A God In Every Stone: A Novel by Kamila Shamsie

The city of Peshawar is located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan. It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city. Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone.

Title:  A God In Every Stone:  A Novel

Author:  Kamila Shamsie

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books

ISBN:  978 1 9378 9430 6

 

AGodInEveryStoneThe city of Peshawar is  located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan.  It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city.  Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.

It’s an ambitious novel.  Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey).   It is 1914.  For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax  of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.

And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows.  Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army.  He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar.  Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology.  These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.

For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.

They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.

– What else? Tell me all the street names!

– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.

– The Street of Englishwomen?

– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.

– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.

He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.

 

All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan.  Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.

Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire.  She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women.  Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.

A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.

– Do you want to learn how to read?

Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.

– Play with your doll, little one.

 


A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related –  characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other.  Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.

I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify:  A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people.  Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end.  So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

 

*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).  

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

*Warning:  contains spoilers.

The Lost City of Z:  A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability.  He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.

See the resemblance?

In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”.  The party was never seen or heard from again.  Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened.  All failed (some disastrously).  The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination.  As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story.  Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof.  Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”.  Sightings were reported.  Psychics became involved.  As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:

According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken.  Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of.  Think Survivor meets the History Channel.

It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape.  Grann was certainly equal to the task.  He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle.  Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.

First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise).   Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue.  Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover.  He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them.  He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him.  I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.

Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment.  Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old.  While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion:  Fawcett and party died in the jungle.  It’s a bit anticlimactic.  The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them.  Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.

Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question.  Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”.  David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested  in the direction of further reading on the subject.  Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing.  Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations.  Portions were interesting.  Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city.  Yet this is only a small part of the narrative.   In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles.  As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.