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John Keene, Counternarratives – TLS

22/07/2016

We have become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own. His book achieves no less than an imaginative repositioning of the history of the Americas, a tilting away from the legends of white, puritan pioneers to a more complex pattern of continental colonialism. As its title suggests, Counternarratives contains “writing back” of the kind Edward Said proposed; its stories are imbued with potent dialectical energy, bringing to mind Paul Gilroy’s key idea of the “Black Atlantic as a counterculture of modernity”. Keene is not simply an oppositional writer, however: in his richly detailed accounts of black lives through history, dividing lines are continually crossed. So there are escapologists, quislings and prophets, and motifs of cultural appropriation, false consciousness, prohibited desire, illicit knowledge, forbidden artistry, and everywhere, the struggle for transcendence. Counternarratives consists of thirteen individual fictions – some of flashing brevity, others the length and intricacy of a novella. Together they act like a polytych: each story has its own integrity but an underlying intellectual coherence allows the reader to intimate their author’s power and purpose, and to identify the arrival of a writer who, like one of his own characters, has “a will of lead and a satin tongue”. A former student of E.L. Doctorow (under whose tutelage one of these stories was written), Keene is that rarest of things today, a writer whose radicalism connects the politics of history to the politics of fiction.

The stories advance in rough chronology beginning at the dawn of the seventeenth century with a glimpse of the New World and the arrival of Juan Rodrigues, Manhattan’s first non-indigenous inhabitant (and a real life personage). A San Domingo slave who bought his freedom working on ships, the child of an African mother and Portuguese father, Rodrigues is given a name by the “Mannahatta” islanders that reminds him of the secret one his mother gave him, a name she “summoned forth from her people, and swor[e] him never to reveal”. This resemblance between his mother’s words and the islanders’, helps him to unlock their language in a way that his Dutch shipmates are unable to, emancipating him into a new life.  Rodrigues’s easy relations with these “first people” – cemented through shared meals, gestures and storytelling, “voices that spoke through fire and smoke” – suggests the possibility of an entirely different trajectory for American history.

From this alternative foundation story, Keene casts his eye across two and a half centuries of conquest, war and slavery, and concomitant with these, counter-struggles of resistance. ‘On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras’, presents a history of the country seen through the lens of two plantation-owning families who intermarry but also father children with Indian and black women – part of the “New World experiment”. Down the generations their sons are named “Inocêncio”. There is “no genius compared to that of [their] own people” they believe, without understanding who their people are. These innocents work their slaves to death, and one slaughters a whole quilombo – a colony of runaway slaves led by “a particularly defiant African”, Cesarao. Told back to front, the story begins with an historical reckoning in which the last scion of the family ends up decapitated in a São Paulo favela, known colloquially as “Quilombo Cesarao”. It’s a reversal encouraging us to rethink history and notice overlooked counter-cultures (the quilombo, the favela) in which the future may be gestating.

Against the brutal fates many of his characters suffer, Keene’s stories keep changing their shape, implying countervailing forces of ingenuity and will; and against the limited psychic space historically allotted to black people, he gives us subjectivity that exceeds its cramped conditions, queries notions of rationality, proposes other kinds of knowledge, and takes liberties wherever it can. In ‘An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’, there is an exemplar of this kind of outflanking style. Zion has a talent for evasion, non-cooperation and flouting the law which repeatedly wears down the men he is sold to. As in many eighteenth century picaresques where the protagonist’s escapades are marshalled into episodes, so Zion’s sprees and outrages are divided into sections meant to contain his unruliness. But Keene hedges these with a loaded title and an interposed “Theory” – a quotation from David Hume on the origins of liberty. Together, they subvert the narrative order, transforming the meaning of Zion’s seemingly illogical acts (carousing, stealing, daring to assault white women and then, with staggering insouciance, not bothering to run away). In the face of arbitrary law which hangs “another Negro” in his stead, and a revolution in the name of liberty which will fail to abolish slavery, Zion becomes the story’s emblematic figure of reason, his flagrant disregard of the law a logical response to its great injustice.

John Keene, 2016

John Keene, 2016

The last entry in this section, ‘Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrow’ looks further at the idea of hidden and competing knowledge. As ‘On Brazil’ gained putative authority from imagined histories of the Londônias-Figueiras’s family, so here the story opens with a (similarly invented) book: The History of the Catholics in the Early American Republic: 1790-1825. But after a page of this, we are diverted to a footnote – the ‘Gloss’ of the title. (With the “Dénouement’, the ‘Outtake’ and the ‘Gloss’, Keene is inviting us to look at things another way around and to think about what might be discoverable in the margins of official histories.) ‘Gloss’ concerns Carmel, a silent Haitian slave girl working for one Monsieur de L’Ecart, a supposedly liberal master imbibing ideas from the Age of Reason: “equality, he had more than once penned in his journal, was the proper guiding principle, though in practice it required severe restraint.” Carmel expresses herself with wild drawings prophesying revolution. Asked by de L’Ecart’s daughter about their meaning, she tries to mime: “they are going to TEAR THE WHITE OUT”. When Toussaint L’Ouverture’s men revolt, the girls are sent to live with nuns who, underscoring the story’s historical ironies, have themselves fled from the French Revolution. Keene reflects again on the contradictions of the period, asking: under the yoke of slavery “is it even possible to invoke a rhetoric of ethics?” Like Zion, Carmel makes of her circumstances what she can, responding to abuse with an “unassimilable refusal to communicate”: for this she is feared as a “spook…black witch”. Used to being misunderstood (her dutifulness read as devotion), she instead takes her duty to herself seriously, learning to read the nuns’ books in French, Latin and Greek. As the narration slips from third to first person, she creates new knowledge by recording her experience and theorising about it. But just as Carmel’s mystificatory power is questioned, so there is a counter-side to her new reasoning: becoming literate she starts to sound like Jane Austen, losing the distinctive voice of her obscurity.

The turning point in Counternarratives comes with the Civil War. In a second group of fictions the emphasis shifts from countering to encounters that take place in the aftermath of war and on into the early twentieth century when black artists and intellectuals were now ostensibly free but still struggling against the weight of stereotype and diminished expectation. In an act of writing back that should prove as significant for American literature as Jean Rhys’s deconstruction of Jane Eyre was for the English canon, Keene revisits Mark Twain’s tales of the river rats, Huck, Tom and Jim, forty years later, once adulthood and Civil War have divided them, bringing to the surface – as Rhys herself did – racism only latent in the earlier books. By projecting the three men forward in time Keene is able to throw new light on their earlier relationship, on their now-famed “adventures” which Jim thinks of rather as “sense-defying events”, the central conundrum of his life, in which he was led by Huck “into the heart of terror”, traveling south down the Mississippi, rather than north to freedom.

Keene then presents a series of duets. W.E. DuBois and George Santayana glance over at one another on the streets of Harvard, their mutual apprehension (“Of course there will be scant possibility of a friendship“) conveyed in parallel columns on the page which the reader’s eye must travel across. In Mexico city and New York, Langston Hughes hooks up with his translator, the poet Xaviar Villaurrutia – Keene’s writing now imbued with a cadenced, modernist sensibility (“this rhythm…of men…alone together…a blues”). And Miss La La, the circus aerialist, bit in mouth, soars above Edgar Degas as he tries to capture her in flight – a story spun from one breathtaking sentence: “I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips…I aim to exceed every limit placed on me, unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom…”

Miss La La at the Cirque de Fernando, 1879 by Edgar DegasMiss La La

Freedom as an absolute may be impossible to attain but Keene shows us here what human beings in straitened circumstance make of the struggle – in myriad ways and with great tenacity. Their key to self-realisation is the garnering of knowledge, and as Keene quotes in an epigraph from the Barbadian poet, Kamau Braithwaite, “Knowledge is submarine”. It’s an image of fugitive power that perfectly encapsulates the cunning and audacity of Keene’s writing, but also his characters’ efforts to uncover more room for manoeuvre. A corresponding effort is experienced by the reader in the face of many textual interruptions, oppositions and aporias. ‘On Brazil’, for instance, contains the word “but” ten times in one paragraph; in ‘Blues’ the narrator notes that although Villaurrutia is Hughes’s translator, “Xavier is not sure exactly whom or what Langston means”; and in ‘Lions’ – Counternarratives’ final story, leaping into some universal present in the aftermath of colonialism – the difficulty becomes even more pronounced as efforts to interpret are frustrated by Keene’s use of knotty aphorisms: “Everybody is a monster, but only the monsters know it.”

‘Lions’ explores the history of postcolonialism and the complicity between the freedom fighter and the poet whose “odes to gore” justify – as Frantz Fanon and others did -“violence in the service of revolution”. The poet delivers a counterblast to his old friend and lover, once the beautiful revolutionary, now a “filthy degenerate lion quisling” devouring his people. Adrift from his ancestors, a mind enslaved by American pop culture, high on power (“black steel toe boots…polished by peasants’ tongues”), squandering resources, banning artists, bribing the electorate, he is the leader of a “nation of narcissists, knowing nothing”. Invoking generations of violent dictators and suicide bombers, the freedom fighter’s only raison d’etre has become his fearlessness: “the man who listens only to death.” Keene plays brilliantly upon the excessiveness of it all, the spectacular unreason resulting from the project of enlightenment and liberation. He then calls time on this historical dead end, dismembering its agents and dismantling its stories. At the last he returns to the beginning and Rodrigues’ memory of a glass blower in San Domingo, the furnace nearly devouring him as he forged – against the heat and out of it – a miraculous “blown bowl”. In homage to the millions of Zions and Carmels who forged their own lives against, and out of, the furnace of history, Keene brings the reader back to the miracle of their self-making by drawing attention to his own. Characteristically countering – even in his final decomposing words – he finishes with the excess of writing and its unreasonable defiance of the end: its promise of a way out, of more room, of something further to come: “I’ll lie here until – … … …”.

This review, titled ‘Exceed Every Limit’, appeared in the TLS on 13.7.2016.

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