Reading Germany

I spent the last ten days of September traveling through Germany. I carried with me a few of novels – most of them set in and around the Weimar Republic, a period that has always fascinated me – to read on the long train journeys.

Klaus Mann, Mephisto 

Mephisto

This fact above all others – that he was not a Jew – struck Hendrik all of a sudden as immensely comforting and important. He had never in the past estimated the true worth of this considerable and unsuspected advantage.

I first came across Mephisto in a classroom – the book was banned in West Germany after World War II, at the instance of the heir of Gustaf Grudgens – the man it was supposedly based on. Many years later, on reading the novel, I could easily see why Grudgens’ family was outraged. Mephisto – which was written in 1936, while Mann was in exile – tells the story of the moral degradation of Hendrik Hofgens, who starts out as a left-leaning playwright and actor in Weimar Germany, but ends up neck-deep in complicity with the Nazi regime. Hofgens is not himself a Nazi, or even sympathetic to the Nazis; however, his personal and professional insecurities, and overweening ambition, drive him to make a series of compromises, each one more damning than the last, until he becomes the Director of the Berlin theatre and the personal protege of the Nazi Prime Minister, while his former friends are either exiled or executed. At each step, Hofgens convinces himself that his collaboration is necessary to mitigate the worst facets of the regime, that he can at least do some good from the inside, and that in any event, better him in that position than a committed Nazi. But by the end, with his anguished cry, “every regime needs the theatre!“, it is clear that all his justifications have crumbled, and that he stands revealed as nothing more than a collaborator.

The book’s name comes from Hofgen’s most successful role, and which launches him on the path of (Nazi) stardom – Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust. The allusions, of course, are obvious; and they stand out with particular poignancy when Nicoletta, one of his more principled colleagues, tells him: “It was good, Hendrik. I knew you could do it. Mephisto is your great role.” Mephisto is filled with such scalpel-like lines. For example, of Hofgen’s decision to anonymously finance the dignified burial of of Otto Ulrichs – another former colleague, who stays true to his left-wing beliefs (“When you have witnessed those horrors, you have only one choice,” he said. “You can either kill yourself or go back to work with greater dedication than before.” He went back to work.“) – and is executed for it – Mann writes (as the narrator), “this was the last and only thing Hendrik Hofgen could still do for his friend Otto Ulrichs – or the last affront he could inflict on him.”

Hofgens, however, is not the only target of Mephisto, although he is its main one. The theme of collaboration generally – the collaboration of the privileged, who do have a choice in the matter – runs through the book. Mann is more sympathetic, for example, to Hans Miklas – the working-class actor who becomes a foot-soldier of the Nazis (and is ultimately swallowed up by them), than he is to Dr. Ihrig, the left-wing commentator who writes Marxist screeds in financial newspapers, because “the serious side of life prevailed in the commercial section, but in the pages where no serious businessman ever cast an eye, a Red Pope could be allowed to let off steam.

And of course, Mephisto presents stark descriptions of the Nazis’ rise to power, descriptions that will no doubt be familiar to many:

Life was fun under the dictatorship. Strength through joy was the watchword. There were nation-wide celebrations and festivals. The Saar was German – a national celebration … Germany left the League of Nations and regained sovereignty over its defense – an enormous national celebration. Every breach of a treaty – Versailles, Locarno – produced a national celebration, and so did the obligatory plebiscites that followed. The persecution of Jews was a prolonged national celebration, as was the pillorying of those women who committed “race profanation” with them. So was the persecution of Catholics, about whom one learned for the first time that they were never much better than the Jews and who were slyly brought to trial on “currency offences” involving ridiculously small sums, while the leaders of the regime hid enormous fortunes abroad. And finally, a long-drawn-out national celebration surrounded the persecution of “reaction”, a term designating nothing very precise. Marxism had been “eradicated,” but was still a danger and an excuse for mass trials. German culture was now “Jew-free” but, as a result, had become so dreary that no one wanted to know anything more about it. Butter was becoming scarce, but guns were more important… did the people not begin to tire of so many dubious carnivals? Perhaps they were already weary. Perhaps they were already groaning. But nothing could be heard above the din blasting forth from megaphones and microphones.

All in all, Mephisto paints a terrifying picture of a nation at a time when fascism is on the rise, when its victory seems inevitable (which it was), and its reign unending (which it wasn’t). But perhaps more than that, its value lies in showing us how easily individuals become collaborators with the regime, and how fragile a thing conscience is.

Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels: Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin

Berlin Novels

Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present, I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched to the railway station, seventeen years ago.

Christopher Isherwood witnessed the rise of the Nazis while living in Berlin. In the Berlin Novels, through a series of character sketches, he portrays the last days of the Weimar Republic, and a city that will soon be taken over by fascism. The first novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, follows the travails of Arthur Norris, as seen through the eyes of the first-person narrator, Bradshaw. Norris, a purported left-wing sympathiser, is also a hustler, a con-man, a congenital liar, and perpetually short of funds – qualities that render loyalty a fickle thing in the Berlin of 1930, where the leftists and the Nazis battle for control over an increasingly dysfunctional government, and where things change so rapidly that a Nazi electoral defeat in November and a “majority of over 100,000 in Berlin” for the leftists is followed by the Reichstag fire just a few months later.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains is set in the same time period, and has a cast of characters that is similar to Mephisto: spineless opportunists, grimly determined – and doomed – leftists, and of course, the “ordinary people” who profess a distaste for violence, but are alarmingly susceptible to its attractions when it is targeted against “Jews … business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn’t concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of the defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it.” And, like Klaus Mann in his descriptions of the rise of fascism (“Life was fun under the dictatorship“), Isherwood points out its celebratory nature, how it fills people with enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that, on its surface, appears entirely genuine and authentic:

Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from the windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the café in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’etat in Bavaria. Goring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the café turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased … they smiled approvingly at these youngsters in their big swaggering boots who were going to upset the Treaty of Versailles. They were pleased because it would soon be summer, because Hitler had promised to protect the small tradesmen, because their newspapers told them that the good times were coming. They were suddenly proud of being blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys…

One difference between the two novels, though, is that Isherwood is far more concerned with the human (a luxury perhaps afforded to him by a time and distance that was not available to the exiled Mann, writing in 1936). Mr. Norris Changes Trains is focused on human relationships as much as it on fascism, and Isherwood’s touch is deft (“We sat round the elegant little dinner-table like three people absorbed in a difficult chess problem…” and “We regarded each other with the amusement of two people who, night after night, cheat each other at a card game which is not played for money…”); he has an acute sense of self-awareness (“His eyes measured me for the first time. No, he was not impressed. Equally, he did not condemn. A young bourgeois intellectual, he thought. Enthusiastic, within certain limits. Capable of response if appealed to in terms of his own class-language. Of some small use: everybody can do something. I felt myself blushing deeply.”); and he does not judge – not even Norris, whose weaknesses and foibles turn into something far more dangerous in the time and place that he is in. Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a novel about fascism, but it is also a deeply human novel.

Goodbye to Berlin, the second of the two novels, presents a set of short character sketches of Berliners – again – on the eve of the Nazi takeover: a thinly-disguised version of Isherwood interacts with con-(wo)men (a recurring theme in his writing), ill-fated Jewish tradesmen, upstanding, educated and intelligent Germans who have internalised Nazi ways of thought, non-Nazi Germans – the gamut. Nazism itself lurks in the background, until at last it comes to the fore with the Reichstag Fire, and the narrator’s own departure from a Germany that he knows is swiftly doomed. On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Victor Shklovsky describes the poet Mayakovsky as wandering around Moscow, trying to fix everything in his memory, as one does when one is seeing something for the last time; Isherwood expresses a very similar sentiment in the closing lines of the book:

I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am horrified to see that I am smiling. You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather. The trams are going up and down in the Kleiststrasse, just as usual. They, and the people on the pavement, and the tea-cosy dome of the Nollendorfplayz station have an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past – like a very good photograph.

No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened …

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

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A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a most unusual novel. Set in four places – a little Polish town, pre-war Vienna, Stalin’s Moscow, and post-war Berlin, End of Days is a story of mid-20th century Europe caught up between Nazism and Stalinism. In some ways, End of Days is similar to Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years: in its four cycles, and in (a few of its) protagonists, who begin as idealistic communists, but ultimately find themselves outlawed and hunted by the very Party that they have given their lives to building.

But its form is very different: the story is told through the eyes of one woman – the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father – and in each cycle, she dies (suffocating as a child in a cradle, committing suicide as a young woman, killed by the Party…). Each cycle, however, ends with speculation: what if this one event had turned out differently, and she had not died? The next cycle, then, takes up the story as if she hd not died. This gives End of Days a uniquely haunting quality, and the never-quite-far presence of death constantly reminds the reader of the fragility of human existence, especially when faced with the totalising ideologies of anti-semitism and Nazism, and Stalinism.

More than that, what End of Days succeeds brilliantly at is the hugely difficult task of telling world-historical events through the lens of a single life – a life with its individual sum of joys and sufferings, triumphs and defeats, rootedness and wandering, and – ultimately – loss. Through the protagonist’s infancy, her youth in Vienna and her first brush with the Communist Party (“Had not they, the Communists, made it their business to even out the gradient so that everyone could stand freely without falling, without pushing, shoving, being pushed or shoved, free – and without fear?”), her falling in love (“Only after she had fallen in love with him had she realized what a great longing she’d always had to be knowable to another person: to be one with herself, and at the same time with another.“), their travel to Moscow and her husband’s persecution and murder by the Party (“Would a truth take her farther than a lie? And which of the many possible truths or lies should she use?“), and her last days in Berlin, End of Days is about the human being, the human being who retains an indisputable core of existence outside and independent of the reach of ideology. And so, through the series of politically-induced tragedies that rack the alternate lives of the protagonist throughout the novel – tragedies that warn us of the perils of totalising ideology – it is this quality that continues to linger in the memory long after the reader has put down the book:

One evening after a meeting, she had told H. about her Sisyphus, and he had talked to her about his plays. A few days later the two of them went together to a gathering of so-called revolutionary writers, and suddenly everything that had been separate for so long and separately had made no sense fell into place. After all what did having a world view mean if not learning to see? Was it possible to change the world if you found the right words? Could the world be changed only if you happened to find them?

And finally, reading Erpenbeck’s novel in between Mephisto and The Berlin Novels was an interesting experience for another reason: in Mann’s and Isherwood’s work, the communists appear as the opponents of the rising Nazis: this gives their cause a heroic tint, and the communists themselves – in both novels – are portrayed as principled resistors (as they undoubtedly were), willing to risk torture and death for an ideal, but never complicity with the regime. End of Days shows us that very communist dream going sour in victory, with its doctrinaire rigidity, show-trials, and the totalisation of the Party; Erpenbeck too begins with the communists as idealists and dreamers, in pre-war Vienna:

No, youth no longer existed so one could squander one’s youth, or simply wait for the years to pass until one could eventually slip into old age as into rags that others had worn to shreds. It no longer existed for being ground down to make up for the failings of an older generation. Now the point of youth was to be thrown away: for a new world such as the world had never seen before.

But by the end, we are probably left wishing that time had stopped when it did in Isherwood and in Mann, before the “new world” really revealed itself.

Alfted Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

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This probably sounds heretical, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Berlin Alexanderplatz, acknowledged to be one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. The story is set in Berlin 1929, and follows the travails of Franz Biberkopf, who has just come out of prison after serving time for manslaughter. Despite his efforts to stay “decent”, Bibkerkopf finds himself being inexorably dragged back into the underworld, with its routinised violence and mayhem: and thus begins the bildungsroman (as Walter Benjamin labels it), in and around Weimar Berlin, through its streets, alleys, bars, and working-class districts, at a time when the atmosphere is tense with the oncoming confrontation between the communists and the Nazis.

The book, though, is not a linear narrative, but meanders in all conceivable directions: digressions, interior monologues, clashing registers, streams-of-consciousness – all combine to render the prose anything but linear. In an illuminating Afterword, the translator sums it up thus: “… the way of greater chaos, absorptiveness, allusiveness, speed, a kind of interiority that is indistinguishable from exteriority (and of course, vice versa).” This, of course, is not unfamiliar – I’ve read a very similar analysis of by Edward Said of Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain – but reading the Afterword did help me appreciate that for its time (1929) what Berlin Alexanderplatz was doing was fresh and innovative, and – more importantly – it broke new ground by deliberately adopting not just the perspective, but also the register of the Berlin working class (and Berlin, as a city, was just coming into its own at the time).

For me, I found the initial portions of the novel – particularly dense with very particular Berlin geography – to be difficult going; the middle portion of the book was much better – the characters sharply realised, their relationships and their travails intriguing and moving, along with brief flashes of narrative wisdom – but things once again seemed clogged towards the end, with interior monologue taking over. I also found myself put off just a little by the gratuitous – and seemingly pointless – amounts of violence, although one will probably argue that Doblin was only depicting reality! I would have come away considerably less impressed were it not for the Afterword, which really helped to contextualise the book’s historical importance; it left me wondering that Berlin Alexanderplatz is probably one of those novels that needs to be read with an awareness of its context, both in the history of Germany, as well as in literary history.

(For a longer and more detailed review, see Max Cairnduff’s blog.)


All – or at least most – of these books deal with Germany on the cusp of the 1930s. And reading them, I was struck by what now, with the benefit of hindsight, seems like a historical inevitability (the rise of the Nazis), at its time, simply – was not. It is one thing, of course, to read historical accounts of the strength of the German left wing in the 1920s; but it is only in reading these novels that you get a sense of how finely poised the struggle was, how much popular support the German left had (especially from the working classes), and how little it would have taken for things to go the other way; there is a particularly poignant moment towards the end of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, where the narrator’s landlady is “adapting” herself to say “Heil Hitler” – and the narrator wryly remarks that she’s probably forgotten that she voted communist at the last election.

Is there a lesson here?

Perhaps only that what today feels like living in the midst of an inevitability may not be so either.

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“Night has become more than a moment in time. It is duration, space, the colour of ages to come…”: Leonora Miano’s “Season of the Shadow”

Season of the Shadow

“The clan lived as if it had given birth to itself. Terrorized by violence, it ritualized and regulated it, so as to resolve conflict with words. Mukano embodied this philosophy to perfection. Did he do wrong?”

 

Over three and a half centuries, white Europeans transported more than 12.5 million enslaved Africans to the Americas, in a brutal seafaring voyage called “the middle passage.” More than two million died on the voyage, with many others perishing during the march from the interiors to the coasts. The Middle Passage has been depicted in literature, perhaps most famously in Maryse Conde’s Segu. But the industrial scale of the colonial slave trade would never have been possible without the active collusion of  some powerful African leaders themselves – an issue that, for obvious reasons, remains sensitive even today. And it is that piece of history that it is at the heart of Leonora Miano’s Season of the Shadow, a novel set in present-day Cameroon, at the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade.

After a great fire runs through their village, the Mulongo Clan discovers that twelve young men from the tribe have disappeared. To the Mulongo, who live within themselves and have abjured violence in favour of “resolving conflicts with words”, the disappearances are bewildering and inexplicable. And so begins a long quest to discover the fate of the lost young men, a quest that takes the Mulongo, led by their Chief Mukano, to the neighbouring queendom of the Bwele, and into the jaws of the creeping slave trade. At its climax, the story branches into three parts: Chief Mukano’s search for the lost men, the fate of the villagers who stay behind to wait, unmindful of the peril they are in, and the journey of Eyabem one of the bereft mothers, searching for her son through the Bwele queendom and all the way to the murderous coast. And each of these narrative threads finally come together to reveal how the Mulongo have been caught in the crosshairs of a newly-ruthless world:

Now she knows that the shadow that hovered over the hut of the women whose sons went missing is hovering over the world. The shadow drives communities to conflict, pushes people to flee their native lands. Once time will have gone by and moons will have followed on moons, who will retain the memory of all these displacements? In Bebayedi, yet-unborn generations will learn that their ancestors had to run away to save themselves from predators. They will learn why these huts are built over streams. They will be told: Madness took hold of the world but some people refused to live in darkness. You are the descendants of the people who said no to the shadow. (p. 138 – 9)

At one level, Season of the Shadow is a simple and oft-repeated story of the disintegration of an indigenous culture upon first contact. This story has its more famous versions – predictably, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between come to mind – although, of course, every fresh retelling brings with it its own unique heartbreak. But there is something more here: while colonialism and the colonial slave trade provide the backdrop to the novel, Season of the Shadow is not about colonialism. It is not even about the conflict between indigenous cultures and the militant spread of Islam within parts of the African content (which was explored in Segu). In Season of the Shadow, it is neighbour who falls upon neighbour, destroying and enslaving for the benefit of the European slave traders. And so, as far as the grand narrative is concerned, Season of the Shadow complicates matters, showing us with great clarity that the moral world is rarely a binary between colonisers and colonised, oppressors and the oppressed, and good and evil.  

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But beyond that, the power of Season of the Shadow lies in the universality of its story: the loss of innocence, the grief of loss, the admirable wilfulness to hold on to something in the teeth of an altered world, that incontestable core of human dignity in the face of every humiliation imaginable, and more than anything else, the refusal to die, at a moment when living no longer seems worthwhile:

The women say that you cannot dispossess people of what they have received, learnt, experienced. They themselves could not do so, even if they wanted to. Human beings are not empty calabashes. The ancestors are here. They float over bodies that embrace. They sing when lovers cry out in unison. They wait at the threshold of a hut where a woman is in labour. They are in the cry, the babble of newborns … children grow up, learn the words of the earth, but the bond with the realms of the spirit lives on. The ancestors are here and they are not a confinement. They conceived a world. This is their most precious legacy: the obligation to invent in order to survive. (p. 235 – 6)

After finishing Season of the Shadow, perhaps what lingers longest in memory is its depiction of the Mulongo people: an ethical system and a world-view that substitutes violence with words, an origin myth centred around a pioneering woman founder, and a self-contained cosmology and way of life, all of which seems so alien and out of step with the world, that its ultimate destruction appears as a tragic inevitability, like the slow decay and death of a language in a newly-conquered territory. But at the very end, there remains a seed of hope that memory will triumph against forgetting, and that that the “intransigence of reality” will yield to the “plasticity of language”; because, as the Mulongo always say, “May we know how to welcome the day when it comes. The night too.” (p. 237)

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Reading Poland (in Poland)

I spent the last week traveling through Poland. As is customary, I try to punctuate such journeys by reading some of the literature of the country I’m traveling in. Apart from getting a deeper sense of place, it always serves as an excellent excuse for reading new kinds of writing, often beyond one’s comfort zone. So, this is what I read out of Poland:

MadameAntoni Libera, Madame: Imagine a combination of the hilarious wit of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the savage satire of The Joke, and the virtuoso language games of The Seventh Function of Language. That gives you Antoni Libera’s Madame, which I read through my first day in Warsaw, whenever I was taking a café break – it is that addictively good. Set in communist-ruled Poland on the cusp of the 1960s, Madame is the story of an eighteen-year old schoolboy who falls in love with his thirty-two-year old French teacher. In the course of a determined quest to uncover her past – which would allow him to know her better and so woo her with more dexterity – the personal and the political (history of Poland through World War II and then suffocating communist rule) come together in ways that are both amusing, and deeply moving. Peppered with clever literary references and language games, woven into the romantic pursuit with consummate skill, and with the political backdrop always framing – but never impeding – the narrative, Madame is a rich and very satisfying red – and with an ending that is a fitting climax to the quality of the story.

HeathenNarcyza Zmichowska, The Heathen: I think this is a book whose value lies more in the context that it arose from, and the milieu that it spoke to, rather than how well it reads in the twenty-first century. The Heathen is a novel written by Narcyza Zmichowska, a mid-nineteenth century writer who is acknowledged to be one of the earliest figures of Polish feminism (and The Heathen – first published in 1846 – the earliest Polish feminist novel). The plot of the novel is straightforward: Benjamin, a romantically-inclined Polish youth falls in love with Aspasia, an older, more emancipated woman; in the beginning, her love exalts him, and Benjamin achieves great worldly renown under her tutelage; when, however, she inevitably leaves him, Benjamin descends into unthinking rage, and commits serious crimes (there are shades of Maupassant’s Alien Hearts in this novel, although those themes are relatively underdeveloped). The writing is florid, of a piece with nineteenth-century romanticism, and requires a degree of patience to read through. The significance of the novel, however, is brought out brilliantly in a fifty-page long Introduction, which puts Zmichowska as well as The Heathen in its temporal context, pointing out the subversive character of the relationship that frames the novel, as well as an underlying current of homoeroticism that runs through it. The Introduction fascinatingly places The Heathen within the nascent feminist movement in 19th-century Poland (Zmichowska being one of its founders), and helps the reader understand many of the narrative devices that it uses. And all that said, it also has one of the more memorable lines that I’ve come across recently. Aspasia says: “How do I love? Like a God loves, through destruction and mystery.

LalaJacek Dehnel, Lala: The hundred years between the mid-19th century of The Heathen and the mid-20th century of Madame are filled neatly by Lala, a generational saga seen through the eyes of one woman. The eponymous Lala is the narrator’s grandmother, who is dying. In fragments and in bits and pieces of memory, she recounts to the narrator the story of an extraordinary life, from pre-War Poland, through the German occupation during World War II, and the beginnings of communist rule. The narrator attempts to impose some kind of a chronological pattern on the telling, but for the most part, he lets the story do its job: the narrative, therefore, slips and stumbles, skips and doubles back, twists and turns, and so – as though seeing a reflection through broken glass pieces hurriedly placed together – we reconstruct the early-20th century history of Poland. As in Madame and as in The Heathen, one of the defining characteristics of Lala is how a memorable female progatonist occupies centre-stage, not just in presence, but also in action. Apart from this, there are also passages of striking beauty, such as: “And that was when Granny saw – yes, saw and not heard – the silence, the great silence, intensifying in the trees, silence solid enough to cut into large blocks and haul on a wooden sledge, down into quarries of quiet, where maybe one day someone would buy them to sculpt a mute David of a Pieta.” Or, as a description of a person who is fading away: “Like a dark stain on the brightly coloured carpet of the world.”

FlightsOlga Tokarczuk, Flights: Olga Tokarczuk is one of contemporary Poland’s most famous writers, and Flights won the Booker International in 2018. Much to my shame, therefore, I found myself unable to finish this book; I got through about one-third, and then couldn’t go on. Flights is a novel composed out of a set of aphoristic, essay-length pieces, moving between vignette-length short stories and simple reflections; Calvino is perhaps the author that will come to mind, but the book it most reminded me of was Dubraska Ugresevic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. While the unifying themes of that book were memory and the Balkan War, Flights is loosely organised around the idea of travel and movement (although many of the essays aren’t about that either). For example, at the beginning, we have:

That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow: the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate. I’m simply not in possession of that vegetative capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement – from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of plains, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.

 

Many of the passages are deeply striking in the sharpness of their images (“… a ball of tautly tangled emotions breaking down, like those strange tumours that turn up sometimes in the human body”, or “… life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off…”) or in the manner in which they express unutterable truths (“… if instead we simply saw the world as it was, with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts … what we learned at university was that we are made up of defences, of shields and armour, that we are cities whose architecture essentially comes down to walls, ramparts, strongholds: bunker states). But without an organizing theme, I found it hard going after a point; maybe I’ll try again one day.

Nobody Leaves

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland: This was my first foray into Kapuscinski, whose books I have been seeing in bookshops all over the world for so many years. Nobody Leaves is a series of journalistic sketches published by the young Kapuscinski, in the relatively early days of communist rule in Poland. The sketches are primarily from rural or semi-urban areas, and you can see the qualities that have made the writer such a famous journalist. It’s not just the acute sense of observation and that ability to distance yourself while you write while retaining empathy and investment in the story; but its also a preternatural sense of what makes a good story. From the two German women who listen to the radio one night and believe that the Fuhrer has won the war and that they can now claim their properties back, to the disaffected men who watch a famous discus-thrower in training, waiting for that one record-breaking throw (“… the fan is one of those who, at a certain point, missed his chance”), there is something deeply human about these sketches, that sets them apart both from reportage and from travel writing.

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“But if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle…”: Victor Serge’s ‘Unforgiving Years’

If there ever had been, if there ever were, somewhere in the world, another reality, it now remained in human memory as no more than a recollection, tinged more by doubt and sadness than by nostalgia. (p. 173)

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In Gate of the Sun, his novel about the Palestinian struggle, Elias Khoury writes: ‘how sad it is when revolutions come to an end. The end of a revolution is the ugliest thing there is. A revolution is like a person. It gets senile and rambles and wets itself.’ Unforgiving Years, part-thinly veiled autobiography and part-surrealistic memoir, is about the end of a revolution. Written by Victor Serge (Comrade Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, a man who – like Arthur Koestler – seemed to be at the front-lines of all the significant events of the first half of the 20th century, going wherever ‘barricades were erected‘), Unforgiving Years tracks the attempts of D, once a major actor in the Russian Revolution (as Serge was), now disillusioned with what the Soviet Union has turned into (as Serge became), and determined to renounce the Communist Party and flee to the ends of the earth (as Serge did).

Written in dreamlike, almost hallucinatory prose, Unforgiving Years is divided into four parts, connected to each other only by a single common thread – the travails of Daria, D’s ‘friend and fellow revolutionary.’ Part One opens in Paris, on the eve of the Second World War. D – ostensibly on duty as a Soviet spy – has finally decided to break with the Communist Party, and turned in his resignation letter (‘Everything was falling apart, only risk itself remained, impoverished, coarsened by the loss of any real justification.’ (p. 49)) Expecting to be hunted down and assassinated – the fate of all defectors – D moves frantically through Paris to get his affairs in order, and flee to Mexico. As Paris braces itself for a war that it is unprepared for (‘One of the charms of Paris, unique in the world, is that people here neglect ferociousness – that power – and the organized brutality that drives great empires. ‘ (p. 64)), D and his companion and fellow-defector, Nadine, keep a half-step ahead of Communist Party agents, while D struggles with his own conscience, and coming to terms with the moral failure of the revolutionary project, and everything that gave life meaning (quoting Blok, ‘hearts once full of enthusiasm/Have nothing left but fatal nothingness…’ (p. 83)).

Part Two takes us to the Siege of Leningrad at the height of the Second World War, told from the perspectives of the besieged Soviet soldiers (‘War is a time for submission, for being rational; one can’t want anything for oneself beyond the fleeting moment. Klim spoke reasonably.’ (p. 123)) and citizens (‘The buildings had aged by a couple of centuries in a few short seasons, just as men and women looked decades older in only a few months; the children had aged a lifetime before knowing what life was.’ (p. 123) If Part One was about introspection, about an individual’s interior landscape even as the world presses down from above, Part Two is about the starkness of existence, even as a hint of reflectivity remains (‘There were ways and ways of dying slowly while remaining partly alive.’ (p. 124)) But even that is stripped away in Part Three, where the action shifts a German city at the tail-end of the War, ravaged by the bombings of the Allies and the Soviet advance. Here, life has been pared down to less than its essentials (‘So inexorably did the present annul the past, so simply, so mercilessly did this present perpetuate itself, that no room was left for the anticipation of any other future.’ (p. 184)) (Perhaps) interestingly, the story is told from the perspective of Brigitte, a German citizen and wife of a Nazi soldier, caught up in the dying embers of the War, reflecting a narrative empathy that was controversial for its time (and still is).

And in Part Four, we return to the haunting interiority of Part One. Here, the gaslit streets of Paris are replaced by the Juan Rulfo-esque Mexican landscape of vaguely-undefined horror. Daria – in Paris with D, at the defence of Leningrad, and in the advance upon Germany – makes her final journey, fleeing across the oceans to join D and Nadine in Mexico, little knowing that the agents of the Communist Party are on her heels (‘Some of them escaped with nothing but a shirt and a few papers, enriched – as well as ravaged – by ideas.’ (p. 281)) The novel now exudes a sense of exhaustion, of a death-like bone weariness, and the feeling that everything was staked for ‘the splendor of living in some distant, still-unimaginable future’ (p. 50), nothing gained, and that now, everything ends in meaninglessness.

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Victor Serge

In Turgenev’s On the Eve, Andrei Bersyenev is described as being ‘sad with a sadness that had nothing noble in it.’ D expresses a similar sentiment at the beginning of Unforigiving Years, when he contemplates ‘risk … coarsened by the loss of any real justification’, and in some ways, the entire novel charts that course: the peeling away of an illusion. ‘In order to exist fully, the will demands a goal’ (p. 47): we have this wry observation early on, a sentiment reminiscent of Ghassan Kanafani’s “man is a cause“, and everything that follows is an unraveling of that goal (here, the Soviet-communist promise of ‘another reality’), and the fate of the will in a world where the goal is gone, and there is nothing to replace it. So, D can look back with wistful envy at ‘the fortunate communards, to die with all the future before them’ (p. 77) (perhaps the only time in literary history that someone has appended the adjective ‘fortunate’ to describe the communards!), while all that remains for those (like him) who are no longer apparatchiks in thrall to the Soviet Union, is a ‘desolate frankness’. (p. 77)

In some ways, Unforgiving Years is similar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play, ‘Dirty Hands‘. ‘Dirty Hands’ 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 by the Party many years after his assassination, and Hugo must then disavow his act, the act that had singularly provided meaning to his life. Hugo’s internal conflict resembles D’s in many ways, but perhaps with one significant difference: at the end of ‘Dirty Hands’, Sartre does not offer his readers the possibility of hope; however, despite its grimmer tone, Unforgiving Years never quite allows that last kernel to die. At the very beginning, D observes that ‘if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle.’ (p. 8) And, soon afterwards: ‘At least admit the possibility. All that remains is to make it happen.’ (p. 47) Indeed – and strikingly – Serge himself wrote, elsewhere, that ‘the ardent voyage continues,/the course is set on hope’ (lines that would title his biography). That insistence that something human always remains, at the end, is what makes Unforgiving Years, for all its tragic setting, a compelling work.

Equally compelling is Serge’s prose style, a perfect complement to his themes. An almost lyrically atmospheric flow of language is punctuated by observations of stiletto-like sharpness: ‘D liked him, to whatever atrophied extent he was still capable of friendship’ (p. 12), ‘ … one of those Siberian landscapes that lends a fresh alacrity to sadness (provided you’re not in captivity)’ (p. 16), ‘she put her money on a heavy breakup scene, with a sprinkling of sentiment over the top like confectioner’s sugar on yesterday’s buns…’ (p. 23), ‘there’ll be time to spare for sorting out memories …’ (p. 35), ‘most couples make up, or annihilate each other in ways that provide no pickings for crime reporters.’ (p. 78)

These, to use Serge’s own words in conclusion, are scattered throughout Unforgiving Years like ‘a dusting of stars’ (p. 175), and these are what make it such a unique novel.  

 

 

 

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“You never really appreciated love till the second time”: Maryse Conde, ‘Segu’

The whites had come, cadged a little land to build their forts, and then because of them nothing was ever the same again. They had brought with them things never before heard of here, and people had fought over them, nation against nation, brother against brother. And now the whites’ ambition knew no bounds. Where would it end? (p. 249)

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Segu is a story of first contact. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a story of many first contacts. Beginning in 1797, and spanning the first half of the 19th century, it tells of the last days of the Bambara Empire (that spanned present-day Mali), and of a West African society disintegrating under the twin forces of Islam and colonialism.

From the time that Tiekoro, the eldest son of Dousika and Nya Traore, announces his conversion to the new religion of Islam, a curse hangs over the Traore family, intent on claiming each one of their sons. From Timbucktoo to the Middle Passage, from London to plantation Brazil, and then back to the capital city of Segu, it haunts them – and through them, the Bambara Empire itself. As Islam becomes more dominant in West Africa, transforming itself into a militant and exclusionary religion, as the slave trade begins to spread its tentacles inwards from the Gold Coast, and as the French and the British begin to make the first moves in their eventual “scramble for Africa” (the book opens with Mungo Park’s arrival at the capital city), Segu must make the agonising choice between destruction as the price of maintaining the Bambara way of life, and assimilation or dissolution for survival.

Written in 1985, Segu predates by quite a few years the more recent expositions of this genre. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart remains, of course, perhaps the most well-known novel about the disruption of social structures under the pressures of colonialism; and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North continues to be the classic exploration of the ambiguous personal relationship between coloniser and colonised. The influences of these works are evident on Conde (in fact, one of her characters’ visit to London bears strong resemblances to Season of Migration to the North), but perhaps what is more interesting is how Segu has strong echoes in contemporary work. Its skilful use of the family saga to tell the story of a nation will put readers in the mind of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu (2014, Uganda); and its sensitive portrayal of a society that struggles to preserve itself, but knows only too well that its destruction is inevitable, foretells Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields (2017, Madagascar) and Patrice Nganang’s Mount Pleasant (2011, Cameroon) (indeed, all three novels are set in the first half of the 19th century, their events separated by a few years). More than these novels, however, Segu bears the imprints of an epic: it is concerned not merely with the breakdown of Bambara society, but with the transformation of a world, and it is that sense that gives Code’s prose an almost transcendent quality, at times:

The child pondered.  “How many languages shall I be able to speak?” Naba stroked the little head, with its knobby curls. “I hope you’ll only speak the languages of your heart,” he said. (p. 259)

maryse condeSegu is also a story about motherhood. While the role of women in a patriarchal society remains circumscribed and limited, by the end of the book, Nya – the chief wife of the deceased Dousika, and (therefore) mother of the Traore children, who are doomed to wander the corners of the earth – has emerged as one of its most important characters. Her character is illumined by her bearing the loss of her children (and the eventual return of some), losses that finally become unbearable, and trigger some of the most memorable lines in the book:

And so Nya was brought low, like a tree eaten away from within by termites … ‘Nya, daughter of Fale,’ they repeated, ‘your ancestors bent the world like a bow and unbent it again like a straight road. Nya, stand erect again too.’ (p. 375)

These lines are also representative of a particular feature of Segu, which stood out for me: language that is so rich in metaphor, that it often engages multiple senses at the same time. “Her heart was bitter,” writes Conde at one point, “bitter as cahuchu, the wood that weeps, which the seringueiros, the rubber gatherers, stabbed with their knives in the forest.” (p. 204) The smell of bitterness, the taste of tears, the tactile sense of stabbing, all come together within an image of men plunging their knives into a tree, combining to create an immensely powerful sensory experience. And so it is elsewhere.  “[Is] the spirit … as bitter as the bark of mahogany?” (p. 306), it is asked on an occasion. “Why was life this swamp into which you were drawn in spite of yourself, to emerge defiled, your hands dripping?” (p. 377), it is asked on another. “There are times when a man’s life disgusts him, staring him in the face with its pitted skin and its bad teeth in their rotten gums” (p. 396), it is observed on a third. The sentiments that these lines express are simple enough, but with Conde’s use of language, they hit the reader with all the force of physical sensation.

That is not to say, of course, that reading Segu is like an extended sensory excursion. The novel carries depth and an emotional charge, and it is suffused with a sense of tragic – yet inevitable loss. This comes through in specific lines that are delivered, rapier-like, cutting into the recesses of the soul (“He suddenly felt sorry for her, and his compassion created the illusion of desire.” (p. 292), but more than that, it is present in the atmosphere of the novel. In an essay called ‘The Futurists’, the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, thus:

I remember walking with Mayakovsky, whom even now in my mind I must call Vladimir Vladimirovich, and not Volodya, along the paved streets of Petersburg, the sun-speckled avenues of the Summer Garden, the Neva embankments, the Zhukovskaya Street, where the woman lived whom the poet loved. Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.  The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear. (The Shklovsky Reader, p. 236).

 

It is a bit like this. Bits of the landscape melt into – burn themselves into – Segu. And Segu is all about looking at the things around one the way one does when they are about to disappear. And if the disappearance is of the Bambaras, of Segu itself, then it is presages in the lives of the Toure sons, who are driven from wherever they go, unable to find or make a home anywhere in the world, until driven back to Segu that itself faces the threat of extinction. Segu is a novel about leave-taking – whether one would or no – and all that that brings with it. But for all that, it is a novel that resists saying goodbye, even until the last page – and, after we have put it down, if we want to know how things really played out, we have to consult history books. Conde and Segu, however, refuse to deliver that, perhaps to affirm that as long as we have literature, there will always be another way to imagine an ending.

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2018 in Books

A heavy work schedule has prevented me from reading as much as I’d have liked to this year, along with restricting reading to academic texts. That has not been helped by starting a few books and leaving them midway (they have not been listed here). I’m hoping to make amends in 2019. In the meantime, here is the annual list, in the usual format, and with the usual caveats. The one exception to the general reading disappointment of 2018 was perhaps speculative fiction, where I got to read a wide variety of work from different parts of the globe – from Jordan, to Nigeria, to Bangladesh.

Indian Writing

  1. Arundhathi Subramaniam, When God is a Traveler (Poetry) (****): I bought this on a recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint. Taut verse, striking imagery, and a contained emotion that never spills over. I’ve not found much of contemporary Indian-English poetry to my taste, but this was a notable exception.
  2. U.R. Anantamurthy, Bara (****): Short – but excellent – novel set in a drought-hit village, featuring calculating politicians and a do-gooder IAS officer from the city. It was written during the Emergency, so that adds a bit of extra spice to proceedings.
  3. Volga, The Liberation of Sita (***): Here’s the Ramayana told from the perspective of Sita. I have a soft spot for just these kinds of retellings, and this is among the better ones. Volga’s own brilliant life history provides an even more intriguing framework to the story.
  4. Benyamin, Jasmine Days (****): Benyamin’s first novel, Goat Days, was a brilliant – if harrowing – read, and this one keeps up the standard. Jasmine Days is set in a fictional Arab dictatorship, during the peak of the Arab Spring, and told from the perspective of a migrant worker (a radio jockey) from Kerala. It is, like Goat Days, a harsh and unsparing novel, and all the better for that.
  5. Amitabha Bagchi, Half the Night is Gone (** and a 1/2): I loved the premise of this book – set in a mansion in Delhi in the 1940s – and I loved some of the writing, but in the end, I was left disappointed; it seemed to promise much, but fall tantalisingly short.

Hispanic/Latin American Writing

  1. Antonio Munoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow (***): You’d think that a novel that follows the parallel plot-lines of Martin Luther King’s murderer fleeing through Europe, and the author traveling in Lisbon to visit a past self, would make for a spectacularly good novel; this one felt a little bit of a let-down, though. Meandering and fragmented to a point where it was difficult to make sense of. That said, some absolutely superb passages, and probably worth reading just for that. I’d extract them, but they cover many pages.
  2. Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Secret History of Costaguana (****): He comes from Colombia, and he writes back against Gabriel Garcia Marquez – you couldn’t have written the script! This book is (part-)historical fiction about the independence and creation of Panama, and is written almost as a rebuke to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is also an excellent read. (Reviewed on the blog).

Arab Writing

  1. Adonis, Concerto al-Quds (****): Adonis’ latest book of poetry has, as always, passages of absolute beauty, and passages that go a few miles over your head.
  2. Rabih Alameddin, An Unnecessary Woman (***): You’d think that trying to write from the perspective of an ageing woman walling herself away with books would be a tough sell, but Alameddin pulls it off quite well.
  3. Beirut39 (** and a 1/2): A collection of thirty-nine pieces of short fiction or poetry from upcoming writers from the Arab world. This underwhelmed me a little – I felt that either the translations didn’t do the originals justice, or the pieces picked didn’t do the writers justice.
  4. Elias Khoury, My Name is Adam (***): Ever since I read Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury has been my favourite novelist, and I wait for new work by him as one would for an event that comes around once every few years. My Name is Adam is set in 1948, at the time of the Nakba, and covers the fall of the city of Lod, and the experiences of its Palestinian citizens in refugee camps. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of Gate of the Sun (honestly, what could?) or even The Broken Mirrors, but it does have moments of vintage Khoury, and of course, the theme is vitally important, especially in the present day.

African Writing

  1. Africa39 (****): Found this at Blossom, Bangalore, of all places, and this is an excellent collection. Some of the excerpts – Rusty Bell and Season of Crimson Blossoms – were enough to make me buy and read the whole works. Really, really high – and consistent – quality.
  2. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Season of Crimson Blossoms (****): A powerful and remarkable novel, exploring sexual taboos and sexual awakening in a strife-torn Nigerian town. Remarkable, particularly, in how it manages to be unsparing, and yet withhold judgment, at the same time.
  3. Soni Lab’ou Tansi, Life and a Half (***): A dark and bleak work, part of the dictator novel genre, and written as a response to political repression in Congo. The violence is often stomach-curling, but there are moments of dark humour that remind one of Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. Lab’ou Tansi’s own life as a ground-breaking Congolese novelist, once again, constitutes a layered backdrop to this.
  4. Nthikeng Mohlele, Rusty Bell (***): And a totally different theme and tone – a raucous – and sometimes, meta – coming-of-age story set in contemporary South Africa, with some absolutely incandescent passages of writing.

European Writing

  1. Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language (****): Another recommendation, and this was a delightful read. Involving a trans-continental conspiracy-cum-murder mystery featuring all the big-name post-structuralist philosophers of the post-1970s, and cameo appearances from the likes of Mitterand. Brilliantly witty, and even better if the in-jokes are broadly familiar.
  2. Paul Blackburn (ed.), Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry (***): A great collection, although, of course, the troubadour poets are not always easy to enjoy, because of the gulf of centuries. That said, as always, some of the verse resonates beautifully. For example: “Our love is like top/branches that creak/on the hawthorn at night/stiff from ice/ or shaking from rain. And tomorrow, the sun/spreads its living warmth through the branches and through the green leaves on the trees.”

The United Kingdom

  1. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (** and a 1/2): This will probably sound blasphemous, but I’m not a fan. This, to me, was too obviously written for a Western audience, and appealing to a very specific moment of time, with an attendant set of concerns and insecurities, prevailing in some of the Western countries.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Saad Hossain, Djinn City (*** and a 1/2): Bangladeshi SF! This was a really nice, fun novel alternating between Dhaka and the Djinn world, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reviewed it for Scroll.
  2. Fadi Zaghmout, Heaven on Earth (*** and a 1/2): From Dhaka to Amman! This Jordanian SF novel about the discovery of an anti-ageing drug – and the moral dilemmas that it throws up – was an equally fine read. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  3. Odafe Otagun, Taduno’s Song (****): A haunting and beautiful novel, based on the life of Fela Kuti, about a man whose music terrifies the dictator.
  4. Leigh Mathews, Colony (*** and a 1/2): A solid piece of Martian SF meets Solaris. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  5. Juliet Kemp, A Glimmer of Silver (*** and a 1/2): Another heavily-Solaris themed SF novel, this one set on a Planet that’s entirely Ocean. A little strange and a little sad. Reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  6. Tade Thompson, Rosewater (****): Uff! Such a well-paced, thrilling, and hands-in-the-ground novel, dealing with the after-effects of First Contact, and set in Nigeria. The premise is brilliant, and I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series.
  7. Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (*** and a 1/2): The retelling of the Frankenstein story in occupied, war-ravaged Baghdad. Black humour, so much tragedy, and a great read.
  8. Shadreck Chikoti, Azotus the Kingdom (***): An SF novel set in a future, privatised African country, with some resemblances to Brave New World. A little raw, but a tremendously bold premise, which alone makes it worth the read.
  9. L. Timmel Duchamp, Chercher La Femme (***): Gender-bending novel (another one reminiscent of Solaris) about a planet where men enter and refuse to leave – but women do not.
  10. Annalee Newitz, Autonomous (***): My close-out SF novel of the year was this excellent, Cory Doctorow-esque tale of a corporation-dominated world, intellectual property Robin Hood-style piracy, and AI. Worth it just for the excellent world-building.

Non-Fiction

  1. Jens Hanssen & Max Weiss (eds.), Arabic Thought against the Authoritarian Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Present (*****): My book of the year. I learnt so very much from these brilliant essays – ranging from Iraqi Jews writing in Arabic in Israel, labour movements in Egypt, feminist struggles in Lebanon, and so on. There’s so much that we simply don’t know or aren’t exposed to, about how, even in the most wretched of circumstances, there will always be people thinking about, writing, and struggling for freedom and equality. A standing warning against dismissing regions or peoples as inherently authoritarian or unsuitable for democracy.
  2. Dan Waddell, Field of Shadows: The English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany, 1937 (*** and a 1/2): This was a gift. I’m not a cricket fan, but this was a very enjoyable read about a rag-tag German cricket team that hosted the English, in the shadow of World War II. Some very moving moments.
  3. Charlie English, The Book Smugglers of Timbucktoo (*** and a 1/2): A fascinating read about an organised and systematic attempt to save Timbucktoo’s manuscripts from Boko Haram – with some doubts in the validity of the story!
  4. Eric Hazan, A Walk through Paris (*****): Another of my favourite books of the year. Hazan’s a brilliant historian and political geographer, and his book is a walk through the radical history of Paris. It begins in Ivry-Sur-Seine, with a look at a socialist housing commune, takes you right through Paris, and ends at a left-wing Saint-Denis bookshop. I spent three days in Paris, walking with this book in my hand, getting drenched in summer rain and going into bookshops without knowing a word of the language – all of which made it extra-special.
  5. Elaine Mokhtefi, Algiers: Third World Capital (****): A fascinating story about post-colonial Algiers, home to the Black Panthers, and to revolutionary movements throughout the world. Mokhtefi was at the events that she chronicles, and they bring alive an era of great excitement and hope. This doesn’t get five-stars simply because of some annoying apologia from time to time. Probably best read as a companion memoir alongside Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs. (Reviewed on the blog).

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“One night, Fanon and I went dancing”: Elaine Mokhtefi, “Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers”

We walked in the Casbah, exchanged tales of the various struggles, and felt kinship: we were fellow militants and the future was ours. The Algerians had done it and so could they. (p. 54)

Between the end of colonial oppression and the beginning of post-colonial dictatorship, there was a brief moment of time when it seemed that the world might be made anew. Elaine Mokhtefi had a ringside view of that moment – the 1960s – in a place where it all seemed to come together – Algiers. Jewish-American, “anti-colonialist, antiracist, socialist” (p. 20), swept up in the student-led World Government movement after World War II, traveling to a France that she “had fallen in love with … even before stepping on board the ship that had carried me across the Atlantic” (p. 8), Mokhtefi eventually found her place in the successful, FLN-led movement for Algerian independence. She first helped the FLN in lobbying the United Nations in New York and, upon independence, moved to Algiers to work as a journalist and translator (often with or for the new government). As post-Independence euphoria withered into post-colonial infighting, military coups, and suspicion, Mokhtefi found herself out of favour with the regime, and sent back to France (where she was persona non grata for her support for the Algerian struggle).

Algiers, Third World Capital chronicles the years in between, when Algiers was a hub and a sanctuary for liberation movements worldwide, as it tried to navigate its own way through the world as the capital of a newly-independent African nation. The book features a somewhat unlikely central cast: the Black Panthers. The wing of the Black Panther party led by Eldridge Cleaver lived in Algeria for three years, from 1969 – 1972. Mokhtefi was instrumental in getting the Black Panthers sanctuary in Algiers, and then, subsequently, arranging for Cleaver’s escape (and stay) in Paris. Much of Algiers, Third World Capital is centred around Cleaver and the Black Panthers’ engagement with the Algerians, in the context of broader third world and liberation politics around the world.

This, perhaps, gives the book one of the most diverse and eclectic cast of characters one cam imagine: senior Algerian liberation and government figures – from deposed President Ben Bella to liberation veteran Mokhtar Mokhtefi (whom Elaine marries); the Black Panthers, at the moment of the damaging split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton; famous French figures, from Godard (who speaks of himself in the third person, and refuses to help Mokhtefi in finding safety for Cleaver in Paris) to Jean Genet, who disabuses Cleaver of his illusions about “French democracy”), with cameos by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Indeed, this is perhaps the most striking part of the book. Where else, for example, would you find such an anecdote about Frantz Fanon?

He [Fanon] once asked me what I wanted in a relationship. When I answered, “To put my head on someone’s shoulder,” he was adamant: “Non, non, non: stay upright on your own two feet and keep moving forward to goals of your own.” (p. 41)

But while Algiers, Third World Capital is a ringside view, it makes no pretence to be a detached view. In a manner reminiscent of, say, C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins, Mokhtefi has picked a side, and makes no secret of it:

On November 1, 1954, All Saints’ Day, twenty-two brave fighters launched a series of attacks against French colonial targets across Algeria. Under the name National Liberation Front (… FLN), they called upon all Algerian nationalist organizations, all partisans of independence, to join them. They called on France to negotiate. This was the start of a nasty, deadly eight-year war, which pitted a technologically advanced, well-armed European nation (the fourth most powerful military establishment in the world) against a ragtag army of peasants and barely literate villagers.

Minister of the Interior Francois Mitterand reacted with force: “Algeria is France … the only negotiation is war.” And so the repression began. France dispatched thousands, then hundreds of thousands of troops, both conscripted and enlisted. Close to two million Frenchmen took part in the war as soldiers or police. Torture was systematic. Tens of thousands of men and women were arrested on any pretext and subjected to waterboarding (la baignoire), electric shocks on the genitals, broken bottles thrust into the anus, and summary executions. For France it turned into a “race war”, the ever-burgeoning population their obsession. Children and adolescents – Algeria’s future generations – were eliminated, wiped out, shot, starved, maimed.

Tallies of the number of people killed vary: of a population of nine million, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. According to French sources, over two million men, women, and children – one-quarter of the indigenous population – were herded into concentration camps. Their villages, their crops, and their herds were burned and slain. To quote the historian Alistair Horne, the camps “varied from resembling the fortified villages of the Middle Ages to the concentration camps of a more recent past.”

On the eve of independence, the 500,000 books in the University of Algiers library went up in flames. The fires were lit by the dean of the university and the head librarian, who fled, along with 900,000 other settles, across the Mediterranean to France: they torched the books “so as not to leave them for the FLN.” In Algiers, Oran, Constantine, the bodies of cleaning women, their traditional robes stained with their own blood, lay in the streets. Official buildings were bombed. The Radiology Department of the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers was demolished. Classrooms were destroyed, and whole schools burned. By the time of independence, 2.5 million children suffered from tuberculosis or rickets. According to the International Red Cross, 50 percent of the population was destitute, hungry, and sick. (p. 22)

Like Fanon, Mokhtefi draws a clear distinction between the colonial violence of the French regime (unjustified), and the liberation-struggle violence of the FLN. Unlike Fanon, however, Mokhtefi (perhaps understandably) does not actually spell out the argument, leading to the impression – at times – that the violence committed by her side is either glossed over or simply ignored. This appears at its starkest in her account of Eldridge Cleaver, who was known to repeatedly – and viciously – beat his wife. Mokhtefi acknowledges this (on more than one occasion), but throughout the book, this seems to take little (if anything) away from her estimation of Cleaver; indeed, she expresses more outrage about Cleaver’s mis-description of his time in Algeria in his memoir than about his proclivity towards domestic violence. This strikes a sharp and discordant note in an otherwise stirring story that has liberation and emancipation at its heart.

Algiers, Third World Capital is best read alongside Henri Alleg’s The Algerian MemoirsLike Mokhtefi, a Westerner, Alleg came to Algeria via France, and became a part of the liberation struggle; and like Mokhtefi, he too had his own moments of danger and (ultimately) exile. But Alleg’s memoirs end with Independence; Mokhtefi takes us further, into the post-colony.  Together, the two books capture both the illusion and the eventual disillusion of the revolutionary freedom struggles of the mid-20th century.

Other reviews: The GuardianThe New Statesman; The Publishers’ Weekly; Public Books.

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Filed under African Writing, Algeria, Elaine Mokhtefi, Uncategorized