Book review - The Cloud Messenger, By Aamer Hussein

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 13 March 2011

Aamer Hussein is best known for his short fiction. His debut novel, The Cloud Messenger, covers similar themes to those of his stories: love and loss, belonging and exile, and the art of writing.

Mehran is born in Karachi, and travels from India, at the age of 15, to finish his education in London. In 1978, after a dispiriting year spent working in a bank, he enrols to study Persian at university. Here he meets the impulsive, well-heeled Marco, and Riccarda, a mysterious older woman and former concert pianist with whom he falls in love. Later, he forms a relationship with the brilliant but vulnerable Marvi, an economist who, like him, is a migrant from Karachi. All their lives overlap and connect in unforeseen ways.

When he was a child, Mehran's mother, a song poet, had told him of "the exiled man who asked a cloud to carry messages to his beloved in the city he had left behind, describing the route and the cities over which the cloud would travel". Mehran experiences a similar sense of displacement as he travels between Pakistan and India, London and Italy. He tries to protect himself by cultivating an air of detachment, and by never getting too close to the fellow travellers he meets along the way.

It is only in adulthood, having discovered the joys of poetry for himself, that Mehran begins to send his own "messages of longing for something that he knew existed otherwhere".

The Cloud Messenger is as much about the creative writing process as it is about lost love. Hussein is at his best when describing the hesitancy and doubts that assail Mehran as he tries to record certain memories from childhood. I suspect these passages may be partly autobiographical. Marvi, now Mehran's lover, is dismissive, calling Mehran's work "bourgeois indulgence that doesn't take the reader anywhere". Mehran realises that he is not yet equipped to transform himself from a translator of poetry into a writer: "one day he would have to be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place ... to find himself a form, build a vehicle for his longing ... not yet though. He isn't ready."

There is a lyrical quality to Hussein's novel, and the snippets of love poetry he weaves into the narrative resonate with Mehran's spiritual journey and his rites of passage as a writer. Hussein suggests that the mark of great literature, in particular poetry, is that it can console as well as entertain.

Looking back on his love affair with Riccarda, and a few stolen days spent together in Rome, Mehran laments the fact that memory is "a bad storyteller: it erases all the real twists in a tale". But ultimately, Mehran finds solace in his vivid recollections of past pain and happiness, and his memories provide him with the creative fodder that is to sustain him. He begins to fashion his own stories and, in so doing, this exile finally experiences a sense of home.