Tag Archives: Kundera

“Does the smell of coffee still promise mornings that haven’t come?”: Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain

“Does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time? Nostalgia, that disease or form of ignorance…”

Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain  is a thinly disguised allegory that could be set in just about any Middle-Eastern country (it’s meant to be Jordan, although it reminded me most powerfully of Egypt). Twenty years after he fled into exile for an attempt on the life of his nation’s military leader, Younis is finally allowed to return home. He comes back to a changed country. The military government, which had been fighting the leftists (of which his organisation was a part) in collusion with the Islamists, is now engaged in a battle against the Islamists (with many former leftists in government – definite shades of Egypt). The books that were once banned – the narrator was branded for possessing a copy of State and Revolution – are no longer a threat. Active State repression has been replaced by a creeping corporate-consumerism: “In a world where everything has been standardized, and individuality is the sole preserve of museums and antique shops.” His parents have died, his family has changed, and his first love is almost unrecognisable. There is much that Younis must confront.

Not just a changed homeland, though: Younis must also confront the burdens of memory and regret, the slow tempering and decay of his own once-idealistic revolutionary fervour, and above all else, the old, unchanged self that he had left behind (something Nasser accomplishes through a fascinating use of split narrative, but more on that anon). Land of No Rain, like most of the best Arabic literature that I’ve read over this past year, seamlessly weaves the personal and the political together. One cannot understand Younis’ lost love without understanding the political upheavals of his homeland, just as surely as politics opens a window into the darkness of his troubled self.

One of the most notable features of Land of No Rain (or at least, this translation) is the extremely rich and layered intertextual references, which put the book into constant conversation with so many others. There are references to T.S. Eliot and to Shakespeare. There is a sustained reference to Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and much else that I sensed, but failed to catch, with my limited familiarity with Arabic literature. The references are, as well, extremely apposite. Consider this one, describing the impact of a book:

” … words that boast, deceptively, that they are the epitome of life, while life, according to a writer who does not care to have his name mentioned, is somewhere else.”

The writer in question is Milan Kundera, and the book is Life is Elsewhere. That book, of course, is another indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution. Like Kundera, Nasser recognises the sheer power of words:

” A book can be poison, or a flower, or a heart that throbs when it stumbles upon someone who believes in it…  You thought you were the only person in the world created by the subdued language of the book, its limpid images, its muted rhythms, the evanescent quotidian worlds that it evoked.”

Yet unlike Kundera, and unlike Life is Elsewhere, Nasser’s denunciation of the idealistic, revolutionary youth, bred upon lyricism, is neither absolute nor unequivocal. Perhaps this is because of the fact that Nasser’s revolution never succeeded, and never had the chance to turn into the tyranny that Kundera’s Czechoslovakia had to endure. Throughout this book, there is a sense of lingering regret, tinged with just enough uncertainty to prevent it from blossoming into full-blown lamentation. It is almost as if Younis recognises that even if the revolution had succeeded, there is no guarantee that it would not – very swiftly – have gone sour. Consequently, he cannot even mourn for the past that is gone and the present that never was – all he can do is smile ruefully, and wonder about what might have been.

The past that is gone – themes of memory, remembrance and forgetting, and time and change, are ever present in Land of No Rain. Echoes of Proust sound throughout the darkling chambers of the book.  “Nostalgia amplifies things…” writes Younis, after his own madeline moment. “The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.” How memory exists in, and is created and awakened by the senses, is a recurring motif: “… words have no smells or textures unless they have a reference in one’s memory.” As is the distinction between historic time – linear and chronological – and the time that exists only as an instrument of memory: “But the affairs of the heart, and maybe of memory, are not measured in days.”

Perhaps the most striking way in which Nasser deals with the themes of past and future, and love and loss, is through the split narrative. There is not one narrative self, but two: Younis is the young poet-revolutionary, but the exile is a different person altogether: he is Adham Jaber, living in a foreign land for twenty years, working for a Pan-Arab newspaper. The point of return marks a conversation between Adham and Younis – Adham, the present narrative self, and Younis, who has remained, as though in suspended animation, changeless and unchangeable, for the last twenty years. The two selves question, interrogate and talk to each other, constructing between them a complex, intertwined history, both personal and political, both of the man and of his country. Not all is revealed, of course, because as must be the case:

You preserved inside you areas shrouded in darkness that, with the passage of time, you surrounded with barbed wire.”

Perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of the political context, the book resists conclusions and judgments. It does not endorse the revolutionary idealism of Younis, but nor does it – or Adham – condemn it. Ultimately, all we are left with is an uncertain, undefinable sense of regret at all the loss that consumes its characters: loss of idealism, loss of love, loss of a country – but without any clear sense whether what was lost was worth having in the first place. And in the end, we are only left to say, along with Nasser:

“Time and words and emotions wrap around each other like the layout of that ancient city, or like some of your father’s calligraphic designs, which turns words into eternal riddles.”

(With this, I’m ending a fascinating year of reading Arab literature, which began with Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. Writers such as Kanafani, Elias Khoury, Naguib Mahfouz, Tayib Salih, Hoda Barakat, Mourid Barghouti, Radwa Ashour – many introduced to me via the excellent Arabic Literature website – and all the rest have been wonderful, and at times, world-changing. I’ve been fortunate to have had access to two of the world’s greatest libraries, but that will soon no longer be the case. The next one year, perhaps, will be spent exploring Latin American literature beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, rather more accessible in Indian bookshops.)


Filed under Amjad Nasser, Jordan, Middle-Eastern Writing

Kundera, Life is Elsewhere – I

(This is a half-review from my previous blog, which I now intend to finish.)

“Life is elsewhere, the students have written on the walls of the Sorbonne. Yes, he knows that very well, it is why he is leaving London for Ireland, where the people are rebelling. His name is Percy Bysse Shelley, he is twenty years old, he is a poet, and he is bringing with him hundreds of copies of leaflets and proclamations that are to serve him as visas for entry into real life.

Because real life is elsewhere. The students are tearing up the cobblestones, overturning cars, building barricade; their irruption into the world is beautiful and noisy, illuminated by flames and greeted by explosions of tear-gas grenades. How much more painful was the lot of Rimbaud, who dreamed about the barricades of the Paris Commune and never got to it from Cherleville. But in 1968 thousands of Rimbauds have their own barricades, behind which they stand and refuse any compromise with the former masters of the world. The emancipation of mankind will be total, or it will not exist.

But only a kilometre from there, on the other bank of the Seine, the former masters of the world continue to live their lives, and the din of the Latin Quarter reaches them as something far away. Dream is reality, the students wrote on the walls, but it seems that the opposite was true: that reality (the barricades, the trees cut down, the red flags) was a dream.”

I hardly know where to begin describing Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, for it seems to me that no descriptions can even begin to do justice to its power, its complexity, its wisdom and its sadness. This is a book about poetry, about revolution, about their inevitable entanglement, about words and the power of words to create images that can exalt and destroy, about love, longing, rejection and heartbreak, about coming of age, about ideals and absolutes, about everything. Wit and pathos mix with irony and tragedy; and at the final shattering climax, I found myself filled with a profound sense of sorrow and loss, but also, most inexplicably, smiling at something I could not understand… at beauty, perhaps. And for those five hours, I was enraptured, and time ceased to exist.

It’s difficult to summarise the book, because it has a multiplicity of themes, and each of those themes are so inextricably intertwined with each other, that one cannot be described without describing all the others. One of the central themes, for instance, is the protagonist Jaromil’s belief in the absolute and self-effacing character of love. Yet, one cannot explain this without also explaining how this metamorphoses into, and then is itself coloured by, the absoluteness of the ideal that marks any youth-driven revolution; love and revolution are mixed up inextricably, as the scene where the poets debate about the nature of love in pre-revolution society, amply demonstrates. And one must also then go into the role of poetry, and again, how poetry influences and is influenced by, revolution. Indeed, you could sum up this book by describing it as a critique of Shelley’s famous “Poets are the ultimate legislators of the world” – but that would be incomplete. One could sum it up as a critique of the Romanticist idea, something that is echoed by all the major characters in the novel, something that starts as a platitude and ends as the ultimate tragedy: “When it comes to love, there is no such thing as compromise. When you’re in love you must give everything” – but that would be incomplete as well. It is difficult to sum up this book, to grasp it, as it were, from any one angle. And I haven’t even touched upon the account of the mother-son relationship that forms a cornerstone of the book, as well as its treatment of the complex issue of learning love as one grows up.

Well, briefly, the book is about the life of a young poet, Jaromil, in the backdrop of the Czech Communist Revolution of 1949. It is no Darkness at Noon or 1984 – the concentration camps and the show trials and the political purges are there, certainly, but they are there in the relative background. We are never allowed to forget them, but at the same time, there is no doubting that the principal point of the narrative is to tell the story of Jaromil, his life, his poetry, his loves, his relationship with his mother, his part in the revolution, and the connections between all these. Jaromil’s life is dominated by his mother. He is Rimbaud. He suffers from self-pride to the point of insecurity. He is Lermontov. He wants to change the world with his poetry, and he chafes at his own inactivity, his imprisonment in a “house of mirrors“. He is Shelley. But it’s not just about Jaromil’s life – his life is the vehicle that Kundera uses to ask those age-old, critical questions: what is the role of the poet – and thus, more broadly – art, in society? Why do the ideals of revolution always destroy that which they seek to preserve and exalt? And of course, that ultimate question: what, after all, is love, and what part does it play in our lives? And at the end, there is as much ambiguity as there is in the beginning. We have to work out the answers for ourselves, and the book leaves us with the disquieting feeling that there may be no answers, or that the answers might point us to a direction we dare not go.

He is ironic without ever descending into cynicism – and at the same time, piercingly witty. Consider:

… he found himself face to face with the blond classmate, who fixed her big blue eyes on him; her lips were no longer moving, no longer singing the song about the canary, which Xavier had thought would never end. Ah, what naivete, he reflected, to believe in the existence of a song that never ends! As if everything here in this world, from the very beginning, has been anything other than betrayal! Fortified by this thought, he took a look at the blond girl’s eyes and knew that he must not take part in the rigged game in which the ephemeral passes for the eternal and the small for the big, that he must not take part in the rigged game called love. So he turned on his heels and went back into the little washroom in which the stocky Czech schoolteacher was again planted in front of Xavier’s schoolmate, her hands on his hips.

Two things, I think, rescue this passage from depressing cynicism. The first is that Xavier himself is unreal – he is a creation of Jaromil’s. And secondly, these comments on the futility of love are sandwiched between two moments of high farce – the discovery of a teacher and a student kissing in the bathroom, and the deliberate return to that same spot. So, putting this in context, one gets the feeling that it’s not really about the impossibility of love, but in a sudden inversion, Kundera’s mocking the solemn declarations of the impossibility of love.

This kind of… uhm, defamiliarisation occurs regularly throughout the book. It’s there when Jaromil’s attempts to make love fail for various reasons on various occasions, and when he finally does achieve it, it is through the strangest anticlimax imaginable. It’s there when Kundera consciously juxtaposes eras and poets together, switching from Rimbaud in one line to Lermontov in the next, and to Jaromil in the third – and then back to Shelley in the last – and even as he does so, he juxtaposes the themes, showing, again, their inevitable intermingling. The effect cannot be described without directly quoting:

He looked at the girl as her last words died away; yes, that’s how it was; during all that time when he was tormented by solitude, when he was desperately taking part in meetings and processions, when he kept running on and on, his life as an adult had already been prepared for him here: this basement room with walls stained by dampness had been patiently waiting for him; this room and this ordinary woman whose body had finally linked him in a complete physical way to the crowd. 

The more I make love, the more I want to make a revolution – the more I make a revolution, the more I want to make love, a Sorbonne wall proclaims, and Jaromil entered the redhead’s body a second time. Adulthood is total, or it doesn’t exist. This time he made love to her long and marvelously.

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.

Again he slid out of the girl’s body, and as he lay stretched out beside her, it seemed to him that he was not resting after two long acts of love but after months of running.”

Notice, of course, that there are three very different acts of running that are being described and juxtaposed here. Jaromil is running to find love and adulthood. Shelley is running to change the world through revolution. And Rimbaud, well, it’s difficult to sum that up in a line! But the whole beauty of Kundera’s writing is how, in that one metaphor, the conditions of all three come together, and can be viewed through the lens of a single prism, since at bottom, they are essentially, the same.

For it is Kundera’s case that poets inhabit a house of mirrors; they forever long to belong to the world, the world of action and of enterprise, but cannot; and so they construct their own worlds through their poetry where, because everything is their own creation, there is nothing to condemn them, nothing to hold them to account and expose them if they come up short. But it is precisely in this that their sorrow lies, because they’re always longing to – and trying to – ride the wave on the cusp of the epoch. So, Kundera, quoting the poetry of Frantisek Halas (Banished from the land of dreams…) and Vladimir Mayakovsky, says: Only a true poet can speak of the immense longing not to be a poet, the longing to leave that house of mirrors where deafening silence reigns. The poet is always trying to go into the world, but the best he can do is show himself to the world; so, Kundera writes, in another remarkable juxtaposition:

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…

(To be contd.)


Filed under Czech Republic, European Writing, Milan Kundera

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi: http://www.textetc.com/exhibits/et-hugo-1.html

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-garden.html

The Library of Babel: http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html

The Circular Ruins: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jatill/175/CircularRuins.htm

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1305/

The Truth of Masks: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1310/

The Decay of Lying: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

The Rise of Historical Criticism: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2309/


Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde