Archive for July, 2017

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

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Real Intellectuals Have Day Jobs

July 18, 2017

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has an excellent piece in the weekend papers in which she compares public life in the UK to Erdoğan’s expanding kingdom of fear.

Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues, academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t. So why don’t we have more public intellectuals in this country? The answer lies in the words of a British academic who once told me: ‘Well, we think it’s a bit arrogant to call yourself intellectual. And to do that publicly is twice as arrogant.’

There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic west we are beyond all those ‘petty troubles’.

Shafak makes a fine point, but I’d like to expand on it. There are other restraints on intellectual life on this country. (I’m using the word ‘intellectualism’ to cover emotive and intuitive thinking, as well as cerebral rationalism.) So my attempt at answering Shafak’s question is in two parts.

Britain is a very stratified and class-oriented society. To be a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK – that is, to speak, and write, and argue, for a living – you need to have gone to certain schools, then to certain colleges in certain universities: you need introductions in the better parts of the capital, and a private income once you get there. Ideally, the legwork needs to begin long before one is even born: influential relatives and inherited wealth can open doors that nothing else can. I don’t want to be chippy: class considerations don’t necessarily poison everything, I think that amazing things still come out of British publishing and journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fabulous opium novel Flood of Fire a young Indian farmboy, who dreams of being a soldier, refuses to join an English regiment because, he thinks, John Company doesn’t understand caste tradition. A havildar puts him right: ‘the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did… The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves… Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage.’

When intellectualism gets tied up with class and caste, intellectuals tend to hang out mainly with people similar to themselves, and to develop ‘packages’ of opinions – circumscribed always by the fear of getting sued, or pissing off certain key people. Meanwhile everyone else is brought up on the lie that books and reading have no practical application and that the right thing to do is get an apprenticeship and find steady work on a building site – steady work until the next crash, of course.

Or as Jeremy Clarkson wrote the other day: ‘I’m sorry, but an upper second from Exeter is always going to be trumped by a spot of nepotism. If I know your mum and dad, you stand a pretty good chance. If not, you’re just another name.’

The second part of my response to Shafak is about ideas. Shafak writes that: ‘Populism creates its own myths. It tells us that intellectuals are ‘a privileged liberal elite’ out of touch with ‘the real people.” Now, I hate giving credit to any of the foul ideologies and movements that call themselves ‘populist’ today – but the lies of what Shafak identifies as ”anti-public intellectual’ discourse’ are leavened with a grain of truth: it’s the iron rule of propaganda that the grain of truth is what makes the big lie believable.

People don’t trust intellectuals in this country because so many prominent thinkers have been ‘out of touch’ with England’s liberal, radical and democratic traditions. Turkish writers and journalists have been jailed for speaking out against Erdogan’s dictatorship. Too many English writers and journalists have spoken out for dictatorship – from the defenders of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, to Corbynite fanboys for Putin, Assad and Islamism today. (The same weekend Shafak’s brilliant essay appeared, the same newspaper carried a comment article by President Erdoğan himself, in which he defends the repressions that followed a recent coup attempt by the hated Gulenists.) British intellectuals have been reluctant to make the most of their own freedom. As Shafak writes: ‘One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.’

George Orwell has escaped the blanket scepticism that British people tend to have about public intellectuals – he wrote so clearly and honestly that he was accepted, with only a little bad grace, into English cultural tradition. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Orwell demonstrated why the scepticism endures.

But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

People sense in public intellectuals, particularly the very political ones, what Orwell called ‘an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’ They suspect that a great deal of the intelligentsia would be comfortable with a British Erdoğan. (And can’t you hear the dinner-party rationalisations already: ‘It’s easy to criticise, but… vital measures to ensure the security of the People…. regrettable necessities…’)

Shafak writes:

We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims, “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the east”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.

Turkey, Hungary, Poland … Case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realised. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backwards with a bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.

Despite everything I’m optimistic – Britain still has a literate and creative culture that’s proven itself more than a match for bigotry, philistinism and wilful stupidity in the past. But the above, I hope, illustrates why other things entrenched in this country may make the storm longer than it should be.

The Grave and the Proximate

July 15, 2017

In History on Trial, her account of being sued by the Holocaust denier and quack historian David Irving, one of the points that Deborah Lipstadt got across very well was that in history, there is no ‘smoking gun’. We don’t have a written order saying ‘Kill 6 million Jews. Signed, A. Hitler’. What we have is photographs, testimonies, ruins, letters, journals, fragments – that, put together, make something horrifying.

Perhaps the legal version of this historiography is the example of proximate cause that Alexandria Marzono-Lesnevich gives at the beginning of her riveting memoir. A young man, a package wedged under one arm, sprints along a crowded platform to catch a departing train. He has to jump to make it. A conductor pulls him onto the train from the carriage: a porter shoves him onto the train from the platform. But here’s the thing – the young man was carrying fireworks. The package hits the platform and explodes. Who bears responsibility for the mess – the young man, the porter, the conductor, the railroad, the firework manufacturer? It is the classic tort problem, Marzano-Lesnevich says.

The case she writes about in The Fact of a Body is not as complex. In fact the crime appears depressingly simple. One day in rural Louisiana in 1992, a little boy named Jeremy Guillory visits the house of two childhood friends. No one is at home but the lodger, a gas station worker named Ricky Langley. Langley is also a parolee who has done four years for child molestation: he has a thing for kids as young as six. Langley lures Jeremy into the house, strangles the child to death and then simply wedges the boy’s body into a closet, where it stays for three days. A police-led search of the nearby forests widens out until it occurs to somebody that they should really check out the local man with the history of predatory sex offences. When questioned, Langley admits his guilt and is sentenced to death… then to life.

Langley’s life was the sad, sordid tale of many violent convicts. He was conceived after a car crash that killed his brother and left his mother in a body cast. Doctors couldn’t understand how Bessie Langley could have fallen pregnant, on a panoply of hardcore hospital drugs and in such intensive care. Bessie insisted she wanted to keep the child, and Ricky Langley was raised in the make-do-and-mend style of poor towns and large families. His short years of adulthood out in the world were marked by suicide attempts, social isolation, and, Marzano-Lesnevich says, struggles with his attraction to small children.

As well as piecing together Langley’s backtrail, Marzano-Lesnevich draws heavily on her own past – in its way, just as fraught and troubled as that of the killer. She grew up in a family of lawyers. Her parents had a mom-and-pop practice in town, and money was tight. The father is particularly well-realised in this book, a reasonable and loving man who at the same time was impulsive and hard to live with. Frequently he’d go on drinking jags and threaten to kill himself, or to leave the family for parts unknown. Marzano comes across as a man trying for contentment, but perpetually haunted by lost possibility.

The Marzano-Lesneviches were a close family. Alexandria had a sister and a brother. The grandfather came round often, and regularly molested both young girls. Before doing this, he would take out his teeth and warn: ‘I’m a witch. Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you. Always. Even after I’m dead.’ Years of this elapsed before Alexandria felt able to report the abuse (and what a coy, euphemistic word ‘abuse’ is, when you think of what actually happens in such cases!) When she told her parents, the molesting stopped – but the grandfather’s visits continued. In college Marzano-Lesnevich suffered eating disorders, and difficulties with intimacy. As an adult, she confronted her grandfather directly about the crimes. The grandfather dismisses her. ‘Besides, what happened to you is not such a big thing,’ the old man says. ‘When I was a child, it happened to me.’

The Fact of a Body is written careful and measured, like a very highbrow psychological thriller. While reading the book I had to keep reminding myself that Marzano-Lesnevich is a writer and a lawyer and not a federal agent or behavioural scientist. She comes across as a character from Harlot’s Ghost – the FBI gothic. She worked on the appeal against Langley’s death penalty conviction, a case that seems to have permanently scarred everyone who came into contact with it. The mother of Jeremy Guillory – a fascinating person, who we don’t see enough of in the book – pleads that Langley should be spared execution. The judge involved repeatedly broke off proceedings to testify to the effect that this difficult and distressing case had on his state of mind. One detail that stayed with me is that the jurors at Langley’s original trial took a Bible into their decision room and actually prayed before deciding for execution.

There is an appearance from the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. Stafford Smith is an admirable figure in the text. He has spent his adult life defending convicts from the death penalty, winning the majority of his cases. During Langley’s trial Stafford Smith chose to stay in New Orleans’s dangerous urban Ninth Ward rather than the city suburbs. Yet he strikes the only dead note here. He argues not just that Langley should be saved from the needle, but that the killer should be let off entirely, due to mental illness. Stafford Smith’s father suffered from mental health problems and it seems to have made an impression. ‘Ricky is not plain mean, Ricky is mentally ill, like my dad. Far worse than my dad.’ The theory in the book is that Ricky was haunted by the ghost of his dead baby brother, Oscar – that Oscar, somehow, made him do it.

But the deeper truth of Marzano-Lesnevich’s compelling story is that there are some things the law can’t go into… and that we all have our own ghosts.

Summer Song

July 14, 2017

This story of mine is now out at the marvellous Ellipsis zine.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.