Review: Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, by Drew Hayden Taylor (2016)

~ Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, by Drew Hayden Taylor (Douglas & McIntyre, 2016). ~

~

I picked this up as a palate cleanser during a break in reading a very long, very inaccurate and very tedious historical novel (which I might not return to). And… it was nearly the perfect antidote. Take Us to Your Chief
is a collection of nine short stories by the Native Canadian writer Drew Hayden Taylor, written mostly in reaction to the near-impossibility of bringing together an anthology of science fiction stories by different Native Canadian writers. A feasible, original, idea, though sadly not a very marketable one; so Taylor just wrote the stories on his own. This is the result.

The stories are, in essence, a catalogue of science fiction clichés. There’s an alien contact story; a post-apocalypse story; a sentient AI story; a superhero story. They’re all set, however, in Canada, against various backgrounds of Native/Aboriginal characters and contexts. It’s a very organic, very effective meshing, sensitive to the contemporary problems and preoccupations of Native communities but at the same time refracting them through the speculative lens of science fiction. What would a Native superhero actually look like? What would happen if an advanced alien species made first contact on reservation land, with only patchy knowledge of ‘Earth’ beliefs and customs? What would Native spaceflight look like? And so forth.

The pleasures are entirely cerebral – ‘speculative,’ in the proper sense of the word. A heavy undercurrent of irony runs through all the stories in Take Us to Your Chief: the stories are both darkly funny and chillingly realistic. The superhero wants to do superheroics, but instead gets embroiled in legal battles and unshakeable structural inertia and discrimination against his Native heritage. The alien species makes contact with three Native men rather too fond of beer… but who also share a kind of telepathic mutual understanding which the aliens find fascinating. These are not stories to immerse yourself in, but carefully conceived pieces exploring intersections of certain themes that aren’t often considered in parallel. I very much enjoyed them, and they should be great reading for any SF connoiseur who’s interested in alternate, diverse takes on staples of the genre.

Verdict: recommended.

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Fledgling and Triton on Sex and Gender

I’ve recently read, in quick succession, two books by prominent speculative fiction authors: Fledgling, by Octavia Butler, and Triton, by Samuel Delany. Although very different on the surface – one book is about vampires; the other a character-driven space opera – they both deal, in a fundamental way, with sex and gender, and families and kinship. More precisely, they’re both about alternative imaginations of sexuality and kinship. Not exactly a subject strange to speculative fiction, to be sure. Yet I think it’s an interesting experiment to compare how these two books dealt with it, and the degree to which they succeeded in doing so.

Fledgling was Octavia Butler’s last published work, published in 2005 (Butler died in 2006). It’s a story about a young (think in her late 50s) female vampire, Shori, who wakes up naked in a cave in the wilderness with amnesia – unable to remember her name, her identity, or how she ended up where she did. Through a series of encounters she begins to reconstitute her sense of who she is – that is, a vampire, a member of a species who evolved on Earth in parallel with humans but is different from them in certain fundamental ways, the most important of which is probably that they need blood to survive. For this reason the vampires (called “Ina”) live with scores of human “symbionts” from whom they take blood on a regular basis. Some sort of chemical compound in Ina saliva makes humans completely enamoured of them once they get bitten, and makes the blood-sucking experience extremely pleasurable. (This of course makes perfect adaptive sense: I guess the Ina whose bites weren’t pleasure-inducing enough to keep humans around them happy got themselves booted from the gene pool pretty quickly.)

Shori’s amnesia is basically there as a plot device to introduce us to the details of Ina physiology and society. But there is an overarching plot as well: Shori is a genetic experiment, a vampire who due to her novel black skin can actually function in sunlight, which certain more traditionalist vampires didn’t take quite well to, and decided to kill her family (she was the only survivor of the massacre – hence the hiding in the cave at the beginning – and the amnesia was trauma-induced). Much of the novel involves Shori piecing together precisely what happened, gaining allies, and re-establishing herself in vampire society. And she succeeds in this very well. She doesn’t back down, but also learns from her mistakes. She’s a great heroine, really, and Butler gives us a very nuanced portrayal of her – from her visceral emotions in feeding and claiming symbionts, to her feelings about her family, to her occasional missteps and lapses in judgment. But she’s confident, and smart, and in the end successful.

The plot and writing of Fledgling may not be the most gripping, but it does very well what the best speculative fiction novels are meant to do: shine a light on aspects of culture and society that we can take for granted, but really aren’t. Imagining a rich, alternative world as a form of oblique social commentary. And it is quite oblique. There’s no escaping the racial themes – the traditionalist vampires opposing Shori’s novel genetic makeup are clearly racists, but they’re also speciesists, considering their human symbionts as not really complete people at all – but another thread that I feel is even more potent is that of alternative sexuality. And alternative kinship.

A lot of Fledgling reads almost like a classic anthropological description of Ina kinship and custom. We learn that they live segregated by gender, as their breeding physiology and psychology make it pretty much impossible for males to survive for very long around females. Vampire mating bears a resemblance to feeding, we’re told – that is, drinking blood from humans – though with much higher stakes. But it has the same overtones of sex and pleasure that feeding and symbiosis carry.

And it’s the symbionts, I feel, that are the most memorable achievement of Fledgling. Feeding, as an alternative source of pleasure, an alternative basis on which to build relationships, is presented so vividly, so sensitively, in a way that seems so thoroughly thought through, that you’re really forced to consider how it would be like if something like it actually existed. Sex is still there, of course; and there’s quite a lot of it, both among symbionts and between symbionts and ‘their’ vampires (though of course for the vampires it’s not a source of pleasure that it is for humans; feeding is). The two are often blended; but they don’t need to be. And it’s a perfectly stable basis for relationship- and family-building. Vampires and symbionts live in something like communes, with a number of vampires (siblings of the same sex, usually) each having their own set of symbionts and co-habiting in a small settlement. (One such settlement in Fledgling even presents itself as a holdout hippie commune to curious outsiders.) Like a group marriage – though not really; rather, a way of living together and building communal relationships built on what is just a rather different physiology from Homo sapiens standard. In that’s sense, it’s much more alien than the customs and practices of many ‘alien’ species in contemporary science fiction.

And now to Triton – AKA Trouble on Triton, in later editions – from 1976. (I have a second-hand copy of what I believe might be the actual first UK edition of the novel; in any case, the cover title (as in the picture above) still only says Triton.) In some ways it’s very different from what you’d expect from typical 70s sci-fi (if there is such a thing). Delany’s writing is… demanding, at the best of times, though for Triton this isn’t actually the main issue; it’s really quite readable. It displays its progressive social and sexual politics quite prominently, but also frames them in a somewhat… unconventional way. And this is why I think it ultimately doesn’t work as well as Fledgling.

Triton is set during a war between Earth, Mars, and the moons of the outer planets of Earth’s solar system – I kept getting flashbacks to The Expanse while reading it, if only because of the setting. The main character, Bron Helstrom, is a self-centred, entitled, and perennially unsatisfied “metalogician” living in the city of Tethys on Neptune’s moon Triton, which boasts one of the most radically libertarian and sexually and socially anti-normative societies in the solar system – and one radically different from Martian society in which Bron grew up (and worked as a prostitute). Bron meets a theatre actor-director-producer named The Spike by chance on one of his random jaunts through the town, instantly falls in love with her, and spends much of the rest of the novel obsessing about her, angry at her for (basically) not loving him back, and ultimately changing sex because… she thinks it might give her a better chance? It’s not quite clear. Anyway, it doesn’t work, and Bron ends the novel just as dissatisfied with life as she began it… All the time while people are dying around him (later, her) in the debris of the aforementioned interplanetary war.

Bron is, quite clearly, meant to be out of place on Triton, with its non-heteronormative communes and post-scarcity economic system. He dresses like the Tritonians, even enjoys some aspects of his social life – though he’s quite unable to cope with what he perceives as come-ons from one of his housemates in his single-sex, “undeclared” commune (i.e., a commune that accepts any man regardless of sexual orientation). And in the second half of the novel, his regressive attitudes towards sex and gender really come to the fore. Bron’s an utter chauvinist, and what we get from Triton is that not even a sex change is able to disabuse him/her of this.

Which is, I believe, ultimately to Triton‘s detriment. The Tritonian society Delany depicts is basically a magnificent utopia of sexual liberation, of non-normativity, where people consciously join religious cults on a temporary basis for formative experiences, where artists get government grants to perform theatre for “unique audiences” of two or three people, where dress codes are more aligned to fashion than gender distinction and where changing your sex takes a few hours (including changing your chromosomal makeup, just in case you were worrying about it being too superficial. But of course you don’t need to do this if you don’t want to.). Introducing this world through a character with what turn out to be rather traditional mid-20th-century Euro-American hetero male attitudes certainly shines a light on the contrast between these attitudes. But… it doesn’t do much more than that. The conflict is simply there, and it persists through every single thing Bron does to try to fit in – even completely transforming himself genetically. It’s a depressing vision – though perhaps a relevant one: if the reader is frustrated with Bron, it’s likely because they recognise something of him/her from the people around them, and it’s a frustration that they need to deal with. Whether through preaching, or retreating, or conversation.

I guess it all hinges on whether the reader believes you can redeem “ignorance” (as Delany puts it in this interview). It’s a complex question, and Triton certainly gives a lot of material to discuss it – apart from being, of course, an amazing, complex, fully realised, completely immersive future world (this article by Jo Walton gives some pretty on-the-mark descriptions on what it feels to read it). It’s a complicated, and important, novel, and was likely even more so in 1976.

But compare this strategy of direct contrast of utopian and regressive values to Fledgling. There are racists and chauvinists in Fledgling, to be sure: Shori has to deal with a lot of prejudice on part of her enemies, who consider her a dirty genetic mongrel, female and thus subject to all sorts of pesky ’emotional instability,’ too young to stand on her own and argue her own case. But it still provides a more multidimensional prism on clashes between sex and kin alternatives than Triton does. Triton has the Triton vs. Bron axis; Fledgling has the Shori vs. vampire traditionalist axis – but it also has a number of other ones: humans unsure about vampire advances, human symbionts uncomfortable with the sexual relaxation of vampire communities, vampire-human speciesism. And, most relevant, the axis developed between the novel’s vampire society and the reader. No matter how glittering, how diverse, how captivating Delany’s utopian future is, it still operates within a very familiar, very human set of coordinates. Fledgling, on the other hand, goes beyond this. It’s slightly more cerebral in its creativity. It expands the possibility space a little bit more. It has sex, but it’s not all about sex. That is why, I think, its alternatives are ultimately more stimulating than Triton‘s.

Fledgling and Triton are two great idea-driven novels – though produced in two very different decades, by two quite different authors, with layers and layers of themes that could all be discussed and dissected. But pitting them against each other does give us some lessons about just what speculative fiction can achieve. And how exciting and durable it can be. For greats like Butler and Delany, I speculate they’ll remain so for a while yet.

A Play by Walter Benjamin? (Review)

~ Radio Benjamin, by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Lecia Rosenthal. Translated by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese (Verso, 2014). ~

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I’m aping the title of this review from what I believe is Walter Benjamin’s only surviving “listening model” (Hörmodell), a genre of radio programming with the didactic goal of presenting to listeners useful responses to everyday life situations. The “model” in question (“A Pay Raise?! Whatever gave you that idea!”), which Benjamin co-wrote with Wolf Zucker, is essentially a miniature radio play in which two characters, one after the other, ask their boss for a pay raise. One meets with success; the other does not. It’s interesting to see how, in early 1930s Germany, this was conceived to be an effective way of engaging with and educating ordinary citizens through the new medium of radio – even if Benjamin’s own position on the Hörmodell is much more critical of its utility (there’s a short essay in the book that makes this quite clear). But I also think it’s an indicative element in a collection that shows the range of literary capacity that Benjamin possesses, quite apart from his more famous essays and critical / philosophical writings. And it, indeed, includes a few radio plays – on which more below.

Radio Benjamin sets out to collect all of Benjamin’s writings for, and on, radio. This makes the book slightly eclectic, as the material is quite varied. Apart from the “listening model” mentioned above, and four radio plays (two aimed at children, two at adults), it also includes a number of short essays and radio talks. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up by so-called “talks for children” – shorter pieces written by Benjamin on some topic or other for a twenty-minute “youth hour” slot, read and broadcast on radio stations in Berlin and Frankfurt. Despite the irony of reading material that was, originally, meant to be spoken and listened to, I actually found this by far the most engaging part of the book. The pieces are short, easily digestible, concern interesting topics – from the history of Berlin to natural disasters to reflections on literary figures such as Faust – and seem to be on the whole accurately researched (even if they sometimes, ahem, ‘quote’ material verbatim from other authors’ works). And there is a kind of narrative thread running through them – even if you need some readerly imagination to think about how they might have been heard and perceived as a broadcast series heard over a number of weeks, as opposed to days on the written page.

The plays are a bit harder to get into, but still interesting – partly because of the sheer novelty, for me, of reading a radio play of any sort, though also because of the sharp awareness of the potentials and limitations of radio as a medium that they demonstrate. (This is one of my academic obsessions, as attested by my other blog.) Not only are there instructions for manipulating sound and voices for dramatic purposes – adding ‘chatting noises’ to give the effect of a large crowd, for example – but the plays (or at least their scripts) also include the nature of radio as part of the narrative itself. There is a lot of fourth-wall-breaking as various characters interact with the ‘radio announcer,’ complain of being taken into a world where they only exist as voices (and so have to leave their fancy costumes behind), and so on. As a historical artifact, I think these plays show quite well how acutely the nature of radio was felt and foregrounded by those who wrote for it at this early stage in its development – apart from, of course, demonstrating how unique the ‘radio play’ actually is as a genre.

Ultimately, though, for me reading Radio Benjamin was less about getting educated about the formal features of the medium, or the early history of radio in Germany, than plunging into the capabilities and talents of Benjamin as a writer. These are not literary-critical or philosophical essays; they are constructed and disciplined in different ways – and effectively, competently so, showing Benjamin’s much greater range than simply that of a cultural theorist. Again, though, there’s little consistency in content between the writings in the collection, apart from the fact that they were all written for (or on) radio. As mentioned, there is a kind of arc that can be discerned through the thirty-odd Youth Hour talks at the beginning; and there are worse ways of expanding your horizons with random trivia – I love random trivia, so I enjoyed them, though of course tastes may differ. (Interestingly, the “talks for adults” included in the collection seem much less organised and engaging; they might try to present more complex arguments, but they still feel considerably less polished than the Youth Hour stuff.) When the materials are all put together, though, it feels more like a collection of curiosities than a volume with any sort of consistency. Interesting, but perhaps not for everyone, and perhaps not to be read linearly or as a typical non-fiction work – and certainly not if you’re looking for more cerebral offerings.

Verdict: recommended… with reservations (and maybe only if you’re a fan of Benjamin’s).

A Poem by Ashraf Fayadh, Translated into Slovene and English

Tomorrow – Thursday 14 January – will see a huge selection of worldwide events in support of the Saudi-Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, recently sentenced to death by a Saudi court on charges of apostasy in his poetry (though the real reason behind the sentence may have been some regime-critical videos he’s posted online). At the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the University of Edinburgh we’ll be doing our bit with readings of Fayadh’s poetry in a couple of languages – including the original Arabic and translations into English, Sard, Italian, French, and Slovene.

This last will be my own contribution to the proceedings. For the occasion I’ve translated a poem of Fayadh’s – titled “Why We Care More About Oil Than Blood” (Fī faḍl al-nafṭ ‘alā al-dam) – from his 2008 poetry collection, Instructions Within (Ta‘līmāt fī al-daḳl), into Slovene.

This is in fact the first time I’ve done any Arabic translation directly into my native language – a bit intimidating, but fun! The Slovene version of the poem is below, followed by the English; note that in part the English follows the Slovene more closely than the Arabic, as I did the Slovene translation first and then used it as aid for the English version.

~

Zakaj nam je bolj mar za nafto kot kri

Vedi – in Bog te obvaruj –
da je nafta povsod, da jo vse potrebuje,
in da je, kakor pravijo, dobra za ljudstvo.

Vam, ki ste tavali,
tavali po velikih mestih, vsem na očeh
in izgubili vse –
poti odrešenja odrezane
od praznine, ki polni vaše prsi:

Tvoja kri bo ostala nema,
dokler boš ponosen na smrt,
dokler boš kričal, da si svoj duh prepustil nekomu, ki ga ne razume.
Morda boš dolgo brez duha –
a ta groza ne bo enaka tisti v tvojih očeh, ko boš videl, kaj lahko naredi nafta.

In gospodar ljudstva je rekel:
Kdor ima nafto, potrebuje njene derivate;
potrebuje jih –
blagoslov od tistih s plameni v očeh –
da postane njegovo srce božansko.

Nimaš dovolj,
da bi se rešil tegob naše dobe.
Nimaš cevi, iz katere bi tekla kri,
ki bi z njo poškropil zlagane vrednote,
ali da se malo po malo izmuzneš
desetini duha, ki se mu je ta doba ognila,
ali vsaj enemu dnevu odtujenosti.

Trepetaš.
Daj torej krvi, kolikor moreš,
da napojiš odtujenost,
da jo vbrizgaš v nafto tistih,
ki so dolžni izdati tvoj duh.
Da prosiš odpuščanje od reke
in se javno opravičiš za kri, ki si jo spustil vanjo.

Z nafto se upreš!
In odpreš temnice modrcev,
srkaš iz češenj in okoli njih,
zmehčaš in navlažiš, kar je med nogami –
in blagoslovljeno sladkobo okrog sebe.

In kaj potem,
če so ti izdajalci obesili sekiro na ramo?
Pravijo, da si se igral s krvjo – še vedno hrepeneč –
in se izgubljal v zasedah na beznice, bolan od veselja –
da si lahko spil požirek zastonj.

Zastonj.
Smrtonosne besede –
in pločevinka rabljenega tobaka,
in škatla, v katero ti je mati vrgla krike –
da te morje izpljune na obalo nevidenih grozot,
kjer ti je grom obljubil, da boš oplodil oblake –
in spočel dež, ki te ne bo opral sramu strahu pred reko,
spečo v objemu razočaranja

Črne kapljice nafte
potujejo med celicami tvojega telesa
in popravljajo, kar te je ostalo
po napadu bolezni odrešitve.

In kaj je v nafti slabega ali škodljivega
drugega kot onesnažen zrak in revščina?

Dan sramu za tiste, ki so odkrili še en vrelec,
in pihali v tvoje srce, da si predal dušo nafti –
v javnem interesu.
To nafta obljubi – in svoje obljube drži…

– KONEC –

~

Why We Care More About Oil Than Blood

Know this – and God give you strength –
that oil is everywhere and useful for everything
and that it is, as they say, good for the people.

To those who have wandered
lost between the great cities of the world for all to see
and came to ruin there
all paths to redeem the spirit cut off
from the void in your heart:

Your blood will not speak
as long as you take pride in death
and proclaim that you have hidden your spirit with one who doesn’t understand it.
And the loss of this spirit will not
equal the terror in your eyes when you see what flows from oil.

So spoke a man of the people:
If you have oil, you also need what can be made from it
You need it –
a blessing from those whose eyes blaze with fire –
so that your heart can turn divine.

You don’t own enough
to rid yourself of the troubles of our age.
You have no blood on tap
so you could spray it over your false values
or avoid, bit by bit,
a tenth of the spirit this age runs without,
or even a single day of your strangeness.

You tremble, now.
Draw, then, as much blood as you can
to fill the bellies of strangeness
to inject it into the oil of those
charged with betraying your spirit.
To ask forgiveness from the river
and apologise – publicly! – for the blood you spilled inside it.

With oil, you resist!
You open the depths of brassieres
suck on the cherries and all that’s around them
moisten and soften what’s between the legs
and the sweet blessings that surround you.

So what
if the apostates hung an axe at your shoulder?
They say that you’re one of those that have gambled with blood – still bound by longing –
and lost yourself in staking out nightclubs, sick with happiness –
so you could have a sip for free.

For free.
Abortive words –
and a tin of used tobacco
and a box where your mother hid your screams –
so the sea would spit you out on a coast filled with unknown terrors
where the thunder promised you communion with the clouds –
to give birth to rain that will not wash away your shame of fearing the river
which sleeps in the arms of disappointment.

Black drops of oil
travel between the cells of your body
and repair what’s left
from the sickness that struck you during your redemption.

And what is it that’s bad or harmful in oil
apart from air polluted with poverty?

A day of shame for those who discovered yet another well
and blew into your heart so you could give your soul over to oil
in the public interest.
This is the promise of oil. A promise that’s kept.

– END –

~

(Ashraf Fayadh, Fī faḍl al-nafṭ ‘alā al-dam, p. 23-35 in Ta‘līmāt fī al-daḳl, Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2008.)

Review: Ebola ’76, by Amir Tag Elsir (2012 / 2015)

~ Ebola ’76 (2012), by Amir Tag Elsir. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby (Darf Publishers, 2015). ~

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Ebola ’76 is a book by the Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir, and though written originally in Arabic it situates its narrative beyond the (often quite restrictive) confines of the “Arabophone” context. The story is primarily that of Lewis Nawa, a factory worker who returns from Zaire / Democratic Republic of the Congo to his hometown in southern Sudan carrying the Ebola virus after a visit to his (now-dead) mistress. An outbreak ensues, claiming the lives of many locals including Lewis’s somewhat-estranged wife, while others who find themselves in the area try to weather the disease as best they can, in a desperate panic to avoid infection and (likely) death – with no help (internal or external) evidently forthcoming.

The topic is grim, but the darkly satirical way in which Elsir deals with it makes for compelling – if morbid – reading. The cast of supporting characters is also fascinating, and includes a maverick magician, a hysterical blind guitar player who fancies himself an international star, and the owner of the factory in which Lewis is employed who does his best to squeeze out any advantage he can out of the situation. One technique I especially liked was assigning narrative agency to the virus – “Ebola did this, Ebola did that,” etc. – which one could make interesting comments about in the context of post-humanism and sociological theory that assigns agency to non-humans. It is also a riff on the largely depersonalized concept of a “disease vector”: Lewis is a fully realised, if not especially nuanced, character, with his own hopes and fears and relationships, and though these might not ultimately influence the course of the outbreak they still form important aspects of the story that made it happen.

It’s a short novel, though, and one gets the feeling there is a scope for more exploration of its ideas. Perhaps necessarily, it’s also without a firm conclusion: the situation becomes bad, and stays such, and the possible outcomes – the virus clearing out, or continued suffering, or something in between – are only hinted at hypothetically. Still, it’s an important book to read especially in translation, even if just for its picturing of transnational circuits and concerns that often fall off the radar of readers of English-language literature. Not a gripping yarn, but certainly one that makes you think.

Verdict: recommended.

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Some Reflections on Cities of Salt

A few months ago I finished Abdelrahman Munif’s Variations on Night and Day (Taqāsīm al-layl wa-l-nahār; translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux; Pantheon Books, 1993) the third volume of his “Cities of Salt” pentalogy. This is also the final volume translated into English; the first volume (Arabic al-Tīh, though published as Cities of Salt in English using the name of the series as a whole) and the second (The Trench / al-Uḳdūd) have also been translated, all by Peter Theroux, while the final two volumes – al-Munbat and Bādiyat al-Ẓulumāt – have not. The pentalogy chronicles the transformation of a fictional kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula (named Mooran, but quite clearly Saudi Arabia à clef) from a largely pre-industrial society, via political consolidation and the discovery of oil to being involved in broader geopolitical struggles, with an eye all the while on the effects such changes have on local society.

The translation isn’t stellar (perhaps more another time on this), though it mostly does the job; still, there were more than a few passages where I can’t imagine anybody could make sense of what is going on without guessing at the Arabic original from which they were translated. Now I’ve finally gotten to writing up some thoughts on the book, and the series in general – though a bit scattered I think it’s important for anyone who pretends to engage with Arabic literature of the last century or so to formulate some sort of position on Munif, given his popularity among Arabophone authors and readers if nothing else.

Here they are, then: my reflections on Cities of Salt, in no particular order.

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1) Munif is excellent at evoking a sense of context – or, rather, one particular sociocultural context: that of the Arabian peninsula in the first decades of the 20th century. This comes through in dialogue, in particular, but also in descriptive passages. Direct communication is often allusive; proverbs speak more than explicit declamations; communicative norms are very much burdened by honour, and the need not to expose oneself too much in terms of one’s sociopolitical resources – not so much saving face as steering interaction in a way that would never require face to be saved, while still making sure that all the relationships of those involved are clearly understood. It might sound quaint to praise the series for being a “realistic” literary representation – but I still think it’s a formidable achievement to (successfully) evoke the sense of a context governed by very particular norms of interaction in a novelistic form. (Some of this might be the source of the “insufficient Westernization” that famously put John Updike off the series and might have killed Munif’s chances of ever ‘making it’ as a name in English translation.)

2) Gender. Well… Maybe I’ve become over-primed to notice this kind of thing, but Munif’s female characters (in Cities, at least) are a pretty stereotypical disappointment. There are very few of them, and they all seem to be cast in very particular molds (“sexually frustrated wife,” “aging manipulator” etc.) which provide for little nuance or narratively catalytic variations in motivation. (This in contrast with male characters, who – although themselves often bland – are much more numerous, varied, and consequential.) Such narrative practice is ‘realistic’ only insofar as ‘realism’ involves a full 50% of extant social history is being erased. Not sure if we should, or could, be expecting more from a 20th century male Arab author; still something to notice, I think.

3) A major concern of the series is to show how broader geopolitical games have real, palpable, transformative effects on local lives. For this purpose, Munif sketches out a few trajectories of local characters, people whose livelihoods have been threatened or who have had to adapt – with greater or lesser success – to a context of autocratic state control beholden to rulers’ and foreign powers’ interests first and foremost and no longer as concerned with ‘local’ scales of interpersonal interaction. With the exception of the ruling royals and a few of their lackeys, these are treated via event-vignettes and cast aside fairly quickly – which gives a good sense of (male, at least) social variability in “Mooran,” but doesn’t provide much emotional or investment. (Though given the satirical undertone that pervades the writing throughout, perhaps this is the point.)

4) The narrative of the pentalogy isn’t linear, and the translation – being incomplete – suffers from it. We get glimpses into certain aspects of “Mooran’s” historical development, but thematic and even personal arcs are truncated rather abruptly. If read in full, the experience might be more satisfying; as it is, concluding a “trilogy” (as Cities is still often misrepresented in English) with a “prequel” (which is what Theroux has characterized Variations on Night and Day as) seems woefully inadequate. Munif is of course not to blame for this – marketers, publishers, and English-language reviewers much more so – but it’s very unfortunate not to have the rest at least available.

~

Munif was a great writer. I’ve only read a few bits of his in Arabic – a couple of his early novels, none of which have been translated into English to my knowledge – and I couldn’t presume to judge whether he was “the greatest” as some have claimed (certainly many Arabophones I know rate him just as well as, and often higher than, the Nobel-prize-winning Mahfouz). The Cities pentalogy, though, for what it is – and for all the reservations I might have had about it and sketched out above – certainly deserves to be better appreciated outside of Arabic-speaking contexts as well. It’s a bit tragic, though maybe not surprising, that contingencies of translation and publication have made this seem like a distant goal.

Review: African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal (2008 / 2014)

~ African Titanics ( تيتانيكات أفريقية, Tiitaaniikaat afriqiyya; 2008), by Abu Bakr Khaal. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin (Darf Publishers, 2014). ~

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It’s difficult for me to put out an unequivocal judgment on African Titanics. On the one hand, it’s a pretty singular book: a dense, intense, often poetic narrative of an illegal migrant’s adventures, en route from Africa to Europe; a topic which arousing more and more social political interest with every overcrowded “Titanic” (as Titanics’ protagonist, like Khaal himself an emigrant from Eritrea, calls them) rescued in the Mediterranean. Still, its terseness didn’t really allow the ideas to be developed as fully as I might have wished. That there is a voice speaking on the subject is itself important; and Khaal’s is a singular, and very memorable, contribution – though probably not the definitive one (see below though for why I think this might ultimately be a good thing).

The core of Titanics is composed from episodes taken from the experience of the narrator – the Eritrean Abdar – and other migrants as they cross the expanses of north-eastern Africa on their way to the promised land of Europe. This final goal is never questioned; we’re made to feel as if all the migrants are on some sort of quest, drawn into a larger, almost mythic narrative that sets countless trials and obstacles in their path. There are hellish desert journeys, in jeeps pursued by bandits, with not enough food and water; a thriller-like border crossing during a storm in Tunisia; holding on for dear life in a leaking fishing boat in the Mediterranean. People die, often in gruesome ways, and the narrator gives us just enough background on each to make the loss have an impact. Abdar himself never even makes it to the final, “Titanic” stage of the journey; after deportations in North Africa he returns, ostensibly, back to Eritrea, richer at the very least for the experience and – more importantly, for the novel’s themes and structure – the stories passed on to him by his various journey-mates and that are recounted in the book, often at some length.

A perverse version of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps. But towards the second part of the book, the path of the “hero” – the narrator, really, if we go by the supposed structure – comes to be drowned (as it were) by all the other narrations. There are so many tragic, and colorful, stories to tell that Abdar’s own experience simply can’t compare. By the end of the novel he retreats into the background, and no longer functions as a compelling character.

Part of this is of course the point: no single person can bear the weight of all the particular, personal stories of tragedy that trans-Saharan ‘refugee flight’ produces every day (and has been producing for decades). All we can manage is fragments, perhaps, as Titanics offers up, in its role as a “many-sided memorial” (as ArabLit in English put it) to all the unsung crossing heroes. There is a chance here for a deeper commentary on shared narratives, perhaps even the disappearance of “authorship” in such conditions; but Titanics’ conclusion isn’t managed with quite enough skill to effect that. I was left with the impression that, given a few more pages, there could have been a better chance for the narrator (who- or whatever he ultimately is) to be situated with respect to other stories. As it is, the ending just feels abrupt – as if Abdar was only being given a ‘formal’ conclusion to his storyline, without tying up the other threads.

Titanics is certainly not a neat novel. But it is gripping, often beautiful, deals with a burning sociopolitical issue, and packages it all in a literary format which does justice to a subjectivity in desperate need of a louder voice. There are passages where Khaal manages a properly mythical feeling to the experience, with powerful imagery and metaphor on par with that of the finest literary craftsmen. It tells us, and confidently so, that migration gives stories worth telling – which might make for great literature, too.

The danger here would be to start seeing Khaal’s work as the definitive “illegal migrant” experience. But the novel itself defies this sort of appropriation – not least because of its slippage between segments of explicit realism (Abdar’s narrative, basically: the desert journeys, border crossings, illicit stays in refugee ‘hostels’ and so on) and the parallel tales from other characters: experiences recounted in the same manner as Abdar’s, but also poetry and folk-tale-like narratives that refuse to be grounded in one particular context. One only wishes it could all have been tied up together a little tighter in the end.

Verdict: recommended.

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