There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.
That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.
Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.
Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.
Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.