THE OBSERVANT, Ravi Mangla’s second novel, reviewed by Shannon Nakai

In his second novel, The Observant, Ravi Mangla takes us into the trappings—both literally and figuratively—of a world fueled by luxury and power, but stripped of real agency. While filming in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, moderately reputed documentary filmmaker Vasant Rai is kidnapped and held captive in a stark prison on erroneous, underexplained charges of consorting with state terrorists. Banking (in vain) on his American status to save him, Rai is instead transported to the luxurious palace of the country’s president, Mohadessi, who is serving a self-appointed lifelong term. Still a captive, though a comfortable one, Rai is commissioned to make a movie celebrating Mohadessi. Despite this project being born of coercion, its subject whom Rai finds despicable, he nonetheless is compelled by artistic instincts to execute a good film. At one point Rai recalls a hero auteur of his, Robert Bresson, who taught him “you could make a thriller without actual thrills … the slow unspooling of truths, each scene stretched to its breaking point. There was no great revelation or moment of release,” qualities of authenticity that he himself admires and covets. Similarly, Mangla offers us a thriller without actual thrills, save for brief or peripheral intensity and violence. The majority of his novel is orchestrated with scenes methodically poised in acute observation, filled with conversations that demand introspection. Characters reflect on agency, childhood memories, moral responsibilities (both as artists and as humans). Mangla invites us into extravagant rooms; swimming pools; private jets; giant home libraries; and sumptuous meals that serve as a gathering place for captive and captor (neither of whom are truly free), the west and the non-west, where ideologies collide over goat cheese, apricot jam, roasted lamb, and Belgian fries. The scenes are unsettling, even eerie, in how normal they appear in excess comfort. As Mohadessi’s wife, Zahra, wrly observes, being surrounded by opulence doesn’t necessitate one possessing anything—a truth Rai comes to understand beyond his literal captivity.

This very premise demands us to recognize a similar stripping of agency despite limitless affluence. What, in our constant pursuit of happiness, makes us truly free? Boundless luxury, entertainment, prestige, and power—no character in possession or pursuit of these enjoy any sort of peace or fulfillment. Mohadessi’s world is hyperbolically lavish; in a desert scene he pitches a tent the size of Rai’s Brooklyn apartment and enters a perfunctory bidding war for falcons, the top prize which is sold for ninety thousand dollars. He owns a private theater which inevitably becomes Rai’s safe haven (an appropriate choice, given the escapism the medium serves its consumers). Cooks serve breakfast on trays to Rai, who also bathes in rooms with copper tubs, Italian marble, and crystal chandeliers (luxuries bought at the price of human suffering, Rai is quick to note).

Living a dream life with a generously funded commission, the fact that Rai does not have the option to leave or even refuse the project implicates the false glamour. Mangla’s novel is rife with references to illusions, from banter about Bruce Willis’ real height to the masked falcons granted a leash’s length of freedom. Even the most fundamental places to locate security and stability are elusive when held up to full scrunity, as Zahra ruefully observes, “Home, for most of us, is a security only known in childhood. After that, there are merely places where you rest your head for the night.” Everything, including Mohadessi’s house of cards he has constructed for himself and his presidency, is precarious. The man is constantly surrounded by walls of bodyguards. He hopes to win the public favor with Rai’s movie, despite unbroadcast riots and rising death tolls. His scenes are devoid of friends or intimacy with his wife. In one of several conversations Rai has with Zahra, she notes:

“Here we have little control over our circumstances. Where you come from there is at least the illusion of choice.”

“It’s possible the illusion is better than the real thing. What, after all, is more oppressive than choice?”

“If I find out one day, I will let you know.”

Herein lies the parallel Mangla wields between the two worlds. Zahra and Rai embody the forced limitations in the context of wealth and supposed freedom. His failed marriage afforded neither partner happiness as the confinements and demands of their lives and careers ultimately divided them. Her arranged marriage is farcical, a performance of adoration in public and a sour distance in reality. When Mohadessi remarks to Rai that she is no longer the woman he had married, Rai asks him if he really knows the woman he married.

Perhaps the strongest indictments Mangla’s characters issue here stem from the Mohadessi couple. During a filmed interview, the tyrannical president’s incisive critique recalls America’s response to and involvement in the conflict in Iraq:

“Morality is in the eye of the beholder. You should understand this better than most, Mr. Rai. I do what is right for my country. Your leaders do what is right for yours. I am not naive to how I am perceived abroad. The conflict arises when your country seeks to exercise its dominion over us in the name of morality. That is superiority, not morality.”

Zahra echoes the sentiment: “All is fine. It was fine before you arrived here. It will be fine once you are gone.” Rai’s westernization, vocational pursuits, and aesthetic visions have not necessarily improved anything for himself or the people he captures with the camera. For Rai, “… the camera offered a way to mediate the world. It gave me a purpose when I had none. … Now the dynamic had shifted: I was the subject … My narrative was no longer my own.” As an American, Rai is forced to confront the effects of western democracy upon the non-western world, especially when the power exchange, including the narrative being depicted, is reversed. His assumption that his passport would grant him indisputable protection and privilege implicates the false consciousness of his first-world exclusivity. In a prison scene, he shares a cell with two other men, neither of whom are American and are thus unable to entertain the hope of imminent release or return to normal life: “‘Classic Yank,’ Aasim grinned. ‘You always think you can intervene in the affairs of others without consequences. But there are always consequences. In this country, only the very wealthy have impunity’.” Despite Rai’s present imprisonment, his cellmate’s criticism is clear: his actions will accrue more collateral damage for others than himself. In a memory, after Rai’s sloppy attempt to “rescue” a black colleague from a ticketing police officer instead exacerbated the affair, Rai was instead upbraided: “The next time you want to play Superman, go to a comic book convention.” In the film world and the real world, Rai begins to recognize that his eagerness and efforts are futile: he desires authenticity, but he represents subjects he does not fully understand. He wants to create, to love, to rescue, to champion, but it is only when he considers an inward instead of outward exploration that he has the creative means and freedom to execute change.

The Observant, by Ravi Mangla. Brooklyn, New York: Spuyten Duyvil, May 2022. 152 pages. $18.00, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.

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