Book Review: Drawn Together, Blown Apart

The recent atrocities in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad brought to mind two novels I read a couple of years ago: Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie; and Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières. Both books are about fictional small towns that contain people of different ethnicities and religions.

shalimar

These stories are separated by decades and by thousands of miles. However, they both start with communities that enjoy a harmony that, while imperfect, allows for occasional friendship, love, even intermarriage across religious and ethnic lines . It also allows a subtle blurring of the distinctions between the two groups.

Both novels tell the story of how that harmony is destroyed, how the blurred line becomes a hard one that cannot be crossed.

Rushdie’s story takes place in Pachigam, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in the recent past. De Bernière’s tale is set during the early 20th Century in Ezkibahçe, located in what is now western Turkey, but what was then the Ottoman Empire.

In Ezkibahçe, the two main communities are Turks and Greeks. In Pachigam, they are Muslims and Hindus.

Both books illustrate the natural human attraction to what is different, and the tendency for cultures to mix and borrow when it comes to food, religion, language, and more.

But along with the attraction there is also fear, and the peace of Pachigam and Ezkibahçe cannot last, despite the isolation that protects them for a time.

birds without

 

As a result of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, both towns undergo a process of ethnic and religious polarization. In the end, the Greeks must leave Ezkibahçe, and the Hindus flee Pachigam. The townspeople remaining are sadder and poorer, with Pachigam under the sway of a far harsher brand of Islam.

 

Rather than focus on just a few characters, to my mind both these books present a compelling ensemble cast, drawn with humor and compassion despite the tragic march of events.

Shalimar does have story lines that take place outside of Pachigam, but I found these much less compelling. Rushdie’s tale also ends on a more open-ended note, allowing for the possibility of optimism.

The recent inhuman acts in Paris and elsewhere were committed by people who seek to create the same sort of polarization that takes place in these stories. It seems to me that preventing such polarization is just as important as any military or security measures that may be taken. We must allow ourselves to remain open to those who are different, and not be ruled by fear.

 

35 Comments on “Book Review: Drawn Together, Blown Apart

    • I would recommend Shalimar the Clown much more than The Satanic Verses. Another good one is The Enchantress of Florence, a real mix of history and magical realism. Two more than I like: Shame, and Midnight’s Children.

  1. Thank you for mentioning Beirut and Baghdad along with Paris. A poignant post.

  2. I could not agree more, it is so easy to become fearful and treat all people who are different in the same way. I have taught children from all over the world who have been delightful…. humorous, intelligent, interesting. I hope they would never be put in the same category as a terrorist.

    • The cynical exploitation of people’s fear right now in this country is very distressing. I just heard of two businessmen (who have lived in this country 15 years and own a pizza shop) who were forced off a plane because they were speaking Arabic.

      • Dreadful….there are plenty of fearful attitudes emerging here too ( Australia)….hope it all settles down soon..

  3. I have read the Louis de Bernieres book, albeit some years ago and was very impressed with his style. I have since read a couple more of his books and if you want a laugh I can really recommend ‘Notwithstanding’, which is a collection of short stories set around a British village….

  4. Yes, yes, and yes! Wonderful post. And two books to add to the already tottering to be read (tbr) pile. Many thanks for the review.

  5. Totally agree Jason. I’ve read other books by both authors but not these two. I’ll have to take a look.

    • I’ve read everything I can find by Rushdie and usually loved them. I tried one other de Berniere book but didn’t like it nearly as much.

  6. It’s really heartening to read someone using literature to comment on current events. Thank you for this post, Jason. Polarization and other black and white attitudes are rarely helpful.

  7. I haven’t read either of these authors, but I will add them to my TBR list. Your last paragraph is a powerful message, Jason, and one that I hope more people will come to realize. History has shown us time and time again what can happen when we let fear of those who are different from us take over.

  8. A timely post indeed! I enjoyed your review and heard myself saying, ” Hear Hear” re your last paragraph!!! Well said Jason.xxx

    • Literature can tell us a lot about history, even if it’s not historical literature. Of course, the author has greater freedom (supposedly) to revise the past to make a point, or tell a better story. Though I think the same happens in non-fiction all the time.

  9. It is true we fear what is different in people and their beliefs, and it is wrong to do so with a broad swipe of the brush of our understanding. Is that not what the ideologies are of the group we oppose – Isis, not the Muslims in general? I think too many don’t make that distinction and lump all of those of Islamic belief into one giant gap of our ignorance. Isis lumps us all and it is their justification for wanting us dead. They are a cancer, and like all cancers, need to be eradicated without killing the body they are in.

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