Thinner Than Skin

I’ve just finished Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, the novel which won the inaugural French Fiction Prize at the Karachi Literature Festival this year.  I’m very, very impressed and am still trying to make sense of all the images, emotions, and thoughts that it has stirred up in me. It’s a strange, sad tale, written in a minor key: the characters’ voices are weighed down with melancholy, with memory, and most of all, with yearning.

The book was published last year and here’s a quick summary of its content from Google Books:

Thinner Than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It’s also a love story: between a young Pakistani man trying to make his way as a photographer in America, and the daughter of a Pakistani father and German mother brought up in the U.S. who wants to return to a country she’s never seen. Together they make the trip to Pakistan, where a chance meeting with a young nomad changes their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever. The novel is also a love letter to the wilds of northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans come together to trade.

Khan has said of herself that she considers herself a nomad at heart: “I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up mostly in Karachi, though my early years were nomadic: three years in Japan, two in the Phillippines, and two in England.” It’s this early experience that informs the entirety of this book, because it’s all about people who are wanderers in search of themselves.  There’s Nadir, the Pakistani who’s making a living in San Francisco as a wedding photographer, but who thinks his true home lies in Farhana, the Pakistani-German American who restlessly pushes Nadir to take her back to Pakistan, where she thinks her true home is.

Then there’s Maryam, the Gujjar nomad woman from North Western Pakistan, whose family spends its winter in the Kaghan Valley and summers in the highlands, grazing livestock and existing on what temporary crops they can, a literal nomad. They all live in the shadow of two mountains above the Valley, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat (the “Queen” and the “Nude”). Maryam is a pagan, observing rituals and continuing traditions that cause suspicion in the people around her, as well as the strangers that intrude upon their lives.  They never use the word “witch” but it creates unspoken tension, to echo the tension between the old ways she wants to perpetuate, and the growing influence of men who wield Islam like a weapon against the people of the Valley. In this way, the Valley, already steeped in mythology and folklore, becomes a metaphorical battleground between the new ways and the old, the residents and outsiders, Nadir’s personal quest to win Farhana’s waning love back, and much more.

Time and space cease to exist in the linear sense, as Khan jumps back and forth between past and present, tracing the origins of Farhana and Nadir’s love like an archeologist. She never makes it clear what made Farhana and Nadir fall in love with each other, but it’s very apparent that Farhana’s heart doesn’t rest in one place for long; not in one place and certainly not with one man. Nadir seems like a fool sometimes for not understanding this about her, and for all that he’s got a keen photographer’s eye, his blindness to the reality of his situations gets annoying at many points in the book (and perhaps this is why Farhana doesn’t want to stay with him).

Farhana and Nadir, along with Wes, Farhana’s colleague and Irfan, Nadir’s childhood friend, make an expedition to Kaghan, to investigate the glaciers in the area. One of the book’s most arresting images comes from this plot line: that of mating glaciers, and the ritual that the local people enact to “mate” ice from two existing glaciers in order to create a new glacier where none existed before.  This could also be a metaphor for Farhana and Nadir’s love, or indeed romantic love of any sort, when “ice” from two disparate entities joins to create something completely new.

But for all the ice and mountains around them, it’s the flesh that Khan pays attention to: the idea that the heart is “a guest who must be fed”; the warning that forgiveness is “thinner than skin” and that skin is fragile and delicate. Then, there’s the physical intimacy that appears and disappears and reappears again, much like Nanga Parbat, which is only visible on exceptionally clear days.  And there is much nudity, too, representing the emotional and mental vulnerability that these characters are imprisoned by, which leads them to their fateful encounter with Maryam’s family.

Khan weaves a spell of her own with her descriptions of both Maryam’s visions and the environment in which she lives, where skies turn all colours from palest apricot to deep amethyst, where glacial ice litters the ground like stars, where forests and earth and trees have existed for thousands of years and where the mountains and glaciers are not fixed beings but living entities that move and crumble and kill and die.  She can stop your heart cold with an image like the mountain Nadir is climbing up having “moving feet” and the Hunza River twisting around it like “a jingling anklet”.

The nomadic people and their plight — their dealings with government officials, the laws and rulings that restrict their movement and where they can graze their animals and get water for them — form a dark background for the ominous events that take place in the story. When the Westerners, filled with negative energy that vibrates all around them like an electrical storm, come to the Valley, they wreak havoc in the lives of the nomads, and must pay for it. And they do, in various ways that are unwound throughout the book.

The narrative tension itself is driven forward by the appearance of Ghafoor, an old love of Maryam’s who has left the nomadic life to become a trader on the Silk Route moving from China to Pakistan to Iran and Kazakhstan and back again. There’s an unanswered question of whether he’s involved with terrorists from China, and this role too has strong consequences for Nadir and Farhana.

The story unwinds like a long spool of thread that has been wound tight for a long time, and the many crinkles and kinks in that thread are welcome deviations from a conventionally straightforward plot. Towards the end of the book, it meanders a little too much, and some of the tension goes flat, but Khan picks up the pace towards the end, but suddenly cuts the thread short, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t feel like a cheat – it feels like the sudden imposition of real life upon a long hallucination.

I’ve avoided using the word “beautiful” to describe Khan’s book, but that’s exactly what it is. And it richly deserved the KLF Fiction Prize, conjuring up a world that exists like a perfect prism for so many different shades of light and darkness. It demands nothing less than devotion from the reader, in order to prise out its many secrets, but there are many hidden rewards in doing so.

This is not an easy read.

Because this is not an easy life.

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