It is a testament to the relatively placid temperament of the Canadian state that political fiction in this country tends to tilt either in the direction of Wayne Johnston’s myth-making or Terry Fallis’s broad comedy. Even the contentious Harper Conservatives – with their egregious law-and-order agenda, Orwellian state surveillance laws, and destructive attitudes toward science and the environment, women’s rights, and native issues – did not inspire a rash of Canadian writers to storm the barricades with novels calling for revolution or resistance. To write such a novel, one might argue, it is necessary to come from away, or to have survived exposure to political regimes or situations that are not so defiantly middle-of-the-road. (The one place in Canada such novels can be found is Quebec, which underwent upheavals involving the FLQ in the 1960s and early ’70s.)
Edmonton playwright and poet Neamat Imam is a native of Bangladesh, a country that has had a much more fractious recent history than that of his adopted home. Following ruthless and savage attempts on the part of Pakistan to suppress a Bengali nationalist uprising in 1971, the nation achieved independence under its new leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, generally regarded as the father of modern Bangladesh.
Imam’s debut novel, which has already caused controversy in his native country, views the legacy of Sheikh Mujib in somewhat different terms. As the novel opens, Khaleque Biswas, a journalist with the radical newspaper The Freedom Fighter, is fired for his uncompromising and critical views. When a young man named Nur Hussain appears on Biswas’s doorstep looking for work, the journalist recognizes in the youth a resemblance to the country’s leader. Providing Nur Hussain a new haircut and outfitting him with a pair of spectacles, a pipe, and the iconic sleeveless black coat that serves as Sheikh Mujib’s emblem, Biswas takes his young charge out into the public square. There, he has him declaim the politician’s historic speech of March 7, 1971, calling for the people to rise up in a united struggle for freedom and independence. The crowds, stirred to nationalist passion by the recitation, reward Nur Hussain with donations of money, and a lucrative business is born.
From this premise, Imam crafts a narrative that is alternately absurd, angry, and sardonic, but never less than fully engaged with Bangladesh’s painful history. As the notorious famine of 1974 settles in, operatives in Sheikh Mujib’s government realize they can utilize Nur Hussain to drum up support for their own purposes; this pleases Biswas, but the scheme starts to unravel when Nur Hussain develops political ideals of his own and begins to publicly decry his government bosses.
Imam handles the cascading levels of irony with a deft hand and a light touch, and studiously avoids didacticism or speechifying. The story is narrated in the first-person by Biswas – a man almost entirely self-absorbed and willing to shift allegiences at any point if he thinks it to his advantage. He is the very model of an unreliable narrator, while also providing Imam with plentiful opportunities to interrogate ideas about the corrupting influence of power and the stultifying effects of a cult of personality on the populace that falls under its sway.
“When men become too powerful,” says Abdul Ali, the personal assistant to Moina Mia, a member of parliament in Sheikh Mujib’s government, “God stops thinking.” The comment is made in the context of a scene in which a man who is among the country’s starving masses has been arrested after stealing a bag of screws from a construction site and eating them. “I needed something heavy in my stomach, heavier than regular rice and egg and potato and milk,” the man says by way of explanation. “I did not want to go to bed only to wake up a hungry man in the morning.” In the topsy-turvy world of Imam’s novel, this logic makes a bizarre kind of sense.
The Black Coat’s view of Sheikh Mujib, who was assassinated in a 1975 military coup, is not favourable. Far from being a hero, the novel conceives of the prime minister as a man so drunk with power that he was willing to ignore the death from starvation of more than a million people during his time in office. “Can a person be such a beast?” Nur Hussain asks. “That is not the question to ask,” he is told. “Because he can. Because he will. The question to ask is: will a person remain such a beast? And for how long?”