A Stopping Place
Ann Grace Mojtabai’s third novel, A Stopping Place, advances her already considerable reputation greatly. She won critical accolades with her original and frightening first novel, Mundome, and with her second, The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, in which she dramatized the struggle between the spiritual destinies of man and of mankind. A Stopping Place should appeal to a wider audience, since her characters and plot will be familiar to anyone who reads the newspaper. In this timely and harrowingly realistic novel of East-West spiritual and political misunderstandings, the author draws upon her experience of having lived as an American citizen for several years in Iran and Pakistan near the Indian border. She knows at first-hand what borders mean, and that there are more than simply geographical ones. The novel is full of ironic and touching examples of misperception, unreasoning hatred, and wasted opportunities. It is unrelentingly honest in its depiction of such missed opportunities not only at the governmental level, where one might expect them, but at the personal level as well. The reader is discomfited to see characters who complacently fail to communicate beyond their own disturbed psychic borders. Yet A Stopping Place is about more than simply the division of East and West; it is about the abysmally sad divisions between all men which grow out of history, culture, geography, and faith. On the deepest level, this novel is about the human proclivity for prejudice.
Mojtabai prefaces her novel with a note to the reader describing a problem which haunted her throughout the writing of the novel: she saw an image of parallel roads continually unfolding and unwinding, but nowhere converging. At the book’s conclusion, nothing her characters have attempted has been accomplished; they are failures. Even when they have accomplished much, things remain unchanged. As individuals and as representatives of governments, they have never converged except in violent ways. The novel’s final images are poignant ones of inexorable distances between even those who love one another. An American-born wife watches the expanse of water increase between her boat and the dock where her Iranian husband sadly waves good-bye. An unmarried Pakistani woman reads a letter from her brother, now dead, to whom she has devoted her marriageable years; she feels betrayed and bitter over his seeming invitation of his own pointless death. All these people are incapable of convergence; their various paths continue parallel.
Mojtabai takes the title of her novel from E. N. Mangat Rai’s memoir of his career as a government worker, Commitment My Style: Career in the Indian Civil Service. In that book, Rai, alluding to the sharp disappointments to be found in any ambassadorial activities, nevertheless maintains hope that any political concession, détente, or truce is a stopping place from which “. . . you think and feel . . . and your humanity may lead you to reason, good sense, civilization.” The contrast between Rai’s optimism and Mojtabai’s painful pessimism suggests that the title A Stopping Place is ironic. In a larger sense, however, Mojtabai may be implying that Rai is more correct than we can appreciate; that we inevitably take too short a view of contemporary events; and that even the crumbling “stopping places” such as political truces or compromises in marriages at least give nations and couples time to move a little closer toward possible convergences. When the factors of division are so complex, she may be saying, that there must be innumerable stopping places along the line of history. The events described in the novel, she suggests, may have been one of those stopping places—inscrutible, unsettling, apparently ineffective, but perhaps in the long run a contribution larger than we can know, a prevention of cataclysm.
Set in Pakistan’s cities of Lahore, Karachi, and Cyrilabad, the events of A Stopping Place are as simple as the characters are complex. Mojtabai’s art lies in her ability simultaneously to create characters who are vibrantly alive and to use them as metaphors. In this fusion, her control is precise and compelling; character comes first, and then the additional possibilities subtly come out. Her alcoholic American poet, Tom Melus, is a case in point. Suffering from divorce, midlife crisis, and writer’s block, he goes on a U. S. Government-sponsored lecture tour in the Middle East. Melus is a sort of mid-twentieth century American “everyman” who, having lost himself in his own country, hopes somehow to regain himself in a foreign one. At the same time, he is not fully conscious of his search or of what he may discover; he drinks and lies and avoids reality. In Asia, at embassy parties, he finds himself equally estranged from his fellow Americans and from the Pakistanis. Subjected by both cultural groups either to unthinking adulation, which embarrasses him, or...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)