Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Maps for Lost Lovers (2)

Part 1 of this post is here.
The first sentence of Maps for Lost Lovers is

Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself.
It announces Aslam's ambition telling you that, yes, this is the story of individuals with a precise culture and past, but it is also the story of all individuals. It is the way he involves the character in the metaphor. It doesn't say 'shamas watches the snowflakes being pulled towards that great magnet, the earth'. No. Shamas watches the magnet at work. He observes an elemental force.
We will discover later that Shamas himself is quite capable of thinking this thought. He is an educated man, a poet, well-read not only in Urdu and Persian literature, but also in the writings of the West - the Urdu translation of Ulysses, for instance, is mentioned several times. And not casually, for Shamas is linked to Leopold Bloom explicitly and, in a very Joycean manner, by means of an object both banal and exotic: Koh-I-Noor pencils. Shamas is very much a man of the 20th Century, someone with a foot in both the East and the West and so belonging in neither, an exile, broadminded and sympathetic, a romantic with a fatal weakness for justice and even-handedness.
I repeat, Shamas himself could have thought of that first sentence. This is important because the metaphor there, and those in many, many other pages at first sight can seem just a bit stretched, too sought-after, like something an under-graduate might write on first coming across Dylan Thomas. Yet so often, what follows, immediately or eventually, justifies the extravagance. This book took 11 years to write; he spent 3 of those years writing 100-page back stories for all the main characters. There is very little that is just thrown down beacuse it sounded good at the time.
A couple of samples.
Locking into each other like the facets of a jewel, the tilting surfaces of the neighbourhood have chanelled away the water that the snows released upon melting.
Mah-Jabin's train ... passes through tunnel after tunnel like a needle picking up beads to thread a rosary.

He's alone as Kaukab drives away, alone under the stars that are nuclear explosions billions of miles away. He watches as a shooting star traverses the night sky, reflected like the sweep of a razor in the paintwork of several metal roofs.


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