The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

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The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A sadly disappointing work based on a strong tale of rural Kashmiri teenagers getting caught up on both sides of the independence struggle.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670918959

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The Collaborator of the title is our narrator, a sensitive bookish young man. He is the son of the headman of a small village in a side valley of the Kashmir. The heritage of the people is that of nomads. The village has been settled for less than a generation. Everything they have has been built by the sheer hard graft of the people themselves… including the recently completed mosque.

Our story-teller is part of a tight-knit group of friends. Hussain, Ashfaq, Gul and Mohammed. They go to college. They idle about in the village. Buy tobacco for their fathers. Swim in the river. Sing. Occasionally, they pray. Not the requisite five times a day. Seldom even feeling the need to go to the mosque to do so.

They have the simple inbred faith of rural populations everywhere. The evidence is around you, by acknowledging it, you give thanks.

They also have the fear of those that live in a disputed territory. Crackdowns happen. People cross the border to be trained for the fight for freedom. Kashmir is a buffer zone and its people suffer for that.

In the valley of the yellow flowers they suffered less than most, being unobtrusive and not worthy of attention. That could not last for ever. Things change and we open with our young man working for Captain Kadian of the Indian Army. He's a whisky-swilling local potentate who has recruited our man to check the bodies. ID cards he wants and as many weapons as possible. No specific linkage between the ID and the weapons of course. That would defeat the object.

Just about everyone else has left the village, but the Headman will not go, and therefore his family must also stay. But some went before others, and one who could have gone, despite his protestations, somewhere along the line also decided to stay.

We approach books with many different attitudes. Sometimes we just want entertainment, something to pleasantly pass the time. Sometimes we're searching beauty and lyricism (or dare we call it "romance"). Sometimes we want to be excited or angered or made to think. Sometimes we want, even expect, all of the above.

It was with hopes too high that I approached The Collaborator. Arundhati Roy spoke of its flashes of brilliance, tenderness and fury. Nadeem Aslam told of a voice lyrical, to match the beauty of Kahsmir…tinged with melancholy and grief.

As someone awestruck by the beauty of the region and angered by its politics, I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be something I would signpost people to, buy for them, make them read.

I was disappointed.

Waheed's writing simply did not grab me. Far from being un-put-down-able, I found it eminently leavable wandering off to read less worthy fare while still carrying it with me. In short: I found it hard going.

This is a shame, because the premise is sound, although, as I'm sure I've said before, the "then and now" plotting shifting backwards and forwards in time is a device that really should be put to bed. This is another book that is ill-served by it. A chronological narrative, leaving the reader wondering where the narrator would arrive, would have produced a stronger hold on the attention. Knowing from the start that the narrator is the eponymous collaborator undermined my sympathies for him from the start. No doubt Waheed's intention was to draw us in to the 'how and why' of him ending up in this position, wanting us to feel FOR him. It didn't work for me.

I left feeling as ambiguous as I entered. Of course, I can understand how and why it came about – but sympathy? No. There are always choices to be made, and we have to hold ourselves accountable for those we make. Much of the narration came across to me as a kind of self-justification which, without making any moral judgement (I may have fared no better myself), I found irritating.

Simply put: I didn't care.

The function of a hero or an anti-hero is to make us take sides. Only by doing so and having our position either vindicated or soundly undermined can we be made to care about the character. We may care in a positive sense, willing them to survive against the odds, or in a negative sense, rooting for the evil-doer to get their just deserts. Either way we must be made to have an emotional response to the outcome or what we are reading becomes an academic exercise in analysing information. There is a place for such reading, but it is not between the covers of a novel, especially not a novel with a premise that could be used to serious conscientious impact.

The information is valid. We should know more about what is happening in Kashmir. The folk tales and poetry are intriguing. More of the way of life would have been assimilated but for a tendency to use local words with no translation. A glossary would have served, whilst preserving the flow of the narrative. At other times an over-literal translation, particularly of the sentence-ending interrogative "isn't it", turned dialogue into a parody of itself.

A strong story let down by its structure and a writing style that, I'm sorry, doesn't live up to the hype.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For a more insights into life in the Kashmir I strongly recommend Justine Hardy’s In the Valley of Mist.

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