Abdullah is a gentleman and a scholar. Unfortunately, no one in his family seems to recognize his talents and it’s hard to fund his lifestyle on the income from a small garment dyeing company (after it’s been skimmed by the manager). All Abdullah has is his stake in the family house, his books, his carefully cultivated habits, and a ragtag pack of friends who have seen better days. In The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, by H.M. Naqvi, we witness the great man’s last stand against incivility and the passing of an age.
Abdullah is a man after my own heart. He is endlessly curious about everything but struggles to finish anything. There’s just so much to know! His rooms are filled with books and notes for all the monographs he intends to write, but hasn’t quite gotten around to writing. He also battles diabetes, gout, and a persistent family that wants him to sell The Lodge—the ancestral pile in Karachi, Pakistan. Oh, and an old friend has pawned off a grandson on Abdullah to teach him character and the Classics. It’s a lot for a seventy-something year old man.
The novel is littered with footnotes as Abdullah lurches around The Lodge and Karachi. These footnotes range all over the intellectual map, offering histories of Pakistan, jazz, Islam, Abdullah’s legal and romantic woes, food, poetry, and much more. (There is also a helpful glossary of words from Urdu and other languages spoken in southern Pakistan at the end.) I love footnotes! Especially ones that add sardonic and arch notes to what quickly becomes a picaresque folly as Abdullah tries to hold on to The Lodge.
I really liked The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack. For all that he is not the easiest person to get along with and would probably bore the pants off me if he ever managed to corner me for a lecture, I enjoyed riding along on his shoulder around Karachi. Abdullah reminds me of Count Alexander Rostov, of A Gentleman in Moscow, because of the way he attempts to live in the past as much as possible as the world hurtles along around him. Abdullah even insists on using archaic spellings of places in Pakistan; Karachi is constantly spelled Currachee and it took me a bit of Googling to figure out where and when this book takes place. Once I got the hang of Abdullah’s style, I felt like I had an inside glimpse of a lost version of Pakistan that lived between the Partition and the rise of militant dictators.
Readers who like quirky, gentle men at odds with the times; humor mixed with a dash of tristesse; and heavy use of footnotes will find much to enjoy in The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.