In The Armchair


Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on March 20, 2007

For a novel that has evoked so much controversy, Nasrin’s Lajja or Shame is rather poorly written. The important thing about this novel is not its literary quality, but the fact that it tells the truth.

The reason for the controversy is, supposedly, that Nasrin denigrated the religion of Islam in the book. This has resulted in exile from her country (Bangladesh) as well as a fatwa that might result in her death if the wrong people find her. The exact way she insulted Islam is not clear to me; I could not identify the passages in the novel that would cause offence. The only thing I could make out is the story she tells of persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh.

The novel is set in Bangladesh, in the riots following the demolition on the Babari Masjid in India by Hindu fundamentalists. The demolition sparked retaliatory riots against Hindus in many Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. The novel follows a Hindu family, the head of which loves the nation of Bangladesh and decides not to flee to India. The ordeal that this decision leads to forms about half the novel. The rest is devoted to newspaper-like reports of massacre and persecution of Hindus across Bangladesh.

The world media has historically been hostile to Hinduism. During colonial times, the printed word in all its forms was used by the British as a propaganda weapon to denigrate Hinduism in order to justify colonial rule (essentially using a “taming the savages” argument). More recently, a leftist bias is apparent in Indian and international news media; this manifests as magnified reporting of any violence of Hindu origin, and downplaying of any atrocities committed against Hindus. For example, the ethnic cleansing of Pakistan has hardly found mention in any media reports, yet the Hindu population has declined from about 15% at the time of independence to about 1% now. It is extremely unlikely that this is because all the Hindus in Pakistan began believing that Islam is superior. The massacre of Kashmiri pandits, about half a million of whom are in refugee camps in their own country, by Muslims, is not to be found at all in world media. The near total expunging of Hindus from the North-Eastern Indian state of Nagaland by Naga christians finds no mention in news reports, domestic or international.  At the time of the Babari Masjid demolition, a wave of anti-Hindu sentiment in Bangladesh resulted in a near-total extermination of Hindus in Bangladesh, including the destruction of multiple Hindu temples. Nasrin made this the main topic of her novel.

There have been comparisons between Nasrin and Irshad Manji, but I think these are flawed. While Nasrin reports atrocities by Muslims, the language in her book seems to indicate she holds Hindus responsible for all of the events. She does advocate a sort of religious harmony, but makes her own disgust for Hinduism painfully obvious. Nasrin is not out to reform Islam; her commentary is restricted to criticism of the atrocities in Bangladesh.

As a story, “Shame” is a tiresome read peppered with a few poignant moments. Possibly this lack of brilliance is because I read the English translation, but it is unlikely. The book, however, is worth reading for an understanding of the enormity of what happened in Bangladesh.

Altered Carbon: Richard Morgan

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on March 7, 2007

Richard Morgan is perhaps one of the most talented “wordsmiths” among the writers I’ve read so far. His prose, as one reviewer puts it, positively crackles with brilliant metaphor and evocative word-coinage. His world is rich and developed, though Morgan is so inventive that at times I wondered whether he didn’t simply make it up as he went along. Every line bristles with intelligence and invention.

This is Morgan’s first book, and his self-assured writing is suprising and refreshing (compare Michael Jordan’s first attempt in the Wheel of Time series). Morgan endows each character with a unique personality, carefully developed and detailed. The book is essentially Alistair MacLean-style “tough guy” action (referred to in several Amazon reviews as “hardboiled detective fiction”) mixed with cyberpunk.

More or less, the book’s style is to deliver periodic “kicks” to the reader. Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is a lean, mean, mentally conditioned killing machine… but a good one. In identifying with Kovacs, the reader is invited to feel like a restrained god who always gives the bad guys a chance to mend ways before beating them into bloody pulp. The reader spends several pages building up hatred for specific bad guys, then revels in the mindless violence the protagonist does to them next. Spends some time feeling sorry for people, then warm and fuzzy as Kovacs does something truly philanthropic. All in all, the book is violent and callous enough to be every male’s testosterone fix.

Altered Carbon’s world needs to be taken as a given, and once that is accepted, the novel is fairly believable and logical. The world itself seems inconsistent. Superficially, it seems like a realistic world, but practically the only real advance in 500 years, in the novel’s world, is the ability to digitize human beings and improvements in AI. (This is not a new concept at all; Greg Egan, Charles Stross and others have been doing it for a while.) Other than that, life is almost the same as it is now except for cosmetic changes like cars traveling in the air instead of on the ground.

Nevertheless, this is a great book. Just the complexity of metaphor and brilliance of word-coinage makes the book worth it. And unlike many in the current crop of Sci-Fi writers, Morgan has good ideas, good prose and knows how to tell a story. That last bit seems missing in Sci-Fi of late.

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