on 25 August 2005
Suhayl Saadi's considerable talent was already evident from his remarkable short story collection "The Burning Mirror", and his debut novel was always going to be interesting. Well, the unique, high-octane, Scots-Urdu hallucinatory intercontinental multigenerational epic that is Psychoraag is nothing if not interesting.
Zaf is a bright but directionless Glasgow-Asian lad who is working as a DJ on the Night Shift for Radio Chandni (well, what else do you do with a degree in Ethnology?), a local Asian station which only has a temporary broadcasting licence and is due to go permanently off-air at 6 a.m. As Zaf kicks off at midnight with what will be his last Message to the Nation, he has decided not to take any phone-in requests, but instead to play an extremely eclectic mixture of music from an extraordinary variety of times and cultures, which will be a sort of playlist of his life. This gives Saadi the chance to wander off on a stream-of-consciousness narrative which gradually reveals details of Zaf's past, along with the stories of his parents (who escaped Lahore for rainy Govan after an illicit love-affair, driving from Pakistan right across Europe in a clapped-out Ford Popular).
At the heart of the narrative is Zaf's relationship with his parents, and with his two very different girlfriends: the white biker-chick Galloway nurse named Babs, and the troubled Zilla who blames Zaf for her descent into a heroin habit funded by prostitution. Saadi pulls off the admirable trick of allowing both girls to remain well-rounded and sympathetic characters, while still effectively contrasting the two relationships to make some subtle but telling points about race and racism. Zaf is not at ease with himself, harbouring some very non-PC cravings to be white, and his relationship with Babs (who, for Zaf himself, represents Whiteness, though Saadi is careful to keep her a real person rather than a symbol) seems doomed to failure until these issues are resolved. In this respect, Zilla's appearance at the novel's (ahem) climactic moment is important: perhaps Saadi intends Zilla to be seen as the Universe tapping Zaf on the shoulder to remind him who he is and where he comes from. By the end of the book, while Zaf is facing a very uncertain future, he does seem to have achieved some sort of closure and to be at peace with himself.
But the real joy of the book is in Saadi's verbal pyrotechnics: "Psychoraag" manages to be both fearlessly experimental and unexpectedly readable, and the language is a unique brand of Glaswegian Scots (Saadi has a great ear for Weegie As She Is Spoke) liberally peppered with Urdu, along with occasional snippets of Persian, Punjabi, Arabic, French ... that Ethnology degree obviously came in handy after all. A random sample: "There had to be an obscure council regulation that a pub should stand every thirty yards along the Paisley Road West. The sort of place where recoverin alkies could wrestle with their demon. Aye. Rustum and Sohrab trapped inside a used green boa'ul." Zaf's playlist is fascinating, too (a lot of the music available on Amazon!) and well worth exploring: I'm grateful for the discovery of underappreciated Glasgow band "the goldenhour". All in all, this is a big, brave, bold and ambitious debut, which is at the same time very much part of the Scottish literary tradition (Jeff Torrington's plotlessness and humour; a Doppelganger figure straight from Stevenson & Hogg by way of George Friel) and something entirely new. Recommended.