Sun, May 01, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Hardcover: UK: New fiction from Sri Lanka

A brilliant debut lays bare the country’s soul through a made-up sporting hero

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, London

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, by Shehan Karunatilaka

What is it with Pakistan? Currently, our attention is diverted by the Middle East, but there seems little doubt that the country will return to the center of the geopolitical stage soon. Perhaps it will be another major bombing, a battle with militants, a military coup, another humanitarian disaster such as the floods of last year. Pakistan is one of those global hotspots where temperatures remain perennially elevated — and rarely for positive reasons. Yet, despite the interest in this 64-year-old country constructed in the ruins of the British imperial adventure in south Asia, Pakistan remains opaque, obscure and frequently misunderstood.

In this truly excellent work, Anatol Lieven, former journalist and currently professor of international relations and terrorism studies at London’s King’s College, sets out to teach an often ignorant public, and their usually ignorant leaders, about this complex, crucial and troubled nation. The result is a highly readable and invigorating mix of academic analysis, history and ground reporting. It should become, if not a best seller, certainly the text of reference.

There has always been a dichotomy between the impressions of those outsiders who have spent time in Pakistan and those writing from far away. The latter often describe the country as run by Islamic militants or rogue militaries and point to its nuclear weapons, ongoing internal civil wars, support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and deep hostility to India to justify a reputation, according to Newsweek, as the “world’s most dangerous country.”

This is where Lieven comes in. A longtime visitor to Pakistan, he appears to have read every major work on the country and to have personally visited, even if briefly, almost all the places he writes about. Spending a month in the rough border city of Peshawar in the summer of 2008 involves a degree of personal courage that is not normally demanded of political scientists. And this ground research pays dividends. When Lieven tells us that Pakistan is “tough and resilient as a state and a society” and that “it is not always as unequal as it looks,” he has the data and the case studies to back up his arguments.

Publication Notes

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

By Shehan Karunatilaka

416 pages

Jonathan Cape

Pakistan’s resistance to any political cause, as much as to the constant body blows which fate and politics deliver, is rooted in the “ever present tendency to political kinship and its incestuous sister, the hunt for state patronage,” Lieven says. The country’s resistance to “democracy” stems from a similar source. This poses problems for Western analysts, who tend to treat departures from “supposed Western ‘norms’ as temporary aberrations, diseases to be cured or tumors to be cut out of the otherwise healthy patient’s system.” In fact, Lieven convincingly argues, these supposed “diseases” are the system. The only radical solution to the malady is that offered by the Islamists — though this would probably kill the patient. If Pakistan is to follow Western models of progress, it will have to do so incrementally and organically, in accordance with its own nature and not Western precepts. As the contrast between stymied Western efforts to impose pluralist democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and the grassroots revolts in the Middle East is showing us, it is only when an idea is not tainted with an association with the alien and foreign that it can be taken up and happily integrated into a pre-existing identity, be it Arab, Pakistani, Muslim or, say, Pashtun.

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