Up and away
Cities, milestones, history, and a restless soul form the core of Roopa Farooki's The Flying Man, a heartwarming, thrill-a-page-account about the immigrant and his inexplicable globetrotting, in the quest to find a place to call home
The miles and milieus that protagonist Maqil covers within the pages of The Flying Man read like the diary of an unabashed, adventurous traveller. Elated that the book is on the longlist of the Orange Prize for Fiction, its author Roopa Farooki engages in plainspeak about her father, the scale of her book and the universality of its content.
To what extent has The Flying Man’s protagonist been an inspired character, namely your father?
The protagonist, Maqil, who is the flying man of the title, was inspired by my father, a dilettante gambler who was something of a free spirit — he drifted from country to country, and never seemed to let the baggage of marriage, family or career tie him down. I last met my father in a railway café in Paris some ten years ago; I was there on business, and he was gambling in a coastal resort nearby. He told me that he was planning to write his autobiography, which he was going to call All Gamblers Great And Small, but he died in his hotel two weeks after our meeting, and never got a chance to write his story. And so I knew that I would write a story for him some day, although it has taken a while for me to feel ready to do it. I wanted to capture the spirit of how my father lived his life, but when I started writing, I quickly realised that Maqil as a character had to break free from the moorings of the real person who inspired his story, and be more despicable and cowardly, and more charming and brilliant. Because of this, I made no conscious effort to use my father’s voice for Maqil, and his own voice developed in my imagination. Strangely enough, by the end of the novel, I felt I knew Maqil far better than I could have ever known my father, as I had followed him from birth to death and created his most private thoughts.
Did you consciously decide on the dramatic scale and sweep of places and events when you began writing this novel?
Absolutely — it was a huge challenge to try and contain a whole life, from beginning to end, within a novel, to have a grand scale and the whole world as your canvas, and yet to keep the intimacy of quiet, personal moments. I decided the best way to approach this structurally, would be to tell the story in episodes defined by different countries and life events, such as Birth in Lahore, and Marriage in London, and by his different personas, so in Cairo he is a political journalist called Mehmet, and in Paris he is a gambling playboy called Michel. Doing this allowed me to travel around the world with my character, to cross generations with him, and yet still focus on the defining scenes and stages in his life.
Is Maqil’s rootlessness symbolic of our escapist mindset — as we constantly run away from reality, in search of our dreams; where do we balance out reality from fantasy?
Even though a specific man inspired Maqil, I wanted his story to have a universal appeal — he is a man in search of himself, constantly seeking a better life than the one he has chosen; this is something, which many readers can empathise with. Most of us dream of a better or different life, we might even imagine a flying escape from our dull routines, but are constrained by our sense of duty, morality and responsibility to others; but Maqil’s life isn’t tempered by everyday realities, and he sacrifices everything else in order to be free. That said, although his actions are extreme, I didn’t intend for him to be a symbol, but simply a damaged man, who is unable to allow him to be redeemed by love and family, and therefore unable to find a place he can call home.
As a representative of the dynamic Asian literary Diaspora, how do you believe this book will appeal to the average non-Asian?
It has always been a deliberate decision to use Asian immigrants as my protagonists — which has surprised some people, as I don’t necessarily need to use Asian characters for the plots to work. I think that it’s important that I do this, as I’d like my children to grow up and recognise British-Asian characters like themselves in literary fiction.