This article is from 2009.
Spanning the Scottish Highlands and the wilds of Pakistan, Suhayl Saadi’s new novel is a weighty affair. Doug Johnstone speaks to the Glasgow scribe about writing a vast, tangled web
‘Epic’ and ‘ambitious’ are adjectives often bandied about in the description of novels that in fact display very little of either. That’s not an accusation you could level at Joseph’s Box, the sprawling, expansive, strange and moving new novel by Glasgow-based author and doctor Suhayl Saadi. This is Saadi’s second novel to be published, and follows in the footsteps of his hugely acclaimed debut Psychoraag, named in The List’s Top 100 Scottish Books of All Time. While that debut was a scintillating Scots-Asian stream-of consciousness rant, Saadi’s new offering is more conventionally delivered, but at 670 close-packed pages that play with ideas of myth and legend, hallucination and reality, music, storytelling, history and cultural cross-fertilisation, it’s a quite remarkable book. And yes, it’s very definitely both ‘ambitious’ and ‘epic’.
Joseph’s Box is so laden with fascinating ideas, it’s hard to know where to start describing it. The plot focuses on Zulie MacBeth, a recently bereaved doctor who wades into the Clyde and discovers a large box. Along with a lute-playing clerk Alex who she meets while making the discovery, she becomes obsessed with the box, which they open to discover a cryptic clue, and six more locked boxes inside. The subsequent quest which the pair embark on takes them from the Scottish Highlands to the remotest parts of Pakistan, by way of Sicily and England, in a story which builds like tributaries joining a river, until a final dam-bursting climax.
Talking to Saadi is a bit like reading one of his novels, the listener assaulted by a stream of ideas delivered in a fast, high-pitched, excitable blether in which the writer seems unable to talk fast enough to let all the disparate notions out of his brain. ‘I wanted to explore different streams to do with music, spirituality, love and death and all that, as writers do,’ he laughs. ‘Also, I was always interested in exploring place and music of different sorts, and loss, things that are common to humanity. I wanted to talk about the fact that civilisation is one giant rubric, it’s not hermetically sealed boxes; folk music is a great metaphor for that, because of the way it spreads through the world, and folk tales as well. It was really all about storytelling, the old tradition. And I was exploring concepts like Sufism and female Sufis, with a view to writing something like this. I can’t remember when I got the idea for boxes, or the lute, and then I became interested in World War II.’
Ah yes, World War II. As well as the plot outlined above, Joseph’s Box also features Archie MacPherson (no, not the famous Scottish football commentator), but a terminally ill former airman and shipyard worker, who Zulie is treating. Somehow, Archie’s dying spirit begins to influence Zulie and Alex’s quest, the two story threads intertwining deftly. If that sounds a bit like magic realism, it is and it isn’t. There are certainly elements of fantasy involved in Joseph’s Box, but Saadi was keen to keep things rooted in recognisable reality.
‘I didn’t want to write a typical magical realist text where the characters don’t question the magical things happening around them,’ he says. ‘Zulie is a scientist and a doctor, and she keeps questioning what’s happening, because that’s what would happen in real life. Is she going insane, is she hallucinating? I wanted to have that strong realist tradition, but inject it with this drugged, magical story.’
At the heart of Joseph’s Box is Saadi’s idea that there’s no such thing as a hermitically sealed individual culture, but that the world and its civilisations are, and always have been, huge melting pots of ideas, cultures and cross-fertilisation. His characters represent east and west, and they travel from west to east, and find on their journey that similar mingling of societies and ideas have been happening for millennia. Our culture is all about confluence, rather than divergence. ‘Confluence is a good word, because there are a lot of different ideas I’m trying to unite here. It’s an exploration that’s metaphysical and cultural and geographical and … everything. The whole book is multi-everything, really.’
Remarkably, the finished novel of Joseph’s Box represents only a tiny amount of the actual material Saadi produced for the project. As an aside, he mentions that he wrote ‘a few novellas’ about the characters before beginning work on the main novel, ‘limbering myself up, like an athlete building up to a marathon’. There were also vast reams of research and stuff that didn’t make it into the novel, some of which can be found at www.josephsbox.co.uk.
‘The website has parallel, tangential stories, outtakes from the book, and links to other things that I’ve written. So it’s all a bit like a spider’s web, it could be endless, actually.’ All of which is even more amazing when you consider that Saadi is still a practising doctor in his day job. And moreover, he apparently has mountains more work waiting to get out there. ‘I’m like a dead rock star, I have so much unpublished stuff, if you put it all together it would take ten years in terms of publication, if anyone ever wanted to put it out. But I’m only writing short things for a while after the experience of Joseph’s Box. It’ll be a very slim volume next, I think. Something minimalist, a series of haikus, maybe.’
Suhayl Saadi & Rana Dasgupta, 27 Aug, 4.30pm, £6 (£4).