03 August 2013

The Black Coat

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

There is a famous story about how Plato once told a friend that if he truly wanted to understand Athenian society, he would be wise to read satire, rather than history. This rule is especially applicable in the developing world, where the chaos of government can beget our most absurdist political theatre. Neamat Imam’s first novel, The Black Coat, is pure satire, written with such disarming earnestness that one might neglect to shake it down and dissect its numerous layers. 

It is the 1970s and Bangladesh has just emerged as a country under the charismatic sway of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib. But Dhaka is still reeling from the aftermath of separation, and famine is slowly clawing through the young nation, nibbling at its idealistic belly. Khaleque Biswas, the book’s loathsome narrator, is a quixotic young journalist at the start of the book. When he naively attempts to write about the chinks in the new Prime Minister’s regime, he is promptly fired for his efforts. Into his life walks Nur Hussain, a young man in need of employment. When Biswas discovers Hussain’s uncanny skill in mimicking the prime minister, he devises a simple one-man show on street corners. Husain is dressed up to resemble Mujib, whose most pronounced sartorial feature is the black coat of the book’s title, and paraded around the city, delivering Mujib’s famous speech, the battle cry of 7 March 1971.

From here, things begin to unravel: when the Awami League, Mujib’s political party, gets wind of Hussain’s popularity, they hire him for their own rallies. Biswas’s coffers begin to fill even as the country loses over a million and a half of its population to hunger and poverty during the Bangladesh famine of 1974. Biswas’s principles slowly wither at the prospect of money and power, while Hussain is moved from disinterested stoicism to anger at the government’s failures. As the two clash against each other’s convictions in the politically charged atmosphere of Bangladesh’s calamitous beginnings, Mujib’s black coat becomes a stand-in for the changing hands of power.

The persiflage is often implied, found deep between the lines, appearing piquantly and unexpectedly from within the debris of anti-establishment rhetoric. Imam devastates without frenzy. His style is cold and diligent, as though his narrator is a mere chronicler of facts. Even when Biswas pontificates, he does so with an air of industrious sincerity: "The famine is a time for the able and the strong-willed, I thought. It is a time for the intelligent to reign. They will introduce new ways of life. They will make their own laws to protect themselves from non-existence, the way I have found my own path. They will create a religion of their own, if necessary, which will define success and morality in a completely different language. The famine will set apart the fit from the weak-hearted."

Biswas’s early idealism has a simpering, self-righteous quality to it that is easily diluted by the same hegemonic prerogative that later curdles Hussain’s detachment into anarchical belligerence, as though they are simply escaping into each other’s principles. By wearing the black coat, two dormant individuals are transfigured: one becomes a monster and the other becomes a man. The infiltrations of Mujib’s regime are chillingly Orwellian: the dissenters are purged, and soon we can’t tell the pigs from the humans.

The most totalitarian and fascist leaders of our blistering histories have also been our most compelling, erecting their countries upon a cult of personality. Awe and terror, though, are divided thinly, and we cannot always tell when we step across the line. Our ugliest transformations are inflicted upon us when we become the people we most despise.

The dystopian setting of The Black Coat records a terrifying collapse in society and annotates the frightening allure and corruptive function of power. Satire is a powerful tool that uses disorder to bring out the truth, laughter to bring out revulsion, using a moment in history to expose our foibles, to taunt our greatest atrocities by pretending to praise them. Political satire, especially, reaffirms our good old-fashioned notions that wit is as fine a weapon as any in the struggle to unseat authority. Like any effective satire, The Black Coat is a profile of the very worst things about human nature and reminds us, every so often, to hate ourselves.