The truth behind fiction

June 12, 2022

Haroon K Akhtar’s second novel raises pertinent points about the role of power in our polity

The truth behind fiction


f conventional wisdom is anything to go by, satire is the only recourse in the age of aggressive censorship. At a time when facts are either discredited or suppressed, the unvarnished truth must be disguised in fiction.

Haroon Khalid Akhtar’s The Liar’s Truth is a strong testament to this belief. By drawing on a rich repertoire of fictional circumstances, the much-awaited second novel by the award-winning author of Melody of A Tear sails through the country’s political minefields. Akhtar’s second work of fiction unearths captivating insights about political wranglings and the leadership deficit that has assailed Pakistan.

Steered with an original premise, The Liar’s Truth promises readers a compelling tale that deviates from the stereotypical narratives churned out by South Asian writers. The novel dares to be different in that it experiments with the genre by weaving magic realism into a deceptively straightforward story about the rise and fall of a political leader.

Arsalan, who is billed as a passionate storyteller, is ‘selected’ to become the prime minister after he hears the voice of the Greek god, Zeus. The chosen premier is plucked out of his mundane existence as a banker and catapulted into the political arena. His team includes a disparate group of misfits: a pimp, a model, a club singer, a scientist, an ambulance driver and a matchmaker.

Any government that lacks experience and insight is destined to crumble. Arsalan’s sincere yet feeble political setup also encounters a similar fate – a fact that is established from the outset. The story of Arsalan’s maiden stint in power begins at the end when he has been sent to the gallows after being ousted. Even so, he is fuelled by the desire to “go down fighting by securing the truth” and penning his memoirs. Written in the first-person narrative perspective, The Liar’s Truth takes on the shape of a beleaguered leader’s memoir. As a result, the language employed throughout the text carries the grandiosity of political rhetoric that is tailored to inspire and dupe the layperson. At times, readers may find that they are navigating through the mind of a delusional, dysfunctional protagonist who has only a tenuous grip on reality. The novel that has been described in a blurb as a “flowing river” is often obstructed by the narrator’s unwillingness to reveal more than what is necessary. What Arsalan chooses to elide is as important as what he discloses to the readers. These are clever techniques used by the author to reveal the flexible nature of the truth as well as the ways in which narratives can be distorted to create alternative versions of reality. The complex relationship between the possible and the surreal is seeded into the text and acts as the compass that directs readers toward the story’s unpredictable end.

Akhtar’s new novel ought to be commended for plunging neck-deep into the intricacies of Pakistani politics and offering a searing exploration of its bittersweet – if not entirely bleak – landscape. In a novel that spans around 190 pages, the author subtly dissects the phases involved in a leader’s meteoric rise and brisk decline in our country’s political milieu. Zeus becomes a metaphor for the all-pervasive powers that be who are the country’s veritable kingmakers. Though such insights are considered to be public knowledge, it is difficult to cleverly present them in fiction without attracting unwanted controversy. Akhtar’s Zeus is a powerful device that reflects the internal workings of Pakistan’s power circles and serves as a reminder of the constraints of democracy in our political climate.

The influence of Akhtar’s father, the writer Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, remains fairly potent in The Liar’s Truth. In his foreword, author Mustansar Hussain Tarar also observes that the novel bears the “unparalleled wit and subtle humour” typical of the senior Akhtar’s work. The humour isn’t of the rib-tickling variety but provides a few light moments when it unexpectedly creeps into the narrative. “It was now clear,” the author writes, “that even things like the call of nature were to be kept secret at least in the first few days [in power]. The god damned place was too complicated to be trifled with for body urges”.

An energetic and intriguing second novel, The Liar’s Truth raises pertinent points about the role of power in our depraved polity and how it can be exercised to serve competing interests.

Akhtar’s first novel Melody of a Tear dealt mostly with the realm of emotion and was a more intensely humane tale. His second offering is a less quiet performance insofar as it negotiates the quicksand of power politics rather than the exigencies of the heart. What stands out is the author’s willingness to experiment with genre and the pivotal ingredients of storytelling.

The Liar’s Truth

Author: Haroon Khalid Akhtar

Publisher: Liberty Publishing, 2022

Pages: 196

Price: Rs 1,095

The reviewer is a freelance   journalist and the author of   Typically Tanya

The truth behind fiction