Fatima Bhutto’s newly translated novel Runaways is a sublimely written work. Narrated via a series of character sketches moving through time, the episodes describe the book’s plot and personalities, all the while moving towards what seems an all too familiar and unavoidable end. Simultaneously occurring in Britain, Pakistan and Iraq, Bhutto narrates the lives of four young people maneuvering between two cultures at a time when both are in political and cultural stress. The young protagonists find themselves caught between an imperial modernity of material wealth, egoism, and cynicism and an older tradition of religious observance. Both involve an acceptance of hierarchies established during colonialism that are barely modified to reflect the post-colonial period. This novel clearly portrays the conflicts this polarity creates; the unfortunate resolution of this conflict in the final pages is hopeless and without redemption.
The entrenched situation the primary characters find themselves in are both unique to their families’ particular Muslim observances and as universal as the struggle between generations. There are times when that generational struggle is fought primarily inside families. In other words, there is never a question among those participating that the younger generation will accept the parents’ world for their own. There are other times when that struggle is part and parcel of a greater dynamic; a dynamic that affects the entire world. It is when this happens that the world changes, that revolutions and counterrevolutions occur. The period we call the Sixties was one such period for much of the world. This time is arguably such a period in the Muslim world. There is a struggle that involves cultural identity, anti-imperialism, and individual freedom. In Bhutto’s Runaways, that struggle is reflected in each character’s internal search for a meaning to their life—something more than the next iPhone or the next sexual encounter. In fact, something which provides a lifelong meaning in a seemingly meaningless existence. Something that helps make sense of the world.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, many young people looking for more than what they had found began studying the works of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Their lessons helped the world become clear. The path to a better world became clear, even if it meant that some people had to die. There were those who understood the texts they were reading were from a certain time and that the ideas and methods presented wee dialectical, not static. However, there were many more who missed that part of the conversation, attempting to apply nineteenth-century restrictions to twentieth-century change, becoming dogmatic and intolerant in the process. Consequently, instead of the movement to make the world a better place becoming more popular, it shrank until only a few hardcore believers remained. For the rest, life had to go on. Some gave up their ideals, some kept them and expanded on them. It seems safe to say that all became more cynical about the possibility for a better world. Perhaps it was the most cynical of all who turned to terrorism or became the political opposite of what they were, becoming ultra-right fanatics hell-bent on destroying the politics of their past.
We live in a world that came from that retreat. The right-wing is in power across the globe. The medievalism of religious fundamentalists infiltrates the politics and governments in countries from east to west and north to south. The certitude founded in their faiths provides like-minded and opportunistic politicians with an excuse to repress any who believe differently. The rationalism of socialism has been replaced with a logic based on the premises of religions whose purpose is the enslavement of humanity more than its liberation. Because of the Left’s historical failure, young people seeking a better world all too often find themselves in a situation that is, too say the least, not exactly what they were looking for. The search for truth can too easily become a fatalistic march towards death marketed as a path toward eternal happiness in the name of a god.
This is where Bhutto’s young protagonists find themselves. The young man Sunny is searching for an alternative to his father’s mimicry of the British upper-middle class and its aspirations; another named Monty is looking for meaning in a hollow life among the well-to-do in Karachi. Another is a young woman named Anita Rose who grew up in the shadow of her mother’s servitude to another wealthy Karachi family. Her brother slowly becomes some kind of gangster so he can help his family do better. She befriends an older man who lives next door and is a communist. Then there is Layla, whose roots are mysteriously difficult to ascertain. All the reader knows is that she is poor and from the working-class ghetto of Karachi. Ultimately, they all end up in Iraq as part of a militia affiliated with ISIS in some way. The ending is not what anyone expects it to be.
The Runaways is a finely wrought novel. Bhutto’s characters are exasperating, identifiable, and sympathetic. Her story is both thought-provoking and humane. Some may see it as a warning about radicalism in general. This reviewer sees it differently—as a warning about the failures of ideologies that demand an adherent to dismiss sections of the human race as unworthy of existence. Unfortunately, history tells us it is those ideologies that have most often ruled the world. Most of us do not consider those ideologies or those who rule behind them to be radical. Indeed, their overall nature is conservative, if not downright reactionary