There are at least two ways to go about telling a story. More straightforward, though not necessarily easier, is to document societies and situations that amuse, frustrate, illuminate. Writing in Nepal, in English, one is tempted to do so simply because it hasn’t been done to the satisfaction of the writer, as much as a national and international readership. The risk is an anthropologizing or exoticizing bent that may overshadow the “meaning” of the text.
The alternative is to go straight for the jugular through the mechanism of a central conceit, a fictitious assumption. The advantage is the reader can be more easily convinced, if s/he agrees to suspend disbelief, that there is more to the tale than the tail that you see. The risk, if the writer places too much trust in the reader or has not, in fact, bothered to justify the conceit, is confusion.
Why should a book review begin in such didactic fashion? You may only want to know if City of Dreams is good, or bad. But in freely indulging himself in both social realism and fable, Pranaya SJB Rana has rather forced this reviewer to approach his debut collection of short stories crab-like, each pincer holding up a quite different species of fictive āhārā.
In truth, I dove straight in. The eponymous opener, about a man who likes to walk the streets of Kathmandu, and the next, about a man who stumbles across an intermittent muse on the streets of New York, sucked me into a phantasmagoric landscape strongly reminiscent of Calvino and Borges, both declared inspirations of Rana. The stories charmed me, just as the author’s winning entry to this year’s Writing Nepal had, which told of a man who can’t stop taking photos. I was convinced Rana had grown tired of documenting – perhaps he felt enough had been made of the preoccupations of Kathmandu’s middle class – particularly given the visceral realism of earlier stories of his. The prose was accomplished, the possibilities rich; I felt a rare excitement.
But herein lies the paradox of one’s first anthology. These are often cobbled together from stories written over time and space, encompassing formative periods of doubt, learning and inspiration. They can be uneven, both in stylistic approach and quality. And so it is with City of Dreams. The third story brought me back down to earth with a jolt, brusquely dispelling the mystery of the first two. Despite the fluent writing, the clever observations of human relations, “Dashain” seemed half-baked, even mundane. Perhaps it simply struggled to live up to the opening stories.
There are other stories in City of Dreams that, despite their lurid content – a girl who works in a massage parlour, another who suffers abuse in a Kathmandu home – appear to be going through the motions of documenting tragedy, performing the rites of social realism simply because they are worthy, downtrodden subjects. I couldn’t help but think that gender balance aside, the autobiographical author – the pained, meditative yet ultimately losing, sinking male protagonist – worked best.
But it would also be oversimplifying to say realism, bad; fabulism, good. “The Presence of God” is fantastical, but its central device seems inspired more by B-horror than any substantive philosophy. On the other hand, the gentle disintegration of “Our Ruins” as much as the violent denouement of “The Child” are as real as can be, yet work beautifully.
There are experiments too, in which Rana plays around with points of view. Dead men speak, finally sorry for the misery they have caused. City folk bounce off each other in a day’s trajectory, a voyeuristic narrator allowing us sneak peeks into their lives as we pass them. These tableaus not only hint at Rana’s imaginative power, they also demonstrate that he is a bold writer, willing to push against the boundaries of what we might have come to expect of South Asian writers. In each of the ten stories that make up City of Dreams, the author has tried to pull off something quite different. That he succeeds to the extent he has done is a tribute to the city we live in as much as Rana’s prose skills – even in a losing cause, the writing is always careful, sometimes scintillating, and promises much in what remains a sparsely populated field.
City of Dreams, by Pranaya SJB Rana, Rupa Publications, 2015