Monday, 25 June 2012

Timbuctoo by Tahir Shah: Book review

☆☆☆☆☆ If you like a story about the oppressed, the downtrodden or the outsider coming through in spite of harrowing events, grave injustices and enormous odds stacked against them; characters you love to hate; and a good old-fashioned love story, then you may well find wonderful resonances and enjoyment in Tahir Shah's epic novel, Timbuctoo. There are some anti-establishment sentiments in the mix and, given some of the characters' proclivities and activities -- such as the Prince Regent's whimsical excesses and the making of fortunes from trade in unfortunate African slaves -- rightly so, I feel. These themes are timeless.

There's a wise, old saying that you only possess that which would survive a shipwreck. In Robert Adams' case, this was faith, hope, gritty determination and above all the passionate love which fuelled and drove these qualities in him, and to which he clung on for dear life. We're all shipwrecked when we're brought into this world, become enslaved in one way or another and, separated from our "beloved", we yearn to be reunited. There's something about this process that touches on the mystical. In a sense, then, like the old woodcutter in the traditional story of Mushkil Gusha (Remover of All Difficulties), Robert Adams is telling us our own archetypal story and also showing us a way through all this to freedom. The details are very different for each individual, but the underlying pattern is the same.

I found that the author's use of short chapters and often short paragraphs split up the novel into easily manageable "bites", added to the pace of the story and also heightened the drama. With many deft twists and turns in the captivating plot, the book was a real page turner and unputdownable. Knowing little to nothing about the Regency era when I embarked, I also found the rich and vivid description and the adept characterizations educational, informative and also enjoyable and satisfying.

The book is not only about Robert Adams' harrowing narrative, it is of course also about the reception his account received, adding insult to injustice. One thing that struck me was the possible parallel between this and that received by Tahir Shah's own father, the writer, thinker and Sufi teacher, Idries Shah. Both were outsiders and introduced exotic ideas into society, based on first hand experience of the truth. This led both men to become celebrated by many and also dismissed, resented and even undermined by a few self-appointed experts who had their own fixed ideas, largely based on hearsay and what they wanted to believe was the truth. These latter few didn't want to hear the truth but to maintain their vested interests or have their prior beliefs confirmed. This is a point that Idries Shah actually made in the BBC television documentary, One Pair of Eyes: Dreamwalkers (1970). In it, he says:

"We all think of ourselves as logical people: people who are capable of changing our minds, for instance, if we get superior information, more information which tells us that our former beliefs or prejudices were untrue.

"Doctor Ward Edwards of the University of Michigan Engineering Psychology Laboratory has disproved this in a most alarming manner. He has shown that one third of people are not able to change their minds once they have made them up on the basis of inaccurate information, even if accurate information is subsequently given to them."

A thoroughly enjoyable read -- and well worth re-reading and savouring at a more leisurely pace -- I have no hesitation in giving the Kindle edition of Tahir Shah's novel, Timbuctoo, five stars. I can't wait to get my hands on the forthcoming, lavish limited edition hardcover with its many bonus features, a wonderful work of art designed by Tahir Shah's wife and graphic designer, Rachana Shah.

You can obtain the Kindle edition of Timbuctoo from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The hardcover will be available from 18 July 2012 from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The book is also available in other electronic formats elsewhere.

• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+

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