Sunday, February 07, 2016

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar - A Wonderful Companion Piece To The Author's Play "Disgraced"

I found this debut novel by Ayad Akhtar to be a wonderful companion piece to the author's play "Disgraced."

White Rhino Report Review of "Disgraced"

In both works, Akhtar wrestles autobiographically with his evolving views of the Muslim religion and of the Pakistani culture into which he was born. The title, "American Dervish," needs some explication.  For most of us, the only kind of dervish with which we are familiar are the legendary "whirling dervishes." But there are also dervishes who chant, and those who renounce all earthly pleasures -  ascetics who seek to abnegate any sense of selfhood, and who aspire to make themselves indistinguishable from the dust in the ground.  This spiritual stance and world view are the polar opposites of the American cults of personality and individualism.  In this novel, two characters demonstrate aspects of dervish behavior: the protagonist, Hayat, and his enchanting young aunt, Mina. Does Mina allow herself to be ground into dust, or is she fulfilling her destiny or her choices in life?  Is her embrace of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" mentality a free choice or has she been conditioned to accept whatever the men in her life dish out?  How does Hayat deal with the lingering guilt from acts of betrayal that he committed in the heat of adolescent hyper faith and fundamentalistic judgmentalism?

It is clear from this novel, from "Disgraced," and from interviews that the author has granted, that he struggles with coming to grips with aspects of traditional fundamentalist Muslim doctrine that he sees as atavistic, misogynistic and paternalistic.  His intellectual journey reminds me of that of Roger L. Martin of the University of Toronto, in his seminal work "Opposable Mind."  

White Rhino Report Review of "Opposable "Mind"

In "Opposable Mind" the author rejects false dichotomies, and posits that the best leaders and the best thinkers do not settle for imperfect Choice A vs. imperfect Choice B, but dig deeper to discover an integrative less imperfect Choice C or beyond.  In this sense, Hayat's journey, and that of Mr. Akhtar, represent a form of Hegelian dialectic, moving from the thesis of fundamentalism to the antithesis of atheism to the synthesis of some form of reasoned spirituality.  During the journeys that Hayat and Mina take, the author treats issues of anti-semitism, the paternalistic roots of the three Abrahamic faiths, the role of women in Islam and in America, the many routes one may choose on the way to self-discovery, the sacrifices one may choose to make to protect those we love.

It is the default setting of this provocative author not to offer facile answers, but to pose a series of "more beautiful questions" that cause the reader to pause, to consider, to ruminate, and to begin to see things in a new light.

I am off to order another one of Mr. Akhtar's thrilling works of art.



"All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr - A Magnificently Told Story That Richly Deserved Its Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize jury certainly got it right when they awarded the coveted prize to Anthony Doerr's magnificent novel.  Set primarily during WWII and the years leading up to it, the narrative weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in France with the saga of Werner, a frail engineering prodigy in Germany. Their paths cross briefly during the final days of the siege of Saint-Malo in Brittany as the American forces bomb the occupying Germans into oblivion.

Author Doerr is a masterful story teller and magnificent wielder of metaphor.  The surface narrative deals with electrons, snail and whelk shells, birds on the wing, museum as mausoleum, a rare diamond, blindness, and light - always light or its profound absence.  These plot elements propel the surface stories forward, but they also serve to suggest metaphysical questions: "Are we like electrons, destined to follow a pre-determined path, or can we choose to veer into other orbits?  What shells do we secrete to protect ourselves?  What subtle flaws and fault lines lie beneath the surface facets of our lives? Are the shelves and storage bins of our memories museums or mausoleums?"  Like the acclaimed play, "Copenhagen," this book asks the question of how a brilliant scientist may choose to use or withhold his esoteric knowledge in the service of his nation when the use of that knowledge may lead to death and destruction.

Werner, the German wunderkind, learns to follow the flow of electrons and thereby masters electricity and electronics at an early age.  The Third Reich recognizes his genius and tries to turn him into a robotic weapon, searching out Resistance radio broadcasts across the Eastern and Western fronts.  He reaches a point of moral crossroads as he is ordered to discover a transmitter high in the chimneys of Saint-Malo.  Memories of childhood short wave broadcasts that he would listen to with his young sister help him to make a difficult choice.  That choice involves him briefly - and forever - in the life of Marie-Laure.

As Mr. Doerr weaves together characters and places that are indelibly limned through his descriptions of their textures, smells, tastes, soundscapes, he opens windows into the kinds of individual suffering that spared few people during WWII, whether their political leaders were aligned with the Axis or the Allies.  War as hell is depicted with unblinking detail.  Each character, whether prominent or minor, suffers some form of deep loss during the war and its lingering aftermath.

"All The Light We Cannot See" is a book that is eye-opening, heart-rending and soul-searing, and is a MUST READ.