Fire in the Unnameable Country

By Ghalib Islam

In a now famous review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the literary critic James Wood described what he saw as the birth of a new genre of literary fiction: “hysterical realism.” The label, and his definition of the term, have since stuck:

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.

Wood’s review ran in 2000, which suggests that Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, the high-speed and manically constructed magic-carpet ride Fire in the Unnameable Country, is coming to the party a bit late. Undeterred, the Toronto author has hit the ground running, intent on vaulting into fiction’s avant garde.

As with other examples of hysterical realism, the book’s roots go back to an earlier tradition of “magic realism” and classic works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Marquez, Islam tells the epic, intertwined story of a family and a nation in a way that mixes realistic with supernatural elements.

Flying carpets and nationwide outbreaks of sleeping sickness would not be out of place in Marquez or Rushdie, while never-ending television program that can’t be distinguished from life itself and the transcribing of entire individual minds onto canned “thoughtreels” can be seen as traditional evocations of the simulacrum of postmodernity. Indeed, Islam’s endless reality-TV show “Mirrors” has a role similar to the prophecies of family history in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and makes for one of the book’s neatest acts of homage.

But these are hysterical times, and Islam is less tethered to the ground than his great precursors.

The unnameable country, for example, is not a specific place like Colombia, India, or Bangladesh (where Ghalib Islam was born).

At first glance it appears to be a generic Third World location, complete with a repressive history that is dominated in turn by colonial, Cold War, and finally war-on-terror politics. Then, as things go along, we discover we are in a country where the laws of physics haven’t “yet settled into regular course” and the geography is “unfathomable.” Throughout the novel we see the place sliding in and out of focus: It is both a state and not, missing from maps and then reappearing on them like some kind of Rorschach blot.

Adding to the confusion is the jumbled plot, really a collection of loosely-connected stories, and Islam’s odd, impressionistic voice.

The narrator Hedayat is a “glossolalist,” and is given to speaking in tongues. The results can be disorienting, with freestyle punctuation, exotic vocabulary, and garbled syntax. You have to work some of the sentences around in your mouth for a while just to sort them out. A sample:

Come on, I coaxed, plucked the buzzing sky caught her a firefly fluttering noctilucent palm.


I howled knife wounded as morning wind blew bedroom through window.


I remember shivering T-shirt in air conditioning light antiseptic odour fresh washed floors wonder walking distance to Mogadishu.

One can imagine editors throwing their hands up at this. And more than one reader will too. Obviously a book this eccentric won’t appeal to everyone.

As the flying-carpet pilot tells his passengers, “after a certain distance from the earth you feel no fear because it no longer seems real.” That’s a fair warning. Some readers may suffer from altitude sickness in the thin air over the unnameable country while others will enjoy the view and recognize in their distance from earth something of our own alienated, postmillennial condition.

Either way, expect a bumpy, exhilarating ride.

Review first published in the Toronto Star March 11, 2014.

%d bloggers like this: