In the film Iron Man there is a scene where Tony Stark, imprisoned by an Afghan warlord, asks his Afghan cell-mate, Yensen, how many languages he knows. Yensen replies by saying that in that place where Afghani, Russian, Urdu, Persian, Pushtu, etc are spoken, one has got to be a polyglot. I find such polyglots, more accurately polyglot scenes, very charming. It is for this reason that Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie interests me. Its protagonists, Hiroko Tanaka and her son Raza Konrad Ashraf are both polyglots – no, even more correctly, they have a special sensitivity for languages, learning them, many of them, quickly. Their mastery of languages decides the direction of the plot more than a couple of times in the novel. However, what leaves me with a sense of wanting is the fact that despite its multilingual setting, especially in its Delhi, Pakistan and Afghanistan episodes, its multilingual characters and multilingual plotlines, the novel is monolingual. I would have loved if the novel had made use of multilinguality, or at least had included reflections on the translation through which it is being narrated in English, it would have been exciting.
There are other beauties about this novel. Most importantly, its cosmopolitanism. Shamsie doesn’t restrict this cosmopolitanism to Manhattan or London, as do some of the other diasporic south Asian novelists, but in fact, finds it in Delhi, Nagasaki, and Karachi. Of course, it makes the characters also (not only social setting) multicultural – product of Japan, Germany, India and Pakistan.
Evocation of the places, especially in the episodes occurring in Nagasaki and Afghanistan, are not always satisfying, though the Dilli and Karachi scenes are better. It has a wide time frame, beginning in the early 20th century in war time Nagasaki, and ending around the time of post 9/11 war on Afghanistan. Thus it revisits several apocalyptic moments in history – bombing of Nagasaki, partition riots in south Asia, Indo-Pak nuclear tests, 9/11, war on Afghanistan.
Use of the perspective throughout the novel is very interesting, as there is that outsider’s view – the one who is a minority in each instance, the one who doesn’t melt into or not allowed to feel belongingness. This exilic perspective is very well handled by Kamila Shamsie as it nowhere gets maudlin, yet manages to maintain certain objectivity as it doesn’t have to mediate between binary oppositions. The use of this perspective undercuts rooted cultural chauvinism.
(image from cafeletrario.blogspot.com)
All in all, Shamsie tells the story very well. Very readable, colorful, action-filled and has that little foreignness that always makes a novel attractive.
Here is an excerpt:
Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.
Konrad cannot see the chimneys themselves from his home in Minamiyamate, but for months now his thoughts have frequently wandered to the factory where Hiroko Tanaka spends her days measuring the thickness of steel with micrometers, images of classrooms swooping into her thoughts the way memories of flight might enter the minds of broken-winged birds. That morning, though, as Konrad slides open the doors that form the front and back of his small wooden caretaker’s house and looks in the direction of the smoke he makes no attempt to imagine the scene unfolding wearily on the factory floor. Hiroko has a day off – a holiday, her supervisor called it, though everyone in the factory knows there is no steel left to measure. And still so many people in Nagasaki continue to think Japan will win the war. Konrad imagines conscripts sent out at night to net the clouds and release them in the morning through factory chimneys to create the illusion of industry.
He steps on to the back porch of the house. Green and brown leaves are scattered across the grass of the large property, as though the area is a battlefield in which the soldiers of warring armies have lain down, caring for nothing in death but proximity. He looks up the slope towards Azalea Manor; in the weeks since the Kagawas departed, taking their household staff with them, everything has started to look run-down. One of the window shutters is partly ajar; when the wind picks up it takes to banging against the sill. He should secure the shutter, he knows, but it comforts him to have some sound of activity issuing from the house.
Azalea Manor. In ’38 when he stepped for the first time through its sliding doors into a grand room of marble floor and Venetian fireplace it was the photographs along the wall that had captured his attention rather than the mad mixture of Japanese and European architectural styles: all taken in the grounds of Azalea Manor while some party was in progress, Europeans and Japanese mixing uncomplicatedly. He had believed the promise of the photographs and felt unaccustomedly grateful to his English brother-in-law James Burton who had told him weeks earlier that he was no longer welcome at the Burton home in Delhi with the words, ‘There’s a property in Nagasaki. Belonged to George – an eccentric bachelor uncle of mine who died there a few months ago. Some Jap keeps sending me telegrams asking what’s to be done with it. Why don’t you live there for a while? As long as you like.’ Konrad knew nothing about Nagasaki – except, to its credit, that it was not Europe and it was not where James and Ilse lived – and when he sailed into the harbour of the purple-roofed city laid out like an amphitheatre he felt he was entering a world of enchantment. Seven years later much of the enchantment remains – the glassy loveliness of frost flowers in winter, seas of blue azaleas in summer, the graceful elegance of the Euro-Japanese buildings along the seafront – but war fractures every view. Or closes off the view completely. Those who go walking in the hills have been warned against looking down towards the shipyard where the battleship Musashi is being built under such strict secrecy that heavy curtains have been constructed to block its view from all passers-by.
Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best describe how war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it. Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.