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Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing – TLS


On just about every page of Jesmyn Ward’s powerful new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, we get a sense of Mississippi’s wild and stirring beauty: its watery bayous, ancient trees and rich Delta soil. But it is also a landscape full of menace, imprinted with memories of violence and pain. “All them black hands”, Pop tells his grandson, recounting the story of how he chased a boy escaping from Parchman Prison over the fields. The earth was so crumbly from generations of black men working it – the “free” labour of slaves and prisoners – that Pop and his dogs found it easy to track the child. In Ward’s Mississippi, racism eats away at even the most basic human relations, corroding people’s feelings for the land, their idea of home, and even their sense of family. The mystery at the heart of Sing, Unburied, Sing is the horrifying story of the prison chase that Pop finally unburdens, the story of black prisoners forced to hunt down their escaping cell mates. It’s a tale that reveals just how active a force history is in the present, and how a legacy of injustice will subvert time and thwart progress: “Parchman was past, present and future all at once.”

This is the kind of sentence that one might find in many a twenty-first century novel, where the fragmentation of contemporary life often becomes a matter of play, and societal breakdown provides a showcase for imaginative resilience. What such fictions tend to demonstrate is that you can turn the world upside down and hijack its order precisely because you are already at home in it. Ward’s book, by contrast, is marked by an ineradicable gravity about what it means to be homeless. Its disordering properties seem less like a game with literary props than commensurate expression of a corrupt system: Pop’s wife, dying of cancer, is so mistrustful of authority she tries to treat herself with woodland herbs, and when their son is killed by a white man during a hunting expedition, his death is covered up by the local sheriff. The gothic element of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which includes two ‘characters’ who are dead, has none of the titillation that often features in ghost stories; as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, these revenants speak of the psychic disturbance engendered by bigotry and hate. The synchronicity emanates from an awareness of how suffering is passed down through generations, with pain in the past deforming lives in the present. And despite the novel’s title, there is even ambiguity about stories and speaking out.

Ward reminds us that when family history is so harrowing, storytelling does not operate in the remedial fashion it routinely does for writers such as, say, Ali Smith. The tales the thirteen-year-old Jojo hears from his grandfather are of a blighted inheritance. Tales like the one about Pop’s great grandmother who was kidnapped and brought across the ocean, her skin growing around the chains. “In her village”, Pop tells the boy, “they ate fear. Said it turned the food to sand in they mouth.” Yet if such tale-telling induces unease or despair, Ward is mindful, too, of the damage silence can do: her novel’s narrative dissemination is a sign not of increased autonomy but of characters cut off from one another by secrets and shame. In Men We Reaped (2013), Ward’s wrenching memoir of the deaths of five young black men from her home town in Mississippi, she educated the reader about just how difficult it can be to speak of betrayal and loss when no one is listening: “silence is the sound of our subdued rage, our accumulated grief.”

Jesmyn Ward

The three narrators of Sing, Unburied, Sing are Jojo, his mother, Leonie, and a ghost-child, Richie, the boy Pop met when they were incarcerated together in Parchman. For Leonie, the family’s load has been too heavy to bear. Her yearning for another life, and the shame of disavowing her parents, has led into drug addiction. The only “balm” to her “open wound” has been the green-eyed white boy, Michael, son of the racist sheriff, who nevertheless “saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, lips the color of plum, and saw me.” But Michael is also embroiled in drugs (with the collapse of oil prices, virtually all that sustains the local economy is drug money) and he, too, has been incarcerated in Parchman. When his release is pending, Leonie packs Jojo and his younger sister, Kayla, into her car and heads north to the prison to reunite the family. But the road trip reveals how deep the schism runs in Leonie whose undefined wanting finds satiety only in the drugs her friend and lawyer feed her. She is at war with herself, and her children are the casualties of this war when having stuck them in the back of her scorching car, she fails to feed them properly or give them enough to drink.

For Jojo, Leonie’s mixed-race son, growing up with his embattled mother amid the still deeply-entrenched racial politics of Mississippi, is like living in a minefield. But as time goes on he comes to understand a little of her behaviour, sensing that he too feels the urge to escape: “An itching in my hands. A kicking in my feet.” And in Richie, the ghost-boy wandering the woods where “a murder of silver crows” shine in the trees (or is it the ghosts of his murdered forebears unable to pass on to the next world?), there is a parallel image of homelessness, longing and entrapment.

In Jesmyn Ward we have an important new voice of the American South – one developing perhaps into the twenty-first century’s answer to William Faulkner. Fiercely partisan yet unillusioned, her command of politics and idiom is impressive. But perhaps what is most striking is Ward’s sustained and clear-eyed attention to people who, when noticed at all, are more usually consigned to a novel’s periphery. Here they take centre-stage and are depicted with the kind of piercing clarity born of love. At the novel’s close, with the ghosts restless in the tress, only Kayla, combining traits from everyone in her black and white family, can hush the spirits with her babbling song. The resilient child sits on the porch with her grandfather, shelling nuts, and is somehow able to understand instinctively the working of deprivation: “Kayla patted his arm again, but didn’t ask for another pecan. Just rubbed him like Pop was a puppy, flea-itching and half bald, starved for love.”


Jenny Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky) – Spectator


The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go Went Gone, and the autumnal tone of its beginning – a Classics professor retires, leaving him at home raking leaves, mulling over memories of his wife, and wondering about the body in a nearby lake – suggests that this will be a book of endings, something akin to Anita Brookner’s stories of self-absorbed people in the twilight of their lives.

But Richard, now professor emeritus, proves to be a more unpredictable character. For a start, unlike many of Brookner’s loners, there is the strong force of history in him. A precarious beginning under fascism and war, then a life shaped by the GDR and its abrupt cessation in 1989, has left him and his circle of friends adrift in the new Germany. They have only memories of their vanished country and some sense that the place in which they now find themselves, with its advertised values of reason and law, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For a start, Richard’s pension is smaller than that of his West German compatriots. Not that he’s complaining: as a child versed in “proletarian internationalism”, he’s fully aware that compared with many on the planet, he’s well off: “Richard knows he’s one of the very few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.”

The question of what constitutes reality lies at the heart of Erpenbeck’s writing. In Go Went Gone she is at pains to show that what is often taken to be universal can be tendentious or dogmatically insisted upon, despite what ought to be glaring limitations. The body submerged in the lake and Richard’s interest in underground systems (escape routes from the Nazis, tunnels from the Middle Ages) suggest that beneath the “veneer” of reality, much in life is hidden or suppressed.

When Richard watches a News programme about a protest tent city built by refugees in the middle of Oranienplatz, he realizes that he has walked through the square without noticing this challenge to everyday life. As an academic, the recognition of his trammeled view, with its implicit lack of curiosity, rankles him mildly. So with nothing better to do, he embarks on a homemade project to discover where the refugees come from and what it is that they want.

Jenny Erpenbeck

At first he sits on a bench in the square and takes notes. Then the authorities make an agreement with the refugees to dismantle the camp. Some are relocated to an unused block in a nursing home near Richard, where he finds men on mattresses four or five to a room, many depressed and sleeping in the middle of the day. But some are awake and – like Richard, with little to occupy them and no way forward in their lives as they are forbidden to work – they agree to be interviewed. Richard’s questions seem detailed but beside the point, as if, rather than facing the immediate crisis in their lives, he’s testing for humanity: “Do people have pets?” “What kind of place did you like to hide as a child?”

These conversations produce a gentle comedy of cultural difference and, for Richard, a series of realisations. The first is how little, for all his classical education, he knows about the world the refugees come from, even though, as he reacquaints himself with the story of Black Athena, he is reminded that the roots of Western civilization lie in North Africa. As he had walked through the square without seeing the refugees, so he knew of these facts but never assimilated them. Only now, through his new friendships, does the knowledge becoming meaningful. That he is unaware of where many African countries are on the map, unfamiliar with their capitals and languages is, of course, an indictment not just of Richard but of Western ignorance in general: “The American vice-president recently referred to Africa as a country.”

He becomes closer to the refugees, inviting them to his house, sharing meals and taking them to appointments with the authorities during which he starts to understand how the law is stacked against them. The Dublin II treaty prevents the men from applying for asylum (Germany is not the first European country they arrived in) and the Berlin authorities retract their agreement.

Richard’s dawning awareness brings to mind Ted Hughes’s epiphany, the fruit of his engagement with East European dissidents, about the “spoilt brats of Western civilization…deprived of the revelations of necessity”. Erpenbeck’s tone is not so dramatic: her clear, unshowy prose never draws attention to itself – at times her novel even reads like a primer, reflecting the way Richard learns like a child through reading and friendship about how the world beyond him has shaped his own.

Yet this is a highly sophisticated work in which blatant injustice (however disregarded) exists together with forces that lurk beneath the surface. At a birthday party for Richard celebrated with old and new comrades, the light falls and everyone gathers round a fire. There are stories shared by all about guilt, regret and loss, memories that usually remain submerged, too unbearable to think about, but which surface here in the company of friends. This perhaps is the common ground which earlier socialist writers were intent upon, and the scene is relayed by Erpenbeck with extraordinary emotional power, her analytical skill now matched by a tenderness to human beings that remains utterly unsentimental.

At an earlier moment Richard bemoans the fact that the loss of the GDR has meant the loss of grand ideas about humanity: now only individual action is possible. It is a sentiment that the East German writer to whom Erpenbeck seems most indebted, Christa Wolf, also expressed, saying she no longer believed in ideology, and after the fall of the Wall progress would only occur through pushes made at ground level. The inevitably cruel ending looms for the refugees and they rise once more from their beds to organise another protest, remembering the dignity they found in the Oranienplatz resistance. They know their rooftop protest will not succeed, but as Angela Carter once observed, we organise to keep our spirits up.

The verdict on the refugees’ case finally arrives and the question for Richard remains the old one: what is to be done? His answer, and the way he draws his German friends in to help, suggests some reconciliation of the grand idea with individual action, a new kind of solidarity and a way forward.

Amit Chaudhuri, Friend of My Youth – TLS


In a recent lecture by Amit Chaudhuri on ‘Possible, Not Alternative Histories” of literature, he proposed the idea of authors being read to fulfil a particular need. So W. G. Sebald is valued for his melancholy European novels in the face of the ascendant global novel (an idea Susan Sontag first mooted), J. M. Coetzee satisfies the need for a writer who remains silent or speaks only figuratively in a time of extreme politics, and Roberto Bolaño answers the desire for a writer to be unclassifiable. It’s an interesting thought-experiment, not merely the concept of a writer expressing a cultural need, but the extension of the argument that readers bring something to the table, a set of assumptions that precede the act of reading. What need might Chaudhuri himself fulfil?

With the publication of Friend of My Youth, he is now the author of seven novels, greatly admired, particularly by his peers. He is often associated with a group of authors who address themes of migration, globalisation, and the difficulties of return. Michael Ondaatje’s poetic memoir, Running in the Family (1982), about a journey from Canada to his childhood home in Sri Lanka, is the obvious precursor of these works. It is a book Teju Cole discusses in his similarly lyrical autofiction, Every Day is For the Thief (2014), about an unsettling trip back to Nigeria from America, while Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel, A State of Freedom (2017), has two characters revisiting India who experience joy in old familiarities together with pangs of estrangement. As with Chaudhuri’s self-named narrator, the protagonists of these books are distrustful of memory with its glitches and blackouts, disoriented by changes wrought in the intervening years, and often treated like tourists in the land of their birth. When Chaudhuri crosses into Mumbai via the new Sea Link bridge (a journey also made by a returnee in Mukherjee’s novel), he is immediately tested by his taxi driver for authenticity, regarded as suspiciously as he himself views the new buildings rising across the city, “interlopers” disturbing his sense of how things ought to be. A writer, he is in India on a brief book tour and wants to reunite with the friends of his youth. But the oldest of these, Ramu, is away in rehab, others are not available, and anyway his habit of referring to the city as Bombay rather than Mumbai, its name for the last twenty years, indicates that the journey he has in mind might be just that: a chance to revisit memories, reflect on old relationships, and ruminate on the child he was, the man he has become.

Friend of My Youth is virtually plotless in the traditional sense, meaning that the novel has few events: Chaudhuri arrives, books into a club and notes its refurbishment; visits a district of the city he once knew and reflects on its “continuity” (the tranquillity artificially preserved by wealthy residents). He runs shopping errands for his wife and mother, is interviewed by a young journalist, and has dinner with a bookseller. But these unremarkable scenes do not mean that the novel is uneventful: the drama of the self, spun from Chaudhuri’s meditations and recollections, is artfully composed and utterly absorbing. At the heart of this drama are two shifting relationships: one with the city, which he comes to understand he knew very little of in his privileged youth; the other with his turbulent friend Ramu. Like Chaudhuri, Ramu is another “fantasist”, but instead of writing, he kicked against the dogma of the everyday through drug addiction. As Chaudhuri moves across the city, thoughts of the absent Ramu ripple through his mind, and like the Taj Hotel which was blown apart by terrorists in 2008 and then reassembled, he is increasingly engaged in the effort of trying to piece back together the mystery of their friendship: “There’s no question of going back. But the painstaking joining up of fragments is clear too.”

As Chaudhuri’s revisits more recent memories of Ramu, it becomes clear that what has sustained their long relationship is a common feeling of unbelonging, creating a mutual sensibility which on idle walks through the city they have exercised and refined (the novel opens with a quotation from Walter Benjamin). On these perambulations they note how globalisation has sent land prices soaring and caused landmarks to be knocked down. The city’s shiny new buildings are mirrored by Ramu’s bright insistence that he is alright, but both strike a false note. In their fifties now, Chaudhuri senses decay in his old friend, the life force leaking from him. But despite this troubling sense of an ending, of foreclosed, possibility, the old friends continue their walks, and there is something stoical, triumphant even, in their flânerie: as time wastes them, so they luxuriate in the “precious wastage of time”.

During Chaudhuri’s lecture he also outlined another possible strand in literary history, one culled from his readings and misreadings. This “tradition” concerns the praise of sunlight and living in the moment, something he found in writings by Goethe, Nietzsche, Hardy, Tagore and Lawrence. In Friend of My Youth, as Chaudhuri and Ramu stroll about, “in communion” in their feeling for the city, they stop before an old building, a “gothic phantom” bathed not in sun but in moonlight, and Ramu exclaims: “I get transformed when I see these, yaar!” In an era of globalised neo-liberalism, Angela Carter once suggested, “alienated is the only way to be”. For Ramu and Chaudhuri, fantasists and escape-artists, children of a fissile city constantly “gutted…[ or] under construction”, this is a given. But awareness of our alienation can turn us inwards. What Chaudhuri perhaps senses in Ramu’s love of the city, the awe he feels (“mind-blowing!”), and the transformation it delivers, is a satisfying paradox: we are most in the moment when we are taken out of ourselves.

This review first appeared in the TLS as “The Only Way to Be” on 29.9.2017.

J. M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 – 2017 – TLS


One might suppose that the description of J. M. Coetzee as a South African writer was relatively uncontentious, but in an Introduction to his second volume of collected essays, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007), Derek Attridge – perhaps unwilling to define an Afrikaner writer steeped in the European tradition as African, or simply mindful of Coetzee’s well-known elusiveness – seems reluctant to place him in this way, and tries instead to define him through negatives: “Coetzee himself is usually thought of as neither a European nor an American writer: for most of his writing life he has lived in South Africa, and half his novels take place in that country. He now lives in Australia…”.

“That country” and its neighbouring territories – where Coetzee’s Afrikaner ancestors settled as colonists in the seventeenth century, where he was born and brought up, and where he lived on and off for over 50 years – is the place to which he returns in Late Essays 2006-2017, a new collection that winds across the continents of Europe, America and Australia, before giving Africa the last word. His envoi on the diaries of the nineteenth century tribal leader Hendrik Witbooi underscores the mixing and complexity of colonial history: the Boers “way of life had become as much African as European”, while Witbooi and his mixed-race tribe behave like white colonists, “plundering, castle-rustling”. But, scrupulously, Coetzee goes beyond Witbooi’s lifetime to the emergence of the European colonizers’ “larger and more sinister project: genocide”, a fact that cannot be ignored in his final reckoning.

Of course, there may be more to be said on the subject. Coetzee’s notoriously disciplined work rate may yet produce successive volumes – Later or Latest Essays, perhaps? Such an idea would not be out of character for a writer who studied and taught in various universities (Cape Town, Texas, Buffalo, Harvard, Adelaide, Chicago) between 1963 and 2003, and whose novels bear the imprint of this experience, engaging in postmodern games that resist conclusiveness while tipping their hat to literary history and theory. Beckett and Kafka are returning presences in his work, and in Foe (1986) Coetzee reimagines the story of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday from the perspective of a woman castaway on their island who tries to tell her own version of the colonist’s story. She finds she can speak plausibly only with the aid of a man’s intercession, and as her words are mistranslated by a male writer called Daniel Foe, so she misrepresents Friday, who is mute. As with Jean Rhys in her revision of Jane Eyre, (“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know”), the focus is on the politics of language and the problems of interpretation, appropriation and the value denied those who speak in foreign tongues – or not at all. In later work this concern extends to the cruel treatment of “dumb” animals.

Coetzee’s engagement with literary history was attacked at the peak of the battle against apartheid as nostalgic or irrelevant. I doubt it escaped his notice that the language of this criticism – Michael Channon argued that Foe provided a “masturbatory release…for Europeanising dreams” – resembles that used by hard-line communist critics who, in the inter-war years, condemned modernist writers for failing to respond to social upheavals in the prescribed realist fashion: Mike Gold denounced Proust as the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”, and Karl Radek accused Joyce of being morbid and backward-looking.

Coetzee resisted any such pressure. When he wrote directly about apartheid in South Africa he was excoriating, but by flouting orthodoxy and insisting on imaginative freedom he continued to trouble readers. It was not only Thabo Mbeki who was disturbed by the depiction of black men raping a white woman in the Booker Prize winning, Disgrace (1999). Frequently, the unsettling tensions in Coetzee’s work have lain between its controlled austerity its lapidary elegance, and the risk he has run of giving offence, in writing to the edge. Over time his fictions have became increasingly self-reflexive (among his characters are numerous avatars bearing his name), digressive and provisional (“to be explored…”), and removed from what many now regard as the bad faith, or at least the untenable use of realism at the end of the modern era. Elizabeth Costello (2003), for instance, consists of a series of lectures on the industrialisation of animals, hanging on only the flimsiest of story skeletons; Dairy of a Bad Year (2007) develops three parallel narrators demarcated by dividing lines; while Summertime (2009) sees the biographer of a writer, one “J M Coetzee”, interviewing unimpressed ex-lovers following the death of the author. The problem of placing Coetzee geographically or intellectually was the subject of an essay by Hedley Twidle which won the Financial Times/Bodley Head competition in 2012. As Twidle observed, for many reviewers the difficulty of analysing Coetzee’s writing is fuelled by the feeling that he has got there before them: his fictions include their own auto-assessments, creating a critical redundancy.

J. M. Coetzee, 2017

All of which sets up intriguing questions when it comes to Coetzee’s own literary criticism. As with the two earlier volumes of his collected non-fiction, many of the selections in Late Essays, including those on Goethe, Irène Némirovsky, Beckett, Philip Roth and Patrick White, were originally published as reviews for the New York Review of Books. An insightful essay on Zbigniev Herbert first appeared in the small magazine, New Walk. But half of the essays began life as Introductions to other writers’ works (among them pieces on Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Ford Madox Ford, Heinrich von Kleist and Leo Tolstoy, as well as Beckett and White again). A glance at the Acknowledgements reveals that nearly all of these were for volumes published by El Hilo de Ariadne. What we are not told is that they are part of a grander project of canon-making that Coetzee has entered into with the Argentine publishing house to select, introduce and publish his own Biblioteca Personal – along the lines of Borges’s personal library for Hyspamérica. These books, Coetzee has said, are not only works that he greatly admires, but ones that have had a formative influence upon him as a writer.

Other than Hendrik Witbooi, all the writers discussed in this new collection are by men – Némirovsky is the only female exception – who made a living from their pens. The first essay, on Defoe notes that this was a profession “which, if he did not invent…he certainly pioneered”. He was, too, “an accidental pioneer of the novel of realism”, not quite understanding what he was doing, but how could he when he was “not only making the story up as he went along, he was making the form up too”? Defoe’s innovative writing emerged from his position as “an important social actor: the inquisitive, acquisitive man or woman of the ascendant protestant middle class”, and from “a certain inborn genius”. In interview Coetzee once said “there are no generalizations that serve and are true for all writers”, and the reach and depth of these sophisticated, authoritative essays certainly prove the case. But across generations and continents there are some recurring themes, reflecting perhaps Coetzee’s own preoccupations as a writer as much as those of the people he speaks of. It is the accident of talent (“which it is death to hide”) combined with specific historical forces and the way these feed into a work that he alights upon when trying to unravel the mysteries of writing – mysteries even to authors themselves who “cannot always tell the deepest motive behind [their] writing”. Kleist, for example, was born into a Prussian military family but lived “in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand plan to redraw the map of Europe”; becoming sick of army brutality and discovering the sceptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, he tried to fashion himself into a writer. These illuminating details help to explain why Kleist’s stories are so paradoxical, concerned as they are with people “torn between competing forces and impulses.” In the same way, Coetzee finds in the satiric counter-attacks, the ironic masks or Aesopian fables of Herbert’s poetry “evidence of his historical situation as a man trying to live out a poetic and intellectual vocation in a hostile environment”.

Along with the particulars of background and talent, Coetzee keenly identifies the honed techniques and “writer’s tricks” which keep pushing the form into new territory: Flaubert’s “ability to formulate larger issues…as problems of composition”, Kleist’s “invisible or buried narrators”, Roth’s complication of story “transmission”, and the methods Becket took from psychoanalysis (keep talking, free-associate: there is no point, and no end). In a group of novels by Defoe, Hawthorne, Flaubert and Ford concerning sexual betrayal, Coetzee seems less interested in the betrayals themselves than in the way in which their depiction makes of their creators (as with his own challenging stories) opponents of hypocrisy, moralising and cant; even as in the case of an essentially conservative writer such as Ford, the ambiguities and double-standards that The Good Soldier exposes, make him so. Indeed, one can draw a line in Coetzee’s thinking from the rebellion against bourgeois manners – Emma Bovary’s “right to desire in the face of the pious disapproval of society”, Ivan Ilyich’s “unseemly suffering…a breach in social decorum”, or Kleist’s Marquise, inexplicably pregnant (a plot so offensive one reviewer thought that even to summarise it was “to ostracize oneself from polite society”) – to the idea of the artist as an outsider.

Among many models of the author which Coetzee entertains, the romantic idea of the writer as outcast, pilloried for truth-telling yet steadfast in fidelity to their vision (“the great Accursed One” described by Rimbaud), is perhaps the one he finds most compelling. In Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector, he picks out the artist as “Luciferian angel”, and in an essay on Samuel Beckett he anoints Kafka as “the angel Misfit”. The Irish writer was the subject of Coetzee’s doctoral thesis: a lifelong preoccupation, he gets more attention here than anyone else. In Beckett, being an outsider is reformulated not only as the artist’s condition, but humanity’s – in our “plight of existential homelessness”. Coetzee’s quality of attention to Beckett is superb, though one could argue that he misses something of the comedy at the kernel of his work. But in the last of four pieces on him in Late Essays, Coetzee performs an imaginative dance with Godot’s creator that masters some of his playfulness, revealing, perhaps, as much about Coetzee as it does about Beckett.

In an essay of parts, divided by numbers, he begins by reflecting on how the mind/body divide gave rise to the dualism of radically self-conscious humans, an over-adaptation some thought, leading them to wonder if “the hyper-reflective Western bourgeois male” was doomed liked the dinosaur. Then, in a move that is part-homage, part-usurpation, he muses on what Beckett left out of his world picture: “the great scheming animal mind…incommensurate with human thought”. So he tries to conjure this for himself with a story about a laboratory animal also struggling to understand where it fits in a “universe [that] is never as it appears to be”. Coetzee rounds off with the true story of how in 1937, after his professor at Trinity saw an advert in the TLS, Beckett applied for a Cape Town University lectureship. He failed to get the job, of course, but for a moment Coetzee imagines another universe with Beckett, Crusoe-like, “an indolent Irish castaway” at “the southernmost tip of Africa” teaching Romance languages to daughters of the merchant class, even marrying one of these “sweet-breathed, bronze-limbed Calypsos”, and wondering would he ever have returned to Ithaca. The idea of Kafka or Beckett as university professors amuses him: “What would Kafka teach, anyway? How not to fit in?” But ever alert to the counter-thought, refusing all conclusions, Coetzee reminds us that Kafka was once a “perfectly competent insurance adjuster”.

How can we know the mind of a writer? What kind of portrait can we draw of these elusive creatures? Beckett and Kafka were both lean and both had a piercing gaze, Coetzee notes, and their photographs show men “whose inner being shines like a cold star through a fleshly envelope”. It is a beautiful image with the ring of truth about it, but one, characteristically, that Coetzee quickly dismantles: if soul and flesh belong to distinct realms, no photograph can tell the truth, and our conjunction “is an everlasting mystery”.

This review appeared in the TLS as “Plundering, rustling” on 22.9.2018.

Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom – Spectator


Neel Mukherjee has had a two-handed literary career working as a reviewer of other people’s novels and writing his own: in 2014, his second novel, The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His latest book is a state-of-the-globalized-nation novel which gives human particularity to those deadened concepts we pass around such as migration, inequality and neo-liberalism. A State of Freedom breaks into five chapters, each telling the story of a distinct individual in India, whose connection is only fully revealed in the final pages. Mukherjee has observed wryly that due to stereotypical ideas about the Indian novel, whatever their formal properties, his fictions tend to be read as family sagas. Perhaps with this in mind, the relationships in A State of Freedom are more often horizontal than generational, and the stories, taking place across the country, emphasise wildly different fortunes and experience. Refuting Western preconceptions, one of Mukherjee’s protagonists, a manqué cookbook writer, asserts that there is no such thing as Indian food (the cuisine varies tremendously between states and cultures, something Mukherjee shows in mouth-watering detail), and in his novel there is no exemplary character: everyone’s perspective is partial and fragmented, and the ability to read the lives of others is less a product of education than a function of power. So the beggars, servants and manual labourers who appear ghost-like and inscrutable to the wealthy émigré visitors of the first two chapters, glimpsed only in their “periphery of vision”, emerge subsequently from this state of illegibility into fully-realised human beings, each with their own chapter, context and rationale.

The story begins with a man undone by India, a returnee after years away in America, now “broke[n] down” by an event made all the more horrific for seeming inexplicable. The unnamed man, bursting with pride but sensing he is “no longer a proper Indian”, has brought his young son in the back of a chauffeur-driven car to the Taj Mahal. But the American boy is too young and too hot to appreciate his father’s tales of emperors banqueting under white moonlight, and is bewildered by an onslaught of beggars and amputees from whom his father tries to shield the stunned child. This brief sketch opens the novel like a short, sharp slap, alerting the reader to how proclamations of India’s dizzying too-muchness – hoardings in multiple languages and styles make the father think, “how unsettled their orthography” – become the excuse for not really looking at the violence of poverty, or reading the effect on everyone in its orbit.

Mukherjee, on the other hand, confronts us with the deranged performances of both master and slave. There is Lakshman, forced by poverty to beat and tether a wild bear so that it will dance for a handful of rupees. The power struggle between this unlikely couple is profound, and the entertainment they produce enacts their mutual humiliation. And Milly, in service from the age of eight, treated like an animal by successive employers, forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, fed leftover scraps, and beaten when she breaks a cup. The worst of these employers becomes so enraged at any sign of independence she imprisons Milly, and threatens to brand her face with a hot iron: “Flat 10”, the narrator observes, “had become like a circus.”

Neel Mukherjee

Mukherjee repeats certain words, complicating his novel with every accretion of meaning. So the cookery writer observes that recipes handed down can never be reproduced: each cook brings their own “hand” to the food, and it is this unique creativity, the expression of freedom, that power is threatened by and seeks to control. In Milly’s village Maoist rebels cut off her brother’s hand, while the ‘romantic’ emperor who built the Taj Mahal, cuts off his workers’ fingers so that his mausoleum can never be reproduced. In the same way, images of breaking amass to the point where the story withdraws from its own performance, reduced to a break-down of material cost (rent, water, electricity, food).

Finally in its dialectical ending A State of Freedom’s artfully-handled piecing together of story fragments is held in tension by a counter-force of textual disintegration. Capital letters and full stops disappear, sentences fragment, words break into poetic suggestion reminding us of the reduced, hollow men and women, trapped and fated by an order the writer would break, while acknowledging that art, in the end, cannot achieve this: “he is husk of course he is at last”.

Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant; Brian Van Reet, Spoils; Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing – TLS


“We don’t think Iraq books are going to sell,” Whitney Terrell’s editor told him when he first submitted The Good Lieutenant. Because he had spent years as an embedded reporter in Iraq, and believed he had something to say, Terrell treated this as a dismissal of his novel, rather than of its subject. Concerned that his tale of a soldier ruined by war was banal, he decided to run the narrative back to front, rewinding his protagonist from innocence lost, through killing, kidnap, lying, training, enlisting, all the way home to an American “philosophy” of goodness and innocence, to a belief that the rules of the family and the rules of the military were one and the same: “You don’t fucking run out on people…You don’t lie – or at least not to the people who are supposed to be on your side.”

The reverse narrative, as a technique of recuperation, has been deployed in war novels before, of course: Martin Amis used it to undo the murders of Nazis doctors in Time’s Arrow (1991), writing under the influence of Kurt Vonnegut who, in Slaughterhouse Five (1969), sucked bombs back into American planes to stop them from being dropped on Dresden. Chroniclers of twenty-first century wars face the same problem that Vonnegut dramatized so intelligently and with such imaginative courage: how to create an anti-war novel while exploiting war’s language, technology and murderous intent for the sake of a gripping or poetic narrative. They also face new difficulties. The so-called “global war on terror”, drifting from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, has gone on for so long it seems intractable and fathomless; the phrase “fog of war”, adapted from von Clausewitz, is often used to explain our intellectual resignation. At the same time, with combat live-streamed on the internet, and news bulletins on the injured or dead, on patches of ground gained or lost, on cities under siege or weapons deployed (most recently, “the mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan), war is endlessly repeated and over-familiar. Under these circumstances, as Terrell’s editor warned, finding a readership for a war novel can prove difficult.

The books on this subject that have proved popular, selling in their millions in America, are those that publishers call ‘kill memoirs’ – tales of exploits in battle in the ‘authentic’ voice of an army veteran. The most notorious of these is probably Carnivore, co-authored by Sergeant Dillard Johnson, whose claim of a KIA (killed in action) rate of 2,764 dead Iraqis, trumpeted by his publisher, has been disputed. Despite their popularity, many soldiers, and war reporters such as Terrell, have instead chosen to write fictions that bear witness to the experience of war while complicating the one-sided bravado of the kill-and-tell accounts. These novels and stories have appeared in two waves: what distinguishes the latest batch from earlier works such as Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), or Phil Klay’s powerful story collection, Redeployment (2014), is the desire to broaden the picture. So Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, both published this year, give the lead role to female soldiers. Similarly, they make serious efforts to incorporate the voice of the “enemy” – a late recognition of John Berger’s decree that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In Spoils, side by side with the story of an American soldier, there is that of a jihadi who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya before ending up in Iraq; in The Good Lieutenant, a deaf Sunni man and his Shia friend play pivotal roles. Roy Scranton devoted a part of his excoriating novel, War Porn (2016) to the life of an Iraqi mathematician caught up in the war; while Elliot Ackerman goes further still, making the ambiguous figure of an Iraqi interpreter into the central character of Dark at the Crossing (2017). His novel concentrates not on the action of war, but on the refugees and the NGO workers who gather at its edges – in a Turkish park full of rough-sleeping doctors and architects; on a roadside near the Syrian border where abandoned kids sell lighters, mints, their own bodies, anything to put food in their bellies or catch a ride out of limbo.

Whitney Terrell

The Good Lieutenant takes place in 2006. Its central figure is Emma Fowler, a working class midwesterner, suffering from guilt over a brother she was forced to mother from a young age, and has now left behind. Recruited into the army, she begins an affair with a fellow sergeant, a middle class man called Pulowski, who is fond of advising her how to assert authority over a platoon of men who – because of her homilies about looking out for one another – have taken to calling her “Family Values”. It’s an unlikely nickname but it sets up the tension Terrell wants to explore between the military’s rules, hierarchies, technological and linguistic abstractions, and its codes of honour and fraternity, which Fowler clings to and tries to inculcate in her men.

In contrast to the quagmire that Fowler inhabits – judging what amounts to “illegal crap… pulled” by other officers, finding the line between self-preserving and trigger-happy soldiers, negotiating the gender and class wars that carry on inside the military one – Terrell writes well about the simple pleasures of sex. These scenes are a reminder of the playfulness and vulnerability of the body, of all that the violence of war can eradicate in one explosive moment. Which brings us to the inevitable ending where The Good Lieutenant begins, with a reconnaissance mission gone awry after a soldier’s kidnap, with Fowler holding Pulowski’s bleeding body in her arms, and with “Family Values” now a justification for the laying waste of anyone outside the Family. By The Good Lieutenant’s last act, having got to know something of their story, we feel for the Iraqis – one is “innocent”, a fan of American films and its images of freedom, the other in cahoots with the enemy. For all this, it’s hard not to feel that their their torture and killing is made instrumental to the real tragedy of the book: the corruption of Emma Fowler.

As in Terrell’s novel, Van Reet disrupts the chronology of his story. Spoils opens in 2003, with a mortar attack on American troops at a roundabout in Iraq, before ranging back over two years leading up to the event, and then progressing to the eight weeks in which their fate is determined. Like Emma Fowler, Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (another young, white, working class midwestener) joins an army that is full of “mixed messages”: soldiers are indoctrinated about their mission as great liberators while training to ironic ditties about slaughter: “Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue. Then pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.” After her truck is hit, Wigheard is kidnapped with two male soldiers by a group of mujahideen, who hide their prisoners in a disused factory. Among the captors is Abu Al-Hool, an Egpytian growing weary of war and wrestling with his faith; Dr Walid, one of the new Islamist ideologues, encouraging the filming of prisoners’ executions; and a young Yemeni recruit who the older men compete over, each trying to pull him over to their way of thinking.

Brian Van Reet

Imprisoned in a lightless cell, Wigheard emerges as the toughest of kidnapped soldiers, tapping on the wall to check on her comrades, building a relationship with the young Yemeni guard, and surviving even when she is cast out into an animal pen because of her periods. But as Van Reet makes clear her resilience is in large part just a product of youth: the adult fear of death makes taking the risks necessary to win a ground war “too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide or a teenager.” Finally there is Sergeant Sleed, who provides one of the novel’s most arresting scenes when he and a renegade group break into one of Saddam’s golden palaces in search of trophies. But as in The Good Lieutenant, the spoils of war refer to more than bounty: like Emma Fowler, Wigheard suffers a cruel fate, but this time, the pity of her lost youth is joined with that of someone from the other side – the young Yemeni, who dies with his hand in hers.

Like many earlier Iraq novels, The Good Lieutenant and Spoils focus on contemplative soldiers who believe in the ultimate rightness of their mission, while being aware of the lies and rottenness of war – often showing them in opposition to more jingoistic and gung-ho figures. But whatever their political or intellectual stripe, all the soldiers in these stories ironize their situation (when Pulowski and Fowler are photographed outside the army HQ, he jokes: “Say WMD!”), and this irony is quietist, reinforcing their lack of agency and making them more dependent on the military machine. Terrell’s and Van Reet’s attempts to enlarge the story are significant, but as Scranton has argued of the preponderance of novels about the post 9/11 wars, they still fail to address the broader question of responsibility. This leaves the reader’s sympathy with soldiers on the ground who remain victims of a situation where “everything is going to shit too fast to believe”, the deaths they perpetrate, exonerated or subsumed by the ethical dilemmas which they face. In the summer of 2016, exasperated by this state of affairs, Scranton took to Twitter: “You know what would be awesome? More veterans whining about how nobody understands the moral complexity of being an imperial stormtrooper.”

Elliott Ackerman, however, has evaded this trap. As an ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently as a war correspondent in Syria, perhaps his more varied experience has afforded him a broader perspective. If he does not directly address the Scranton question of who is ultimately responsible, he does expand the focus to think about the war’s effects beyond the site of battle. Death at the Crossing tells the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi made guilty by his time as a translator for the American army, who has moved to Michigan before returning to the Middle East with the idea of fighting for the Free Syrian Army. He lands up in Turkey, and makes a failed attempt to cross the border, but is ripped off by a Daesh operative. Without money or wherewithal Haris hangs around the border – one of the ephemeral spaces that war creates, filled with plastic tarpaulins, sagging tents, impromptu cafes, shipping containers, satellite dishes, and scrawny kids who fight to stay alive by ganging together, adults who give up and lay down by the wayside.

Elliot Ackerman

Picked up by Amir, a former Syrian revolutionary now conducting research into the border kids for an NGO, Haris is taken to Antep where Amir has an apartment. Since the euphoria of revolution turned into the despair of war, Amir has struggled with his beliefs. Worse than this, he is plagued by guilt because a group of fighters he allowed into the basement of his daughter’s nursery, accidentally blew up the building, resulting, in all probability, in her death. Despite this, Amir’s beautiful, wife, Daphne, made crazy by her loss, and not knowing for certain what happened, is determined to return to Syria to search for her. These three displaced adults inhabit a circle of sexual attraction, but even this life-force is not strong enough to break down their individual isolation and doubt. Rather than irony, the tone here is one of futility, a sense that no one in the vicinity of war can escape its deathly pull. When Harris and Daphne finally cross back into Syria, paying a Daesh member to take them, they are now so morally compromised that they pick up one of the young border boys, Jamil, who wants to become a fighter, simply because he can navigate the way. Arriving at Daesh’s headquarters inside Syria, they find a wall covered with pictures of martyrs. But Haris notes that martyrdom is not about sacrifice, as Americans think: “The literal meaning was ‘he who bears witness’… Haris considered Amir, Daphne and even Jamil. Watching them, he no longer felt like a voyeur in their war – he was their witness.” It is unclear how Haris can be their witness, except at a metatextual level where the statement can be read as a declaration of the novel’s extension of interest and sympathy.

Perhaps Scranton’s complaint against soldiers who focus on their own involvement in these wars, failing to envisage a larger context, should more properly be levelled against non-combatant writers. As if to reassure us about the dearth of American fiction that engages the bigger picture, many critics have cited the argument that the ‘best’ war novels are only produced long after the event. But there have already been a welter of post 9/11 novels from the big beasts of American literature (including works by DeLillo, Franzen, MacInerney, Messud, Pynchon, Safron Foer and Updike). These, however, have all concentrated on the effects on what American politicians like to call “the homeland”; none have addressed the havoc wreaked on other countries. This, perhaps, is a sign of the parochialism of the American imagination, its failure to consider the wider world, or at least to imagine the consequence of its actions for the “other side”.

Boualem Sansal, 2084: The End of the World (translated by Alison Anderson) – TLS


Two things we can say for certain about the troubled times we live in: art and literature are once more being viewed in the light of politics, and these complex, often convulsive politics are throwing up strange bedfellows, complicating the act of interpretation. Take the Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, and the American President, Donald Trump, for instance, and the warnings both men have issued about Islamic fundamentalism. In Sansal’s dystopian novel, 2084: The End of the World, (unabashedly based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the narrator wonders how he can reach back in time to warn people about the catastrophe of totalitarianism that is about to befall them. Set in a future when the clocks have stopped, and following a Great Holy War, an authoritarian theocracy (resembling ISIS, though never named as such) has taken control of the planet. Abistan is now the only country in existence, Abilang, the only language spoken. Religious pilgrimages traverse mountains and deserts but like many other aspects of life, the country’s geography, “so vast and so thoroughly unknown”, remains obscure; obligatory prayers are held nine times a day, and public executions and stonings keep the masses bowed down. The ignorance of history, deleted from Abistan’s official records, or of any other way of life, has created willing adherents to the creed of “Submission”. Only a few artefacts remain from some unacknowledged prior existence and these are hidden in a secret museum called the “Louvre”.

A few days after the publication of Sansal’s novel in English, an Egyptian fundamentalist – as if from some alt-right playbook, wielding a machete and shouting “Allahu Akbar” – assaulted soldiers guarding the real-life Louvre. President Trump issued a warning on social media: “A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum…GET SMART U.S.”, and as an afterthought: “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country!” Sansal, who has described the collective effort of North African writers as the “struggle to free ourselves from evil and archaic dictatorship”, has been on a list of banned authors in Algeria since 2006, but in France his work has been lauded: 2084 won the Académie Francaise’s Grand Prix du Roman, and Michel Houellebecq praised Sansal for going further than he had dared to in Submission (2015), his controversial novel imagining an Islamic France. In Paris recently, Sansal gave a lecture to journalists: the French are acting like “useful idiots”, he told them, pandering to Islamists who are akin to Nazis and in the process of taking over their country.

Sansal’s speech seemed like a howl of pain from a man who has seen his country transfigured by Islamisation: once his home town had one mosque, now there are eleven, and he has watched non-religious friends become pious and conformist. But his appeal to the superiority of a secular and modernist France comes at a time when racist, anti-Muslim feeling is rising: Marine Le Pen – who herself said the spread of Islam in France was akin to Nazis occupation – may soon be elected President. Such a climate means that translators of fiction have to think, more than usually, long and hard about the inflections they give to any story. As Elisabeth Jaquette, the English translator of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2016) – another dystopian novel examining the way Islam is used by the state to bolster its own power – told me: “In a country like Egypt, where Islam is the state religion, writing against a Muslim regime is writing against state authority; in the US/UK, it plays into prevailing Islamophobic narratives.” Alison Anderson’s deft and intelligent translation of 2084 from its original French into English, helps to overcome such binary thinking by conveying Sansal’s abhorrence of a system that controls people’s minds, while explaining that the system was not originally evil but has been corrupted: “an inner malfunction in an ancient religion which had once brought honour and happiness to many great tribes…its workings had been broken by the violent, discordant use that had been made of it over the centuries, and this had been aggravated by the absence of competent repairmen or attentive guides.” In the current political context of fear-mongering and obfuscation, and of competing arguments about the free play of the imagination versus the need to defend the bullied or traduced, the challenge for readers is to encounter texts from other countries without prejudice or complicity, or at least to recognise when these might be in play.

Boualem Sansal

Ati, the protagonist of 2084, wrestles with his dawning non-belief. At a mountain sanatorium where he goes to recover from tuberculosis (one of many intertextual references to Orwell), he becomes obsessed with the “legend of the border”, something that if found would belie Abistan’s claim of global domination. He makes illegal journeys to the ghetto, to “Abigov”, the centre of power, and is finally taken to a compound where the “Louvre” museum is housed. In all these places he finds different ways of living and hears other languages spoken. Abistan, he learns, is a religio-corporate empire whose rulers, the Just Brotherhood, plot against one another over the pilgrimages’ commercial concessions. Yet he remains credulous, failing to read the signs when he first meets the museum’s curator, and recognise that he is a double agent. By the time he understands this, Ati has made a deal, agreeing to entrap one side of the feuding Brotherhood to help another’s bid for power in return for safe passage to the mountains.

The Machiavellian figure behind this operation bears some resemblance to O’Brien in 1984, but unlike Winston Smith, Ati’s collaboration does not require torture. Sansal forgoes what Stephen Spender called Smith’s “total conditioning”, and the absolutism of tragedy for something more in keeping with his faith in modernity and pluralism. At the culmination of Sansal‘s moving and cautionary story, Sansal dispenses with the totemic moment of Ati’s betrayal in favour of a hurried synopsis. The novel ends with quarrelling messages from different factions of the state. The final report of a man in the mountains searching for the border reveals the regime’s false news, or doublespeak, opening under pressure to multiple readings, and thus to a glimmer of hope: “If the border does not exist, and that is certain, its legend does and is still growing.”

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