Book Reviews

Algebra of Love

After Orhan Pamuk, another great storyteller from Turkey, Elif Shafak, is emerging onto the scene of contemporary world literature. She is as yet less distinguished than Pamuk, but she possesses an unmatched narrative prowess which places her in the ranks of world-class novelists. Turkey's bestselling female writer, Elif Shafak has authored 13 books, nine of which are novels. Her books have been published in more than forty countries, and she has been honoured with the distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2010.  

               Review Published in The Daily Star
The Forty Rules of Love Elif Şhafak Penguin Books, Price: Tk 800 ISBN: 978-0141047188

Elif's latest novel, The Forty Rules of Love, is not a love story or romance as the title might suggest, but a charming mix of occidental cultural ethos and Sufi philosophy, free from the constraints of genres. There are two interwoven tales. In one story, the protagonist Ella Rubinstein, an anguished housewife and a troubled mother, tries to find solace in her work of proofreading as a literary agent. Her marriage is loveless and her husband a philanderer. Another misfortune befalls when her daughter goes away from her to get married with a boy Ella disliked.  

There is a novel, Sweet Blasphemy by Aziz Z Zahara, inside the novel that relates the story of Maulana Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Having read the opening pages of the novel which is given to Ella to read and report on, she is captivated by the magic of its prose and is curious to know who the author is; she locates Aziz's blog and sets off the correspondence with the author that burgeons into a intense love affair. Aziz has been living a nomadic life with a deep love for photography for which he roves country to country and finally visits Ella in Boston. She remains catatonically frozen when Aziz indifferently lets her know that he has malignant melanoma, a fatal form of skin cancer and death will be laying its icy hands upon him within next two months. Though he unflinchingly speaks on and says that he's enough time to visit a few more countries to savour the remaining moments of his life.

The dramatic encounter of Shams of Tabriz and Maulana Rumi in Konyo, and their inseparable companionship and spiritual journey to seek the oneness of God and the supremacy of love transform Ella's life. During the span of forty days, Shams of Tabriz exposes the 'Forty Rules of Love' to Rumi, which Ella reads in 'Sweet Blasphemy' and gets her life completely changed.
Sufi Philosophy, Magic Realism and Western Cultural ethics have been deftly woven into a unique story that showcases subtle observations about our life. The forty rules of love dotted throughout the text unfold the Shams' philosophy of love that not only penetrates the heart of Maulana Rumi of 13th century, but it also sows the seeds of unconditional love into the heart of a Western woman of modern time. The gist of the entire narration can be squeezed into a Latin phrase, “Amor Vincit Omnia” meaning 'love conquers all' on which the whole story seems to be plotted.

The best aspect of this novel is its story-telling. It doesn't have the flaws of superfluous vocabulary. The narration flows smoothly. Undoubtedly, Elif knows how to give motion to the story oscillating from one end to other, from Rumi's world of Sufism to Ella' life in modern era, from 13th century to 21st century without disturbing the pace of novel. Forty Rules of Love is in five parts and forty chapters each with a rule of love defined by Shams, each chapter is in some way about its rule. One of the interesting features of the novel is each chapter begins with the word, B because “Sufi mystics say the secret of the Qur'an lies in the verse Al-Fatiha, And the secret of Al-Fatiha lies in Bismillahir rahmani rrahim And the quintessence of Bismillah is the letter ba”.
The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti (Garnet Publishing (2012) P.308 )
                                                                                        Published in The Rising Kashmir

The preconceived notion that the greatest creations in world literature have almost been achieved in the grim periods of time comes true with Michelle Cohen’s debut, The Almond Tree. Michelle, although is a lesser known novelist unlike other Jewish authors of enormous fame, Imre Kertész or Amos Oz but her literary explorations and rich narration can be feasibly equated to such canons of literature. She was born into a Jewish family in Utica, New York, that time on the other side of world in Germany where the Jews fell prey to Hitler’s formidable belligerence and the then Jewish identity was a sort of taboo. She asserts in a conversation,” Because of the Holocaust, my parents and other Jewish families boycotted German products”. She grew up at home with the post-Holocaust vicissitudes occurring to her country and then moved to Jerusalem to study at Hebrew University. She also holds the degree of MA from Harvard University in Middle Eastern studies.

The fact that family is a miniature of nation sounds apposite here as in the novel the portraiture of family of Ahmad, the protagonist is delineated. The theme that dominates the entire book is Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be looked through Ahmad’s family. He is a prodigious child possessing an amazing intelligence which paves his way to his further studies at Hebrew University. Having undergone countless hellish ordeals in his life, how his life shifts from the vulnerable home of tents to the opulent and comforting dormitory in the university is noticeable; the story of the novel is based on the thread of this transition.  

The tale begins to walk with a ghastly incident; Ahmad’s younger sister when frolicking around the garden comes to, which Ahmad calls,’ devils’  land’ rooted with mines and out of the blue she blows up with a fierce explosion.  The ensuing images of the incident are as following with Ahmad’s words,” I could see her arm. It was her arm, but her body wasn’t attached to it anymore. Amal was torn up like her doll after watchdog ripped it apart”. Seeing the innocuous kid killed before their eyes, he as well as his brother catatonically remains in a stupor while her mother plaintively screams. The next odd experience comes across to Ahmad when he finds his parents wrangling on where to bury the mortals of his sister.”They fought because Mama wanted to bury Amal on our land so she could stay close to us and not be afraid, but Baba said no, that they’d come and take our land and then we’d either have to dig her up or leave her with them” Thus a conjecture can be made here that the root cause of clash between Palestine and Israel does not lie In the conflicts of religion, of culture or of ethnic disparity but It’s the conflict of land. Amos Oz, the Jewish author opines that ‘there is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jews. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestinian. They have a very strong to reason to want it The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reason’. Whatever their reasons are but it is obvious as Michelle strikingly unfolds that innumerable innocent voices are being brutally interred as of Amal. 

The story continues with the arresting of Ahmad’s father for a crime that he has not committed and his family became homeless after being driven out of home by a contingent of Military. Now he doesn’t scruple to accept that it is up to him now to protect his family and to become responsible for the livelihood. The deeper pain of ghetto’s life and of compelled diaspora is brimming in his heart but he soon leaves the sense of vulnerability to embark on the expedition of anguished life with great gusto. 

A new vantage point springs up when Ahmad gets into the Hebrew University in which he is the only Arab student who becomes the specs in the eyes of professors because of his identity. Professor Sharon scornfully despises him and always tries to affront him by asking complex mathematical questions although he fails in his intention. On the contrary, being excessively meek in his behaviors, Ahmad always trusts that ‘People hate out of fear and ignorance’. Once he gets engaged in a conversation with his professor to know the reasons of his bad blood against the Arabs and asks him why ‘Israeli has brought great suffering to my people’?. Subsequently Sharon bursts out recalling his own traumatic past of Auschwitz and lays a claim that Jews have been rather brutally persecuted ever by Nazis. He still carries those painful memories of Holocaust when his ‘little brother Avraham who was only six’ was gunned down by the Nazi soldiers and ‘the Nazis separated the men from women’.  One of the things that deepens this conflict is the fact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is essentially the conflict between two victims. Amos Oz calls them “two children of the same cruel parent and further encapsulates that ‘victims of the same oppressor, Europe which colonized the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground, is the same Europe which discriminated the Jews, persecuted them, harassed them and finally mass-murdered them in an unprecedented crime of genocide’.  Hearing the tales of each other’s agony, these ‘two children of the same oppressor- Ahmad and Sharon- develops a sense of mutual solidarity. Sharon has to concede that it is the land of/for the Arabs but he argues that sharing the food with the deprived is ‘the moral obligation of the man who possesses it’. 

Soon Ahmad, once who was a shabby child, embarks on his journey to America to join MIT with Professor Sharon and there he holds a position of post-doc researcher.   Now story takes another swerve here, Ahmad falls in love with Jewish girl, Nora who also happens to be his student. He restrains himself to go deep in love with her because both belong from the two different cults fighting since ages. He suspects that their marriage may trigger mayhem in his village and cause a tumult in the heart of his family. Even though, breaking the shackles of traditions, with the consent of his father, he marries the liberal Jewish girl who believes that ‘love transcends the barrier set up by humans’.  

Michelle’s craftsmanship of drawing characters is conspicuously dexterous; reading novel means looking at the world through the eyes, mind and soul of the novel’s character. For instance, take Ahmad’s fourfold roll in the novel; he is a loyal son to his parents, a dedicated brother to his siblings, a brilliant and obedient student and also a liberal bloke in the region of fanatics. The way he survives with his extraordinary intrinsic traits not only strokes the chords of heart but he teaches the lessons of morality and of ethics. Art is not then a diversion or a side- issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling if we meet them anywhere else. It is the magic of Michelle’s art that she puts various abstruse ideas and profound political issues in a lucid yet striking prose. 

Now let’s dissect the narration and construction of story of the Almond Tree; the positive excellence of a good plot depends upon the power of its peculiar synthesis of character, action and thought, as inferable from the sequence of words, to move our feeling powerfully and pleasurably in definite certain way. So deftly Michelle intertwines the plot with its characters and action that the novel achieves a unique sublimity and entangles the reader with the string of verisimilitude.  The language her characters speak is not that very dense and complicated but their parlance is too colloquial without any redundancies; Michelle has done no, what Chomsky calls, “exploitation of language” in the entire narrative, the things that should be said simply have been said simply. Nonetheless, as I presume that every word cannot be translated into an alien language, on being translated, it may lose its beauty and charm so I think, Michelle has left handful of words un-translated from Arabic. The Arabic pidgin interspersed on few of the pages may cause a discomfort to a non-Arabic reader but it highlights the cultural phenomena of the country. 

Precisely, I end it up here with Milan Kundera’s words that ‘the novel’s sole raison d'etre is to say what only novel can say’ and The Almond Tree evidently seems successful in its ‘raison d'etre’.      


Flight of The Flamingo by Sangeeta Mall(pg.312, Rs.295.00 published by Wasteland)


Sangeeta Mall, an Indian woman writer constructs her stories on the terrain of the life of modern Indian women, who are striving hard to lead a self-contained life in the patriarchal society. Despite being disappointed by the infidelity of their husband, these women struggle to reach out the crest of their success. Such is the story of Flight of The Flamingo in which the protagonist, Preeta Dhingra, an Editor working in Pradhan Publishing firm undergoes the unendurable upheavals in her life.  Attaining an unconquerable will, she never fails to do good in her profession as well as for her young daughter and sick mother. Sangeeta’s Flight of The Flamingo weaves a story of three women, Sonia Vaswani the corporate honcho, Rimpy the socialite, and Preeta, the editor who witness the same trauma but in different ways.

         The novel has a befitting title unfolding metaphorically the attitude and position of urban women.  Modern urban women are like the bird, flamingo; they are not shackled by social and patriarchal bonds instead they have the sense of freedom as a flamingo has. They fly high and high like the flamingo to reach out the sky of success. In spite of having the turbulence in their life, how dramatically such women lead their life and they prove this maxim true that if there's will there's way.

         Preeta, being divorced from her husband, at the age of 24 joins Pradhan Publishing firm owned by Ashish Pradhan who mercilessly exploits his editors just to make money. The book also unveils the truth about the rotten world of publishing where only those sorts of books are published that can make big amount of money. Ashish Pradhan encapsulates his concern while instructing to Preeta, “You’re not here to enhance to your aesthetic world. You’re here to publish the books that people will buy” The book limpidly mirrors  the publishing world and its drawbacks as well ; it (Flight of the Flamingo) reveals that cheap romance full of incest, rape and deceit is exceedingly published and extremely loved among readers and subsequently becomes the bestseller in the market. Rimpy writes such racy fiction that is a ‘cash cow’ for every publisher but Preeta, being an editor has always a grudge in publishing such books which is why she has always a resistance with her publisher, Ashish Pradhan. Sangeeta’s Flight of The Flamingo also unravels the different strands of publishing world, how an editor has to work; what an author wants from publisher; what a publisher wants and how the relations develop among publisher, author and editor, she has elegantly put every pros and cons of publishing world with subtle observation. 

        Preeta, Sonia and Rimpy are the epitome of urban women. All these women deceived by their husbands, come from different professions but all of them are powerful, well-known and yet different from each other. While editing the manuscript of Sonia’s book, Preeta deeply likes her poignant story about a woman betrayed by her husband. Preeta finds similarities between her life and Sonia’s story therefore she loves the book and has an intense urge to publish  it  But Ashish Pradhan resists publishing such sort of books that don’t make big amount of money. Sonia believes that ‘eighty percent of men cheat their wives in urban India; unfortunately she is one of those women. Rimpy Bajaj also stands in the same queue where Sonia and Preeta are. Rimpy is frustrated because of her husband’s relations with other women although she is recognized as a powerful woman in her profession.

        Sangeeta has deeply observed how the urban women live the conflicted life and how they are exploited ignominiously by men. Despite tolerating these odds in their life, they triumphantly overcome the troubles caused by their men. Preeta is a fine example of such women in the book, who not only earns money, but also she has a responsibility of her two year baby’s upbringing and she has to carefully attend to her mother who is diagnosed with cancer. How a woman can be so strong emotionally? How a woman can survive without the support of man? How a woman can do all familial duties efficiently? Preeta’s life is the answer of all these questions. Finally I would love to proclaim factually that Flight of The Flamingo is a book about Indian Women and for Indian Women. 


In A Free State by V.S.Naipaul (pg.181 UK£8.99 published by Picador)

“V.S. Naipaul was one of the first writers to describe the private lives of the ruthless, murderous non-Western ruling elites of the postcolonial era” says Orhan Pamuk

Terry Eagleton proclaims, “Reading fiction can derive you mad. In fact it is not fiction which leads to madness but forgetting the fictionality of fiction….A fiction which knows itself to be a fiction is perfectly sane “. Such is the booker prize winning novel, In A Free State by Nobel Laureate, V.S.Naipaul that will certainly lead its reader to forgetting the fictionality of fiction and will jostle the reader Into A Free State where the reader will meet ‘fields, fences, a dirt cross-road with a washed-out signpost; a scattered settlement with concrete and timber the color of wet adobe; trees and bush…wet rock shining below shredded overhangs of roots and earth”  Naipaul makes his readers deeply feel the real African-ness; the novel unravels the historical, geographical, social, political, and cultural conditions of Africa, the Africa that has been trampled under the foot of colonial  regime and witnessed the brutal sabotage of its culture.

      Naipaul is a towering figure among the pioneers of postcolonial writers and also is hailed as ‘the writer’s writer not because of using polysyllabic or unintelligible words but for his lucid prose and the way as he puts the complex ideas with lucidity of style in his writings. In A Free State is the concrete evidence of his literary eloquence. This is really no excess of praise but the most apt for him what J.M. Coetzee calls him  ” a master of modern English prose.”

      The title of the novel is apparently befitting; yes, the novel is about a socially and politically free state .The novel is set in Africa, in a place like Uganda or Rwanda that has recently won Independence though the chaos is still prevalent in the state and barbaric incidents take place intermittently. There have been two tribes in the country; one is adhere to the president who has recently taken hold of power and the other tribe is the votary of the king, who, liked by the Colonials, is weak and on the run. The conflicts between these two cults cause the endless tension between them that often engender violence and unrest in the country.

      Novel has two main characters, Babby, an official and Linda, his colleague’s wife who happens to be Bobby’s fellow traveler. Bobby is to attend a conference in the capital city. While heading back to his official residence, he bumps into Linda and offers her a lift. Both set out for their journey and jovially explore the wild beauty of Africa. They stop off in a hotel on the way to their destination; during their short time stay at the hotel, a surprising fact about Bobby springs up that he is homosexual when he makes an attempt to pick up the bar boy  Zulu. Subsequently he is spurned and rebuffed by the bar-boy. The largest segment of the story is narrated during the journey of the two and based on their conversations and attitudes about the Africans. The story comes to an end with the end of Bobby and Linda’s expedition when they arrive at their destination, the Compound where they inhabit.
      The focal point of the novel is the limpid description of ‘the private life of the ruthless, murderous non-Western elites’ in South Africa and the ever-lasting stains of their colonial rule.Here I would love to borrow few words from the novel to accentuate the aforementioned point- Bobby says,”…the old colonials hands are out to get every penny they can before they scuttle South. It makes me laugh. We lecture the Africans about corruption. But there’s a lot of anguish and talk about prejudice when they rumble our little rackets”   Slow and deep reading of the novel will certainly situate the reader into the wounded Africa and will make aware of adverse effects of colonization. Orhan Pamuk obverses in his non-fiction book, Other Colors, “V.S. Naipaul was one of the first writers to describe the private lives of the ruthless, murderous non-Western ruling elites of the postcolonial era” V.S. Naipaul, being himself a victim of brutalization of the colonizers, has deeply felt the pain and agony of being colonized so does he succinctly express his deeply felt pain in the book. 


Letters To Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (pg.128 Rs.135, Published by Yogi Impressions)

 This book of grandeur or more like solemn treatise is on the secluded life of a budding poet who corresponds to Rainer Maria Rilke, a name that doesn't need any introduction.There're the ten letters bounded in this gravitating book that unfolds the a few segments of Franz,young poet's life, who  joined the army school which Maria had also joined a few years ago.Rilke's teachings to this young poet seem to be the explorations of those hindrances that encounter on the way of creativity and also bring light to the matter that how to purge out those hindrance from the way. So wittily Rilkeremarks, "We must embrace the struggle.Every living thing confirms to it.Eveything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity , insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance".Such words are the great impetus that prompts a young man to live life in everything weather in struggle or in seclusion, because "there is much here beauty there is much beauty everywhere". 

                          Every line of the book is a sort of sermon teaching how to gracefully endure the life and to seek the light of creativity even into the dark abode of seclusion where the young poet often finds himself. What he utters in the fifth letter is "we are unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us".

It's indispensable book for the budding poets. 


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