Charm soft­ens a dark heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cathy Peake

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.

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