Character can mean either a person imagined up by an author, but also the strengths and flaws that make up a person’s personality. In The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham and translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, we have a meditation on both. Zamir Ahmad Khan has lived in Bhopal, India for the length of his sad sack life. We meet him in his doctor’s office, where he complains of symptoms of dissociation and malaise. Then Zamir takes us back to his childhood to show how he became who and what he is. At the end, we’re left to think about the missed opportunities of Zamir’s life. Could things have been different if he’d made different choices? Was it even possible to choose other paths?
A third of the way into the book, the narrator interrupts to explain (emphatically) that Zamir Ahmad Khan is not the narrator. The narrator chides any readers who might draw comparisons between Zamir and the narrator, to ignore the many similarities between the two. Instead, the narrator asks us to think about what might have happened if. The problem with thinking about the what ifs of Zamir’s life is that Zamir seems pathologically incapable of making good choices in his life. He falls in love with the wrong people, then fails them. He goes to the wrong school. He makes the wrong friends. He lies, all the time. He just can’t seem to help himself.
Apart from the interruptions from the narrator, The Tale of the Missing Man is written as a series of memories centered on people who have since passed away. Zamir’s life is full of wonderfully flawed people, sometimes hilariously so. To be honest, I enjoyed the other people in Zamir’s life a lot more than I liked him. Zamir, unlike those other characters, doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Where other characters pursue careers or build families, Zamir only seems to know what he doesn’t want and avoids commitment wherever possible. I don’t mind unlikeable characters normally, but the ones who don’t know what they want or have no ambitions annoy me. Zamir annoyed me a lot.
Grunebaum and Stark do sterling work translating Ahtesham’s novel. In their afterword, they write about Ahtesham’s skill with Hindi and Urdu, as well as a Persian style of storytelling called dastan, in a way that makes me strongly suspect that I’m missing layers of meaning in The Tale of Missing Man. This isn’t the fault of the translators. They captured Ahtesham’s meandering and highly detailed writing. The liveliness of the characters and the grit of Bhopal come through brilliantly.
The Tale of the Missing Man will be best enjoyed by readers who love detailed character studies. Readers who also like to think about a writer might be thinking about and trying to accomplish by creating characters will definitely find food for thought. I found the book overlong. The longer it went on, the more I skimmed. I just didn’t care enough about Zamir to stay glued to the text. There were parts of the book I really liked. The character studies and the ending were very good. The Tale of the Missing Man just wasn’t for me.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2018.