Before writing a review about a book I spend a lot of time actually thinking about the title of the post. I try to incorporate the name of the novel and the most distinguishing aspect of it for me. I have only one blog post with a one word title – Hunger. Now I have another – Love. I guess when the words are so important in my life, I don’t need any further explanation.
Elif Shafak’s Forty Rules of Love is a tale about love, in all its forms, that transforms people, opens their hearts, and sets them free both from society’s and their own boundaries. Shafak unfolds two paralel stories, one set in contemporary time and the other in the 13th century. The author successfully escapes the cliches and the trivialities and by exploring the nature of sufism, shows that love is transcendental; that it goes beyond race, age, and sex; that it is the sincerest and strongest force; that it makes us better people; that it helps us lose ourselves and find ourselves; that allows us to die only to be reborn; that changes us; that shows us the path towards happiness. Love is the ultimate goal and ultimate truth.
Ela is a bored middle-aged housewife, who has given up her dreams in order to take care of her husband and her three children. Days before her 40th birthday Ela realizes not only that she is not happy but that she hasn’t been happy for a long time. Her estranged and unfaithful husband doesn’t give her the love she thought she didn’t need. Her daily activities are trivial: cooking, meeting with housewives as herself, taking care of the children. For 40 years Ela never broke any rule, never crossed any line, and never lived. Until she meets Zahara.
In a slight effort to change her life, Ela takes a job as a literary critic. Her first assignment is a manuscript by an unknown author, Sweet Blasphemy. It tells the story of a 13th century wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and his inspirational relationship with Rumi, the greatest poet of the Sufi canon. Most importantly, it shows how the love between Shams and Rumi helps transform the latter from a conservative literator of the Koran into one of the most praised mystics in the Islam and one of the most famous poets. Ela is so impressed by the novel that she contacts the author Aziz Zahara, never expecting that similarly to Rumi and Shams, this relationship is going to change her life.
Told through the view point of a range of characters, The Forty Rules of Love follows the development of two types of love, separated by more than seven centuries. Shams introduces to Rumi a new religion – the religion of love. His forty rules of love philosophy implies a gentle and non-judgmental reading of the Koran, which rejects religious fundamentalism and is accessible to all, drunkards, whores, intelligence. Through his love for Shams, Rumi denies his former way of living, his strong reliance on reputation and other people’s opinion, and his conservative reading of the Koran. Instead, he turns to Sufism and writes Masnavi, a key Sufi tract which weaves Koranic analysis with poetry, parables of the everyday, the mythic and miraculous. This inspirational bond sets Rumi free from any conventions, opens his heart to spirituality and teaches him to accept people for who they are.
Similarly, Aziz appears to set Ela free. All of her life she believed she didn’t need love. She looked down on the concept of eternal and passionate love and she despised romance. At least she thought so. Upon realizing there is a terrible void in her heart, one that needs to be filled exactly with love, she starts a passionate on-line affair with Aziz, an affair that is set to have life-changing consequences.
As much as I liked to avoid the religious part, I indeed have to touch upon it. Shams’s philosophy focuses extensively on love for God and on the eternal search for God within yourself. I am not religious but I am willing to accept people that are. Without going too much into the subject, I would just say that the God part of the novel did indeed irritate me. I personally don’t see the need of religion to prompt people to be virtuous, to love one another, and to accept other’s faults by a simple fear of being punished or by a blind fate that they are serving some omnipotent creature. And for me religion in its essence is the cause of an infinite number of conflicts and confrontations, of unnecessarily strict rules, of the church’s desire to control and guide people, and of endless hatred between people.
Otherwise, the novel is positive and inspirational. It has a great attention to detail. Every chapter starts with a “b” (even in the Bulgarian translation), as for Sufi mystics the secret of the Koran lies in the verse Al-Fatiha, the essence of which is contained in the word bismilahirahmanirahim (in the name of Allah, the Benevolent and Merciful), with the quintessence of the word in the dot below the first Arabic letter, a dot that embodies the universe. Moreover, Shafak offers a popular and understandable introduction to sufism as a religion towards spirituality and self-awareness. The author wrote the book for more than 15th years and the result is obvious. She is one of the most read female authors in Turkey, a direct competitor to Orhan Pamuk, and possibly a challenger to Paulo Coelho’s dominance. The Forty Rules of Love indeed flaws easily and is perfect for people on a verge of their lives when they simply need encouragement, positivism, and hope. I am sad to say that at some points it greatly reminded me of Andy Andrews and Jorhe Bucay, which for me as a reader, is a great offense.Still, Shafak manages to go beyond the cliches and to offer an inspirational tale of love as the most important thing. If it makes readers better people, if it indeed teaches them that religious differences don’t exist and should not be a reason for violent acts (something we are quite familiar in contemporary society) and if it actually influences them to love each other and themselves, I believe this novel’s value will be even greater. It also reminded me of Eat, Pray, Love, where similarly a disillusioned woman goes on a search for spirituality and falls in love.
It seems that contemporary authors now more than ever attempt to imply that love is the answer to all of our questions, our ultimate goal, our only purpose. Andrews, Bocay, Gilbert, and now Shafak tell tales of despair and hopelessness, of lack of ambition and desire to live, which are all solved byt the power of that one person, who opens your heart and soul. As much as I would like to believe this positive view of life, I am skeptical. Reading about it is ok, but until it happens to me, I stand convinced that even the greatest love in the world is not enough for a fulfilled and happy life. Still a good thought, though. I will give it a try. After reading, I even started my own forty rules of love but I ended with only one: “Lora, don’t be afraid.”