27 Oct Book Review: The Legend of Genghis Khan by Sutapa Basu
This book, however, is not sketchy, but in fact, a well-researched and in-depth story about what made him the great emperor of Mongol.
The book takes off to a gruesome start (consider this an advance warning so you can brace yourself, but let it not deter you from reading it), taking the reader right in the thick of an ongoing siege, and even as the bloodshed takes places between the pages the narration is such that it keeps you hooked, unable to do much else except cringe and read on.
This sentiment and the taut pace continues throughout the book, making it an extremely engrossing read, especially when it comes to describing a world long gone, and yet, one that exists all around us. It makes one pause and ponder whether we’ve really evolved as a species or are we as barbaric as the Khan even today.
While I am familiar with the author’s writing, this book still managed to surprise me. Basu’s prose is fluid, pacy, and evocative. I could almost feel the dry dusty sand in my mouth or see the flapping fabric of tent canopies or flags in front of my eyes. This not only made the reading more vivid but also more experiential, for it is not just the physical settings that come alive, but the emotions are also deeply felt. The plight of those captured and the tenacity of those fighting become keenly evident through the words she weaves.
I did find the language flawed at one or two places, but that was only because as a writer still learning how to hone her craft, I was reading with such concentration and scrutiny that I was re-reading several passages numerous times. For this reason, I over-analysed and ended up being over critical. Plus, in all fairness, these instances were rare and could easily be overlooked if not for the excessive fault-finding that I was indulging in.
What was most striking for me was how the book does not consciously attempt to give the reader a history lesson on Khan’s life and exploits. It doesn’t take sides or even remotely attempt to present only his side of the story. There are enough and more instances of his brutality as there are of his benevolent meritocracy. The book talks about his untold endeavours as a brilliant strategist and staunch feminist just as it does about his vengeful barbarism. I did feel at times as if Khan was needlessly barbaric, and while the author does not shy away from chronicling these acts, the book does seem to gloss over these aspects of his personality at times.
Despite these minor issues, I found myself enjoying the read immensely. It was one of the few books for which I tried to steal every possible minute just to be able to read a few words more.
It’s interesting to note how, in a book that is dedicated to a Mongol emperor’s conquests, the female characters of Hoelun, Borte, Gurbechelin and Enkhtuya make their presence felt. I think it speaks volumes of the author’s brilliant presentation of these characters.
What I also particularly liked about this book is that you cannot call it non-fiction and yet, strangely enough, it’s not fiction either. For me, this book was a well-researched fictionalised story, based on historical facts. (If only the history lessons were like this, we’d never have to mug up dates or events again!)
I am of the firm opinion that it’s not a writer’s job to provide all the answers, but it is their job to make the reader ponder and compel them to ask questions and solicit answers on their own. Basu’s writing succeeds in doing this and makes you wonder if it is fiction or reality. And if it is a reality, to what extent is it true. (I was astounded when I first read that this brutal barbarian was all for women’s rights.) To ensure that the reader does indeed question what they read needs a delicate balance between revealing and withholding of information- a skill that the author displays in ample measure in The Legend of Genghis Khan. Basu accords him no sympathy and yet manages to present a more humane side to him. She leaves the rest for the reader to find out on their own, and eventually make their own judgments.
It is commendable how the author manages to keep up with two parallel threads of story-telling all through the book. At first, it is for two different time periods in history-alternating between Khan’s present-day exploits and his childhood years-until the reader is caught up to the current day, after which the narrative switches gears to alternating between the fictional narration of the present-day events and non-fiction. The shift in the style of narration from fiction (whether present or past) to alternating between fiction and non-fiction is so natural and smooth (full credit to the editor, Indrani Ganguly) that even the non-fiction seems like it is a part of the make-belief, while the fiction seems like a real-life narration.
It reminded me of my grandmother’s bedtime stories that began with a real incident or historical fact, and as they went along relied more and more heavily on imagination, with the final story regaling you with a narrative that had just the right doses of fiction and non-fiction to keep you entertained and yet intrigued. Eager to know more you’d probably conduct more research the next morning, asking questions from the more informed family members and devouring books to explore the truth, only to conclude that Granny’s over-imaginative stories were far more interesting.
The Legend of Genghis Khan is exactly that – a memorable tale that will leave you a little bit intrigued and a little bit fascinated. You may even end up sitting up all night researching on the life and exploits of Genghis Khan, only to discover that history does indeed repeat itself and once again, you’re left wondering why you didn’t believe the fictional tale and leave it at that. You end with an experience that begins with the book, makes you question and investigate, and finally brings you back to the book-I suspect that was Basu’s intent, anyway.
Give this book a read–whether or not you’re a history enthusiast-not just for its exceptional story-telling but also to explore the ‘untold story’ of the most powerful and fearsome ruler in all of history.
Did you enjoy reading the review? What is your favourite historical fiction? Do share your thoughts and comments via the comment box below.