Dramatic Dilemmas lit with a Damp Fuse

This is my review of The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed.

This novel exposes the plight of muslims living in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir, doomed to suffer whether or not they are militant. It has the ingredients for a powerful and moving tale, narrated by the anonymous son of a village headman in the wild, beautiful mountains close to the disputed border. One by one, members of his close-knit group of teenage friends disappear, leaving him haunted with questions. Why did they not include him in their plans to leave? Have they really crossed the border to join Pakistani training camps? How many have been killed in attempts to infiltrate back as terrorists? When, sickened by military reprisals, all the villagers have decamped apart from his stubborn father and long-suffering mother, the narrator is forced to become a "collaborator", searching the mutilated corpses of infiltrators to collect ID cards and weapons. Is his main motivation just to earn money for his family, or does he seek to find the bodies of his friends?

Although I wanted to be gripped and impressed, I found this book very hard to read. The plot is too slight to sustain a full-length novel, without very skilful writing. In the lengthy first part, the author rambles through the chapters like a traveller without a compass. Despite the vivid descriptions of the striking landscape and the villagers' simple lives, when it comes to the relations between characters, the style becomes stilted and wooden. I found it hard to distinguish individual characters or to care about them. The narrator's endless speculation over his friends' fates becomes repetitious and tedious.

The narrator's "voice" is inconsistent: sometimes, he is a confused teenager, at other times he sounds more like the author, describing the village as "settling down to stasis". The writer's penchant for flowery writing works quite well for passages on spiritual matters, the burning of corpses to save them from desecration, and so on. However, when describing incidents, the style often becomes quite clumsy, with prose inadequate to the task and a frequent jarring misuse of words – I had to resist the urge to seize a red pen and correct it.

To give just one example of how the clotted prose undermines the dramatic effect:

"…Ramazan Choudhury's elder son – the same man who had worked on the mosque and whose two children I had seen at Noor's shop buying éclairs and whose full name, Ishaq Jan Choudhary, I only got to know now when we were paired together in the hunt for X's body – and I were scouring the area around the dirt track that goes away from the village and tails off into the footpath to the valley, when we saw X's ..body lying near a narrow stream running down from the mountain."

What were the editors fulsomely cited at the end, not to mention the author himself who is a BBC editor, thinking of?

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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