Charm softens a dark heart
brought the rise of a new class of wealthy young industrialists tied as much to London and New York as to Islamabad and Lahore. The dissolution of old ways took less than a generation. Mueenuddin’s world is like Chekhov’s Russia, but with Mercedes-Benzes equipped with automatic windows.
Linking the stories is the pervasive presence of K. K. Harouni, a retired civil servant and feudal landowner who retains a degree of influence despite his diminishing fortunes. Enamoured of the success of the new industrialists, Harouni neglects his land in pursuit of the markets, and the gradual decline of his family’s fortune and status reflects the changing face of modern Pakistan.
Through Harouni, the stories range across all strata of Pakistani society through about 40 years to the present. They reveal the lives of his retainers and servants, his farm managers, wives and mistresses, children and extended family, business and political associates, and the itinerant workers who come looking for some measure of respect and a place to lay their heads.
As a collection, it’s a remarkable achievement. Structurally, comparisons can be drawn with Joyce’s Dubliners or Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches . The collection is more than the sum of its parts and it illuminates an entire world with remarkable efficiency and insight.
Mueenuddin’s world is essentially cold and dispassionate, yet it is revealed with such nonjudgmental compassion that even the smallest moment of humanity or happiness is elevated to something approaching a transcendent epiphany. It’s a world governed by base needs and desires in which corruption and idealism lie as incongruously comfortable bed partners.
People at all levels of society cheat, steal, pilfer and lie as a matter of course to survive or
THE title of this novel gives little away, and it is nearly 30 pages before Marion Halligan gives us any clues as to its significance. The Valley of Grace describes a location in Paris consecrated to teaching and medicine and inhabited by religious orders such as the Benedictines and Carmelites, and is the name of the ‘‘ most Roman of French churches’’: a solid, baroque church, its interior festooned with ‘‘ cherubs, fat babies’’.
It was built by Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII who, childless at the age of 37, made a bargain with God: ‘‘ You give me a son and I’ll give you a church.’’ Her prayers were answered and Louis XIV was born in 1638.
The oratory that bore her name became the resting place for royal hearts until the French Revolution, when the gold reliquaries that contained them were melted down and the hearts purchased by a painter who ground them up, mixed them with oil and used them as a glaze on his canvasses.
The Valley of Grace is Halligan’s 10th novel. She has also written four collections of short stories, five works of nonfiction and a children’s book. Here, as the title suggests, the author’s attention is taken up as much by esoteric detail and flamboyant imagery as it is by dramatic action.
Her preoccupation is very much with the eye and the senses: how things look, and how it feels to make your way about the centre and suburbs of Paris and, to a lesser extent, rural France.
Contemporary Paris buzzes through the pages and the fabric of daily life as experienced in its streets, buildings, interiors, cuisine and fashion draws us into the narrative at least as strongly as do the stories of Halligan’s characters, which are often entwined with questions about babies, fertility and fate.
‘‘ Fate to be childless. Fate to have a child. Fate to die in childbirth. Fate to bear a monster in body or in mind, capable of all sorts of atrocities.’’
The novel opens quietly. Luc and Julien, a gay couple, are seated at cafe tables on a Paris pavement watching a building site across the road where they admire the handsome southerner who works on its facade.
Halligan then introduces her principal characters with a breezy, almost notational facility. The heroine of her world is Fanny Picart, delicate and thoughtful, with a ‘‘ willowy graceful manner’’, a ‘‘ slender, aristocraticlooking girl’’, who works in a bookshop and marries Gerard, the good-looking builder with a remarkable talent for restoring old buildings.
Luc, her employer, is a dreamy bibliophile more interested in his stock than his business, and he regards his antiquarian bookshop as a refuge for volumes that nobody can really own. prosper, yet they still honour the feudal principles of deference and respect. On the surface, social contracts are based on allegiance and obligation, yet farm managers fiddle the books with impunity, cooks feed their families from their masters’ kitchens, electricians tamper with meters and drivers adorn their rooms with the fruits of their petty thefts, trimming out money wherever they can: ‘‘ a few rupees on petrol, slightly inflated bills for spare parts’’.
For women in particular, faced with servitude or marriage, survival necessitates trafficking favours for small returns. In the title story, headstrong young virgin Husna, thrown on hard times through no fault of her own, satisfies the needs of the ageing Harouni, only to find that family outweighs what she mistakes for love.
In Provide, Provide , the beautiful young Zainab secretly marries Jaglani, Harouni’s opportunistic farm manager, and bears him a Julien works in an intensive care ward for children. Their lesbian friends Agnes and Claude are doctors who co-opt them into their scheme to have a child.
Stories about French history and culture sit lightly in her characters’ conversations and are woven seamlessly into their daily lives and fortunes. It is a tale of lyrical emotions, and of Fanny’s yearning to be pregnant.
Halligan’s attractive if troubled people are usually reflective, and her narrative proceeds via vignettes as it meanders from person to person.
The Valley of Grace does not conceal a critique beneath its narrative and there is never any sense that the author is mystified by the characters she creates. Instead, Halligan encompasses her material and the result is a work saturated with an even-handed almost maternal generosity to her characters and their fates, a sense of their lives witnessed and their ambiguities embraced.
There is much charm and skill in this, but also a degree of sentimentality, which has the effect of containing and even muffling the disturbing and harrowing events that erupt through the story’s silky surfaces.
Fanny and Gerard are certainly troubled by Charlotte, ‘‘ the wild child’’ he finds abandoned and confined in an attic of a house he buys in the suburbs, and even try to rescue her. Similarly, when Fanny’s mother, Catherine, takes her back to her childhood village and tells her of Nazi atrocities, showing her vestiges of that past that survive, she is profoundly moved.
But such is the cloudlessness in this novel, its basic habits of tranquillity, tolerance and reason, that these instances of abuse and betrayal hover briefly in its text but are ultimately passed over as unfathomable, frightful anomalies.
The Catholic philosopher Jean-Marie Demagny might have served as a conduit from those dark worlds to the everyday but, finally, his character is not capable of bringing about the shift in gears needed to explore menace and atrocity.
In this novel of vibrant images, careful observation, and sober judgment, the random and roundabout humour of its references to Australia prove something of a relief. Cathy Peake is a writer and literary critic based in the southern tablelands of NSW. son, only to find that what she thinks she has gained can be stripped away in an instant. Put with blunt elegance, ‘‘ The world is like a cucumber. Today it’s in your hand, tomorrow it’s up your ass.’’
Perhaps the most chilling of the stories is About a Burning Girl , in which a high court sessions judge admits to a lack of belief in justice and to rendering decisions based on the relative pressures brought to bear on him. He then recounts with blithe, casual indifference a story of horrendous suffering inflicted on a girl.
Mueenuddin bears witness instead of passing judgment. We may be shocked, appalled or deeply moved by the events of the stories he tells. But ultimately, like his characters, we must accept the harsh truthfulness of them and celebrate the small moments of joy they offer. Liam Davison is a Melbourne novelist and critic.