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Book Review

Pakistan's changing culture glows clear in 'Other Rooms'

The son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, Daniyal Mueenuddin brings personal experience to bear on his short stories. The son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, Daniyal Mueenuddin brings personal experience to bear on his short stories. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
By Robert Braile
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2009
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The eight short stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin's enchanting debut are dreamlike, illuminating contemporary Pakistan's societal contradictions in prose as clear and serene as the contradictions themselves are subtle and tumultuous.

Pakistan emerges as a place and a people ensnared by tensions of class and ancestry, wealth and poverty, virtue and vice, urban cosmopolitanism and rural provincialism. It writhes between its vanishing parochial past and its emerging multicultural future, neither a refuge in the menagerie of the present.

Mueenuddin brings to his stories the intimacy of experience, the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, educated at Dartmouth and Yale, and living in Pakistan. His feel for Pakistan's ironies is sure, especially in crafting characters whose aspirations for better lives devolve into pretensions of such lives.

As if to reflect this cultural blurring of boundaries, the stories are intertwined, with recurring characters and intersecting plots that suggest a literary blurring of boundaries. "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" is neither a story collection nor a novel. It is a literary weave, much like its author and his swirling landscapes are cultural weaves.

Several stories explore the futility of striving to rise in class, especially through vice. In one story, a poor married woman tries by working for a wealthy landowner and having an affair with his married valet. She ends up poor again when the landowner dies, his staff is dispersed, and the valet leaves her. In another story, a once-wealthy woman becomes the landowner's mistress, enjoying his fortune to the scorn of his rich daughters, until he dies. In yet another story, the landowner's manager marries his driver's peasant sister, amasses wealth by swindling the landowner, and then dies, leaving her destitute.

"Enjoy what you have and learn to know your level," a powerful politician tells the manager's son after the funeral. His advice is a theme running through these stories, including one in which a young couple seeks to abandon the decadence of their wealthy pasts by living more purposeful lives, eventually becoming disenchanted with those lives.

Other stories explore absolute and relative morality, where right and wrong tend to the latter, but always in the shadow of the former, exuding hypocrisy. In one story, the landowner's corrupt electrician is shot and wounded. The assailant, shot more severely by a passerby, begs forgiveness from the electrician, who refuses the dying man, briefly reconsiders, and then refuses again, his pause a glimpse of one morality within the other.

In an especially telling story, a wealthy Pakistani man and a modest American woman, studying at Yale and in love, meet his Pakistani father and Indian mother, in Paris for Christmas. The tensions fly. A James Merrill poem comes to the younger man's mind, ending with "But the dull need to make some kind of house/ Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." In his gracious stories, Mueenuddin ponders that imperative of Pakistan, asking whether a home can be made among a people and place so splintered by change.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS By Daniyal Mueenuddin

Norton, 224 pp., $23.95

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