Philip Hensher’s Scenes from Early Life is a novel in name only. In recording and embellishing the memories of his Bengali husband, Hensher creates a vibrant family album, a literary scrap book, and an index of interconnected events and fragmented memories. Born shortly before the war of independence that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, Hensher’s husband Zaved Mahmood becomes Saadi, our narrator and guide. Hensher’s book defies categorization with a slippery string of events that sometimes call to mind the repetition and tangents of someone speaking from memory, while elsewhere anecdotes are vividly imagined with a novelist’s precision and control.
While Saadi ruminates on culture, politics, and family life, Hensher is careful to ensure that his book is not seen as emblematic of the Bengali experience in East Pakistan, writing in his acknowledgements, “This is not a history of the struggle for Bangladesh’s independence, but the rendering of a family’s passionately held memories.” Indeed, Scenes from Early Life largely avoids the broader political issues at hand, giving equal weight to the narrator’s childhood games as to the political and cultural unrest in East Pakistan. Hensher resists dramatizing events such as an attack by soldiers on his Bengali uncle and Pakistani aunt which leaves them humiliated but physically safe. It may be Hensher’s faithfulness to his source material that strips the novel of some urgency and character depth. Aware that he, as a white British man, is appropriating a story of post-colonial struggle, Hensher shies away from portraying his characters as individuals with passionate motivations or hidden depths. But then, if Hensher’s true purpose is memoir, aren’t memories frequently refined and glossed over for the sake of nostalgia?
Saadi tells his family histories from a place of narrative privilege, weaving his own memories with family anecdotes and a lush imagination. Born into a large bourgeoise Bengali family in 1970, Saadi is the quiet observer. From his grandfather’s balcony, amongst “the odour of spice and fruit drying in open air, in the shade of the tamarind tree,” Saadi watches neighbors, family members, and friends passing by, and as he narrates their arrival to his grandfather’s house, he includes the political divisions of the time in his perspective. Saadi’s experience with the cultural tensions in East Pakistan is explicitly tied to family life. For example, from the balcony he sees the neighborhood plumber, who was “not Bengali, but Bihari; many of his type had left for Pakistan after 1971, but he was a poor Bihari, and had stayed to clean our drains. If you spoke to him, he answered in Urdu, the Pakistani language, cringing.” When Saadi’s aunt forbids him from playing with a neighborhood boy, he immediately understands that “it must have been his father who had sided with the Pakistanis.” Saadi explains, “there was only one reason why we did not associate with people of the neighborhood, and that reason was known to everyone in the house, from the oldest visitors from the village down to the smallest child. It came to us as we woke, and was with us when we went to bed.” In this way, Saadi initiates the audience into the regular fabric of Bengali family life, all aspects of his childhood somehow symptomatic of the cultural divisions in Dacca, now the capital of Bangladesh. Saadi observes, “It was as if there were two cities laid on top of one another, each quite invisible to the other, each engaging only with its own sort.” Similarly, the themes of Hensher’s novel overlap like transparencies, so that all at once the reader experiences a leaking tap in the grandfather’s sink, petty arguments between family members, and the family’s quietly subversive cultural pride.
Hensher paints a vivid portrait of Saadi’s family and its unique members, devoting more space to recording a personal family history of scandals and arguments, social gatherings and shared joy than in developing the political and cultural context against which their story takes place. Readers learn that Saadi’s grandfather, anticipating forced searches of Bengali homes for contraband instruments and books, seals the family’s library of Bengali poetry and instruments behind a wall in the family home. In words of caution that are both warmly affectionate and ominous, Saadi’s grandmother admonishes her husband: “You will never be able to remember, never, never, never…You have forgotten already what the wall was that you put everything behind. You will try to knock down the wrong wall and the house will collapse.” But memories, in this family, are not easily dismissed, and stories are cherished and repeated until they become family myths. The novel ends with Saadi reminiscing about his mother’s favorite story–about a wealthy neighbor yelling at a servant for two missing sacks of chillis–and remembering how his father would affectionately complain, “Not Hasina and her sacks of chillis again. We must have heard this story so many times.”
The concept of Hensher’s book will call to mind Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but the texture, voice, and goals of Scenes from Early Life are far more difficult to pin down. Hensher adopts his husband’s voice to tell the story of his childhood, but Saadi disappears from large sections of the novel as the readers are told stories that occurred before he was born. In these chapters, Hensher assumes the role of novelist and ghostwriter, abandoning his narrator and shifting to the omniscient. In doing so, he commits to telling a more holistic story–not just the stories that Saadi has witnessed himself, but also the small moments that have become intrinsically part of his family’s mythology. This is where Hensher’s language and storytelling shine, when the author is liberated from memory and free to imagine. While at times unfocused, Scenes from Early Life is an ernest labor of love–love of history, of family, and memory.