Sunday, March 01, 2009

Metal barriers and spider dances: Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Burnt Shadows begins with a short but intense description of one woman’s experience of the Nagasaki bomb. An uncertain calm hangs over the August morning and two young people – a Japanese girl named Hiroko and her German lover, Konrad – have just formalised their relationship when the world goes white and fire pours from the sky. When Hiroko regains consciousness, she is scarred in more ways than one: the only world she knew has been obliterated along with her fiancé – whose “shadow” she later imagines she sees on a rock near the blast’s epicenter – and her father, whom she envisions as a dying reptile crawling up a slope; and the three black cranes on the white kimono she was wearing at the time are permanently tattooed on her back.

Two years later, Hiroko has picked up the pieces of her life and moved to Delhi, where she stays with Konrad’s half-sister Elizabeth and her husband, forming a lasting friendship with the former and then an unlikely relationship with a young man named Sajjad Ashraf. But this is 1947, and millions of individual lives are being tossed about on the relentless tide of history; Sajjad has to leave India and move to the newly created country across the border, and Hiroko goes with him. When we next meet them more than three decades later they live in Karachi, but events in the world outside continue to exert a pull over their family, as their restless son Raza comes dangerously close to joining the Afghan mujahideen – the young warriors trained by the Americans to fight the Soviets.

Burnt Shadows is a multi-generational, multi-cultural story about the turbulence of a century where large groups of people have had to leave their homes and where events from the distant past cast a very long shadow over the present. Though Hiroko is the thread that runs through the book, the story isn’t filtered through any one person’s perspective: the omniscient narrator allows us access to the thoughts and feelings of many characters, sometimes moving from one to the other within a single passage. Apart from Sajjad, Elizabeth and Raza, they include Elizabeth’s son Harry Burton, who works for the CIA and forms a strong bond with Raza, and Harry’s daughter Kim who becomes close to the aged Hiroko in the book’s final section, set in New York post 9/11.

This is a big canvas, with many different stories that have to be juggled around and fitted together, and Shamsie handles it well, though I wish Hiroko had been given more space in the second half; I couldn’t invest myself to the same extent in Raza’s tribulations. Hiroko really is the heart of this book, a survivor who tries to transcend the past even though it’s impossible to forget it. When she reaches New York – in the week that India and Pakistan conduct their nuclear tests – and the immigration official, noting her Pakistani passport, reassuringly (patronisingly?) says “It’s OK, you’re safe here”, we see the irony of the situation: that a victim of America’s atomic bomb should “have chosen this, of all countries, as her place of refuge from a nuclear world”. But despite Hiroko’s ambivalence towards the US, there’s little doubt that having arrived, she’s going to make the best of her new life in this country, just as she has done many times before.

To do this, of course, she needs the support and companionship of people she cares about – people for whom individual relationships are more important than political histories. Running beneath the main narrative of this novel is the parable about the Prophet Muhammad being protected by a spider that weaves a web across the mouth of the cave he is hiding in, leading his pursuers to believe that no one could be inside the cave. This “spider dance” – friends and families looking out for each other – is what connects the people in Shamsie’s book across the generations, and the point is underlined (though perhaps too explicitly) towards the end, in a passage where two characters recount the connections between their families over the past 60 years.

In the connections it makes between places, people and events, this book is a reminder of history’s tangled webs, of the many strange ways in which the fates of nations and their people intersect, and of the dehumanisation
process that allows tragedies like mass murder to take place. The macho posturing of young Pakistani boys – steeped in Islamic fundamentalism and wanting to join the mujaheedin – is compared to Japanese youngsters yearning to become kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. Afghanistan – in the time before the Americans and Soviets made it a personal battleground – is likened to Nagasaki before the bomb fell. (“The light in Afghanistan. Like nowhere else,” says a character reverentially, looking at a photograph of an unreal, blue sky.) When Sajjad is forced to leave his beloved Dilli, it’s an echo of Hiroko’s departure from Japan. (“Until you see a place you’ve known your whole life reduced to ash you don’t realise how much you crave familiarity,” she says in a moving passage, “I want people to disapprove when I break the rules and not simply to think that I don’t know better...I want doors to slide open instead of swinging open”). And there are little misunderstandings and twists of fate, like the one where a young boy looking to buy a cassette player for his father ends up with an AK-47 instead.

At one point Konrad, whose shadow hangs over much of the book, tells Hiroko that metal barriers can turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side. This is idealistic, but Shamsie balances it with a more pragmatic, hard-edged understanding of how individuals are shaped and damaged by history, and how easily one injustice can beget another. “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it,” goes the saying, but this book allows us to see that such repetition is inevitable even when knowledge and understanding exist. And it’s worth mentioning that in a crucial passage in the final section, the “spider web” is broken by an inadvertent act of betrayal. The web of shared humanity can be very tenuous.

P.S. A minor problem I had with the book was that some of the conversations are stilted and over-expository. Like this one between Hiroko and Sajjad:
“I like being with you. I would like to go on being with you. I almost put that aside myself in fear of a possible tomorrow, but if these days teach us anything it’s that all we can do in preparation for tomorrow is nothing. So let’s talk about today.

She smiled. Optimism. That was Sajjad’s gift. She opened her mouth and breathed it in.

“Can I ask, have you ever kissed a woman?”

“A gentleman doesn’t answer such questions.”

“I just want to make sure you know how to do it. My decision may hinge on the matter.”

“I see I shall have to demonstrate.”
I should clarify that this passage isn't representative of all the conversations that take place in this book, but
generally speaking I thought the descriptive passages the ones where the narrator speaks for the characters – were more compelling than the conversational ones.


  1. Forget the wikiplugs and RSS enablers. Keep your reviews coming. As you say, the shared web of humanity is tenuous. Agreed. Let us all be discerning about the "D and R" category of literature, cinema, content, speeches, articles etc (that stands for "divide and rule"), which has an incentive structure in place, and the universalist category that has only heartbeats to support it and aims for an outcome for the planet with no shadows burnt by the horrific consequences of hatred.

  2. Nice review!

    Keep writing reviews and blogging!

  3. I've noticed a number of Japanese-Indian stories lately - I'm thinking of Aparna Sen's new film as well here... I wonder, do you think this is a trend of some kind? Are there other examples?