Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Erasing the borders in “A Map of Home”

Robin Yassin-Kassab*, The Electronic Intifada, 31 August 2009

Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home is a beautifully achieved coming of age novel which follows a clever girl through a war, a domestic battlefield, and repeated forced migrations. For our heroine, these events are aspects of normal everyday life (because everything’s normal when it happens to you), like school, friends, family and shopping. Despite the geographical and cultural particularities of the story, the themes — of awakening sexually, of learning how to love a parent yet firmly say no, and of struggling for independence and a place in the world — are universal, and the book will appeal to all but the most easily shocked readers.

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At the novel’s center is a family. The father, Waheed, is a Palestinian from Jenin exiled to a string of temporary residences. Resentful of his failure to develop a career as a poet, he projects his ambition onto his daughter, about whom Waheed is convincingly self-conflicted: he wants her to be a famous professor, but doesn’t want her to study away from home.

The mother, Fairuza, is a Greek-Egyptian mixture who owns a piano and a prodigiously large backside. Waheed and Fairuza’s fights are frequent and sometimes ugly.

Nidali — the name means “my struggle” — is the product of this complex marriage, a traveling Greek-Egyptian-Palestinian, and born in Boston for good measure. In America, “people would have assumed that Mama was a Latina, and that I, a cracker-looking girl, was her daughter from a union with a gringo, and that would have been that.” But it’s not.

The plot follows Nidali from place to place, the narrative voice seamlessly modulating as she grows from a Persian Gulf schoolgirl to sassy Arab-Texan chica. At first she considers cosmopolitan Kuwait home. This section of the novel delivers situational comedy at its funniest and most delicate, with an added dash of hyperrealism, as it offers closely observed descriptions of everyday, normal life.

For instance, a seven-year-old Nidali wonders who this “people of Ibrahim” her father asks God to bless at prayer time is, so her friend Zainab informs her that the Ibrahims are “a family that throws big barbecues at Eid.” Later, Nidali’s excessively religious cousin Essam comes to stay. He destroys her Wonder Woman (Nidali translates it “Woman of Wonders”) stickers, and when challenged declares that the superhero “is a shameless prostitute.”

Nidali wins a Quran competition and kisses her first boyfriend Fakhr who, like a low-brow version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, writes letters to “presidents, actors, dead singers.” Soon Nidali herself has occasion to write an amusing letter to Saddam Hussein. The occasion is the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Bombs, bodies in the streets, and the mysterious presence of a black cat in the toilet won’t move her father to flee, but a shortage of za’tar will. The family moves through Iraq and Jordan to Egypt, where Nidali begins a new, less naive life chapter. Alexandria is certainly full of life — they arrive during an Ahli-Zamalek football match, men watching dashboard-mounted TVs as they drive — but the family is in extended and uncomfortable transition, until their move to Texas.

The absent home of the novel is of course Palestine, known from maps and snatched glimpses. Nidali remembers her grandmother’s stories, and being strip-searched at the Allenby bridge between Jordan and the West Bank. Beyond that, Palestinian identity is migration — “moving was part of being Palestinian” — and return denied. “I’d never see them again,” becomes a refrain.

It’s also obstruction. In airports, mother, father and child have to stand in different queues. Waheed can’t enter Saudi Arabia with his Jordanian “pity passport.” His wife’s Egyptian passport, and Nidali’s American, won’t work for Saddam’s Iraq. After the liberation, Waheed — because Palestinians were collectively punished for Yasser Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein — is forbidden to return to Kuwait.

There’s a wonderful moment when Nidali erases the borders she’s drawn on her map of Palestine. “I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.” Another advantage of homelessness is that the homeland becomes portable. “Our people carry the homeland in their souls,” says Waheed.

A Map of Home has a cartoon quality, so comparisons with Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis are valid. The novel form, however, provides it with extra dimensions of style and word play, and Jarrar’s writing contains unabashed metaphors reminiscent of Franz Kafka or Andrei Bely. Its exuberance is on display in such lovely sentences as: “Guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood.” When Waheed rushes down a hospital corridor, patients and nurses see only “an enormous moustache with limping legs.” Fairuza’s hair is “a thought balloon hanging above her face.”

The book bulges with translated Arabic phrases, including lots of warm-hearted profanity. People curse each other’s religions, and worse, and exclaim “O eye!” mid-sentence. Hearing some of these expressions defamiliarized in English reminds you just how expressive they are — phrases like, “May God brighten the world for you.” A Map of Home is not just playing with language — it’s about language. Jarrar explores the condition of homelessness and cultural transplantation through the somersaults made by words. In Kuwait, for instance, she reads “an Egyptian comic called Meeky.” This eye for traveling words is reminiscent of Ahmed Alaidy.

As lyrical as Arundhati Roy or Mourid Barghouti, Jarrar’s pacing is tight and her dialogue approaches perfection. With light and loving characterizations that are entirely free of false romance, her tone is wry, sunny, very feminine and very powerful. A Map of Home is addictive reading.

*Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a journalist in Pakistan and an English teacher around the Arab world. His first novel, The Road from Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He blogs on politics, culture, religion and books atqunfuz.com.

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September 8, 2009 Posted by | Book Review | | Leave a comment

The mystery man

By Henry Hitchings, Financial Times, December 8, 2008

2666
By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux $30, 898 pages
To be published by Picador in January in the UK

When Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, aged 50, he was unknown in the English-speaking world. Five years on, the Chilean, who turned to fiction only in his 40s, is being canonised by critics as the first great writer of this century. When 2666came out in the US last month, fans queued outside bookshops to get their hands on a copy. For many, the book’s lustre was increased by the sense that its creation had been fatal: Bolaño, who suffered from liver disease for his final decade, apparently turned down the offer of a transplant to concentrate on completing this 900-page behemoth.

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But who is Roberto Bolaño? The facts of his life are a puzzle. His fiction is rooted in his own experiences, so commentators blithely accept the details furnished in the novels and stories. He is invariably said to have been a heroin addict, for instance, but the main source for this seems to be a short story – hardly concrete evidence. In his life as in his art, he enjoyed laying false trails.

We can be fairly sure of a few facts, however: Bolaño was born in Santiago in 1953, the son of a truck-driving boxer and a maths teacher. Much of his childhood was spent in “backwater towns”. His family moved to Mexico City when he was a teenager but he returned to Chile in 1973 to support Salvador Allende’s programme of socialist change. After General Pinochet’s coup that year, Bolaño was briefly incarcerated. There followed spells in El Salvador and Mexico before he moved to Europe in 1977. Five years later he married and settled down in the nondescript beach town of Blanes on Spain’s Costa Brava.

By the time he died Bolaño was famous across the Hispanic world. The Spanish-language writer to whom he has most often been likened is Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. The comparison is lazy; there are closer similarities to the Argentines Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Throughout his career, however, Bolaño repudiated the idioms of Latin American literature. He was contemptuous of his native continent’s “bad imitators of magic realism” and “terrible youth writers”. He dismissed Márquez in particular as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops”. Instead Bolaño saw himself as the inheritor of a larger, more international tradition.

Until his son was born in 1990, Bolaño wrote mainly poetry; he turned to fiction because it promised better financial rewards. Although his reputation grew rapidly, only in 2003 was his first book translated into English. This was the slender By Night in Chile. The deathbed confession of a priest who lambasts the servility of Chilean artists under the Pinochet regime, the novel’s most striking feature is that it’s set out in just two paragraphs – one of them 130 pages long. This may sound unreadable but Bolaño pulls it off. By Night in Chile is typical of his work, mixing the caustic, the pedestrian and the surreal.

There followed another attack on Chile’s self-image, Distant Star (2004), and then an uneven volume of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth (2007), as well as a gallery of invented literary fanatics with the memorable title Nazi Literature in the Americas (2008). But the Bolaño cult began in earnest with the more meaty The Savage Detectives – published in Spanish to huge acclaim in 1998, it came out in English only in 2007.

Earning improbable comparisons with both Homer’s Odyssey and Boswell’s Life of JohnsonThe Savage Detectives was a joyous yet grimy epic of two poets’ quest for information about an elusive female poet. Set in Mexico, it paid a kind of crazed homage to Huck Finn and encompassed a mass of subjects: poetry, the exuberance of youth, sex, the trials of age and the realities of love.

Now, with the publication of 2666, we have Bolaño’s most audacious performance. The novel’s cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like “a cemetery in the year 2666”. Why this particular date? Perhaps it’s because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation. Then again, Bolaño may simply be indulging his enthusiasm for misdirection. One of his abiding themes is that crucial facts are forever passing unnoticed: another is that we are continually – in our lives as in our reading – suckered into heading down blind alleys.

Bolaño’s chief gift is for unsettling familiar categories of experience. He is a writer who poses questions at every turn and provides few answers. His fiction is disturbing, experimental, poetic and at times chaotic. Its mysteries are deep and unresolved. We struggle to decide whether he is more visionary iconoclast or preening prankster.

At one point in 2666, a character reflects that readers today are “afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown”. They have no interest in “real combat” – by which he means those occasions “when the great masters struggle against … that something that terrifies us all … amid blood and mortal wounds and stench”. These words seem like the author’s own baleful comment on this novel.

2666 is less fun than The Savage Detectives but it is a summative work – a grand recapitulation of the author’s main concerns and motifs. As before, Bolaño is preoccupied with parallel lives and secret histories. Largely written after 9/11, the novel manifests a new emphasis on the dangerousness of the modern world. Civilisation, Bolaño seems to suggest, is a misnomer; one character wonders, “Isn’t reality an insatiable Aids-riddled whore?”

The novel consists of five very different sections. Each could be treated as a discrete novella, were it not for a slow accumulation of sly cross-references. Indeed, Bolaño left instructions for them to be published separately, taking the view that this would make the most money for his legatees. His family and executors demurred. The effect on the reader is strange: the novel feels fragmented, a morass of unconnected details. Its plots threaten never to converge but its ugly lyricism keeps us engaged. Despite his erudition, Bolaño is not a pretty stylist – in Natasha Wimmer’s skilful translation his bumpy volubility comes across strongly.

The early story is similar to The Savage Detectives: a fruitless literary quest. Four scholars are researching the works of an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. Their obsession leads them to Mexico, where Archimboldi is rumoured to be living – a rumour that actually begins in The Savage Detectives, when the Mexican poets gossip about the arrival in their city of “the French novelist JMG Arcimboldi”. The scent goes cold but the scholars become aware of something else – a crime wave ravaging the community of Santa Teresa, modelled on the real-life city Ciudad Juárez where about 400 women have been violently murdered in the past 10 years.

The mood then darkens, especially during a brutally explicit account of the rapes and murders in Santa Teresa. For 300 pages we are presented with an inventory of distressing facts about the deaths of poor women. This is not so much the novel’s dark heart as a black hole. Bolaño defies us to cast the book aside in disgust. Yet to look away from these harrowing descriptions is, we sense, to fail his test.

We are rarely secure in our understanding of the larger business of the novel. The moment we think we see the entire picture it dissolves again into its constituents. Only in the final 200 pages do we find out who Archimboldi really is, and his connection to the events in Santa Teresa is not revealed until page 872.

The novel’s scope is enormous – far greater than a speedy summary can convey. Comparisons with other works of similar scale and ambition are inevitable. 2666offers some of the arcane allusiveness of Thomas Pynchon’s work and the psychologically acute yet stylised noir of David Lynch. Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade are also touchstones. Yet ultimately the book’s most significant forebear may be Moby-Dick, that symphonic masterpiece about the gaping mouth of evil.

Bolaño is an uncompromising writer. He alternates between brisk vignettes and passages of meandering opulence. His prose is short on adjectives and sometimes deliberately infelicitous but it can also beguile. It is studded with aphorisms, many of them calculated to invite passionate disagreement. Deranged similes are a hallmark of his writing: “A metaphor is like a life-jacket”, he says; “the sky, at sunset, looked liked a carnivorous flower”, a university is “like a cemetery that begins to think, in vain” and is also “like an empty dance club”. At one point the man suspected of the Santa Teresa crimes is described as having a “neck long like a turkey’s, though not just any turkey but a singing turkey or a turkey about to break into song, not just sing, but break into song, a piercing song, a grating song, a song of shattered glass, but of glass bearing a strong resemblance to crystal, that is, to purity, to self-abnegation, to a total lack of deceitfulness”.

These images give us pause. Bolaño is a master of the suggestive non sequitur. But is the literary fuss about him really justified? 2666 is an excruciatingly challenging novel, in which Bolaño redraws the boundaries of fiction. It is not unique in blurring the margins between realism and fantasy, between documentary and invention. But it is bold in a way that few works really are – it kicks away the divide between playfulness and seriousness. And it reminds us that literature at its best inhabits what Bolaño, with a customary wink at his own pomposity, called “the territory of risk” – it takes us to places we might not wish to go.

Bolaño’s big risk was turning his back on being “merely” a Latin American. After he won the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, he commented that “a writer’s homeland is … his tongue”. But, characteristically, he then undercut this, saying that “sometimes … a writer’s only homeland is … his courage”. It’s a statement that rings true in relation to 2666. And Bolaño, ever ready with a jest, couldn’t resist adding: “I feel like Pinocchio.” It is by being brave and truthful, he proposes, that we get to be real.

Henry Hitchings won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys prize for ‘The Secret Life of Words’ (John Murray)

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Book Review, Fiction and Novel, Roberto Bolaño | 2 Comments

Meetings, Purchases, Pleasures

By William Deresiewicz, The Nation, August 27, 2008

Like a peddler just arrived in town, or a traveler come from foreign shores, Salman Rushdie spreads before us his magic carpet of stories. Rushdie has been many things–political novelist, national epicist, probing essayist, free-speech icon out of force of circumstance–but he has always been, first and last, a storyteller. As Conrad sought to return to fiction the immediacy of the sailor’s tale–one man entertaining his mates over claret and cigars–so Rushdie seeks to reanimate the printed page with the exuberance and exoticism of legend and fable, fairy tale and myth: the province of the wanderer, the yarn spinner, the bard. More than Ulysses or The Tin Drum, his most persistent models have been the Thousand and One Nights and the Hindu epics, The Wizard of Oz and Bollywood. He doesn’t want to be Joyce; he wants to be Scheherazade. His greatest works engage the tragedies of modern history through the most audaciously archaic of narrative devices. Midnight’s Children hinges on the switching of two babies in the cradle; The Satanic Verses features flying carpets and Ovidian metamorphoses.

Barring his children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, may be the purest expression yet of his fabulating impulse. Set in a faraway time, the 1500s, and dividing its pages between two storied lands, the Mughal Empire and Renaissance Florence, it is replete with princesses and pirates, mysterious strangers and long-lost cousins, enchanted waters and magic cloaks. But what it does not contain is as telling as what it does. The Enchantress of Florenceexhibits none of the complex allegorical structures, dense systems of allusion or broad political implications–in short, none of the satanic ambition–that both weigh down his major works and give them weight.

The result, if relatively slight, is probably Rushdie’s most coherent and readable novel. The 500-plus-pagers tend to sprawl as they spread, bogging down in their proliferating mass of characters and plotlines. Their language, while often playful, is also sometimes labored, sweating to keep the narrative machinery aloft. Here the story is clean and compact, and the ever-so-slightly archaic style goes down like ice cream:

The path sloped upward past the tower of the teeth toward a stone gate upon which two elephants in bas-relief stood facing each other. Through this gate, which was open, came the noises of human beings at play, eating, drinking, carousing. There were soldiers on duty at the Hatyapul gate but their stances were relaxed. The real barriers lay ahead. This was a public place, a place for meetings, purchases, and pleasure. Men hurried past the traveler, driven by hungers and thirsts. On both sides of the flagstoned road between the outer gate and the inner were hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers of all kinds. Here was the eternal business of buying and being bought. Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum.

The novel, on its fourth page, is finding its subject, and its subject is storytelling itself. The men are driven by hungers and thirsts, and so is the writing. In its greedy piling up of nouns–“hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers”; “Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum”–we feel the force of storytelling’s appetite for the world, its sheer sensual relish for the thingness of things. It is no surprise that the great compendiums of stories tend to swell virtually without limit: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, theDecameron and the Thousand and One NightsDon Quixote andGargantua and Pantagruel. This is the same impulse, of course–under stricter regulation in The Enchantress of Florence–that gives Rushdie’s greatest novels their girth.

Storytelling, in Rushdie, is also typically aligned with two other human things, as the passage above suggests. The first–and this is true of storytelling in general–is commerce, “the eternal business of buying and being bought.” It is trade that brings the people who bring the stories, and it is the marketplace, above all, where stories are told. Indeed, storytelling is a kind of trade, an exchange of goods for the satisfaction of appetites, a busy engagement with the world; and stories, like markets, are public places, places for “meetings, purchases, and pleasure.” Rushdie’s characters are usually performers–storytellers themselves–or businesspeople: merchants, hucksters, speculators, a class of people in whom he clearly delights. Not for him the Modernist disdain of the bourgeoisie, nor the passive, reflective souls of modern fiction–Proust’s Marcel, Mann’s Hans Castorp, Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway. His medium is will, not introspection, and the change in tone and character type in Rushdie, García Márquez and others marks the postmodern rediscovery of story after the exhaustion of Modernist experimentation.

Trade’s supreme locus–one might say, its supreme creation–is the city, and for Rushdie, the city is storytelling’s supreme subject. Delhi, Karachi, Cochin, New York, above all Bombay, the city of his childhood (“Back to Bom!” is Saleem’s happiest thought in Midnight’s Children), and London, the city of his maturity (“Ellowen Deeowen,” The Satanic Verses calls it, yoking Semitic and Indo-European divinities in a numinous pun on the spelling of the city’s name). The city, for Rushdie, is the place of variety, mystery, fortuity, possibility, conflict–all the elements that most make for good stories. It is the place where strange people live next door and unimaginable worlds are waiting to be discovered on the next block, a place that invites you, as the title of his latest essay collection urges, to “step across this line.” Of the city the traveler approaches as The Enchantress of Florence opens, we read this:

Its neighborhoods were determined by race as well as trade. Here was the silversmiths’ street, there the hot-gated, clanging armories, and there, down that third gully, the place of bangles and clothes. To the east was the Hindu colony and beyond that, curling around the city walls, the Persian quarter, and beyond that the region of the Turanis and beyond that, in the vicinity of the giant gate of the Friday Mosque, the homes of those Muslims who were Indian born.

A world in miniature, and like the great world, a seemingly endless series of “beyonds.”

The city in question here is Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar, third and greatest of the Mughal rulers, as his imperial capital. The traveler in question is a pale-haired European, a trickster, adventurer and thief who calls himself Uccello di Firenze and Mogor dell’Amore (Mughal of Love) but whose given name is Niccolò Vespucci. The conjunction of two famous Florentine names is no coincidence, for the story the stranger has borne across the world for Akbar’s ears alone–his story and, in a sense, Akbar’s as well–begins with the friendship of his grandfather Ago, Amerigo Vespucci’s cousin, with Niccolò Machiavelli. There was a third friend, too, Nino Argalia, who ran away from Florence to become a great warrior in the service of the Turkish sultan. He also became the lover of Akbar’s great aunt–expelled from family memory for choosing love over home–who had been making her own journey west as she passed from conqueror to conqueror. It is she–Angelica, Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes–who is the enchantress of the title, a woman of such surpassing beauty that she bewitches not only the citizens of Florence when Argalia returns in triumph to his native town but also the inhabitants of Fatehpur Sikri, two generations later, when the mere story of her gets abroad.

Rushdie is working here with the twinned powers of erotic charm and artistic imagination. Men enslave women and are enslaved by them in turn. Or by their ideas of them. The painter Akbar commissions to envision Qara Köz’s life–“Paint her into the world,” Akbar exhorts him, “for there is such magic in your brushes that she may even come to life”–becomes so enamored of his vision that he disappears to join her inside the painted world instead. In this book of mirrorings and doublings and opposites, Akbar does the reverse. His favorite wife, Jodha, is a woman he has imagined into being, taking bits and pieces from his other wives to form the ideal consort, sustaining her existence through a “suspension of disbelief” in its possibility.

The reader may not be so ready to share Akbar’s conviction. The question of Jodha’s status is one about which the novel maintains a strategic vagueness, preventing her from coming into focus as either a character or a thematic idea. Does she or does she not achieve independent existence, “come to life” as she is imagined “into the world”? We read her thoughts as if she were a real character, but she fades away, displaced in Akbar’s imagination, when Lady Black Eyes comes along.

The uncertainty goes to the heart of that much-handled critical concept, magic realism, or at least to Rushdie’s deployment of it. Unlike García Márquez, the mode’s other most famous exponent, Rushdie never fully commits to the magic-realist premise, a hesitation that makes his practice more sophisticated and less satisfying. García Márquez proffers his levitations and memory plagues with a completely straight face; they are as natural a part of the world–and, to its inhabitants, as normal–as anything else. But Rushdie is always hedging his bets. Can Saleem really communicate telepathically with the hundreds of other children born at the hour of Indian independence, or is that merely the fantasy of a lonely little boy? Can Shalimar the Clown really walk on air, or is that just a conjuror’s trick? In both instances and many others, Rushdie equivocates between the two possibilities, awkwardly straddling the domains of realism and magic.

Why should this be? Magic realism is, among other things, an attempt to re-enchant the world in the wake of scientific rationalism and global exploration, to recover the premodern mindset in which giants and witches and magic hats were real possibilities. That is why it has flourished in regions that were the object rather than the agent of capitalist and colonial expansion. That is also why the magical effects in One Hundred Years of Solitude tend to fade as the story approaches the present, washed out in the glare of modernity. But like a colonial subject stubbornly maintaining his traditional practices in an imperial space that stigmatizes them as primitive–a young Indian writer transplanted to London, say–Rushdie has consistently sought to insert magical elements into narratives of the present, flourishing the marvelous in the face of modernity. It is no wonder that, like the gestures of the colonial subject, the act is fraught with hesitation, uncertainty and self-doubt, that it reveals a mind divided between old allegiances and the ineluctable logic of rationality.

In asserting the rights of magic in the present, Rushdie is also testing the power of the imagination to affect reality. This is his highest theme, his persistent obsession. If so much of what seems magic at first turns out to be the result of art or artifice, that is exactly the point. Imagination does have the power to affect reality–personal, social, political. Argalia imagines a fantastic life and then goes out and lives it. The story of Lady Black Eyes drives a whole city mad. Lines are drawn on a map, and a nation conjectures itself into being. Magic in Rushdie often approaches a kind of lucid dreaming, where the boundary between imagination and reality is breached and desire is given direct power in the world. But by the same token, he often runs his effects right up against the border of plausibility, challenging us to discern how much is real, how much a trick–how much, in other words, imagination can really do. There may be no other major novelist whose imagination is so steeped in the movies; his first literary influence, he has said, wasThe Wizard of Oz. Magic, for Rushdie, is another name for special effects, and it is part of his purpose to give us a glimpse of the wires every now and then. Sometimes he shows us the Wizard, sometimes he lets us see the man behind the curtain.

The problem comes when he can’t seem to decide for himself what is magic, what is art and what is simply the form of delusion we call “imagining things.” The pressure of skepticism is actually lesser in The Enchantress of Florence than in his other works, precisely because the novel is set in a remote time and decorated with the language and properties of legend. We accept and even expect a certain quantum of the marvelous here, so Niccolò’s magic cloak, for example, passes without trouble. But Jodha is a different matter. She is central to Rushdie’s thematic conception–that men create women to fall in love with–but he leaves her stranded between imagination and reality. She is more than an idea for Akbar but remains less than a full person. She has interiority, but she has no agency, no force in the world. As a result, she has little force in the novel, little hold on our imaginations, remaining nothing more than a nice idea that never fully comes to life.

There are other problems. The novel proposes too facile an equivalence between East and West. “This may be the curse of the human race,” we hear more than once, “not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” Florence and Fatehpur Sikri, Italy and India, are set up as mirrors: in each place a besotted painter, in each a pair of prostitutes fat and thin, in each enchanting beauties and wicked young princes. Akbar muses in terms that make him sound suspiciously like a Renaissance humanist. The historical Akbar promulgated a divine right of kings; Rushdie’s doubts the existence of God. It’s all a little too comfortable, a kind of full-bellied, avuncular globalism that conjures away difference altogether. Rushdie has always been a humanist, has always believed that our similarities go deeper than our differences, but the younger writer was also a courageous defender of difference, of human variety and multiplicity, against the totalitarian impulse to impose uniformity. Midnight’s Children restages the classic rivalry of poet and king as the storyteller Saleem, Rushdie’s alter ego, speaking truth to Indira Gandhi in the wake of Emergency Rule, when India’s magic tumult of voices was reduced to a grim silence. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s surrogates–the satirist Baal and Salman the Persian–mock and subvert the certainties of the Prophet, speaking for pleasure over purity, fluidity over fixity, the many against the One.

But here he unstrings the tension between truth and power by merging poet and king in the figure of Akbar, the emperor-artist. So too with East and West, though perhaps for understandable reasons. The younger Rushdie was an insurgent colonial fighting for legitimacy within the West and the culture of the West. Whether in India or England, he was undoubtedly never allowed to forget the difference between the place he came from and the place he wanted to get to. While it is true that he has always been in the business of bridging that distance by writing what Midnight’s Children calls “eastern Westerns,” meeting is not the same as merging, hybridity not the same as homogeneity. But Rushdie the international literary superstar is very far from the young man he once was. As he comes and goes on his magic carpet of fame and money (which one does not begrudge him), East and West must feel like one big world. In the figure of Niccolò, Western descendant of an Eastern princess come back, after the lapse of years, to reclaim his ancestral connections, we can read Rushdie’s triumphant, nostalgic return to his place of origin.

The gesture points to the deepest sources of Rushdie’s art. More than his familiar–and, by now, shopworn–postcolonial themes, more even than the erotic love that is the book’s ostensible concern, it is family that is his most profoundly felt subject, here and throughout his work. The charge against Rushdie has always been that amid the whirlwind of ideas and allusions and allegory and wordplay, his characters never take shape as full people about whom the reader can feel real emotion. But the one exception has always been the figures and feelings of childhood. The most vital relationships in his fiction are family relationships. Midnight’s Children exerts its strongest pull in the chapters devoted to Saleem’s early years, when he is surrounded by parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. The Satanic Verses doesn’t come alive emotionally until the very end, when Saladin reconciles with his dying father. Rushdie, a famous ladies’ man–he has been married four times, the last to a supermodel–may think of The Enchantress of Florence as his tribute to erotic love, but the romance here feels pretty secondhand, a collage of Petrarch and grand opera. In many ways, for better and worse, Rushdie is still the 10-year-old who sat spellbound watching The Wizard of Oz. His work is sometimes childish, but it is more often childlike. As a portraitist of women, he has always done much better with matriarchs than with love objects; his mothers and aunts are the solidest characters in his work.

So it is here. The novel’s best scene takes place right after Niccolò has made his claim of kinship at the Mughal court. Akbar summons the queen mother and her sister-in-law Gulbadan to see if they retain any memory of a long-lost aunt:

“Allow me to remind you, O all-knowing king, that there were various princesses born to various wives and other consorts,” Gulbadan said. The emperor sighed a little; when Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.

The passage suggests the underlying unity of Rushdie’s two great commitments: storytelling and family. Storytelling is the place where families begin. Families know themselves through the stories they tell themselves about themselves. Family trees are storybooks in graphic form. Like Lady Black Eyes, long-lost relatives come back all the time, in the stories we tell about them. Like Niccolò, we are defined by the family stories we carry within us. But at the same time, families are the place where storytelling begins. The first stories we know are the ones we hear from our family, about our family. Childhood is the time of stories, the time when everything is still possible and every story is still true. If Rushdie’s magic realism is meant to re-enchant the world in the wake of modernity, it is also meant to re-enchant it in the wake of adolescence and adulthood. But again, with a bittersweet ambivalence, he seeks to incite two simultaneous and contradictory reactions, and perhaps 10 years old is exactly the age he wishes to make us. On the one hand, the childhood sense of open-mouthed wonder. On the other, the dawning skepticism that looks up from the page and asks, “But is it really true?”

September 12, 2008 Posted by | Book Review, Fiction and Novel, New Book, Salman Rushdie | Leave a comment

The Courage of Rachel Corrie

By Amy Wilentz*, Truthdig, May 26, 2008

Reviewed: Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie by Rachel Corrie [W.W. Norton, 2008]


By all rights, Let Me Stand Alone should not be an easy book to read. Doom hangs over this collection of the journal writings of Rachel Corrie, who was a 23-year-old American peace activist when she was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza five years ago. And yet most of this book whizzes by in a series of delights: in descriptions of autumn football games in Washington state, and ice in the winter mornings, of war seen on television, of the wind, of Corrie’s grandparents’ house in Des Moines, the used-book store in Aitkin, Minn., her mother tending to her dying grandmother, her own face. And this is all before the age of 14. When she was 2 years old, she looked at Capitol Lake in Olympia, Wash., her hometown, and said (famously, in her family): “This is the wide world, and I’m coming to it.”

It turns out that Rachel Corrie was first of all a miraculous child; then, an amazing changeling of a girl; later, a difficult, challenging, brilliant teenager, and finally a demanding, charismatic young adult. Most important, she was a very able writer from a remarkably early age — about 10 years old, or 11 — an immediate, sensory observer, a good thinker, a rebel eventually. Above all, she was always human, never caustic (though she could be casually cruel to her parents, like all adolescents), and almost painfully alive to the give and take within families, among friends, between lovers, between siblings. She would go on to carry this feeling of connectedness to its logical extreme, because among the many things she was, Rachel Corrie was above all a natural extremist. She felt other people’s pain really and truly. As a grown-up, she feels connected not only to her parents, her sister, her unpredictable boyfriend and to others around her, but also to the mentally ill people with whom she worked in Olympia (“Don’t we all hear voices?” she asks her journal), and to the world. She also felt responsible for mankind’s lapses in humanity. That natural extremism and dedication to goodness took her into activism, and that’s how she ended up in Gaza — her shoulder blades, face, six ribs and spinal cord broken under the blade of that bulldozer.

But this book is not all about Rachel Corrie’s progression toward this terrible fate. It’s really three books in one. It’s a coming-of-age book about a certain kind of American girl, an upstanding, stalwart child of the Pacific Northwest, who loves freedom the way a pioneer child would, as part of the normal course of things. As a child, Corrie is like a Mark Twain character: You would not be surprised to see her in a thin dimity dress or in smocked gingham, with her blond hair in a braid, playing barefoot in the reeds near Huck’s river. As she gets older, she flirts with all the syndromes American girls now flirt with: drinking, smoking, anorexia. “Then she cursed herself for spending so much time thinking about herself,” she writes. But she survives; she’s an American survivor — and if you didn’t know beforehand the wrenching end of her story you would assume she could survive anything. The first half of the book reads like a best-selling Oprah-endorsed literary tell-all memoir (or anyway, almost all … there is an editorial hand involved in culling the journals, and that hand belongs to the Corrie family), written by an exceptionally creative and gifted girl.

Let Me Stand Alone is also a writer’s notebook. One can easily imagine it being read in a workshop. It includes poetry, and a long (some might say too long) half-fiction, half-confessional love story; rapturous descriptions of nature, and loving details about Olympia (having read “Let Me Stand Alone,” I now vote Olympia, Wash., the No. 1 city to visit in the United States, although I haven’t been there). A love poem about driving on the highway with her mother and seeing a flock of herons is particularly accomplished; here’s a bit of it:

anonymous gray herons
their forms slip into your dream vocabulary
your eyes save them deep in linty pockets and amber jars
but their beaks are needles and they don’t notice you pass
eyes with no pupils in constant dialogue, heron with itself
they send messages with their outlines
they glide into the horizon while you’re forming your reply

Here’s another section, from the middle of the book, where Corrie imagines the salmon of Olympia: “There have been so many times over the last several years when I’ve wanted to be anywhere except Olympia. I think I’ll be gone within the next year. It’s hard to explain it. … The salmon talked me into a lifestyle change. The salmon beneath downtown Olympia are church. Years ago a group of us doing salmon restoration work rode a bus down to the East Bay Marina and observed the hole in the bulkhead. Salmon swim into that hole. Salmon have to make it all the way up Plum Street in that hole. …. Once you know there are salmon down there it’s hard to forget. You imagine their moony eyes while you walk home from the bar in your slutty boots. You’re aware of them down there when you ride around in somebody’s car — fanning their gills. It’s hard to be extraordinarily vacuous when you always have the salmon in the back of your mind: in that pipe down there. …”

In this case, it’s only the pitiable situation of fish that provokes Rachel Corrie’s empathy and political action. For “Let Me Stand Alone” is, as well as a coming-of-age book and a writer’s notebook, also the autobiography of an activist. We watch as Rachel emerges from her lovely, hypersensitive, receptive and involved girlhood, and we’re cheering her: because she is really so good, so kind, so open and sensitive to suffering and injustice — like an old-fashioned saint, a Great Person in the making. I couldn’t help thinking of Joan of Arc as I read along (partly, no doubt, because of the seeming physical resemblance to La Pucelle, a light-haired wisp of furious girlhood). Belief, Christian virtues of selflessness and self-denial, charisma, fervor, a thirst for a cause — Rachel Corrie always had the makings of a martyr.

When she gets to Gaza — a section that represents about a fifth of the book, and, of course, its finale — Corrie’s writing changes radically, with all that the word implies. At first, the change is subtle. Everything is reduced. Her range of emotion contracts, and instead of pure love, angry love, needy love and furious love, Rachel, in the face of the plight of the Gazans, feels only angry love. Instead of frustration with herself, her parents, Olympia, the Bush administration, school, siblings, friends, boyfriend, she feels frustration only at the Israeli government (a nice, broad target for this and other negative emotions, when you’re living in Gaza). She sinks into the reduced and shrunken emotional, intellectual and even physical space of the refugee; Corrie becomes a Gazan. In this sad final section, there were bits I had to skip, because the writing becomes so rote, so predictable, so propagandistic, so meaningless — and it was hard to see such a brave talent, such a wonderful person, become so flat and dull, so prescriptive and hortatory.

And yet I recognize Rachel Corrie in this section. I was young, too, when I had my first tte–tte with evil — for me, it was Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier and the various generals and civilian juntas that followed. Like me, Corrie was privileged, liberal, educated, literate, American: Naturally the hunger, deprivation and imprisonment of the Gazans among whom she decided to live is — and should be — too dreadful a thing for her to witness without responding in anger toward their oppressors, as the plight of the Haitian people was and remains for me. Rachel was even younger than I was at the moment of her first encounter, however, and she was a member of an organization in Gaza, the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM’s goal was — in part — to stop Israeli bulldozing of Gazan houses by presenting its people as human shields, facing down the scoops of the dozers. In Haiti, I was not part of any missionary group, and had the luxury of forming my own opinions in solitude. I wasn’t organizing a movement, as Corrie was. I did not want my entire social group back in the United States to come to Haiti to help me stop the mechanisms of oppression there, the way Rachel does in Rafah. Rachel took the humanitarian’s way, the activist’s way, the militant’s way. She begins doing press for the ISM, and her journal-writing and e-mail composition evaporate into a kind of boosterish stew of stereotypical (though not untrue) observations about Palestinian suffering and Israeli oppression.

“Time to go,” she writes in an e-mail. “Meeting with the Youth Parliament.” It’s like watching a lesson taught by George Orwell, with Corrie as the example. There in the border town of Rafah, facing the Israeli army, a gifted writer — still able to witness honestly and well, as we see in small glimpses — begins to remove from her work much of what is human, closely observed, specific and concrete, and substitute instead propaganda clichs that, even when true, feel meaningless and shopworn, and finally, tragically empty, especially in light of Rachel Corrie’s fate. Still, I can’t help admiring her committed work and her youthful engagement; the world might just possibly be a better place if more of us believed in humanity’s essential goodness, as Corrie did, and if more of us were willing to leave our gardens, BlackBerrys, malls and coffee shops behind and work for peace and justice. Her innocence is disarming: “The surreal thing,” she writes, a month and a half before her death, “is that we are safe. White-skinned people stand up in front of the tanks and they open their weird tank lids and wave at us.”

There is a sense of Auden’s “while someone else is eating,” in these final pages, of the evils that go on while we continue on with our doggy lives. “I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now,” Corrie writes in an e-mail just a month before she was killed, “and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States. Something about the virtual portal into luxury. …” Her talk of “internationals” and “sister communities” may put you off, but the fact of her sympathy and dedication is inspiring. And, as Graham Greene wrote in The Comedians, his novel about Haiti under Duvalier, “Death is a proof of sincerity.”

Because the saddest thing of all about the decline in Rachel Corrie’s eloquence and description, and the simultaneous growth in her activism, is how very short the period of her involvement was. And how much truth, honor and respect was — deservingly — heaped upon her every political pronouncement by the brutality and vicious stupidity of her murderer’s crushing rubber tracks and slicing steel. When it mattered, no one lifted a lid and waved. “My back is broken, my back is broken” — those were Rachel Corrie’s last words.

That’s concrete and specific enough.

*Amy Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is the author of “Martyrs’ Crossing,” a novel about Jerusalem, among other books.

May 27, 2008 Posted by | Book Review | 2 Comments

Once Upon Many Times

By LORRAINE ADAMS*, The New York Times, May 18, 2008

If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book — a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller). “Listen,” Rabih Alameddine invites. “Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.”

“The Hakawati” uses one of the oldest forms of storytelling, the frame tale. Western readers know it from “The Canterbury Tales,” but the device precedes Chaucer by well over a thousand years, originating in Sanskrit texts known variously as the “Panchatantra,” “The Fables of Bidpai” or “Tales of Kalila and Dimna.” As Doris Lessing notes in her introduction to the most recent English translation, one version of the Sanskrit framing narrative has Alexander the Great enlisting an Indian sage to reform a cruel potentate by telling him stories. In another, an Indian king uses the stories to arouse the curiosity of his three sons, whose brains have gone soft from privilege. Whatever the original frame, the history of the whole collection is a record of the cross-fertilization of cultures. Through storytelling, the conquered and the conquering can become as close as family.

In “The Hakawati,” the framing narrative, set in 2003, concerns a young man’s trip from Los Angeles to his father’s deathbed in Beirut. There he and his relatives exchange jokes, tear-jerking tales, cliffhangers and legends during the weeks of their vigil. Some of their stories are contemporary — the description of an impetuous sister’s wedding, a great-grandfather falling in love, troubles at the family’s car dealership, the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, the demise of a favorite uncle. But their wellspring is ancient and varied: Alameddine has poached from and transformed parables from the “Panchatantra,” the Old Testament, Homer, Ovid, the Koran, the uncensored “Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of medieval gay poetry called “The Delight of Hearts,” “Flowers From a Persian Garden” and many other sources. Yet this novelist, like his characters, isn’t content to leave the tales as they are. “By nature,” he writes in his acknowledgments, “a storyteller is a plagiarist. Everything one comes across — each incident, book, novel, life episode, story, person, news clip — is a coffee bean that will be crushed, ground up, mixed with a touch of cardamom, sometimes a pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar and served as a piping-hot tale.”

The result might have been experimental folderol, but Alameddine has a genius for the emotional hinges on which novels turn. We learn this during the earliest stages of the book, as the narrator worries about his father: “His laborious inhalations gurgled. Shallow breaths. He cracked feeble jokes. He tried to move, but just getting his arm to behave was arduous.” In a more predictable novel, the next tale might have been about the ailments of a venerable king. Instead we hear of a slave, her hand cut off by a demon, who embarks on a journey through the underworld in search of her missing extremity, departing with “no plan, no weapon and no energy to speak of.” The suffering of the narrator’s father has been transmogrified into a slave’s retrieval of her dignity. It suggests, without actually mentioning either, the journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus to the realms of the dead.

Both the old yarns and the new ones are shaped by Alameddine’s strong comedic instinct. He craftily modernizes the story of the handless slave, making a potentially creaky anecdote both campy and evocative. By the final scene of her walk through hell, a series of imps have stolen everything she has, including her clothing: “She marched. As she had expected, snakes slithered everywhere except along her path. Boas, asps and rattlers. Desert snakes, swamp snakes. She barely noticed them. Naked, helpless, exhausted and bereft, she staggered forward. Dullness, her sole possession, clung to her.” The lassitude of the narrator’s father on his deathbed has found an unlikely but convincing echo. This strategy of emotional resonance builds as the novel unfolds.

Today poetry remains the favored high literary form in Arabic. Yet “A Thousand and One Nights,” one of the world’s early examples of prose fiction, is thoroughly Arabic. It wasn’t until the turn of the last century that magic and the supernatural began their serious decline in Arabic fiction. With the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, the modern novel, steadfastly realistic, took hold in the 1950s. Experimental modernist fiction arrived later, paradoxically heightening readers’ awareness of its deeper literary roots. Thus the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s masterpiece, “Gate of the Sun,” drew on the tradition of “A Thousand and One Nights,” using a doctor’s stories to a dying soldier as its framing narrative. The stories the doctor told, however, centered on specific recent historical events: the creation of Israel and of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Alameddine’s novel also draws on ancient tradition to make an old form authentically new. At times, the stunning creative drive in “The Hakawati,” with its wealth of stories and characters, can be almost overwhelming. One of its ruses teased me throughout: was the narrator’s first name, Osama, an intentional reference to Osama bin Laden? After all, his last name, al-Kharrat, means “the fibster” in Arabic. (This last name was bestowed on the narrator’s grandfather, who performed as a hakawati in bars and cafes.)

In this book, where searing political upheavals like the Lebanese civil war figure but don’t dominate, and in an era when almost all we seem to see of the Middle East is terrorism, it’s bracing to come upon a work — and a world — that expands our narrow vision, transforming it to one of multiplicity, enchanting it with hope.

*Lorraine Adams, the author of a novel, “Harbor,” is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

May 22, 2008 Posted by | Book Review, New Book | Leave a comment