The Mapmakers of Spitalfields
 by Manzu Islam

Peepal Tree Press
1998 (reprinted 2003)
First Collection

"'What 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:
"at the 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 London.

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 irreality.

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 philosophical truth...
"Inside/Outside what 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.

The peripheral 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 somewhere.

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?

Vanessa Gebbie is 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 Salt Publishing). Her debut novel, The Coward’s Tale, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury UK and USA.

Vanessa's other Short Reviews: Brian George "Walking the Labyrinth"

Heidi James, Kay Sexton and Lucy Fry "Two Tall Tales and One Short Novel"

Andy Murray (ed) "Phobic"

Jhumpa Lahiri "Unaccustomed Earth"

Adam Marek "Instruction Manual for Swallowing"

Atlantis Collective "Town of Fiction"
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Manzu Islam was born in 1953 in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). 
He worked as a racial harassment officer in East London at the height of the National Front provoked epidemic of "Paki-bashing". He has a doctorate and was Reader in English at the University of Gloucestershire.
 & Other publications: The Ethics of Travel: from Marco Polo to Kafka (Manchester University Press, 1996, Burrow (Peepal Tree 2004), Song of our Swampland (Peepal Tree 2010)