A feeling of dismay always gnaws at me because nothing truly remarkable—in both literal and figurative terms—has been happening in the realm of Bangladeshi fiction lately. Mashrur Arefin has assuaged much of that feeling with his debut doorstop, entitled August Abchaya (The August Shadows).
It was many years back—perhaps at the beginning of this century—that I read his Story of Iswardi, Mayor and Mule. Even though it was introduced as a poetry volume on the flap, its exceptional characteristic, especially its conspicuous narrative and linguistic traits, elevated it to the height of an exceptional, iconoclastic fictional work. Learned readers could tell that Mashrur was here to sow new seeds in the literary landscape of Bengal.
He did fulfil to a great extent the vessel of their expectations with the fruit of his 20-year-long perseverance, the translated tome of Frantz Kafka’s Golposomogro (Complete Stories), immediately followed by a meticulously annotated translation of Homer’s Iliad. August Abchaya is yet another mighty feather in his cap. With this remarkable and hugely significant novel, he has emerged on to the stage of Bengali literature as a powerful, distinct, and creative fiction writer.
August, 15th of August to be precise—this cruel and most atrocious day in the history of our nation—is the main character and driving force of this novel, even though it works, as is implied in the title, as a shadowy presence yet a tenacious and irresistible force. The protagonist of the novel is a philosophy professor and translator, in whose person we see ample reflection of the writer himself. Evidently the savage killings of 15th August have an enormous hold on him, so much so that he surreptitiously nurtures the desire to take revenge on the masterminds of those killings in addition to seeking interpretation and explanation of this crime by meticulously investigating into it.
However, instead of seeing it as an isolated, localized incident of assassination, he looks at it holistically, taking into consideration aspects of nature and instinct, understanding it as part of a brutal conspiracy cooked up by state mechanisms as well as international power politics. Even though instinctually he is wont to wander into the natural world of trees and birds as well as the wonderful, mysterious realm of world literature to free his mind from the inhuman, brutal machinations steeped in the larger backdrop of time and space, he identifies the inauspicious, behind-the-scenes force and in his attempt to come to terms with it, he desperately chalks out his very personal strategy to redeem himself of guilt.
The 15th of August, undoubtedly, is the driving force behind the novel yet at the same time, it marks a point of departure for a different kind of literary voyage. While laying the philosophical, psychological, and geo-political foundation, he took readers on a spiritual roller-coaster through a sort of literary stream of consciousness by looking at life and history from the lenses of the likes of Jibanananda-Bibhutibhushon, Kafka-Proust, and Borges-Sebald.
During the journey we meet characters as charming and multifarious as Aiyar, Noor, Luna, Meherjan, Surobhi, Sarfaraj, Ibrahim, and Bernstein. It is through the portrayal of their exceptional and dramatic lives that the writer creates in his glowing prose an enchanting narrative about the fundamental aspects of our life, such as human relationship, love, religion, power, morality, sexuality, loneliness, and an awareness of death. In fact, the epic dimension it gives to life along with the tragic consequences, and his sensitive, artistic representation are what actually elevate this novel to an incomparable height.
(Translated by Arts & letters)