Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!

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Reading Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea: The Dragonfly Sea is the story of Ayaana, who grows up with her mother, Munira, and a father that she adopts – Muhidin – on the island of Pate, off the Kenyan coast. Her life changes when – on the basis of DNA tests – it is found that she is one of the distant descendants of a Chinese naval expedition that was wrecked off the coast of Pate seven hundred years ago. As part of their cultural diplomacy, the Chinese declare her a cultural ambassador – someone who can “walk the space between the past and the present, so that the future could be shared” (p. 154), and finance her education in China. But meanwhile, things are not well on Pate, when Muhidin’s recently-returned son – and now married to Munira – is renditioned as a suspected terrorist, and their fragile family is torn apart. While Ayaana’s time in China – and a brief, perilous sojourn in Turkey – changes her, she too will return to a very changed Pate Island.

Readers familiar with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s previous novel, Dust, will quickly recognise the familiar qualities of her writing: atmospheric writing (“Each port had a distinctive smell, as if the sea distilled the climate, hopes, and experiences of each place into a unique essence. Kilindini. Top note, earth, fire, moon flowers, and blood; middle note, salt, putrefying seaweed, and rust; bottom note, wood, twilight’s sun warmth, sweat (182 – 3)); a deep sense of place (“Outside, East African botanical exiles – the flame trees of Xiamen had exploded into red flower, and in the late light these looked like giant lanterns (357)); prose that engages all the senses (“Imagine the world as a salt road, and yourselves as slugs crossing it…” (120)); and sentences crafted like jewels (“Cartography not of possession, but of, how odd, belonging…” (478)). At the same time, The Dragonfly Sea paints upon a much larger canvas than the contained, Kenyan narrative-scape of Dust: from Pate Island to Mozambique to China to Turkey and back again – and all though, with the sea being its own character – The Dragonfly Sea communicates a sense of immensity, radiating outwards from the sometime-city-now-almost-ghost-town of Pate: “My town lives inside the ghost of a city that was the centre of the world.” (242)

At the centre of the story is Ayaana, a protagonist to whom you lose your heart to immediately; in many ways, as she navigated the world, Ayaana reminded me of Kirabo in Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman and Wurche in Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Owuor gives us an equally memorable supporting cast around her, from Munira and Muhidin to the emotionally lacerated Chinese ship-captain Lai Jin, and of course, the sea itself: most of Ayaana’s character itself is revealed not through interiority, but through engagement with these characters as they enter, cross, recross, and – sometimes – exit the stage of her life; by the end, it is more than sufficient to bear the narrative burden that Owuor places upon it, and the ending is a triumph.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda: Peter Kiman’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a generational story, along the lines of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu or Namwalli Serpell’s The Old Drift. It moves between 1902 and 1962 Kenya: at the time when the great railway line that formed the heart of the British colony was being constructed (with the help of Indian labour), and the years leading up to Kenyan independence. At the centre of the story is Jakaranda Hotel at Nakuru, built by Ian McDonald (“the Master”), former Commissioner of the Protectorate, for a wife who would never live there; at the time of Independence, we find Rajan Salim – a musician, and – as it turns out – the grandson of Babu, one of the initial Indian emigrants brought to build the railway, and McDonald’s bete noire – playing to packed crowds at the Jakaranda Hotel; soon, however, the chaos around Independence will engulf Nakuru and Rajan as well, and lead to the opening up of a particularly dark past involving McDonald, Babu, and the assassinated preacher Turnbull.

Dance of the Jakaranda moved adroitly between timelines, carefully revealing how events of the past ripple into the future (in that sense, apart from the books I mentioned above, it reminded me even more of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, which moved between Stalin’s purge of the Uzbek intellectuals in the 1930s, and social and cultural upheaval in the Central Asian Khanates a century before. The two stories are similar in how they skilfully depict the faint – yet unmistakable – ways in which events set in motion echo in unexpected ways through the generations. Dance of the Jakaranda is also, of course, a novel about colonialism: that is inevitable given the times that it is set in. On this Kimani is, as one would expect, unsparing: one of the things I learned from it was how the British intentionally introduced infectious diseases to wipe out the animal stock of of the Masai herdsmen, and reduce them to wage labour, so that they could be conscripted into work on the railway line.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this book is its choice of protagonists: Babu and Rajan are Indians in Kenya (an immigrant, and then a third-generation Kenyan-Indian). Writing involving Indians in Kenya – given our intertwined histories – is, of course, not new (think of Joginder Paul’s Land Lust), but this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read by a Kenyan where the story of colonialism and independence is seen through Indian eyes. And this is wonderfully done: Kimani writes with great empathy, sensitivity, and humaneness about what has often been a fraught history. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in the book captures that history in a single, beautiful image:

But what has truly put Nakuru on the world map is the wilflife sanctuary around the Jakaranda, and the annual festival held every December to coincide with the migration of the flamingos, the alien birds that inhabit the lake that gave the township its name. The birds’ first recorded exodus out of town coincided with the expulsion of the Indians, which many believe was the birds’ expression of solidarity with the community. (347)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song: Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Unbury Our Dead With Song is a love letter to music, to all that it can do – and all that we long for it to do. At the heart of the story is the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita. Told from the eyes of the Kenyan tabloid journalist, John Thandi Manfredi, the story opens at an underground Nairobi bar where a competition is held to determine the best tizita singer of the world. Haunted by what he hears at the bar, John persuades his editor to let him travel to Ethiopia to interview these practitioners of the tizita, and get to the root of what makes this music what it is.

While reading Unbury Our Dead With Song, I was reminded repeatedly of an image from Virgil’s Aeneid: that of a shoreline that recedes every time you sail towards it. This story takes us to the limits of words and of language; then, at the place where words end, to sounds and to music – and then to the ending point of music itself, with something still left over, a gap that still remains. As John describes a tizita performance: “… a place where the music is as true as speech, as true as a conversation with all its starts and hiccups and silences as one searches for meaning, or the right words” (155). Tizita, too, is a searching-without-finding, a suggestion of something but without grasping it. Indeed, on more than one occasion, John – and his interlocutors – can only make sense of it through the language of loss:

“I have many answers, but here is one,” she said as I laughed. “Tizita is of a love lost a long time ago – before you are born. Let me put it this way, “Malaika” is the song the original Tizita singer sang when the wounds of losing love, country, parent, sibling – of losing life while still alive – were still fresh. All those losses over years become something you pass on from generation to generation – the moss of all those broken hearts and loss gathered in song. “Malaika” is the fresh wound; the Tizita is the scar. “Malaika” has a face; the Tizita is faceless, or rather, it has so many faces that it is faceless. (95)

Or:

“I told you before. Containment. The Tizita – it is private, a private love or sorrow that joins the public ocean of tears. We mourn and celebrate together and privately at the same time. A good Tizita walks that line – if you show off, you undo that balance. The people feel what they have lost, no need to slap them in the face with it. Besides, what can you tell an erupting volcano of the hotness of the lava?” (p. 133)

Or:

“Think about the first death – the Tizita, to me, for me, is that sound of the first death, the recognition and the surprise and the realization; that first consciousness that realized it was going to be no more – and it wanted to leave a message in a bottle that becomes me and you … all I can say is, you can walk for a very long time and get to where you are going, but all along, little bits of yourself are left along the way, and you get to where you are going, and there is no going back without stepping on yourself, and there is no going forward without eventually tearing your entrails out of your body.” (p. 184)

One of the important ideas that contribute to this characterisation of titiza is that of containment. “The explosion is in the containment” (96), John is told. There is a holding back, a bordering, a going-there-but-not-quite; and this is because the gap between expression and feeling will remain no matter what, even when you substitute language with music. Thus, beauty lies not in futile attempts to express feeling, but in knowing when to stop and how far to go. In that sense, much of the story of Unbury Our Dead With Song reminded me of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, which exemplifies the idea of containment so well. In fact, there is one line from Herbert’s poem, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, which – I think – tells us what Unbury Our Dead With Song is fundamentally about: “he would like to remain faithful/ to uncertain clarity.” The tension within the phrase “uncertain clarity” characterises Ngugi’s novel, and it is in that tension that we find its most beautiful lines and moments.

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“A list of quiet things”: The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga is the story of two women: Aminah, who grows up in the village of Botu, part of a little community that lives under the fear of slaver raids; and Wurche, the daughter of an ambitious local noble who has designs on the throne of Salaga. When Aminah’s village is destroyed by raiders, she is forced away from her home and her society, and into a long journey that will take her to Salaga, city of a hundred wells. There, her life will intersect with Wurche, who is seeking for a way out of a loveless marriage, forced upon her for political reasons. But soon, something bigger than itinerant slave raids and the internal politics of Salaga will come to shape the women’s lives: the looming inevitability of colonialism.

The story of the Hundred Wells of Salaga – set in (what is now) Ghana, on the eve of colonial conquest – might feel a bit like a cross between Maryse Conde’s Segu (Wurche’s storyline) and Leonora Minamao’s Season of the Shadow (Aminah’s storyline). Indeed, the book does belong in a long traditions of novels set in societies on the verge of being torn apart by colonialism. But what makes The Hundred Wells of Salaga unique is its characters: the people who walk across the novel’s stage are achingly, painfully human, both at their finest, and at their worst. To take just one example: looking for release from a brutal marriage with the Dagbon prince Adnan, Wurche finds it with a man called Moro. This would ideally make Moro a positive, sympathetic character – and from Wurche’s perspective (at least in the beginning), he is; only, there’s one problem: Moro’s a slave trader (albeit one who takes no pleasure in the job). Wurche’s act of rebellion – which would otherwise give the reader a sense of (perhaps unearned) catharsis – is thus laced with the constant, background awareness of Moro’s active participation in an unimaginably brutal enterprise.

At the heart of the novel is undoubtedly Wurche herself, who has got to be one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve come across in recent times. Layered, complex, ambiguous, flawed; sometimes actor and sometimes acted upon; sometimes rebelling against oppression and sometimes being an oppressor; limited – like all of us – and struggling against those limits, sometimes with success but often unsuccessfully (again, like all of us), Wurche elevates this novel to an incandescent pitch. We feel deeply invested in her fate, even as her actions sometimes alienate and sometimes revolt.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, photo via Wikipedia

Probably the novel’s only unambiguously good character, Aminah is an excellent foil to Wurche. Her seeming passivity may give an initial impression of a character that is non-too-clearly fleshed out – but this would be a mistake. Lacking Wurche’s privileges, Aminah cannot move through the world like an actor; her survival – and eventual freedom – depends on her flattening her personality, and becoming as unremarkable as it is possible to be. But even so, we see enough – a glimpse and a flash – to know that underneath the facade is a personality every bit as full as that of Wurche’s.

Around the two women, there is a galaxy of memorable characters who leave an impression, no matter how short, or how walk-on, their roles are: the fathers, who allow their daughters freedom – until it becomes politic to deny it; the brother who would rather farm than fight; the German soldier who is aware of his country’s crimes, but is complicit nonetheless because the alternative is too difficult to contemplate; Moro, who is similarly aware of the slave trade’s awfulness, but complicit for the same reasons; we get sympathetic – yet unsparing – portraits of each of these characters. Nothing is excused, and nothing is justified – but there is an understanding of what they do what they do, a messy entanglement of institutional pressure and personal agency that leads human beings into deeper and deeper moral quicksand.

I finished the novel in two sitting – it would have been one, had life not intervened. From the first page, the book pulls you in, leaving you painfully, terrifyingly drawn into the fates of the characters, seeing the world through their eyes. And if that were not enough, it has one of the most devastating concluding lines that I’ve ever read.

A magnificent achievement.

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2020 In Books

This year saw a significant shift in my reading, triggered by the fact that I published my debut science fiction novel, The Wall, and spent most of the year working on its sequel. Being a genre writer shapes your reading preferences in a very specific way: you begin to actively look out for, and read, novels that share the stylistic or narrative commitments of your own, and you also find yourself reading more broadly in the genre, to gain a sense of what it looks like. So, in 2020, a large part of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and I feel it ended up becoming a little too skewed. That’s something I’ll try to correct in 2021. Because of writing commitments, I also read less than in previous years, and hardly blogged all year. With the sequel – and the duology – set to be completed in ten days, that’s another thing to correct in the coming year.

Here, as always, the books I read this year, with the usual flawed rating system. I’ve talked about my SFF reading separately as well, in my Slack newsletter. You can find links to all the books on my Goodreads Page.

Africa

  1. Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King (****): A memorable and haunting re-telling of the WW2-era Ethiopian war of independence from colonial Italian rule, from the perspective of its women participants.
  2. Jennifer Makumbi, The First Woman (*****): A beautiful and searing coming-of-age story set in 1970s Uganda, following its protagonist, Kirabo, as she makes her way through childhood, school, and then college, in a changing and often hostile world. One of the stand-out reads of the year.

The Middle East

  1. Isabella Hammad, The Parisian (****): Hammad’s novel takes us to pre-nakba Nablus, and is a very vivid story about Palestine in the 1920s – an era that has been relatively unwritten about.
  2. Ibtisam Azem, The Book of Disappearance (****): Azem’s novel – in which all the Palestinians presently living in Israel and Palestine literally vanish overnight – could also be called speculative fiction, but I’m including it here to avoid front-loading that category even more.
  3. Adel Kamel, The Magnificent Conman of Cairo (***): The title is a good guide to the novel. This is a classic of Egyptian literature. It didn’t always land for me, but there were moments of darkly comic brilliant, and you can see why it was as influential as it was.

Europe

  1. Victor Serge, Conquered City (***): I love Victor Serge to bits, but this one – about a Soviet city torn apart very soon after the revolution – just didn’t do it for me. I felt bogged down at various points, and the momentary flashes of brilliance didn’t make up for that.
  2. China Mieville, October (****): Mieville’s fictional reconstruction of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of spectacular – this is thrilling narrative prose, brilliant characterisation, and a deeply moving ending.

India

  1. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, My Father’s Garden (****): A deeply enjoyable and humorous set of three inter-connected short stories, set in small-town India, with its protagonists coming to terms with the world, and with their own sexuality.

Non-Fiction/History

  1. Pyotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution (*****) : The legendary anarchist’s look back at the French Revolution, a hundred years on, is a ride and a half. His acerbic, drily witty style is an absolute delight to read, and his central thesis – that the revolution’s radicalism was repeatedly betrayed by an ascendant middle class – holds up well.
  2. Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution (****) : I am a long-time fan of Hazan – his political-geography Paris books were my guides when I was in the city – and this is a characteristically excellent account, albeit far too easy on Robespierre.
  3. Kavita Punjabi, Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement (*****): A brilliant feminist oral history – in the mold of Alessandro Portelli – of the forgotten Tebhaga movement, where – at the cusp of independence – farmers in Bengal demanded two-thirds of the produce. Another stand-out of the year.

Poetry

  1. Nazik al-Mala’ika, Revolt Against the Sun (trans. Emily Drumsta) (*****): I’ve loved Nazik al-Mala’ika ever since I read the poem Love Song for Words, and here, finally, is a collection of her translated poems. Emily Drumsta’s Introduction is a jewel – she contextualises al-Mala’ika’s life, her poetic and political preoccupations, and the larger context of a woman writing poetry in Iraq in the mid-20th century. The Introduction also does to a tee what all great Introductions do: it makes you understand and love the poems even more.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

  1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Brightness Long Ago (***): In my early 20s, I probably knew entire dialogues from GGK novels by heart. It’s probably a sign of how much taste can change that his latest – which, in theory, I should have loved, as it took us back to the same setting as the brilliant Tigana – did very little for me. Nothing wrong with the novel – it’s vintage GGK – but I guess I’ve just moved on.
  2. Nancy Kress, Sea Change (***): An interesting cli-fi novel(la), focused on the agribusiness and food security aspect of it; the heavily US-centric nature of it was probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I otherwise would.
  3. Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (*****): Yes, I finally read this. What else is there to say?
  4. Fonda Lee, Jade City (****): The first book in the Green Bone saga, centred around the clash between rival clans for control over jade, and its political economy. Jade City has received rave reviews across the board, and it is a very solid work of fantasy – world-building, pacing, characters, action sequences – all of it is delivered with great competence.
  5. Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (*****): I waited far too long to read this book, and when I did, it went straight to the top of my all-time list. I’ve raved about this everywhere, but one final time: epic fantasy focused on the political economy of colonialism and empire, and featuring the best darn slow-burn romance you will ever read.
  6. Seth Dickinson, The Monster Baru Cormorant (*****): The sequel. See above.
  7. Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (****): Book 3 kinda slipped in parts, but the ending was solid enough to get things back on track and set up a spectacular finale.
  8. Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth (*****): Another extraordinary novel, the kind that comes along rarely (and I read Baru and Gideon back to back). “Lesbian necromancers in space” is how it’s billed, but of course it is a lot more than that – I think it’s the sheer, unabashed wickedness of the writing that really gets you.
  9. Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth (***): I’ll be absolutely honest and admit that I did not understand what was happening in the sequel.
  10. Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits (****): A best-of-all-possible dystopias with a sliver of hope, set in a near-future Delhi (always a draw!).
  11. Berit Ellingsen, A Tale of Truths (****): A fun fantasy novella that involves the discovery of the heliocentric model of the galaxy!
  12. Ken Liu, The Hidden Girl and other Stories (****): A collection of excellent short stories from Ken Liu that shows why he continues to be one of the most highly-regarded voices of the genre right now.
  13. Yoon Ha Lee, Phoenix Extravagant (****): I am a huge fan of Lee’s Hexarchate SF series. Phoenix Extravagant is an altogether softer novel, and its fantasy, loosely modeled on the Korean/Japanese war. I especially loved how art – and artists – were at the centre of this novel, something you don’t always see in fantasy.
  14. Yoss, Red Dust (****): Yoss is back! The Cuban biochemist punk rocker SFF writer – and an eternal favourite – has another crazy romp through the galaxy, and you can bet that biological absurdities abound in this book whose main character is called… Raymond Chandler.
  15. Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (****): Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, a compulsive read (finished it in two 3AM sittings), and excellent military SF all around.
  16. Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline (****): A really unique time-travel novel where the central premise involves rescuing women’s right to abortion.
  17. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (****): Dark-ish fantasy set in 1920s Mexico, and involving a lot of god-like stuff. The prose style – a kind of Gothic with a LatAm touch – was especially compelling.
  18. Iain M. Banks (***): The opening novel of the Culture series is probably also my least favourite. Incredibly tedious in parts, brilliant in parts.
  19. Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Analogue/Virtual (****): A set of inter-connected vigenettes set in a dystopic near-future Bangalore divided into its two halves, the virtual and the analogue.
  20. R.B. Lemberg, The Four Profound Weaves (****): A delightful little novella with an atmospheric prose style, featuring trans elders and weaving.
  21. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (****): A book that’s polarised opinion. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The middle part was outstanding. The beginning and end were a little… unintelligible.
  22. Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Doors of Eden (*****): Possibly the best genre novel I read all year. The novel is lyrical, haunting, and has an arc that literally spans the universe. Read this.
  23. Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun (****): A solid and enjoyable fantasy novel set in pre-Columbian America.
  24. Essa Hansen, Nophek Gloss (*****): A pretty scintillating hard-SF debut, set in a deliciously imagined multiverse, and featuring a truly memorable protagonist.
  25. Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons (****): The third Culture novel. It starts to get better.
  26. Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Donald, The Dominion Anthology: Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (****): A solid collection. Some familiar names, some new ones, and some of the stories – like Eugen Bacon’s – will stay with you for a long time.
  27. Andres Eschbach, The Hair-Carpet Weavers (****): My last read of 2020. I have many mixed and complicated feelings about this novel, a German SF classic. You’ll hear about them in the newsletter!

Have a happy 2021, filled with books!

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“There are plans you make in life which then hurt when they actually happen”: Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman

“Stories are critical, Kirabo,” she added thoughtfully. “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

In 2017, I read and loved Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, a wonderful piece of historical fiction spanning the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Uganda. Makumbi’s seamless ability to move between great political events and deeply personal stories, and her ability to contextualise each in terms of the other, made Kintu a uniquely beautiful read. The First Woman is Makumbi’s second novel, and for me, it surpasses even Kintu.

The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, who grows up in her grandparents’ home in the village of Nattetta in the 1970s. She has never known a mother, and her father – Tom – is absent from her childhood, working in Kampala. As a child, Kirabo feels herself splitting up into two selves: her own body, and another self that occasionally leaves her to fly around the village, looking down upon herself and upon others. Searching for a solution, she makes a secret visit to Nsuuta, a blind, old woman whom everyone calls a witch, and who has an old, nameless feud with Kirabo’s grandmother. Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her other self is “the first woman”, who lived at a time before women had been subjugated by men (“the original state”) – and it is this “first woman”, who occasionally continues to make a home in a few bodies, that is now struggling for liberation and expression. Kirabo asks Nsuuta to get rid of her second self – but unknown to her, her clandestine visits will trigger the release of an ancient family conflict that will envelop all its members, and dog Kirabo’s own footsteps as she begins to make her way into the world.

The First Woman is divided into five sections: “The Witch”, “The Bitch”, “Utopia”, “When the Villages Were Young”, and “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other.” “The Witch” section introduces us to Kirabo, and the cast of characters around her: her grandfather Miiro, her grandmother Alikisa (although only Nsuuta calls her that), Nsuuta herself, assorted family members, Kirabo’s childhood crush Sio, and her close friend Giibwa – and of course, Kirabo’s second self as well as her absent mother, both of whom are characters in their own right. “The Bitch” takes up the story with Kirabo’s father, Tom, taking her to Kampala to live with him, the hostile reception that Kirabo is accorded by Tom’s second wife, Nnambi, and the intervention of her aunt, Abi. “Utopia” – the name is at least partially ironic – takes us to St Theresa’s Girls’ School, a prestigious boarding school originally established by missionaries (of course), and now a highly sought-after private school. In the backdrop of heightened political conflict, and the violent ouster of Idi Amin, Kirabo grows up quickly, coming to terms with feeling out of place because of her childhood upbringing, finding her own place, and meeting Sio again, but now as a teenager. “When the Villages Were Young” takes us back forty years and two generations, to colonial 1930s Uganda, when Alikisa and Nsuuta were growing up best friends in the village, and tells the story of their origins, from their eyes. “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other” finally brings us back to the present, and to Nattetta, where the choices that Alikisa and Nsuuta made ring down the decades, and entwine with the choices before Kirabo and the decisions she makes about her own life.

As I read The First Woman – I finished it in three feverish sittings – I was reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This is not merely because The First Woman, too, is framed around the theme of female friendship – and how that friendship evolves within the context of both patriarchy and class – but also because of how deftly and how hauntingly it lays bare an important insight: that however much we may struggle against them, the web of institutions within which we live our lives will always place limits upon our horizons. Kirabo’s “two selves” is the starkest illustration of this, the web of constraints made flesh – and Kirabo’s desire to get rid of her second self, which is what triggers her first visit to Nsuuta – indicates that often, the struggle itself is exhausting. A conversation between Nsuuta and an older Kirabo, in the middle of the book, reveals this conflict at the heart of their relationship: “Being rebellious is not something I can afford“, Kirabo tells an angered Nsuuta, and that “there are ways of playing with fire without getting burnt.” Nsuuta’s own fate – a consequence of too much rebelling, according to the village – perhaps exerts its own pull upon Kirabo, whose own resistance – as she articulates it herself – is of a more contained kind (enabled, no doubt, by the fact that the 1970s are very different from the 1930s).

But the web of constraints is also visible in the behaviour of the men in The First Woman. There are three prominent male characters in the book – Kirabo’s grandfather Miiro, her father Tom, and Sio. None of these three men are crude patriarchs, of the kind who seek to use their social power to actively subordinate and suppress women. Miiro, in fact, goes out of his way to ensure that Kirabo has as much freedom as he can give her; Tom’s patriarchal impulses are at their worst in his treatment of his second wife, but even there, it is he who gives way in their conflict, and it is he who ensures Kirabo’s own further education; Sio belongs to the generation where ideas of equality are no longer entirely alien, and his treatment of Kirabo – at least in the beginning – reflects the struggles of a man coming to terms with that changed world. Nonetheless, while Miiro, Tom, and Sio are not actively bad persons, throughout the book, and to varying degrees, they do actively bad things to the women with whom they share social and private space. Sometimes, this is followed by (partially sincere) apologies, which everyone sees through (“How Zungu. You go and hurt someone and then when it comes to apologizing you help yourself to crying as well.”), and sometimes – as in the case of Miiro, who is perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel – a wry acknowledgment that within the web of constraints, this is as far as he can go and all that he can do, limited and insufficient though it is.

Tellingly, however, Makumbi does not turn The First Woman into a story only about patriarchy. Like Ferrante, she is keenly conscious about class, and how it intersects and feeds off patriarchy. In The First Woman, class creeps in not only through Kirabo’s experiences at St. Theresa’s, but also in one of the central female friendships of the novel, between Kirabo and Giibwa. Kirabo – who finds herself sidelined at St. Theresa’s – is nonetheless in a position of power in Nattetta, and as she and Giibwa grow up, their class differences colour and taint their friendship in unpredictable – and ultimately – tragic ways. As Giibwa says, in one of the most memorable dialogues of the novel:

‘Kiraboo, Kirabo,” Giibwa sighed exhaustion. “Fellow woman? Me and you? How? Look, not all women are women. Some women, like you, are men. You go to school, get degrees, then get jobs and employ women like me to be women for you at home. Some women, like me, are children.

The conflict between Kirabo and Giibwa thus complicates a central insight that Nsuuta communicates to Kirabo at the beginning of the story. “My grandmothers called it kweluma,” she says, “that is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor you bite yourself.” Nsuuta – who has seen this in her own life – communicates this as a form of warning, and then is forced to watch helplessly as the tale repeats itself, generations on – because not all oppressions are equal.

Here again, thus, The First Woman tells us how, so often, the best will and the strongest heart in the world is not always able to transcend the crushing weight of institutions, and that if anything needs to be dismantled and rebuilt, it is those institutions – and not human nature.

So at one level, The First Woman is a story of rebellion, of its limits, and how oppressive institutions ultimately cage and constrain both those whom they subordinate and those whom they empower, although in very different ways. But at the same time, The First Woman is not simply reducible to structures. Like the best fiction, it creates a character who is truly memorable. Kirabo is human, very human, and her travails immediately capture readers: throughout the novel, I found myself following her journey with an almost terrifying sense of involvement: I cheered internally every time she overcame a barrier, I felt a sense of dread every time she was (I knew!) on the cusp of making a bad decision, and by the end, her fate – and the fate of those around her – felt deeply personal. Perhaps the reason why this is so is because, with Kirabo, Makumbi has achieved a character who does have a series of choices before her, constrained though they might be, and each choice – readers can see – is going to open up a path, or close it, in a world that is no longer actively hostile, but nonetheless continues to lay down a whole set of snares and traps. It is this that makes Kirabo’s journey so very compelling: in some way – to use a fraught term – if feels universal, or as universal as something can feel in our riven world.

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2019 in Books

This year’s reading was dominated by speculative fiction (even more so than usual). The reason for this is that after many years of being a reader – and a fan – 2019 was the year I tried to become a writer. Throughout the year, I worked on a science fiction novel that, which was finally completed at around ten minutes to midnight on December 31, and sent to my publisher. So I made a conscious choice throughout the year to immerse myself in SFF, to blend the worlds of writing and reading (if that makes any sense!).

The list follows, in its usual format, and with the usual caveats.

A. Science Fiction and Fantasy [SFF]

  1. Achala Upendran, The Sultanpur Chronicles (***): One among a raft of interesting recent editions to SFF in a partially-recognisable Indian fantasy world, with Indian characters.
  2. Ivor Hartmann (ed.), AfroSF V. 3.0 (*****): The third instalment in the AfroSF series of short stories lives up to the reputation of the series – some brilliant new short work here.
  3. Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand (****): I enjoyed this book as a work of fantasy, and for its nuanced treatment of themes like consent, which are rarely examined in the genre. I’m more circumspect about its marketing as “Mughal fantasy”, as the links appear to be somewhat … tenuous.
  4. Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (****): James’ foray into SFF upsets all kinds of classic tropes and conventions of the genre; an extremely difficult book, and one that has polarised opinion, but it worked for me (reviewed here).
  5. Tarun Saint (ed.), The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (***): Some hits, some misses (reviewed here).
  6. Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection (****): Thompson’s swashbuckling trilogy set around an alien power touching down in modern-day Lagos, continues to entertain with this second instalment (reviewed here).
  7. N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (***).
  8. N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (****).
  9. N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (***): Better late than never, I guess, coming to this storied trilogy? Perhaps inevitable after all that hype, but though I enjoyed this, it didn’t exactly change my life. Somewhat strangely, I liked the second novel the best.
  10. Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice (****): Another iconic novel that I came to late. Like everyone says, this one really bends your mind and forces you to examine a host of internalised assumptions with which you approach the world. And oh, there is a sentient spaceship!
  11. Sue Burke, Semiosis (***): A worthy addition to the whole plants/humans sub-genre of SFF.
  12. Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (***): My first Robinson; it was, as you would imagine, quite an experience. I enjoyed it, of course, but also felt that at times the combination of history, politics, space travel, and economics made it a little too dense. But it did set me looking up what the Mondragon Cooperative was all about, so that’s a bonus!
  13. Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land (****): Tidhar never disappoints. This novel, set in an alternate history where the Jewish people were given a slice of Uganda to build their country (an actual proposal at a time) turns into an alternate history of Israel/Palestine – by turns gripping, humorous, and terribly sad.
  14. Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders (***): I did not enjoy the second instalment of the Terra Ignita series. I felt, on more than one occasion, that I was being talked down to as a reader, and the obsession with the classical Western philosophical/historical canon – in an ostensibly global novel – became extremely jarring after a point.
  15. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (***): Yet another late arrival to a modern-day classic! An enjoyable read, although it did not stay with me for too long.
  16. Yoon Ha-Lee, Raven Strategem (*****).
  17. Yoon Ha-Lee, Revanant Gun (*****): Following on from Ninefox Gambit, the second and third novels of the Machineries of Empire series make it by far the best SFF series I read this year, and amongst the best I’ve ever read. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough: its universe – that is based on the idea of “consensus reality”, and resistance to it – manages to combine technical virtuosity with epic scale and sweep. Your heart soars when you read this series – like the best of fantasy.
  18. Ken Liu (ed.), Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (****): This edited collection shows you exactly why, by common consensus, China is the place where the most exciting modern SF is coming from. The stories here are diverse and varies, but maintain an amazingly high degree of technical skill – and political awareness woven into the narrative. My favourite was probably ‘Folding Beijing’, a story that continues to haunt me.
  19. Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (****): Liu himself, of course, is a darn good writer (his short story was the basis for Arrival), and this collection shows you why. What stands out is his versatility – from murder mysteries to haunting space opera – it’s all here.
  20. Terry Pratchett, Night Watch (****): Yes yes, I know. I should have read this years ago. Well, better late than never.
  21. Yoon Ha Lee, Hexarchate Stories (****): If you are a sucker for the Machineries of Empire series, this set of short stories – that gives you the backstories of important characters and a novella-sequel at the end – is like essential drug supply. Otherwise, it will make no sense.
  22. Amal el-Mohtar and Max Goodwin, This Is How You Lose The Time War (*****): God. This time-travel-love-story just has some of the most straight-up stunning prose that I’ve read all year. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a better love story in a long while – the way it expands the world into a universe, while making it all intelligible. I’ve lost count of the sheer number of passages I marked out in delight. Read this book.
  23. Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (****): Martine’s debut novel – as you would expect – is a rich and complex blend of political and social Sci-fi, set in a space-empire. Shades of Asimov here, as it features a protagonist coming in from the margins, but Martine is of course very much her own writer.
  24. S.B. Divya, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse (***): From a contaminated Bangalore to deep space to a Hunger Games-style battle for survival in a near-future USA, Divya’s little vignettes stand out for their elegance and craft.
  25. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (***): To be honest, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale felt quite a let-down.
  26. Imraan Coovadia, A Spy in Time (***): A fascinating contemporary addition to the time-travel genre, moving between Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, and the end of days; and telling us – in the gentlest way possible – that time travel is (also) about race (reviewed here).
  27. Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide (***): Back to China: this novel is set in an island off the continent, which has become the worldwide hub for the processing of digital waste. A science fiction novel about the violence of global supply chains and of local resistance (reviewed here).
  28. Suyi Davies, David Mogo, Godhunter (****): A really fun novel set in contemporary Lagos, with rival gods in the Yoruba pantheon being pressed into service in an apocalyptic war (reviewed here).
  29. Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust (****): Barring one very problematic narrative theme, and the occasional deus ex machinaThe Book of Dust revived the old magic of the His Dark Materials series that La Belle Sauvage had (for me) entirely failed at. Just for a ride down memory lane, and the termporary recreation of that incredible magic – HDM shaped my childhood perhaps more than any other book – this was worth it.
  30. Ted Chiang, Exhalation (****): A set of long-short stories from Ted Chiang, often revolving around time paradoxes. Technically brilliant, and very good storytelling as well.
  31. Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Redemption (***): For me, the closing instalment in the series didn’t quite hit the heights of books 1 and 2.

B. African Writing 

  1. Marye Conde, Segu (****): The classic novel of First Contact, about 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. A beautiful read (reviewed here).
  2. Leonora Miano, Season of the Shadow (****): Another haunting first-contact story and the prelude to the Middle Passage, set in present day Cameroon, but this time the tyrants and the destruction comes not from beyond the sea, but from within. Some of the scenes in this (brief) novel are still in my mind (reviewed here).
  3. Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (****): A grand, sweeping history of modern-day Zair; by times exhilarating, by times tragic, and with the strangest twist of SFF at the very end.
  4. Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (****): Another beautiful novel, this time set in the Ethiopian Revolution of the 1970s, with some of the most powerfully drawn characters I’ve come across this year.
  5. Joginder Paul, Land Lust (****): Well, Joginder Paul is Indian, but the book is set in Kenya, and was written based on his experiences living in Kenya, so I’m placing it here. A set of delightful – and delightfully sad – short stories about the intertwined lives of Indians and Kenyans in a newly-independent country.
  6. Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars (****): With maps (!) as the common underlying theme, this novel beautifully weaves together escape from modern-day Syria with an older story of migration and adventure; heartbreaking, but also uplifting.
  7. Chigozie Obiama, An Orchestra of Minorities (***): One of those strongly hyped-up novels that just didn’t do it for me; I felt the weight put on the narrative device (no spoilers) was a weight it could not bear.
  8. Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears (***): A surrealistic drama/murder mystery set in Djibouti. Enjoyable in parts, confusing in others.
  9. Ibrahim Abdel Megouid, Clouds over Alexandria (*****): Picked this up after seeing it mentioned in the ArabLit Quarterly. This is an absolutely stunning novel. It is set in 1970s Egypt – at a time of student unrests and revolutionary protests against Anwar Sadat – and captures the hope, the madness, the despair – and ultimately, the tragedy – of the time, and of its student protagonists, in a truly unforgettable and heartbreaking way.
  10. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (****): The last book I read in 2019 was amongst the most intense. Dust is set in contemporary Kenya, begins with an assassination, and then takes us on a journey through Kenya’s past, starting with the Mau Mau rebellion and the birth of the country. Owuor weaves together the personal and the political in a beautiful and haunting manner.

C. Polish Writing

  1. Narcyza Zmichowska, The Heathen (***): Part of my reading on my trip to Poland; one of the first feminist Polish – and indeed, European – novels, written in the mid-19th century, and interesting just for that reason.
  2. Antoni Libera, Madame (*****): A tears-running-down-your-eyes hilarious Polish novel of an eighteen-year old schoolboy who falls in love with his thirty-two year old Piano teacher, just when communism is extending its suffocating grip over Warsaw in the 1950s. What a read.
  3. Ryszard Kapusciski, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (***): Sketches from the legendary journalist. I tried to get into the feel of things by reading this on long train rides in Poland, but to be honest, it didn’t quite work for me.
  4. Olga Tocarczuk, Flights (***): Tocarczuk, of course, won the Nobel Prize this year. I enjoyed parts of this book and its aphoristic character, which – I feel – is ideally read in bursts.
  5. Jacek Dahnel, Lala (***): By times funny, by times sad coming-of-age story in contemporary Poland (all books reviewed here).

D. German Writing

  1. Alfred Doblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (***): Part of my Germany-travel reading (of course). This is, of course, the classic novel of Berlin on the eve of fascism, a city drawing its last breath before the fall. Fascinating – and more than a little disturbing.
  2. Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels (***): See above. The two novels here provide another glimpse of Weimar Berlin, and that great efflorescence of art and culture before the onset of Nazism.
  3. Klaus Mann, Mephisto (****): The iconic novel of compromise and betrayal in Nazi Germany. Mann’s Hendrik Hofgen – who begins as a leftist and ends as a Nazi collaborator in order to secure power and riches – is a brilliant, haunting character – above all, because he is so human, and makes us feel – disturbingly – that we might well make the same choices in the same situation. And the most disturbing part: to the end, Hofgen is able to justify it all to himself, reason it out by saying “better me than an actual Nazi in my position”, and “I’m working within the system to help.” Where else have we heard such justifications?
  4. Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (****): Reminiscent in many ways of Victor Serge (see below), this novel is almost a snapshot of the tragedy of 20th-century Europe – moving from anti-Jewish pogroms to Red Vienna to besieged Moscow, and finally, post-World War II Germany; taking us through anti-semitism, Nazism, and Stalinism. The narrative device (again, no spoilers) is particularly fascinating in what it does with time and the past; the prose is magnificent (all books reviewed here).

E. Other European Writing

  1. Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (****): One of the stand-out novels of the year, for me. Serge writes of two ex-communists on the run, chased across Europe – and then Mexico – by Stalinist agents; but in doing so, he writes a dirge to the ideals of the Russian Revolution, and their decay in the Soviet Union. The prose is hypnotic (reviewed here).

E. Miscellaneous

  1. Hamid Ismailov, The Devil’s Dance (*****): Another stand-out novel. One of the first Uzbek novels to be translated into English – and banned in its home country – The Devil’s Dance tells the story of the doomed generation of Uzbek writers and intellectuals that were killed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s – alongside another story, set in the Khanates a hundred years ago, at a time of great social and cultural upheaval (reviewed here).
  2. Abdulla Quodiry, Days Gone By (****): Ismailov’s novel made me go look for his progatonist, the real life Abdulla Quodiry, and read his novel. Days Gone By was so popular in Uzbekistan in the 1920s when it was published, that parents named their children after Quodiry’s protagonists. You can see why – the story mixes adventure, love, and the national history of Uzbekistan in a skilful and gripping narrative.

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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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