Book: Hell! No Saints in Paradise
Author: A. K. Asif
Plot: Pakistani-American agnostic Ismael sets out to find the truth about Heaven and Hell as described in Islamic theology. His quest sends him on a surreal journey that lands him back in an unrecognisable Pakistan, now part of an Islamic Caliphate under a brutal fundamentalist government.
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Price: Originally ₹599 Paperback; discounts available.
I’d like to begin by pointing out that I am not Muslim, and that I know very little of the Quran. This is important, given that the book relies heavily on aspects of the Quran for its central story-line; without finding out more about all that was mentioned in the book, I couldn’t have written this review. My old friend Seher Dareen (who has been on Spiktinot before) and my new friend Heba Ahmed contributed their thoughts about Islamic theology and the Quran to this review, and I can’t thank them enough for that.
Hell! No Saints in Paradise was written by A. K. Asif, about whom I could find precious little on the internet. The very short bio on the HarperCollins website was not much help either. The problem with this is that the book now lacks context for me: context about the author’s thoughts, of their life experience and of exactly how they came to to think that this would be an acceptable book to write.
The last time I disliked a protagonist’s voice this much was while reading Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and that we can perhaps attribute to the fact that I read The Catcher in the Rye out of time. That book is best read as a teenager- most specifically as a white, male teenager- and I think this book is better read as a teen boy too, because for an adult woman, the protagonist’s incessant complaints, repeated mood swings and constant- let me repeat, constant– horniness is, to put it bluntly, unbearable. I do not understand it, I do not relate to it and the guy’s way of viewing women is the textbook definition of the heterosexual male gaze. There is literally no woman in the book that he does not size up based on how fuckable she is, including the lesbian woman he meets in the first few pages of the book.
Ismael is privileged and classist- it’s hypervisible in the way he deals with his two servants in the book.
Of course, it’s not as if novelists are barred from creating such characters, but there is no sense of awareness that he is any such thing in the narrative, which makes the characterisation problematic. He’s also not very good at linking cause and effect chains together, or if he does, he sets thoughts of repercussions aside with a single-minded devotion to his libido. I’d admire the guy’s dedication to getting some if I wasn’t so revolted at his complete disregard for the women he’s getting some with. He’s also judgmental of a woman who drinks the exact same aphrodisiac that he drank- and loved.
Perhaps this would be understandable if not excusable in a teenaged protagonist.
But this dude is thirty years old. All I could think of while reading the book was how here was a classic man-child, the kind that women of all orientations have to tolerate while being encouraged to grow up themselves- because, of course, boys will be boys.
About half-way through, I started waiting for one woman- just one woman- to show up who did NOT want to have sex with this man. Nope. Nada. Zilch. Waited for the whole dang story and then after it got over I just sat there like, “What did I just read?”
Here’s where Seher’s and Heba’s contributions come in.
I had contacted the two of them to discuss, specifically, the idea of houris, which plays a huge role in the book. Houris, according to Heba, are companions to people who attain Heaven in the afterlife. She mentioned that they are not all female, and their primary function is certainly not just to be had sex with. They are beautiful, but not just mute companions created for fornication with men.
Seher concurred with this and further clarified a curious detail in the book- that married women need to be covered from head to toe at all points when in Heaven. According to her studies, this is not what she had been taught.
I did a basic Google search and found some points that seemed to contradict to my friends’ understanding.
For example, Wikipedia categorically stated that Houris are women ‘untouched by men or jinn’, chaste, beautiful, hairless, with no secretions and clear skin ‘visible to the marrow of the ankles’, and two of them will be promised as wives to each man who attains heaven. This article talk about how there has been very less discussion about what exactly awaits women who attain heaven.
This detail is important to resolve, because on a personal level, I find this idea of ideal, perfect women being promised as trophies to men who attain heaven extremely problematic.
I don’t think there’s a way to resolve this without my actually reading the Quran and then speaking to scholars who can help me to understand it better. However, both my friends reacted with astonishment and shock at the idea of houris presented in the book- as rabid, libidinous women who literally keep a man- Ismael- as a sex-slave in the book. They both disagreed with this presentation of one of Islam’s most fundamental concepts.
This is without even considering the two main female characters, Laila and Sophie.
One of them falls hopelessly in love with Ismael for no discernible reason and then is promptly cheated on by him in favour of the other. I would like to read a book on this woman and how annoyed she must have been to suddenly find herself in this position, to be honest. The idea that women’s subjugation, as performed in the brutal regime depicted in the book, can be bad, is literally never mentioned- not with respect to the covered women Ismael sees on the roads and not with respect to the seven wives his father marries, which Ismael only resents because he happens to have a crush on one of them.
I’m exhausted at the way male novelists treat women in their books. I’m frustrated, but mostly, I’m furious. Screw the patriarchy.
The Handling of Consent
There’s a pretty long-drawn sub-plot involving rape, or at least non-consensual sex. The plot goes absolutely nowhere- it is only a device to slow down the pace of the story. It has no effect on Ismael’s psyche, which is incredible considering he’s held as a literal sex slave- a description he himself provides. He’s, instead, proud of his sexual ‘exploits’ during the time. This is classic ‘boys are always horny and therefor all sex is welcome and they cannot experience sexual assault’ territory.
The entire idea of humans being despotic and horrible to each other in the regime is brought down by a last-minute twist. The whole build-up is rendered futile, the humans are absolved of responsibility and the blame is shifted. What a waste of an opportunity for a memorable and philosophically and spiritually fitting ending.
The writer certainly has no problem with descriptions. Those of the spiritual realms Ismael encounters are very arresting and vivid. I found it a little irksome that the cliff hangers came in the first part for the next chapter instead of the last part of the last chapter, which is not how cliff hangers work. It’s always a problem with me in genre books, especially ones in which one can expect to see surprising reveals, because I keep glancing down and spoiling the plot for myself. This was not a problem here but it also made the reading experience much less enjoyable. There were also some spelling errors in the book. Clearly, the seeds of a series or franchise, has been sown in this narrative, because a number of untied ends have been left dangling.
All I could think of was that this was not a book meant for women. It was a book writing the fantasy of a man for men, for them to ejaculate all over my face as I read it. One reviewer mentions the issue of how unnecessary the numerous lust-filled scenes were: at best we either cringe while reading those scenes (or yawn and roll my eyes at how unrealistic it all is, which is generally my reaction to porn) and at worst we get as furious and utterly disgusted as I have.
Many thanks to Writers Melon for providing me with a free copy of this book, with their incredible patience regarding how long I took to put this up- sorry, guys! Still adjusting to the whole work-study-blog triple whammy- and for being okay with me writing a non-positive review. Many networks do not do that.