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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beneath a Marble Sky, by John Shors

Started 5/30, finished 6/5

This book caught my eye in BookPeople a few weeks ago. I liked the typeface used on the cover, and as soon as I read the title I knew it had to be about the Taj Mahal. The picture on the cover confirmed it. I picked it up with some apprehension, then curiosity, then sadness: someone got to this story before I could.

Evidently this is the first novelization of the Taj's construction written originally in English. That's a little bit hard to believe, considering it came out in early 2006, and it really upsets me that it was just sitting there all my life like that, ready to be written.

Oh well. That was never the project I wanted to undertake anyway... what I want to do would be more something you'd consider capital-A Art. You know, the kind of thing that doesn't earn a dime but which might be held in esteem by who appreciate a novel with a less traditional structure. I'm working on it now, in fact, about 10,000 words into it, and I think it's the kind of thing I'll hack on for a few years in between projects. It'd fun to write, and the story canvas is as blank as they come. The options are limitless. There's no chance of my forgetting that building or its story any time soon, so I can be patient.

This book is very traditional in terms of structure. It's a 3rd person closed narrative, told from the POV of Mumtaz Mahal's favorite daughter. The novel is as much the story of her life as it is of her parents'.

Shah Jahan ruled the Mughal Dynasty in 16th century Northern India. By all accounts, he was a fair, reasonable man, who attempted to integrate the lives of the Muslims with those of the majority Hindus. He built the most magnificent buildings that the world had seen. He allowed his wife to speak at court. She was the light of his life, until she giving birth to their 14th child. His spirit deserted him that day. The daughter Jahanara witnesses the love they share, which leaves a lasting impression. She helps manage the construction of the Taj Mahal in her mother's memory. With Isa, the lead architect, she seeks the love she saw so tangible in her mother and father.

As the construction of the monument begins, Jahanara finds herself increasingly taking control of her father's affairs. At the same time, her two elder brothers are fighting over succession and how best to rule the country. The story is as much a chronicle of their political downfall as it is about the raising of one of the greatest buildings in the world's history.

The writing is good enough, and the characters are generally believable. What I was left with, though, is a real sense of how American everything sounded. That would probably shock the author, who obviously went to great pains to work out the formalized dialog and the constant references to Allah, the evils of the West, etc., but I stand by it. The whole exercise is viewed through our sort of lens: who is free, who is not free, who is given equality, who can make their own life, their own decisions, etc. I can't buy that this mindset could have existed in the culture Shors is describing. The caste system is so deeply entrenched that barely anyone notices it, let alone stops to wonder what they're missing out on by their obligation to serve others. The rule of law places the Emperor at an almost god-like status, and people don't dare to hold themselves at his level. These issues are discussed throughout the novel, and at the end of it I felt like I had been attending a symposium on human rights violations.

Maybe people did wonder "why must a woman stay in her house all day long while a man can wander wherever he likes," but the poetry and historical accounts I've read on the subject simply don't address these issues. Could it be because the question never arose? My bet is that, were this novel to come over to us in translation from an Indian author, the tone of it would be radically different. That's my biggest criticism of the novel: it pandered to a Western audience.

Less of a problem was that I wanted more detail on the actual construction of the Taj, but I guess I'll have to cover that in my own project. My bet has been that Shors had a lot more in his initial drafts, but eventually cut it out when someone advised him that it wasn't interesting. That may be a downfall for me too, but I'm holding out hope that I can pull it off. Umberto Eco has done it, as has Orhan Pamuk. It is possible.

Overall this turned out to be slightly more of a so-called "beach read" than I would have liked, but it was still enjoyable and informative. I want so much to believe the story of Jahanara's independence, her eventual love story, and the simplicity of the Mughal dynasty's downfall, but I think it was largely invented. I think the story was more complicated than Shors makes it out to be, and by a factor of ten, but that's just not what his audience wanted. I'm definitely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he had ten times the material to put in there, but that he boiled it down to a more palatable form. Good for him. I still had fun with it. I guess it'll be up to me to try to put some more meat on these bones... I just hope people will be half as willing to read it.

Book #15 will be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

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