If I was asked to describe be the kind of novel I hate, that portrait would be uncannily close to The Forty Rules of Love. Title reminiscent of a self-help manual of the ‘find yourself’ variety? Check. Middle-aged housewife discovering that she is unfulfilled by cooking and tolerating her husband’s affairs? Check. Overtones of Eastern mysticism to provide all the answers? Check. Ridiculously gold-embossed cover featuring stars, doves, moons (crescent, of course), and minarets in baby blue and lipstick red? Check.
Luckily I have read four of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s previous novels and know her to be an interesting writer regardless of Penguin’s marketing strategies, though even with that in mind, this was a book I almost didn’t pick up. I had been a little disappointed with her previous novel, the first she had written in English, as I felt this decision had flattened her prose and left her prone to cliché. This is something the new novel is not free from either. There can be few clunkier sentences than this to be found in the first chapter of a serious novel:
“Little did she know that this was not going to be just any book, but the book that changed her life.”
Some useful italics there, just in case we didn’t quite get the importance of this book. (And, without wanting to give too much away, it does change her life!) In this same chapter we also find an “awkward silence” and a jaw which drops. In fact, the contemporary section of the novel is not only rather badly written, but also rather dull. Ella Rubinstein is an American housewife who has been married for twenty years, years she has devoted to her husband and children. Now her children are growing away from her (her crisis begins with her daughter’s announcement that she is getting married) and she finds that she is wearying of her husband’s serial affairs. Salvation comes in the form of the manuscript of a novel which she has been given, having found herself a part-time job as a reader for a literary agency.
The bulk of the novel is (thankfully) taken up with this manuscript. I can see why Shafak took the decision to ground her narrative in the present: without it she would be left with a historical novel about middle-eastern religious mystics – a tough sell to an American publisher, I would imagine. She is also seeking to emphasise that the spiritual search for love and meaning in the thirteenth century continues into the twenty-first. However, this was a novel in which there was only one story I was interested in – and it wasn’t Ella’s.
The novel which Ella is reading tells the story of the Sufi poet, Rumi, and the travelling dervish who inspires him, Shams. Shafak uses a series of voices, something she is particularly adept at: not only those of Shams and Rumi, but a beggar, a drunk, a killer and a prostitute among others. The story begins before Shams and Rumi have met which both emphasises the significance of the meeting and allows us to become acquainted with Shams’ character:
“When something needs to be said, I’ll say it even if the whole world grabs me by the neck and tells me to be quiet.”
Needless to say, Shams has the wit and wisdom to outsmart even the most learned opponents. He also antagonises many more people than he befriends:
“It was always like this. When you spoke the truth, they hated you. The more you talked about love, the more they hated you.”
Western readers will recognise many echoes of Christ, including an unstoppable trajectory towards death which Shafak reveals in the opening chapter, creating a sense of tragic destiny. Similarly Shams’ championing of those society normally excludes – most obviously when he defends the prostitute Desert Rose who has been caught in a mosque dressed as a man because she wants to hear Rumi speak. Interestingly, unlike Christ, he marries, a marriage that torments his wife because he cannot consummate it.
Shams changes Rumi by attacking his ego. A respected scholar, he tells him to throw his books into a fountain. A devout Muslim, he asks him to buy wine from an inn.
“Before I had plenty of admirers; now I have gotten rid of my need for an audience. Blow after blow, Shams managed to ruin my reputation. Because of him I learned the value of madness and have come to know the taste of loneliness, helplessness, slander, seclusion, and, finally, heartbreak.”
Having no religious beliefs myself, I still found the spiritual questions raised by the novel interesting. While I did find myself glazing over when faced the forty rules of love which intersperse the story, the narrative itself raises important issues to do with how we live our lives – and isn’t that what literature is for? In the end, Shams does not turn Rumi into a religious leader, but a poet.