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Psychoraag is Suhayl Saadi’s first novel and possibly the first ever novel of Scottish-Asian identity. It was short-listed for the James Tait Black award earlier this year, eventually losing out to Ronan Bennett’s Havoc, in its First Year. Psychoraag is the story of one night in the life of Zaf, a young Asian/Glaswegian (though ‘Glaswegian’ might actually come first) pirate radio DJ. And this isn’t an ordinary night, it being the last ever broadcast of ‘The Junnune Show’, Zaf’s midnightly marathon of music and monologue. The station will soon be taken off the air forever:
‘So. It’s deep summer, right, it’s hoat as a used tandoor and, thenight, it’s ma last night, it’s the buildin’s last night, it’s the radio station’s very last night. It’s twelve o’ clock a.m. or p.m. or both or neether. Is it rainin? Who knows? Not the weatherman. Ah am the weatherman. It’s midnight – the moon’s nearly full. Ma name is Zaf – that’s zed ay eff – and this is The Show of Madness. Junnune.’
…And for the next six hours we’re drawn deep into the world of this most unlikely, colourful narrator. In Zaf’s hands, the edges between reality and imagination rarely reveal themselves. Nothing is black and white except the skin of his two ex-girlfriends, Pakistani heroin-addict Zilla and white biker nurse Babs, who both figure prominently (and symbolically) in his thoughts. The only signposts of a recognisable ‘reality’ are the hourly time-division chapter headings (from ‘Midnight’ through to ‘Six a.m.’) and the regular alternation between song and talk and song and talk. This alternation gives us access to Zaf’s witty public image when he addresses ‘the listener’ between songs, while also revealing his darker private self, when the focus slips into Zaf’s interior monologue during the music. What’s more, a parallel narrative follows the history of Zaf’s parents, from their rose-tinted courtship in Pakistan to their epic journey to Britain in a battered Ford and their troubled life in Glasgow.
Psychoraag, then, is an unanchored novel, a novel about journeys through space and time. One such journey weaves its way through Zaf’s record collection. As it’s the last night, Zaf is indulging himself, meaning: no requests. Like his language, Zaf’s choice of music is a uniquely cross-cultural affair, from Lata Mangeshkar to The Beatles, and Asian Dub Foundation to Igor Stravinsky. (A helpful discography at the back of the book provides all the details, should you wish to pursue this eclectic assemblage.)
With all the music, drugs and demotic, some may question Saadi’s literary credibility: Is Psychoraag a landmark of contemporary British novel-writing, or is Saadi merely jumping on the ‘shocking-but-cool’ bandwagon set in motion by writers like Irvine Welsh or Chuck Palahniuk? It seems to me that Saadi actually manages to escape the pulp pigeonhole by delving deeper into the perennial problems of life than most of his contemporaries.
One such ‘problem’ is raised by the radio DJ-narrator technique of which Psychoraag is, to my mind, the first example. As a radio DJ, Zaf is in the peculiar position where he assumes that people are listening, but he can’t be sure. It’s an intriguing conundrum with bigger implications: the radio audience by extension becomes ‘the readership’ at large. This suggests the isolation of the narrator/author and the insurmountable divide between writer and reader, posing the crucial question: is anyone really listening?
On its publication last year, the ‘quality’ London papers were evidently choosing not to. They afforded it strikingly few column inches, given its status as the first Scottish-Asian novel; also given the recent acclaim lauded upon English-Asian authors such as Hanif Kureishi and Monica Ali. One of the few reviews it did receive was north of the border in the Sunday Herald, and was simplistically enthusiastic: “Midnight’s Children – meets – Trainspotting”.
Of course, the first Scottish-Asian novel was always going to be evaluated by its cross-cultural themes, but I would argue that Psychoraag surpasses its pre-destined market-niche. Saadi, like Rushdie, is a wonderfully erratic storyteller. Saadi, like Welsh, takes on tough subjects with uncompromising honesty and humour. But Saadi’s originality lies in his ability to take elements of both writers, the flair and the grit, and apply it to his own experience; in doing so he has forged his own literary voice.
Psychoraag is a powerful yet thoroughly enjoyable read that will stay with you long after the final page. Saadi has produced a work of great vibrancy and has offered a new fictional perspective on British life. It will be very interesting to see whether he can sustain this level of storytelling in his next book.