrates. Several clever dystopic elements are utilized: the government is able to read and record the thoughts of its citizens onto magnetic thoughtreels. The thoughtreel department is called Department 6119, echoing Orwell’s infamous room 101 in 1984. The novel frequently feels like a contemporary version of 1984, drawing upon Orwellian elements and updating them for our political climate. The unnameable country is also converted into a giant Hollywood film set covered in cameras and mirrors for an endless reality show. The novel captures the sense of living through the War on Terror and our contemporary surveillance culture.
There are other clear influences, including Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While Fire in the Unnameable Country possesses characteristics of magic realism, it forges its own niche by combining folkloric magic with technological dystopia. The book’s strength is that whereas the plot, events and characters certainly feel absurd, they also possess an authenticity that rings strangely true. Having a reality show that runs 24/7 by turning the country into a film set feels eerily real to me as someone who has grown up watching the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq on television and computer screens. There are other allusions embedded in the text, including a paragraph that mimics Ginsberg’s “Howl” and an allusion to Paul Celan’s image of “black milk,” echoing canonical political literature of the past in order to build on them.
The narrator’s grandfather is a poet, and describes himself as “a writer in the style of certain modernists for whom poetry is a description of the effects of war on language.” Similarly, the novel examines war and culture’s effects on a language whose speakers are aware that the government spies on its own citizens. Thus, it is necessary for Islam to invent the fragmented syntax he employs. Punctuation is sparse, images impressionistic, words compounded, nouns turned into verbs and articles like ‘a’ and ‘the’ frequently absent, as when the narrator recounts his own birth: “my mother continues cursing, as another big push and something greymucus and pink is emerges emerging from inside her until finally my owl’s screech ear-rending howl.” The text will not be particularly difficult to readers familiar with postmodern fiction, although it does require a bit of patience while it teaches you how to read its sinuous sentences and internal logic. There are numerous standout lines and images, such as the narrator’s grandfather walking through the Ministry of Radio and Communications “clutching his tie, which fluttered like a disembodied tongue” and the man “who was still so modest that he did not leave footsteps when he walked.”
Ghosts roam the unnameable country, drinking blood boiled on stoves and are enlivened by being remembered. The occupying Americans decide on a leader for the unnameable country by testing to see who can scream the loudest and for one stretch of time the narrator is imprisoned in his own house as the occupying army will not let family members travel between rooms without identification. I found a haunting beauty in the rhythmic paragraph that begins, “Today I saw a man murdered in the street. How did they kill the man. This is how they killed the man. A bullet kicked up his hair and he bit the grey asphalt as if it was his bread.”
Another strength is that, as it threads the delicate balance between named, nameless and unnameable, Fire in the Unnameable Country maintains an openness to interpretation. For example, there is mystery in the government setting up mirrors throughout the city for the endless Hollywood film. The city’s name itself, La Maga, almost an anagram for ‘game’ or ‘image,’ hints at how to read the mirrors without telling us explicitly. Are they meant to show how Western colonialism and occupation distort people’s sense of their own identities? Do they imply the ‘hyperreality’ of the war? Are they meant to show how war is trivialized into entertainment for corporate profit? This also entails the question of how the novel addresses itself as an artifact of potential distortion and entertainment. The story feels rich enough to be interpreted in multiple ways, and for the most part the elements are described well enough to exist as things in themselves rather than as literary symbols.
However, there are scenes that rely too heavily on symbolism. At one point, Hedayat visits the Warren animals, people who were displaced from their homes by fires and have become animals precariously living underground. The animals — rabbits, frog, spaniels — function as metaphors for dehumanization caused by occupation and displacement, and suggest the importnace of memory to the understanding of “human” itself. Yet, they are not described vividly enough to first exist as breathing characters in a living world. We are never provided with any of their particular stories, which would perhaps be expected on a medium like television news, but doesn’t live up to the fiction’s duty to tell individual stories, and particularly the task the novel sets for itself of reviving their ghosts through memory.
While it is full of philosophical and literary concerns, Fire in the Unnameable Country is mainly a political novel. It recalls not only the history of occupation, but its extrapolation into the colonizations of the collective imagination and of history. Islam writes: “Fear, he decided, was their chief governing principle. It was meant to make you want less, to efface the past and to tether the imagination so no future but theirs could be loosened into the world.” The implication being that political change cannot be accomplished without the ability to first imagine it, without the language necessary to describe it. Thus, the narrator, whose hand is blown into grotesque talons by a bomb that kills his best friend, slowly becomes an owl capable of turning its head 180 degrees into the past while keeping his body oriented toward the future, not unlike Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. In Marquez’s style, images are patterned throughout and lines are frequently repeated in different contexts and epochs within the novel. At one point Islam writes, “out of nothing there bloomed the story of a little boy who kicked his soccer ball across the mirror-walls and found it several alleyways later, extending from the arms of a man with two weeping glass eyes who claimed to be his grandson.” The narrative resuscitates the past simply by storytelling and tries to reclaim history through a postmodern lens, void of objective truths. With its imaginative flair, Fire in the Unnameable Country can be read as a celebration of art, particularly fiction with its narrative force, as one of the primary ways of trying to re-imagine a world where dominant narratives try to separate people from their genealogies — their ‘once upon a times’ — and say this is all the world is and can be. Islam writes that:
To know Hedayat requires us to know his father, to understand the father means we travel labyrinth streets to the grandfather, to understand whom requires us to move back still to great-grandfather unto mist and the origin of things: to once upon a time.
Yusuf Saadi has a BA in creative writing and philosophy from York University. He is beginning his MA in English with a concentration in cultural, social and political thought at the University of Victoria in September. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM International, Vallum and The Quilliad. He also recently finished a stint as an editorial intern at Descant, where he did cool things like copy edit, proofread and read submissions.