SNAKE CATCHER by Naiyer Masud. Translated from Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon. Interlink Books. December 2005. Hardcover, 276 pages. $24.95.
Naiyer Masud is not for the masses. A scholar of Persian and Urdu, and a translator of Kafka, he writes for the thinking, feeling individual who desires to take the time to ponder the words on the page. That is not to say that Masud’s short stories are inscrutable—they’re not. But you’ve got to work for the meaning, you’ve got to roll the words and images around in your head, and if you might have a bit of trouble, you have to remind yourself that it is worth it, because it really is.
His translator Muhammad Umar Memon says that Masud has been “… passionately involved with fiction,” and admits that when reading most of his stories “… the message, the meaning, the experience remained tenaciously elusive.” We also learn that he now lives in the very house his father built, with the intimidating name of Adabistan, which translates to Abode of Literature. In some ways this background is edifying when approaching the short stories; it gives a context to the depth from which they come. Snake Catcher, the second collection of his short stories to be translated into English, coming just a few years after Essence of Camphor, is a triumph of the spare and enigmatic.
In the anthologized “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire,” the main character becomes entranced with the younger sister of his brother’s wife and comes to painfully realize how the rites of passage and the expectations of a restrictive society weigh one down both mentally and physically. The language is dreamlike and restrained, almost surreal, and the absence of place and time, as in most of his stories, leaves a decidedly unfinished feeling. This is not a bad thing, because in most cases, the reader will imagine a story beyond the page when the narrative has made an impact.
All the characters in the stories find themselves suspended in the center of life in which the normal course of action that one would normally take would not do. That the stories all have a distinctive existential feel is central to Masud’s writing: life seems to be a problem to be lived through while scratching one’s head. He has been aptly compared to Kafka, Borges, Poe, Dostoevsky, and others, and one imagines that he wouldn’t object to the comparisons.
At the root of writing like this is the ability to imagine, to become fully engaged with the story on the page, to become more of an active participant in the understanding and explication of the story because what Masud leaves out is equally as important as what he includes. Meaning is often transient and obscured. But one would imagine that Masud would just like readers to figure it out for themselves.