The Last Novel

by Haider Shahbaz

Kashif is a novelist who is afraid of novels: they all remind him of his failure at love. Novels, with the futility of each word, with the reflection of each phrase, with the silent spaces between sounds, remind him of nothing but loss. His novels are nothing but bloody fights with the memories of lost paradises and lost homes and lost loves.

Now that he is eighty and has a pearly beard and a semi-bald head, Kashif is writing The Last Novel. He is writing his last novel on his first love: Monika. He wants to be done, for ever and ever, with memories of Monika. Once finished, he has decided, he will spend the rest of his days watching television. Or doing anything that will not remind him of his failure at love. And if everything, really everything everything, still reminded him of nothing but his failure at love, he will commit suicide. And be done with it.

One thing is certain: this novel– the one he is writing now – will be his last one, if he ever manages to finish it. Despite the tremendous success of his previous novels, this novel is to be the one that will complete all he wants to say about fear and beauty and memory. But before we talk of novels and suicides, we must talk of love. Kashif is thinking of love because his son, Rashid, is coming to visit him. Without admitting it to himself, Kashif has decided that his son is his last chance at succeeding in love. His last chance, in other words, of getting over his memories of failed love and finishing The Last Novel.

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Kashif lives alone, ridiculously alone, in his comfortable house in the countryside of Wales. Countless years ago, fifteen to be exact, on June 8th, Kashif came here to write The Last Novel. He lives with nothing but books. Or should we say: memories and fear. They are strewn all over the place. They stack up against whole walls. They litter the floors of all the rooms. They sleep with him and eat with him and bathe with him and sit outside on the open porch with him. They are, in a word, everywhere.

Kashif starts his day with a long walk because he likes the sheep around his house. He always stops for coffee at this one place in town. Elaine: that is the name of the owner. She always comes out to greet him. Good Morning. Good Morning. How are you? How are you? Beautiful day. Beautiful day. She has two daughters. Both are away at college. This makes her feel lonely. After coffee, Kashif walks back to his house, this time walking through the town rather than taking the path through the fields. He smiles and waves at the butcher, and the pub bartender, and the barber, and the bike shop owner. He stops to buy milk and bread and eggs and ham. He always cooks lunch for himself. Lunch takes time to prepare and he takes long to eat it. After a second cup of coffee with lunch, he writes poetry. He never publishes any of his poetry but has written it from a very young age and keeps writing it now because poetry keeps his mind alive to words as dancers.

In the evenings, he chooses a room in the house where the novel he wants to read is stacked. All the rooms are empty and dirty except the neatly stacked books. He rereads old novels, stopping at every sentence, letting them run down his memory. From time to time, he writes letters to friends, he calls his agent, he takes a swim in the sea next to his house. Sometimes he gets angry at books and tears out pages. He tries to write every day, but he cannot remember a single day in the past five years when he wrote more than a page. He has passages upon passages of unfinished streams of thought, lying around like lucid dreams, that he one day hopes to put together in The Last Novel.

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When an old friend, who Kashif had once spent long years talking to and who was now too busy to come visit him, wrote a letter asking how he was and what he was reading these days, he replied with this:

These days, I cannot read. I cannot talk. I cannot write. I watch myself aimlessly glide through time. I live in my head and it excites me too much to hear anything else. I become afraid when someone has something to say to me. I am afraid to think, to follow my thoughts, where they want to lead me. In connected webs, my thoughts lead to memories so far forgotten that they must be painful. And I scramble to halt them. I ask them to let me stay. To let me breathe. I run away to new distractions that will never lead me back. No pasts do I want to carry, do I want to prod. And these writers, they tell me things I don’t want to be reminded of. Why they make me cry with stories of mothers and lovers and continuously lost homes. I cannot bear them. I cannot bear their words. These sentences, these alien sentences, I do not know what they mean. They break down and crumble in front of me. And I’m left in my head, hoping somebody will come and explain my sentences to me.

In his twenties, Kashif had looked forward to old age; he did not get published until he was thirty-two. He had thought that by the time he was old he would be happily married and surrounded by grandchildren who would play around him. Instead, he had spent the last fifteen years thinking about Monika and writing The Last Novel. Then Rashid called and he entertained – once again, after a very long time – the possibility of love.

Rashid called and said that he wanted to come visit. Maybe stay for a few months. It will be foolish to say that Kashif had only ever loved Monika and no other woman. Kashif had been notorious throughout his life for his torrid love affairs. He had hated and loved each of these women with a ferocious intensity he could only muster when in love. Rashid was the son of one of these women. He was his only child. But it was Monika whom he credited with teaching him how to love, and subsequently determining that he will always fail at it. Because of this he had failed to properly love Rashid until Rashid was much older and Kashif had moved in to his lonely house in the countryside to write The Last Novel.

Rashid was a painter. He had just graduated from art school and his first exhibition had been a success. He sold a few paintings for good money. At the age of twenty-eight, this was rare. He wanted to take this money and go live with his father in the countryside for a few months so he could concentrate on painting. Rashid was a handsome man with an imposing physical figure. Girls liked him because he was polite and always smelled nice. Rashid, like his father, was also troubled by love and had never fallen in love despite many chances. Rashid admired Kashif’s books which were the principal way he had gotten to know him in his adolescence. His only memory of his father from childhood was Kashif taking him out for ice cream after he successfully identified the Fire at Night by Francisco de Goya, La Grenouillere by Claude Monet, and an untitled from Rothko’s Black on Grays. After hating him for many years, Rashid finally decided to visit his father because he knew that Kashif was old and lonely. This time around he wanted to sit down with his father and talk. Really, talk.

After receiving Rashid’s call, Kashif became excited. He thought that after fifteen years he was finally being offered a chance at salvation. He set about planning for it. The house was bare so he bought new furniture and set up his son’s room. He commissioned a friend to quickly build a studio for his son. He read his son’s interviews in newspapers and art reviews. From these, he found out his favourite painters and spent lavish amounts to buy their paintings.

He rearranged the whole house he had bought countless years ago not knowing that he will never meet his son. But before we talk of that – I keep forgetting – we must talk of love. We must say that Kashif sat on his bed, waiting for his son, and thinking about Monika.

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Kashif was obsessed with writing because his father had once told him that he will never write a good novel. His father had enrolled early in the military, guaranteeing himself a respectable pay, a decent house, and a wife Kashif’s grandmother approved of. Kashif -needless to say – hated, as well as feared, his father’s cowardice.

Kashif left his home in search for new stories and in order to run away from his father’s cowardice. He searched for these stories all his life and wrote them down in a career spanning nearly fifty years. But leaving his mother made him feel shelterless and abandoned. Along came Monika. When Kashif first met Monika, she got off her bike, strode up to him and said, silently and curiously,

“What keeps you so sad?”

Kashif had no idea. But to him, Monika looked like she did. And at the age of twenty-one, they both fell in love.

She told him to make his bed just like his mother did. She told him to eat properly and on time. She got worried when he drank too much and became depressed. She gave him medicines when he had fever. And sat next to him, wiping his forehead with wet cloth. She told him to shower regularly. She stood by him as he showered and told him to soap his back, which he always left unwashed before. She went with him to his favourite museums where he talked lengthily about some of the painters.

He sat with her all night when she felt sleepless and watched horror movies because she liked badly made horror movies. He got into cooking and made her delicious meals when she got back from class and was tired. He read her simple stories he liked and they both smiled at loving phrases before they went to sleep. He made her laugh. He taught her how to dance. And they danced, holding each other, on slow blues tunes about love.

Kashif met Monika at the beginning of January. As summer came to a start, they moved in to a small apartment together. Kashif became comfortable in love. He did not know that you are the most afraid in love when are the most comfortable.

Monika had a dog called Alyosha. Monika had lived with Alyosha since he was a puppy. He was a big fluffly kind of dog who was very loving and always wanted to sit in people's laps. Monika talked to him like an old lover as people often do with pets. She used odd endearing terms to address him like sweetiepie and darlingdoo and myhandsome. She sometimes had extended conversations with him about her day, telling him about her classes and what she wanted to cook and what movies she wanted to go see in the cinema. Alyosha always slept in the same bed as Monika and Kashif. Every time Monika talked to Alyosha at night before going to bed, Kashif became jealous.

One day in August, towards the end of the summer, Kashif started fighting with Monika when she began talking to Alyosha at night. He made incoherent arguments and went off on irrelevant tangents to hide his jealousy. Monika became angry because Kashif was making Alyosha sad. This made Kashif angry and he refused to sleep in the same bed. For a whole week, Kashif slept on the couch. Monika refused to talk to him unless absolutely necessary. They spent the week busying themselves in chores outside the house and only returned after dinner. They both tried flirting with other people. Finally, on the eighth day Kashif left the couch in the middle of the night and lied down next to Monika and Alyosha. She woke up and asked:

“Are you not angry at me?”

“I love you. I wish somebody could tell you how much I love you.”

And with that, it was settled.

Monika was a woman like spring. But also like fall. And winter and summer and autumn and all the seasons you can think of. She was all seasons because all seasons were because of her. But then came a day when she had to leave to go to a big city because she got a job. She wanted to do this job and make money and live properly. Not like they were living, lost in dreams, without thoughts about tomorrows. Kashif could not leave. He hated big cities. They were no good for writing stories. She left, and Kashif wrote stories about her, regretting that he had not left with her. After reading a few of his stories, M became very afraid of Kashif. She thought that he only loved words and loved nothing else. She was afraid of becoming a story. They fought and never saw each other again. Monika, when parting, told him specifically: do not ever write about me. Maybe it was that this command still ringed in his ears that he was unable to finish The Last Novel. Maybe it was that fifteen years were not enough time to write about fear. And maybe it was just that he felt shelterless and abandoned and sought new homes and open destinies for himself in his stories when there was no such thing as a new home or an open destiny in the merciless confines of memory.

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People say that you get over love. You forget about it and it settles down. But all they mean is that such unsettling things can never settle down and so it is best to forget them. But old age and books brought all memories back to Kashif: clear as day, dark as night. The past is a grand old mansion, rooms and rooms and rooms: empty, full, renovated, desolate. And in each room, there hung a picture of Monika. Sometimes hidden, sometimes as big as all the walls and the ceiling and the floor. On the eve of a gray day in the countryside, when Rashid entered the house, he found his father dead on the floor of his bedroom, clutching a novel. He took this to be his last gesture towards his only love: books. What he did not know is that before dying, Kashif had tried to throw the novel against a wall, out of sheer frustration, in hopes that this throwing-against-the-wall will lessen his fear. Instead, precisely at that moment, a fatal stroke hit him. He died quickly, with the novel clutched in his hands. After his death, a few neighbors and his son gathered to bury him, and put on his plaque: Here lies a man who loved words. His son published his unfinished novel a few years after he died. He loved the plaque so much that he wrote the following inscription on The Last Novel: For the love of words. It was received tremendously well. Even critics, who had long since announced that his gift was finished, acclaimed the unfinished novel as genius. They wrote long obituaries and reviews about his ‘dedication’ and ‘vision’ and ‘voice’ and ‘reputation’.They wrote, after reading the inscription, of his love for words. How lovingly he cradled each one. How intensely he crafted them in his loneliness. He must have been lonely so as to dedicate himself to his words. Those at literary parties, especially young writers, became very impressed by his devotion to his art. They said: this is the way to write. One must love the words. If they only knew how scared he was of words. If they only knew that it was all for the love of a woman, and not for words at all.

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