The Poetry of Containment: On Zbigniew Herbert

In his fictionalised biography of Henry James, The Master, Colm Toibin describes James’ English house in the following way: “In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

In his poem, Journey, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes: “Discover the meanness of speech the kingly power of gesture/ The uselessness of concepts…” 

The “uselessness” or “foolishness” of concepts is a thread that runs through Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems: 1956 – 1998This is an anthology that spans forty-two years – a lifetime of writing – and the rise and fall of Stalinist communism in Poland, a political event that Herbert resisted in different ways throughout his life, and paid a heavy price for. As you might expect, the poems in the volume cover a vast field – from the overtly political (“To the Hungarians” and The Power of Taste“), to the indirectly political  (“Elegy of Fortinbras“), to the politics of aesthetics (“To Ryszard Krynicki“),  to invocations of myth (“Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks and “Apollo and Marysas“), to the naturalistic (“The Pebble“) and to the intimate and the personal (“Request“).

Poets, of course, evolve over the course of their life. The poems excerpted from Chord of Light (1956) and the selection from Rovigo (1992) or Epilogue to a Storm (1998) are very different from each other. However, what I found interesting was not the change, but the constancy: at all times, Herbert maintains his view about “the uselessness of concepts“. That phrase, however, might be impressionistic enough to be misleading. To take a longer shot at it: Herbert’s is a poetry of containment. By this I mean the following: Herbert is aware of the human impulse to seek transcendence, as a way of imposing meaning upon an otherwise bleak life. He is deeply distrustful of this impulse, because of how it can serve as a mask and a justification for the unjustifiable. However, his response is not to deny its existence, or to stifle it entirely, but to contain it. As a poet – and through his principal poetic construction, Mr Cogito – Herbert is engaged in a constant process of resisting the impulse to transcendence, and creating meaning in life out of this resistance, without taking refuge in nihilism or cynicism. And this applies across the spheres of existence: politics, art, language, and life.

It is important to distinguish the poetry of containment from other aesthetic visions that might overlap in some respects, but are actually quite different. A reading of the early Herbert might fuel the confusion. For instance, in I Would Like to Describe, he writes:

 

I would like to describe courage

without dragging behind me a dusty lion

and also anxiety

without shaking a glass full of water

 

to put it another way

I would give all metaphors

in return for one word

drawn out of my breast like a rib

for one word

contained within the boundaries

of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

 

One can, of course, read this as a standard lament about the gap between language and the world (in a later poem, Herbert makes the also-familiar move of bringing in music to fill the gap: “Mr Cogito/ doomed to stony speech/ to hoary syllables/ secretly worships/ transient lightness“), and how metaphors only take everything further away (we would be familiar with this argument, for instance, from Auden). In Never of YouHerbert expresses a similar sentiment, when he writes:

 

In fact I want to write of the house’s gate latch

of its rough handshake and its friendly creaks 

but although I know so much about it

I use only a cruelly common litany of words

So many feelings fit between two heartbeats

so many objects can be held in our two hands 

 

Don’t be surprised we can’t describe the world 

and just address things tenderly by name. 

 

It would, however, be too simplistic a reading of Herbert to limit him to merely expressing the inadequacy of language. A hint that there is something more subtle afoot comes from the untitled poem beginning with the lines “we fall asleep on words/ and wake up with words” (a poem that is similar in some respects – yet powerfully different – from Nazik al-Malaika’s Love Song for Words), and where the word “like” is described as “a little pricking pin/ holding together/ the most beautiful lost/ metaphor in the world” – lines that are acutely aware of the possibility of metaphor, a possibility that is even achievable, where Herbert wants missing words to enter “crippled sentences“, so that “the certainty we are waiting for/ casts anchor.” This poem is best placed in juxtaposition with one of Herbert’s later poems, titled “Mr. Cogito. Ars Longa“:

… in every generation

there are those who

with stubbornness worthy of a better cause

wish to rip poetry

from the claws

of the everyday 

 

at an early age

they enter the order 

of the Most Holy Subtlety

and Ascension

 

they strain minds and bodies 

to express that which is

beyond – 

that which is 

above – 

 

they don’t even feel 

how much promise

charm

surprise

lies hidden in the language

everyone

gabs in 

hoodlums and Horace. 

Here we have moved unambiguously to the critique of transcendence. If we read back this into the first two poems, we can understand them not so much as a confessional about the inadequacy of language, but about the failure of metaphors to do justice to existence – and that this is a claim that is not merely descriptive, but is borderline normative.

I think such a reading back makes sense, because it fits with Herbert’s other poems, that are not directly on the theme of language (although metaphor remains a common, binding thread). Consider, for instance, Elegy of Fortinbrasa poem that lies in that ambiguous borderland of the political, the personal, and the aesthetic. Fortinbras, musing over the recently-dead Hamlet’s corpse, says:

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man 

though you lie on the stairs and see more than a dead ant 
nothing but black sun with broken rays 
I could never think of your hands without smiling 
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests 
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this 
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart 
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

 

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier 
they only ritual I am acquainted with a little 
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts 
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums 
drums I know nothing exquisite 
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule 
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

 

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life 
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay 
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras 
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit 
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

 

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to 
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me 
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust 
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching 
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair 
with a view on the ant-ill and clock’ dial

 

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project 
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars 
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons 
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison 
I go to my affairs This night is born 
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet 
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

 

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos 
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

I choose this poem for a segue from Herbert’s poetry about language, because its also not entirely clear which side he’s on. His dogged, prosaic Fortinbras is not exactly the most inspiring character in all of poetry. That said, the very act of choosing Fortinbras’ as the narrative voice is not entirely irrelevant, and even if not inspiring, there is a world-weary wisdom to this Fortinbras that makes him an oddly sympathetic voice (“… what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.”) And paying close attention to what Fortinbras says, we find a (somewhat submerged) critique of transcendence: “you believed in crystal notions, not human clay” is his indictment of Hamlet, and he then goes on to accuse the Prince of Denmark of having chosen “the easier part“, by dying a heroic death. Fortinbras’ own task – of governing – is much more prosaic, and, as he confesses at the end, between him and Hamlet there lies an unbridgeable gulf – of communication (and language?).

The fact that Herbert makes Fortinbras sympathetic and persuasive, but not entirely convincing, speaks – I think – to his awareness that the will to transcendence cannot be entirely suppressed; in fact, it must be acknowledged, without passing judgment. At best, it can be contained, along with the continuing awareness that it is always pressing down upon us from all sides.

This sense of containment is expressed particularly vividly in Herbert’s series of poems that feature his most famous poetic creation, Mr. Cogito. At first glance, Mr. Cogito – with his hesitations and faintly ridiculous classical manner – may seem quite Prufrockian, but this would be a mistake. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Mr Cogito as an honorary member of the Frankfurt School: he is a man who has seen through the hollowness and illusions of contemporary society, but whose response to that is withdrawal, refusal, and a quest for personal philosophical clarity over active political engagement.

This makes things a little difficult, because Herbert himself was not merely a passive refuser: he did play an active (although not a fighter’s) role in resistance to Stalinism. So does Mr Cogito speak for Herbert when, for instance, in About Mr Cogito’s Two Legs“:

 

The left leg normal
one could say optimistic
a little too short
boyish
with exuberant muscles
and a well-shaped calf

 

the right leg
God help us–
thin
with two scars
one along the Achilles tendon
the other oval
pale pink
shameful reminder of an escape

 

the left
inclined to leap
ready to dance
loving life too much
to expose itself

 

the right
nobly rigid
sneering at danger

 

in this way
on two legs
the left which can be compared to Sancho Panza
and the right
recalling the wandering knight
Mr Cogito
goes
through the world
staggering slightly

 

Suspended in the ambiguous zone between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seems to me to be an accurate image of Herbert’s philosophy of containment: neither the fantasy-obsessed errant knight, nor the incurable skeptic. And it’s not only transcendence in its fantastical sense: Herbert is equally wary of other forms of exhibitionism. In Mr Cogito Meditates on Suffering, he dispenses with Mr Cogito as an intermediary, and directly urges the reader to “make use of the suffering gently moderately/ like an artificial limb/ without false shame/ but also without unnecessary pride/ drink the essence of bitter herbs/ but not to the dregs / leave carefully/ a few sips for the future…” In a still later poem, To Henryk Elzenburg on the Centennial of his Birth“, even the formal device of Mr Cogito is abandoned, and Herbert directly speaks to his former teacher (and through him, to the world):

 

“… the times we lived in were truly a tale told by an idiot

Full of sound and cruelty

Your severe gentleness delicate strength

Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone

Patient indifferent and tender all at once

 

A thinking stone” is a very defamiliarising expression, although the adjectives that follow – “patient“, “indifferent“, and “tender” – clarify the paradox and bring it into a pattern. To be simultaneously indifferent and tender – to be a stone (remember Yeats’ “too long a sacrifice/ can make a stone of the heart“) and to think – is to feel, but to feel within limits. Perhaps, in this respect, Herbert and Mr Cogito are in consensus.

The same Mr Cogito, however, also bemoans “the pettiness of dreams”, longing for the time of his grandparents, when “their terror was great as a horde of Tartars/ and happiness in a dream like golden rain“, instead of dreams in which “a collector hands me the bill for the gas and electricity.” Once again, the pull of transcendence – even if it is only through the medium of dreams – is acknowledged without judgment, even with sympathy.

If, in the domain of language, of the personal and of the aesthetic, Herbert never quite reveals his hand entirely, it is in the political realm that his poetry of containment is at its sharpest, starkest, and least ambiguous. “Mr Cogito’s Game“, that begins with “Mr Cogito’s/ favourite entertainment/ is the Kropotkin game…“, in its second part, makes this powerful statement:

 

so many years

so many years now

Mr Cogito has been playing

 

but never has he

been tempted

by the role of the fugitive hero

 

not because of any dislike

for the blue blood

of the prince of anarchists

nor distaste for the theory

of mutual aid

 

it isn’t due to cowardice either

Zofia Niklaevna

the fiddler in the little gray house

Doctor Orestes

all put their heads on the line

 

but with them

Mr Cogito

Identifies almost completely

 

if the need arose

he would even be a horse

for the fugitive’s carriage

 

Mr Cogito

would like to be freedom’s intermediary

 

hold the escape rope

smuggle the message

give the sign

 

trust the heart

the pure impulse of sympathy

 

but he doesn’t want to answer for what

is written in the monthly Freedom

by bearded men

of feeble imagination

 

he accepts a supporting role

he will not dwell in history

There is, of course, a sense of Prufrock’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”, but that similarity is only superficial. The reason why Mr Cogito doesn’t want to be Hamlet – “but he doesn’t want to answer for what/ is written in the monthly Freedom/ by bearded men/ of feeble imagination” – is because that would require him to make transcendental arguments (in this case, about freedom). This impulse is presented in an even sharper form in Mr Cogito and the Imagination”:

 

… he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

 

In the Introduction to the Herbert’s Collected Prose, the last four lines are extracted as evidence of Herbert’s determination to seek clarity in language as a way of opposing totalitarianism, in a manner that George Orwell advocates in his essay, Politics and the English Language or – as Marx wrote about the 1848 revolution – to ensure that “phrases have given place to the real thing.”

While I think this reading is largely correct – there is no doubt that Herbert was preoccupied by how totalitarian politics used image and metaphor to justify its crimes (this is reflected vividly in one of his most political poems, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, where Herbert’s Procrustes says that “… in fact I was a scholar a social reformer/ my true passion was anthropometry/ I designed a bed to the size of the perfect man/ I measured captured travelers against that bed/ it was hard to avoid – I admit – stretching limbs/ trimming extremeties/ the patients died but the more of them perished/ the surer I became that my research was correct/ the end was sublime progress requires sacrifice), at least in this poem, he infuses doubt right at the end:

 

Mr Cogito’s imagination
has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity

 

If uncertain clarity, then, is the best we can achieve, than can one really be faulted for falling prey to the temptation of certain clarity – the clarity offered by metaphor and image?

Well, perhaps yes. The last poem that I want to discuss is one that brings together the political, the aesthetic, and the personal, into one comprehensive indictment of totalitarianism. This is “The Power of Taste”:

 

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

 

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

 

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

 

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

 

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

 

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

 

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

 

The poem, of course, is self-explanatory: Herbert attributes his resistance to totalitarianism not to great personal courage, or to strength of political conviction, but to its kitsch aesthetic. But that, of course, raises the disturbing possibility of a totalitarianism whose aesthetic succeeded in offering the “certain clarity” that the artificial fires of poetry can’t. Would Herbert have succumbed? He himself cannot tell us: “Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted?” Who knows indeed.

This, then, is what the poetry of containment leaves us with: emotion, language, metaphor and image, art, and politics are always just on the cusp of spilling over from the contained borders within which Herbert’s poetry attempts to place them, into a space where they can become masks and reasons for horror. Herbert recognises and acknowledges that as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. With that – somewhat bleak – realization always around the edges of his poetry, never to be completely consigned to oblivion, he attempts to create meaning – and a certain kind of beauty – within the borders of containment. The result is poetry that has all the force of “uncertain clarity.”

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Filed under European Writing, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Connections: Zbigniew Herbert, Pablo Neruda, Miroslav Holub…

… in responding to totalitarianism.

Zbigniew Herbert, Mr Cogito and the Imagination:

Mr Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors or dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth

Pablo Neruda, I am Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?’

And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

Miroslav Holub
… and equally without allegory

without transcendence

and without fuss.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “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.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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Filed under African Writing, Dambudzo Marechera, Uncategorized, Zimbabwe

“You just gave yourself to the dream in the rhythm…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The River Between’

“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.

The book begins like this:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.

Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.

Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.

However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.

The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.

In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.

Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:

“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…

Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:

“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”

Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.

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“All I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration…”: Alexandra Berlina (ed.), “Victor Shklovsky: A Reader”

I first chanced upon the Soviet literary theorist Victor Shklovsky four years ago, gatecrashing an Oxford seminar which was ostensibly about literary interpretation and the classics, but taught by a young lecturer subversive enough to slip in a little Foucault between the Homer and the Virgil. He began his course with Shklovsky’s Art as Technique. Shklovsky’s concept of ‘defamiliarisation’ fascinated me then; I read in and around the subject whenever I could. And now, with the publication of Alexandra Berlina’s Victor Shklovsky: A Reader, there exists a painstakingly compiled – and edited – volume that serves as the ideal introduction towards understanding one of the more enigmatic literary scholars – and individuals – of the 20th century.

As Berlina points out in her introduction to the Reader, “Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution, and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental hospital, almost shredded by a bomb, and while torn between an unrelenting love object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia” (Berlina). Consequently, there is little sense, she argues, in trying to separate Shklovsky’s formal scholarship from his more autobiographical writings. His books – as he said – were not written with the “quiet consistency of academic works.” In The Reader, therefore, formal essays of literary criticism rub shoulders with books of letters, technical concepts jostle with existential musings. The division is broadly chronological, divided into six parts, and an attempt to present a representative samples of Shklovsky’s writings, as he evolved and changed over time. One significant omission – for obvious reasons – is the period during which Stalinist repression was at its peak, and Shklovsky’s voice had surely become distorted out of all recognition, especially after the publication of A Monument to Scholarly Error, his recantation of formalism.The writings pick up again after the thaw, in the mid-1950s.

Through the course of the introductions – and then in Shklovsky’s own words – we are introduced to the core concepts of formalism, especially that of ostranenie (which Berlina translates as enstranging – an amalgam of ‘strange’ and ‘estrange’). Shklovsky argues that in the course of our lives, are perception of things gradually becomes “automatic”. Therefore:

“… what we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “ostranenie” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is its own end in art and must be prolonged.”

Since the purpose of art, therefore, is to de-automatise perception and replace mere recognition with actual “seeing”, “ostranenie consists in not calling a thing or event by its name but describing it as if seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time.”

As Shklovksy himself recognised, of course, the thought behind ostranenie was not entirely original. That the task of poetry was to make the ordinary strange was a leitmotif of the romantic poets, of Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” – and, later – the basis of Eliot’s “shudder”. What Shklovsky did was to systematise and develop the concept, and give it rigour through a range of examples, in essays such as The Resurrection of the Word, Art as Technique and Literature Beyond Plot:

“The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” (from The Resurrection of the Word)

And:

“Image tropes consist in calling objects by unusual names. The goal of this device is to place an object into a new semantic field, among concepts of a different order – for instance, stars and eyes, girls and grey ducks – whereby the image is usually expanded by the description of the substituted object. Synesthetic epithets that, for instance, define auditory concepts through visual ones or vice versa, are comparable to images. For instance, crimson chimes, shining sounds. This device was popular among the Romantics… This is the work a writer does by violating categories, by wrenching the chair out of furniture.” (from Literature Beyond Plot)

(Berlina also makes the interesting point that Shklovsky’s theories were opposed to Brecht, in that the latter believed that political consciousness through art could be raised only by alienating the audience from the work, while Shklovsky “did not believe that restricting feelings was necessary in order to promote critical thought” (Berlina).)

Shklovsky’s idea of de-automatising perception is linked with his stress upon form:

“The formal method is fundamentally simple. It’s the return to craft. The most wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t deny the ideological content of art, but considers so-called content to be a phenomenon of form.”

Hence, “formalism”, or a concern “with devices created by a writer to combat automatism, to make the reader sensitive to the “content”.”

This stress on form brought Shklovsky into direct conflict with the post-revolutionary Soviet regime. After an acrimonious debate on literary theory with Trotsky, he eventually found himself in exile, in Berlin. Berlina’s account of the Russian emigre community in Berlin – with Nabokov, Gorky, Bely and Pasternak, among others – makes it sound like a rival to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. Shklovsky, however, felt dislocated and alienated, a situation exacerbated by an unrequited love. It was at this point that he wrote A Sentimental Journey and Zoo: Letters Not About Love. The latter is particularly interesting, because it is a book of love letters that speak about everything but love. Shklovsky would say later:

“At the time when I claimed that art was free of content and beyond emotion, I myself was writing books that were bleeding – A Sentimental Journey and Zoo. Zoo has the subtitle ‘Letters not about Love’, because it was a book about love…”

Here we see Shklovsky the individual, torn from his form and his devices, cut adrift and struggling for words. The results are strangely moving:

“This book tells about a woman who doesn’t hear me, but I’m all around her name like the surf, like an unfading garland.”

And:

“Memory became rings on the water. The rings reached the stony shore. There is no past. I won’t say: “Sea, give me back the rings.” The morning of the song never ends; it’s only us who leave. Let us see in the book, as if on water, what the heart had to cross and to pass, how much blood and pride – the things we call lyricism – remains from the past.” 

Shklovsky was eventually let back into the Soviet Union, and the rest of the book excerpts his writings after his return. In works such as The Technique of Writing CraftThe Hamburg Score, and Once Upon a Time, literary analysis merges with autobiographical detail and even more general musings:

“It’s difficult to take leave of your own childhood. You feel as if you had entered your old apartment: you see the familiar sun-bleached wallpaper, the familiar round stove in the corner, its door unpainted, and the stucco with holes poked in it, all the way to the wooden planks. There is no furniture, and you’d rather not sit on the windowsill, but you linger. You cannot live here, but how can you leave your past, on what kind of transport.”

And thoughts on the revolution:

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

Berlina warns us that in reading Shklovsky on the Revolution, we must remember that even after the thaw, he was writing under an atmosphere of fear and censorship (this is something that comes across very strongly in some of the writings of the Strugatsky Brothers as well); and so, even his writings from the late 50s and the 60s are bound to contain occlusions and evasions. Nonetheless, what is interesting is that from Shklovsky’s writings, we get a sense of the Revolution that is very similar to what we find in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: a transient moment that saw the overturning of order, the lifting of the stifling hand of fate from individuals’ throats, and the briefest of windows where the possibility of freedom seemed visible. But then, as Shklovsky writes, in what could be a fitting epigraph:

“He hoped fervently that delusions would never disappear. They are the tracks left by the search for the truth. They are mankind looking for the meaning of life.”

An epigraph to the book, and perhaps to existence.

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Connections: Victor Shklovsky and Mourid Barghouti on sadness and satisfaction

In the footnotes to the annotated edition of The Victor Shklovsky Reader, there is a footnote that comes at the end of this paragraph from Resurrecting the Word:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” 

In the footnote, the editor adds:

Sadness derives from the Proto-Germanic *sadaz (satisfied), with sated progressing to weary.

This fascinating etymological connection between sadness and satisfaction finds its poetic home, I think, in Mourid Barghouti’s The Pillow, one of my favourite poems:

THE PILLOW
The pillow said:
at the end of the long day
only I know
the confident man’s confusion,
the nun’s desire,
the slight quiver in the tyrant’s eyelash,
the preacher’s obscenity,
the soul’s longing
for a warm body where flying sparks
become a glowing coal.
Only I know
the grandeur of unnoticed little things;
only I know the loser’s dignity,
the winner’s loneliness
and the stupid coldness one feels
when a wish has been granted.
The last two lines, especially.

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2016 in Books

I cannot remember another year where I read so many books that made me sit back, close my eyes, and say to myself, “I haven’t read something like that in quite a while!

African Fiction

  1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The Wizard of the Crow (*****): A brilliant, satirical novel, set in a nameless African country, soon after its independence. A dose of the Latin American magical realists, but in its own unique way, and savagely funny. One of my books of the year. “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…”
  2. Kossi Efoui, The Shadow of Things to Come (****): Like Thiong’o, set in a post-Independence African dictatorship, but much more pared-back, spare, almost coldly abstract. A great read, especially the bits about language and nationhood.
  3. Ahmadou Korouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (****): This was written before the two novels above, and you can see how they take some of its main themes, and build upon them. The story is told by an African griot. “Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

South African Fiction (a separate category, since I was specifically seeking out South African novels)

  1. Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying (****): A powerful novel about South Africa’s first “professional mourner”, during the extreme violence of the transition.
  2. Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness (****): Moves between the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s and post-colonial South Africa, where a village struggles to resist “development”. A savage and satirical take on the “new South Africa”, and the similarities with colonialism.
  3. Lewis Nkosi, Underground People (****): A political thriller set in the context of the armed resistance to the apartheid regime that exploded into violence a little before Transition – but also a deeply personal work.
  4. Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit (*****): One of my books of the year. An astonishing portrayal of the disintegration of a family in the years after the transition. Issues of race, colonialism, sex, personal relationships, and above all, the constant human need of myth-making and construction of meaning, are handled with deep and profound empathy.

Arab Fiction

  1. Elias Khoury, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol (****): Khoury’s latest novel doesn’t quite scale the heights of Gate of the Sun (honestly, what could?), but it is still a fantastic work, and has all the elements of classic Khoury: yearning, failed love, failed revolution, the weight of history, and such beautiful language. “Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight.”

Asian Fiction

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathiser (*****): An absolutely brilliant novel about the Vietnam War, written by a Vietnamese-American. Nguyen’s way with words, and with sentences, is unalloyed genius at work. One of my books of the year. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  2. Yasushi Inoue, The Hunting Gun (****): A marvellously contained novella that explores human feelings in a uniquely perceptive manner.

European Fiction

  1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda (***): This book was a birthday gift in 2012, but a complicated relationship with the person who gifted it meant that I only got around to reading it in 2016. Certainly worth the wait: this fantastical story set at the time of the Inquisition and presaging the invention of the aeroplane, was notable for a heavy dose of magical realism, and a scattered and fragmented form that still somehow held.
  2. Colm Toibin, The Master (*****): Toibin’s wonderful reconstruction of the life of Henry James, and his sensitive treatment of the failure of relationships, of intellectual isolation, and of the futility of things enduring… one of my favourite books of the year, perhaps one of my favourite books ever. “Only sentences are beautiful.
  3. Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds (**): A dense, modernist style that completely passed me by (unfortunately).
  4. Jose Eduardo Agualusa (***): A surrealistic story about the Angolan revolution, told from the perspective of a woman who barricades herself in her house for three decades, starting the day prior to Independence. I’m not sure what I made of this novel at all!
  5. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (***): Nothing like a Francophile Englishman writing about Flaubert!
  6. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (*****): I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Ferrante. As someone once said of Wodehouse, she “exhausts superlatives.”
  7. Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (*****): See above, but even better.
  8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (****): Finally got around to reading this classic.
  9. Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (***): From a writer I love and admire, this was… disappointing.
  10. Diane Meur, The House of Shadows (***): Poland during the tumultuous mid-19th century. The catch is that the narrator of the novel is a house – an old country mansion, that sees change, transformation, and all the accompanying joys and sorrows.

Latin American Fiction

  1. Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War (*****): Beautiful. And with an equally beautiful introduction by Sandra Cisneros. “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.”
  2. Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of the World (**): Came highly recommended, but I found it disappointing. Must be a subjective thing.

Indian Fiction

  1. Easterine Kire, When the River Sleeps (***): I picked this up at the Book Fair. An enjoyable (and a different kind of) novel about one man’s quest among the Naga forests.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings (***): Book 2 of Walton’s Thessaly series, about the quest to set up and administer Plato’s Republic (and the ways in which it goes wrong, and right). This one didn’t quite reach the brilliance of Book 1, in my view. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  2. Patrick Flanery, I Am No One (***): A story of surveillance and loss of identity in the 21st-century world, that flickered promisingly, but didn’t quite succeed (in my view).
  3. Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (****): A thrilling – and deeply political – novel about an alternate South Africa in which apartheid never ended. A twist of the knife at the end. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  4. Dietmar Dath, The Abolition of Species (***): An absolutely wild futuristic SF novel that I picked up at Seagull Bookshop in Calcutta. Brilliantly clever and inventive, talking about themes that you’d think need a new language and vocabulary of their own – but at times, almost consumed by its own cleverness!
  5. Nalo Hopkinson (ed.), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (***): A solid collection of short stories, aimed at decentering the SF canon.
  6. Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber (***): An inter-planetary SF novel marked by dialogue in Caribbean American-English, and a very different way of storytelling. Very enjoyable.
  7. Patricia A. McKillip, Kingfisher (****): An almost-Brechtian SF novel by a writer who is normally known for her lush high fantasy. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  8. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (***): Finally got around to reading this chillingly dystopic story about a dying Earth.
  9. Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself (***): There should be a new genre called “Philoso-SF”, for books like this. Roberts’ novel is based on Kant’s argument about the nature of reality.
  10. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (****): The best of SF in this book: hard science combining with all the doubt and questioning about our place in the universe.
  11. Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (****): A sprawling and complex SF novel in a future utopia; maybe a trifle too complex at times!
  12. Jo Walton, Necessity (***): The final instalment of the Thessaly series, with Plato’s Republic now on another planet, and featuring time travel.
  13. Anil Menon, Half of What I Say (***): An interesting, genre-bending novel about a new-futuristic India with a tyrannical, all-powerful and militarised anti-corruption government unit. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  14. Yoss, Super Extra Grande (****): This Cuban SF writer was one of my finds of the year, courtesy Strange Horizons. This book is a rollicking space opera, with seven space-faring species, a lot of inter-species sex, “Spanglish” dialect, and a smash-and-grab in the tradition of the best space opera. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  15. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City (****): The Soviet SF masters’ darkest, most enigmatic work about an imaginary city in which the Sun is switched on and off, and there is a “purpose” that nobody knows. They did not dare to publish it when it was first written (1973); it was published in 1989, and the translation came out this year.
  16. Yoss, A Planet for Rent (*****): See above, but even better. A Planet for Rent is a set of short stories in which earth has been colonised by superior spacefaring species, and turned into a holiday destination. The stories here are savagely funny and darkly beatiful.
  17. Hassan Blasim (ed.), Iraq +100 (****): A set of short stories imagining Iraq a hundred years after the American invasion (2103). Moves between genres and themes.

Historical Fiction

  1. Robert Harris, The Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator) (****): Robert Harris is a wonderfully atmospheric writer, and these three books about the life, rise, fall, and death of Cicero are evocative and deeply moving. Cicero’s epigram – “nothing dries more quickly than a tear” has stayed with me ever since I read the books almost a year ago.

Theatre

  1. John Paul Sartre, No Exit and Other Plays (****): I can’t follow Sartre’s philosophical writings, but I enjoyed his short stories in Intimacy, and I loved No Exit for its remarkably acute, almost forensic, excavations of the human character. Whether it was the eponymous play (three characters together in a room after death, and the famous phrase “Hell is other people“), a retelling of the Oresteia, or a wonderful drama about a Communist Party assassin whose interior landscape and moral assessment about his own actions is subservient to the Party’s ever-changing versions of history, these plays were gripping, evocative, and haunting.
  2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Every once a while, I come back to read this play, to be shaken inside out and to feel tears. Frayn’s play is set in heaven, where Niels Bohr, Bohr’s wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg meet again, and relive Heisenberg’s trip from Nazi Germany to meet Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, at the height of World War II, and talk about… what? The play is a speculation about what happened at the meeting, but is so much more than that: about science, about friendship, and about humanity.
  3. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 1 (*****): Brian Friel’s plays struck me like lightning bolts. I had never heard of him until a friend recommended his work; his plays are a masterful blend of the public and the private, the political and the personal, and they put you through an emotional wringer. Translations, in particular  – a play set during the time when the colonial English were bent upon renaming Gaelic names in Ireland, and dealing with love across linguistic and political boundaries – was haunting. There’s something about the Irish…  “Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?’ Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”
  4. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 2 (****): See above.
  5. Athol Fugard, Plays: Volume 1 (****): The famous South African playwright, whose works are set in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, blends the personal and the political in distinctive and empathetic ways. His characters are diverse and all memorable.

Essays/Other Non-fiction

  1. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (****): So much wisdom, such depth and breadth of knowledge, such an acute sensitivity, and such self-awareness. This book of essays on various poets is a joy to read. “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.”
  2. Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe (***): A very well-written, enjoyablem and accessible introduction to existentialism, albeit with some irritating interpositions of the author’s political biases.
  3. Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (***): An off-track travel-guide to Paris liberally sprinkled with doses of history and politics.
  4. Sue Roe, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art (***): A companion to The Private Lives of the Impressionists, this is an accessible and enjoyable introduction to that era in Montmartre when Picasso, Matisse and the rest lived in close proximity and created a whole new set of art forms. Guilty of a few omissions that might reflect a little less flatteringly on its protagonists.
  5. Edmund White, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (**): Entertaining at times, but a little too much name-dropping for the uninitiated.
  6. Dominique Eddie, The Crime of Gean Jenet (****): A very perceptive account of Genet.
  7. Tom Paulin, The Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (*****): A brilliant collection of essays taking various poets and discussing their work in the context of language and nationhood. Features mostly English and Irish poets, but there are also excursions (Zbigniew Herbert). His evisceration of Geoffrey Hill was particularly enjoyable.
  8. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Secure the Base (****): A fascinating set of reflections on colonialism, nationalism and language. These essays are made particularly interesting by the fact that Thiong’o consciously gave up writing in European languages in the 70s, and then wrote only in his native tongue, based on his view that language had to be liberated from colonialism as well.
  9. Bashir Abu-Manneh, The History of the Palestinian Novel: 1948 to Present (*****): a very accessible introduction to Palestinian novelistic literature after the nakba, that places it in the context of Pan-Arab politics (featuring Kanafani, Habibi etc.). Some truly eye-opening facts and analysis about the relationship between literature, politics, and revolution – highly recommended.

History

  1. Eric Hazan, The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps (*****): Eric Hazan’s historical reconstruction of one of the most enigmatic cities of the world is a joy to read; much of it is a work of political geography – taking us through each street, each neighbourhood, and telling us about its place in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the city. There are also brilliant sections on the history of revolutions in Paris (Victor Hugo does not come well out of this), and the invention of photography.
  2. Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (***): A fairly comprehensive – and basic – introductory text.

Memoirs/Biographies/Autobiographies

  1. Henri Alleg, Algerian Memoirs (*****): Picked up at The Seagull, a beautiful little bookshop in Calcutta, Algerian Memoirs is a wonderful account of the life of Henri Alleg, an important figure in Algeria’s liberation struggle against colonial rule. Alleg, originally a Frenchman, came to Algeria as a young man, and was a co-founder of its most important pro-liberation newspaper. Alleg was imprisoned and tortured by the colonial regime, and his account of his torture – La Question – was an important book and marked a turning point in the struggle. Algerian Memoirs is a great story of a tumultuous time, told with a clear eye and no sentimentality.
  2. Leopold Infield, Whom the Gods Love: The Story of Evariste Galois (*****): This is a beautiful biography of Evariste Galois, the great mid-nineteenth century French mathematician and political revolutionary, who was killed in a duel at the age of 21. Through the extraordinary and tumultuous life of Galois (expelled from school for pro-revolutionary sentiments and imprisoned twice), it also paints a gripping story of France in the throes of violence and revolution.
  3. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (***): Hemingway’s spare – yet moving – account of writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s. His description of Shakespeare and Co – the bookshop – stood out.
  4. Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land Between (*****): A beautiful and haunting book about a son’s search for his father, who was vanished by the Gaddafi regime. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  5. Dikgang Moseneke, My Own Liberator (*****): From Robben Island to Deputy Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, via a successful law practice, surviving assassination attempts, and overseeing the first democratic election in South Africa. This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary life.

Poetry

  1. Tom Paulin, Love’s Bonfire (***): An interesting – if somewhat uneven – collection.
  2. Alastair Reed, Weathering (****): Small, contained, and wonderfully shaped poems. A poem about his dying father was among the best (My Father, Dying)
  3. Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems (*****): I discovered – and fell in love with – Zbigniew Herbert, and his contained poetry that disavows romanticism and grand narratives, but takes no refuge in cynicism. Elegy of Fortinbras is my personal favourite. “What I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.

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