The Wall Street Journal Asia
Novelist Kamila Shamsie maps extremism from Kyoto to Karachi.
By Kamila Shamsie
(Picador, 384 pages, $14)
By SADANAND DHUME
Perhaps the sole salutary consequence of the turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been the rise to international prominence of a clutch of gifted young Pakistani writers in English. The lone female in this somewhat unlikely tribe — which includes Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin — is 36-year-old Kamila Shamsie, a native of Karachi who, like much of the subcontinent’s intellectual diaspora, makes her home in London.
In “Burnt Shadows,” her fifth novel, Ms. Shamsie stitches together a sweeping saga that begins with a young Japanese woman in wartime Nagasaki and ends, more than half a century later, with a Pakistani prisoner about to be shipped to Guantanamo Bay. The tale unfolds through the lives of two unusually multinational (and multilingual) families: the Weiss-Burtons (German, British and American) and the Ashraf-Tanakas (Indian/Pakistani and Japanese). Not counting minor detours, their triumphs and tragedies span five countries and, without giving too much away, at least three world-changing historical events.
On the face of it, collapsing so broad a canvas in a relatively slender novel is a recipe for chaos worthy of a subcontinental urban planner. But in Ms. Shamsie’s self-assured hands this does not come to pass. The story line remains taut, the characters vividly etched. Even the implausible romance at the heart of the novel — between Hiroko Tanaka, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and Sajjad Ashraf, a young aesthete forced to emigrate from Delhi to Karachi in the wake of the 1947 partition of British India — is somehow rendered believable.
Ms. Shamsie is at her best, however, as a cartographer of culture. She notes, for instance, that in Indo-Muslim society the emotional terrain of mourning is often communal rather than personal; Urdu contains no phrase for leaving a person alone with his grief. The siren call of modernity — with its implicit privileging of the nuclear family over the extended clan — can be deeply disturbing. As the matriarch of the undivided Ashraf family in pre-partition Delhi declares archly, “maa-dern” is a word “created only to cut you off from your people and your past.” Sajjad’s failure to try sushi after 35 years with Hiroko tells you all you need to know about the persistence of inherited attitudes that span everything from the loyalty of taste buds to the mental geography of marriage.
The same careful accretion of detail illustrates the story of Pakistan’s slide toward fundamentalism in the early 1980s under the pious dispensation of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq. The personal consequences of political events show up in Hiroko’s 16-year-old son telling her to cover her legs in order to be “more Pakistani,” in the lengthening of kameez sleeves on a Karachi beach, in the sense of entitlement of bearded youth who scour bookstores for covers that dare depict women, in the absurdity of needing to pass “Islamic studies” in order to enroll as an undergraduate in law. In a similar vein, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas some 20 years later is foreshadowed by the cultural obtuseness that tends to accompany orthodox piety. For a would-be Afghan mujahideen whose truck sports a painting of a dead Soviet soldier spouting blood, the ancient statuary is merely “the work of infidels.”
In the end, for all its insights into the cultural and familial, this is above all a political novel. The choice of a Japanese protagonist allows the author to question much of the received wisdom of what used to be called the War on Terror. As a young teacher in Nagasaki, Hiroko has known adolescent boys as eager to embrace the cult of martyrdom as any young mujahideen. In Gen. Zia’s concerted effort to drag Islam out of the home and into the public square, she sees the echo of Japanese emperor worship. The implication of these observations, of course, is that criticism of Islam is unwarranted. Not that long ago it was followers of Shintoism who were turning aircraft into missiles while dreaming of immortality.
Ms. Shamsie is too subtle to stoop to pamphleteering, but Hiroko also gives her a convenient moral cudgel to use against America. In its willingness to nuke Nagasaki, and in the military response to 9/11, she detects a self-centered core: what matters to Americans, above all, is the sanctity of American lives. Everyone else — the Japanese school teacher, the Afghan farmer — is ultimately dispensable.
Some readers will detect a hint of warmed over Third Worldism in these arguments — with a dash of old-fashioned grievance mongering thrown in for good measure. All in all, though, they barely detract from a cleverly constructed and powerfully imagined novel. Ultimately, as with any work of the imagination, the color of the politics matters much less than the quality of the prose.
Mr. Dhume is a Washington-based writer and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).