“…language, which is free and untouched by occupation?”: Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

In the introduction to this set of elegant essays, Colm Toibin lays out his purpose. “Other communities who have been oppressed,” he says, “– Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” He goes on to invoke Adrienne Rich’s famous saying – “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This is perhaps not entirely apposite. The whole quotation begins in the following way: “those who have the power to name and construct social reality choose not to see you or hear you…” Indeed, Rich’s concern is not merely with the construction of a canon, and what it excludes, but the construction of language itself. In The Burning of Paper instead of Children, she writes:

“knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)”

Interestingly, in his chapter on Thomas Mann, Toibin quotes the opposite sentiment. In his post-war visits to both West and East Germany, Mann writes: “Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?” One feels that Rich might have had something to say about that last bit. After all, as Marina Warner writes, in a beautiful essay called Watch Your Tongues:

“The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.”

Toibin, while appreciating the pervasive power of language and image to construct a world, is less pessimistic. In his essay on Thom Gunn, while remarking upon the frankness with which he addresses homosexuality in his poetry, he observes:

“The world from Shakespeare to contemporary advertising has been so full of images of heterosexuality that no one notices, but these images are nonetheless absorbed into the most secret and private part of the self. This hidden part of the gay self remains hungry for such ratifying images; it most fully recognizes this need when the need is satisfied, the silence broken, the words spelled out quite naturally, without a second thought.”

This assumes, of course, that words can be spelt out “quite naturally, without a second thought”, without the heaviness of a long, conflicted history. Toibin’s faith that language and culture can be reclaimed simply by virtue of their use is reflected in his wry observation, in his essay on Francis Bacon, about Bacon and Miro’s “denial that [they] made preparatory drawings… for the ears of the Surrealists, who viewed such a thought-out preparation for a painting as a sort of treachery, a betrayal of the power of the unconscious.” Surrealism’s commitment to breaking the hegemony of imposed structures through a method of spontaneity is, of course, well-known, but neither Bacon nor Toibin seem to consider it an urgent necessity. And in his essay on James Baldwin, Toibin chooses to quote the now-famous passage on appropriation:

“[I brought] a special attitude to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… these were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

So while it would have been interesting to have a critique of language from the point of view of sexuality, as Rich and Warner have done for gender, Toibin’s ambition in Love in a Dark Time is rather more modest. He takes nine famous 20th century artists, all of whom were admittedly homosexual, whose sexuality either brought them to grief, or is simply airbrushed out of memory – and tries to illuminate that ‘area of darkness’ – their sexuality – and its connection to their work. Yet, this is not to be dismissed as a crude attempt at creating – or re-creating – an artistic canon. Toibin’s pain at the ignorance about gay lives is matched only by his terror of caricature, of reducing an artist to his sexuality, of feeding the myth of the ‘tragic queer’. This gives Love in a Dark Time an ambiguous tone, that neatly dovetails with the ambiguous lives lead by most of its principal subjects.

Toibin must walk a tightrope. He must focus on the sexuality of his nine chosen artists, while rejecting simplistic explanations about the relationship between their sexuality and their art. He must illuminate sexuality and its inextricable connection with art, without casting so bright a glare that it overwhelms everything else. For the most part, he walks it well, and it gives the book – to use a description by Robert Lowell of Elizabeth Bishop’s work – “something in motion, weary but persistent.” 

Perhaps the key lies in his choice of subjects. Three of the nine (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Francis Bacon) are Irish – a fraught identity in its own right (and one closest to Toibin’s heart – it is perhaps unsurprising that those three chapters are amongst the longest and most detailed, and their lives are the most lovingly excavated ones in the book). James Baldwin is at the intersection of race and sexuality (Toibin details his struggles to break out of the trope of the “black writer”), and Elizabeth Bishop at the intersection of gender and sexuality. Toibin seems to have paid special heed to Amartya Sen’s warnings against the totalising effects of a single identity, because even his other selections – Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and Thomas Mann (I discount the essay on Pedro Almodovar, which seems almost to be a hasty afterthought) resist easy categorisation, both of their work and their lives. Like Eliot’s observation about James, which he quotes, what Toibin is most concerned with is to prevent – both himself, and his account of his subjects – from being “penetrated by an idea.”

The realisation that his subjects evade easy or definite classifications pervades Toibin’s consideration of their work. The haunting, uncertain quality of the artists’ work leaks into the pages of the book. For instance, Toibin’s account of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is perhaps one of the finest passages in the book:

“There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word.”

Many of the figures that Toibin writes about are “tragic”, in any sense of the word. Wilde was imprisoned and broken for his homosexuality, Casement was executed, Doty’s partner died of HIV. It would be easy to let tragedy overwhelm and define them, but Toibin is always on his guard against reductiveness. At the end of the book, we are left with a conflicted, ambiguous and uncertain sense of the many intersections of art and aesthetics, politics and sexuality, the individual and her circumstances. As in art, so in life, Toibin seems to be telling us: there are no easy conclusions.

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Ambiguity and Certainty: Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin

In a beautiful essay in The Guardian, Colm Toibin compares the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, observing that both poets “wrote endings to poems which sometimes seemed to hover between conclusion and uncertainty, between what became known as closure and a sense that there was too much regret between the words for closure ever to be possible.”  By way of example, Toibin discusses North Haven, Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell. In the third stanza, Bishop writes:

“The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.”

Of this, Toibin says:

“Its gravity emerges softly. When you read the line, “The goldfinches are back, or others like them”, it is easy not to spot the grim suggestion that the precise goldfinches are in fact not back at all – they are dead.”

And, of the next line:

Nature repeats herself, or almost does:”,

He notes:

In the next line, Bishop came as close as she could to stating something that was true; the “coziness tinged with melancholy” [how Gunn described her early work] has gone and it has been replaced by another sort of melancholy, a slow, stoical melancholy, when she says: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does.”

Before the stanza ends with:

repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”

And of this, Toibin explains:

“What the following line does now is oddly miraculous, a slow, incantatory dramatisation of the tentative and withholding nature of Bishop’s process as a poet. The last line of this stanza has six words, each in an iambic beat; there is a caesura after three, marked by a semi-colon. The words are in italics, which suggest not emphasis as much as a voice whispering. The last three words, each ending with a sibilant and half-containing the word “sigh”. And what the voice says now is as much as she can say. It is filled with ambiguity and restraint…”

When I read this characterisation, as that of a voice filled with ambiguity and restraint, and moreover, as coming *after* something that is emphatically true, it made me think of an interesting contrast with another poem that uses spring as metaphor and image of something returning: Philip Larkin’s “Trees“. That one ends with the following lines:

“Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Both in tone (of syllables) and in content, “afresh” is certain and definite – signifying what Toibin calls “closure” – as opposed to the uncertain and ambiguous “revise”. Moreover, when one reads the entire poem, I think it moves in exactly the *opposite* direction to Bishop’s – from uncertainty to certainty.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May
Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Consider the first stanza – “like something almost being said”. The quintessence of ambiguity, the reaching-out-but-not-quite-finding-what-you’re-looking-for, Virgil’s ever-receding Ausonian fields. Accentuated by “their greenness is a *kind of* grief”. Not grief, but a kind of grief. The best we can do is an unsatisfactory approximation.

And then, in the second stanza, the uncertainty continues with a question “Is it…?” But at this point, the tone shifts, because it is met with a definitive answer. “No, they die too.” And it culminates, of course, in the emphatic closure – “afresh, afresh, afresh”. The sad, searching uncertainty of a “kind of grief” has dissolved into a celebratory affirmation.

To repeat or to revise; and to begin afresh. How fascinating it is that two poems can invoke the same set of images, and then sublimate them into two contrasting, but equally complex and beautiful, interior landscapes.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Thom Gunn

Mist over the marches: Kazio Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

“For in this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

A generation after King Arthur’s death, an uneasy calm hangs over South Britain. Saxon and Briton, once implacable foes, now live together in relative peace. But all is not well. Ogres prowl the edge of the village stockades, making daring raids to carry off unwatched children. Briton soldiers roam the countryside, lying in wait for a Saxon warrior on a quest. High up in a mountain fastness, monks use an old torture device to expose their bodies to the beaks and talons of wild birds, in expiation for some nameless, horrible crime. A mist of forgetfulness, arising from the breath of the dragon Querig, which clouds the people’s minds with uncertainty and leaves only the vaguest remembrance of things past, lies heavily upon the land. Boatmen wait to ferry old couples to the island of afterlife, charged with separating them forever unless they can recall their most cherished memories, even through the mist. And Sir Gawain, long ago of King Arthur’s court, now a feeble, aged knight, waits to carry out his old command to slay the dragon and lift the mist of forgetfulness, once and for all.

In this strained climate, Axl and Beatrice, an old couple, decide to leave their village to pay a visit to their son, whom they have not seen in years. The mist has robbed them of their memory of why and when he left them; they remember only that he lives in a village a little way away. On their path, circumstances ensure that they fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who (like Sir Gawain) has been charged with destroying the dragon Querig, to break the mist; and Edwin, a Saxon boy suffering from a dragon bite, who Wistan believes will lead them to Querig’s lair. And before long, they meet Sir Gawain himself. As the journey progresses, and slivers of memory, of their own torn and conflicted pasts, begin to return to Axl and Beatrice, the quest for their son gradually becomes a quest, with Wistan, to lift the mist and find answers to the questions that they cannot still articulate.

Kazio Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is set in the Britain of the Grail Cycle, a mystical land peopled with knights-errant, quarrelsome kings, boatmen to the afterlife, ogres, pixies, and of course, the titular “buried giant”, a dragon. It involves duels, battles, run-ins with ogres and other monstrous beasts, daring subterranean escapes, and an overarching quest that unifies the diverse characters and the divergent narrative strands. On the basis of these well-worn tropes, one might at first blush place The Buried Giant within the canon of high/romance fantasy, located in the ambiguous half-historical, half-imaginary time and space that is a staple feature of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.

Unsurprisingly, though, The Buried Giant resists any such easy classification. This is perhaps because Ishiguro’s choice of genre is – in my opinion – instrumental. An writer who has won critical acclaim for novels such as The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go has chosen the Arthurian romance as the framework for his latest novel not because of the narrative possibilities that such a world (with its established conventions, traditions and folklore) would allow him, but because it serves as a vehicle for a deeper set of political and moral arguments (or perspectives) that he wishes to express.

How does this play out in The Buried Giant? To start with, the novel is much more strongly allegorical than most fantasy writing. Ever since Tolkien expressed his “cordial dislike” for allegory, there has been a circumspection about allowing fantasy to collapse into a morality tale. In The Buried Giant, however, the moral question is categorically framed almost from the very beginning, and is reiterated whenever the fantastic elements of the story threaten to take over. For instance, immediately after discovering their torture/expiation device, one of the moments of high suspense and drama in the novel, Wistan asks the monks, “is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers?” Instances like these abound. Even as Sir Gawain hacks at a monster, or as pixies attack a rowboat in the middle of the river, the question remains foregrounded: can peace only be bought by an enforced forgetfulness of past crimes? 

The allegorical focus of the novel also ensures that a number of the characters remain dimly impressionistic, at times even appearing to be caricatures. Sir Gawain’s delightfully quixotic potential is never quite realised, Wistan fights valiantly but fails to free himself from the shackles of his chivalric knighthood, and Edwin, after a promising start, seems to simply fade away into a narrative shadow. The twin exceptions (or perhaps it should be called a single exception) are Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship is portrayed with great depth and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, has left its pages and lodged itself firmly in the reader’s mind. Perhaps The Buried Giant is better read not as an Arthurian allegory about the connections between violence, collective and individual memory, but as an exploration about the “black shadows [that] make part of the whole” (p. 343) of any relationship (with an incidental, fantastic backdrop).

Such a reading is reflected in the style of the novel, which proceeds in a slow, meandering and unhurried way, much like Axl and Beatrice’s slow progress through the countryside, and their conversations with each other. Dialogue predominates over action; and even action takes its own, leisurely time. The duels are described as though they are being fought in slow motion, and the battles have an unreal, dreamlike quality about them. Much like The Remains of the Day, the novel’s pace is determined from the perspective of its protagonist(s). In another way, this reflects how Ishiguro’s use of the genre is partial at best: it is the rare fantasy novel where the protagonists are, ultimately, passive spectators to most of the pivotal events, whose own quest recedes into irrelevance midway through the novel, and whose personal journey – ultimately – comes entirely apart from the core quest.

Questions about the role of memory and forgetting in shaping identity and conflict have been explored before, in fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is an outstanding example, but perhaps comparisons with Howard Jacobson’s are most apposite. Like Jacobson, Ishiguro is working with a genre that he is unfamiliar with; like Jacobson, he is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of personal and collective memory at the same time; like Jacobson, there are times when the story seems to be subordinate to a broader politico-moral claim. And in my opinion, like Jacobson, he succeeds – but only partially.

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Filed under Kazio Ishiguro, Speculative Fiction

Oscar Wilde and Abanindranath Tagore

A few years ago, while wading through Oscar Wilde’s essays, I came across his discussion of the relationship between art and life in The Decay of the Art of Lying. Written in the form of a dialogue between Cyril (the interlocutor) and Vivian (the aesthete), the essay first lays out Wilde’s objections to the traditional Aristotelian aphorism, that “art imitates life”  (or, the allied claim, justifying naturalism/realism, that the role of art is to faithfully imitate life), because that “would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass.” Through Vivian, Wilde then develops his own counter-view, i.e., that “life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality.” Cyril is, naturally, disbelieving. Vivian explains:

“A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher… Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Scientifically speaking, the basis of life–the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – -is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained… Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”

I understand Wilde to be arguing that our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind, and that this mediation involves the process of imposing meaning (or patterns?) upon pure sense-impression. That, in turn, is derived from prior experiences and, primarily, experiences of art. In a sense, I think the argument is similar to the one about how language both creates and limits the possibilities of imagining and constructing the world. For instance, as this fascinating piece argues, part of the project of the Surrealist writers (through the idea of automatic language) was to ensure the liberation of the mind by causing “language, its traditional structure (syntax, morphology, semantics and phonology, to varying degrees) and expectations… to be destroyed and rebuilt… their words create a derangement of the senses (to borrow Rimbaud’s idea), and of the status quo, because the traditional order of language, of the written word, has been almost completely eviscerated.” Thus, also, later in the essay, Vivian memorably remarks, “I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also.

Today, while wandering through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, I came across a quotation by Abanindranath Tagore that reminded me powerfully and vividly of Wilde. Tagore writes:

“I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to the garden or a riverbank and start painting the tree, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you realise that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within. Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa’s poetry, ten lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the ever-fresh cloud messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki’s description of the sea and then proceed to paint a sea of your own.”

The similarities are interesting. Wilde and Tagore both take a categorically anti-realist position. Both of them think that what is all-important is beauty, and that beauty does not lie in the world, but in how we imagine the world through the medium of art. And they both argue that art is aesthetically anterior to the world, to nature, and to life. “Life imitates art.”

At the NGMA, Abanindranath Tagore’s style of painting was compared to expressionism. It set me thinking about the contrast with impressionism. Zola described Monet as opening “a window into nature.” It is written that for impressionism, ‘the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his vision.’ (Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists) So while the impressionists broke with tradition in attempting to capture movement and rhythm, “the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composd as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light, and life” (Mallarme), it was still an attempt at accurately representing the world. Expressionism aimed at the opposite effect. It made me wonder about the exact nature of the connection between Wilde’s aesthetics and expressionist art.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Expressionism, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Oscar Wilde

2014 in Books

Halfway through this year, I moved back to India. The most tangible change in my life was the immediate loss of access to two of the world’s most well-stocked libraries, which I’d been enjoying for the last three years: the Bodleian and then the Sterling. It’s hard to describe the strange sense of loss that you feel when you read about an interesting book online, and suddenly realise that you can no longer step outside your door, and embark upon a five minute walk to take it down from the shelf where it is certain to be – a loss compounded by frantic  searching on Flipkart or Amazon, and the sinking feeling on seeing the prices. Kindle (and torrents) help sometimes, but what is that compared to the sound of rustling paper and the feel of a book in your hand?

I left the United States in the middle of reading Arab novels, and also realised that – barring the odd Naguib Mehfouz – Delhi bookstores carry next to nothing of Arab writing. Per force, my exploration of that genre had to stop, but perhaps fortunately, there was no accompanying dearth of Latin American fiction, which I turned to, determined to carry on a thread begun with Borges a few years ago. Here is 2014 in fiction, with a five-star system of (admittedly reductive) ratings, as ever.

 

Arab Writing

Elias Khoury, Little Mountain: **** and a 1/2 Khoury’s surrealistic, first-person description of Lebanon during the civil war is a beautiful and harrowing read. It has a wonderful introduction by Edward Said, who discusses how and why Khoury’s writing contrasts with the realism of Mehfouz.

Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters: *** Also set in Lebanon, also about the civil war, the context here was a little too thick for me to be able to enjoy it as much as I did Khoury.

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North: *** and a 1/2 The canonical post-colonial novel, moving between Sudan and England in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, a great example of political critique through personal narrative.

Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain: ***** Perhaps the book I loved most of all this year. Set in a fictional Jordan, treats the eternal themes of revolution, youth, poetry and memory in a deft and moving way that no other book I’ve read comes close to doing. Traces of Kundera (and a marked reference to Life is Elsewhere).

Naguib Mehfouz, Children of the Alley **** and a 1/2: From Palace Walk to Miramar to Children of the Alley – Mehfouz varies his style and themes and is yet so effortlessly brilliant. Children of the Alley is a gorgeous retelling of the Creation Story, Fall onwards, all set in a Cairo alley.

 

Latin American Writing

Carlos Fuentes, Inez: *** Enjoyed it while it lasted, but a little too brief, and the characters a little too under-developed, to make a real impact.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: *** Probably a heretical thought, but I really don’t think that Marquez does love very well. This book started off wonderfully, but had begun to drag towards the end, and some of the last few scenes were deeply disturbing – but not really in a positive way, like One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: **** Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel of a hilarious, riotous relationship between 18-year old writer/newsman Vargas and his 32-year old Aunt Julia, punctuated by “radio plays” written by a once-brilliant, now rapidly deteriorating creative mind, is just an unabashedly fun read.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat: **** and a 1/2: Much darker, much grimmer, the retelling of the day that Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator, was assassinated, and the reverberations of his regime decades later. Reads like a thriller, but for all that, Llosa’s done some wonderfully painstaking historical research.

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz **** and a 1/2: The story of Mexico’s long civil war and its aftermath, retold by the dying Artemio Cruz, revolutionary-turned-ruthless-landlord, through thirteen flashbacks of memory. Reminiscent of Pedro Paramo at times, and Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. A heartbreaking section about the Spanish Civil War as well.

Ariel Dorfman, Heading North, Looking South: ***** Hands-down my book of the year. Dorfman’s memoir about living with his American and Latin American roots, struggling with the competing pulls of bilingualism, and above all else, his wonderful description of the last days of the Allende regime make for a devastating read. Language, history, political memory, personal reflections all combine, and not a word feels out of place. Here is a paragraph:

“That Spanish out there contained my future. It contained the words of Garcia Lorca I would say to Angelica one day, Verde que te quiero verde, the lover-like green of desire, and the words of Quevedo I would say to my country, Mire los muros de la patria mia, watching the walls of my fatherland crumble, and the words of Neruda I would say to the revolution, Sube a nacer commigo, hermano, rise and be born with me, my brother, and the words of Borges I would whisper to time, los tigres de la memoria, the tigers of memory with which I would try to fool death once again. I would realize one day that the word for hope in Spanish, the word esperanza, hides within its syllables the sound and meaning of esperar, to wait, that there was in the language itself a foretelling of frustration, a warning to be cautious, to hope but not to hope too much because the experience of those who forged those syllables tells them that we end up, more often than not, being violated by history.” 

Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden **** and a 1/2: Well, after that memoir, anything would have felt a let-down, but Death and the Maiden came darn close to matching it. A short, intensely-written play about the after-effects of torture upon the individual, and the after-effects of a fraught transition to democracy upon the survivors and the perpetrators of the old regime.

It’s rather interesting to have dipped into Latin American writing immediately after Arab writing, and to spot similarities and differences. I found both sets of novels to be intensely political (which is unsurprising), and also – in some way – speaking to, or trying to deal with, a history of dictators or, at the very least, crushing State power over the individual. Every writer is unique in his own way, both in asking the questions, and in deciding how and whether to answer them, but sometimes the similarity in thought, and even in expression (Nasser and Fuentes on memory and nostalgia, for instance) is startling.

 

South African Writing

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace **** and a 1/2 An absolutely wonderful novel about race and human relations in the post-apartheid world-turned-upside-down.

 

European Writing

Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler **** This, I suppose, might be called magical realism, and Calvino’s hypnotic writing accentuates the magic and makes us forget about realism.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: **** and a 1/2 One of my favourite books of the year. Marco Polo’s descriptions, to Kublai Khan, of all the cities he has traveled to (real or imagined?) is best summed up by a word I learnt recently: “hiraeth” (‘homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire…’)

Carlos Luis Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind *** An utterly disappointing ending was a substantial let-down after some great suspenseful storytelling about books, book-burning, Barcelona and young love.

Leonardo Sciascia, Equal Danger ****: A completely compelling detective/mystery novel about politics and corruption in mid-late 20th century Italy. Featured one of my favourite lines this year: ““It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”

Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich **** and a 1/2 A darkly brilliant set of loosely connected short stories (reminiscent of Koestler, at times) about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarian governments. Most of Kis’ characters are ordinary people, easy to relate to, who turn collaborators – which makes this novel seem frighteningly prophetic.

 

Indian Writing

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess *** and a 1/2 The story of the massacre of Kilvenmani, retold 45 years later, is worth a read simply because of the intriguing meta-fictional style, which doesn’t always work, but is brilliant when it does. Also, through its self-conscious, self-aware style, raises important issues – a la Jean Genet, of authenticity in narration, appropriation, “speaking for vs speaking of”, and so on.

Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozshah Baag: *** More heresy. I couldn’t really relate to Mistry’s detailed descriptions of life in a middle-class Bombay Parsi housing colony, and – like with Tiller of Waters – I felt that the context was too thick to allow me to really soak it in and enjoy it.

Ismat Chughtai, Lifting the Veil **** A wonderfully curated collection of short stories and essays, still as relevant as they were sixty years ago, and the eponymous title story is, of course, a classic for all times.

Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator *** and a 1/2 Waheed’s story about the “collaborator”, who stays behind in the Kashmir Valley while his friends cross the border to join the war, and makes his living stripping killed fidayeen for identity papers and more, stays with you a long time after you’ve put it down. Perhaps it was the effect of reading this book soon after watching Haider, but echoes of Hamlet were everywhere – in particular, ambivalence, delay, obloquy and the failure to act being the burdens carried by the protagonist.

 

American Writing

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint *** I sometimes wonder if the detailed descriptions of sexual, excretory and other graphic acts would have felt brilliantly subversive in the 1960s, because reading it in 2014, I often had the feeling that it was simply graphic for the sake of being graphic. Some brilliant moments, nonetheless.

 

Australian Writing

Bruce Chatwin, Songlines: **** I’m aware that this book has been heavily criticised, but I loved reading it. The concept of “songlines” – singing the land into existence as you go along, the connection of places, events and histories through music, and music as the underlying language of all creation – it might be reductive, but there’s something so very appealing about all this.

 

English Writing

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest: **** What to say? Nobody has a way with words quite like Oscar Wilde.

 

Postcolonial Writing

Aime Cesaire, A Tempest **** A wonderfully subversive retelling of the timeless Shakespearean play, in which Prospero is the coloniser, Caliban the resisting native, Ariel the ambiguous mulatto, and the conquest of language plays a crucial role.

 

Classics

Lermontov, A Hero of our Time **** Finally got around to finishing this book. Lermontov’s Byron-esque, half-nihilist protagonist is disturbingly easy to relate to, and his grand, sweeping style is ideal for the geographical backdrop – the Caucasus Mountains.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed/Demons **** Didn’t quite rip my heart out by the roots, a la Brothers Karamazov but – like vintage Dostoevsky – left me unwilling to get up and start the day, for a few mornings.

Leo Tolstory, Anna Karenina I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t finish this book. The scenes with Anna and Karenin were brilliant, but the long, unending descriptions of Russian farming simply bogged me down. I will try again.

Flaubert, Madame Bovary **** Unlike Zola, who I found extremely hard going, Flaubert turned out to be a solid, well-paced read, and even the awareness of how the book was going to end did little to dilute its pathos.

 

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne **** The compulsory, annual re-read.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We **** The novel that began the genre of futuristic totalitarian dystopias, the precursor of 1984Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451. Written in Soviet Russia in the first decade after the Revolution. Often, while reading, I’d pause and say to myself – “such a cliche!” before suddenly realising that this book was the first time that it was being used!

Howard Jacobson, J *** and a 1/2: Reviewed this for Strange Horizons – a grim, disturbing and wonderfully-written story about the creation and destruction of identities and narratives, set in a futuristic semi-dystopia, which somewhat resembles Sheldon Wolin’s ‘inverted totalitarianism‘.

Patricia A. McKillip, Ombria in Shadow ***: Like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the point to McKillip is not plot, structure or character, but simply lush prose and a fabulous, atmospheric style. It can’t always carry the novel, though.

 

 

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“We all need witnesses of our lives in order to live them…”: Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’

Artemio Cruz, sometime revolutionary hero, later exploitative landlord, is on his deathbed, “an old man whose features are fragmented by… uneven squares of glass.” His unloved wife and daughter hover around, attempting to extract the location of his will; a priest tries to get him to repent, while his secretary is ever-present with a list of his most corrupt dealings. In the midst of this cacophony, Artemio Cruz feels himself slipping into “nostalgia, which is another form of growing old, more ancient, going back.” As he dies, the scenes of his past flash into memory, in the form of discrete events that shaped his life. There is no coherence or structure to his last, disjointed thoughts, and his reminiscing alternates with keen awareness of his failing bodily functions, and resentment for the pseudo-solicitous individuals making his last moments excruciatingly painful.

Through the rambling recollections of one man, Carlos Fuentes’ novel describes the Mexican revolution, its promise, its failure, and its cynical betrayal by those who made it. Two hours before being summarily executed during the fag end of the long revolution, Cruz’s jail-cell companion speaks in the voice of the author: “those who want a real, radical, intransigent revolution are, unfortunately, ignorant, bloody men. And the educated ones only want half a revolution, compatible with the only thing they really want: to do well, to live well, to take the place of Don Porfirio’s elite.” Cruz proves him right by surviving, returning to dispossess his aristocratic father of his lands, marry his sister against her will, and create a political/economic empire as brutal and exploitative as that of the aristocrats.

In Fuentes’ novel, it is often difficult to separate the authorial voice from the voice of Artemio Cruz. Fuentes’ anger at the betrayal of the revolution is palpable, and often it spills out onto the pages, which crackle with a rage and intensity that the dying Artemio Cruz is quite beyond the capacity to feel. Normally, this would detract from the quality of the novel. But in The Death of Artemio Cruz, with its rotating narrators, one more voice added to the already existing medley hardly strikes a discordant note. Amidst the universe of characters that populate fifty years of Mexican history, “a country incapable of tranquility, enamored of convulsion“, Fuentes can simply take his place as another individual living it all, rather than an author imposing his point of view from on high.

To the extent that the story of Artemio Cruz is the story of the revolution betrayed, its very inception seems to foreshadow its ultimate failure. In the beginning, it appears that the story of Cruz is your run-of-the-mill story of disillusionment: the idealistic young revolutionary is heartbroken and permanently embittered when his first lover, who would meet him in each town after the fighting was done, is summarily executed during the war and left hanging from a tree for him to find; from that day on, ideals are shattered, love is banished from the world, and he lives to inflict injury upon his fellow beings. But matters are not so simple, because it turns out that the origins of their love were anything but pure:

“He would return. Where? To that mythical beach that never existed? To that lie about the beloved, to that fiction about a meeting on the beach invented by her so that he would feel clean, innocent, sure of being in love? He threw the glass of mescal to the floor. That’s what mescal was really good for: destroying lies. It was a beautiful lie… he would have to believe that beautiful lie forever, until the end. It wasn’t true: he hadn’t gone into that Sinaloa town as he had so many others, looking for the first unwary woman he’d find walking down the street.”

And he had raped her.

The suggestion seems to be that there was never a time of innocent revolution, a time before betrayal and corruption, a time when there was a possibility that things might turn out differently. To which origin? Cruz – or Fuentes – or someone else – asks at another time. “... no one wants to return to the phony golden age, to the sinister origins, the bestial grunt, the struggle for bear meat, for the cave, for the flint, return to sacrifice and madness, to the nameless terror of the origin.

And the matter seems to be sealed by the death of Cruz’s son in the Spanish Civil War, fighting beside the anti-fascists, just a little distance from safety beyond the French border. The only way for the revolution to remain uncorrupted, it seems, is to be defeated, and the only way for a human being to remain uncorrupted is death.

In its polyphonic structure, uncertain chronology, corrupted protagonist, and acute historical awareness, The Death of Artemio Cruz has drawn comparisons with that other great Mexican novel, Pedro Paramo. Certainly, there are similarities; but while Pedro Paramo recounts without judgment, The Death of Artemio Cruz is – to paraphrase Sartre – a “committed novel”. By the end, Fuentes has made it abundantly clear that Artemio Cruz (and, by extension, Mexico) has betrayed… someone, or something, although (apart from the enigmatic jail-cell speech excerpted above), we’re never quite told what.

Below all that, however, there is an undercurrent of something else: that Artemio Cruz’s actions are understood – if not justified – by the raison d’etre of all revolutions, that elemental human passion: of shaping the world in one’s own image. “It was an invitation to adventure, to plunge into an unknown future in which procedure would not be sanctioned by the sanctity of custom. He invented and created everything from below, as if nothing had happened before, Adam without a father, Moses without the Tablets of the Law. Life wasn’t like that, the world ordered by Don Gamaliel wasn’t like that.” And Artemio Cruz rejects guilt because he refuses to adjudge himself guilty of sins against a morality that he did not create, but found already made.

Despite all his anger, Fuentes insures that there is enough complexity, in history and in the character of Artemio Cruz, to render easy judgments impossible. Something has been lost, we keep feeling, both by Cruz and by Mexico, but again, it is difficult to say quite what they could have gained.

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“She has always been fascinated by the strange directions memory takes…”: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat

On a morning in 1961, Rafael Trujillo begins his preparations for another day as absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On an evening in 1961, four men wait in a parked car by the side of a road to assassinate the absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On a day in 1995, a woman returns home to Santo Domingo after thirty-four years abroad to speak to her incapacitated father, deprived of all his motor functions by a cerebral hemorrhage. So begins Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a reconstruction of the last day in the life of Rafael Trujillo, soon segueing into a meditation about power and its slow, inevitable corruption and destruction of the human spirit.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize citation speaks of his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” The Feast of the Goat is perhaps that novel which most accurately exemplifies this terse tribute. The three intersecting plot-lines, separated by three-and-a-half decades, which start apart, merge, coalesce, and come apart again, are ultimately bound together by a detailed exploration of the structures of power and their interactions with individuals. Trujillo’s last day demonstrates his messianic control over the country’s military, politics and secret police. Meanwhile, his would-be assassins reflect upon their own personal transformations from Trujillo’s most ardent devotees to his most implacable enemies. And in a one-sided conversation with her comatose father (followed by an interrogation with her family), who was once one of Trujillo’s closest associates until his inexplicable fall from grace, Urania Cabral recalls the events from thirty-five years ago that permanently estranged father and daughter.

As in any novel about a repressive, absolutist dictatorship, The Feast of the Goat has its secret police, its executions and its tortures, its rituals of denunciation, confession, repentance and liquidation, and its stark depiction of suffocating, uncertain life under the regime. At various points, one is reminded of Animal FarmDarkness at Noon, The General in his Labyrinth, and other powerful novels on the same theme. Indeed, The Feast of the Goat is located firmly within the tradition of the Latin American “dictator novel“, a form of writing that has emerged out of the long endurance of military dictatorships in the region. For me, the unique brilliance of The Feast of the Goat lies in its exploration of how the dictatorship, over time, creates a dull compulsion that normalises even the most brutal and shocking of events. As the book moves towards its climax, bit by bit, the event that caused the estrangement between Urania and her father begins to emerge, as though hidden behind a slowly-dissipating mist. The event itself is extremely disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is the terrifying inevitability about it. In the elder Cabral, we see, close-up, the impact of the dictatorship upon the mental and moral faculties of a single individual, up to a point at which there is a sense that his actions are no longer his own, but are willed by the iron logic of the dictatorship (which itself is more than simply the personality of Rafael Trujillo).

This is also a theme that has been explored elsewhere, in books such as A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (and also Darkness at Noon), where ultimately, what is most frightening about the relationship between power and the individual is not the crushing of his resistance, but the deprivation of his ability to take moral choices and actions. This is what differentiates it from a book like 1984, where Winston Smith’s resistance is broken down by a very systematic set of human actions.  In Llosa’s novel, there is also a system, but it is cold and impersonal, obeying a logic that seems impossible to stand against, because it isn’t a human creation in the first place.

The Feast of the Goat weaves the personal and the political together with great skill. Each of the characters – from Urania to Dr Cabral, from the Dictator to his chief of Secret Police and his pupper President to each of the assassins – stand out as distinctly individual and unique. And it is through their stories that Llosa captures the sweep of history – from the initial rise to power of Trujillo, his CIA-supported rule, and his ultimate fall. Like much of Latin American writing of this type, the narrative structure is loose and disorganised, there are constant shifts of voice and point of view (I was reminded if Pedro Paramo at various points, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz), and above all else – as in much of Marquez – there is a sense of historical urgency, the urgency of a committed writer who – to quote Marquez – must tell his story before the historians have time to arrive.

Lastly, in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and in The War at the End of the World, I found Llosa’s writing to be wonderfully atmospheric – and he has lost none of his skill in The Feast of the Goat. The darkness of the book is punctuated by some brilliantly sensual descriptions of Santo Domingo (often reminding me of Delhi!), which makes the city come alive to the eyes, the ears, and the nose. Here is an example:

On the ground floor of the Jaragua, she is assaulted by the noise, that atmosphere, familiar by now, of voices, motors, radios blaring at full volume, merengues, salsas, danzones, boleros, rock, rap, all jumbled together, assailing one another and assailing her with their shrill clamour. Animated chaos, the profound need in what was once your people, Urania, to stupefy themselves into not thinking and, perhaps, not even feeling. An explosion of savage life, immune to the tide of modernisation. Something in Dominicans clings to this pre-rational, magical form: this appetite for noise.” 

Among the dictator novels, the Feast of the Goat is perhaps the one reconstructed most painstakingly from actual historical events. With the exception of Cabral, his daughter and their family, the fictional protagonists (if they can be called so), the action takes place upon the historical stage. Sometimes, while reading, one gets a strange sensation of having had a window opened into the interior landscape of famous (or notorious) historical figures, and it is testament to Llosa’s skill that fiction and history blend seamlessly throughout the novel, and that there is never a note of dissonance.

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