Maps for lost imagery

Random House edition of Maps for Lost Lovers

The Random House edition of Aslam's novel.

I’m currently reading Maps for Lost Lovers. I’ll be the first to admit that I was first attracted to the book by its incredibly beautiful title. I’m a sucker for really good titles, and more often than not, if I like the title, I’ll buy the book.

Since its publication in 2004, Nadeem Aslam’s second novel has won two awards (the Encore Award 2005, and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize 2005) and was shortlisted for two more (the British Book Awards Decibel Writer of the Year 2006, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2006).

Let me first tell you what I think the book is not. It is not a thriller. It is not a page turner. But it is also not a waste of time. Being someone who reads quickly, finding that Maps is taking me so long to finish is rather disconcerting. When I found myself finishing another novel (The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue) while still in the first 100 pages of Maps, I started wondering if maybe I was wrong to get seduced by the title.

What was so slow about this book? Aslam’s writing is poetic, sensual, tends to ramble a little, moves back and forth between characters, locales, and time, but the thing that struck me the most is the overwhelming number of metaphors and similes and other figures of speech Aslam uses. No wonder it took him over a decade to finish writing it!

I agree with Irish author Colm Tóibín, who called the book “a superb achievement, a book in which every detail is nuanced, every piece of drama carefully choreographed, even minor characters carefully drawn.” Many of these images are beautiful in and of themselves, like small half-sentence poems, but there is such a thing as too much beautiful writing. At first I enjoyed them, because one of the functions of metaphors and similes is to create relationships between–sometimes unrelated–things, and that is always an interesting exercise (for me, that is). However, take a look at this excerpt (no page numbers included, as I’m reading this on my Kindle):

“From the car parked under a nearby street lamp, he takes a net of oranges, his sketch pad, and a dozen pastel-sticks held together by an old wristwatch like a comic-book time-bomb, and returns to the lake, sitting on a piece of driftwood that is heavy for its size the way a lobster is.”

And a few lines later,

“…the fans of colored dust on the ground are as though his breath petrified and preserved. White, and grey, green as a surgeon’s gown, and the chalky-red of a school’s cracked clay tennis court.”

Earlier still, an entire paragraph is taken up by similes:

“Dazzle explodes on the blade–like blood spurting from a vein–when the weapon enters a beam of sunlight. The air itself seems to contract away from Kaukab as a school of fish twitches itself to safety at the approach of a predator. The bowl that had held henna falls to the floor, spinning on its edge like the silver cups that revolve around the lights on top of police cars to make them blink.”

I appreciate beautiful prose just as I appreciate beautiful poetry. And one of the strengths of Maps for Lost Lovers is that it is a slow-moving, yet at the same time utterly compelling read. But like everything else (yes, I’ll admit, including even chocolate), there is always a limit.

In an interview in The Independent, Aslam gives an explanation of sorts,

“The characters are constantly comparing England with Pakistan, and I wanted the text to have that kind of fidelity with the characters. They do it so much that they don’t see their life in England. I wanted the read- er to feel that frustration. I wanted England to shout, as it were, ‘Look at me!'”

But does all of this imagery reflect that constant comparison between England and Pakistan? In my opinion, most of them do not, and I hate to say that for at least one reader, this parallelism between the text and the characters didn’t work.

I feel that it’s a shame that all this beautiful language is being used up in one go. Aslam’s book has enough figures of speech to last him ten other novels. Instead of being breaths of fresh air, his similes and metaphors come dangerously close to suffocating the reader.

I can just imagine this incredibly talented author agonizing over every action and thought of every one of his characters, thinking, “Now what could I compare this to?” But I’d rather he wrote more often than more beautifully.



Filed under books, Readings

6 responses to “Maps for lost imagery

  1. Marwa, I haven’t read Maps for Lost Lovers, but I admit I am drawn to books with vivid descriptions, so the title alone would draw me in. Lately I’ve been thinking about beautiful language, too, though, finding that where I used to tend to overly describe to ensure nothing was left out, now I pare down. I think this may be the result of reading The Corrections. Maybe this is also a result of writing copy, but I consider that I want to draw someone in and keep them there, not lose them. So that’s a balance I’m exploring lately. As for if I will read Maps for Lost Lovers, I’ll download a sample to my Kindle and decide then. The Kindle, I have to admit, is the single best thing I did for my reading habit ever!

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      Rose, I’m honored to have you drop by my blog and comment! I agree about the Kindle. It’s saved me more than 50% on books (ordering books to Egypt ends up costing at least twice the original price of the book), and made my reading mobile and compact (due to very limited space for my books).
      I haven’t read The Corrections, but now you’ve piqued my interest, so I’ll head over to Amazon now to see if it’s available on Kindle.

      • Marwa Elnaggar

        Oh wait, I have read The Corrections. I really need to find a way of remembering what I read. I don’t recall Franzen’s style, and if there was anything that was striking enough about his language and writing for me to notice, I just remember that it really depressed me.

  2. It’s such a pleasure to comment on your blog! So enjoyable to read. I just read your other post, actually, about buying a stack of books to add to the stacks of books you already want to read (plus Kindle books, which by the way, whenever I’m reading a book and not on my Kindle, my husband gives me strange looks like ‘hey, and why did we buy the Kindle?), and just having come from a Turkish book fair with a couple more, I’m positively backlogged. But that’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Always having something of interest ahead. Anyway, that’s not related to this post, but I agree about The Corrections – I was ultimately depressed and switched to non-fiction for awhile. I wouldn’t say his style incorporated beautiful language at all, just exhaustive details.

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      And don’t you wish you had an extra 24 hours every day dedicated to reading? I know I do. I love the feeling that I will never run out of things to read, but sometimes I also feel this panic that, Oh my God, I’ll NEVER be able to read everything I want to read! This feeling is especially strong when I’ve just discovered a whole new group of writers or writing tradition or topic, for example. It happened to me when I first fell in love with Arabic literature (a few years ago), and it keeps happening to me again, and again, and again. And then I want to learn about a dozen different languages so that I could read the literature written in that language… It never ends!

  3. Pingback: Books you should read (summer 2010) « Writer, Reader, Chocolate Eater

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