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Burnt Shadows… a time

to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all

that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.

First impressions can be deceptive, but this one wasn’t. When I saw the end of my favourite poem by Agha Shahid Ali in Burnt Shadows, as the epigraph to Kamila Shamsie’s novel, I knew: this I was going to feel strongly about, but it would not be a happy read, inasmuch as anything can be solely happy.

Reviews I read have, almost all of them, described Burnt Shadows as “ambitious.” I would have to agree. It is ambitious, indeed. This is a novel that starts off in Nagasaki, on the day America drops the Bomb, with the young Hiroko Tanaka and her fiance, Konrad Weiss. It moves then, out of a cloud of ash, to Delhi, 1947, where Hiroko has come to meet her now-dead finace’s sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and James Burton, and meets also Jame’s protege, Sajjad Ashraf. With the next large leap in time, we are in Karachi, in the early 1980s, with Hiroko, Sajjad, and their son Raza, and the Burtons’ son Harry re-entering their lives. And then, suddenly, it’s a post 9/11 world, and Afghanistan and New York are the arenas of tragedy, as the novel swings back to explain its prologue, in which an unnamed character, at the beginning of an incarceration at what (it is hinted) is Guantanamo Bay, wonders, “How did it come to this…” In the novel is the answer.

This sounds like an epic, like a grand sweeping saga, but it firmly isn’t. Shamsie’s novel is deeply concerned with a sweep of understanding rather than with spectacle. Her ambition is in finding her way into the hearts and minds of characters across the historical expanse of the last 60 years and telling their deeply personal stories of how their cultural, linguistic, and geographical differences collide, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes not. This is a world in which such sympathy is possible, but sometimes based on misunderstanding and often tenuous, and when it breaks down, it breaks into sorrow.

Shamsie has a knack of picking on memorable and, indeed, haunting images–cranes on fabric burnt onto a woman’s back, a fish leaping in a silvery reflection seen from a bridge… the visuals do what her clear, but not particularly accomplished, writing can’t do–they bring in a certain poesy to the work. This doesn’t, unfortunately, last all the way through the novel, but is used more often with the older characters–Hiroko, Konrad, Sajjad. When we understand what a character sees, it somehow becomes easier to understand what they feel. The younger characters, our contemporaries, Raza and Kim Burton (Harry’s daughter) think and are written more literally. As the point of view in focus shifts to become theirs, the book itself loses some of its emotional weight, in odd contrast to the immediacy of the theme of terrorism, Afghanistan, and Islam and its discontents.

(Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead)

There is in these younger characters, Raza and Kim, a narrowness, an inability or refusal to think in broader terms and enter easily into the experience of others–something that is starkly in opposition to the importance of language in the book as a whole. Raza, the son of Hiroko who speaks four languages fluently, is another gifted linguist, whose skills are ultimately used by the CIA in its war for Afghanistan–and we see the shadow of Kipling’s Kim behind him, reminded of that by two lines in which Harry Burton thinks of that other boy with a gift of speaking in the tongues of the North-Western subcontinent. But it is Harry’s daughter who is named “Kim” and it is ultimately she who both fails miserably and unutterably in understanding someone vastly different from her–Abdullah the Afghan, who Raza knew as a boy–and yet manages to understand Raza at the end of the novel, bringing it to a conclusion that surprised me, though it was not a satisfying ending.

I thought I could see the point Shamsie was making about language–and yet it seemed that she was unable to show it as often as she spelled it out. There is much made of characters speaking different languages, of characters taking language lessons from each other, of characters actually avoiding certain languages–but it is, ironically, in the scene where Kim misunderstands not Abdullah’s words but rather his silence that the difficulty of speaking to each other really becomes clear. That’s when I realised that Shamsie’s point was, perhaps, that language alone, the symbols and their system, cannot help us communicate if we do not understand experiences alien to our own. Something that, without including any spoilers here, Raza does demonstrate, eventually.

It’s telling that I do have a lot to say about the themes of this book, even though it was far from pitch-perfect, because it does, ultimately resonate with a genuine desire to write the people who have been caught in the history of our times and it succeeds, up to a point, in making the reader aware of that impossibility of perfect communication that we must yet strive for. But its unevenness became a real problem towards the end, when so much happens so fast that it took me two readings to arrive at an understanding of why Raza does what he does. And then, there was a problem of probability–I can understand how Hiroko could come out of Nagasaki and be a witness to 9/11, but it was more difficult to see a character disappear into an Afghan mujahideen camp and yet emerge again, years later, apparently unscathed in many ways. What happens at the end of the novel is fitting, but not entirely believable in its symmetry with the past; Raza has a chance to make up for what he did to Abdullah by helping Abdullah himself, not just anybody who happens to cross his path.There are shades of melodrama here, in terms of the reunion of Raza and Abdullah, and I don’t think they are in the best of taste.

Considering what Abdullah goes through, I find him an incredibly underwritten character. He’s too good; he truly lacks the shades of grey that, for instance, Kim Burton and Harry and even Raza are all allowed by Shamsie. It’s actually hard to disagree with him. This is a good thing–I think it’s immensely valuable to be in a position of understanding how such a character must feel, though that might just be my leftist leanings talking–but it’s hard to believe that he’s quite as white as he’s painted. Especially when nobody else in the novel has that luxury–nobody.

This is where Shamsie really seems to oversimplify things and succumb to the pressures of writing Pakistan and Afghanistan in the times we live in, when international attention to them is at its highest and any text can end up being viewed as a sociological discussion. Under such circumstances, where one finds or doesn’t find one’s villains can become a point from which much can be extrapolated. I would be enormously surprised if I heard that Shamsie hadn’t been criticized in Pakistan for writing this novel in English, for the international audience, and for various perceived sins of omission or comission therein. And thenĀ  praised by other people in Pakistan for exactly those sins.

All of that being said, perhaps my favourite lines in the book are these, which made me chuckle aloud on a train journey from Bangalore to Bombay:

‘Do you think an Englishman will ever write a masterpiece in Urdu?’

‘No.’ James shook his head. ‘If there ever was a time we were interested in entering your world in that way, it’s long past. And you wouldn’t know what to do with us if we tried.’

It seemed to Sajjad that these were the kinds of things said so often that repetition made fact out of conjecture. He’d know what to do with an Urdu masterpiece written by an Englishman. He’d read it. Why pretend it was more complicated than that?

Touche, Kamila. Touche.

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