What I read in 2018 by Shahnaz Bashir


As the year 2018 comes to close, Kashmiri author and novelist Shahnaz Bashir shares the best fiction and non-fiction he read in 2018. 

I did not find any novel or short story, published in this year, worth spending time on. Nevertheless, in 2018, I read some great fiction published before the year. I started with the reading of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius in Switzerland where I was on a Writer's Residency early this year.

Meditations is based on collected philosophical learnings of the Roman prince Marcus Aurelius. He maintained a record of the wisdom he learnt from his grandfather, his mother and many others during the years he was raised as a prince. The records were kept in a personal secret diary and never intended for publication. 

Meditations was followed by The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Just beyond a hundred pages of the around-400-page book, I began to tell myself that "this is (not one of the but) indeed the greatest book I ever read in entire literature". Perhaps I was too emotional from my cathartic state at that time but that does not mean the book is anything less than the greatest books to exist. Based on the collected poetic meditations of the great Portuguese poet and novelist Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet is told from the perspective of Bernando Soares, a bookkeeper in twentieth-century Lisbon. There were times when I read something on a page and slammed the book shut to really pleasurably imbibe it well into my soul, marvelling at the philosophical renderings of Pessoa.

In terms of flowing poetic prose, fraught with a lamentation of a sort or crystal-clean and sincere expression of existential matters, Pessoa comes very close to the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Yet there are occasions in the book where the prose wanders too much into reflectiveness that it tends to become a bit literal or flat. The reader, however a lover of such evocative stuff, possibly loses interest. Though none of this is Pessoa's fault because the incoherence and digressions in the book, which defies any categorization into a novel or nonfiction genre, which fail it as a proverbial modern commercial publishing terminology as Page-turner, is the way its manuscript has been garnered from among his papers, random scraps and so on. Pessoa also wrote sometimes on the blank margins of bills, receipts and used papers. 

The Book of Disquiet was further raged by my reading of Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai's Embers. The latter eventually became my most favourite read in 2018. Embers is unspeakably one of the greatest and wisest novels ever written. I'm too small a reader to attempt praising it for the every beautiful and cleverly crafted sentence that hits like a sweet arrow and etches deep a question and a feeling of sorrow at once upon the soul. For forty-one years, a lonely man waits to ask just two questions to his once close-to-heart friend who self-denounced himself for a plot to murder the former. The result is a long stormy night in which the past visits them not less than a storm itself and culminates like a silence that follows the angriest of storms. Embers is a story about friendship, love and above all an externalization of revenge which makes itself manifest through the beautiful, wise yet heart-wrenching monologue of the old protagonist. The only flaw of this great novel to me, and I can be absolutely wrong, is the long silence of admittance of the protagonist's friend who is accused of betrayal and treachery. However, reasoned in the plot, but there are times when the reader feels the dire need of response of the accused; never to mind even if that response is a foolish or failed attempt of his defence. Anyways, Embers will stay a masterpiece irrespective of the uncertain speculation of a reader like me who doesn't matter. 

Embers were cooled down by the Korean novel The Vegetarian. This novel by Han Kang tells the story of a stubborn struggle of a woman to stay vegetarian in a non-veg social atmosphere of Korea that signifies the post-modern ruckus for violence and other things man lives with. Besides, The Vegetarian is a metaphor to a dissolute yet quietly steadfast feministic resistance against a patriarchal system which in turn is fighting its way through the bigger global vagaries of power and dominance. 

I resumed reading of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending some four years later after I was done with The Vegetarian. I'd forgotten the reason for leaving the book half-read years ago but remembered the story of Tony Webster very well. Earlier too, I'd quickly fallen in love with the Barnesian self-reflective, lucid and unafraid prose but despised the too much Englishness of the story, something that became the cause of my again leaving some fifty of its pages unread recently this time too.

Also, I tried to make friends with Mohsin Hamid's Exit West but finding it as a clever yet explicit attempt to be a theme-in-fashion kind of book on the issue of international migrations, I gave up after some thirty pages. I liked my decision afterwards when some like-minded friends shared the same feelings about the book. Though I still stay a loyal of Mohsin's Reluctant Fundamentalist as I stay of Daniyal Mueenudin's all writings. 

These last chilled and tapering days of the year are passing away with my reading of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's wonderful slim French classic La Petite Prince (The Little Prince). I'm just beyond six chapters and feeling thrilled while progressing with this simple, wisely plotted, story that philosophizes things about war yet above all evincing how, by indulging in foolish wars, man as a “grown-up” has only shown his childishness and how a child, questioning why wars cannot be avoided and energy conserved for the welfare of mankind, is actually a wise adult. 

I also read some good nonfiction this year. The great in all of that were those that stuck to my memory for their elegance and evocativeness. Some of those pieces are In Our Prison on the Sea by Mansoor Adayfi, Who is “Satan” and Where is “Hell” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and The Shape of Stones by Niya Shahdad. My readings list never means that much more best writing does not exist. Only I could be ignorant and unaware of so much good writing, and even of that which was published in 2018.♦

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