Contrary to the advice of Kishwar Naheed, Muhammad Asim Butt failed to keep himself away from the influence of Franz Kafka. In 1989 when he sent his story to “Mah-e-Nau”, Kishwar Naheed was its editor. “She wrote a brief letter to me on receiving my story and advised me to keep away from Kafka. Strangely, I had not read a single story of Kafka at that time,” Muhammad Asim Butt reminisces.
Butt has not looked back ever since as he has been reading and writing fiction silently. There is a unanimous verdict by the likes of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Abdullah Hussein and Enver Sajjad that his craftsmanship as a fiction writer is very rare in people of his generation. Story writer, novelist and a dedicated translator, Muhammad Asim Butt can easily be termed as one of the most sound and mature fiction writers who began writing in the early nineties. “Dastak” and “Ishtihar Admi” are names of his story collections while his maiden novel “Daira” startled everyone with its compactness and sterling prose.
Reticent and extremely reserved, Asim Butt does not sound as chirpy as most of the fiction writers or poets of his age do.
There is a certain dose of mystery in his stories and novel. One feels tempted to ask him the reason. “I like mist as well as fantasy. The locale of my novel “Daira” was the walled city of Lahore which is very near to my heart. I love to paint the intricacies and complexities of human situations. I tried to create a dream-like atmosphere in the novel like a picture with a variety of colours. Though based on solid ground, it is also soaked in some mist, fantasy, the unreal world. You know fiction is the work of a writer to make you believe in something which is not real. There is also the vibrant culture of walled city where I spent a major part of my life. Here I came into contact with lots of situations, characters and stories which are stored in my memory. So, I am just trying to write my memories though my stories.”
Writing a good novel is one thing while sustaining that excellence is a rather difficult task. In his view, a novelist should try to maintain the high standard for a long time. “Usually a novelist starts his novel with lot of verve but, halfway through, he loses interest as he finds it hard to tackle it. Having lost interest in the story, he ends the novel in some usual way, as if in great hurry. This is the case with most of our new writers.”
Novel, he believes, has a shining future as compared to poetry. Here is how he builds up his thesis: “Novel as well as short story are the genres of urban society. Novel developed with the emergence of urban civilization and it is more adaptive to the changing scenario of the modern era. In my view, modern man can be understood through fiction only. Novel is the genre of the future. I think great literature will be produced in novel. The collective characteristic of a ramshackle nation like ours hindered the development of the genre of novel writing in Urdu. Ghazal suits our temperament as it does not require the poet to take full responsibility of his or her society as it depends on generalisations only.”
Asim Butt does not use the crutches of publicity to remain in the literary buzz as he silently weaves his stories. Writing, he says, is a very private venture and one needs to negate himself in order to write. “You have to minus yourselves while writing fiction. Writing is a personal activity and you must negate your own self and become one with the person or character you are writing on. This way you start feeling the way the character feels. There is a formula of attachment and detachment. You attach yourselves with the situation and then you detach to describe it in an artistic way.”
Another novelette of his is in print these days while he is working on a new novel. He has translated almost all the important stories of Kafka into Urdu under the title “Kafka Kahanian” which will hit the bookstores very soon. He has also started a project of translating classical Urdu heritage into English for the benefit of the younger generation. The first publication in this series will be the English translation of the “Qissa Chahar Dervesh”.
His passion for Kafka knows no bounds as he sees in him an immense source of inspiration. It was Kafka, he posits, who taught us for the first time to see the reality from a different angle. “Kafka presented a reality mixed with dream and fantasy, a third sort of understanding about reality. Even science tells us that what we see is not truly what it appears to be. Rality is multi-dimensional and our perception is limited to three dimensions only. How it appears to us and how it looks is surely not what the reality is. Kafka had a prophetic eye for the unseen and his country had to face a situation which he aptly depicted in his fiction. It is said the even Bhutto once termed his trial as “Kafkaesque”.”
Butt loves to breathe in the fantasy woven by Kafka. Apart from all the adoration for Kafka, Asim Butt tries to keep his stories clean of any influence of great masters. He is impressed by the genius of Qurratulain Hyder, Abdullah Hussein and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Likewise, for Manto his admiration is beyond words.
He has translated some very famous books into Urdu over the years. He thinks that translation gives you the courage to experiment in creativity; our literature lacks experimentation attempts because it lacks a strong tradition of translation. “Government must give some protection to the works of translators as the Copyrights Odinance is almost silent as far as the rights of translators are concerned.”
His advice: only books can tackle the menace of extremism in our society. “A man who reads and loves literature can’t be an extremist as he sees life’s various dimensions and learns the values of tolerance and mutual coexistence.”
It is difficult to say who is the main protagonist of The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish author Elif Shafak. It is equally difficult to decide which century should we choose the protagonist from —the 13th or the 21st. Such is the fluidity and exuberance with which Shafak has written this popular fictional.
Ella Rubenstein is forty, Jewish, unhappily married, and has forgotten who she is, revolving her life around her infidel husband and children. As part of the work she is doing for a literary agent, she comes across the manuscript of a novel called “Sweet Blasphemy” which mesmerises her in how it revolves around the relationship between 12th century Islamic theologian-scholar turned poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi and the mystic Sufi Shams of Tabriz who is Rumi’s spiritual master.
This is a turning point in Ella’s life, who is inspired by Shams’s life-altering forty rules of love that ultimately aim at helping people achieve communion with the Absolute, the Creator, through the path of love, and in so doing learning the answers to the deepest questions of life that would in turn help transform a person’s conduct and behaviour towards other creatures in a beautiful manner.
This was what Shams was teaching Rumi. This is what, indirectly, the writer of “Sweet Blaspehmy”, Aziz Zahara, teaches Ella, forever changing her life.
Aziz does to Ella what Shams did to Rumi – he becomes her mirror in which she sees her real self. He is the stone that flings itself into the stagnant waters of Ella’s uneventful, complacent, almost dead life, and causes a ripple effect that brings to the surface everything she truly is and is meant to be. Thus, she discovers love.
Shams of Tabriz was an Iranian Sufi mystic, a wandering dervish, responsible for initiating Rumi into Islamic mysticism. Rumi’s poetry has immortalised Shams, who is said to have been the reason Rumi evolved from a scholar used to the Aristotelian style of questioning and scholarship in faith, and became a love-poet, whom Shams brought to the path of a direct and ecstatic connection with God.
The word “Shams” literally means the Sun in Arabic. While the beauty of Rumi’s poetry continues to be celebrated world over, Rumi can be compared to the moon who actually reflected the resplendent light of the sun, by passing on the message he learnt from his spiritual master, Shams.
Shafak’s ingenious technique of usage of the literary device where each chapter is named after the character, whose inner soliloquies comprise that chapter, makes it very believable and relatable. An essential part of Rumi’s poetry, of Sufism, and in turn of Shafak’s book, is about empathy, in which you understand the other’s perspective. Through the different voices in the book talking in first person, in an almost “stream of consciousness” narrative technique because they are so intimately monologue-like, Shafak has achieved the objective of keeping empathy as one of the central threads that keep stringed together the many themes in the book.
The message of empathy and understanding different perspectives is spell-binding in the book. We look at the world not just through the eyes of Ella and Aziz, and Shams and Rumi, but also characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Sultan Walad (the son of Rumi), Suleiman the Drunkard and even The Killer who is hired to kill Shams.
As a writer Shafak is capable of using much more intricate phraseology and vocabulary, but it seems as if she on purpose keeps the choice of words and the tone very simplistic and basic, as if she is afraid of diluting the basic strength of the profound message of the book through unsolicited use of jargon.
The fact that the novel catapults the reader from past into the present and vice versa, from the world of Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Konya to the world of Ella Rubenstein in 21st century New Jersey, is deeply symbolic. The fluidity with which this has been done gives the novel as surreal timeless quality, where even the characters from the 13th century seem relatable today. This is where Shafak is truly brilliant, for this is an underlying message that Rumi and Tabriz’s message of love is not and cannot be limited within encapsulations of time and space.
To understand this further, we have to take a look at Rumi’s position over the centuries. His funeral it is said, was a historic event in that it extended over forty days of grieving, where he was mourned by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greeks, Arabs and Persians. Rumi, himself, it is said, married both a woman of Islam and a woman who was originally a Christian. In the present day context, Rumi is prided over by Muslims who see him both as a commentator of the Quran and a scholar (especially his life pre-Shams), as well as a proponent of the universality of the message of Sufism. But what is doubly interesting is how Rumi has managed to be celebrated even by the West, thereby bridging many of the gaps between the East and the West centuries after he died. He has influenced the writings and philosophy of the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Recent years have seen an upsurge in Rumi’s popularity in the West. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Rumi got ranking as America’s best-selling poet in 1997. Rumi-following and coffee table books boasting a dabbling with the message of Rumi are quite the fad. In a world where the mantra “I am spiritual, not religious” has gained momentum, Rumi is one person the past, present and probably the future, and both the East and the West, agree upon.
The Forty Rules of Love has been hugely successful. It sold more than 600 000 copies, becoming an all time best-seller in Turkey and in France awarded with the Prix ALEF - Mention Spéciale Littérature Etrangère. While there is no doubt in the lyrical beauty of Shafak’s work, part of the reason for the success of this book lies in the fact that in the world that we live in today, you cannot go wrong with Rumi and Sufism.
There’s this thing that happens to people who read David Foster Wallace, the novelist and essayist who would have turned 50 years old today. It’s the reason his literary reputation so fervently exploded the moment he died: those who like his work don’t just champion the writing, but seem to become personally enamored of the man.
They (I may as well begin using “we”) come to adore not just his short stories, not just his three challenging, brilliant novels, but his entire output, be it in video form, audio, image or text. We’ve read his introduction to the 2007 Best American Essays anthology. We’ve pored over his Kenyon College commencement speech, and feel offended that it was converted into a kitschy little coffee-table book called This is Water. We gobble up any authentic YouTube video, like the four parts of his 1997 Charlie Rose appearance, or the recordings of him reading the stories from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. We know that C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, of all things, was among his favorite books. We’ve even watched his goofy, charming ramblings at Le Conversazioni in 2006 in Italy.
We also feel a sort of ownership of our love for him. Look, we’re freaks, okay? It’s a dangerous thing, this tendency to want to prove our DFW expertise. You can see it all the time: on the subway, when a person is reading Consider the Lobster, which seems to be the most popular “introduction to Wallace” choice, and a faux-friendly fellow straphanger will ask them what else they’ve read by Wallace, and then scoff when the answer is “nothing yet,” as though one’s appreciation of the author cannot be legitimate until they’ve consumed Infinite Jest. You hear people complain, “this guy doesn’t get Wallace” when they see a new blog post or magazine profile. We get indignant, rightfully so, when blogs or, occasionally, elite publications call him “Foster Wallace” when referring to the author by last name. (Foster was his middle name. You wouldn’t refer to Thoreau as “David Thoreau,” would you? No, and yet myriad publications, including The Guardian, The New Yorker and New York magazine get this wrong.) Together, we correct misconceptions about our icon’s personal history and relationships. Together (thanks to his need to basically announce, in a lengthy New Yorker piece, “Guys, stop praising my friend, he wasn’t so great”), we resent Jonathan Franzen. And now, perhaps, we’ve collectively lost some love for Jeffrey Eugenides.
For those who feel a searing dedication to everything Wallace produced, The Marriage Plot’s Leonard Bankhead character feels almost like a personal assault. First of all, let’s agree that Leonard is indeed based on Wallace so that we can move on. Everyone everywhere knows it, knew it as soon as the book came out, and has written about it. For many months, Eugenides vehemently denied it, which seems downright puzzling and soon became enraging. In multiple interviews with various publications, he blamed an early New York Vulture blog post for the “rumor” of Leonard’s DFW-ness, as though without NYmag.com saying so, every single other person who had read Wallace before would not have immediately picked up on it.
Upon Leonard’s first real appearance in the book (not to be confused with the first time he is mentioned), the very first detail given about him, apart from the physical (“a big guy in a down jacket and snowmobile boots”), is that he is a double major in biology and philosophy. Thus we think of Wallace before Leonard’s dipping even comes up. Wallace, too, was a philosophy major at Amherst, and later went to Harvard for graduate school in philosophy, though he dropped out of the program. The guy is first introduced in a Semiotics class, for God’s sake. Leonard is Wallace, but it doesn’t yet feel at all manipulative. Nor is there any harm done when Leonard packs a lip, which Madeleine notices with “surprise.” It’s all good.
But only a page later, Leonard and classmate Thurston Meems (for my money the best character in The Marriage Plot, far more interesting and fun than any of the main trio) get into a discussion with their professor, Zipperstein, that, for DFW-heads, seems to refer directly to one of the most common debates about Wallace’s work. That debate is about the treatment of depression in his literature, and how to approach it. As A. O. Scott wrote in 2008 in The New York Times, “Mr. Wallace’s vibrant body of work… pursued themes that in retrospect look uncomfortably like portents… [Infinite Jest] is, for all its humor, an encyclopedia of phobia, anxiety, compulsion and mania.” The Pale King is no exception. As D. T. Max noted in The New Yorker in 2009 about the book’s title, according to Wallace’s notebooks “it was a synonym for the depression that tormented him.”
The characters are talking about A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, by Austrian writer Peter Handke (Surprise, surprise: Eugenides wrote the introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics edition). The book is about Handke’s struggle to write about his mother’s suicide. Thurston comments: “Here’s a subject dear to my heart—offing yourself… But I’d contend, with Barthes, that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.” That sentiment is certainly one that Eugenides likely supports, since, even as he has now acknowledged a few bits of influence from Wallace on Leonard, he resists and clearly resents the idea that the character is a direct representation.
Regardless, now that this DFW-like character, the one that chews tobacco and pursues both literature and philosophy, has been introduced, it’s hard not to begin thinking, at this point, of Wallace’s work that deals with depression and suicide (in other words: the majority of it). Sure enough, Leonard joins the conversation. After Thurston adds, “suicide is a trope,” Leonard jumps in: “If I was going to write about my mother’s suicide, I don’t think I’d be too concerned about being experimental… If your mother kills herself, it’s not a literary trope.” At this point a perhaps misguided, but nonetheless hard-to-ignore, nagging feeling bubbles up: that this is a discussion about Wallace’s own writing. Thurston’s opinion matches with those who insist that the details in stories like “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” “The Depressed Person,” “or Death is Not the End” cannot necessarily be taken as autobiographical simply because we know Wallace to have been personally depressed. It’s a purist sort of view, often called formalism (as opposed to historicism, which supports analyzing a work through context and the lens of the author’s personal background), suggesting the text is all there is, and that outside factors (such as, here, Wallace’s own depression) cannot be considered.
The more reasonable conclusion, of course, is that Wallace’s writing about depression cannot be taken in a black and white sense. It isn’t completely self-referential, nor is it entirely not. That reasonable middle ground is the one Leonard seems to espouse in this scene: that when a person who himself has been depressed or contemplated suicide (or in Handke’s case, has a relative that has) writes about depression and suicide, it’s because they’ve been there, they know that pain, and it isn’t as simple as a literary trick. Leonard even says: “I’d do it [write about my mother’s suicide] to cope with my grief.”
The Marriage Plot is a wonderful read: a smart, evocative page-turner that transplants us to Brown’s campus in the eighties and does the same for scenes of Mitchell in India and Leonard and Madeleine on Cape Cod. It’s inventive, honest, and though it does not end happily for any of its three main characters, it does end satisfyingly. But what doesn’t feel as honest as the rest is Leonard, because for those steeped in Wallace’s story, it feels as though Eugenides has taken a public persona and crammed it into a fictional character, one who, in a sense, is the villain of the book.
— Daniel Roberts