The Mapmakers of Spitalfields
by Manzu Islam
Peepal Tree Press
1998 (reprinted 2003)
do you say, brothero? Surely a strange new city, always at the
crossroads, and between the cities of lost times and cities of times
yet to come...'"
Reviewed by Vanessa Gebbie
Published some six
years before Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, this collection, as described
in the blurb, "explores the lives of exiles and settlers, traders
and holy men, transvestite actors and the leather-jacketed
pool-playing youths who defended Brick Lane from skinhead incursion."
The poignant story
Going Home gets the themes and the tone of the collection
rolling with the chance meeting of two estranged friends:
crossroads between the Victoria and the Circle lines at King’s
Cross. Jamil spotted me among a cloud of jostling city-gents in
pin-stripes and brollies. Pity there are so few bowler hats these
days. They look so exotic, don’t you agree?"
Jamil, in a gesture of
reconciliation, invites the narrator to join him and others at his
house, as he is "really off back home, this time." Telling
stories about home has held this group together – and indeed so it
unfolds, when the narrator follows up the invitation and finds
himself drawn into shared memories in which he expects to ‘find
some moments of contentment.’
The story begs the
question, "what is home?" and the reader is led to consider this
on a spiritual, cultural, social as well as geographic level. For
this reader, the most telling part of this opener is a short dream
sequence, later discovered to have been experienced by the others- in
which the narrator falls through a manhole into the tunnels beneath
Going Home is,
on so many levels, a beautiful and thought-provoking story. Islam’s
prose is wonderful, rhythmic, sensual, pointed with a wicked sense of
humour and is a delight to read as we begin his exploration of the
cross-cultural tremors and faultlines negotiated by the Bangladeshi
immigrant community in their search for a solid identity in this
strange, unwelcoming place.
The intriguing The
Fabled Beauty of the Jatra is a story set solely in the
marshlands and on the rivers of East Pakistan (I assume, if not,
apologies) where a troupe of transvestite actors make their way to
the next performance, rehearsing as they go, and smoking something
interesting from a chillum. As the smoke blurs their minds, the lines
are blurred between the actors and their roles, between reality and
In the title story the
real and irreal blur again as we meet the intriguing and opaque
Brothero-man, his pockets full of treasures, beloved of children and
ally of the leather-jacketed youths who guard Brick Lane from the
skinheads. His voice is everywhere – a mix of quasi-obscenity and
a fussing-wussing talk. Have you any idea, you shit-head, where that
mosque be? Right in me inside...Well, well, now tell me, you
mother-fucking donkey, how can I go inside of the inside?"
He seems to dress in
all the colours of the rainbow, appropriately, as he walks Brick Lane
and the environs endlessly, as if, so long as he walks, he will be
keeping the rest of London at bay. The story is deliciously surreal,
with the white suited and red-Doc Martinned "mad-catchers"
getting ever closer, and the never-stated but ever-present urgency to
get the walking done, get the learning done, get the imprint of this
place into the psyche, a slice of ownership.
characters are so well drawn...there is the deliberately stinking
poet in his rat-infested flat, Allamuddin Khan the deadly serious
fellow, and Mulana Abdul Hakim who keeps a stall of righteous things
in the disused cinema, used now as a bazaar. Brothero-man is almost
an Everyman figure, at risk of capture by the two blond mad-catchers,
who crash into a vibrant, colourful and noisy scene at the start of
the story bringing with them the chill air of London’s streets. As
in the first story, the underlying inter-cultural tension is
everywhere, ready to erupt.
It does erupt, in The
Tower of the Orient, in which Munir and Soraya, a young immigrant
couple experience the fleeting joy of moving to their very own flat,
thinking they will no longer have to write home letters "full of
fat cream and princely palaces...while they were living in damp
creeping rot and a riot of rats". Soraya is embroidering a
tapestry to hang in their new home, a deer surrounded by flowers and
trees – and in the end, this becomes a metaphor for their own
vulnerability, as their neighbours, young and old, react to their
arrival. They are to live on the seventeenth floor of a tower block.
The grass as they arrive is full of crocuses – and when Munir
sniffs them, he says, "What kind of flowers are they? All pretty
pretty without sweet smell. I call them heartless flowers.
Meeting at the
Crossroads explores the relationship between two students in
Colchester - an Argentinian woman, Isabel, and Dulal. It is winter
- the only students left on campus are foreign students, those with
nowhere to go – and Isabel has left for a few days in London
without telling Dulal why. I found this the most mesmerising of the
stories – we discover Isabel through his yearning for her, and his
worrying about her. We gradually learn that whereas Dulal knows some
of Isabel’s history, the fallout of Argentina’s Dirty War,
presumably - he has not shared his own story.
On campus there is a
giant chess set. I found this image stayed with me: "The snow hasn’t
stopped falling and the black pieces are gathering flakes round their
bodies and becoming white, facing the white pieces already under
heaps of snow..."
How much of what we do
is covered up, how much is not said. How much we try to fit
I have left two stories
for you to discover for yourself. They include the wonderfully titled
Fragments from the Life of the Nicest Man in Town.
It is a salutary thing
to realise that these stories were written nigh on 15 years ago – and yet they ring so true now–have we moved on at
all? Yes, 9/11 and 7/7 have happened in the interim – and I can’t
help but wonder what might have happened if Brothero-man was just
left in peace to do his mapmaking?
author of two short story collections: Words from a Glass Bubble,
and Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict, and contributing editor
of Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story (all
debut novel, The Coward’s Tale, is forthcoming from
Bloomsbury UK and USA.