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Lost in Translation

The Forty Rules of Love is a terribly frustrating novel, because almost everything about it is wonderful except for the work itself. Its author, Elif Shafak, is an inspiration: As Turkey’s bestselling female writer, she is a brave champion of cosmopolitanism, a sophisticated feminist, and an ambitious novelist who infuses her magical-realist fiction with big, important ideas. Her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, which appeared in 2006, inquired into the taboo subject of Turkey’s Armenian genocide; and as a result she was charged with “insulting Turkishness,” a crime that carries jail time. Her audacious surrealist novel The Gaze, from 2000, explored the anguish engendered by constant, unkind physical scrutiny, and managed the seemingly impossible feat of turning academic feminist theory into often haunting fiction. Now, she has written a novel about an American Jewish housewife who finds love with a bohemian Sufi mystic. The fact that the novel has become a bestseller in Turkey is a hopeful sign that the empathy created by fiction can transcend nationalist and religious hatreds. If only it were also a good book.

Like many of Shafak’s novels, The Forty Rules of Love tells intertwined stories separated by centuries. The overarching narrative concerns Ella Rubinstein, a forty-year-old Massachusetts mother of three, unhappily married (in one of the book’s many clichés) to a dentist. Drowning in middle-class ennui—her life seems to revolve around trips to farmers markets and Whole Foods—Ella finds a part-time job reading manuscripts for a literary agency, where she is given a novel called Sweet Blasphemy, about Rumi, the Sufi poet. Intrigued, she strikes up an epistolary romance with its nomadic author, a Sufi convert named A. Z. Zahara. Her life is changed forever in ways that are simultaneously predictable and unconvincing. 

Ella’s story alternates with chapters from Zahara’s novel, which is in turn a spiritual love story between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, the wandering dervish who is said to have introduced Rumi to mysticism. Shafak is a longtime student of Sufism, and her new novel seems, in part, an effort to imagine an Islamic past that is consonant with contemporary values: a worthy project. A mystical, esoteric strain in Islam, more concerned with the individual’s ecstatic union with God than with strict adherence to Sharia law, Sufism is a tolerant creed. “Early Indian Sufism proclaimed that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus all were striving toward the same goal and that the outward observances that kept them apart were false,” Wendy Doniger observed in her recent history of Hinduism. Shafak’s Shams of Tabriz, who sees sectarian divisions, and even rigid religious rules, as inimical to God, is profoundly faithful, but his faith has nothing in common with contemporary Islamism. He even sends Rumi to a tavern, to prove that strict adherence to Sharia is its own kind of idolatry. “Religious rules and prohibitions are important,” Rumi, who has learned his lesson, tells Shams. “But they should not be turned into unquestionable taboos. It is with such awareness that I drink the wine you offer me today, believing with all my heart that there is a sobriety beyond the drunkenness of love.”

This is a version of Islam that even a secular Jew like Ella Rubinstein could love. That is part of the problem: Shams seems suspiciously modern, like a Quran-reading yoga teacher. Perhaps Shafak’s rendering of Sufism is correctI am not in a position to judgebut her rendering of the medieval Middle East feels anachronistic, as if the only thing separating it from our own society is the absence of cars and telephones. Nor does she convey any sense of religious profundity or transcendence. A book that turns on its characters’ spiritual raptures needs at least a hint of the sublime.

Partly, the problem is a matter of style. The writing in The Forty Rules of Love is surprisingly inert and occasionally abysmal. At first, I thought its banality might be meant to reflect Ella’s numbed consciousness, but the chapters set in the thirteenth century have the same problems. When Shafak’s characters are shocked, their “jaw[s] drop,” or they are “bowled over.” Shivers go down spines, hearts skip beats. An adventurer heads “far off the beaten track.” A man in the year 1245 tells his brother not to “make a mountain out of a molehill,” while a madrassa student describes his class as “[b]right-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

The mindless stock phrases pile up, becoming actively irritating as the book goes on. This is surprising, because in Shafak’s previous books her language was fresh and exuberant. For The Forty Rules of Love, Shafak, who in the past has written in both English and Turkish, employed a labor-intensive process of translation and re-translation. “I wrote the novel in English first,” she told the English-language Turkish newspaper Zaman. “Then it was translated into Turkish by an excellent translator. Then I took the translation and I rewrote it. When the Turkish version was ripe and ready, I went back to the English version and rewrote it with a new spirit.” It is an interesting experiment, and a testament to her love of polyglot cultural mash-ups; but whatever spirit was in her prose seems to have been extinguished in the back and forth.

Still, Shafak’s clichés wouldn’t be quite so distracting if the story were more absorbing. The problems begin with Ella, who never comes alive. Again, the idea of her is intriguing: American writers are constantly imagining themselves into other cultures, but we are not used to foreigners imagining themselves into ours. But Ella is simply not believable; and she is not even unbelievable in interesting ways. She is mostly just generic, an affluent and bored American woman in the abstract, redeemed by her enlivening encounter with soulful Eastern mysticism. This book is more evidence that good politics and good intentions do not necessarily make good literature.  

Michelle Goldberg is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Her most recent book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, was published this year by Penguin Press.