I really enjoyed this searing, beautiful, and understated book by Jamil Ahmad. I actually won it for participating in IndieThursday. (That’s when you buy a book at a local independent bookstore and then share the book title/store name via Twitter or on Facebook each Thursday.) The Wandering Falcon arrived, a delicate gem of a book, like a small box of sand. Tempting, but I approached it thinking it would be one of those books that I would learn a lot from but did not expect it to be a page turner. What a wonderful surprise to find myself hooked!
From the very first sentences, Ahmad drew me in with his spare but evocative prose:
“Lonely, as all such posts are, this one was particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another.”
The writing conveys a windswept, nomadic energy. Ahmad does not burden the reader with heavy prose or rich descriptions. I was completely taken in by his cadence. It felt as though I were hearing these tales from one of the Afridi elders, as they sat in their tented house passing the hookah and a box of tobacco around the fire. “The box had a mirror on the lid, which caught the light from the lamp and flung it back in mad dashes across the room.”
Usually I am suspicious of the ‘novel in short stories’ concept as just a marketing ploy, but these vignettes are gracefully braided together. There is a narrative arc that binds them chronologically and geographically, as the stories move from the southern desert where Pakistan borders Iran and Afghanistan up to the mountainous northern frontier above Peshawar. The setting is the post-colonial era of the 1950s, after the British had pulled out. Tor Baz, the title character named the ‘black falcon’, meanders through the stories as leitmotif. I really liked that. With each story, it was a fun little game trying to work out which character he was. I’m holding back on specifics about the many plot threads, because they won’t sound as good as the book reads. But, it’s a bit like James Michener‘s approach, in which different players, storylines, and cultures overlap and play out in a region.
Indeed, I hadn’t realized that there were so many diverse and rival peoples in Pakistan. Ahmad skillfully draws out their differences via memorable characters, like the noble Dawa Khan who steps up to shepherd his tribe at a time of crisis, and the fusty old Ghairat Gul, who played the British against the Germans during WWII, and the hopeful Shah Zarina, who despite her beauty has few options in life. Ahmad offers a nuanced, but not melodramatic, look at the harsh challenges and wrenching realities of their hardscrabble lives. He does not really delve into the current situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, except with a final prescient quote from Tor Baz: “Who but God knows what the future holds for me and for this land?”
The Wandering Falcon is small, quiet book, but leaves you satisfied like an epic.