When books are at their best they teach us not only about the lives of others but something about ourselves. That’s why it is important to any culture that it has as diverse a selection of voices and writers as possible. White males, Scottish or otherwise, have been overrepresented historically and artistically, and anyone who argues otherwise is plain wrong. Have a look at your bookshelves. One of the impressive features of contemporary Scottish literature is the proliferation of great female writers, but more variety of viewpoints and perspectives can only be positive for a better understanding of Scottish culture and society. ‘Psychoraag’, the 2004 novel by Suhayl Saadi, is proof of this.
As a Glaswegian, Saadi’s novel showed me a side to the city and a culture that was familiar yet unknown. He talks of gangs in Kinning Park and life in the ‘Shields, and portrays the colours, smells and sounds that mix together in the Asian-Scottish experience. Saadi brings colour and life to a city that is too often portrayed in grey. He also uses language to highlight this particular clash of cultures. So there are references to Pakistani and Indian tensions, but also to Glasgow’s more infamous religious divisions, and there are wonderful uses of Glaswegian dialect mixed with Urdhu as well as Standard English, and the odd Gaelic and Arabic phrase (there is a handy Glossary included), and even some Burns poetry. Saadi makes sure that this mixture of language never jars, and it is in evidence right from the opening lines:
“Salaam alaikum, sat sri akaal, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat, hoat summer’s night! Fae the peaks ae Kirkintilloch tae the dips ae Cambuslang, fae the invisible mines ae Easterhouse tae the mudflats, welcome, iviraywan, welcome, Glasgae, welcome, Scoatland, tae The Junnune Show.”
‘Psychoraag’ takes place over DJ Zaf’s ‘final six hour nightshift radio show on Radio Chaandi. Over those six hours Zaf plays the records that he wants, and introduces the reader to quite a cavalcade of characters from his past and present; family, friends, enemies and, most importantly, lovers. Two of those loves, Babs and Zilla, represent more than it may appear at first, and they seem to be tearing Zaf in different directions. The book aches with regret and pain, it is often about endings and loss, and as it reaches its climax Zaf comes to appreciate his own part in that loss.
The book is a dazzling mix of sights and sounds and Zaf’s music sparks his vivid memories. In a way it is a 400 page stream of consciousness and Saadi has written a realistic novel that often has a surreal quality about it. He moves seamlessly from the radio station to the places and people who have shaped Zaf’s life, and the pace of the novel never drops. The term ‘raag’ is roughly translated as ‘music to create particular emotions’ and just as Zaf uses his ‘Psychoraag’ to create his moods, so Saadi uses language to similarly affect the reader.
Music is of huge importance to Zaf’s life, and his level of immersion in all sorts of music is another part of the book that I identified with. When Zaf states that “He’d been weaned at Thatcher’s breast and, boy, had the milk been sour! Music had been his one salvation.”, it sets his history and character in a couple of sentences in a manner that other writers may have taken pages to achieve. You get immediate understanding of his obsession.
There is a fantastic soundtrack to ‘Psychoraag’ and Saadi not only goes to the trouble of including Zaf’s full playlist, but also an accompanying Discography. It includes bands as diverse as Primal Scream, Les Negresses Vertes, The Kinks, and Nitin Sawhney, and it works as a great guide to not only the music in the book, but that which inspired it. The first track that Zaf plays is Asian Dub Foundation’s ‘Naxalite’, but I prefer their single ‘Buzzin’’, the video for which captures the band’s incredible energy, so here it is followed, in the eclectic spirit of the book, with The Thirteenth Floor Elevator’s ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’:
‘Psychoraag’ is a novel that doesn’t try to hide its ambition. On the cover there is a quote from Angus Calder from a review in ‘The Sunday Herald’ alluding that some critics had seen the novel as a cross between ‘Trainspotting’ and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’. As Calder points out Saadi’s novel is so much more than that. Such lazy stereotyping is unhelpful, and actually the novel it reminds me most of is Jeff Torrington’s ‘Swing Hammer, Swing’, at least in terms of feel and pace. The use of language is almost Kelmanesque, used by Saadi to express Zaf’s background and lifestyle. How he says things is as important as what is being said.
Suhayl Saadi was one of the writers involved in last year’s ‘The Year of Open Doors’ short story collection, and publications such as that one point the way ahead in terms of the possibilities for Scottish literature. It had a grand and diverse mix of voices and stories that told us much more about Modern Scotland than more conservative collections. What such fiction tells us is that any idea of what constitutes ‘Scottishness’ must constantly be revised and is more complex today than it has ever been. I don’t know about you but I think that’s a wonderful thing.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: Someone once made the bold claim that Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’ was the greatest Scottish novel that you’ve (probably) never read. I’m going to stick by that youthful bluster and suggest that of all the books that we’ve looked at this is the one that I would force upon you.
It is a stunning piece of writing by Butlin, someone who is perhaps better known for his poetry. It is not an easy read in any sense, but you become absorbed by this tale of a man whose life is falling apart before your eyes. I have yet to meet anyone who has regretted reading ‘The Sound of My Voice’.
Next 5 books:
1. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
2. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
3. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
4. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
5. Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
* Thanks to those lovely people at Birlinn Books we have two signed copies of April’s novel, Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Stornoway Way’, to give away. If you fancy the chance of winning a copy then simply answer the following question:
Q: ‘Stornoway is a burgh of which Hebridean Isle?’
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org before the 28th of January 2011 and we’ll announce the winners in the next ‘Indelible Ink’. Best of luck.
Photo Credit: Basharat Khan