2017 in Books

It is perhaps rare that you discover a new favourite poet and favourite prose writer in the same year. In 2017, I discovered Zbigniew Herbert and Binyavanga Wainaina. The contained charge of the former and the exuberant word-craft of the latter would have been enough to make this year memorable. In addition, though, I discovered outstanding Filipino writing while traveling to the country, came across more remarkable African writing (this reading year, perhaps, was defined by African writing) and – because of my continuing role with The Strange Horizons magazine – read much more speculative fiction than I would otherwise have inclined to make time for.

Among many discoveries, one stood out: this year, I read some writers who performed some truly dazzling pyrotechnics with language: they made language something physical, something that leapt and danced and sang and consumed you. One was Filipino. Another was Zimbabwean. A third was Indian. And the most brilliant of all was a Kenyan.

Here, as always, is my year-end list, and a rough rating (out of five). The usual riders apply (also note: categories overlap. For example, I read three books of SF by Indian writers, whom I have placed in the SF category instead of the Indian Fiction category).

Indian Fiction

  1. Benyamin, Goat Days (****): This novel – about the travails of a Malayali immigrant to an unnamed Gulf country who ends up herding goats after a case of mistaken identity – became a cult classic in Kerala, and its uncompromising, almost savage, realism tells you why.

African Fiction

  1.  Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o, The River Between (****): Last year, I read and loved The Wizard of the Crow. This year I read and loved The River Between. Similar to Things Fall Apart in its treatment of colonialism and its shattering impact on indigenous practices, I actually found it to be a deeper and more moving treatment of the issues (reviewed here).
  2. Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (***): The timeless classic that I finally got around to reading this year. Short, not always comprehensible (to me), but I could vaguely see what he was trying to do, and an enjoyable read nonetheless.
  3. Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger (*****): One of the stand-out books of the year for me. I came across Marechera while editing a series of interviews of young African SF writers. His prose leaps and burns like tongues of flame. “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.” (Reviewed here.)
  4. Jennifer Makumbi, Kintu (****): This novel is huge in Uganda, and on reading it, it’s easy to see why. Epic in sweep and scope, with the ambition of One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as its magical-realist elements (Yes, I know, cliched comparison), and the literary quality to pull it off. Highly recommended.
  5. Patrice Naganag, Mount Pleasant (***): In terms of the quality of prose, perhaps not quite up there with the novels mentioned above, but nonetheless, a very interesting novel set in colonial Cameroon, on the cusp of far-reaching changes, with multiple narrators and some very moving moments.
  6. Naivo, Beyond the Rice Fields (****): Published this year, the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. Like The River Between and Things Fall Apart, it too deals with colonialism and its impact on the structure of indigenous society, and heightens the moral conflict by focusing on practices that seem intuitively abhorrent to our sensibilities. Much recommended. (Reviewed here 

African Non-Fiction

  1. Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (*****): No description would do this justice. This memoir about growing up in post-colonial Kenya was, quite simply, the best book I read this year, and one of the best I’ve ever read. Read it. (Reviewed here)
  2. Obi Nwakanma, Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight (****): A moving and brilliant biography of the great Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who was tragically killed while still in his 30s, fighting in the Biafran War. One fascinating thing I learnt from this novel was how some of the great figures of 20th century Nigerian writing – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo – among many others – were contemporaries at University College, Ibadan, and remained lifelong friends.

The Philippines

  1. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tángere (***): The Filipino national novel, whose publication had its author executed and also partly triggered the Filipino revolution against Spain. Not a bad riposte to those who say, with Auden, that “poetry achieves nothing.”
  2. F. Sionil Jose, Dusk (Rosales Saga, #1) (***): Takes up the Filipino story at the point at which Rizal leaves off, dealing with the advent of American colonialism, and the doomed struggle of the Filipinos against the American invasion, told through the eyes of a Filipino family.
  3. Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (***): This one’s set in contemporary Philippines and the United States, although its title – Ilustrado – is a nod to the group of early Filipino intellectuals such as Rizal, who attempted to create a national consciousness. A bitter-sweet story, well-told, with an absolutely gut-wrenching twist at the very end.
  4. Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (*****): The stand-out book among the four Filipino works that I read. Joaquin does magnificent things with language, and most of his short story are crafted like fine crystal. As the Preface puts it: “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.” Strongly recommended. (All four books reviewed here.)

Middle-East and North Africa

  1. Omar Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins (****): A thinly-fictionalised account of the Egyptian revolution from an actual participant. Very gripping, and an interesting choice of form – first-person narrative interspersed with staccato news bulletins, almost like gunshots.
  2. Habib Sarori, Suslov’s Daughter (***): An interesting Lebanese novel that deals with the faultline between the political left and political Islam in the Middle-East.
  3. Ghada Samman, Farewell, Damascus (***): An unabashedly feminist novel set in the Damascus of the 1960s, with marriage, divorce, and the freedom of women at its heart.

Latin America: Fiction

  1. Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner (****): By times hilarious, and by times very dark, this Portuguese novel set in colonial Brazil has some elements of the Spanish Latin American works that I’m more familiar with, but at the same time, is different in unexpected ways. Recommended.

Latin America: Essays

  1. The Paris Review, Latin American Writers at Work (****): A collection of Paris Review interviews featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Luisa Valenzuela and others. As you’d expect, a very powerful and intense read. What struck me was how closely many of these readers were involved with political movements on the left.

Europe: Fiction

  1. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels #3) (****): After reading the first two novels of the Neapolitan quartet, I took a year-long time-out to recover. Then I came back and read Books 3 and 4 in two nights. Elena Ferrante, what I can I say?
  2. Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child(The Neapolitan Novels, #4) (****): See above.
  3. Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (*****): With a title like that, how can you be a disappointed? A beautifully broken, almost-aphoristic novel about the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, and the agony of exile. An added bonus are references to Brodsky and Shklovsky, among others. “Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.” (Reviewed here)
  4. Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (****): My last book of the year. It didn’t hit me as powerfully as the Neapolitan Quartet, but as ever, there were moments of incoherently painful resonance.

Poetry

  1. Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (*****): I discovered Prague with Zbigniew Herbert, walking around its streets with a copy of the book tucked under my arm, reading it on the sidewalks, in Milan Kundera’s old cafe, by the riverside, and on Petrin Hill. I cannot recall the last time I had a reading experience so distilled and so intense. (Reviewed here)
  2. Mahmoud Darwish, I Don’t Want This Poem to End: Early and Late Poems (*****): Nothing needs to be said.
  3. Ghada Samman, Arab Women in Love & War: Fleeting Eternities (****): Ghada Samman is one of the most interesting intellectual personalities to come out of the mid and late-20th century middle-east, and this book of poems reflects that.

 

Miscellaneous

  1. Alexandra Berlina (editor), Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader (*****): I love everything about Victor Shklovsky – his writing, his literary theory, his intense, passionate life. This Reader, which brings together a chronological collection of his writing, was a brilliant find. The book was full of gems, two of which imprinted themselves in my mind: “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”; and, “all I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration.” (Reviewed here)
  2. Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (***): A solid and accessible introduction to a philosophical school that has always fascinated me – the Frankfurt critical theorists. Ranges from Walter Benjamin to Jurgen Habermas, and places them in the context of the anti-semitism of the 20th century, the Second World War, and the post-war liberal order.
  3. Said Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan (****): I came across this book from a very weird source – by learning that Sofia Samatar’s father was a respected academic, and had worked on oral poetry. It was a great find – a very interesting account of the role of poetry in building Somali nationalism, almost like a non-fiction version of an Ismail Kadare novel.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Ian McDonald, River of Gods (***): I reviewed this for The Mithila Review. An imaginative near-future novel set in a Balkanised India rent apart by religious conflict and water-wars, but with some flaws when it comes to convincing world-building.
  2. L. Timmel Duchamp, The Waterdancer’s World (***): A solid effort by the veteran writer, tackling themes such as pregnancy and childbirth, which are often neglected by contemporary SF. (Reviewed here).
  3. Prayaag Akbar, Leila: A Novel (****): Brilliant, haunting, terrifying novel about an India that is looming over the horizon … or is already here. Echoes of Atwood, but really, a stand-alone work (Reviewed here)
  4. Basma Abdel-Aziz, The Queue (****): Another one on the Egyptian revolution – this one a dark, pessimistic tale about a “Gate” that comes to life and rules a nameless city, forcing people to form a never-ending queue about it. Instantly recognisable. (Reviewed here)
  5. Yoon Ha-Lee, Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) (***): A far-future galaxy held together by consensus-reality. Characterised by some truly stunning imagery, and world-building complex enough to want to make me wait for a sequel.
  6. Emma Newman, After Atlas (****): A chilling – and brilliant – near-future SF story involving the complete loss of personal privacy.
  7. Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit(Wayfarers, #2) (***): A sensitive exploration of that perennial SF theme – the human/AI relationship.
  8. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (****): A powerful, visceral novel abut escape from slave-state America; imagines the existence of an actual “underground railroad” (which was a 19th-century metaphor for escape routes).
  9. Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me (***): More interesting (this time near-future) stuff involving humans and AI, this with a sweep that suddenly exploded into galactic proportions.
  10. Lavie Tidhar, Central Station (****): One of my favourite SF works from this year – a set of short stories set around Central Station, a space-port located above historical Tel Aviv, and involving some very beautiful and moving reflection on what it means to be human.
  11. Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People (****): This is like an SF version of Benyamin’s Goat Days. A book about the experiences of Malayali immigrants to the gulf, but through the darkly playful lens of magical realism. What really stands out is how Unnikrishnan treats language – malleable, ductile, and with infectious exuberance. Recommended. (Reviewed here)
  12. Tashan Mehta, The Liar’s Weave (****): A rollicking SF novel set in 1920s Bombay, featuring astrologers and forest-worlds, with some excellent imagery. (Reviewed here)

 

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“… like shards of water and streams of glass”: Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”

I have always enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs, writers’ diaries, and writers’ thinly-autobiographical fiction. Some of my favourites include Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, where I found acute and subtle portraits of the character of a nation; Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, where I discovered a haunting political elegy; Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, where I met a stinging literary critique of Negritude and Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o’s idea of language and literature; and Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler, where I traveled second-hand through some of the most brilliant landscapes imaginable.

In Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, I found all this and more.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a story about growing up in newly-independent, post-colonial Kenya. Wainaina tells two stories: the fraught relationship between democracy and the post-colony (not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well) through the course of the late-20th century, and his own circuitous, round-about and peril-filled journey to becoming a writer of repute and influence. “Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!”, he writes in the opening pages; and that could be an image for the book: falling, breaking, patching up, refusing to fall, falling, breaking again. From Kenya under Daniel arap Moi to South Africa on the cusp of dismantling apartheid to Uganda recovering from the wounds of civil war to Kenya again during the pivotal elections of 2002, Wainaina moves through bits of countries and pieces of the self, always afraid of being hijacked by patterns”, as he and his comrades seek “new ways to contort, rearrange, redesign ourselves to fit in.”

Right from the first scene – a recollection of a backyard football game from childhood – we are put on notice that this will be something out of the ordinary:

She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

Wainaina’s memoir bursts at the seams with such rich, exultant, and alive use of language. You rarely feel as if you’re merely reading; rather, it is as though all five senses are activated: you can taste the writing when you read “there is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple”; you can hear it when you read “his voice carrying Yemeni monsoons and bolts of cloth“; you can smell it when he writes, “life has urgency when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain”; you can see it with all the clarity of a vision when he writes “street upon street of Kenyan shops and textile factories stand disemboweled by the death of faith in a common future“; you can feel your skin in this remarkable passage:

She pours me a drink, she laughs, and I find myself laughing too, like we did when we were young. Twin Salvation Army marching bands on a hot dry Sunday in my hometown, Nakuru, Kenya. They bang their way up the sides of my head and meet at some crossroads in my temple, now out of rhythm with each other. I am thirsty with the effort of them, but my body is an accordion, and can’t find the resolution to stand.”

And sometimes, when the prose has a peculiar quality of motion, you can feel more than one thing: “Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn, a set of impressions, movements, lights. These are my concerns.” Wainaina recalls, as a child, contemplating his own thirst after the game of football, and being unable to match the word (“thirst”) to something concrete. “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?” This brings to mind Italo Calvino’s observation about words as “foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed.” Just as that is an apt account of Calvino’s writing, so is it of Wainaina’s: his language s never descriptive, but always suggestive, possessing a movement that never allows you to see a thing clearly and see it whole, but rather, as an ensemble of “scattered, shifting sensations.” Or, in his own words, when talking about the landscape from a car window:

I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.

In Wainaina’s writing, you always remain in that vague place – and delightfully so. The writing is not only suggestive, but atmospheric, almost physical in its suggestiveness:

The song comes to a full stop. A full three seconds of silence as rumba momentum builds. The choral voices are now a sheet of frenzied rubber, Kenya streeeeectches and bleats, held together by the military trumpets and cash crop exports, the future, only the future, laboring bodies, a railway, a mpresident.

The result is that even the darkest of themes (and darkness is inevitably, given the subject matter) are handled with the lightness of what Colm Toibin would call “breath on glass.” The style is a complete contrast from, for example, Chinua Achebe’s elegy to Biafra in There Was A Country, even though both writers are talking about similar issues, at times: betrayed democracy, political violence, widespread dehumanisation in the post-colony. If sadness is the defining quality of Achebe’s work, it is wryness that characterises Wainaina’s. There is a refusal to take anything too seriously – neither the self, not politics, nor the nation. What we get, then, is a treatment that is almost savage in its mockery:

Moi and his cronies are on the radio daily. It is in the papers every day. These are dark days, we are told. There are dissidents everywhere. We have to all unite and silence the dissidents. From the radio, we know that foreign influenzes are invecting us, secret foreign influenzes are infringing us, invincing us, perferting our gildren, preaking our gultural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes and Michael Jagsons, making us backsliding robots, and our land is becoming moonar handscapes. They took the rain away, the Maxists, the Ugandans, wearing Western mini sguirts and makeup, they are importing them, inserting invected people, these dissidents, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and that man called Raila Oginga Odinga.

There is a similarity here with Emile Habiby’s The Adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Habiby’s chosen mode of dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not grim realism, an elegiac lament, or even satire; but it is a wry, mild, almost gentle self-effacement that, in its deconstruction of the senselessness of violence and cruelty, is no less sharp:

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

“But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

But just like Habiby, there are moments when Wainaina abandons the self-effacing, almost playful tone, and essays a sudden foray into seriousness. These moments occur when he talks about the IMF-mandated dismantling of Kenya’s public education system, about the tribalism that dominates politics, and about how Kenyans – especially Kenyan artists – are forced to represent themselves to the Western world (a subject that he has also dealt with in this wildly famous essay). Their rarity invests them with a moral force, a gravity that compels the reader to pause, think, and then read again. And then Wainaina goes back to image, metaphor, and suggestion, reminding us that even the deepest of wounds can be written about without anger, without mourning, without even irony, but something else altogether:

Wood rots. Wood will not bend in heat. Wood burns and crumbles. Early this century. The searing heat of Belgium’s lust in the Congo insists on new metallic people. We, in Kenya, don’t understand the lyrics – we don’t speak Lingala – but this music, this style, this metallic sound has become the sound of our times.

Or:

Our schooling machine – nationwide, merit-based, proud, and competitive – Kenya’s single biggest investment – is falling apart, and the new season sounds like Band Aid. It’s all over CNN. Open mouths and music, thousands and thousands of white people throwing food and tears and happiness to naked, writhing Africans who can’t speak, don’t have dreams, and share leftovers with vultures.

This should not give the impression, however, that One Day I Will Write About This Place is limited to the troubles of the post-colonial era. Many of the books best moments are celebratory – whether it is celebrating a South African singer, the instant of hope in South Africa ’94, Wainaina’s winning the Caine Prize, or the optimism that seeps through even during factionalised Kenyan elections. Indeed, as Wainaina writes, “if there is a miracle in the idea of life, it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.”

But above all else, what makes this book is its use of language, the wizardry that Wainaina has in putting words together in an assemblage that make them feel more real than life itself. “None of us has her voice,” he writes about his mother. “It tingles.  If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set.” He might well have been describing his own writing.

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“Dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words…”: Dubravka Ugresic’s “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender”

“I have no desire to be witty. I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations,” wrote a temporary exile a long time ago. His name was Victor Shklovsky.

  • Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender

In his essay on Milan Kundera, “To Forget History“, Johannes Lichtman writes that “while the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present.” Lichtman reads Kunder’s famous line – that the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting – into the domain of the personal, where individuals struggle against the pull of memory so as to shape their past into a liveable present, as against its more traditional reading, where power is the State, and the struggle is to remember.

Memory and forgetfulness, the search for meaning, the need to arrange one’s life into a coherent pattern in the face of shattering events – these are at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. With the Yugoslav War as its fulcrum, and theme of exile shaping its form and structure, Museum is an arrangement of disparate, even contradictory genres – memoir, aphorism, reminiscence, quotation, realism, magical realism – “things and thoughts” compiled in no particular order. “Rilke once said that the story of a shattered life can only be told in bits and pieces…”, one of the characters says, in one of the many instances where Ugresic quotes one of Rilke, Joseph Brodsky, or Victor Shklovsky. From life in pre-war Yugoslavia to exile in Germany, Museum, the story of exiles, is told in bits and pieces. “There is no reason why a well thought-out story should resemble real life; life strives with all its might to resemble a well thought-out story,” Ugresic says, quoting another writer (Isak Babel). Museum is a conscious exercise in the failure of either life or the story to approach anything like a “well thought-out” sequence.

From this melange, however, a few clear themes emerge. The first is Lichtman’s interpretation of Kundera’s line – the urge to forget memory in order to rearrange one’s past “into a livable present.” “In the verbal album arranged for her friends,” writes Ugresic of one of her characters, “Mirek’s picture had been touched up on its journey from Zagreb to the American suburbs. The not quite five seven Mirek had grown into six foot Miroslav; the colour of his eyes had changed from brown to blue, and an ordinary Zagreb youth had become an unforgettable lover and the imaginary property of the participants in the hen party. Like shooting stars long since extinguished, here, on the other side of the sky, Mirek shone in his full glory.” This is reminiscent of that moment in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, where the protagonist reshapes a brutal wartime rape into a romantic love story, to make the past and the present but more bearable. But, like Fuentes, Ugresic is merciless about the futility of the effort: “… memory resembles a library in alphabetical disorder, and with no collected works by anyone,” she quotes Brodsky, to make the point that “the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life, is groundless.”

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a book about exile, and it is for the exile that the two contradictory readings of Kundera’s aphorism become two sides of the same coin. There is the urge to forget in order to rearrange one’s life into a coherent pattern: “…the conviction that we are somehow remembering the whole thing in blanket fashion, the very conviction that allows the species to go on with its life…”; and there is also, of course, the urge to remember – to remember what was left behind:

“Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.”

Dubravka Ugresic

There are echoes of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah here, and echoes also of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, where Palestinian exiles recreate their cities in the refugee camps of Shatila and Shabra; closer home geographically, that urge to remember – against an “official standard” that seeks to erase – is reminiscent of the work of Ismail Kadare, where “maps in the air” are the only defences against the erasure of the map of reality. But while Kadare is ambivalent about the enterprise, Ugresic is as skeptcial about the effort of collective memory as she is of individual forgetfulness:

“But if the country has disappeared, then so has collective memory. If the objects that surrounded us have disappeared, then so has memory of the everyday life that we lived. And besides, memory of the former country is tacitly forbidden. And when the ban is one day lifted, everyone will forget… There’ll be nothing left to remember,’ I say.”

In this world, then, what are we left with? Ugresic’s tentative – and hesitant – answer, at times, seems to be “art” (“… because the invention of reality is the job of real literature”):

“In a way I think that Nina moved completely into literature. She wandered through the pages of Bely, Bulgakov and Platonov as over the sea and she does not wish to come into port.”

At another point, one of her characters makes the sentiment clear:

What is art, Richard?” “I don’t know. An act which is certainly connected with mastering gravity, but which is not flying.”

This sense of art as means of partial – but only partial – escape from a personal and political reality that is defined by its oppressiveness comes through most vividly in one of the most striking passages in the book, a passage that combines the starkest realist imagery of Danilo Kis with Kadare at his yearning best:

“We lived in a town where the flats were small and the ceilings low; where people were immobile as salamanders, because they were born and died in the same flats; where family histories were remembered and preserved like cheap souvenirs from which the dust was regularly brushed, where even old flags were kept, because one never knew when they might be needed… we lived surrounded by inhabitants whose genetic code was clear and simple: how to survive. We lived in a town where people walked slightly sideways (and looked sideways, like rabbits), their cheek always on the alert because you never knew what side a slap might come from. We lived in a town where hatred was cultivated like a house plant (like an ugly, dusty, eternally green rubber plant). We lived in a town of dark corners, where lives were spent quickly, because they were cheap; where hatreds never quite healed over, and loves were lukewarm; where the curtains on windows were always drawn (so that our neighbour shouldn’t peer into our dinner plates) and always slightly parted (so that we could keep an eye on theirs). We lived in a town where lives were nothing but brief biographies, and life’s turning points just an insignificant touch-up… presumably that is why ‘we walked ten centimeters above the ground.’ In our language that sentence signified a distinction between people. And while the majority endeavoured to keep their feet firmly ‘on the ground’, we defended our right to those… ten centimeters. Being involved with literature helped us for years to maintain a light step.” 

But here again, even as she opens up a window of momentary possibility, in the same breath, Ugresic closes it. She finishes the paragraph by observing that “later we would come down to earth. It would turn out that the force of gravity was after all insurmountable.” Soon after that, she writes of the lives of the seven women characters who attempted to “walk ten centimetres above the ground”, that:

“Before, we used easily to add pictures, colours, symbols to a reality from which we could expect a lot. Now that reality had become dry, which is perhaps how it had always been, but our imagination too lost its moisture… with time we learned that life usually offers the cheaper variant, we no longer had the energy ourselves to illuminate the pictures and words with our own inner glow…”

The Siege of Sarajevo

In our personal quest for meaning, we try and cheat memory to reconstruct an imaginary, bearable past – and we fail. In our political quest for meaning, we try and cheat power to keep memory alive – and we fail. We seek sanctuary in literature from these failures – where we fail a third time, when “the intransigence of reality… [triumphs over] plasticity of language.” [Charles Segal]. So then what remains of meaning? Ugresic’s choice of form – unpolished, unpatterned, doubling and tripling back upon itself, unconcerned with spatial or temporal coherence – suggests that the attempt to force existence into a pattern is itself misplaced. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender possesses an artistic integrity of its own – but that integrity stems from that very acknowledgment of failure. And that, perhaps, is the only – and unsatisfying – answer that Ugresic is willing to give. “But to me he gave tattered remembrance,” she has one of her characters declare. The Museum of Unconditional Surrender gives us tattered narrative, a “story [that] broke, burst, slipped away and twisted like deceit itself” – but for all that, a story. And that, perhaps, is the only consolation.

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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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Connections: Julio Cortazar, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Victor Shklovsky, Zbigniew Herbert

“… the feeling more than the awareness, the intuition that literary prose – in this case, I picture myself while I am writing – can manifest as pure communication and in a perfect style, but also with a certain structure, a certain syntactic architecture, a certain articulation of words, a rhythm in the use of punctuation or separation into sections, a cadence that the reader’s internal ear can recognize more or less clearly as a musical element.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class 

“And there was also something in his practice which corresponded to the poetics of Robert Frost, in so far as the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.”

  • Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

“That’s where the problem begins, because if he uses the language that expresses the world he is attacking, that language will betray him. How can he denounce something with the tools that are used by the enemy, that is, the stratified, codified language, a language already used by the masters and their disciples?”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“… knowledge of the oppressor

is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order

the repair of speech

to overcome this suffering…)”

“At the beginning there appeared a poet like Mayakovsky. He destroyed the language of poetry and prose and created a new language, which isn’t easy to do. It wasn’t immediately understandable, and it contained dizzying and difficult images.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.”

  • Victor Shklovsky, Once Upon a Time

“… colonization, poverty, and goonish governments also mutilate us aesthetically.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“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

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty…

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Ireland, Julio Cortazar, Poland, Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert

“My body is an archive”: Patrice Nganang’s “Mount Pleasant”

“If the invention of a writing system was due to his will to give form to the world’s multiple voices – much as he had done with the Shumum language, drawing on the other languages spoken around him – his grudging memory, his trembling hands, and his feeble body had taught him that now, in his chambers in Mount Pleasant, he had reached the end of a long path.”

In his memoir, There was a Country, Chinua Achebe writes about Amos Tutuela’s famous novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard: “there is no attempt to draw a line between what is permissible and what is not, what is possible and what is not possible, what is new and what is old.” This sense – that the borders of what constitutes reality are simply more fluid and permeable than we are trained to imagine – is at the heart of Patrice Nganang’s sprawling novel about colonialism and nationalism in early-20th century Cameroon, Mount Pleasant. Anchored around two real-life characters in Cameroonian history – King Ibrahim Njoya and Paramount Chief Charles Atangana – and a series of real-life events, such as the successive colonisation of Cameroon by the Germans, the British, and the French – Mount Pleasant is nonetheless far more imaginative than historical, and bordering – on occasion – magical realism.

Mount Pleasant is woven out of multiple storylines, framed within a dialogue between the narrator, young, American-born Cameroonian-descended anthropologist, and Sara, one of the last living links between the present, and the late-colonial history of Cameroon in the 1930s. The narrator’s fragmented academic knowledge of Cameroonian history runs up against Sara’s living memory (“Archive? My body is an archive…”), throwing up all those eternal questions about the nature of historical truth, the distortion of the colonial lens, the (un)equal and opposite distortion of nationalism, and the insufficiency of language (“Where should I put my trust? In the capricious memory of an old lady or in the colonial archives?)

Within the dialogue itself, numerous themes emerge, composed out of the combined and sometimes contradictory knowledge of the two interlocutors: there is the eponymous Mount Pleasant, built into a “house of words” and a house of stories by King Njoya, who was exiled there by the French (“Njoya’s home became a compendium of humorous and serious tales, the site of a storytelling competition that went on from morning to night…”); there is Njoya’s prior time in his capital at Foumban, attempting to negotiate his way through successive colonial powers while maintaining a precarious hold on his waning authority – even to the extent of selling out an incipient nationalist movement, and seeing its leaders put to death; and there is Joseph Ngono, brought up and educated abroad in Germany to be a good native middleman, but who is transformed into a rebel and a nationalist after a chance encounter with German racists. Anchoring the novel is Nebu, a brilliant and troubled sculptor who, we are told right at the beginning of the book, dies in painful circumstances. Nebu’s talent is shaped around the trauma of his early childhood, where art is the only means of escape:

“Nebu learnt a lot by listening when he couldn’t respond. It taught him to control his rage. Taught him to keep it, like burning metal, at a safe distance from his body and his eyes. Taught him to strike it with a hammer, striking, striking, and striking again until it grew malleable, until it took on the shape he wanted to give it: flat like a knife, oval like a bird’s body, triangular like a lion’s head. It taught him to heat up his rage, to dilute his rage, to polish his rage, to file it yes, to file it down and wipe it clean, like the metals he worked with. And Nebu polished his rage, blowing on his overheated fingers, blowing on his heart to keep it from exploding, blowing on the embers of his incandescent soul. Art is an antidote to madness.”

In a certain sense, the blocked avenues and barricaded paths that consistently prevent Nebu from realising his potential – and which ultimately lead to his death – seem like a metaphor for the soul of the individual under the suffocating grip of colonialism. Nebu’s struggle is mirrored by the struggle of King Njoya, of whom we are told – in perhaps the closest direct indictment of colonialism that Nganang allows himself the indulgence of:

“He wanted to own the world… without being owned by it?”

“To speak of the world…”

“… without being spoken for by it.”

Njoya himself is the other anchor of Mount Pleasant. His endeavour to create a written script out of oral language becomes his one chance at retaining control, his one sphere of influence into which the colonisers have not and cannot penetrate:

“Njoya realized that his experiments with pictograms and phonemes, with syllabograms and words, with tales and histories, with lives and dreams – all those experiments that had led him from anecdotes to a printing press had been possible only because, from the very start, he had given up when confronted by History’s forces.”

Writing about the Indian colonial experience, historians have observed how the home came to be seen as a realm of spiritual retreat, the one space in which the militarily and politically conquered Indians remained sovereign and self-determining (with all its attendant problems). For Njoya, that sovereign space is language, especially in the moment of his final, physical decline:

“If writing reinscribes life on earth in furtive blots of ink, Njoya’s battle against the forces that had defeated his body was waged primarily on the surface of a slate, by means of pictograms he hoped would bear fruit… If the invention of a writing system was due to his will to give form to the world’s multiple voices – much as he had done with the Shumum language, drawing on the other languages spoken around him – his grudging memory, his trembling hands, and his feeble body had taught him that now, in his chambers in Mount Pleasant, he had reached the end of a long path.”

History tells us, though, that Njoya’s efforts were doomed to failure, especially after the French invalidated the curriculum in all his schools (an incident briefly adverted to in the novel); his language died along with him, until efforts in the mid-2000s to resurrect it (although perhaps as no more than a museum piece). And it is that death that is, in turn, mirrored in the death of Nebu, who cannot – despite all his efforts – breathe life into the sculpture of his lost love:

“For death is the limit of art, isn’t it? Yet how could people have thought about suicide? And why should they have? After all, and here the French officials and their adversaries in Foumban would certainly agree, a Bamum man simply couldn’t kill himself for a reason like that.”

The characters in Mount Pleasant, ultimately, realise that happiness is open to them only if they narrow their aspirations and their world, if – in the words of Ghassan Kanafani – they make their worlds smaller “to fill it with happiness“. And it is Joseph Ngono who realises that “it is impossible to know the actual price of happiness and to remain happy” – or at least, in a land where every attempt at self-assertion faces the barrel of a gun.

Haunted by the physical, mental, and moral shackles of colonial rule, and searching for a liberation that yet has no vocabulary to speak its name (only at the end of the novel do we see a crowd “demanding nothing less than equality and freedom“), the characters of Mount Pleasant are suffocated in by a world that will soon die, before they can be rescued by another that is struggling to be born. The historical moment that Nganang captures is similar (or just prior to) the historical moment of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk or Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door (Egypt), Aamin Maalouf’s Samarkand (Iran), and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (Russia). The voice and setting, of course, is Nganang’s own.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jeremy Corbyn and the Irony of History

Last week, the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom saw an unexpected on-stage appearance by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn recited the closing lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy: Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you:/ Ye are many—they are few!

As this video shows, the Glastonbury crowd received 19th-century poetry rather well, giving Corbyn his own football chant in return. Yesterday, an article in the New Statesman pointed out that by quoting Shelley, Corbyn was tapping into a longstanding tradition of Left politics. It quoted the poet Michael Rosen, who said:

“When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions… We’re making a claim on our authenticity… just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

And:

“Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Apart from pointing out how Shelley’s lines have become Corbyn’s de facto political slogan, the New Statesman article quotes a number of instances where the poem has been used before – at Tianmen Square, Tahrir Square, and by former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. All those instances, however, are of political movements that were defeated without ever coming remotely close to power. Corbyn’s labour party, on the other hand, forced a hung Parliament in the recently concluded British general election, leading to several policy climbdowns from the ruling Conservative Party, and is widely accepted to have infused an enthusiasm for politics among young people that has rarely been seen before.

If is here that the irony of a successful political leader making Shelley his standard-bearer becomes interesting, because both in his time and after, Shelley – who was passionate about politics and about protest – was the embodiment of the failed and ineffective rebel. In his lifetime, he protested, leafletted and wrote poems about revolution, but accomplished nothing of significance. Mathew Arnold called him “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” His ill-fated phrase, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of this world“, achieved such notoriety that it was parodied relentlessly by modernist poets in the mid-20th century. And more than anything else, Shelley was one of the centrepieces of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, a savage critique of youth, lyric poetry, and of revolution:

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.”

And, in a remarkable long passage:

The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…”

Kundera’s Shelley (and Mathew Arnold’s Shelley, and the modernist poets’ Shelley) is the dreamer, the idealist, and the lyricist, who longs to bring about revolution with the stroke of a pen, but instead only succeeds in wandering around his own, self-constructed hall of mirrors. Instead of taking the world as he finds it, Shelley dreams up his world and writes it, but finds the hard edge of reality coming up against his imagination, and inevitably – to paraphrase Charles Segal – the intransigence of the reality prevails over the plasticity of language. As Kay Wye wrote mockingly:

The Unacknowledged Legislator of the world/ Was heating his morning coffee/ With a sheaf of his own poems./ It is natural remarked a fellow Legislator/ Who hopefully dropped in/ That the product of intense passion/ Should go up in visible combustion!”

And yet, after all that, two hundred years later, it is Shelley and his verse that is on the banner of a left-wing, avowedly socialist political movement that has come closer than any other of its kind (in recent history) to obtaining political power – and may yet obtain it.

Such is the irony – or the revenge – of history.

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Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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Filed under Jennifer Matumbi, Machado de Assis, Uganda

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