“Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight…”: Elias Khoury’s ‘The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol’

“He tried to explain to her that words must enclose meaning so that meaning can keep its meaning, and that in spoken Arabic they don’t say “I want to smoke a cigarette” but “I want to drink a cigarette” so the tobacco melts in the mouth and imparts to it the flavour of the plant.” (p. 74)

In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Edward Said attributes to him the following quote about Lebanon: “the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.” That could well be the blurb of Khoury’s latest novel, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. Sinalcol is the story of Karim, who flees Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. Karim wants to build a new world for himself in Montpellier, abandoning “his life among the bombs that had made gaps in his soul and his memory precisely so that he could begin a new one…” (p. 204), to “erase his memories and manufacture new ones” (p. 227).

But now, at the age of forty, with a successful dermatology practice, married to a Frenchwoman and with two daughters, Karim inexplicably accepts his brother’s invitation to return to Beirut and help set up a hospital during the temporary truce. And from the outset, it is clear to Karim that the hospital is no more than a reason of convenience. When he had left Lebanon, he had done so under the shadow of personal and political betrayal, “his life…  like a rubble of events and memories that it was beyond him by then to reorganize” (p. 204). The intervening years in a faraway country have only served to heighten his own sense of dislocation. Even as the Lebanese Civil War intensifies, his brother marries Hend, his lover, whom he had left behind when he fled, and his father dies. So now, after all these years, Karim is driven to return, to “repair his mirror and redraw his image” (p. 267), and to “find” once more an enigmatic individual lost to him in the northern-Lebanese city of Tripoli, who goes only by the name of “Sinalcol” (expectedly, we are left in uncertainty until the very end about whether Sinalcol exists at all, whether he’s alive or dead, or simply an invented alter ego of Karim’s).

Mirrors play a central role in Khoury’s novel, beginning with the title. At the heart of Sinalcol is the idea that just as an individual needs to construct a stable and defined image of herself for the sake of her personal and mental integrity, nations too must have their mirrors before them, for succour and reassurance. But mirrors break. In the middle of his increasingly fraught attempts to reconcile himself to his memories, to Beirut, and to his family and his former lover, Karim realises that civil war is “an assemblage of broken mirrors that run parallel to one another, making of the fragments images that reproduce each other but refuse to form a coherent whole” (p. 267). In a strange way, his own dislocation, and his inability to put his ideas “in a vessel that imposes form on them, adding to and subtracting from them” (p. 267) is “mirrored” by his nation’s inability to impose form and coherence upon its own past and present.

The book’s own form embodies this sense of dislocation. For old readers of Khoury, this style will be immediately familiar: there is no continuous narrative (although there is a lot more of it than in Little Mountain and Yalo, for instance!); characters – whether it is Karim’s lover Hend, her mother, his brother Nasim, or himself – are scattered and broken, fruitlessly trying to make sense and impose patterns upon themselves and their lives; events are told and retold, each time partially and from different perspectives and points of view, taking radically different hues and complexions, and sometimes even contradicting each other, so that rather than proceeding linearly, the book unravels itself like a complex web; and even at the end, one is not quite sure what exactly happened, and how it happened.

Nor is Sinalcol a simplistic morality tale, or a polemic. Although its dominant theme might be the individual’s – and nation’s – need for mirrors (“He didn’t tell her that a person cannot live without his mirrors...”  (p. 228), both Khoury and his characters are circumspect about what mirrors can do. In one of Khoury’s previous novels, Gate of the Sun, another character, Khaleel, fears being trapped in one version of history, akin to being trapped before one mirror, and becoming a prisoner of the image that one sees (in Gate of the Sun, it is the image of the Palestinian as a prisoner). In Sinalcol, in almost Kundera-esque terms, Karim resists converting reality into symbols (and it seems that Khoury uses the image and the symbol almost interchangeably), because “when we resort to turning things into symbols it liberates us from responsibility and makes of human experience an arena of random happenings, so that life becomes no more than a story” (p. 267). Hend, to whom this is said, does not understand.

Along with the dominant theme, as in most Khoury novels, there are a number of familiar sub-themes that the novel explores. The most important – as ever – is revolution, and the failure of the revolutionary imagination. In Gate of the Sun, it was about the institutionalisation – and stasis – of the Palestinian struggle. In Sinalcol, it is about the Islamisation of the Lebanese (and Palestinian) struggle. There is a quiet, almost despairing inevitability about how Karim sees his former (secular, communist) comrades transform their own characters – and the character of the struggle – into identities that are defined by Islam (I don’t want to go on being a fool because that way the sects will swallow us up, the Left will die, the Palestinian cause will become a religious cause, and we’ll lose everything” (p. 212)). But even there, Khoury is circumspect. One of the most important characters in the novel is a Palestinian fedayeen called Jamal, whom Karim is in love with (or believes himself to be), and who dies while hijacking an Israeli bus in Haifa. Soon after, Karim is asked by the leadership of the revolution to write an article about her, since his skill as a storyteller has not gone unnoticed (“he said your article on the crusaders was excellent because it was made up of stories…” (p. 211)) For this, they give him her memoirs. Events intervene, and the story is never written, but her memoirs remain with Karim. Many years later, when he returns to Beirut, Karim is asked – and then threatened – by the now-Islamicist leadership to hand over the memoirs. He resists, but even as he does so, he thinks to himself:

“… supposing they were modified and their contents played around with and her picture put on the cover with her hair – which, the last time he’d seen it, in her posters, had been flying in the wind – hidden from sight by an Islamic headscarf and a frown in place of her laughing eyes, would he then hand over her papers? What should he do with the papers? Should he leave them to turn yellow and disintegrate in the drawer? Did the Islamists, now the rising power, not have as much right to take control of their past as the Leftists had had in their day when they’d made a turbaned sheikh and warrior such as Izz el-Din Qassam an icon of the class struggle?” (p. 398)

I paused for a few moments here, thinking about how interesting it is that Karim uses ‘power’ and ‘right’ almost interchangeably, even though we would normally think of them as diametrically opposed to each other. In the unending struggle for control over narrative, Khoury seems to be telling us, there’s never a clear-cut moral answer. I wonder, though: is the claim that everyone acts amorally when it comes to representing the past (and that therefore, nobody is better than the other)? Or is it that everyone has a moral right to represent the past in a way that allows him or her to “take control” over it, to own it, as it were?

And then, of course, there is memory and language, meaning and homeland, and the limits of memory and language in the search for meaning and homeland. An instance of Karim’s continuing dislocation in France is his developing a stutter on hearing of Hend’s marriage to his brother, Nasim: “He’d started to feel that words were betraying him, that he couldn’t relax in the French language. Words, as his father used to say, are the land in which one feels at home” (p. 7). Karim’s wife – Bernadette – however, can never understand his obsession for homelands. And much like language, memory too, is dislocated in a fractured world: “because memory needs a place, time erases memories, and people only come across their memories in the crevices of places”, so that it begins to fail in its basic task – that is, “since it cannot stand inconsistencies… [to] draw… an immutable picture of things.” (p. 251)

And then there’s the sense of the thickness of language, of language almost as a physical object in the world, through a series of striking images: “He knew that people cover themselves with words for warmth…” (p. 239); “… words, like seeds, need ground to receive them, and Hend’s ears weren’t ready” (p. 239); “Muna hadn’t liked his comparisons or his talk of love, perhaps because she’d felt his words weren’t addressed to her, were a kind of delirious speech with which he filled the gaps in his soul” (p. 420); “What he had heard in Beirut and what he heard on that strange night was the sound of silence. Silence has a sound, it can even roar, but it is the roar of a whisper, the rattling of language, that has disintegrated and turned into letters whose wounds will not be knit” (p. 420); and then, at the very end, what could serve as the epitaph of the book, of Karim’s life story, of the Civil War, and of Khoury’s entire literary oeuvre: “He looked at the lines he’d written and found the words were piling up on top of one another, and that the language in which he’d written them no longer served to carry their meanings” (p. 422). By this time, the failure of language, the failure of a human life, and the failure of a nation have all become so entangled with each other, that there is little left to hold on to but a lingering, haunting sense of melancholy.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesThe National; Banipal; and an interview with Elias Khoury about the book.

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Paris in Books

Paris is probably one of the most densely written-about cities that there is. ‘Discovering’ it seems almost impossible, because far too many writers and artists have been there and written about their experiences in such rich detail, that it simply can’t serve as a palimpsest any longer. So perhaps the next best option is to read a sliver of writing about Paris before going there; if seeing it afresh is out of the question, then perhaps, at least, one can see it through the writing about it – perhaps a bit like reading up about the methods of the impressionist painters before letting oneself loose on the top floor of the Musee d’Orsay.

I’ve spent part of this summer in Paris. Before going, I asked around on Twitter, and picked up the following books: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, and Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. At Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, I picked up two more: Edmund White’s (again) Flaneur, and Sue Roe’s In Montmartre.

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast recounts his years in 1920s Paris as a penniless young author, struggling to make his mark, and his interactions with many of the other writers who were living in, or passing through, Paris at the time: Gertrude Stein (with whom he perhaps enjoyed the closest relationship for a while), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. I was a little hesitant about this book: I’ve never really enjoyed Hemingway, perhaps because I came to him too young. I struggled through A Farewell to Arms, and left The Sun Also Rises unfinished. This book, however, is an excellent read: deftly written, keenly observed, and with a light (almost aphoristic, at times) wry style that makes for breezy reading. The Paris it describes, of course, is entirely unrecognisable, although his city landmarks (the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens) remain. Hemingway’s Paris is a city where – he notes repeatedly – you can get by reasonably comfortably with very little money. That certainly seems to be no longer the case. It also describes a Paris where access to culture seems much more democratic than it is now – he writes about going down to the Louvre every afternoon to gaze at the paintings, something that is quite impossible now (the six-day Paris Museum Pass costs 74 Euros, and the Louvre is free only on the first Sunday of every month).

One thing struck me about this book. Hemingway is forensic – and quite merciless – in dissecting the character of his fellow-writers (Stein, Ford, Fitzgerald). However, one person who escapes the scalpel is Ezra Pound. This is particularly surprising when you consider that A Moveable Feast was put together in the late 1950s, by which time two things ought to have become blindly obvious: Pound’s support for anti-semitism and fascism, and just how destructive both these creeds were. And it’s not that Hemingway was unaware of this – here, for instance, he hedges the question by calling Pound “crazy”. How – and why – then, in a book of character sketches, does Pound manage to get a free pass?

Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, on the other hand, is almost a counterpoint to Hemingway’s literary Paris set in and around the Luxembourg Gardens. White, a famous writer and biographer, infuses a dose of politics into his account (in particular, the politics of multiculturalism, a rather contested theme): he recounts talking about Jean Genet at the Institut du Monde Arabe, visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Jewish Quarter, and “cruising” by the Seine as a gay man; even his artists’ Paris is off the beaten track – a description of the writer Colette, a visit to the little-known Gustave Moreau museum, to Charles Baudelaire’s sometime-hotel, and to the Saint-Denis basilica (on the outskirts of Paris), where French royalty lies buried. It’s an interesting, impressionistic account, quite suited for the title – “the flaneur“. There is a particularly discordant note at two points, though, when White refers to the Paris Commune as a “desparate anarchic movement.” This, of course, is a shockingly reductive (and not to mention, ahistorical) characterisation of the immensely complex phenomenon that was the Paris Commune, and about which there exists a substantial amount of scholarship. White’s unwillingness – or inability – to engage with that scholarship before writing such throwaway lines calls the integrity of the rest of the work into doubt – it makes one think three or four times before taking anything else he says in good faith.

I had a similar experience last year with Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The first time I read it, in late 2013, I was quite enamoured by Kundera’s stylistic feats in those essays, the grand sweep of his vision of the history of the novel, the effortless ease with which he seemed to find patterns and connections and draw it all together without the need for laying out the structure of the argument. Then, after reading Edward Said and coming back to Kundera, the very concept of the “European novel” and a “European canon”, which assumed “Europe” as some kind of an immutable, eternal entity untouched by four centuries of colonialism, seemed about as shallow a mode of analysis as it’s possible to have, the the dazzling stylistic feats suddenly appeared too entirely unconvincing.

Sue Roe’s In Montmartre complements Hemingway in another way: it provides the artistic foil to Hemingway’s literary reminiscences. Set about a decade and a half before Hemingway’s heyday – that is, 1900 – 1910, In Montmartre is a book about how modernist painting came to be invented by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and the rest, all of whom lived in and around Montmartre at the time, forming an artistic community of sorts.

Previously, I had read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists. In Montmartre is written in a similarly engaging way: Roe tells a compelling story about the individual lives of the artists, their struggles for acceptance and recognition, their foibles and their flaws, and their artistic visions and projects. I found In Montmartre more difficult going, though, simply because I love impressionism, but have never been able to sufficiently appreciate what came after. In Montmartre did help me understand, in a fairly lucid way, what these artists were getting at, and in particular, how their project was deeply affected by the advent of photography and cinema:

“With the rise of photography as an artistic medium, the painters’ previous ambition of imitating life in art now belonged to photographers and, increasingly, cinematographers. The aim of painting was now to find ways of expressing the painter’s own response to life, vividly demonstrated by the early work of Derain, Vlaminck and van Dongen, whose vigorous forms and bold colours would earn them the nickname ‘les Fauves’ (‘wild beasts’).”

And:

“Gertrude stein had already perceived that it was no longer possible for a painter to say that he painted the world as he saw it, since ‘he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much’ – photographed, and now filmed, in mesmerizing, sequential images that could be slowed down, speeded up or arrested, subjected to unpredictable, instantaneous transformations before the viewer’s eyes.”

And:

“Matisse explained his understanding of composition as ‘the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings’, stressing the importance of harmony and balance that was achieved only by working and reworking a picture to reflect an integrity of understanding way beyond the artist’s first impressions. ‘What I am after, above all,’ he wrote, ‘is expressionism.’ Like Cezanne, Matisse believed that artistic understanding could be achieved only by copying nature, but the practice of copying involved a profound emotional response. As Matisse put it, ‘I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture.”

Which is all very well, of course, but I must confess that even after reading a full chapter devoted to Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, I was no closer to understanding its artistic merits than I was before. That said, it certainly was fun to walk around (a radically altered) Montmartre after reading the book. However, much like White, I found Roe to be a little… unreliable on occasion. For instance, while recounting Picasso and Fernande’s decision to return an adopted girl to her orphanage, Roe insists that it was a very normal thing for the time. She hints at how, as the girl was growing older, there was the danger of sexual tension with Picasso – but omits to mention (or at least, I didn’t see it) that the decision was triggered when Fernande found that Picasso had made explicit drawings of the girl. This is a glaring omission, and the book is otherwise to meticulous and detailed for it to have been mere oversight.

And lastly, it was rather envy-inducing, once again, to read descriptions about how the Louvre was free to enter at the tun of the 20th century, and how many amateur artists would simply take their easels and start copying down the Old Masters!

Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps was undoubtedly the most difficult – and rewarding – read out of all these. Hazan’s book is probably best described as political geography (a discipline that, Kristin Ross points out in her book about the Paris Commune, was intentionally marginalised in the late 19th-century in favour of ‘regular’, apolitical geography) – a political geography of the city of Paris. In the first part of the book, Hazan takes us through each area of Paris – the Left Bank quarters, the Right Bank quarters, the villages – and places roads, landmarks, and monuments in their historical and political contexts. He explains how the composition of each area changed with successive waves of ‘modernisation’ and development, the roles they played in the tumultuous political history of the city (especially in the 19th century). In a sense, it’s like an astonishingly detailed political-historical-geographical map to the city (and because of its sheer, encyclopaedic character, probably best read on one’s third or fourth visit to Paris!).

The second part of the book – Red Paris – deals with the various insurrections that defined Paris in the Nineteenth Century, and in particular, the failed revolutions of 1830, 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1870. In particular, Hazan focuses on 1848, arguing that much of the violence visited upon the Left at the time has been buried in historical accounts that are focused on showing a gradual and inevitable progress of democracy. One of the particularly interesting points in this part of the book is a description of Victor Hugo’s role: the writer of Les Miserables, it turns out, was strongly against the 1848 insurrection, and played no small role in putting it down (although Hazan argues that his subsequent conduct suggests that he repented). It also has one of the most perceptive quotes from Marx that I’ve come across:

“… the June revolution is the ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, because realities have taken the place of words, because the republic has uncovered the head of the monster itself by striking aside the protective, concealing crown…

And Hazan has his own powerful observation to complement the argument that 1848 was a rupture in the democratic facade:

No political analysis, no press campaign, no electoral struggle, so clearly bears a message as the spectacle of people being shot in the streets.”

The last part of the book – based upon the idea of the flaneur – takes us on a different path. It too examines Paris through the lens of art first through the radical poetry of Baudelaire (‘What Baudelaire sought in the crowds was the shock of encounter, the sudden vision that kindled his imagination, creating the ‘mysterious and complex enchantment’ that was the essence of poetry‘), and his subject of the city, then through the radical paintings of Manet and Degas, and their choice of subjects – and finally, and most interestingly for me, because I’ve never read anything about this – through the development of photography (and in particular, by focusing on the work of Atget, one of the earliest photographic chroniclers of the city).

And, rounding it off, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Pariswas another kind of book entirely. If Flaneur was written in the style of a literary guidebook, Inside a Pearl (published in 2015) is definitively a memoir. During the course of his lifetime, White has come to meet – and know – an astonishing variety of individuals – from Michel Foucault to Julian Barnes, from Julia Kristeva to Marina Warner to Danilo Kis. Inside a Peal is his account of those interactions, as well as a personal memoir of life as a gay man in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The unifying thread is Paris, the city where most (but not all) of these encounters take place. Dense and laden with detail, the book can weigh you down at times, especially when the names and references are unfamiliar. However, there are enough familiar names as well (the ones I mentioned above), and they make the effort worthwhile. White’s dry, slightly melancholy tone is a perfect foil for the city he’s writing about, and his description of his preferred walk in Paris (from the Point des Arts to the Hotel the Ville) is easy to relate to (it ended up becoming one of my favourite walks as well). And from the end of the book, this passage was particularly memorable. I read it today, on my last day in Paris, and it perhaps sums it all up:

MC and I met Ed Hemingway, the writer’s grandson, who resembled the grand old man except that he was without a beard and was twenty-one. In Paris he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour but was let off when the gendarmes looked at his passport and saw his historic last name. They saluted him and let him go. Only in France… just as Cocteau had argued at Genet’s trial for theft that Genet was a modern-day Rimbaud, and you didn’t put Rimbaud in jail.”

At one point in Inside a Pearl, White writes that “Paris… had been painted and written about so thoroughly that every experience has its correlative in art.” This is quite true – and also why, perhaps, that it might be dangerous to read too much before visiting such a city. You could construct too detailed a map in your head, and then struggle to fit the actual city within its rigid, pre-formed contours.

That is why, I think, it is important to read books that suggest, but do not impose, an imagination of the city, and they do so from different perspectives, and in different ways. With some luck, my selection of books succeeded in allowing me diverse ways of seeing Paris. Oscar Wilde wrote that the grey London fogs didn’t exist until the writers and painters began describing them. Paris did exist for me before, but while I’ve been here, the books I read have helped me to make more sense of it (and by ‘sense’, here, I refer to that nameless feeling that might, with only glancing accuracy, also be described as ‘meaning’, or ‘significance’) than I might otherwise have been able to.

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“Queues were a Marxist invention…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow

In his Introduction to Little Mountain, Elias Khoury’s surrealistic novel about the Lebanese Civil War, Edward Said observes that the Arab novel has responded to the post-colonial world in two ways: through the dense realism of Naguib Mahfouz, with its focus on place and time; and the anti-realism of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, and Khoury’s Little Mountain. Moving down South, my experience with African novels (if we can bracket the problem of the term “African” novel) has fallen into the former category. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, Ousman Sembene’s Gods Bits of Wood, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved Country, and the short stories of Nadine Gordimer, have all had a powerful impact upon me, because of the sense in which they seem to be capturing something very real.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is a novel of the second kind. It reads like a cross between Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist, and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. With the former, it shares a keen sense of the absurd in the political, as well as the use of satire that spares no side. And like the latter, it almost seamlessly mingles political history with magic realism, clearly drawing upon oral and folk traditions to do so.

Set in the fictional, post-colonial African dictatorship of Abruria, The Wizard of the Crow is a 768-page long mock epic, featuring a sprawling cast of characters: the unnamed “Ruler”, his coterie of ministers, a real estate agent with pretensions to power, apparatchiks and functionaries, bystanders, an opposition movement called The Voice of the People, a radical feminist activist, and of course, the eponymous “Wizard of the Crow”, an unemployed man who becomes a famous witch-doctor in a fit of absent-mindedness. The Ruler has grand plans of embarking upon a (literal) Tower-of-Babel project called “Marching to Heaven”. Abruria is not Babylon, however, and funding for the project must come in the form of loans from the (unsubtly named) Global Bank. And so the scene is set: even as the Ruler and his Ministers attempt to show to the Global Bank Mission (and its unsubtly named “Missionaries”) that Abruria is a stable and peaceful country and an attractive investment destination, chaos begins to spread around the country, with the Wizard of the Crow and the mysterious Voice of the People at the heart of everything.

The Wizard of the Crow is an unapologetically political novel. The very choice of theme reflects the inevitability of political engagement: a post-colonial dictator embarking upon a vanity project with the aid of global capital must necessarily involve complex and fraught questions of the role and responsibility of the “West” in colonialism and the post-colony, its complicity with dictatorial “anti-communist” regimes, the relationship between colonial elites and their own constituents as well as their relationship with the (former) colonisers, the reality of geopolitics, international debt traps, and of course, the ubiquity of violence. Thiong’o’s treatment of these questions is through savage, biting satire, that spares no one. In fact, at times, his voice is so direct, that it’s hardly even satire anymore. The American Ambassador tells the Ruler (while suggesting that he step down in favour of someone younger and less erratic):

“You are very wise, your Excellency, and the West will make sure that you retire with all your wealth and that of your family and friends completely intact. We can even help it to multiple. And also, we can make sure that your successor passes a law to ensure that you are never brought to court on charges involving any of your actions during your tenure as the head of the state. And of course if you feel that you have to move to another country, that, too, can be arranged.”

There are two things, I think, that save this from descending into the realm of (uninteresting) polemic. For one, passages of this sort do not occur too frequently. In the vast canvas of the novel, they are scattered enough to be forgiven. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – they actually serve to remind us of the political truths underlying what is, for the most part, a surreal romp that involves an epidemic of “queuing” throughout the country, the prevalence of a strange disease that traps words within the speaker’s throat and renders him powerless of speech, the hostile takeover of a prison with no weapon but a bucket of excrement, and a hilariously abortive trip to the United States. This does not mean, however, that these incidents are absent of political implications themselves. The “queuing mania” has its origins in two lines that form outside the office of a real-estate agent who will potentially be given the Marching to Heaven contract: one is a line of job-seekers, and the other is of favour-seekers. The implications are obvious. And the first outbreak of the mysterious disease is when the real-estate agent tries to express a desire to become “white”, but is simply unable to bring himself to say it. Once again, the implications ought not to be spelt out, but left to the imagination.

It is here that the resemblances with Habibi are particularly stark. In The Pessoptimist, there is laughter, but the laughter barely conceals the darkness within the lines – in fact, it makes us even more aware of the darkness. So it is with The Wizard of the Crow, in moments like these, when the Ruler’s Minister address the Global Bank Missionaries:

We swear by the children of the children of the children of the children of our children to the end of the world – yes, we swear even by the generations that may be born after the end of the world – that we shall pay back every cent of the principle along with interest on interests ad infinitum.”

One does not need to mention Argentina, and Greece, and Puerto Rico, for the first shiver to run down the spine at this enthusiastic declamation, and what it entails.

The selection of quotes might give the impression that Thiong’o is particularly critical of colonialism and its successor, that much-contested term, “neoliberalism”. This is not so, however: Thiong’o does not fall into the easy trap of laying all the blame at the feet of any one entity or group, and effectively denying the other of agency. His satire spares none. After a reversal with the Global Bank, for instance, the Ruler decides to ban all queues of more than five people, with the following public justification:

“Queues were a Marxist invention, according to the Ruler, having nothing to do with African culture, which is characterized by the spirit of spontaneity. Mass disorganization – pushing and shoving – was to be the order of the day…”

With one arrow, Thiong’o pierces the conceit of political nativists, of ardent nationalists, of academic romanticisers of indigenous cultures, of the Orientalists as well as (some of) their opponents. The “derivative discourse” that is nationalism (what the historian Partha Chatterjee needs a complex, book-length work to explain) is sparely, starkly, stripped to its essentials and laid bare for all to see. Later in the book, again responding to the denial of the Global Bank to provide the funds for Marching to Heaven, Thiong’o has one of his characters declare “”Racists!”… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice.” It is strikingly accurate how this sums up a particularly complex moment of political discourse, when one mode of argumentation is an almost-reflective invocation of racism (or another similar word) to delegitimise an opponent’s position by denying them the moral right to take any position on the issue. It is an argument that must be made on occasion, but is dangerous when it begins to be made on a majority of occasions. Thiong’o understands both aspects, and that is part of what makes this not simply a work of fierce satire, but also one of a certain kind of hard-earned wisdom.

At the same time, it should not be assumed that the book is only about politics. Apart from satire being a valuable form of writing in itself (and not necessarily by reference to its subject matter), it is also fascinating to try and trace the folk influences (to the limited extent that a non-African can). In one fascinating scene, for instance, The Wizard of the Crow goes to a restaurant, and hears his own story being told back to him, in a highly garbled form. I recently came across the same trope in Nalo Hopkinson’s disturbing SF novel, The Midnight Robber, as well as seeing it in Indian folktales. It seems to be a staple!  

Appropriately, perhaps, the ending of the book is utterly ambiguous, leaving (almost) all possibilities open. Almost as if Thiong’o is holding up a mirror to life. But to end with a personal observation: I was struck by the extent to which Thiong’o characters invoke and use Indian mythos and mythology in their conversation (the protagonist, the Wizard of the Crow, has been educated in India). When the story of Drona and Eklavya is used as a parable for exploitation not by a Dalit activist in India, but by a fictional character in a novel set in post-colonial Africa, it is quite a moment of surprise. I used to think that the influence of India upon Africa is a hypothetical scenario of the future (for instance, a “scramble for Africa between China and India is imagined by Monica Byrne in her The Girl in the Road) – but if The Wizard of the Crow is anything to go by, then there is already more influence than I imagined!

 

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Connections: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones

Both Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (set in Cairo in the 1940s) and Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (set in Russia in the 1870s) are about revolutions and doomed youth. At some point, they both have their protagonists think this:

“If the awesome upheaval had not occurred, Fahmy would have perished from grief and distress. He could not have stood for life to continue on in its calm, deliberate way, treading beneath it the destinies and hopes of men.” (Palace Walk)

“He thought to himself, and this nice young woman is hurrying us to kill, to blow things up, to give history a push. What is the reason for it – fashion? A deep inner need? Or just the immense, universal impossibility of going on in the old way?” (The Impatient Ones)

 

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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz, Russia, Trifonov

“To be alive meant to collide…”

I haven’t yet read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. However, I was recently directed to this conversation between Ferrante and another Italian writer, Nicola Lagioia, where this, from Ferrante, struck me:

“The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with…”

A little later, she says:

“And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it…”

Recently, I read Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe, where I was equally struck by her summing up of this important aspect of the existentialist project:

“Ever since Husserl, phenomenologists and existentialists had been trying to stretch the definition of existence to incorporate our social lives and relationships. Levinas did more: he turned philosophy around entirely so that these relationships were the foundation of our existence, not an extension of it.”

And:

“Merleau-Ponty thinks human experience only makes sense if we abandon philosophy’s time-honoured habit of starting with a solitary, capsule-like, immobile adult self, isolated from its body and world, which must then be connected up again… instead, for him, we slide from the womb to the birth canal to an equally close and total immersion in the world.”

Of late, I’ve been feeling, more and more, that the category of the “individual”, which constitutes the basis of much of the legal order, and indeed, the foundation of the concept of “rights”, is detached from human experience precisely because it assumes the “I” without the others. I’m aware that this is an old criticism, but the communitarian alternative leaves me equally unsatisfied. I wonder how we might develop a (legal) philosophy that would acknowledge “frantumaglia” as a central feature of human experience in the world, while stopping short of making an imagined “community” the basic unit of analysis…

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Filed under Elena Ferrante, Existentialism, Italy

Lacrimae rerum and mono no aware

A few weeks ago, I wrote about lacrimae rerum – “the tears of things” – a phrase from The Aeneid, which suggests a deep sorrow that manages to sublimate itself into art. Today, someone pointed me to the Japanese phrase “mono no aware“, which translates into something rather similar-sounding: “the pathos of things”:

“The meaning of the phrase mono no aware is complex and has changed over time, but it basically refers to a “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), deriving from their transience. In the classic anthology of Japanese poetry from the eighth century, the Manyōshū, the feeling of aware is typically triggered by the plaintive calls of birds or other animals. It also plays a major role in the world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), from the early eleventh century.”

The interesting part is that mono no aware, as well, is ultimately about taking a raw emotion – sorrow – and sublimating it into a deeper experience of existence:

“The well known literary theorist Motoori Norinaga brought the idea of mono no aware to the forefront of literary theory with a study of The Tale of Genji that showed this phenomenon to be its central theme. He argues for a broader understanding of it as concerning a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general. The greatness of Lady Murasaki’s achievement consists in her ability to portray characters with a profound sense of mono no aware in her writing, such that the reader is able to empathize with them in this feeling.”

The connection is made even more clearly elsewhere:

“With this mood, acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality is elevated into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind that actually appreciates this ephemerality… Moreover, mono no aware recognises that this ephemerality is somehow integral to beauty, that beauty depends on this kind of transiency.”

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Filed under Classical Poetry, Epic, Japan, Virgil

“A torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets”: Seamus Heaney’s Redress of Poetry

In Seamus Heaney’s Casualty, a poem about a pub-going Ulsterman who ignores a curfew during the peak of the Troubles, and is killed for it, the last three lines (the poet speaking to the dead man, the “casualty”), are a study in ambivalence:

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

The ambivalence is one that runs through Heaney’s poetry, perhaps best exemplified by the section in Station Island, where (in a fictional meeting), James Joyce tells the poet to “let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” The ambivalence is about the relationship between poetry and politics, instantiated by the tension between the desire to keep words apolitical, and the temptation to intervene directly through poetry.

If such questions remain unanswered in Heaney’s verse, then The Redress of Poetry – a collection of ten lectures delivered at Oxford – gives him a chance to answer them in prose. Eight out of the ten lectures are about other poets – Christopher Marlowe, Brian Merriman, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Hugh McDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is in and through writing about these poets, however, that Heaney painstakingly constructs his own poetic manifesto, dealing with the relationship between words, culture, politics, and the world.

It is almost trite to say that politics suffuses our world, and that nothing – not even poetry – can be free of it. The very use of language is a political act, and the dream of an apolitical realm of pure art is simply that much – only a dream. This is something that Heaney is acutely aware of, and he is acutely aware of his own subject-position: as an Irishman, part of a colonised culture, and yet as a white European, also part of a colonising culture. But the question remains: and then what? The task of The Redress of Poetry is to show how language and poetry are tangled up with politics and with the burden of history, and yet not reducible to it.

The project is set out in the opening, eponymous essay, where Heaney notes that “poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.” Soon after, he writes that “[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.” 

If there is whiff of the old poetry-as-a-vehicle-for-revealing-hidden-aesthetic-[apolitical]-truths here, it is quickly dispelled when Heaney moves to examining his selection of poets. The first essay is about Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, and Heaney begins by acknowledging that he has “learnt to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism”, and therefore “what I want to do here… is to find a way of reaffirming the value and rights of Marlowe’s poetry in our own post-colonial time.” How is one to do this? Heaney’s answer is that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even for the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things… it is obvious that poetry’s answer to the world is not given only in terms of the content of its statements. It is given perhaps even more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; and it is given also by its need to go emotionally and artistically ‘above the brim’, beyond the established norms.” Form, then, is the answer: form that, in a certain sense, exists prior to language, language with all its baggage and burdens of history (it is perhaps no coincidence that Heaney uses the phrase “musical trueness). At another place – in his essay on Hugh McDiarmid, Heaney seems to affirm this when he writes that “the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.” 

And yet, in the same essay, Heaney describes his poetry as composed of “a language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” In a collection that is otherwise so acutely conscious about the place of language in the world, the reference to “language pure as air” (a little reminiscent of Colm Toibin, at one point, talking about language that is free and untouched) comes across as surprisingly naive. Indeed, it directly contradicts a particularly brilliant observation that Heaney makes in his essay on Elizabeth Bishop: “it is precisely Bishop’s linguistic virtuosity that creates the delightful illusion of access to a pristine, pre-linguistic state.”

In fact, the contrast is all the more jarring, because Heaney spends a substantial amount of time interrogating the precise relationship between language and the world. In his essay on John Clare, Heaney writes that “Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of those whose spoken tongue is an English which sets them at cultural and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative ‘Official Standard’.” This paragraph comes soon after he approvingly quotes Tom Paulin’s description that there is a “sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language.” The use of the adjective “authoritarian” to describe “language” is surely a carefully-chosen one, and is meant to indicate the political baggage that language carries. And in that same essay, Heaney ends with one of his most eloquent passages, basing the idea of a “world culture” in the equality of languages:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

Of course, even as he speaks about a world culture, Heaney’s vision is enclosed within his own “horizon” (to borrow a term from Gadamer): to make his point about “outback” and “dialect” cultures, he references an Australian (Les Murray) poet’s choice of a Greek image (Boeotia). While Boeotia might be an “outback” relative to Athens, and Hesiod a rustic in relation to Homer, these references are all part of an existing canon that is the product of a certain universalisation of a “Western” aesthetic. It would be churlish, of course, to blame Heaney for this: the Redress of Poetry is a beautifully self-aware book – but it is a point that must be made. In a similar fashion, in his essay on Dylan Thomas, Heaney writes about how he treated “language as a physical sensation“, and then goes on to call this an “Egyptian” style (with references to fertility, the Nile, and Anubis)! He uses the word “Egyptian” on more than one occasion to describe Thomas, and each time it is as if Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is swimming in one’s mind’s eye – you could not ask for a more textbook case of unthinking, internalised Orientalism. Gadamer was right after all: nobody can escape the bounds of their horizon. I point out these (what in my opinion are) slips, to highlight, as well, that any exploration of such topics in the world constructed along the axes of power and dominance, is fraught with peril, and even a walker as sure-footed as Heaney is bound to slip on a couple of occasions.

And these are but minor blemishes – for the most part, The Redress of Poetry is a beautiful book. Heaney has that unique ability of capturing the essence of a poet, or a poem, with impossible economy. In his analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he writes that “the master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” I cannot think of a more perfect description of Wilde, and of this poem of Wilde’s. His description of Hugh McDiarmid is equally pithy and brilliant: “In 1922 he emerged like a new and fiery form out of the agitated element of Christopher Grieve’s imagination; or it could be said with equal justification that he emerged from the awakened energies of the Scots language itself.” On Dylan Thomas: “Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language.” And perhaps, in closing, it would be most apt to quote his observation on poetry and the world, as a whole: “The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.”

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Filed under Ireland, Seamus Heaney