Other Names for Love - Review
Note - a version of this review appeared previously in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Other Names for Love, by Taymour Soomro. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages. $26.00
Review by Dale Boyer
Upon first impression, Other Names for Love appears to be yet another novel where a young gay boy – in this case, a British Pakistani one – grows up misunderstood and in a difficult relationship with his old-school father. And yet, this impression rapidly shifts when, in chapter two, the novel begins to tell things from the father’s point of view. Right off the bat, then, Other Names for Love reveals itself to be something far richer than expected – indeed, something very special.
When the novel first opens, Fahad is being dragged back to the Pakistani village where his father, Rafik, grew up and holds a position of power in the government. This desire to have Fahad spend a summer in the village is an attempt by his father to “toughen him up.” To Fahad, who has spent a great deal of time in London, his father is “a cannonball, an avalanche, something giant crashing through the jungle,” and the village is the most backwater of backwater places. Even Karachi would be preferable, he thinks; yet, there seems to be no way of escaping his father, whose voice and influence seep through even the walls of the train they’re journeying on together, and from which he can find no respite or relief.
To Rafik, as we begin to see in chapter two, his son seems disconnected from everything that made Rafik who he was and is – in essence, everything to do with Pakistan itself. Though Rafik is undeniably a force of nature – at times brutally so, especially to the servants and locals of the village – he also emerges as someone who is a product of his time, someone who survived by becoming hard, and who doesn’t want to see his son trampled by the world around him. This is not to minimize his ultimate narcissism; and yet, curiously -- perhaps because he is such a larger-than-life figure, and so vividly portrayed – one sympathizes with him, almost to the point of upstaging one’s sympathies for Fahad.
This may, indeed, be intentional. Over the course of the novel, Fahad is shown to be someone who has had a hard time seeing himself clearly. With one foot in Pakistan, and another in London, he is also someone with a newly emergent sexuality that ostracizes him from the surrounding community – not only in Pakistan, but also in London, and within his family. During his summer in the village, Fahad meets a local boy, Ali, and the sexual encounter they share will rock and haunt Fahad from that point forward. Fahad’s fears, however, may be more imagined than real. Fahad’s mother actually confronts him with this late in the novel by saying: “ ‘You bring who you want. If you have a friend, someone you live with, bring him. What do we care? You think it is us, looking over your shoulder, that it is us shaking our heads at the things you do.’”
Fahad’s unformed nature is underscored in a scene later when father and son are meeting each other at a club in London. Looking around the room to try to find him, Rafik sees only people dressed with “rings in the ears and chains round the neck, hair like Liberace.” Waving his hand in his father’s face to grab his attention, Fahad says testily: “You’re looking everywhere…but here.” To which the father replies, waving at the bracelets: “These are things your mother would wear.”
In lesser hands, the character of the father would be at best a caricature, and at worst a monster. That he emerges as sympathetically as he does is a testament to Soomro’s skill as a writer. Proceeding in terse, colorful, fragmentary bursts, Soomro’s prose – especially the dialogue – advances the story economically and compellingly. It also succeeds, especially in terms of the mother and the father, in evoking wonderfully colorful and full-blooded characters. This somewhat clipped, occasionally disorienting style reaches its zenith when Fahad receives the news that his father has died:
A bus stopped, an alarm sounded, and a platform extended from beneath its doors like a tongue. It was absurd and at once everything was absurd: the tourists huddling by the gates to the museum, a pair of pigeons pecking at a plastic bag, an elderly man pushing an empty pram diagonally across the road despite the oncoming traffic. How grey it was, how grey, as if there were no such thing as sun.
In the end, Other Names is about far more than shifting attitudes about homosexuality, or a troubled father/son relationship. Indeed, it is about what constitutes one’s identity. What does it mean, after all, to be Pakistani or British? What does a person’s life mean? In trying to make Fahad a carbon copy of himself, Rafik is concerned that the old ways – the ways in which he used his power and influence to build and shape the country around him – will die, along with the memory of him. Rafik continually boasts that everything in his village was jungle before he transformed it into profitable farmland. But, as the country moves on even from that agricultural model – giving it (and him) very little appreciation – what exactly does that achievement amount to? What does the history of an individual man or of an entire country matter?
This book explores both. And it matters.
Dale Boyer’s newest volume of selected poems, Columbus in the New World, is now available.