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).

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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