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Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows

Increasingly contemporary novels are dealing with people who are of one nationality but live in another country or who are children of mixed marriages. In novels, as in this one, they often end up speaking several languages. This is certainly both the case with this one and the subject matter, too, as it deals with the differing perspectives of peoples of different and/or mixed nationality. The novel opens with a couple who are having a relationship. He is Konrad Weiss, a German, and she is Hiroko Tanaka, Japanese. This relationship may be more common now but was probably uncommon when this novel opens, in 1945. The relationship is made particularly poignant as we see it on 9 August 1945 in Nagasaki and we know very well what is going to happen. Weiss had been living with his half-sister, Ilse, and her husband, James Burton in Delhi but had been asked to leave for obvious reasons. Ilse had disguised her German origins by adopting the name Elizabeth. Weiss had now been living for the entire war in Nagasaki. On that day, he is killed and she is badly burned (though we do not learn that till later). She then decides to go to Delhi, having lost her beloved Nagasaki (until you see a place you’ve known your whole life reduced to ash you don’t realise how much we crave familiarity), to meet the half-sister of her lover. She had been told by Konrad that the family were not worth meeting and that, indeed, the only one worth meeting is Sajjad Ali Ashraf, a young Muslim man, who works for James though, by the time Hiroko arrives in Delhi his work mainly consists of playing chess with him. The novel is divided into different sections by time period and location – the atom bomb on Nagasaki, the independence of India and, more importantly for Muslims, partition and the birth of Pakistan, Pakistan, 1982–3 and, finally, the United States and Afghanistan around the time of 9/11, in a section entitled The Speed Necessary to Replace Loss taken from the The English Patient (He moved at a speed that allowed him to replace loss).

Hiroko’s role in this novel is made clear early on by Shamsie. And she, Hiroko Tanaka, was the one to show both Sajjad and the Burtons that there was no need to imagine such walls between their worlds. Konrad had been right to say barriers were made of metal that could turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side.. She is a Japanese woman who has been in love with a German, who will soon marry a Muslim Indian, later Pakistani, Sajjad Ali Ashraf ,and will spend much of her life in Karachi but later in the United States. She will remain on good terms with the Burtons, despite the fact that they will soon divorce, as well as with their son, Harry, and granddaughter, Kim. However, she will not identify with any one country (she had no interest in belonging to anything as contradictorily insubstantial and damaging as a nation). Shortly before the Nagasaki bomb, her father had been condemned as a traitor and locked up for decrying suicide bombers. However, most of the characters struggle with identity, particularly national identity. We have already seen that Hiroko, while Japanese, spends much of her adult life in Karachi, as a Pakistani national, married to a Pakistani. Sajjad very much identifies with Delhi and India but is forced to leave and become Pakistani. Their son, Raza, is half-Japanese, half-Pakistani, but, as a young man, seems to identify with Afghanistan. His knowledge of languages and his mixed Japanese-Pakistani appearance means that he is not always easy to place. Harry Burton, son of James and Ilse/Elizabeth, says, as a child that he is Indian, having spent much of his life in India. He hates England when is sent to school there. However, he ends up working for the CIA not for his love of the US but the idea of the melting pot (it was not the notion of power itself that interested Harry, but the idea of it concentrated in a nation of migrants. ).

It is not just about nationality. Women enter their husbands’ lives, Hiroko – all around the world. It doesn’t happen the other way round., says Elizabeth. The main married female characters lose their husbands/lovers either by divorce/separation or death but actually manage very well without husbands/lovers. Where they do identify and belong is with personal relationships. Then he and Harry placed side by side the stories each knew of their families. Stories of opportunities received (Sajjad found, through Konrad, a way out of the constraining world of his family business), loyalty offered (Hiroko refused to back away from Konrad when her world turned him into an enemy), shelter provided (three times Ilse gave Hiroko a home: in Delhi, Karachi, New York), strength transferred (Ilse would never have left the life she hated if not for Hiroko), disaster elided (James and Ilse ensured Sajjad and Hiroko were well away from Partition’s bloodletting). And – this part Raza and Harry didn’t have to say aloud – second chances (at being a better father, a better son). Now Kim, too, was part of the stories.

Part of the problem with this approach is that while Hiroko is the unifying force, she is not always the main character. At times Sajjad, Harry, Raza and Kim all take front stage. As the different sections are often separated by many years (requiring Shamsie to play catch-up for us), the novel at times feel bitty. With shifting allegiances, it is also not always entirely clear who supports whom, particularly when we get into the murky arena of Afghan politics. Shamsie is at pains to put the Afghan view, first anti-Soviet and then, to a lesser degree, anti-US or, at least, anti-US interference, even while accepting that the CIA did help Afghanistan in its fight against the Soviets. Hiroko, not surprisingly, remains resolutely anti-US or, rather, anti-Truman, for the atom bomb on Nagasaki. But, overall, Shamsie makes it very clear that for her and her characters alliances and allegiances are not always black and white but all too often grey and that they can and do shift over time. Addressing these issues makes it an interesting book but, overall, I did find the changing central focus did detract from it.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Bloomsbury