34. Songs from the Laughing Tree by A U Latif

This week, I’m going to introduce an occasional feature – conversations with other authors. As a lead in to the first conversation, with A U Latif, this is my review of his book Songs from the Laughing Tree.

I guess you could write a thesis about this book, so densely layered and succulently written is it. But don’t worry, I won’t. I will instead say three things about it.

The first is that it took me two or three chapters to decide how I was going to read it. I started reading it as a story, but that didn’t work. It would have been tempting to cast the book aside in the impatience of wanting to get on with the plot. Latif’s imagery and confection of words is rich and more for tasting than reading. The prose doesn’t flow linearly but is wild as an enchanted forest. In the end, the only thing that worked for me was to use it less as a story than as a tool for exploration of my own subconscious with snares wrought by Latif. This book is best read at night, just on the edge of sleep.

The second thing is a reflection on why the book works this way. Our brains are evolved to seek pattern and meaning, and Latif plays with this. The story line is very simple – interwoven tales of three men, a prince, a boatman and a narrator and of the wives and mothers who abandon them and the magical children they father and encounter. But the meaning eludes you as the tales slip from one to the other, linked by a snow globe, which both contains the prince’s fictional world and which appears within it. You become confused as to which tale you are reading, and which event happens to which protagonist. The figures of the stories loop and dive, and create impossible or magical meanings that are whimsically held together by no more than a concatenation of words, an ellipsis of adjectives.

The third thing, a consequence of the first two, is that reading this book is more like taking a mind altering drug than like narration. If you like altered states of consciousness, you’ll love this book.

Next week; an edited conversation with A U Latif

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