Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Life versus Art: Lessons in Husbandry

By Margaret Lenta

LESSONS in Husbandry (Umuzi), packed with incident as it is, resembles life rather than art in that it contains a large diversity of matter, no part of which necessarily relates to any other part.
The main theme, which resurfaces frequently in Shaida Kazie Ali's novel, is Malak's grief for her sister Amal, who disappeared 10 years previously, immediately before her marriage to Taj, and has never reappeared.
Taj, already provided with a marital home but lacking a bride, asks Malak to marry him in place of her sister. Husband and wife are each other's unsatisfactory substitutes; their marriage is childless and Taj is unfaithful - though generous.
Malak, in this up-to-the-moment work, has a share in a cupcake business. But does her business partner have to be a Holocaust survivor who tells her story? Does she have to meet an old friend who is now an anorexic model? Isn't it trivialising of the whole to include so much?

Malak's parents' lives are as damaged by their bereavement as is hers, and it's possible to see the memory quilts which her mother makes as analogous to what Malak and Taj are doing with their lives - simply commemorating the woman they have lost. The father has made simpler attempts to console himself for the loss of his favourite daughter - there's a touch of excess here, too.
A creative writing class - yes, even that - acts as a frame for the narrative from time to time, though it fades from view when matters become sufficiently coherent to become interesting. Since it is Malak who tells the story, and most of the time she is either addressing Amal or thinking of her loss, the title of the book seems inappropriate.
Malak has apathetically accepted Taj as a husband, is aware of his infidelities and feels little conflict when she embarks on an affair. The question of why she does not leave the husband for whom she feels so little, and who is indifferent to her, is never answered.
The new man, Darya, loves her and knows nothing of Amal, though he is sympathetic to Malak's grief and it is from him that she learns the passion which has been missing from her life.
Close to the middle of this novel, a spoilt only son, known as Precious, gives Malak, who is his neighbour, a lesson on the real meaning of the Qur'an: "You have to understand that the current interpretation of Islam is not necessarily authentic, original Islam? it's about male interpretation."
Polygamy, he tells her, was a necessary institution in times when war left many women and children without protection or support. Now that this was no longer so, "how can anything in the Qur'an advocate gender inequality? Think of all the amazing women the Qur'an describes who played important roles in Islam, in the Prophet's life."
The reader, besides wishing that these insights were acceptable to the Taliban, is disconcerted by the fact that the speaker, thoughtful and informed as he seems at this moment, is in the rest of the novel a ne'er do well, dysfunctional (he can only have sex with a doll), unemployed and a semi-permanent student. Yet the discussion is prolonged and the arguments convincing - we must assume we are intended, for the moment, to take Precious seriously. His non-sexist interpretation of the scriptures, though it is irrelevant to Malak's problems, seems to be important to Ali, and might perhaps be the nucleus of another book.
A reviewer must not divulge the resolution of these people's problems, but can say it is based on the maxim that the truth will out, rather than on any personal growth in the characters. What must be said of the whole is that at the heart of this novel is indecision: the author could not decide what her main interest was, and felt mistaken obligations to reflect far too many human difficulties, which she was able to allude to, but not to help us to understand.
- published 29 July 2012.

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