Review: Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher

Scenes from Early Life

Philip Hensher

Fourth Estate, 320pp, £18.99

Philip Hensher’s new novel takes the form of a memoir of Bangladesh in the 1970s, a time when both nation and narrator were on their first feet. The crucial contextual fact, withheld until late in the book but revealed on the back cover, is that little Saadi grew up to become the human rights lawyer Zaved Mahmood – the author’s husband. As if to pre-empt a charge of intra-marital plagiarism, of transcribing rather than inventing, Hensher has turned Saadi’s narrative into a disquisition on stories, the importance of how they’re told and who they’re told by. If the stories were Saadi’s before, they’re Philip’s now, and his paw-prints are evident on every page.

The conceit might sound eccentric or bold or silly but the results are fairly conventional. This is a different project altogether from the one that Bohumil Hrabal undertook in the trilogy of novels narrated by his wife (In-House Weddings, Vita Nuova and Gaps), books intended as an apology and a tribute to Eliška and also as a kind of back-door autobiography of Hrabal, who features on almost every page as “my husband”.
Hensher pops up as “my husband” but only once, at the very end, in an epilogue chapter called “What Happened to Them All?” What happened to Saadi is that the great-grandson of a bigamist married another man. That man happens to be a writer but not a writer who is narrating the book we are just about to finish reading. Saadi’s husband is a minor character in the book, rather than its narrator. The mask isn’t dropped until the acknowledgements.
Saadi starts off as a character, turns into a Homer or Mallory figure, a compiler of stories, many of which took place before his birth or 
beyond his ken, and then reverts to being a character again. The novel has 13 chapters in all and they chop things up effectively enough but it’s hard to shake off a sense of the novel as “scenes” (not all of them from Saadi’s early life) rather than an ordered whole, less a stream of consciousness than a deluge.
Still, it’s a deluge that carries an impressive amount of detail about Bengali life in the uncertain years before independence and in the period after, when the horrors of the liberation war were still fresh in everyone’s minds – when little boys were told not to play with the children of traitors and people still “did their families the kindness of being punctual . . . to save their nerves”. What matters here is Ban­gladesh, as reclaimed by a Bengali (resident in England). Saadi describes the gardener at his grandfather’s house “trudging backwards and forwards with an uncomplaining gait, like a badly oiled clockwork toy that threatened to walk in circles”. On the journey to his father’s village, Saadi notices “the storks picking elegantly, like rich ladies in white draped saris, through the mud” and the long-nosed river dolphins throwing themselves “out of the flood in gangs, their wet flanks flashing in the sun”.
Saadi achieves a similar intensity of detail when evoking events at which he wasn’t present, but that’s the point. The stories he hears are as crucial to his upbringing as his own experiences. Hearing a story, or a dispute over a story, can become a story in itself. Saadi remembers two of his aunts, Mary and Era, arguing about the circumstances of the birth of their sister Nadira. Saadi’s mother joins in, but only to say that when Era tells the story, “it sounds as if that is how it happened” and when Mary tells the story, it sounds “as if that is the real story”.
In this novel, a real story is one that stands up to being told, not verified. People in Saadi’s family used to wonder “how it was that Nana knew what the soldiers had done, and what they were capable of” and much of what’s reported in the book sits under the same epistemological cloud.
In the final pages, Saadi reports a Romanian woman’s account of Dhaka as silent and deserted on the morning of independence. He knows the story to be false but he believes that the woman believed it, “having told it many times”. This version of events was “the story as she told it, and the story she liked to tell” – and so Saadi has passed it on, though not without a warning to readers. He may have a taste for third-hand gossip but there’s still such a thing as the truth.
In closing, Saadi writes, by way of explanation, that he has tried to be “as good a storyteller as my mother was” and then gives an example of the master at work. She tells a story about her friend Sheikh Hasina – daughter of the prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – who later became the prime minister herself. Saadi’s mother is “sure” that Hasina came around to dinner once and liked the meal so much that she asked for the recipe. Then she’s “almost sure”. To support this detail, she offers another example of Hasina being “peculiar about food”. But this story proves no more solid: “Was it 13 sacks? I’m almost sure it was. But what would Hasina be doing with 13 sacks of chillies?”
If being a good storyteller means registering the complexities of storytelling, then Saadi fails his mother badly. He’s far too confident. In perhaps the most beautiful chapter, he tells the story of the first meeting of the musicians Amit and Altaf with superhuman assurance and detachment:
Sometimes a new friend slips into your life unobtrusively, as if you have been walking quietly along when out from a doorway steps a familiar easy presence. He makes a brief remark in greeting, and falls companionably into the rhythm of your stride, so that you hardly remember what it was like to walk alone. So it was with Altaf and Amit.
Scenes from Early Life is a somewhat bumpy experience. At times, it can be hard to decipher whether a repeated detail is alerting us to, say, the route by which hearsay becomes myth, or if we’re merely being reminded of where someone lived or how they died; if repetition is going to be a tool, a theme and a source of humour, let it not be a vice as well. Details go astray: a garden that offers “no escape” to a girl on one page harbours “a back way” to safety for two manservants on the next. The opening paragraph of the chapter “How Big-Uncle Left Home” promises a confrontation (“They were always going to fall out in a big way”) that doesn’t occur for over 100 pages. But with this writer’s work, you take the rough with the slightly less rough and just feel a sense of gratitude that someone with such zeal, and such a gift, for entertaining has devoted his life to the novel.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master