You are resting in the bath, lavender bath salts wafting away, candles flickering and as you doze your mind wanders to the big question of the day…how do you judge if a book is literature or not? Is Judy Astley’s Pleasant Vices or The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger on the same level? You enjoy one and not the other and that’s that some of you may say. But why do you enjoy the one rather then the other? Why is one on all the “best of” lists and in print for over 50 years whilst the other is forgotten once sold and read? Reading The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, which was published in 2000 and featured in Britain's Good Book Guide "Fiction Book of the Month”, got me thinking of ways to answer this.
Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is a Persian writer living and educated in the West and a follower of the Baha’i faith. This is important as a founder of Baha’i plays a momentous but hidden role in the story set in the mid 19th century. We follow nine characters over a 24 hour period as a caravan bound for Mecca and Medina is raided by bandits. The events prior and post the raid are told from the perspectives of each character so the meaning of events and behaviour alters as we visit and revisit. A connecting thread to all the stories is a saddlebag and its contents passing around each of the characters so driving some to death and ruin and others to salivation and joy.
So how do I start to judge or interpret this highly individual first novel? Once upon a time you read a book and its literary standing was its relationship to the great books that impacted on or shaped western thinking. Liberal Humanism argued these were your Vigil, Homer. T.S.Elliot, Shakespeare etc. In an affect a good book was what a group of elite academics said was good based on the authors intent and writing in relationship to western values and concerns.
In reaction was New Criticism with one of its roots in Russian formalism that ignored the authority of author or the cultural context but saw the words, syntax grammar, imagery, metaphor, rhythm, meter, etc of more importance in understanding a book then its subject matter. So yet another bunch of experts telling you what literature was.
So Liberal Humanism would judge The Saddlebag on what it said about what the big moral or political issues. Whereas approaches such as New Criticism would judge it on how it used language and literary techniques. So what you may say? But think cooking here: the first looks at how good say an Italian dish is as part of the rules and principles of good western cooking whilst the second examines how good the chopping, use of herbs, balance of colour was in preparing the meal irrespective of what the final dish is.
But what is missing is that a meal has a final act of judgement- I eat it! This is linked to a third way of looking at the problem in that books are a form of performance that needs an audience to make it complete. This gave rise to Reader-response criticism which seeks to understand literature by emphasising the reader's role in creating meaning and experience. So it would judge The Saddle for what it means to me the reader and what I bring to its interpretation. So I as reader become equal with the writer as both are necessary for the transaction to have social meaning.
Many other ways of “reading” a book exists so for example what does The Saddle say or not say about class, gender, sexuality? Or from the perspective of Eco-criticism how does it view and treat the environment and nature? Yet a book and reading are also material cultural events -think about all the factors behind reading a Dickens book printed on paper in the 19th century and reading the latest e-novel published on the internet and read via a portable electronic screen. And don’t get me started on Freud or Jung!
To put my cards on the table, I am always dubious of anything that says you understand from one perspective only. I prefer asking what this reading adds to the meaning of the novel so you build fresh and ever changing experiences. Judging becomes a journey of open ended discussions with peers defending the perspective(s) they prefer generating insights and ever deeper overlapping meanings. In affect a book is literature the more it is capable of sustaining this interaction.
To start the discussion on The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani let me ask three questions drawn from the perspectives discussed. These are as follows.
• How do its ideas connect or resonate with the intellectual concerns of both the West and the East?
• What does its use of language and literary devices suggest over and above the cultural ideas it plays with?
• What do I bring to the book and what does it bring to me to make the experience whole and complete?
How do its ideas connect or resonate with the intellectual concerns of both the West and the East?
Bahiyyih Nakhjavani takes the core incident of the plot from a Bahá'í historical narrative titled "The Dawn-breakers" which mentions briefly that a saddlebag belonging to the Báb - the prophet-herald of the Bahá'í Faith - was stolen during His pilgrimage to Mecca. She then used the language, metaphors, symbols and traditions of the major world religions to create her archetypal characters. They the Bedouin thief (a pagan), the Arab chieftain (an atheist), the Zoroastrian bride, the Indian moneychanger (who switches from Hindu to Moslem to whatever else the occasion demands), the Felasha(Jewish Ethiopian) slave woman, the pilgrim who has amalgamated Confucian, Buddhist and Moslem beliefs, the Persian Shi`ah Moslem priest, the English spy (a lukewarm Anglican Christian), and the corpse of a rich Persian merchant. Their fates reflect the impact of Bahá'í and it inner meanings: the pagan dies at last free, the chieftain abandons power, the Shi`ah Moslem priest torn between stamping out heresy and falling the driving force of Bahá'í love.
Another strand of the story is less explicit in that we are in the time period that western modernity starts to challenge and undermine the traditional elites in the Middle East. Copying the West and modernising became a central intellectual strain which was to lead to the modern Turkish State. But with the English spy and some of the other stories we see the political interference in the Middle East that lead to the carve up countries for western interests and so supporting the puritanical anti modernising practice of Islam that continues to be fuelled by the West’s attitudes and practices. It suggests indirectly that if each of the main religious traditions went back to their roots of ethical practices and love in action then the 21st century nightmare would end.
What does its use of language and literary devices suggest over and above the cultural ideas it plays with?
It has a lyrical prose style, and is a fable that skilfully weaves together nine tales by ensuring that the surroundings and characters are given a physical and sensual depiction. The Thief's story is perhaps best of the collection, in terms of the lyrical quality of the prose as well as the evocation of character but each story has a back story so we build up a richer understanding of each characters circumstance.
We have a glimpse of the next character in a story and echoes of previous characters so for example we hear a lot of the actions of the fanatic priest but then discover why he is so hard on himself. Each story is told from the inner dialogue and view point of the main character but the voice of the author is felt as she comments on the fates of individuals.
As in any fable the characters serve to illustrate the moral point of the storey so don’t expect naturalist dialogue or larger then life characters. But they are more then coat hangers for ideas/arguments so it reads well.
What do I bring to the book and what does it bring to me to make the experience whole and complete?
I have read and studied many of the key religious and political ideas of the different faiths and remain very interested in the West’s role in the political and historical roots of the region’s instability. I am also a keen story-teller so respond well to the ideas and structures of the story. I could see it working as an emotional and powerful play.
It’s clear from this review format what it has brought me. If you like the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho you have feel of the approach taken and if you can’t stand his books, fear not as this is much better. The author suggests that she wanted to write a book to show
how it was possible to weave the different threads so that the paths of a group of people from different races, cultures and backgrounds could cross and re-cross by perfect accident while making perfect sense. It seemed that if one could achieve this in a narrative form there was no reason why it could not be recognized as a valid metaphor at other levels: political, religious, economic.I think she succeeds brilliantly and clearly demonstrates that it is literature in the way that I have argued. So get out of the bath, smother the candles, dry yourself, put on a warm cotton wrap and type a response. Become part of the democratic process of defining of what is literature. Even better lets hear what she says and build a more ethical and loving world. Highly recommended.