Review: The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack

6 June 2019

I would say that H.M. Naqvi knows a lot of words. He, or at least his protagonist Abdullah, would prefer I call him verbose. Or maybe not even that. What about bombastic, magniloquent, fustian? If you had to look up any of those then you would know how I felt reading Naqvi’s second novel, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, a sprawling romp through Abdullah’s beloved city of Currachee, Pakistan. You would also realise that verbose and fustian don’t necessarily connote positive vibes. After all, one person’s flowery is another person’s windy. Say you’re the type of reader who wants a break from the vocabulary of your chosen field of study, and would rather not be confronted with footnotes in their leisure reading, the question then becomes, is it worth it?

Here’s the thing, though. Whatever Abdullah (or Naqvi) might believe about postmodern literature, this book is both self-aware and ironic enough to make it fun. After all, it’s in the very first footnote on the very first page of the foreword in which Abdullah (or Naqvi, again) says “disregard all the postscripts on offer—it doesn’t really matter to me.” True to his word, and perhaps many budding academics could learn from this, the postscripts don’t really matter. Short chapters purportedly on matters such as ‘Reconstructing Memory and Man’ or ‘On the Death of Civility’ drive the plot well enough. Rambler though Abdullah (or—sorry to reiterate the point—Naqvi, but I guess my inability to separate narrator from author just goes to show the strength of Abdullah’s voice) is, he never lets that get in the away of a fast-paced story.

The Selected Works has Abdullah in the middle of an eviction from the family estate while he mentors a friend’s grandson as well as deal with the trials and tribulations of a siren, Jugnu. While not necessarily the most creative plot, Naqvi peppers this novel with such a rich amount of elements that you never find yourself exasperated. From asides on jazz to the lineage of Muhammad via famous Pakistani boxers, this book is as cultured as they come. There’s even time to show how The Wizard of Oz is nothing but politics to do with the Silver Standard. Just like Currachee and Pakistan in general, every corner turned tosses up a new surprise.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Naqvi is a funny writer: rickshaw rides are said to destroy rectal harmony, dames find themselves in proper pickles, yellowing teeth are compared to Scrabble tiles. Language, or to be precise, languages pop off the page. Just like Cheryl Tan, Marlon James, and Sergio de la Pava, Naqvi isn’t afraid to let English breathe, mutate, and coexist with other languages, reflecting the post-colonial world as it is. Abdullah’s brother greets the main character with “the hell you doin’ here” and be met with “I turned seventy and didn’t even receive a dashed card!” Elsewhere, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, and other languages are left untranslated, the way they were before they were superseded.

This brings me to a political and final point. I will always remember reading Cheryl Tan, who writes in my native Malaysian English, for the first time. There are few things more powerful in literature than to feel a deep, unfiltered connection to the language that an author uses. To read a non-normative English in print is to feel vindicated for every time someone has said one’s English isn’t up to scratch, for every shy second in a tutorial, for every test taken to prove one’s ability in a language that one has always used. I wager that Naqvi gets this as much as I do. In his world, there’s space for all of us.

Published with Atlantic, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack by H.M. Naqvi is out now.

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