Archive for February, 2011

February 23, 2011

I thought about putting The Museum of Innocence down nearly every time I picked it up. But I always continued reading and am now left feeling as deeply ambivalent about Orhan Pamuk’s most recent novel as I did three weeks when I perused the opening pages. Let me be clear—it is no doubt a masterpiece. Some may be bored by the luxurious approach of dwelling on one man’s emotions towards one woman for over 500 pages. But I found the exploration into the human psyche and a world of obsessions mixed with pain deeply intriguing, which may be precisely what bothered me as well.

The Museum of Innocence tells the often experienced story of love and loss, a romance alternatively kindled and destroyed. But the bulk of the novel isn’t a narrative at all but rather a look into the deepest recesses of the mind of Kemal, a spoiled Turkish elite who serves as the narrator for most of the work. Instead of getting over his unobtainable love and living an ordinary life, Kemal spirals further into his desire for a particular woman for years and, increasingly as the novel wears on, for objects that remind him or her. The relationship between people and things is one of the most interesting aspects of the book as Kemal begins to put together a museum that serves as a memorial to his life’s work of longing and remembering.

I think what bothered me about the novel is that it hits close to home. Who hasn’t experienced love, desire, and heartbreak? Somehow when I read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, however, I find the stories disconnected enough from my own life to avoid mixing personal emotions with my enjoyment of literature. Of course I read in large part because novels comment on the very issues at the heart of my own life, but commenting and feeling are two different things. There was little story to separate me and Kemal in The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk dwells so much on the inner thoughts on Kemal, a man in utter agony for most of the story, that he offers the fullest exploration into human relations and the need for closeness that I have ever read. The book certainly was not an easy read, but it was well worth the effort.

 

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Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night on Kashmir

February 4, 2011

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is the story of a Kashmiri-born journalist who returns as an adult to cover the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that have gripped his homeland. As Peer narrates his personal experiences growing-up in Kashmir and later traveling through the region as a reporter, he uses threads of his story to segway into discussions of larger issues, such as torture, Hindu-Muslim relations, and growing militarization. Peer provides an openly subjective, clear-minded, and refreshing view of Kashmir from a mix of insider and outsider perspectives.

Peer begins with his memories growing up in Kashmir as a child. We learn about his family and school life as well as various friends and neighbors along the way. In the middle of the book, Peer digresses into his time away from Kashmir, although he remains focused on his experiences in India as a Kashmiri. When Peer returns to Kashmir in the second half of the book, he attempts to stomach and then later to explain the changes he witnesses. Those interested in Kashmir as a conflict zone will be most interested in the later sections of the book, and here Peer also offers his most serious reflections on how those looking in from the outside can try to understand developments in Kashmir.

Peer makes no pretenses to be unbiased, but I did find that he offers a relatively balanced view given his combination of perspectives. Peer is aware always of his priviledged position as a highly educated member of Kashmiri society and makes no attempt to hide how that shapes his experiences. Additionally and particularly as a civilian, Peer does not personally witness a high amount of violence or bloodsheed. Most of the hard experiences that Peer describes focus around endless checkpoints or, at worst, close calls. In this sense, Peer describes what is probably a common experience amongst Kashmiri civilians who have suddenly found their home made into a militarized zone. Finally, Peer seeks out those who have been literally caught in crossfire, whether as militants or simply walking home from work one day. He weaves these tales and their assorted endings into his own to offer a view of Kashmir that highlights individual stories and experiences in order to put a human face on this contested part of the world.