“No, it is not the ‘end of history’”: Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs

“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”

Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.

Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!

The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.

This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.

That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:

“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”

Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:

“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”

And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.

It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.

A brilliant interview with Alleg can be found on Jadaliyya.

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“In the country of silence, the light in your eyes can land you in a concentration camp”: Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Days and Nights of Love and War’

“Every day one of the prisoners stood up and read to the others. I wanted to tell you, Don Alejo, that the prisoners chose to read El siglo de las luces (Explosions in the Cathedral) and couldn’t. The guards allowed the book in, but the prisoners couldn’t read it. I mean, they began it several times and had to put it down. You made them feel the rain and smell the violent fragrances of the earth and the night. You brought them the sea the roar of the waves breaking against the keel of a boat and you showed them the throbbing of the sky at daybreak, and they couldn’t keep reading this.”

Replicating a fractured life in a fractured continent, Eduardo Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War is a memoir of discontinuous and fragmentary anecdotes, impressionistic, almost aphoristic at times. To use Mourid Barghouti’s memorable phrase while entering Palestine from exile, Galeano’s work is an attempt to “collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away.” Barghouti goes on to talk about collecting “the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments…” – and that is exactly what Galeano’s impressionistic, discontinuous, almost aphoristic narrative tries to achieve. “My memory will save what is worthwhile,” he writes in the beginning, “My memory knows more about me than I do. It doesn’t lose what deserves to be saved.”

What is saved is a lifetime of political activism in Montevideo, in Buenos Aries, and in Havana, in the stifling shadow of the mid-20th century Latin American dictatorships. “Custom houses for words, incinerations of words, cemeteries for words are organized.” Galeano recalls the kidnappings, the disappearances, the terror – and what it does to the soul of the individual. “Censorship truly triumphs when each citizen is transformed into the implacable censor of his own acts and words.” And yet, it is not always bleak hopelessness. He recalls, for example:

“Today I discover that once a month, the day the magazine comes out, a group of men cross the Rio Uruguay to read it.
There are about twenty of them. The group leader is a professor of about sixty who has spent a long time in prison.
In the morning they leave Paysandu and cross over to Argentine soil. They all chip in and buy an issue of ‘Crisis’ and then go to a cafe. One of them reads aloud, page by page. They all listen and discuss the material. The reading lasts all day. When it ends, they leave the magazine at the cafe as a present for the owner, and return to my country, where it is banned.
‘Even if it were just for this,’ I think, ‘it would be worthwhile.”

But what is saved also is love and laughter, refusing to wilt even in that shadow: “… the trees were alive, they were accomplices, and the world softly reeled at our feet.” And what is saved is the memory of larger-than-life, unforgettable characters: of the El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, whose “poetry was like him, loving mocking combative“, killed in an internecine vendetta, and of whom his friends believed that he would have gone to his death “roaring with laughter”; and of Ariel Dorfman, Chilean dramatist in exile in France,  who meets an unknown compatriot on a train to Paris, expressing a wish to become a clown. “It must be a sad profession.” Yes. But I am sad.

What accompanies the memories, however, and lends a depth and richness to them, is a sense of self-reflection, a sometimes bemused self-awareness. Even though he is writing a political memoir, the history of a continent, Galeano notes that “I am the world, but very small. A man’s time is not history’s time, although, admittedly, we would like it to be.” Elsewhere, remembering a reading session with friends, he recalls that “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.” Offered without judgment, but there is nonetheless an almost rueful acknowledgment about the eternal temptations of revolution and lyricism, the kind that Kundera warns us so savagely against.

Accompanying the self-reflection, as well, is a keen wisdom, a wisdom that is borne out of a lifetime of experiences, many of them bitter, all of them real. Recently, during a dinner-time conversation, my father recalled an anecdote from the life of the Russian cellist Rostropovich: while instructing one of his students in playing a Brahms sonata, Rostropovich said to her: “you haven’t shed enough tears in your life.” Reading Days and Nights of Love and War, one feels that one is in the presence of a wisdom that has been forged in more than a lifetime’s fair share of tears. This is reflected, at times, in his choice of anecdotes. He recalls, for instance, a director telling him about filming in a poor part of Chile:

“The local persons were “extras” in the scenes where there were masses. Some of them played themselves. Others played soldiers. The soldiers invaded the valley, and with bloodshed and fire, threw the peasants off the land. The film was the chronicle of the massacre… the problems began on the third day. The peasants who wore uniforms, rode horseback, and shot blanks had become arbitrary, bossy, and violent. After each day of filming, they would harass the other peasants.”

But perhaps nowhere is that tempered wisdom more evident than at the end of the book, when Galeano notes, about living and surviving in a dictatorship: “Joy takes more courage than grief. In the end, we are accustomed to grief.”

My copy of Days and Nights of Love and War is prefaced by a brilliant introduction from Sandra Cisneros. Wisely – and very riskily – Cisneros adopts the same style for her Introduction that Galeano does for his book. Brilliantly, she pulls it off. Her own brand of wisdom is refracted clearly in the few passages she takes up, most notably in her recounting of her first meeting with Galeano: “The book is the sum of our highest potential. Writers, alas, are the rough drafts.”

Days and Nights of Love and War is certainly the sum of our highest potential.


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“Hell is – other people”: Jean Paul Sartre, ‘No Exit and Three Other Plays’

I am not very familiar with Jean-Paule Sartre’s philosophy (I’ve never dared to take up Being and Nothingness). Despite that, I found his collection of plays – No Exit, The Flies, Dirty Hands, and The Respectful Prostitute – very striking (I was awake until 2AM last night reading Dirty Hands). Each play is masterfully written, emotionally taut, with whiplash-like searing dialogues, made all the more effective by the way they are parsed out across the play.

In No Exit, a crisp one-act play, three characters die and are transported to Hell. Instead of finding eternal hellfire, they find a comfortable room, with just the three of them to give each other company. As they probe each other like dentists’ scalpels, causing ‘creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough‘, they realise that each one is destined to ‘act as the torturer of the two others.’ Each needs a kind of validation that the others are unprepared to give – and the play closes with the memorable line, ‘Hell is – other people.’

The Flies is Sartre’s retelling of the Oresteia. It is not exactly a post-colonial take, like Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest, but nonetheless contains certain important departures from the original. In particular, Sartre uses the plays to explore his ideas about free will and destiny, and the human need to be able to make sense of life. Orestes arrives in Argos, tortured by the unbearable lightness of being, sans memories or associations that can bind him in a meaningful way to the land of his birth; his inevitable murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra is as much an act of reclamation as it is an act of vengeance (the latter motivation virtually disappears in Sartre’s retelling); it’s also an act of freedom. In Sartre’s play, Zeus is a constant physical presence, in the form of an old man, who repeatedly tries to put Orestes off. Orestes’ act, ultimately, is a rebellion against ‘destiny’; and by making him taking personal responsibility for the deed, Sartre is, in a sense, writing back against the Greek view of the inevitability of tragedy, and the concept of moral luck.

Dirty Hands – for me, the most gripping of the plays – is set in the imaginary country of Illyria, and follows the fortunes of a Communist party apparatchik (Hugo) as he tries to liquidate a senior leader (Hoederer) deemed a traitor by the Party’s executive. Although he succeeds in the end, inevitably enough, Hoederer is subsequently rehabilitated, and Hugo must then disavow his act, the act that had singularly provided meaning to his life.

The Respectful Prostitute – the last play in the collection – is unlike the other three. It contains no exposition of Sartre’s philosophy; rather, it is a short, visceral, explosive, and brutal take on the violent racial prejudice in the Jim Crow American deep south. A white man rapes (or attempts to rape) a white woman. A black man is blamed for it, and the lynch mob is out. The woman is pressurised to sign a statement affirming that it was, indeed, the black man who had done it. Inevitably, the play ends in complete tragedy.

Keeping aside The Respectful Prostitute, I found some overlapping themes running through the first three plays. The first is – to paraphrase Victor Frankl – the individual’s search for meaning. Previously on this blog, I’ve invoked Carl Jung’s memorable phrase, ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience‘, which describes perfectly the obsessive desire that we all have to fit our lives into patterns of coherence and meaning, ‘the reassurance of logical systems.’ In No Exit, this is taken to its extreme – sitting in hell, already dead, Garcin says, ‘I was setting my life in order.’ His eternal torture, ultimately, is his need to seek validation for his actions in life, from his co-inmate Inez, which she refuses to give him. In The Flies, this search for meaning is expressed in Orestes’ debilitating feeling of rootlessness. ‘If there were something I could do,’ he laments, ‘… something to give me the freedom of the city; if even by a crime, I could acquire their memories, their hopes and fears, and fill with these the void within me, yes, even if I had to kill my own mother…‘ memory is what binds an individual to a place, and it is that binding that is needed for life to have meaning. And this theme reaches a brilliant apotheosis in Dirty Hands, where the meaning of Hugo’s life is entirely at the mercy of the Party Narrative. His sense of self is inextricably linked to his act of killing, and the symbolic significance of that act changes from the heroic to the useless, taking with it Hugo’s will to live.

Closely connected to this theme is a parallel one – how our need for meaning (or validation) binds us to oppressive systems. In No Exit, Garcin cannot abide the idea that he fled from war-recruitment not out of principle, but out of cowardice. ‘Coward’ and ‘hero’, of course, are social constructions of a particularly oppressive sort. The  theme is sharpest in The Flies, where an entire mythos of abnegation and self-flagellation for the citizens of Argos is constructed around an imaginary expiation for Agamemon’s original crime. At one point, while reading the play, I came across an annotation that read “of Grand Inquisitor” (it must have been one of my parents). I was immediately reminded, of course, of the Dostoyevskian parable – the predicable oppressiveness of surrendering to a system is preferably to the uncertain agonies of freedom. In Dirty Hands, the system takes the terrifying – and familiar – form of the Party Narrative. Hugo is comfortable as long as he can believe uncritically in the Party’s view of Hoederer as a traitor; once chinks begin to appear in that flawless system, Hugo’s entire world turns upside down, leading to the inevitable, climactic tragedy.

Despite their very different intellectual settings – Hell, classical Greece, and mid-century communism –  the striking continuities offer up a priceless window into Sartre’s thinking (apart from being thrilling reads). Maybe I can do without Being and Nothingness after all!

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Robert Harris ‘Imperium’

I’ve just finished reading Robert Harris’ Imperium, which is the first book of his Cicero Trilogy. Cicero has always been a figure of fascination for me, ever since I read Julius Caesar – and more recently, and concretely, as a republican and a lawyer. Imperium charts his career from his first forays into public life as a ‘new man’ (i.e., a non-aristocrat), armed with nothing but his oratory and forensic skill in the law courts of the Republic. Through the eyes and narrative voice of his slave-secretary, Tiro (who also invented the shorthand), it follows him as he negotiates alliances and enmities with the powerful men of Rome – Pompey, Crassus, Hortensius, and other aristocratic members of the Senate – in his attempt to attain his goal of becoming Consul, the highest public office in Rome.

I have very little by way of substantive commentary about this book, apart from saying that Harris does an outstanding job of bringing Republican Rome to life, with all its colour, life, movement, and horrors. The book moves at the pace of a thriller (I stayed up till 2 AM to finish half of it, and then read the rest of it in a flight, a taxi, and a cafe, the next day). Its descriptions of the raucous public elections and of the cut-and-thrust of legal battle (it features the famous historical event of Cicero’s prosecution of Verres, which is often the opening chapter in compilations of Cicero’s speeches) is gripping and entertaining. Tiro’s narrative voice – engaged, sympathetic, humorous, but also unsparing, is perfect for the role. And despite the seriousness of the underlying theme – the tragedy of how idealism is undermined by the necessity of political compromise, to the point at which power becomes an end in itself, and idealism is reduced to a veneer – the book never allows itself to be bogged down by its own gravitas.

I’m waiting eagerly to buy and read the next two instalments. Much recommended. Not to mention, the descriptions of the courtroom battles will be of special interest to lawyers!

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2015: The Year in Books

It’s been another year of fascinating literary discoveries. I’ve been able to re-engage with my first love, fantasy and science fiction (seeking out a mix of the canonical and the contemporary). I’ve tried to read more non-fiction (essays) than usual. In some ways, this has been compelled: taking up a day job that requires long periods of non-stop work, interspersed with sudden and unexpected breaks, has necessarily shaped the kind of reading I’ve been able to do – one that is amenable to jerky stop-start bursts. This was certainly why I was unable to finish Cities of Salt, the kind of novel that requires painstaking continuity – and also perhaps why I’ve been able to review less than I’d have liked, since it’s been so difficult to find those uninterrupted three hours that one needs to think through, structure, and write a review. One of the resolutions for 2016 must be to find those pockets of time!

Picks of the year :Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Here goes – impressionistic grades out of five, and one-sentence summaries, as ever:

European Fiction:

  1. Sandor Marai, Embers (****): An explosive novel about memory and desire, in the background of pre-War and inter-War Europe stifled by social conventions. Reminiscent of Ismail Kadare, in its atmospherics.
  2. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (****): Classic Kundera, savage, uncompromising, darkly funny.
  3. Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (***): Vintage Kadare, with a few twists. Not as convincing as the rest of his work.
  4. Colm Toibin, The South (****): Gossamer-silky story of love, solitude, and loss, moving between Barcelona and Ireland (two places I’ve never been to, but dream of all the time)
  5. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (***): Surreal group of short stories (the precursor of magic realism, it is said), with some painfully sharp imagery.
  6. John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (****): Finally got around to reading this classic, and absolutely loved this. Perhaps one of the first instances of meta-fiction; and definitely, a keen and acute sense of gender politics.
  7. Ismail Kadare, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (***): Another Kadare novel about honour, death and the Kanun in mountainous Albania. Not quite as powerful as Broken April.

Asian Fiction:

1. Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (*****): One of my picks of the year. A sprawling novel about 20th Century Indonesian history, sprinkled with a dose of magic realism and a topping of dark humour. Reminiscent of Llosa at his best.

2. Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (**): Sruggled with this for 150 pages, and then dropped it. Heretical thought: maybe Pamuk has run out of things to say.

Latin American Fiction:

1. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (****): Llosa’s sheer versatility never ceases to amaze. This novel is pure jouissance, with a single-minded focus on the erotic that reminded me of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but much more, er, palatable.

2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Of Love and Other Demons (****): I’m not a great fan of Marquez, but this was my favourite out of the ones that I’ve read. Taut and tightly-paced, with some truly memorable characters.

North Africa/Middle East/Arab Fiction

1. Ahdaf Souief, The Map of Love (***): A riveting politico-love story set during the heady days of 19th century Egyptian anti-colonialism; tended to get a little too descriptive towards the end, and could have been shorter.

2. Latifa Zayyat, The Open Door (*****): Set in the Egypt leading up to Nasser’s revolt, often called the first Arab feminist novel; depicts events that were contemporaneous with the setting of Mehfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, but from a very different lens. One of my stand-out reads of the year.

3. Kamel Daoud, The Merseult Investigation (****): A brilliant story, told from the perspective of the brother of the unnamed Arab shot dead in Camus’ Stranger. In the tradition of post-colonial reclamation of memory and humanity, such as Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest. Read this through the lens of Edward Said.

4. Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt (***): The canonical novel about the tragedy that befalls an Arab oasis-village after oil is discovered beneath their land. I must confess, I had to abandon this novel half-way. It is clearly a vital and essential work, but the dense description, after a point, made it very difficult to sustain, especially with my stop-start reading schedules.

African Fiction:

     1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (***): Finally got around to reading this canonical work, for a book club. Did not resonate with me as much as Anthills of the Savannah, or his book of essays, but I can sense how it was pathbreaking for its time and place.

2. Nuruddin Farah, Crossbones (***): A harrowing novel about journalism in war-torn Somalia. Tended to get a little too descriptive at times, but an essential read.

Indian Fiction:

  1. Perumal Murugan, One Part Woman (***): I bought this out of a sense of political solidarity, as much as anything else. It felt like a great book bogged down by (what I thought was) an uninspired translation.
  2. Aditya Sudarshan, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (***): An eerie politici-fantastical thriller, with some acute observations about urban Indian society, but an unsatisfactory ending.

Fantasy and Science-Fiction

1. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Time Wanderers (*****): The Soviet duo have probably written some of the greatest science-fiction in the history of the genre, but continue to be relatively unknown. The Time Wanderers is less popular even within their oeuvre, but I found it absolutely brilliant (especially the premise, and the ending).

2. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard To Be A God (****): Translated for the first time directly from Russian, I reviewed this for Strange Horizons (here). The premise is utterly brilliant, the execution not always so. Still very much word a read. The Paris Review also carried an article on this earlier this year (here).

3. Robert Jackson Bennett, The City of Stairs (****): Good, old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute, stay-up-till-4AM-reading epic fantasy involving Gods, heroes, and a city of stairs.

4. Anthony Trevelyan, The Weightless World (***): An interesting debut SF novel set in Maharashtra (!). I reviewed it for Strange Horizons (here)

5. Karel Capek, RUR and War With the Newts (****): The author who coined the word “robot”. This classic of SF comes with a sharp, brilliant introduction by Adam Roberts.

6. M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart (**): I utterly loved Viriconium. I was expecting more of the same from this one, but it failed to convince. Seemed to be trying too hard, at times.

7. Samuel R. Delaney, Babel-17 (*****): The canonical SF novel from the 60s is worth its fame. Brilliant exploration of the link between language and the construction of reality, set in the background of thrill-a-minute space opera.

8. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (***): Had heard a lot about it, so approached it with very high expectations – which, perhaps inevitably, it did not live up to. Still, an enjoyable epic-fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist, and some vivid imagery.

9. Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (**): Takes itself too seriously, is too self-conscious about its politics, and didn’t really work (for me).

10. China Mieville, Three Moments of an Explosion (**): Definitely heretical, but I think China Mieville should stick to novels (which he’s brilliant at).

11. Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (***): A reliably consistent SF novel from Atwood. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons here.

12. Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road (***): I have very conflicted feelings about this SF novel, set in India and Africa fifty years hence, in a world in which India and China are competing in a new “scramble for Africa”. One of the protagonists is an Indian woman – rather rare in SFF! I participated in a Strange Horizons Book Club discussion about the novel here.

13. Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (***): Lovely, dense, old-school fantasy writing, with intricate world building, layered histories and myth, and conflicted characters. Almost too dense at times, if that makes sense.

14. Jo Walton, The Just City (*****): Beautiful SF novel about Athena’s attempts to recreate Plato’s Republic on an island out of space and time. The kind of novel that is stark in its simplicity, but haunts you for long after.

Miscellaneous Non-Fiction

1. Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature (****): Toibin’s portrait of eight writers, whose identities were at least partially shaped by their sexuality, is a beautiful read, albeit a little inconsistent.

2. V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (N/A): Orientalist, racist, and unreadable.

3. Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity (*****): Technically, this is an academic work of history, but is written so lucidly and simply, that it reads like a story. The account of a slave rebellion on board a ship of the West coast of South America is a powerful and moving tale. A must-read.

4. Italo Calvino, The Road to San Giovanni and Other Essays (****): Six essays that typify Calvino’s ethereal, feather-light touch.

5.  Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (*****): Read this twice – once in March, and then a second time while wandering in Mexico City and Chiapas. Paz’s epistle to Mexico is a thing of beauty.

6. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (***): Fell in love with this the first time I read it, three years ago. Now, in light of all the reading I’ve done in the intervening years, no longer sounds quite as impressive. In particular, the construction of a “Europe” seems essentialist and ahistorical, and the omission of Empire in the historical account of the development of the novel, particularly glaring.

7. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (***): Beautiful, apart from the extended theological musings.

8. Colm Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop (*****): I’ve always enjoyed Bishop. Toibin makes her look like an unvarnished genius. Beautiful set of reflections by one of the finest writers alive today, on a very talented poet.

9. The Edward Said Reader (*****): Collection of essential Edward Said writings across his life and career. One of the seven or eight books always by my bedside table.

Bring on 2016!


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“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria”: Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” (p. 1)

Last summer, while winding down my days at Balliol College, I had one of those chance discussions that that irrepressibly cosmopolitan place often afforded: I sat down to dinner with a Chilean acquaintance, and the talk turned to literature. He said to me, “nobody understands and tells Colombian history like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” It was a statement that surprised me, because fond as I was of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had never considered it a work of history. Then, while re-reading Joan Rappaport’s The Politics of Memory, I came across Marquez’s own words: “we must tell our stories before the historians have time to arrive.” It made me understand a little better what my Chilean interlocutor was getting at; and having just finished Eka Kurniawan’s sprawling novel of 20th Century Indonesia, Beauty is a Wound, perhaps I understand it even more now.

In a sense, Indonesia is indeed the place where the historians have not yet arrived. Just last week, I read that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival at Bali was forced to “cancel a series of events marking the 1965 massacre of alleged communists, after threats by authorities to revoke its operating permit.” My attempts at amateur historical research after finishing the book often led me to the same, rueful destination, websites providing snippets of information, before concluding by noting that discussion about the massacres of ’65 continues to be taboo in Indonesia, with the authorities tightly censoring information about it.

Eka Kurniawan, then, is a few decades late, but still ahead of the historians (although not the film-makers). Beauty is a Wound is set in the fictional Indonesian town of Halimunda, and (in very Marquezian fashion) tracks the life of the extended family of Dewi Ayu, who is born in luxury to a Dutch father, is forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation, and comfortably remains one after independence. Her three beautiful daughters (after more than a few contretemps) end up married to the three power-brokers of Sukarno-era Halimunda: a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter and now in charge of the police force; the chief of the local gangsters; and the leader of the local chapter of the Communist Party. Through the intertwined lives of all these individuals, the history – and tragedy – of 20th century Indonesia is played out: from Dutch colonisation to Japanese occupation, back to Dutch occupation, independence, the great communist massacres of ’65, and then Suharto’s dictatorship.

Those intertwined lives are sprinkled with an admixture of the fantastical. A gravedigger’s son seduces his future wife by his ability to draw into himself the soul of her executed communist father; two pregnancies resulting from rape end not in conception, but a great burst of wind and the nothingness, much to the agony of the putative father; ghosts wander the town, needing active placation; a woman safeguards herself against rape by her husband through a lock upon her privates, bolted with magic spells; the local gangster wins ascendancy because no weapon can hurt him; the scatological mixes with the spiritual in a heady cocktail.

This sounds almost too Marquez, but there is a difference. This New York Times review, I think, brings out the similarities and differences very succinctly. It points out that like Marquez, Kurniawan uses magic realism to “show how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people.” But, it goes on to observe, “García Márquez could fall into sententiousness and grandiosity; Kurniawan, by contrast, has a wry, Javanese sense of humor.” Consider, for instance, the following dialogue:

“The child was surprised to see him reappear after being gone for so long, and asked him, ‘How are you? I heard you were sick.’

‘Yeah, I’m sick with love.’

‘Is love some kind of malaria?’


Alamanda shuddered, and then leading her little sister, she took off walking toward the school. Kliwon followed and walked next to her miserably, before he finally spoke.

“Listen up, little girl,” he said. “Do you want to love me?”

Alamanda stopped and looked at him, and then shook her head.

“Why not?” asked Kliwon, disappointed.
“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria.” (p. 170)


‘Have you become a communist?’ asked his mother, almost in despair. ‘Only a communist would be so gloomy.’

‘I’m in love’, said Kliwon to his mother.

‘That’s even worse!’ (p. 166)

These passages reminded me of another writer who uses an irresistible combination magic realism and humour to tell a poignant tale: Emile Habiby, in his Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. When reading Habiby, one is often driven to impromptu bursts of laughter, before the slow, sinking realisation that laughter is the sandpaper that is covering up the cracks of an emerging darkness. Some of the most hilarious scenes in Beauty is a Wound are when the ghosts of dead communists infect the waking and sleeping life of Shodancho, the police chief who oversaw the killings. But, underlying that are the killing. As Kurniawan puts it bluntly:

“That afternoon, in one quick massacre, one thousand two hundred and thirty-two communists died, bringing an end to the history of the Communist Party in that city, and the entire country.”

Even as one can scarce forebear from laughter, that knowledge is on the edge of consciousness, shadowing it. Colonial exploitation, the rape of women in times of conflict, lawlessness and violence, mass murder – these truths of Indonesian history are ever-present, deftly written into the story as framing devices, occasionally sliding forth, rapier-like, into prominence. And then there are the moments of gravitas, rare, and all the more effective for their rarity. The musings of Comrade Kliwon, for instance, as he is about to be forced into exile:

And the one thing that made him happy was that I can leave all this behind without having to become a reactionary or a counterrevolutionary.” (p. 312)

The bitterness of a two centuries of experience in countries all over the world lies heavily upon this simple sentence. At other places, it would be cloying; but here, in the midst of gibbering ghosts and bizarre miscarriages, almost paradoxically, it fits like a glove. Magic, irony, burlesque, narrative, tragedy – this novel gets the combination almost perfectly right. What emerges is a truly memorable read.

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On Salman Rushdie’s Latest

A few months ago, PEN Foundation decided to honour Charlie Hebdo at its annual New York Gala, by giving it its Freedom of Expression Courage award. In response, a few prominent writers withdrew from attending the gala. “Six authors in search of a bit of character“, was what Salman Rushdie tweeted, when he heard about this. In a longer comment, Rushdie rejected the distinction between supporting Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, and endorsing the content of its cartoons, and wrote that “this issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.” In writing this, Rushdie was taking a side in what has recently become a fractious and acrimonious debate. One point of view has it that certain core values of the European Enlightenment – reason, free speech, and secularism – are under serious threat from “fanatical Islam”, and must be defended at all costs. This is the point of view that Rushdie endorsed.

One can, of course, oppose the argument without resorting to caricatural arguments of cultural relativism. Many have, indeed, pointed out its simplicity, its ahistorical understanding of the Enlightenment, and its propensity to reduce the world into binaries. But that is not at issue here: Salman Rushdie is perfectly entitled to his views, and indeed, given his circumstances, perhaps more entitled to hold them than most others. The problem arises when he attempts to use the vehicle of fiction – and, specifically, that of the fairy tale – to stuff his politics down our collective throat. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, his latest book, bears all the signs of an excellent writer who has begun to take himself and his politics too seriously for his art.

Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights (which adds up to a thousand and one nights) is ostensibly a story about an epic battle between rival Jinn armies around the present time, using our world as their battleground. The ultimate origin of the quarrel is mirrored in an earthly quarrel going back almost a millenium: between the rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, and the religious hardliner Ghazali. A long time ago, when the commerce between the human world and the world of the jinns was regular, Dunia, a Jinn princess, fell in love with Ibn Rushd for his reason. Her descendants, now spread out across the world, can be known by their missing earlobes. At the same time, Ghazali had released the jinn Zumurrud Shah from captivity in a bottle, and postponed his three wishes to a more opportune day. Now, with the slits between the world of humans and the world of jinns open again, Ghazali claims his wish, which is that Zumurrud (and his jinn companions) spread fear throughout the world in order to bring everyone to the path of the true religion. In this battle, Dunia (who has always loved humans), and her descendants are arrayed on the other side.

So far, the premise is suitable for an entertaining story, with unmistakable – yet unintrusive – political resonances. At some point, however, Rushdie seems to forget that his primary task is to spin a good yarn, and allows the politics to take over. Dunia’s forces are the defenders of (Enlightenment) reason, and Zumurrud (and the other “Grand Ifrits”) represent religious fundamentalism. At certain points, the allegory becomes so thinly veiled, that it is almost jarring. For instance, while recounting a parable within the main story, Rushdie writes a page-and-a-half of prose that is unsubtly about the political situation in present-day India, complete with the most favourite political slogans of our day: “anti-national”, “development” etc. Such references can make for good, and witty, political polemic, but a story is simply the wrong medium for such obvious point-scoring.

As I struggled through the book, it reminded me more and more of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A book that began as a gripping, engaging story, gradually began to relegate the story part of itself to the background, until it became clear that it was a sideshow, in service of a distinctly non-story goal. In The Fountainhead, that was Howard Roark’s courtroom speech. In Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights… well, I will refrain from spoilers, but suffice it to say that it was a mercy that, when it finally came, it was only a page long, and nowhere near as arduous as Roark’s never-ending defense of selfishness.

I am reminded of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book that Rushdie wrote during his period of enforced exile-and-hiding in the shadow of the Ayatollah’s fatwa. Haroun is, and always has been, one of my favourite books. And now, looking back, I feel that it makes all the political points that Rushdie tries so hard with Two Years… Haroun’s two realms of “Gup” and “Chup”, of the battle over saving the ocean of stories from being destroyed by those who would not have any stories in the world, speaks to the issues of our day – censorship, conformity, violent suppression of difference – far more powerfully than Two Years… The reason, I think, is that as Kundera pointed out, the novel stops being a novel when it begins to make definitive statements about the nature of things (in Two Years, the definitive statement is about the superiority of reason over unreason, although Rushdie does make a token attempt to undermine it in the last paragraph of the novel). The purpose of the novel, as Kundera argues, is to depict “the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” There is very little ambiguity, however, in Two Years…

Recently, I skimmed a review of another reader who was none too impressed by Two Years…, and asked Rushdie to retire. That, I feel, is a little harsh. There are moments in the book when Rushdie remembers that he is a writer, and not a political polemicist (at least not here and not now), and crafts words and phrases and sentences of great beauty. For the people of New York during the great war, for instance, “their childhoods slipped into the water and were lost, the piers built of memories on which they once ate sweets and pizza, the promenades of desire under which they hid from the summer sun and kissed their first lips.”

Unfortunately, those moments are too few and too far between in this book.

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