THE FORTY RULES OF LOVE Elif Shafak
Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s new novel is about the famed pair of Jalal-ud-din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, and reading it brings to mind another well-known couple: Mills and Boon. On almost every page one comes across little homilies on the nature of love as well as submission to the universe that would not be out of place on Hallmark cards, especially the ones with puppies and roses on them.
To give it a contemporary resonance, The Forty Rules of Love alternates between the lives of bored middle-aged American housewife Ella in 21st century Massachusetts and those of Rumi and Shams in 13th century Anatolia. The disgruntled Ella, with a comfortable suburban house, unfaithful husband and three growing children, starts to work as a reader for a literary agent. The first manuscript she receives, titled Sweet Blasphemy, is by one Aziz Zahara, who describes himself as a photographer and traveller, and it is from his manuscript that the tale of Rumi and his spiritual consort is reproduced.
We learn of the travels of the dervish Shams in search of a partner, the people he influences on the way, his arrival at the Sufi mystic Rumi’s household, the reactions of those who become friends and enemies, and of course of the great love that springs up between him and Rumi. Interspersed with this is the tale of Ella’s growing distance from the life she leads and her fascination with the author of Sweet Blasphemy, whom she starts a correspondence with.
What’s of interest is that the book proceeds polyphonically – much like Rumi’s Masnavi– and we hear the varying voices not just of Shams and Rumi but of those in their ken, including members of Rumi’s family, as well as a unregenerate drunkard, a repentant harlot, a vicious assassin, a leprous beggar and more.
Shafak’s intention is laudable and not to be doubted. She urges us to move away from dogmatism and fundamentalism and seek a deeper meaning; to not judge harshly and show compassion to all those on the path. Her exposition, however, is disappointingly facile. Both Ella and Rumi ponder over the meaning of a love-filled life and yearn for their beloveds in a manner that can only be described as banal. At one point, for example, Ella thinks that Aziz is “a gushing waterfall....He had an animated personality, too much idealism and passion for one body”. Meanwhile, Rumi muses, “Is there a way to grasp what love means without becoming a lover first? Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.”
The subject and structure of The Forty Rules of Love, then, are interesting as well as audacious. It’s a pity the novel falls so far short of its ambition.