Kamila Shamsie’s “Vipers” is the first story in Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Shamsie happens to be the only novelist on the list who has written a novel I’ve read and reviewed on this blog. That novel was her fifth, Burnt Shadows (my review here), which was a finalist for the Orange Prize. It’s been nearly four years since I reviewed that book, but I remember thinking Shamsie was an excellent writer, even if the book didn’t quite do it for me. Burnt Shadows was ambitious, tying together many places and characters, underlining it all with allegory. From the looks of it, her next novel, from which we get “Vipers” is also filled with history and place. After reading this excerpt, I’m excited to read the book.
When the story opens, we meet two Pashtun men, Qayyum and Kalam Khan, apparently far from home:
Qayyum raised the buttered bread to his nose, the scent of it a confirmation that Allah himself loved the French more than the Pashtun.
The story fills in the blanks with a natural flow, and we come to know that these two men are part of the British troops in World War I. At the time, Peshawar was under the British Raj and was part of British India (today it is in Pakistan, which is where Shamsie is from).
The tone at the beginning is youthful and playful. Indeed, soon after that opening sentence, Kalam wipes butter from Qayyum’s nose. Qayyum is enjoying the French culture and the French girls, while Kalam says, “Watch out, brother. You are too much in love with these people already.” Qayyum, who was just promoted above Kalam a few days earlier, forces Kalam to salute and then dismisses him.
Yes, he was in love with these people, this world. The shame had passed as quickly as it had arrived, and he drew himself up to his full height as the train whistled its arrival, understanding at that moment what it was to be a man — the wonder, the beauty of it.
It’s an ugly world, of course, and Qayyum is doomed to lose an eye in Ypres (which is where the title comes from). It’s a touching scene when Kalam comes to comfort Qayyam on the battlefield, waiting for the shots to stop, all the more tragic considering what’s about to come.
It’s an excellent setup, and even if we have a sense of the reality that is about to strike Qayyum, the remainder of the piece is an excellent look at the treatment these men from India — who had no real stake in this war — received at the hands of their imperial overlords during the First World War. This excerpt that works on its own is a great start to this issue of Granta.