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Reading the Philippines

I have spent the last ten days traveling in the Philippines – a place that, until now, had never been on my mental or literary map. Geographically, I had gotten close before, with Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (Indonesia) to the South, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser (Vietnam) to the East. I had had a passing interest in phases of late-20th century Indonesian and Vietnamese history. The Philippines, however, had remained a mental blank; apart from a single occasion when my father had told me about the dictatorship – and overthrow – of Ferdinand Marcos.

All that changed, however, with a dip into its literature, which – as literature always does – unfolded world after world with each successive novel. During my time on the Islands, I gathered that there were three crucial historical moments in recent Filipino history: the 1890s, which saw a successful indigenous challenge to three centuries of colonial-catholic Spanish rule, and an unsuccessful struggle against its immediate successor, the United States; the 1940s, when Intramuros, the old city of Manila, was utterly destroyed by American bombs, soon after which the Philippines gained independence from the United States; and the ushering in of the 21st century into Manila, a sprawling metropolis that was – and is – home to a smorgasbord of cultures, ethnicities, races, languages, and dialects, and continues to exist in an uneasy relationship with its former colonisers. And, after all, as the Foreword to Nick Joaquin’s book of short stories notes, “for the Philippines, an archipelago geographically fragmented, linguistically fissured, occupied by not one but two invaders heralding a fierce but frayed republic dominated by the oligarchic spoils of our split, postcolonial selves – in a land tectonically and climatically doomed to dissolution – for the Philippines, perhaps it is only through its fictions that it can conceive itself a unity.”

In different ways and to different extents, these three moments feature in the four Filipino novels that I read. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere is the Filipino national novel, the compulsory starting point for all forays into Filipino literature. Noli Me Tangere (1887) is called not only the first Filipino novel, but also the novel that created “the Philippines” as a nation. It was written by Jose Rizal, one of a group of ilustrados – Filipinos educated in Europe, and the intellectual leaders of the incipient independence movement. Chronicling the abuse of the Spanish friars (who more or less ruled the Philippines), the novel had such an impact that Rizal was eventually executed (in 1896) – an event which, in turn, triggered the revolution against Spain.

If we keep its political impact to one side, and examine it as a piece of literature, Noli Me Tangere feels a decidedly uneven work. The plot is simple enough: it tells of a deadly conflict between Crisostomo Ibarra, an ilustrado recently returned after seven years in Europe and determined to work for the progress of his country, and Father Damaso, a villainous Franciscan friar bent upon Ibarra’s destruction. Revolving around these two principal characters and their struggle is an ensemble of sub-plots and subsidiary personages: the rivalry between the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the tension between the secular Spanish authority and the religious orders, the subordinate status of the “Indios” (Filipino natives), the constrained, Catholic-influenced social and sexual mores of the time, and so on. And Rizal has a sharply deadpan sense of humour, which, at times, makes for some magnificent satire. In the opening pages, for instance, we are treated to this:

“In those days Captain Tiago was considered the most liberal of men, and it was known that the doors of his house, like those of his country, were closed to no one but tradesmen or perhaps a new or daring idea.” (p. 5)

And:

“Short, light-skinned, round of body and face thanks to an abundance of fat, which according to his admirers comes from heaven and according to his enemies from the blood of the poor, Captain Tiago appeared younger than he actually was…” (p. 34)

A little way into the novel, however, the enormity of its themes appear to overwhelm the author into abandoning the humorous style for something much more turgidly serious. This is punctuated by numerous references from the Greek and Roman histories, that seem forced at the best of times – almost as if it was a composition for a classics examination. However, as the Introduction warns us, we should avoid the temptation of judging Noli Me Tangere from the vantage point of 2017, and the 130 years of literature that has been written since 1887; quite possibly, both the references, as well as the political disquisitions that are scattered throughout the novel, were fresh and new for their time. For example, the lengthy debate between Ibarra and another character called Elias, where the latter is trying to persuade the former to adopt the method of armed revolution against Spain, while the former – still a moderate – counsels incremental reform – might seem worn out and trite after having seen the same conflict play out for decades in every part of the world and in every decolonisation struggle; for 1887, perhaps, it was something entirely original (I had a similar feeling while watching the anti-capitalist oration in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People).

But even despite that, and quite apart from its centrality to Filipino history, as a piece of literature, Noli Me Tangere remains an important, novelistic account of its times, fulfilling (one of) the goals of literature – to bear witness.

F. Sionil Jose’s Dusk (1984) takes on where Noli Me Tangere left off. At the cusp of being defeated by the insurgent Filipino revolutionary forces, Spain “sold” the Philippines to the United States, and left. What followed were three years of the Filipino-American War (1899 – 1902), during which 250,000 Filipinos died. Dusk, the first volume in a five-part series, features the tribulations of a farming family during the course of the transition from fighting the Spanish enemy to the American enemy. We see a cross-section of the People that is similar to the ones depicted in Noli Me Tangere: Spanish priests, soldiers, Filipino ilustrados, the Indios working the land; unlike Noli Me Tangere, however, which was told from the perspective of an ilustradoDusk is written form the point of view of Istak Samson, the son of a farmer who is initially taken in and educated by a priest, but is dismissed by the priest’s successor, when he accidentally sees the latter making love to the local Captain’s daughter.

Soon after that, Samson’s family is forced to vacate their farm on the orders of the priest; when Samson’s father goes to reason with the priest, finding the latter cold, vengeful and bent upon his family’s destruction, he is seized by a fit of rage, and murders him. Thus begins the family’s long flight from “Spanish justice”, as they flee into the heart of the Philippines, crossing forests, mountains, and rivers, to escape the pursuing soldiers. During the course of their travel through the land, the insurgents rise up against Spain and defeat the forces of the Empire – only to find themselves under the new rule of the Americans; and at that point, Samson finds himself forced to choose between the life of the farmer (which he desires) and the life of the nationalist (which is compelled upon him).

Dusk is written in simple – and intense – prose, the form moulding itself around the lives of its characters. It also has one of the best literary indictments of colonialism that I have ever read:

“I should worship, then, not a white god but someone brown like me. Pride tells me only one thing: that we are more than equal to those who rule us. Pride tells me that this land is mine, that they should leave me to my destiny, and if they will not leave, pride tells me that I should push them away, and should they refuse this, I should vanquish them, kill them. I knew long ago that their blood is the same as mine. No stranger can come battering down my door and say he brings me light. This I have within me.”  (p. 143)

Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (2010): After the heaviness of Noli Me Tangere and Dusk, this is a very different kind of novel. Crispin Salvador, a famous Filipino novelist, living in self-imposed exile in New York, is unexpectedly found dead in his room. The draft of his latest novel – The Bridges Ablaze – a damning indictment of the Filipino high families’ historical links to crime, and with which he intended to restore his lost reputation – is missing. Was it this novel that was the cause of his death? His Filipino student – and the narrator of the novel – certainly thinks so, as he embarks on a quest to find the missing draft of the last novel, and also to piece together Crispin’s life for a biography. And so begins a darkly noir adventure through the United States and Manila, punctuated by excerpts from Crispin’s inexhaustibly diverse oeuvre of writing, and flashbacks of various kinds.

Ilustrado’s style is reminiscent of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser (although Syjuco’s novel came first). There is the same taut sense of pace, the same half-detached, half-savage treatment of the immigrant experience, the same flair for the short, crystalline, devastating sentence (“Like those phrases, we’re a collection of clichés, handy types worn as uniforms over our naked individuality.” (p. 25); and, “betrayal had wound its way between us like barbed wire (p. 141)), those same, rare moments, where the playfully savage tone is dropped for an instant of something deeper and more serious (“He seemed to understand my thirst for those obscure things that I didn’t yet possess as part of me.” (p. 73) and “Poets lie, though beautifully. Don’t make things new, make them whole.”) – and lastly, those few, long passages of sustained, almost distilled intensity:

“It was January 1970 and we had our fists raised against Marcos. When you’re like that, you observe yourself from outside your body, enjoying the sight of you engaged in heroism among a crowd of fellow heroes. Mutya just went and lay down on the street. I wanted to stop her, but I was being pinned by a cop. The tank pushed toward her. The street shook. The tank didn’t slow. A few feet from her small body, it stopped. All of us watching nearly became Catholic again. Three soldiers got out. They dragged her, screaming, to the side. I should say, it was they who were screaming. Mutya didn’t say a word. They beat her. She lost her teeth and nearly lost her child. It was then that we found out that the baby was a girl. In the hospital, I stood by Mutya’s side, crying, and asked her what had gotten into her head to do such a thing. She said she’s been thinking of the dedication Jose Rizal wrote for Noli Me Tangere. Imagine?! That part about sacrificing to the truth everything. Death was nothing if her country was dying.”

Crispin paused and looked very sad.

“Truly, romantic bullshit, in retrospect,” he said. “And yet…” He wagged his finger. “And yet, ‘No lyric has ever stopped a tank,’ so said Seamus Heaney. Auden said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Bullshit! I reject all that wholeheartedly! What do they know about the mechanics of tanks? How can anyone estimate the ballistic qualities of words? Invisible things happen in intangible moments. What should keep us writing is precisely that possibility of explosions. If not, what then? A century and a decade ago, Rizal’s prose kindled revolution. They didn’t have tanks during that time, see? But when he wrote both his great Noli and El Filibusterismo, he was more concerned about the present than the future, and far more concerned with both those than about the past. An important clue to writers like you. Rizal’s books were good, but their lyrics on the page were most certainly futile against the Guardia Civil, not to mention tanks. But their lyrics in the hot head and swelling heart of a young reader, well, Mr. Heaney, there by the grace of God goes your tank buster.

“Now, a hundred and ten years into the future, our present, it’s as if nothing else has been written in our sunburned isles since. Oh, sure, they broke the mold with Rizal, Mr Malay Renaissance Man himself. Like China’s Sun Yat-sen. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh. Rizal’s books are the literary and historical touchstone, so we still like to crow about our revolution, the first democratic republic in Asia. How it was stolen by American backstabbing and imperialism. We talk as if we were actually there! Aiming our Remingtons. Pow! Planting our machetes in the Spanish cabezas. Shhlock! These are our greatest accomplishments and saddest tragedies. Since then, has nothing else happened?”

The sun had disappeared. The footpath’s lampposts were far away, remote, like moons fractured by the branches of the trees. Leaves and twigs brushed our faces. The city seemed but a rumor. (p. 205 – 6)

What’s different from The Sympathiser is that Syjuco tries a number of stylistic pyrotechnics, which don’t always work (the numerous shifts in narrative voice can get annoying), and even drag the novel down at times. However, the ending is a sheer punch in the gut, the most unexpectedly devastating twist imaginable, and that alone – apart from everything else – makes this novel worthwhile.

Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (centennial edition, 2017): This set of short stories (and one play, A Portrait of the Filipino as Artist) is an utterly brilliant read. The Foreword observes – and in my view, this is perfectly put – that:

“His style has a term: Joaquinesque. His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel… almost maddeningly Manileno, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality – it simply is.” (ix)

An instance of this unique style is the interminable sentence, whose clauses run into each other, overleap each other, join, part, and join again, and all the while communicating a dense, rich, almost intoxicating sense of place. For example:

… and of his home in Malaga, and of the fountains in Granada – and the intimate streets there: the families gathered on benches by the wayside, and girls’ eyes flashing from behind grilled windows as he rode past with the muleteers to the market, while up on the Sierra Morena were the cypresses and bandits among them and an old, old, bearded hermit brooding in a cave, and down in Ronda the weeds ate the mute circus of the Romans and he and he had come upon some shepherds gathered in silence to roast a lamb but he was fifteen and had no silences, no stillness within him and so went sailing down the Guadalquivir on a raft with two boys, past Cordoba with its conquered Arabic ramparts, past the vineyards and the convents, past the orange and olive groves and deep at last into the shining marvel of Seville, its minarets swarming in the sky and spilling doves and hours – the gypsies everywhere, sailors and merchants everywhere, silks and spices everywhere, taverns and palaces everywhere, with tapestries gorgeous upon their windows, for the king was rising forth in a glory of gold flags and brocades, the jeweled majas crowding on the balconies to drop roses and wave their fans, and himself munching figs and boiled chestnuts and feeling happy, very happy, until in Sanlucar the river ended, the glory ended, youth ended among the whores, and he had gone to Cadiz where the ships were, their tall wings whispering of the flawless worlds in the West but the fishing-fleet had taken him to Palma, where it smelled of clams, and to Tarragona, where it smelled of goats, and he had ended up in Toledo, among the lazarillos, playing thief and pimp and beggar amidst the busy gloom of the wintry imperial city, not having cared to go home to Malaga where now – alas! – he would never return again… (p. 20 – 1)

Joaquin’s short stories are a cross between the half-eerie half-detached tone of Borges, and the relentless wit of Oscar Wilde. They chronicle Manila’s Spanish colonial past, with all its Hispanic undertones, its American-dominated early-20th century, and the post-War devastation. Archbishops rub soldiers with has-been revolutionary leaders, street boys share the pages with new-age religious cults, and in every story there is just that slightest, spine-chilling hint of the fantastic, the other-worldly. And through these stories, Joaquin explores Filipino nationalism, Spanish colonialism, American Imperialism, youth, love, and old age in a shattered Manila, and so much more. As the Foreword – once again – puts it: “His unapologetic, Calibanic choice of English is both rebuke to the occupier and revenge upon it… the Romanism of Chaucer is archaic, but the Romanism of Joaquin is current: it’s about grief under empire.” (xii – xiii)

The last piece in the book – the play – is strikingly different. It reads akin to something by Brian Friel – an intense, melancholy musing on loss and parting, accomplished through tense, taught dialogue, stretched as though on a bowstring. As the bombs of World War II begin to fall, two old women live with their father in their revolution-era Intramuros house, determined to resist all attempts to force them to sell it and move, even at the cost of bankrupting themselves. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino is about the claims of the past upon us, written in the “grief under empire.” As one of the women tells a powerful politician who has come to try and persuade them to move – an old, revolutionary friend of their father’s, but who gave up the struggle and joined politics – “the sublime is always ridiculous to the world, senator.” (365 – 66)

But not to the world of Nick Joaquin, or to the world that he gives to us in this striking and beautiful collection.

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“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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“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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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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“… overwhelmed by the dizzying madness of reality”: Yoss’ ‘A Planet for Rent’

The idea of the voyage was Jowe’s, and when he speaks of it, the words that emerge from his lips sound like beauty itself.”

Space-faring science fiction has often been associated with the narrative of colonialism. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assertion: Galactic exploration across the terra nullius of open space, chiseled pioneers opening the gates to the unknown, and Contact stories that invariably portray alien species as the impenetrable Other, incomprehensible at best and dreaded enemies at worst. Starship Troopers is a particularly crude version of this phenomenon, while Avatar is a more subtle account that ostensibly undermines the tropes while continuing to reinforce them.

Sooner or late, of course, each narrative produces its counter-narrative. In Embassytown, China Mieville writes of Contact gone horribly wrong, as cynical human attempts to exploit a species incapable of telling a lie descend into a bloody conflict. But if Mieville’s novel is still written from the perspective of colonizing humans, it is Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez – or “Yoss” – in whose work we find a true “writing back” to the dominant register. Yoss is a Cuban punk-rocker science-fiction writer with a degree in biology, who knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of economic and military colonialism. And A Planet for Rent is an incredibly powerful, haunting set of interconnected short stories of a Galaxy in which all earth has become a Colony.

The premise is simple. After watching the leaders of Earth take the planet to the brink of destruction with their ceaseless internecine conflicts, the benevolent space-faring species of the Galaxy intervene and take over. Like the “Mandate” system imposed by the Western “Great Powers” under the League of Nations, humans are kept in tutelage by “the Galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the rights of full membership…” (p. 12) In the meantime, the landscape of Earth is regenerated, and the Planet transformed into a tourist destination for the well-endowed amongst the Galactic races, whether it is to embark on big game hunts, observe the local populace, or simply experience what it is like to be a different species, through entering the bodies of human criminals sentenced to the punishment of becoming “body spares” for a period.

“Body spares” is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this futuristic, inter-species colonial relationship, but the rest of it sounds rather familiar. It is. And so are the corollaries. Under the velvet glove of benevolent tutelage lies the grasping, iron hand of violent repression, cynical collaboration and futile resistance, tightly controlled emigration implemented by a brutal colonial gendarmerie, an economic embargo that suffocates any attempts at terrestrial development, and systematic brain drain to the many metropolises (“You didn’t invent the brain drain, but you perfected and institutionalized it” says an immigration applicant to his Cetian interrogators).

Yoss’ characters are human beings struggling to survive – and negotiate – their existences as colonial subjects at the bottom of the Galactic hierarchy. In a series of interconnected stories (interspersed with wry and savage interludes containing nuggets of tantalising information about the social and economic structure of the Galaxy), Yoss explores the lives of a sex worker trying to escape Earth by becoming attached to a “Grodo”, a performing artist eking out a living from Planet to Planet, an athlete dreaming of revenge by defeating a multi-species team in a game of “Voxl”, a guard at the space-port, a scientist trying to immigrate for a better life, a rebel dreaming of Galactic spaceflight, and an Earthbound girl taken under the protection of a “Colossaur”. What makes the stories of A Planet for Rent particularly compelling is that in Yoss’ world there are no heroes, no tales of organised resistance (whether triumphant or tragic), no grand conflict in the theatre of space, no sanctity or sublimation. His characters are so occupied with bettering the conditions of their existence, that they have no luxury of thinking through the deeper questions of the injustices of colonialism and the possibilities of resistance (and those who do either meet a tragic end, or disabuse themselves of such notions before things come to such a pass.)

If Planet for Rent tells the story of a colonized world, but consciously eschews a story of resistance, then what is it about? It is about the everyday interactions between the colonizers and the colonized, the exercise of power not at a grand level but in the organisation of thought, feeling and action that constitutes the lifeworld, the capturing of that nameless experience that structures an unequal relationship. This is where Yoss is a consummately skilled craftsman: his characters are of a type without losing their individuality: grafters, collaborators, pragmatists, opportunists, human; his encounters are familiar without losing their authenticity: the insufficiency of benevolent masters who nonetheless remain masters, betrayal in a world where loyalty offers no reward and has lost its meaning, the impossibility of ideals in a compromised relationship; and the clear political undertones do nothing to take away from the spinning of a jolly good yarn: Yoss is particularly masterful at that last twist of the knife that ends the story (sometimes literally), that leaves you shaken and grasping for support at the dissolving straws of hoped-for happy endings. All this is done in a wry, ironic tone, often with hilariously funny dialogue (or interior monologue) that draws the reader into laughter for that brief moment before she becomes aware of the darkness that lies beneath. In its review, The Nation has the best set of words to describe it: “riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heart-wrenchingly compassionate.”

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Paris in Books

Paris is probably one of the most densely written-about cities that there is. ‘Discovering’ it seems almost impossible, because far too many writers and artists have been there and written about their experiences in such rich detail, that it simply can’t serve as a palimpsest any longer. So perhaps the next best option is to read a sliver of writing about Paris before going there; if seeing it afresh is out of the question, then perhaps, at least, one can see it through the writing about it – perhaps a bit like reading up about the methods of the impressionist painters before letting oneself loose on the top floor of the Musee d’Orsay.

I’ve spent part of this summer in Paris. Before going, I asked around on Twitter, and picked up the following books: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, and Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. At Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, I picked up two more: Edmund White’s (again) Flaneur, and Sue Roe’s In Montmartre.

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast recounts his years in 1920s Paris as a penniless young author, struggling to make his mark, and his interactions with many of the other writers who were living in, or passing through, Paris at the time: Gertrude Stein (with whom he perhaps enjoyed the closest relationship for a while), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. I was a little hesitant about this book: I’ve never really enjoyed Hemingway, perhaps because I came to him too young. I struggled through A Farewell to Arms, and left The Sun Also Rises unfinished. This book, however, is an excellent read: deftly written, keenly observed, and with a light (almost aphoristic, at times) wry style that makes for breezy reading. The Paris it describes, of course, is entirely unrecognisable, although his city landmarks (the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens) remain. Hemingway’s Paris is a city where – he notes repeatedly – you can get by reasonably comfortably with very little money. That certainly seems to be no longer the case. It also describes a Paris where access to culture seems much more democratic than it is now – he writes about going down to the Louvre every afternoon to gaze at the paintings, something that is quite impossible now (the six-day Paris Museum Pass costs 74 Euros, and the Louvre is free only on the first Sunday of every month).

One thing struck me about this book. Hemingway is forensic – and quite merciless – in dissecting the character of his fellow-writers (Stein, Ford, Fitzgerald). However, one person who escapes the scalpel is Ezra Pound. This is particularly surprising when you consider that A Moveable Feast was put together in the late 1950s, by which time two things ought to have become blindly obvious: Pound’s support for anti-semitism and fascism, and just how destructive both these creeds were. And it’s not that Hemingway was unaware of this – here, for instance, he hedges the question by calling Pound “crazy”. How – and why – then, in a book of character sketches, does Pound manage to get a free pass?

Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, on the other hand, is almost a counterpoint to Hemingway’s literary Paris set in and around the Luxembourg Gardens. White, a famous writer and biographer, infuses a dose of politics into his account (in particular, the politics of multiculturalism, a rather contested theme): he recounts talking about Jean Genet at the Institut du Monde Arabe, visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Jewish Quarter, and “cruising” by the Seine as a gay man; even his artists’ Paris is off the beaten track – a description of the writer Colette, a visit to the little-known Gustave Moreau museum, to Charles Baudelaire’s sometime-hotel, and to the Saint-Denis basilica (on the outskirts of Paris), where French royalty lies buried. It’s an interesting, impressionistic account, quite suited for the title – “the flaneur“. There is a particularly discordant note at two points, though, when White refers to the Paris Commune as a “desparate anarchic movement.” This, of course, is a shockingly reductive (and not to mention, ahistorical) characterisation of the immensely complex phenomenon that was the Paris Commune, and about which there exists a substantial amount of scholarship. White’s unwillingness – or inability – to engage with that scholarship before writing such throwaway lines calls the integrity of the rest of the work into doubt – it makes one think three or four times before taking anything else he says in good faith.

I had a similar experience last year with Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The first time I read it, in late 2013, I was quite enamoured by Kundera’s stylistic feats in those essays, the grand sweep of his vision of the history of the novel, the effortless ease with which he seemed to find patterns and connections and draw it all together without the need for laying out the structure of the argument. Then, after reading Edward Said and coming back to Kundera, the very concept of the “European novel” and a “European canon”, which assumed “Europe” as some kind of an immutable, eternal entity untouched by four centuries of colonialism, seemed about as shallow a mode of analysis as it’s possible to have, the the dazzling stylistic feats suddenly appeared too entirely unconvincing.

Sue Roe’s In Montmartre complements Hemingway in another way: it provides the artistic foil to Hemingway’s literary reminiscences. Set about a decade and a half before Hemingway’s heyday – that is, 1900 – 1910, In Montmartre is a book about how modernist painting came to be invented by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and the rest, all of whom lived in and around Montmartre at the time, forming an artistic community of sorts.

Previously, I had read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists. In Montmartre is written in a similarly engaging way: Roe tells a compelling story about the individual lives of the artists, their struggles for acceptance and recognition, their foibles and their flaws, and their artistic visions and projects. I found In Montmartre more difficult going, though, simply because I love impressionism, but have never been able to sufficiently appreciate what came after. In Montmartre did help me understand, in a fairly lucid way, what these artists were getting at, and in particular, how their project was deeply affected by the advent of photography and cinema:

“With the rise of photography as an artistic medium, the painters’ previous ambition of imitating life in art now belonged to photographers and, increasingly, cinematographers. The aim of painting was now to find ways of expressing the painter’s own response to life, vividly demonstrated by the early work of Derain, Vlaminck and van Dongen, whose vigorous forms and bold colours would earn them the nickname ‘les Fauves’ (‘wild beasts’).”

And:

“Gertrude stein had already perceived that it was no longer possible for a painter to say that he painted the world as he saw it, since ‘he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much’ – photographed, and now filmed, in mesmerizing, sequential images that could be slowed down, speeded up or arrested, subjected to unpredictable, instantaneous transformations before the viewer’s eyes.”

And:

“Matisse explained his understanding of composition as ‘the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings’, stressing the importance of harmony and balance that was achieved only by working and reworking a picture to reflect an integrity of understanding way beyond the artist’s first impressions. ‘What I am after, above all,’ he wrote, ‘is expressionism.’ Like Cezanne, Matisse believed that artistic understanding could be achieved only by copying nature, but the practice of copying involved a profound emotional response. As Matisse put it, ‘I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture.”

Which is all very well, of course, but I must confess that even after reading a full chapter devoted to Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, I was no closer to understanding its artistic merits than I was before. That said, it certainly was fun to walk around (a radically altered) Montmartre after reading the book. However, much like White, I found Roe to be a little… unreliable on occasion. For instance, while recounting Picasso and Fernande’s decision to return an adopted girl to her orphanage, Roe insists that it was a very normal thing for the time. She hints at how, as the girl was growing older, there was the danger of sexual tension with Picasso – but omits to mention (or at least, I didn’t see it) that the decision was triggered when Fernande found that Picasso had made explicit drawings of the girl. This is a glaring omission, and the book is otherwise to meticulous and detailed for it to have been mere oversight.

And lastly, it was rather envy-inducing, once again, to read descriptions about how the Louvre was free to enter at the tun of the 20th century, and how many amateur artists would simply take their easels and start copying down the Old Masters!

Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps was undoubtedly the most difficult – and rewarding – read out of all these. Hazan’s book is probably best described as political geography (a discipline that, Kristin Ross points out in her book about the Paris Commune, was intentionally marginalised in the late 19th-century in favour of ‘regular’, apolitical geography) – a political geography of the city of Paris. In the first part of the book, Hazan takes us through each area of Paris – the Left Bank quarters, the Right Bank quarters, the villages – and places roads, landmarks, and monuments in their historical and political contexts. He explains how the composition of each area changed with successive waves of ‘modernisation’ and development, the roles they played in the tumultuous political history of the city (especially in the 19th century). In a sense, it’s like an astonishingly detailed political-historical-geographical map to the city (and because of its sheer, encyclopaedic character, probably best read on one’s third or fourth visit to Paris!).

The second part of the book – Red Paris – deals with the various insurrections that defined Paris in the Nineteenth Century, and in particular, the failed revolutions of 1830, 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1870. In particular, Hazan focuses on 1848, arguing that much of the violence visited upon the Left at the time has been buried in historical accounts that are focused on showing a gradual and inevitable progress of democracy. One of the particularly interesting points in this part of the book is a description of Victor Hugo’s role: the writer of Les Miserables, it turns out, was strongly against the 1848 insurrection, and played no small role in putting it down (although Hazan argues that his subsequent conduct suggests that he repented). It also has one of the most perceptive quotes from Marx that I’ve come across:

“… the June revolution is the ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, because realities have taken the place of words, because the republic has uncovered the head of the monster itself by striking aside the protective, concealing crown…

And Hazan has his own powerful observation to complement the argument that 1848 was a rupture in the democratic facade:

No political analysis, no press campaign, no electoral struggle, so clearly bears a message as the spectacle of people being shot in the streets.”

The last part of the book – based upon the idea of the flaneur – takes us on a different path. It too examines Paris through the lens of art first through the radical poetry of Baudelaire (‘What Baudelaire sought in the crowds was the shock of encounter, the sudden vision that kindled his imagination, creating the ‘mysterious and complex enchantment’ that was the essence of poetry‘), and his subject of the city, then through the radical paintings of Manet and Degas, and their choice of subjects – and finally, and most interestingly for me, because I’ve never read anything about this – through the development of photography (and in particular, by focusing on the work of Atget, one of the earliest photographic chroniclers of the city).

And, rounding it off, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Pariswas another kind of book entirely. If Flaneur was written in the style of a literary guidebook, Inside a Pearl (published in 2015) is definitively a memoir. During the course of his lifetime, White has come to meet – and know – an astonishing variety of individuals – from Michel Foucault to Julian Barnes, from Julia Kristeva to Marina Warner to Danilo Kis. Inside a Peal is his account of those interactions, as well as a personal memoir of life as a gay man in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The unifying thread is Paris, the city where most (but not all) of these encounters take place. Dense and laden with detail, the book can weigh you down at times, especially when the names and references are unfamiliar. However, there are enough familiar names as well (the ones I mentioned above), and they make the effort worthwhile. White’s dry, slightly melancholy tone is a perfect foil for the city he’s writing about, and his description of his preferred walk in Paris (from the Point des Arts to the Hotel the Ville) is easy to relate to (it ended up becoming one of my favourite walks as well). And from the end of the book, this passage was particularly memorable. I read it today, on my last day in Paris, and it perhaps sums it all up:

MC and I met Ed Hemingway, the writer’s grandson, who resembled the grand old man except that he was without a beard and was twenty-one. In Paris he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour but was let off when the gendarmes looked at his passport and saw his historic last name. They saluted him and let him go. Only in France… just as Cocteau had argued at Genet’s trial for theft that Genet was a modern-day Rimbaud, and you didn’t put Rimbaud in jail.”

At one point in Inside a Pearl, White writes that “Paris… had been painted and written about so thoroughly that every experience has its correlative in art.” This is quite true – and also why, perhaps, that it might be dangerous to read too much before visiting such a city. You could construct too detailed a map in your head, and then struggle to fit the actual city within its rigid, pre-formed contours.

That is why, I think, it is important to read books that suggest, but do not impose, an imagination of the city, and they do so from different perspectives, and in different ways. With some luck, my selection of books succeeded in allowing me diverse ways of seeing Paris. Oscar Wilde wrote that the grey London fogs didn’t exist until the writers and painters began describing them. Paris did exist for me before, but while I’ve been here, the books I read have helped me to make more sense of it (and by ‘sense’, here, I refer to that nameless feeling that might, with only glancing accuracy, also be described as ‘meaning’, or ‘significance’) than I might otherwise have been able to.

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