On The Liberties of Historical Fiction…

Over the weekend I had a conversation with a friend, sharing with her my latest and rather impulsive choice of novel to read. I also shared with her some of my reservations on reading this particular novel. The first is that often writers take liberties on characterising historical figures. Writers give them a voice, agency and motivation – a lot of which of course are imagined. To some extent, I am willing to gloss this over if the writer shows through his or her work evidence of research to capture the zeitgeist of the period, the way certain period dramas are able to do so for the television or the big screen.

My reservation on reading this novel stems from the concern, or even fear that Sufis of the past (whether great or insignificant in the blot of history) will be depicted through the lens of today, that in writing for a modern audience, will indeed pander to the sensibilities and desires of modern times in order for them to relate to the past. Think of all the inspirational Instagram posts quoting Rumi on love and life – almost completely devoid of its original Islamic contexts.

Having read 75 pages of the novel thus far (an achievement in itself) I am afraid my hunch was correct. In the early part of the novel where I’m at, the great Sufi, Shams Tabrizi seems impetuous in his quest to find his spiritual companion – almost as impetuous as the teenage daughter of the protagonist who had declared to her parents her decision to get married to the love of her life who she met some eight months before.

Other than that, the novel reads smoothly once you overcome the multiple narrators and the constant switching between past and present. I don’t feel like I’m invested in the novel as yet, but it hasn’t proven to be a bore either. Reading it over sips of latte seems to do the trick. I think I’m enjoying the set-up (reading over coffee) more than the novel itself.

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