Sport & Culture

Philip Hensher’s ‘Scenes From Early Life’

What makes this novel/memoir set in war-torn Bangladesh special? Empathy, argues Amitav Ghosh.

I met Philip Hensher in 2008: his novel, The Northern Clemency, was on the Booker Prize shortlist that year, as was my Sea of Poppies.

The Booker festivities are a bit like an Indian wedding: a giddy chukker of dressing up, eating and being photographed. That year the proceedings came to a climax at a dinner in the Guildhall in London, a space that dazzles with its glitter and chuckmuckery.

Meeting the other short-listed authors was the most enjoyable aspect of the experience. The very last thing one expects of a circumstance like that is that it will lay the foundations of some lasting friendships. But so it did.

Philip came to the dinner with his spouse, Zaved Mahmood, who grew up Dhaka, where I had lived as a child. Zaved and I spent some time chatting in Bangla and reminiscing about Dhaka. For me those were among the best moments of that evening. It turned out – such are the surprises of the world we live in – that Zaved had grown up in Dhanmundi, the same part of Dhaka that my family had lived in, albeit long before Zaved was born.

I had not, at that time, read any of Philip’s books, but I soon acquired a copy of The Northern Clemency. I must admit that I was a little daunted at the outset, partly by the book’s formidable heft (700-odd pages), and partly by the jacket copy, which described it as an ‘epic of provincial life in northern England in the Thatcherite era.’

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But once I started I couldn’t put it down. Like all really good books The Northern Clemency began to consume my days: I would rush through everything else to get to it. In retrospect it isn’t easy to explain why the book is as compelling as it is. The characters are memorable mostly for their ordinariness; the writing is brisk but never calls attention to itself.

So what is the secret of The Northern Clemency? What makes it work?

The answer, I think, is empathy – a quality that is rare (and increasingly so) in contemporary fiction. Philip possesses this gift in abundance. The book spills over with empathy – for the characters, for the dull Sheffield suburb in which they live, for their sometimes objectionable views and unattractive mores. The central character, the father of the family, loves his garden, and his persistence with it becomes, as it were, a metaphor of redemption: the book succeeds in much the same way – through accretion, tending and nurture. The writer’s gift of empathy becomes the soil that accepts and transplants the reader into this world.

Recently I came upon a proof copy of Philip’s new book, Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, London), at the house of a common friend.

The jacket copy said: ‘Philip Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood, was born in late 1970 in Dacca, then a regional capital of Pakistan. In the months following his birth, the eastern part of the country split from the western side in a savage war of independence. In December 1971, after the deaths of uncounted innocent victims in the civil war, a new country was declared: Bangla Desh, the Home of the Bengalis.

Scenes from Early Life is the story of one upper-middle-class Bengali family, told in the form of a memoir, narrated by Zaved. It is partly a life story, partly a novel and partly a history of one of the most ferocious of twentieth century struggles for independence.’

On opening the book I came upon a paragraph about Dhanmundi: ‘The roads of Dhanmondi were quiet, and lined with trees, all painted white to four feet high, to discourage the ants. ‘Ants can’t walk on white,’ my mother used to say. ‘They are frightened of being seen. So that’s why they paint the tree trunks white.’ I still don’t know how true that is.”

I borrowed the book and read it in a few sittings.

Scenes from Early Life is a biography in the form of an autobiography – a first person account of another life. As such it begs comparison with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – and as a work of empathetic recreation (an extended act of ‘channeling’ so to speak) it is certainly similar. But Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were from the same country and spoke the same language: the gulf that Philip has had to cross is far wider. Yet, amazingly, he has succeeded: his portrayal of a childhood in Dhaka, in a liberal and highly-educated Bangladeshi family, is completely persuasive. The pitch is exactly right, the details thoroughly convincing. The only quibbles I could find were with a few spellings – ‘Githo Bitan’ instead of ‘Gitabitan’, for example – but in an odd way even these add to the verisimilitude of the narrative in that they recall the faulty diction of childhood.

Philip’s writing is so skilful that it appears artless; his dexterity is evident only in that it leaves no visible traces. Through most its length Scenes from Early Life is about the early years of Zaved’s boyhood. But the book’s climactic sequences, which come near the end, are set in 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, when Zaved was a baby. And so skillfully is the story told that it never occurs to the reader to question this premise!

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Scenes from Early Life is a triumph, an astonishing feat of empathy and narrative virtuosity. It deserves to be garlanded with many prizes, and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent.

Amitav Ghosh is the author most recently of the novels, River of Smoke and Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Strauss). The above is from Ghosh's blog, with his permission.