In his dotage, Henry Kissinger has come to resemble Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. After his five decades of insidious influence on US foreign policy, his face has crumpled into a ripple of wrinkles, but the eyes retain their wily luster. When he enters a room, he does so briskly, and his somber suits barely contain his contempt for those who repeat the accusations that have been gaining traction since the end of the Cold War—that during his tenure as secretary of state in the 1970s, Kissinger abetted, and sometimes incited, mass murder on three continents. The man’s dark aura is magnified by his raspy, Teutonic timbre, which habitually turns the scores of journalists sent to interview him into deferential scribes cowering at the pharaoh’s feet.
As was the case with Palpatine, Kissinger’s overconfidence may well turn out to be his weakness. Since 2001, judges in several countries have called for him to testify about his involvement in the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and activists have demanded his indictment for his role in some of the bloodiest chapters of Vietnamese history, to name only a few of the countries where he wreaked havoc. His travel schedule regularly inspires activists to protest his public appearances. For the moment, however, Kissinger remains a highly coveted pundit—passing judgment on the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern crises in some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers—and dinners are still held in his honor. Public anger, it seems, only invigorates Kissinger, and he is as unassailable now as when he haunted the White House with Tricky Dick.
James D’Costa, the protagonist in the title story of K. Anis Ahmed’s Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, is a man with an “unlikely name” from an “unlikely country,” an exiled Bangladeshi waiter working in one of New York’s fine-dining establishments, The Solstice. One evening, James’s life becomes even more unlikely when he is asked to tend to one of the restaurant’s most distinguished patrons, Henry Kissinger:
When I brought the check to Kissinger, he asked me, “So how is your unlikely country doing these days?”
“Quite well, sir,” I replied, trying to stay neutral.
“It can’t be doing that well if you are here, can it? How long have you been in America?”
“Just two years, sir.”
“I hope your country isn’t still a basket-case for the sake of those who are stuck there,” said Mr. Kissinger, as he wrote in a fat sum for the tip.
James’s unlikely exchange with Kissinger soon becomes a regular occurrence: “Kissinger came to The Solstice at least once a month; usually for dinner, and never failed to engage me in what he must have considered friendly banter.” What Ahmed’s fictional Kissinger doesn’t take into account is that his waiter is better informed than he thinks:
Like all educated Bangladeshis, I held Kissinger culpable to some degree for the genocide that occurred in my country in 1971. I knew that he did not order it, but I also knew that he did nothing to discourage his Pakistani clients, though he wielded enormous influence on them. These were issues I had gladly left behind. Yet, suddenly now the issue was palpably before me, demanding to be fed and humoured.
The conflict’s roots go back to March 1971, when the Pakistani Army, led by President Yahya Khan, a dissolute dictator, launched Operation Searchlight and invaded the province of East Pakistan. Long neglected by the Punjabi in Islamabad, the Bengalis had awarded the nationalist Awami League a plurality of seats in the country’s first free elections, in December 1970. Refusing to accept the outcome—or rather, unwilling to grant Bengalis their basic civil rights—President Khan dispatched the Pakistani Army to suppress the growing civil unrest. In the meanwhile, bogged down in Vietnam and seeking to open China to the West, partly in order to exacerbate the Sino-Soviet conflict, Nixon and Kissinger blithely gave Khan free rein while he systematically slaughtered masses of Bengalis. As Kissinger believed, this had been supposedly necessary to keep using Pakistan, a long-standing ally of Beijing, as a diplomatic back channel. Yet as Christopher Hitchens noted in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, “It cannot possibly be argued…that the saving of Kissinger’s private correspondence with China was worth the deliberate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Bengali civilians. And—which is worse still—later and fuller disclosures now allow us to doubt that this was indeed the whole motive.”
James, like Kissinger, knows all of this. His feelings are further complicated by his having witnessed at the age of 9 his father, the “pastor of a small church on the outskirts of Dhaka,” being gunned down in front of his family during Operation Searchlight. Over the course of the following eight pages, we are powerfully made to feel the indignation of such jocular indifference in the face of human misery, and look on as James goes from fantasizing about stabbing Kissinger in the neck with a steak knife to “toy[ing] with the idea of insults,” before he eventually realizes that it would do nothing to expose Kissinger for the criminal he is:
Of course, even the slightest of actions entertained in my fantasies would cost me my job, if not land me in jail. For all my pride, I found that that was deterrent enough. I didn’t understand why life’s restraints worked so well on people like me, but not on the likes of Kissinger. Why can some people literally get away with murder, becoming ministers or dining on Pemaquid Oysters, while we can only stew in impotent rage?
As the story draws to a close, James finds closure by volunteering to tutor Bangladeshi children, reconnecting with his roots and simultaneously avoiding the urge to obsess over Kissinger. Nevertheless,
Kissinger’s provocations did not abate. I see you have once again topped the list for corruption. What is it with your people? Don’t you really think it might do better as a province of India? The man’s capacity for offense was endless. But his comments could not touch me anymore. Indeed, when he came to The Solstice soon after the Bangladeshi Independence Day, I reminded him of the fact, knowing full well he might use it as an opening. “Not much to show for thirty some years, except billions in aid and debt.”
“So it would seem from afar, Mr. Kissinger. But not up close,” I contradicted, taking a chance. At any rate, the man’s predictability amused me.
* * *
While the former secretary of state may be fairly predictable, the nine stories on display in Good Night, Mr. Kissinger are anything but. Ahmed is one of the rising stars of Bangladeshi fiction, and the scope of this book, his first, is ambitious. The stories are set between 1970 and the present day, and his chief subject is the city of Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, now home to approximately 15 million people. “Chameli,” the first story in the collection, is set in the autumn of 1970, when Dhaka was still a quiet provincial town of roughly 1 million people. Its plot is ostensibly simple: 12-year-old Galib likes soccer, dislikes homework, and has fallen head over heels for the girl who’s just moved into the blue house at the end of his street. Too shy to approach the object of his infatuation, Galib enlists “the purblind gardener” hired by the girl’s family. With his help, Galib finds out that “the girl had no mother, that they were Punjabis, and that her name was Chameli. An unusual name for a Punjabi, he thought, but he did not really think of her as a Punjabi at that time.” After a few weeks of puppy love, Galib is summoned to the dining room by his father. Although his father initially beats around the bush, Galib isn’t fooled:
As his father groped for a new opener, suddenly Galib realized with the electric intuition of a hunted animal what this meeting was about. He felt his limbs go numb, and he was sure he swayed. Or the room swayed, as his father’s face grew larger and unrecognisable, mouthing the incantation of ancient priests before a ritual sacrifice. He heard the word “Punjabi” and something about not seeing the girl across the street at “a time like this.”
A week later, and after a brief, last encounter with Chameli, Galib is awakened in the middle of the night, “like the rest of the city, by the sound of rolling tanks and booming mortars.” Yahya Khan’s soldiers had arrived. Galib’s family immediately flees to the countryside, returning to Dhaka nine months later, once the war is over, only for Galib to discover that “the little blue house across the street was empty.”
Although Ahmed’s prose is elegantly stringent, his words pulse with an intensely lived experience. His father, an officer in the Pakistani army, spent two years as a POW during the Liberation War, while an uncle disappeared. This might explain why the first third of the collection is a semi-idyllic, sepia snapshot of Dhaka in the 1970s and 1980s, a time marked by dreamy childhoods, adolescent loves, and a complicated public world that the characters will only fully understand when they enter adulthood.
However, throughout the first third of the collection, the stories begin as though the protagonists had just stirred from a fairy tale. In “Losing Ayesha,” the narrator recalls his younger self falling in love with Ayesha, who has just returned to Bangladesh with her family after a stint in England. Her “foreignness” is immediately obvious: “I saw Ayesha, in red track pants, on the road with a bicycle. Girls our age didn’t ride bikes often…. She shared greater surface resemblance with…rich kids who lived in Gulshan or Banani and went to English medium schools. She dressed like them, and at other times like trampy Londoners, in tight black jeans and with black eyeliner. The first winter after we’d met, she dyed streaks of purple into her hair and nearly got herself expelled from school.”
Despite his affection for Ayesha, the narrator chafes against the “dreary smallness of Dhaka” and finds refuge in literature and philosophy, in particular Nietzsche, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be a little too moody for the tempestuous Ayesha, who is anyway set on completing her education in London, thus threatening to bring their affair to a hurried close. A tragedy in Ayesha’s family eventually precipitates the curtailing of their relationship, and she fades into a memory. The plot may be straightforward, but Ahmed displays a great deal of mastery when it comes to timing and setting—crucial ingredients when writing about love, ambition and family politics—and yet still allows Dhaka’s chaotic growth to seep through.
Early on in “Losing Ayesha,” the narrator says:
Even as Dhaka expanded, many lives were getting smaller. The prospect of becoming trapped in one of those small lives filled me with terror. Surely, there had to be another world, another kind of life, one that would be full of amplitude, even elegance! A determination to find that world took root within me like an irritating pebble that can’t be dislodged from inside a shoe.
This miniature of Dhaka’s metamorphosis introduces the reader to the gloomier landscape of the final six stories of Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. In “The Happiest Day of His Life,” about a man who receives a stack of letters from an old friend who has just committed suicide, the narrator is “the General Manager of Marketing and Sales for Cailler, a newly arrived multi-national.” The lethargic little town is now a global destination for call centers and garment factories, often eliciting the kind of media attention that’s done little to blunt the country’s image as a “basket-case.” To further emphasize these transformations, Ahmed cleverly enlists the aid of Bengali expats who are reintroduced to a wholly different Dhaka on their return. In “The Year of Return,” Andalib, who has spent years living and working in Canada and the United States, is back on his home turf and bewildered by what he sees:
There was nothing here at first: a four hundred-year-old mosque and paddy fields. Then my grandfather arrived after the Partition in his Jeep, with a double-barrel shotgun. The area was so pristine back then, you had to arrange your own protection. One by one came the others. The neighbourhood filled up with lovely one- or two-story houses with wide verandahs, coconut trees, and Krishnachuras lining the boundaries. Today most of the old houses are gone. Now and then, one spots a relic, abandoned by the original settlers of Dhanmondi, wedged between the towering new apartment blocks with their shiny steel and glass façades and ridiculous names—Millennium Housing, Phoenix Towers, Greenview Apartments. What green view? All the beautiful trees have been cut.
Over sixty years of history condensed into 120 words: an impressive feat. While each story can be read independently, the collection is best savored as a sequence. The stories are tragedies, but not in the conventional sense. Ahmed’s characters exhibit a distaste for the saccharine and the melodramatic, and while perhaps not wildly cheerful, they’re quietly optimistic. Some readers have noted the influence of J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul, but Ahmed’s character sketches more closely remind me of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories and even Joyce’s Dubliners. To borrow from James Baldwin, it is precisely books such as Good Night, Mr. Kissinger that help expose the lie of the West’s pretended humanism—embodied, predictably, by Henry Kissinger. Thanks to Ahmed’s patient weaving of what is quite a complex tapestry, readers will be able to distinguish the humanity of Dhaka’s inhabitants from the headlines.