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The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

September 1, 2018

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca

  1. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness_ Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understanding of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

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