Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Inspirations: Selections from Classic Literature by Afrah Jamal

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / 12 June 2010

Paulo Coelho — the best selling author from Brazil — brings forth his latest offering, an anthology that can be likened to a piece of art. But it is art with a difference that uses beloved masters as its centrepiece, held up by the ancients’ philosophy to accentuate the contrasts and their unique interpretation of elements to justify the contours. Still, the proportions seem all wrong and the colours clash. Coelho’s creation is hard to understand and impossible to appreciate, or would be without the voice over.

On the surface, it is a simple, albeit bizarre little collection where carefully chosen passages from well-thumbed editions have been bound in one volume. Coelho scoured the globe looking for stories that once served as his inspirations. Then he agonised over which segments to include while trying to decide upon the best placement.

Once inside, readers encounter fact and fiction, fairy tales and scripture, historical fact, legend, superstition and horror. On one side, Mandela (Black Man in a White Man’s Court) walks besides Mary Shelly (Frankenstein) while Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust resides next to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

It gets ‘curiouser’! Not only will the unsuspecting reader’s spiritual quest (an entire section is devoted to scripture) be rudely interrupted by the Arabian Nights, they will also stumble across excerpts from a book that was once put on trial in several countries and banned in several more.

The arrangement feels random at first glance. Well, it is not. As one discovers from the preface, this haphazardness is part of the plan. The pieces chosen to be on display in his grand design appear unconventional. Where else would a fairy tale be tucked in among excerpts from adult literature, religious scriptures, military strategy and famous classics? Which is why Coelho’s Inspirations needs to be properly rated and should not end up on a child’s bookshelf just because Hans Christen Anderson’s unfortunate Ugly Duckling happens to be running around among the grown ups.

His logic may not be readily apparent. Fortunately, the author walks readers through the programme at the beginning of each section — Air, Water, Earth and Fire. He takes his cues from the ancients who believed that the “visible and invisible were composed of four substances — uncreated and imperishable and that these elements figured symbolically, corresponding to a specific spiritual, mental, physical dimension”. The fact that these elements were “not just considered in material form but understood symbolically” gives the author just enough leeway to try something radical. Coelho manages to find this elusive connection in each of his stories and uses the ancient notion of elements to his advantage.

He has put a lot of thought into the composition, opting to stay away from traditional layouts, settling upon the novel technique of ikebana — “sacred bouquets arranged according to three main lines symbolising heaven, earth and humankind”. He explains that Chinese Buddhist monks offered these bouquets in temples and their offerings were meant to stir the soul and lift the spirits.

He proceeds to arrange his favourites, ikebana style, opening a portal to forgotten lands and magical moments. Most of these tales need no introduction. They are but glimpses into worlds already visited, a reminder of the heavenly wonders and earthly delights that end in a joyful reunion with the characters.

Coelho begins with ‘Water’, a subtle realm, “infinitely deep, of the primordial ocean where everything is possible, horrid monsters and fascinating creatures residing in its depths”, and the ensuing fear used as a tool enacted by Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince while Sun Tzu’s Art of War, “calls forth the ground or earth while water lies as a reminder of the origins of mind, the very basis of will”. A tortured Oscar Wilde in De Profundis finds a home in ‘Earth’ with its “decay, stagnation and despair”; the darkness of the soul is captured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With ‘Air’ and its “unsteady, fearsome and uncontrollable” qualities comes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and fear is channelled in George Orwell’s ‘Two Minute Hate’ from Nineteen Eighty Four. ‘Fire’, in all its manifestations and divine representations, is the final act bringing religious scriptures together with the sayings of early Christian monks where “visions of the Desert fathers move the frontier between madness and sanity”.

His analogy is simpler. This anthology is “not just a collection of texts and poems but a gift, something one arranges according to ones sensitivities to give to others”. After the (exquisite) descriptions, one can take a second look at his creation and then see the wild beauty in the lines. Though the earlier objection still stands; controversial books and inspirational texts are a volatile mix. Paulo Coelho’s gift to the world allows readers to embark on a new journey to look for inspirations or go down memory lane just to be reunited with the masters.

By Paulo Coelho
Penguin classics; Pp 252; Rs 895

Comments

  1. Nice! I'm borrowing this one for Book Reviews :)

    P.S. I'm marveling at your passion for books... reading them and reviewing them too! Great going!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, but once the word 'job' creeps in... anything becomes a chore, no? But you have managed to retain the passion :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Reading for work can be a little tedious..i agree.which is why i had to cut down ..so now its less of a chore..But i got to read/review some fab books last year (alongside some truly atrocious ones)...:)..

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, come to think of it... without the atrocious ones... we wouldn't have appreciated the fabulous books. Known, appreciated and cherished them, that is :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. ha ha...Thats one way of looking at a piece of tripe ...but it stopped my complaints in their tracks..:)

    ReplyDelete
  6. :)

    So, you see... these writers of atrocious stories/ poems/ novels/ novellas are doing a great service to the authors of fabulous books... by ensuring a constant flow of royalty :)

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

VIEW: Of Clarion Calls and Golden Statuettes / By Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times /Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elegiac laments for a fading film industry are interrupted midway with news that could give the documentary film medium at least a new lease of life. It owes its resurrection to a young filmmaker, who mined troubling sound-bytes overheard in theatres where war, injustice or social disparity reigns supreme. Clips aired at the third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) held earlier this year provided glimpses of her work, including the internationally acclaimed ‘Saving Face’. At the time, she had an Emmy stacked away for one documentary and was just weeks away from winning an Academy Award for another. At the time, she had been relentlessly crusading to rid societies of those anachronistic practices (among other ills) that weigh them down in the modern world. And — despite these glittering credentials — her work was largely unknown amongst Pakistanis.

The young Oscar nominee who took the stage that day would soon be the face of a bur…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless…

SERIES REVIEW: THE HEROES OF OLYMPUS / Rick Riordan (2013)

First Published inDaily Times / 5 Jan 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Demigod fans who bade farewell to Percy – (son of Poseidon) & the Olympian franchise a few years ago must have wondered what the writer was up to as they came across a ‘final’ Prophesy conveniently left unresolved at the end of the saga.

The Last Olympian’ concluded the five part series wrapping up Percy Jackson & his merry band of demi-gods' extended arc with a high-octane finale and an emotional send-off. Though Rick Riordan had moved on to explore Egypt in ‘The Kane Chronicles’, he wasn’t done with Olympus, its ever shifting centre of power or its hoity-toity god population for that matter.

The cryptic warning heard in the final pages is used to establish the credentials of this spin-off. The gods return in the ‘Heroes of Olympus’ series - distant as ever and in Roman form heralding a brand new dawn with the promise of new crusades, a shiny new quest, fresh faces and an ancient threat. And Percy is b…

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Day : The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

First Published by Daily Times / Oct 06, 2012

Authors: Mark Owen & Kevin Maurer
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title:Signed, SEAL(ed) and Delivered



The men who paid Pakistan a hurried visit in the dead of the night typically do not leave calling cards. Or talk shop with strangers. And they are expected to shun the limelight. One broke the commandment recently. As a member of the SEAL Team 6 — Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, Mark Owen (not his real name) had been in the downed ‘helo’ (helicopter) — the one Pakistanis discovered lying in their backyard.

His book provides a valuable timeline of events leading up to ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ in Abbottabad (or ‘Abababa’ as they insist on calling it), cutting through the official haze. With 13 consecutive combat deployments to his credit, the author paints a group portrait of America’s finest that had been handpicked for the job in an attempt to overturn the media-created hype. He calmly reasons, “If my com…

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…