I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape. The Lime Twig is one. I had tried a number of times before to finish it, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
Night times. Night man in the nightmare house.
The Kid blew orange smoke from wheezing mouth. The house didnotfalldown.
But he almost did.
He had read Motorman. Read it twice, The Kid. It’s short on almost everything. It’s not a novel, he’d told Beagle. It has no pulse.
He thought about Moldenke, but what he thought was mysterious.
“Listen up, jackass.”
“That Moldenke,” said Beagle.
That Moldenke, it is written, is puzzled, it is stated, by almost every phenomena.
He is likened, please note, to a rat.
Also: a brightly burning candle with a shortened wick, destined to burn low and give off gas.
The phone rang in The Kid’s blue apartment.
“Listen, kid, give up this Moldenke business.”
“Hello? Can I help you?”
“Don’t be a jackass.”
Bunce is the key; only the key is made of jelly.
And the lock is broken.
With concentrated thought, The Kid tried to drown out the midnight drone, which itself was drowning out the scuttling of the night man as he ranged about the room. Bunce, he told himself, is in control. Of the lighting and of Moldenke. He tells Moldenke to do things, like put his hand in his pocket.
Reflexively, The Kid put his own hand in his pocket.
He rummaged around, and brought up air.
Beagle had sent The Kid a questionnaire:
The Kid considered these questions, unanswered.
The world of Motorman, the two suns, the air.
The dying wind.
The artificial, the month, the mock war.
The resemblance to something like sky.
Bunce wants blood. Or might want it.
Like the night man with Weetabix hair.
The unpinning threat of violence.
The Kid called Beagle.
He hung up the phone.
Two days later he flicked on the TV. Beagle facing front:
“There’s a lot of weirdness, kid. A lot of odd shit. Don’t let yourself brood. Maybe you’re not meant to understand, huh? You thought of that? So there are jellymen, so what. Maybe you misdialled, huh? Maybe you got the wrong number? The wrong face in the crowd? Stop shouting out names in the hope that someone will turn around. Move on, Moldenke.”
Some years ago I moved to the midlands in order to start a new job. I knew no one in the area so arranged to live in a shared house, with three other guys, hoping this would mean I didn’t become too isolated. In the early stages all was fine, presumably because the other tenants were on their best behaviour, but soon strange things began to happen. Empty crisp packets, for example, started to appear in the fridge. I don’t know if you have ever found an empty crisp packet in the fridge, but it is, let’s say, a bit of a puzzler. There are, of course, a number of questions that may occur to you when confronted with such a thing, but I think the most important is ‘what kind of monster or madman eats crisps, then decides that the best place for the empty packet is…the fridge?’
I managed to endure this situation – which was not limited to empty crisp packets, but included large puddles of water on the kitchen floor, loud noises in the middle of the night and disappearing sandwiches – for only a few months before I came to the realisation that living in close proximity, and sharing a living space, with one’s fellow man is not advisable, that there is something oppressive, even eerie, about having to rub along with others in a confined space. And this is something that Trelkovsky, the central character in Roland Topor’s 1964 French novel The Tenant, also learns, although his circumstances are slightly different.
“He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws.”
According to a number of reviews I have encountered Trelkovsky is essentially a void, a man lacking in personality. I understand where those sorts of claims are coming from, but they aren’t entirely accurate. He is, we are told, honest and polite and quiet, and as such one might legitimately say that he isn’t particularly interesting. But that isn’t the same as saying that he has no personality at all, of course. Moreover, there are a number of instances where he displays courage, or certainly spunk. For example, when he attempts to rent a flat from Monsieur Zy he haggles tenaciously over the price. He also beds, and abandons, Stella without the slightest compunction. Yet the most telling incident is when he refuses to sign a petition to have another tenant removed from the building, because, he says, he doesn’t know her, and does not have a problem with her himself. In this way, Trelkovsky is something of an enigma, unassuming and quiet, yet fiercely principled and confident, honest and good but a bit of a dick, etc.
[Still from the film of the same name, directed by, and starring, Roman Polanski]
I wrote in my introduction that Trelkovsky’s oppression comes in circumstances slightly different to mine, and that is because he lives not with a number of people in one house, but, rather, shares an apartment block with them. One would think, or hope, that having an apartment to oneself would guarantee some level of safety, a degree of isolation from others. Isn’t this why we value our homes so much? However, what he finds is that, yes, he can lock his door, but he cannot, in a sense, keep other people away, he cannot be free of them entirely. There are a number of amusing scenes, and episodes, that highlight this, but my favourite involves the tenant going to absurd lengths, including wearing slippers at all times, to avoid making noise, because even the slightest rouses his neighbours and sets them knocking on the ceiling.
Yet what this example also highlights is that The Tenant is about paranoia, about the oppression from within, as much as oppression from outside. After a number of complaints, and warnings from the landlord, Trelkovsky becomes so afraid of disturbing or angering anyone that he begins to obsess over his own actions, and about the way that people see him. Another example of this is when a female tenant vomits outside the doors of the residents she is in dispute with, and Trelkovsky panics over the absence of vomit in front of his own, believing that this would be considered highly suspicious in the eyes of the other tenants. Indeed, his worry swells to such an extent that he attempts to vomit himself, and when he cannot do so he actually picks up some from outside another door and places it in front of his own.
“Look at me, I’m not worthy of your anger, I’m nothing but a dumb animal who can’t prevent the noisy symptoms of his decay, so don’t waste your time with me, don’t dirty your hands by hitting me, just try to put up with the fact that I exist. I’m not asking you to like me, I know that’s impossible, because I’m not likeable, but at least do me the kindness of despising me enough to ignore me”
It has been said of The Tenant that it is a horror story. For the majority of the novel I found this description perplexing. It was strange, and even mildly disconcerting at times, but horrific? No, no. And then, close to the end, the disconcertion increased, intensified, until I become genuinely unnerved. There is one scene that has stayed with me in this regard, which involved a number of female tenants standing on boxes, outside Trelkovsky’s window, dancing in a grotesque fashion. In writing that sentence I was tempted to laugh, but I wasn’t, believe me, laughing at the time. In any case, the impact upon the novel of this shift towards horror is interesting in a number of ways, but the most significant is that it validates Trelkovsky, so that the ultimate message appears to be, to quote a popular phrase, that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
A few years ago a friend of mine sent me an email containing a link to a newspaper article. This article referred to the discovery of, if I remember correctly, a previously unknown type of lobster. Underneath the article my friend had written: ‘How long before this ends up on a plate in some restaurant?’ To which I replied with something like: ‘They’ll probably dissect it or fuck it first.’ It has long been a running joke between us that with anything we – by which I mean human beings – encounter on this planet our instinct is to see if there is some way that we can exploit it. All in the name of progress, of course, a progress that, it strikes me, has always been, and will always be, paid for with gallons of blood.
Karel Čapek was a Czech writer, whose work – including plays, essays, novels – was published in the early part of the 20th century. He is probably most well-known for coining the term robot, but his dystopian novel War With the Newts appears to have become the go-to text, the one that, if Čapek is read at all, is most popular with modern readers. In short, the book describes the discovery of a species of intelligent newts by a Captain Van Toch, a Czech seaman, who teaches them how to speak, and how to fight their enemies [the sharks], in return for pearls. While at this stage, the relationship between man and newt could be said to be mutually beneficial and respectful, it does not take long before they are being ruthlessly exploited and oppressed.
“Besides, people never regard anything that serves and benefits them as mysterious; only the things which damage or threaten them are mysterious.”
Even on the basis of this brief description it ought to be clear that War With the Newts is not solely concerned with amphibious creatures. It is, indeed, generally considered to be a satire, an allegorical story pertaining to colonialism, whereby the newts are a stand-in for any number of indigenous peoples. I have repeated myself numerous times recently regarding my dissatisfaction with allegory and certain kinds of satire, but this book is, in my opinion, one of the more amusing, successful and complex examples. So, while there is some fairly obvious stuff about slave trading – the ‘dark-skinned’ newts are captured and sent all around the world to work for human masters – there are also more subtle and interesting barbs.
For example, the newts have a ritual, a kind of native dance that periodically takes place at night. This dance is considered by humans to be dubious in some vague way, as something to be suspicious of; and as the newts become more ‘civilised’ [i.e. humanised] they too, it is said, come to feel ashamed of it. Furthermore, Van Toch’s arming of the newts is significant. He, as noted, respects them, he gives them knives so that they can defend themselves, but he does not do so for purely altruistic reasons, but also in order to, in a sense, have access to their natural resources [the pearls under the sea]. This is very similar to what the UK and US governments have done in places like Iraq, where we have given them our cast-offs, our out-of-date weapons etc, in return for oil.
One of the most rewarding, and surprising, aspects of Čapek’s novel, his allegory, is that, unlike with something like The Master and Margarita, the Czech was able to breathe life into his characters, both in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors. The newts are charming and likeable, and therefore their fate, their treatment at the hands of human beings, is moving. Take Andy, the lizard at London Zoo, who learns to speak English and reads the newspapers. His interview with the authorities is one of the novel’s highlights, as he answers the questions with information he has picked up in the media. Then there is the Czech-speaking newt who makes friends with a holidaying Czech couple. He longs to visit his homeland, a land he has not and will never see! The creatures are, by and large, innocent, funny, trusting, intelligent; they are like precocious children, and one cannot help but feel for them and want to protect them. Likewise, the blustering Van Toch isn’t merely a one- dimensional, heartless profiteer; in fact, it is not until he has passed away that the newts are exposed to the worst human behaviour, for it is said that he would not have allowed them to be brutalised while he was alive [and here we see a subtle psychological distinction between exploitation and severe physical mistreatment].
What gives the novel even greater depth is that it just as engaging, if not more so, if one overlooks the allegory and takes it on face value. In this way, it has a lot to say about the treatment of animals and the importance of animal welfare. First of all, to return to Andy, he dies when he is fed too many sweets by well-meaning, but careless or thoughtless, people. Think about certain fat cats or dogs you may have seen, which are habitually ‘treated’ by owners who do not understand or take seriously the responsibility of looking after an animal. Čapek also touches upon the use of exotic animals for amusement or spectacle, such as those poor tigers and bears one encounters in certain countries. In War with the Newts one man has himself a very ill show lizard, which is made to perform in a tent. Likewise, one could see the working newts as akin to the animals that we use or have used for farming, for pulling carriages; things like pit ponies and so on. There is even a mention of newt farming, when it wasn’t until very recently that battery farming became a hot topic.
This is a book that is teeming with ideas, with intelligence and compassion; and there is so much more that one could focus on or discuss [I haven’t even mentioned tyranny, socialism, fascism]. I don’t, however, want to go over everything, I would like to leave some things for you to discover for yourself. Having said that, I am going to write a few sentences about one further notable theme, one that particularly interests me, which is the arrogance of the human race as it seeks to impose its will on the natural world and have it reflect himself. Once it is discovered that the newts can speak, numerous countries are adamant that they ought to speak their language; there is a drive to get them to wear clothes, etc. This is something I have touched upon before in other reviews, but, to reiterate, I find the obsession to remake non-human things in our image absurd and really quite depressing. One could, of course, also see this attitude as a comment on colonialism, in that what these people are essentially saying is that something is only worthwhile if it is like me; and this is how certain indigenous people are and have been treated. So, if they do things like we [civilised Europeans] do, well, then that is ok, they are human beings, and deserve rights and all that, but if they do not? If they eat things we wouldn’t eat? If they speak a language we do not understand? Savages! Barbarians! Sub-humans!
“Gentlemen, four-fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seas; that is unquestionably too much; the world’s surface, the map of oceans and dry land, must be corrected. We shall give the world the workforce of the sea, gentlemen. This will no longer be the style of Captain van Toch; we shall replace the adventure story of pearls by the hymnic paean of labour.”
I was asked the other day to describe War With the Newts and, not wanting to give the impression that it is a piece of fluff, a silly b-movie in novel form, I said that it is ‘Moby Dick crossed with Dr. Strangelove.’ Some of what I have written so far ought to give weight to this statement. Like Dr. Strangelove it is a superior satire; like Melville’s great novel it is open to numerous compelling interpretations, etc. One other thing that is worth mentioning in this regard is Čapek’s style. The novel includes chapters that stand as excellent short stories, newt anecdotes, newspaper articles, some fairly rigorous science, and engaging little essays [the best of these being Wolf Meynert’s communistic interpretation of the newt community and their glorious future!]. One is given all kinds of information about the creatures – their history, their biology, and much more – so that one comes to feel as though one is something of an expert on them. War with the Newts is an immersive experience, an in-depth look into the world of newts in the same way that Moby Dick is for whales. And now that I have read the book, now that I have had this experience, I can say that, in the event of war, I am firmly with the newts, man. Fuck humanity, we’ve had our chance.
It was with trepidation that I picked this up. As I wrote in my review, Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate is the only book I have ever snapped shut, not out of boredom or irritation or a desire to read something else, but out of fear, a fear of what I would be exposed to and how it would affect me. More than once – as I carried it around with me during the day, fitting in a few pages here and there – I made a fool of myself in public, especially at work, during breaks, sitting there damp about the eyes, with a pained expression on my face, and a lower lip starting to tremble. I had visions, as I came to read Everything Flows, of being solemnly escorted out of the building, a broken man, my head resting on the ample bosom of a stout motherly woman…’what’s wrong with him?’ my colleagues will ask her. ‘I have no idea! He was just reading a book.’
As one would expect of a book that only just breaches 200 pages, Everything Flows is much narrower in focus [in terms of its basic storyline], and less epic and panoramic, than Grossman’s masterpiece; it was, moreover, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, which perhaps accounts for how episodic it is. The man tying these episodes together is Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from prison [after a total of 29 years] following the death of Joseph Stalin. The passing of Uncle Joe is significant, because it led to the overturning of many unsound convictions – including, in this instance, Ivan’s – and this, this acceptance by the State that people had been locked up, and murdered, on trumped up charges, meant that ordinary Russians had some uncomfortable truths to confront, not only about how their government had behaved but in terms of their own guilt or culpability also.
“The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom…How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.”
What is most striking about Ivan is that, although he is so central to the plot, he is, as a character, almost non-existent. He is described as a once sensitive, timid and shy child, and, despite his experiences in labour camps, he has maintained a reserved bearing, calmness and politeness, so much so that other characters think him odd, or naïve, or simply stupid. Much like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, it is through this meek man, through their interactions with him, that others reveal their baser tendencies, or weaknesses or flaws. Take his cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who Ivan first visits upon his release. Nikolay has a guilty conscience, for he had not been denounced or arrested; he had, in fact, prospered under Stalin. He could not be said to have been entirely in favour of what went down, in fact he was much troubled by what happened to Jews and other prominent intellectuals, but he didn’t openly oppose it either; he didn’t speak out when they were relieved of their posts, when they were ostracised, etc.
[Workers in a Soviet Gulag]
Throughout the opening stages of the book Grossman explores complicity in its different forms. He suggests that Nikolay was complicit in his inaction, in his reluctance to question the Party line, but most of all in his attempts to justify himself, or lie to himself, in order to have some peace of mind. It is a familiar story that those caught up in such large-scale abuses of power find it difficult to believe, or accept, what is actually happening; they doubt what they see or make excuses for it, because the truth is so awful, and, if accepted, the truth of things – that entirely innocent people are being systematically brutalised and murdered – necessitates action – because only a bad person could do nothing in the face of such horror – which is the last thing that most people want; they do not want to have to fight or oppose.
If challenged, those guilty of the complicity of inaction are likely to argue that they are but one man, so what can or could they do or have done? They also abdicate responsibility to the State or to authority. ‘It was not I, it was them; I trusted them to do the right thing…and so when they told me that such-and-such was guilty of a crime I believed them.’ I see this kind of passivity, this passing on of responsibility in the face of disgraceful authoritarian action, this moral weakness, all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ applied to criminal cases? The idea is that if someone is accused of something there must be a reason for it, even if we cannot see it ourselves. It isn’t that people really believe the State is infallible, it is simply that it is easier to think so, to tell yourself so.
“The criminals had, after all, confessed during the trials[…]they had been questioned in public by a man with a university degree[…]there had been no doubt about their guilt, not a shadow of a doubt.”
After leaving Nikolay’s house, Ivan crosses paths with Pinegin, who is the man responsible for denouncing him. Pinegin worries that Ivan knows that it was him, but assures himself that he is imagining it. Here the emphasis is not on what people will allow to happen, what they passively sanction, but what ordinary human beings are actually capable of. I wrote in my review of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we would never actively participate in mass oppression but normal people did and do. Grossman explores in detail why that is the case. Why do ordinary people condemn or murder for their governments? Are they evil? No, unfortunately not. Evil as a concept is, I’m afraid, simply another comfort blanket.
Some participate in order to get ahead, in order to prosper. If you help to oppress another group, not only can you take what is theirs, but there is less competition for what is not, for jobs, etc. There is also the pleasant feeling of being useful to the State, of being valued by the State. People like to be praised, they like to think that they are important or necessary. In Russia at the time, people wanted to serve Stalin, they admired him, loved him even. In terms of Pinegin, he denounced Ivan not because he hated him, but because that is what the State asked of him; he was, Grossman suggests, simply following orders or doing his duty. It isn’t, one could argue, for the common man to make these kinds of decisions, about what is right and wrong and fair or unfair, that is the responsibility of the State.* For me, there is an interesting subtext to all this, which is that morality is changeable, is malleable, and so if a State or an authority decide that someone is guilty, then they become guilty. It does not matter if another authority would declare them innocent. Therefore, those who participated in the functioning and application of that authority were also innocent, were in fact in the right, because they were behaving in accordance with the laws, rules and culture of their society.
Most of what I have discussed so far is found in the first fifty or so pages. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Beyond those first fifty pages the storyline disappears somewhat, and Ivan gets lost among a series of [admittedly, very engaging] essays, ranging from the nature of freedom and hope, to collectivisation and a number of chapters dedicated to understanding Lenin and his role in what followed him. Therefore, as a novel, as a work of fiction, Everything Flows is a bit of a mess, is, in all honesty, not successful at all. Life & Fate also includes philosophical essays but they ride alongside a well-crafted narrative, are fully integrated into the text. This is not, however, too serious a criticism, especially when one remembers that the book was unfinished at the time of Grossman’s death; one assumes that, if he had had more time, he might have developed Ivan’s story so that it would not simply trail-off.
More of an issue is that Grossman’s treatment of the Russian peasantry and the oppressed is romanticised, so that it has almost a propagandistic flavour; indeed, I felt as though I, as the reader, was being manipulated somewhat. For example, during the chapter on collectivisation – which is, I might add, possibly the most harrowing and upsetting thing I have ever read – Grossman writes about one mother reading fairy-tales to her starving, dying children in an effort to distract them from their pain. All the oppressed people throughout the book are so lovingly described, they are all so gentle, so noble, so kind and patient and forbearing in their suffering that it just does not ring true. They are, like Ivan, like Prince Myshkin, christ-like, they are representations of The Russian Soul. For the record, I want to point out that my sympathy is entirely with them, with the ill-treated, with the genuine, real victims of Stalinism; in fact, there is a certain level of guilt accompanying my words here, but I am trying to approach the book as literature; and, as such, Everything Flows is a failure. But, then, I guess that a believable, successful novel was never really Grossman’s aim; what he wanted to do was try to understand what had happened to his beautiful country, his beautiful people, and so one can overlook, even admire, a touch of sentimentality.
For a book that had such a powerful emotional and intellectual hold on me, I do not want to end on a criticism. I said to someone the other day that Vasily Grossman had a simple, direct way of getting to the heart of everything, that I find very moving. And on that note I’ll finish up with something from the text, something simple and direct, and pretty fucking devastating…
*these arguments, where it appears as though one is trying to absolve those who participate in tyrannical regimes, are Grossman’s not mine.
So far in my life I have dated girls from a variety of racial backgrounds, including black, asian and oriental. For someone who is almost oppressively cynical it is perhaps surprising that I entered each relationship with a certain level of naivety. Despite being well aware that racism still exists, I didn’t expect the amount of negative attention these relationships received. One incident always comes to my mind, which is the time I and my black girlfriend were accosted by a group of black teenagers one afternoon; the kids seemed to be incredibly upset by this coupling, which they perceived as an affront, and so they started to follow us and shout insults [racist insults, no less!]. I’m not entirely certain how we managed to get out of it without the incident turning violent and still now, some time later, I feel uneasy when passing a group of similar kids on my own.
Yet, it wasn’t only overt racism that was the problem. More pertinently, in terms of what I found most interesting about the book under review here, there was the endlessly in[s]ane behaviour and comments from people who were well-intentioned. People were so petrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, of being politically incorrect, or were trying too hard not to be politically correct [because they felt this was also insulting], that they made themselves and everyone around them uncomfortable. Having had these experiences my reading of Native Son has retrospectively been enriched. Obviously, I am not saying my experiences are comparable to the brutal and systematic racism that, historically, people of certain races have been subjected to, nor are they similar to what happens in Wright’s novel, which is itself extreme, but that they are, for someone who cares nothing for all this will-to-power bullshit, a reminder of just how much tension and weirdness still surrounds this issue.
I read the book a couple of years ago, but, as I remember it, the central character, Bigger Thomas, is a touchy, listless, youth who is given a job with an affluent white family. The head of the family is well-known for his benevolent attitude towards the black population, and so Bigger appears to have got himself a good gig. Of course, from our perspective the idea that the white man is to be applauded for giving a black young man some menial work makes us wriggle a bit in our skin, and Bigger’s lack of gratitude is telling. In any case, things go well enough for Bigger until the man’s daughter takes an interest in him. She makes an effort to talk to him, to be his friend, despite Bigger’s desire to be left alone to do his job as he is employed to do it. And it was this, this exploration of woolly-headed, well meaning, liberal white attitudes, and how at odds their desires are with what Bigger wants, that really made the novel for me.
There is such complex psychology involved in these exchanges, in terms of the girl who thinks she is helping Bigger but who is really jeopardising his job, who believes she cares about the plight of black people in America, and Bigger in particular, but who really is exacerbating the problem, and treating him with an arrogant lack of consideration, by not respecting his wishes; her behaviour, as with a lot of so-styled well-meaning liberals, is really directed at herself not at the person or group she purports to want to help; her actions are born out of self-obsession, out of a desire to make herself feel good. As for Bigger, he doesn’t want to be anyone’s dogsbody, of course, no one does, and so he is not reticent to respond to her friendly advances because he loves his job, but because he is aware that a friendship, a true friendship, with the girl is impossible even if he desired it. There is a powerful scene in a cafe or restaurant when Bigger is all but forced to eat with the girl and her boyfriend; his discomfort, and his shame, is palpable; the couple, however, are having a whale of time and think themselves to be wonderfully open-minded. Elegant slumming, I think you call this kind of thing. And race is not the only issue on the menu here, either; I feel that Native Son has interesting and important things to say about how the poor, the underclass, in general are treated and perceived by the more privileged people squatting on their shoulders.
Not wishing to spoil it for first-time readers I won’t say too much about the tragic, violent heart of the novel, except to say that as a consequence of the girl’s attention Bigger does a terrible thing. It takes quite a lot to shock me, but what Bigger does, and his attempts to cover it up, really did make me gasp. It is an act that, in some way, is motivated by fear; Wright seems to be suggesting that the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds Bigger, not just in the house but society as a whole, breeds violence, paranoia, and insanity, and, I think, he’s largely correct in that. As for the novel as a whole, there is, in the second half, some polemical guff that’s a bit dry and bit too in your face for my taste, and the writing throughout is only adequate. Wright’s style isn’t poetic, or particularly controlled or eye-catching. It just is. The matter-of-fact prose prevents Native Son, for me anyway, from being a masterpiece, but perhaps enhances the page-turner quality of the work. Native Son is an easy and quick read, but is also tight and thrilling and well worth investing the [not extensive] time in.
I do wonder sometimes why certain people bother to read foreign literature, as they seem intolerant of, or are at least irritated by, cultural differences. I was browsing some reviews of a Japanese novel the other day and I came across a couple which suggested that the book in question, and Japanese literature as a whole, is troubling, and ultimately unenjoyable, because the female characters are infantilised. Well, gee, really? First of all, I don’t agree; I think that Japanese literature of a certain age does often feature quiet, submissive female characters, but I’m not entirely sure how that equates to child-like. Nor do I believe that submissive women is specifically a Japanese issue [there are a shit-tonne in English literature, for example. Persuasion anyone?]. Furthermore, there are strong, active female characters in many Japanese novels, like Taeko in The Makioka Sisters. Thirdly, and more pertinently in terms of the book under review here, why are submissive female characters a problem? Do submissive women not exist? Perhaps Japanese women are or were at one time largely submissive, and these Japanese books are merely a reflection of their society. I mean, I dunno about you, but part of the reason I read, part of my enjoyment, is to learn about, to be immersed in, other cultures, rather than to [negatively] judge them against my own.
For me, some people bring a weird form of cultural arrogance to their reading; and this arrogance appears to result in a short-sighted, lazy kind of relationship with the texts in question. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk focuses on a family which is dominated by its patriarch. The wife [Amina] is not allowed outdoors, the daughters are married off without having much of a say in the matter etc. Cue: lots of hand-wringing and overly PC criticism. Yet the people who criticise the work as sexist completely miss the point. Mahfouz clearly intended this family to show Egyptian, and Muslim, society at its most strict, or old-fashioned; it is a family out of step with the times. This is made abundantly clear on numerous occasions if you bother to pay attention. While the central family are ruled by a tyrant, other families, other patriarchs, are far more relaxed; indeed, many characters comment on al-Sayyid Ahmad’s unyielding behaviour; they even chide him for it. Not only that, but he is shown to be a man who is losing his grip on his family; his daughters and sons and, most shockingly for him, his wife all rebel against his iron rule at certain pivotal stages of the narrative. The new relationships formed by his daughters with their husbands show they have, in one case, more freedom and, in the other, absolute control. I really cannot fathom what some readers find to get upset about.
Palace Walk is only the first part of what is commonly known as The Cairo Trilogy. It is a domestic drama, with, as stated, an overriding theme of change. Like the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters, we are introduced to a society evolving, one on the cusp of a new identity, or way of living; some characters are happy or at least willing to go with the flow, and yet one is categorically not. I find this kind of thing fascinating; it’s like watching a dodo trying to drive a car. However, change is not Mahfouz’s only concern; he has a lot of interesting things to say about family dynamics, about hypocrisy, and politics and love. On hypocrisy: I think one of the things that so enrages some readers is that while al-Sayyid Ahmad demands exemplary behaviour, and compliance, from his wife and children, he seeks to please himself, is himself a boozer and a womaniser. I would again cite cultural, not to mention temporal, differences here as a reason not to criticise the work; and I would also point people to the fact, and it is mentioned in the text, that al-Sayyid Ahmad would be well within his rights to actually take more than one wife, and yet he doesn’t, believing, admirably, that one wife, one set of children, creates a better, more stable environment for his family.
Indeed, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the work to give the impression that the characters are all one-dimensional, that al-Sayyid Ahmad is merely the oppressor, and his wife and daughters the abused and oppressed. The length and the relatively slow pace of the novel actually allows Mahfouz to fully develop his characters, in a way that one doesn’t find in contemporary literature. al-Sayyid Ahmed is thrillingly complex, thrillingly human; so, while he has his ways, of course, it is clear that he loves his family, that he cares deeply about them. He does, however, also care about his image, about his reputation. He is inconsistent, yes, but so am I, so are most people. His wife, too, obviously loves her husband and, generally speaking, is happy to serve him. I guess some people might say that it is wrong for Mahfouz, as a man, to show a woman who is happy to serve her husband, but, again, I think they would misunderstand the book; at no point does the author judge any of his characters or ask you to judge them; this lack of judgement is, actually, one of its most pleasing features.
Yet my favourite aspect of the novel is how close Mahfouz allows you to get to his characters. Palace Walk is an engagingly, charmingly intimate portrayal of an average Muslim family. We are given access to their most mundane actions or rituals, such as how each member of the family eats their breakfast, how make-up is applied; we read about their good-natured piss-taking of each other, their petty squabbles, their most basic hopes and fears. The kind of intimate access you have to them ultimately makes you [or me, at least] care about them; it, in fact, creates a kind of relationship between you and the family, so that you almost feel part of it. Indeed, when Amina hurts herself late in the novel I found myself wishing she would get better. This is in contrast to my usual experiences where I generally hope for nothing but disaster to befall the people I’m reading about [it’s just more exciting, y’know].
One last thing: Mahfouz did, of course, win the Nobel Prize [it says so on the cover of the book, just in case you were in any doubt]. One would anticipate on that basis that his prose would be top drawer. However, while his novel is a fine achievement, and there are some aspects of his writing that are impressive, on the whole it didn’t give me a raging hard-on. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but apparently it is very difficult to translate into English. So, I’m inclined to believe, or am at least prepared to believe, that this is a translation issue rather than a true reflection of Mahfouz’s ability as a prose stylist.