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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

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

“To be alive meant to collide…”

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

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

A little later, she says:

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

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

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

And:

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Elena Ferrante, Existentialism, Italy

Lacrimae rerum and mono no aware

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

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

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

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

The connection is made even more clearly elsewhere:

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Classical Poetry, Epic, Japan, Virgil

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

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

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Ireland, Seamus Heaney

The tears of things: Heaney, Virgil, Frost

In the Introduction to his collection of Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney excerpts Robert Frost’s Directive, calling it “in some important but oblique way, an apologia for all art.” Directive, which is a semi-allegorical poem about a journey to a deserted town and the discovery of a children’s playhouse, has had its share of admirers and detractors; here, Heaney writes:

Frost suggests, in fact, that the life endured by the occupants of the actual house find its best memorial and expression in the house of ‘make-believe’. He convinces us that the playhouse has the measure of the other house, that the entranced focus of the activity that took place as the make-believe on one side of the yard was fit to match the meaning of what happened on the other side, and in doing so Frost further suggests that the imaginative transformation of the human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it. What Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, can be absorbed and re-experienced in the playthings of the playhouse – or in the words of the poem.”

This sense – that the purpose of poetry (or, more broadly, of art) is to take raw emotion and, in a certain sense, ‘aestheticise’ it, is an old one. It has its echoes in the Greek idea of the role of tragedy being to induce catharsis; in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot famously wrote that the task of the poetic mind is to “transmute the passions which are its material”, and that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion“; and in praising the short stories of Danilo Kis, Joseph Brodsky wrote that “[Kis] can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics…[in such a way that] the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties.”

But what interests me here is Heaney’s almost off-hand reference to Virgil: “lacrimae rerum, the tears of things“. The quotation is from The Aeneid, Book I (line 462): “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”. The context is that while staying with Dido, Aeneas is taken to the building of a Temple to Juno. There, he sees a mural depicting some of the scenes of the Trojan War (in which he himself, of course, was a participant) “in their correct order“. This sight gladdens his heart, and he says:

Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.”

Which translates to:

Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety.”

Interestingly, in his essay, The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry invokes precisely this scene to describe something he calls “sublimation” – “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision.” Parry writes:

“The perfection of the lines itself imposes a kind of artistic detachment, and we are put in the position of Aeneas himself, as he sees, in Carthage, the destruction of Troy represented as paintings in a gallery of art… these paintings remind Aeneas of all that has been, of the tears of human things; and at the same time, Virgil tells us, they fill him with hope. In a larger way, the whole poem is such a painting. It is about history, but its purpose is not to tell us that history is good, or for that matter that it is bad. Its purpose is rather to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.”

As we can see, Parry’s idea of “sublimation” is close to what Heaney is saying when he writes about how the tears of things can be “absorbed and re-experienced… in the words of a poem“. The task of art is the “imaginative transformation” that makes this possible. In the Aeneid itself, of course, there is a two-layered meaning: Aeneas experiences the feeling of sublimation while gazing at the mural depicting the scene of his own tragedy, and Virgil uses this to convey to his readers the manner in which poetry and art can bring about such sublimation. And it is precisely this double-layer that Heaney attributes to Directive.

The throwaway Virgil quote, therefore, turns out to be much more than that. It is an intertextual reference that locates both Frost and Virgil in a poetic tradition, and as poets committed to – in the words of the collection – “the redress of poetry“.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Seamus Heaney

Connections: Italo Calvino and Rabee Jaber on Memory

“The memories are still there, hidden in the grey tangle of the brain, in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought: assuming its true, that is, that every grain of this mental sand preserves a moment of our lives fixed in such a way that it can never be erased yet buried under billions and billions of other grains.

– Italo Calvino, Memories of a Battle

“What is memory?… Fields, yes, fields and castles, caves and passageways. Right now I’m gathering up my memories and watching them flow, I’m plunging my hand into the stream and groping for one specific memory, as if looking for a polished stone that sleeps on the riverbed.”

– Rabee Jaber, Confessions (reviewed here)

Leave a comment

Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Italo Calvino, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory