Sewa Bhattarai’s review of Prawin Adhikari’s The Vanishing Act

The Vanishing Act Prawin Adhikari

With many fiction and non-fiction pieces published in newspapers and literary journals, Prawin Adhikari had carved out a niche for himself as a competent writer in English. It was no wonder, then, that his collection of short stories was highly anticipated. His fans can expect a mixed bag from his collection, some of which will fulfill their expectation, and some will not.

The best part of Prawin’s writing is when he deals with complex emotions that you are ashamed to admit even to yourself. In The Messiah, Prawin portrays a person racked by overwhelming feelings for someone who gave him life before his own ended. As much as there is gratitude, there is also the crushing survivor’s guilt. He ends up grappling with it lifelong, first trying one way and then another to deal with the conflicting revelations about his savior. Prawin depicts the protagonist’s confusion and deep melancholia very well. In The Condolence Picture he discusses a character’s realization that he had been the best friend, and worst bully, to an old friend. How he deals with, or fails to deal with, the haunting feelings after he gets news of his friend’s death makes for thought-provoking reading.

But when Prawin meanders for pages into the socioeconomics of a person or community, you are lost. The story on life in Khaireni, for example, called Fortune. The protagonist couple’s relationship is tender, no doubt, and the bewilderment they face on the rising urbanization of a once familiar place is well put. In a different way, this story echoes nostalgia for the past found in the first story, The boy from Banauti. But there is nothing new in these feelings or the way they are presented. Too much description and too little dialogues are the bane of some of his stories, decreasing the readability quotient. If he had kept it livelier with more conversation, these stories could have been interesting.

Prawin always does better when he is not dealing with facts. Mayapuri gives you a peek into the blossoming sexuality of young boys at an age when most would think they are too busy playing. As such, it helps break many assumptions about how we think children see sexuality, and is a very powerful account. But in the interspersing long passages on, again, Khaireni’s growing urbanity, you lose interest. Prawin makes up with a strong plot and heart wrenching ending, but barely.

In Stamp and Signature, a story on corruption, you keep waiting for Prawin’s trademark flair and dissection of emotions, and it never comes. It shows promise in between when the protagonist makes an awkward yet close connection to another man who wants to buy the same plot of land as him. But the plot, which is based on financial needs versus conscience, is a letdown.

It seems like Prawin saved the best stories for the last. In the second half is the magical story called The Face of Carolynn Flint, where you don’t know what to believe and what not to. Prawin walks the fine line of magical realism with aplomb, treating his characters with all sincerity and not a bit of derision. An unusual love story? A comment on the culture of obsession with cosmetics? A hallucination? It could be any of these, and fascinates in every facet. By far the best story in the book.

The Vanishing Act, the story from which the book gets its title, is another surrealistic story which tests the limits of your disbelief. Prawin seems in his element when he is talking about things that escape definition, moments that are poetic, spontaneous, and outside of the regular sensory perceptions. This story does not have any discernible plot. But you enjoy reading it so much that you don’t mind where it is leading you, or if it is going anywhere at all.

The last story in the book, The Condolence Picture, has nothing that is unbelievable. And yet, the moments of hallucination in the story give it a strangely dreamlike feel. Somehow the plot—connecting to a friend’s lover after the death of a friend— reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Prawin’s story has the same poetic quality, especially in moments of the protagonist’ soul-searching.

It is said that poetry is the hardest genre to master in any language. One thing this book tells you is that Nepali writing in English has now matured, to writers who can adequately play with language, and create poetry with it. In that sense, this book is certainly something to be proud. Prawin does best when he is dealing with emotions, but he still needs to work on presenting longwinded stories without wearing out the reader’s patience.

This book review appeared on Republica’s The Week