Sunday, 27 May 2012

Eça's Hack Novel


Eça de Queiroz
Many spoilers for The Mystery of the Sintra Road

In 1870, between July 24 and September 27, anonymous letters arrived at the Diário de Notícias newspaper reporting a mysterious kidnapping on the Sintra road, a crime which was but the prelude to a more sinister plot implicating rich people in adultery, forgery, robbery, murder and cover-ups. For two months readers lived in their thrall, fascinated by the details as they were daily revealed in letters sent by one of the kidnapped men, a doctor later released, and to whose testimony other voices were added, some even contradictory, until several of the culprits came forth to explain the mystery. It is said that Lisboners at the time were shocked by the events, believing the narrative to be true, and some even feared using Sintra’s byways for months; police inquiries were actually opened, but to no avail. Indeed they could find nothing because the crimes were just a hoax concocted by Eça de Queiroz and Ramalho Ortigão, two Portuguese Orson Welleses.

Ramalho de Ortigão
Eça, one of the finest practitioners of the realist novel, wasn’t yet a renowned novelist; and Ramalho Ortigão, a famous journalist, hadn’t yet started As Farpas, his monthly pamphlet that satirised contemporary society and politics. They were young and cocky when they decided to ridicule the reading tastes of their contemporaries, who loved melodramas and the infamous roman-feuilleton. Serialized in newspapers, this type of fiction focused on crime and tragic love stories, contained noble heroes and moustache-twirling villains and stereotypical characters, and took place in sordid urban settings and slums. The genre had been popularised by French writers like Eugène Sue (of the seminal The Mysteries of Paris, progenitor of countless imitators and admired by many including Dostoevsky) and Ponson du Terrail, whom the novel mentions several times. They took turns writing the chapters, without following a plan and forced to continue where the story had previously ended. In spite of this they managed to create a very coherent story. At the end of two months, the authors sent a final letter identifying themselves and declaring the narrative finished. The first book version came out in 1884, every bit as popular as the newspaper version. The novel’s success and longevity is curious because by all accounts this novel was made not to last. The roman-feuilleton did not produce many notable works. After all, who’s ever heard of Jules Claretie or Octave Feuillet? Appreciating this novel is problematic because it requires we actually know the drivel people read in the 19th century to understand what it’s satirising. Because only geniuses like Gogol and Flaubert survived into our times, we have a tendency to glamorise the 19th century. But readers then probably cared about literature as much as we do nowadays, and their reading of choice was not Dostoevsky and Henry James but soothing fiction where good triumphed, wickedness was punished, and someone married at the end. No, Hollywood did not invent anything. Like the modern best-seller, the roman-feuilleton was to be consumed and quickly forgotten to give way to the next serialized novel: what mattered is that the reader be engaged in something, all the time. Eça and Ortigão’s novel probably wouldn’t be remembered if not for its authors, but I’m glad it is.

When we get down to it, the story is banal: on the Sintra road, a nameless doctor and his writer friend, F, are kidnapped by four masked men, supposedly in order for the doctor to assist in a childbirth out of wedlock, in order to prevent a scandal. However when they arrive, blindfolded, at a building, they find a dead man, and it’s up to the doctor to determine if it was murder or suicide. His wallet has been stolen, and there’s a cup containing opium next to him. To complicate matters, a medical student, identified only as A.M.C., bursts into the room, first pretending not to have anything to do with it, then confessing to the murder. The doctor’s released but F is retained in order to give the masked men time to disappear, knowing the doctor won’t speak to the police until F is free. Nevertheless, still shaken by the events, he writes anonymously to the newspaper, giving a detailed account of what happened but withholding names. This in turns prompts the leader of the masked men, A.M.C. and others to write to the newspaper, each explaining their own role in the mystery. And it’s not a very interesting mystery: a Portuguese countess, the married W, falls in love with a British officer, Rytmel; they try to elope but give it up and she becomes his mistress instead. One day he visits her in Portugal, but she suspects that he’s in love with another woman. She drugs him in order to search for love letters in him, but accidentally kills him with opium. She enlists the help of A.M.C., a man she stumbles on in the street who agrees to help her. Unaware of this, the countess’ cousin discovers the body and stages the kidnapping in order to take a doctor to see Rytmel, to determine if he’s indeed dead. There are further complications. In the end, all the men who stayed in the building, including F, judge the fate of the countess and agree not to reveal anything to the authorities. But grief-stricken, the countess moves to a monastery to atone for her crime.

What a ridiculous story! If Eça and Ortigão wanted to create the most melodramatic, over-the-top novel in the world, they succeeded. The problem with satire, of course, is that it must become the thing it satirises.

Described in hindsight by the two authors as an ‘execrable novel’, it’s a curious novel within their oeuvres: one was a proponent of realism and naturalism, the other a journalist. And the roman-feuilleton is closer to the Gothic and Romantic imaginations. But I think their purpose was exactly to introduce techniques that created a more credible roman-feuilleton, one that dissolved the line between fiction and reality so well it could fool society. But many mystery and ‘sensation’ novels used the epistolary form, without fooling people. What then did this novel do that was different?

I think the difference is that the novel is self-aware and pokes fun at its own predictability and clichés. After the doctor describes the kidnapping on the abandoned road, he remarks: “Pure Ponson du Terrail! you will say, Mr. Editor. Evidently. It seems that life, even on the Sintra byways, can sometimes have the whim to be more romantic than what artistic verisimilitude demands. But I do not make art, I merely narrate facts.” Predicting the readers’ doubts and suspicions, he disarms them by acknowledging that the story is indeed strange. He places himself in their place, claiming that he’d doubt too, if it hadn’t happened to him.

Eça and Ortigão also employ certain techniques that add to the tale’s realism. For instance, the doctor forgets to mention the kidnapping’s date in the first letter, giving it only in the second one. This not only reveals a degree of spontaneity in his account of the facts but also implies that his mind is still upset and shaken by the events. He’s not thinking straight yet, with a cool head. In his frenzy to jot down the facts, he forgets things, exactly like it happens when he want to transmit something quickly to someone. Another trick is to allude to the fate of his friend, F, still hostage: although the doctor would like to reveal more, he fears doing so would put him in danger. Thus he gives us a valid reason not to reveal all the facts.

The daily nature of the narrative also allows the doctor to comment on events related to it, like the real but fruitless police investigation carried out after the first letter was published. By bringing the real world into the tale, he once again gives the impression of spontaneity. But my favourite touch comes when the doctor simply decides to give up writing and announces that he’s leaving for France, to forget the whole matter. He’s so terrified, he doesn’t even care about his friend or how the mystery will end. It’s a fine touch of psychological realism, in my opinion. A typical detective would doggedly pursue the truth. The doctor, instead, just wants to regain his peace of mind.

The best, however, is yet to come. I think Eça and Ortigão’s master stroke arrives when one certain Z intervenes on the doctor’s narrative. Z begins by claiming that he was enjoying the tale, thinking he had been reading the ‘most perfect’ roman-feuilleton yet – therefore not believing a word of it at all. But then he reads the letter in which A.M.C. is introduced. And Z remembers that he has a friend with the initials A.M.C who bears a resemblance to the description. He relates how he went looking for him, but did not find him at home. Without even knowing if his friend A.M.C. is the same A.M.C. of the tale, he launches into an passionate defence of him, and goes so far as to accuse the doctor of being the killer. He dismantles his narrative piece by piece, very convincingly I might add, and declares that the doctor invented it just in order to throw the scent off himself and to frame his innocent friend A.M.C. It’s brilliant! What we have here is a proto-meta-detective novel. The detective novel that contains its own refutation is of course a staple of the post-modernist detective novel. My favourite example comes from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: in it a student, Casaubon, entertains himself creating a super-conspiracy theory that encompasses all the conspiracy theories – the Masons, the Knights Templar, Thule, the Holy Grail, etc – which he calls The Plan. In his research he discovers a secret manuscript belonging to one Coronel Ardenti. This manuscript, full of strange riddles and characters, seems to be the real thing, the skeleton of The Plan, proving that his imagined conspiracy truly exists. But one day his wife, Lia, analyses it and points out that the Ardenti manuscript was nothing but a medieval delivery list. Thus she dismantles his crackpot theory, by which time, however, it’s taken a life of its own. This is what I was thinking of when I read Z’s intervention. More, when Z accuses the narrator of being the killer, Eça and Ortigão come very close to foreseeing a very famous Agatha Christie novel.

Indeed what makes this novel’s first half so fascinating is the way the authors play with the narrative. A superior classic like The Woman In White merely accumulates facts, putting the mystery together as if it were a puzzle. You’ll remember that the events in Wilkie Collins’ novel are narrated after they have all taken place; each narrator is aware of his place in the grand narrative. Eça and Ortigão, on the other hand, invite confusion; the full facts haven’t even been ascertained but there are already voices casting doubt on them. This is all wonderfully modern.

Nevertheless I don’t want to give the impression this novel is a lost masterpiece of the detective genre, nor were Eça and Ortigão that ahead of their time. The narrative inventiveness of the first half give way to a critique of customs and high society in the second half, which is more similar to the novels Eça would write alone, and finally everything is explained away in a commonplace manner. The masked leader and A.M.C. send their own explanations to the newspaper, neatly resolving all loose ends. Even so, there’s a curious aspect to the dénouement. Although the facts are reported, no one is brought to justice. A private court is set up by the masked men, A.M.C. and F to judge the countess, and she’s declared innocent because she killed accidentally and her freedom would pose no threat to society. But no 19th century novel could end with a wicked character going unpunished, so the countess, like the gambler or drunkard of the English Victorian novel who always ends up in Australia expiating his moral weakness amongst sheep, retreats into a monastery to atone for her sins. The notion that someone could actually do something morally wrong and not feel very bad about it, was still too much for that century to bear.

So there you have O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra. It’s a novel with many weaknesses and strengths. It’s not even my least favourite novel by Eça. If anything, it allows us to better appreciate Eça’s superb talent in his first solo novel, The Crime of Father Amaro.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Pepetela: The Return of the Water Spirit


 African Reading Challenge: Part II

The curious reader interested in discovering Pepetela in English has very few options: Mayombe (1980), Yaka (1985), The Return of the Water Spirit (1995), and Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent (2001). And the first three are out of print. It doesn’t seem right that one of the best living African writers be so poorly treated and neglected. Pepetela has had a prolific career and accumulated many awards and honours in his lifetime, and in Portuguese-speaking African literature his name is one of the most respected and beloved. We should then take a brief look at his life.

Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos was born in Benguela, in 1941, the offspring of an Angolan-born middle class Portuguese family, and studied in a multiracial school that allowed him to meet people from several ethnicities and social classes. In 1958 he moved to Lisbon, in Portugal, to continue his higher education. Influenced by left-wing ideas from an early age, he enrolled in engineering and literature courses, which he never completed. Angola’s Independence War started in 1961 and in 1963 he joined the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Abandoning Portugal, he established with other nationalists the Centre for Angolan Studies, first in Algeria and then in the Republic of the Congo, where they researched and documented the history of Angola and wrote propaganda for the MPLA. In 1969 he joined the armed struggle, adopting the guerrilla nickname Pepetela, which in the Umbundo language means pestana (eyelash).

When Angola gained independence, in 1975, Pepetela became the Vice-Minister of Education under President Agostinho Neto’s mandate. He stepped down in 1982, by which time José Eduardo dos Santos was president (and as of 2012 still is). In 1975 Pepetela also founded the Angolan Writers Union (UEA) with novelist Luandino Vieira, poet Ruy Duarte de Carvalho and other Angolan men of letters. He currently teaches sociology in the Agostinho Neto University, in Luanda.

Although Pepetela abandoned political office to devote himself to literature, he had been writing since the 1960s. His first novel, Muana Puó, dates from his time writing revolutionary propaganda, but wasn’t published until 1978. In 1972 came out As Aventuras de Ngunga (The Adventures of Ngunga), an ideological novel about a young MPLA soldier. A more mature and sceptical novel based on his guerrilla experiences came out in 1980: Mayombe, named after the vast forest where the MPLA soldiers hid and fought. It was a novel about the fears and aspirations of a small group of soldiers, but it criticised intertribal discrimination within the MPLA’s ranks and the seeds of corruption already growing in its leaders.

Since then Pepetela has been a chronicler of Angolan history and society in his fiction, fiercely critical of the corruption and disillusionment of the post-Independence period, of the failed socialist promises, of the lack of social improvements in Angola, of the widening gap between the rich and poor, of the imperceptible transition from a Soviet dictatorship to a capitalist democracy, and of the civil war that the MPLA and its rival party UNITA waged between 1992 and 2002. It’s with this in mind that we must approach The Return of the Water Spirit.

This short novel juxtaposes two stories: the life of Carmina, an energetic MPLA party member; and the collapse of buildings in the Kinaxixi Square, which, we later find out, are caused by the water spirit Kianda.

The novel doesn’t have a clear timeline, but anyone reasonably familiar with Angola’s history can tell that the action takes place between the dying years of the Soviet Union and the early ‘90s. As the novel opens, Carmina is marrying João, a weak-willed man without ambitions who lets his wife boss him around. The MPLA is still implementing its Marxist-Leninist doctrines, and Carmina is an enthusiastic, fanatic member of the Party’s youth wing, with plans to become a deputy. However, as the Soviet Bloc crumbles, Angola is pressured by external forces to adopt democracy and a free market economy. The political class that once proclaimed loyalty to communism immediately adopts capitalism, and the elites, no longer encumbered by ideological pretences to egalitarianism, turn into ruthless businessmen and plunder the state with even more gusto than when they pretended to be communists at the service of the people. Carmina, harbouring hatred against the Empire, and especially the Americans, at first resists the changes but eventually becomes a businesswoman in the import-export area, though it’s mostly import since Angola doesn’t produce anything. She gains a parliamentary seat in the 1992 free elections, but UNITA breaks the cease-fire, civil war resumes, and she makes a fortune selling luxury goods and weapons to the MPLA government in its fight against the rebels.

Through Carmina’s change, Pepetela caustically condemns the whole of the political class, showing that the change of regime and ideology changed nothing: the same elites continue in power, the majority of people continue to live in abject misery, war continues to devastate the country. Angola’s capitalist adventure has been as disastrous as its affair with communism, save for a fragile veneer of democracy. In order to appear impartial, parliament passes a law forbidding deputies from owning companies. “The people only respect the rich and powerful, haven’t they realised that yet?” Carmina asks, mad at the hypocrisy of a free market society trying to prevent politicians from engaging in private initiative and entrepreneurism. What could possibly be wrong about that? João takes a more placid view of things: they’ll just put front men in charge of the companies. “It’s what they do in democratic countries,” he explains.

The lazy João spends most of his time playing videogames, especially one reminiscent of the classic Age of Empires. Employed at a bankrupt state company, he only shows up once in a week. Addicted to a videogame that allows him to reshape history and conquer the world, he remains indifferent to the deep historical changes his country is suffering and resigned to his powerlessness.

The only glimpse of hope comes from Honório, a member of the ‘naked movement,’ and to explain what the naked movement is, I have to explain the novel’s other story. Buildings are falling in the Kinaxixi Square, but owing to some strange phenomenon people are not injured by the fall. They just float down to the surface. The phenomenon is named the Luanda Syndrome and attracts scientists, foreign and national, as well as tourists because of its strangeness. Pepetela turns Angola into the centre of the world thanks to this phenomenon, which is funny in a dark way considering the war devastating the country at the same time barely attracts any attention from the outside world. Is Pepetela saying that Africa is only newsworthy because of its exoticness?

The Luanda Syndrome leaves dozens of homeless families huddling over the debris of their former houses, ferociously keeping an eye out for their possessions they manage to dig out from under the rubble. NGOs set up a refugee camp in the square, right in the middle of the capital, as fitting a metaphor for Angola as you’re likely to find in a country where the poor are becoming poorer and the new rich can only move around under armed escort. One of the homeless men is Honório, a friend of João. To make things worse, in order to survive on his miserable wage he resorted to taking bribes in his company; he’s discovered and forced to quit in order not to involve the authorities. “You’d be the first person arrested for corruption,” João tells him, fully aware of the crimes his wife and her cronies practice all the time with impunity. Jobless and homeless, Honório joins the grassroots movement of the ‘naked,’ people who protest against social inequities by walking around naked, exhibiting their total level of destitution as an indictment of the ruling class that exploits them.

Amidst this squalid look at Angola’s social problems, one could ask what does the novel have to do with a water spirit called Kianda? Magical realism is not really Pepetela’s style. But if its inclusion in the novel seems forced, we must take into account its symbolism. Kianda lives under Kinaxixi Square, trapped bellow concrete in an area that, before the Europeans turned the island of Luanda into a peninsula connected to the continent, was a lagoon. After centuries trapped, Kianda is freeing herself by toppling the square’s buildings and allowing the repressed lagoon’s waters to flow freely again. At the same time, her creative act of destruction also sets in motion the naked movement, suspicious of Europe’s failed solutions for Africa and generator of Angolan-bred ideas for Angola’s problems. “Creating their own ideas and ways of fighting, not giving a damn about the schemes and formulas of the countries up North?” asks a sceptical João. “Too subversive, destined to failure and mourning.” Maybe, maybe not. It’s also not an accident that it’s a child who can listen to the words of Kianda. But whether children can build a better future is an enigma. The girl, tellingly named Cassandra, asks an old man if Kianda is a mermaid. The old man scolds her for imagining Kianda like that, because the half-woman half-fish imagery is a foreign invention. Is it already too late for Honório’s naked movement to come up with truly indigenous ideas when the new generations are already alienated from their roots? Maybe, maybe not.

The Return of the Water Spirit is a fast-paced satire in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candid. By that I mean the characters are more symbolic than fully-breathing people, and they exist insofar as they represent certain points the writer is making or to demolish some ideas the writer is against. It contains a lot of food for thought but it’s a minor work in Pepetela’s oeuvre. A much better novel that explores similar ground is Predadores (Predators, 2005), a novel about the rise and fall of a common man, Vladimiro Caposso, who becomes one of Angola’s richest men thanks to a mixture of business acumen, ruthlessness, political networking and ability to read the tides of society. Everything that in Carmina is exaggerated and played for laughs, in Vladimiro is well delineated and tragic. In my humble opinion his masterpiece, it’s a more vivid portrayal of Angola’s changes in the last thirty-five years. A day will come when all Pepetela’s books are available in English. Until that day, The Return of the Water Spirit will make for good reading.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Philip Roth: The Counterlife


Well, that larky, hot stuff was over now, no more mischievously turning what-was into what-wasn’t or what-might-be into what-was – there was only the deadly earnest this-is-it of what-is.

In trying to ascertain what distinguishes the Nathan Zuckerman of the ‘Zuckerman Bound’ trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson) from that of the ‘American’ trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain), it occurred to me that the biggest difference is family. The first Zuckerman spends a good deal of the trilogy alienating his family because of his ruthless devotion to a literature of honesty. By that I mean writing novels inspired by what his relatives consider their private lives; but it’s their scandalous sexuality, breaking of taboos and lurid portrayal of Jewish home life that really ostracises Nathan from his parents and brother. In Zuckerman Unbound, his father dies apparently hating him for bringing shame to their family, and his brother, Henry, blames him for his death. They don’t speak again for years.

The Counterlife is not any less about family. It starts with Henry trying to reconcile with Nathan, for ridiculous reasons, and with disastrous but hilarious consequences. Diagnosed with obstructive arterial disease, Henry starts taking a drug that stabilised his heart condition but renders him impotent. This makes Henry, the good, respectable, dull Zuckerman son, the successful dentist and beloved husband and father, feel miserable because the one relief from his mundane life, the one reckless action he allows himself in his ordered, safe existence, is the daily blowjob he gets from his young assistant, Wendy. Unable to share a sexless life with his wife, Carol, he becomes obsessed with sex or, as Alexander Portnoy would put, ‘cunt crazy’. His only option is to undergo dangerous bypass surgery. So in this dark hour he seeks advice from Nathan, hoping he’ll dissuade him. But as he narrates Nathan his sexual escapades, including one with a European patient, the innate writer in him becomes fascinated with the dramatic possibilities of what he’s listening to. Henry opts for the surgery anyway, and dies.

With boundless imagination, frantic energy and deranged fearlessness, Roth turns the death of the final link to Nathan’s family into an event that forces his alter ego to confront himself, his Jewish roots, and his craft. Divided in five sections, The Counterlife is a novel that jumps all over the place, at a breakneck pace, where the parts may be more interesting than a whole that is deliberately confusing and dissonant. The first section, “Basel”, for instance, deals with Henry’s funeral and is Roth at his best writing about human relationships. But don’t expect sentimentality. For Nathan is too sceptical, too introspective not to turn grief into material for self-analysis, and perhaps a novel. “This profession even fucks up grief,” he laments when he’s unable to write a simple eulogy for his brother’s funeral. Instead of pleasant childhood memories, he thinks only about the juicy secrets his brother confided in him. Already he sees a way of turning them into stuff for his fiction, “a continuation not of life but of his work or work-to-be.” Few writers are as honest about the insensitive demands of writing as Roth is.

But since Nathan’s main preoccupation is his craft, we can wonder to what extent the novel after Henry’s death isn’t just a product of his imagination. This is because the events in the novel aren’t clear but take Nathan into strange places, both physical and mental: first of all, in the second section, “Judea”, he narrates his journey to Israel, where Henry moved to after his bypass, seeking to be reconciled with his Jewish roots and where he becomes a follower of Lippman, a right-wing fanatic nationalist. Then, in the fourth section, “Gloucestershire”, Nathan imagines a new life where he dies of heart disease and Henry tries to forgive him, but fails because of all the resentment that he accumulated over the years, erupting instead into a tirade about Nathan’s indecent use of his personal life. In other words, Nathan (Roth) uses Henry to build up a very strong case against the vampire-like nature of his brother’s craft, namely the way he sucks life around him, hurting and embarrassing his family with his indiscretions and then invoking the sacredness of Art as a defence. Whether or not his novels are about his relatives, they think they are, and Nathan is too much of an asshole to care about the consequences. In a way, then, The Counterlife is an ars poetica, an explanation of Philip Roth’s approach to the art of the novel using the novel itself, and being unglamorously candid about it, which is one of the reasons I love him so much.

At the same time it’s a meta-textual novel with several levels of reality and layers between fact and fiction. It’s the novel where Roth takes his self-reflective games to their disjointed limit. Nathan Zuckerman is a Philip Roth alter ego who becomes famous after writing Carnovsky, a novel about his alter ego. But in The Counterlife Nathan also decides to insert himself in a new novel, whose draft is discussed in section four and may also be the novel we’re reading. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Roth builds nothing less than a sprawling labyrinth of words and different levels of fictionality. Now in a novel there’s no real and fictional, since even the ‘real’ bits are just figments of an authorial mind. The novel’s ‘real’ level, Henry seeking Nathan’s advice, is no less fictional than Nathan imagining his fictional funeral. They’re both the product of a writer called Philip Roth. However, it’s curious that after The Counterlife, Roth published his autobiography, The Facts (1988), as if he were saying, “No more games, this is who I am, really!”; and it’s no less curious that in his subsequent novels, Deception (1990) and Operation Shylock (1993), Roth writes himself into them as a character, as if after laying himself bare in his autobiography he again had to blur the line between his life and his fiction, and take it one step further than Nathan Zuckerman.

The Counterlife also resembles a previous novel, My Life as a Man (1974), one of Roth’s masterpieces. It’s Roth’s final word on castrating, neurotic, needy women. In it, Peter Tarnopol, a writer, deals with his marital demons by writing softer versions of his married life, contained in the first section, ironically called ‘Useful Fictions’. It’s only later that readers are introduced to Tarnopol’s true and horrifying marriage to the manic, manipulative Maureen, who in turn was based on one of Roth’s wives, a woman who made his life miserable before she died in a car crash. Few writers have used literature for therapeutic reasons as consistently and entertainingly as Roth. In both novels we have writers using literature to meditate upon their lives; but whereas in My Life as a Man there’s a clear line between what is ‘real’ and what is just made up by Tornapol, in this novel we can’t be so sure what is and isn’t Nathan’s fictions. For instance, in section four Maria, his English wife, finds a draft of his new novel, which bears many resemblances to The Counterlife: she goes as far as basically spoiling what happens in section five. But how can that be? If she’s real in section four, then Nathan is dead; but if he’s dead, and Henry is alive, then how did Nathan attend his brother’s funeral? If Nathan is alive, then section four is fiction and Maria is just a fictional character, or at least the Maria of that section is…

Thinking too much about will likely drive the reader insane. The novel, however, resists our attempt at reading it as a whole. Like I wrote before, in the second section Nathan travels to Israel, where his brother fled to after his bypass. Henry has abandoned his family, changed his name to Hanoch, started learning Hebrew and now fights for the survival of Israel. In his ancient Jewish roots he’s found a new meaning for his life. How does this square with the first section? It doesn’t, it’s never mentioned in it, which supports the theory that it’s just a figment of Nathan’s imagination, a new life he created for Henry where he finally leaves his big brother’s shadow and become part of something greater than his banal domestic life. However, if it’s a new life he imagined for his brother, it’s no less devoid of conflict. The two are again separated, by history this time: Henry is overwhelmed by Jewish culture and tradition; for Nathan, the descendant of emigrants, his culture is in Newark, New Jersey. “Tell me something,” Henry asks, “is it at all possible, at least outside of those books, for you to have a frame of reference slightly larger than the kitchen table in Newark?”   No, he can’t, because that’s where the source of his imagination resides. Although he tries to understand and admire Henry for his impassioned conversion, his instincts tell him to suspect history. History submerges the individual in rhetoric, culture and clichés, and the writer is by definition the man who seeks the individual, who can rescue him from the facelessness and anonymity of history. Nathan comes back home unable to reconcile with his brother, even in fiction, if this section is fiction.

But if the trilogy is about Nathan losing his family, The Counterlife also narrates his unsuccessful attempt at creating a new one – his relationship with Maria turns into a string of self-recriminations when, in section five, “Christendom”,  he discovers anti-Semitism in her British upper class family. And then there’s Jimmy, the awkward young writer who follows him around in devotion, wishing to be adopted by him, and who tries to hijack an airplane in order to promote his theory that Israel needs to forget the Holocaust in order to move on. As much as Nathan tries to downplay his Jewishness, history follows him around.

The Counterlife is a novel that lacks unity. I think it’s deliberate. Not being tied to a plot is the only way that allows Roth to tackle family relationships, Israeli politics, questions of history, culture and identity, and the art of the novel. Through the novel’s many levels of fiction and uses of ‘counterlifes’, of alternate lives, Roth weaves these threads without having to explain how they all tie together. It’s also an incomplete novel, like life, without many answers – in what circumstances does Henry die? What happens to Nathan’s marriage to Maria? What happens to Jimmy the terrorist? The Counterlife is a deeply unsatisfying novel for those who want answers, but in its incompleteness, in its games of artifice and identity, it’s a vivid reflection of fragmentary, true life, where nothing ever ends, but just continues and turns into something else.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Václav Havel: Unveiling


Life is rough and the world is divided. The world doesn’t give a damn about us and nobody’s coming to our rescue – we’re in a nasty predicament, and it will get worse and worse – and you are not going to change any of it! So why beat your head against the wall and charge the bayonets?

Unveiling is the second part of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy. Like Audience, it’s a satirical look at everyday life in former Soviet Czechoslovakia. The play finds the playwright Ferdinand Vanek, the author’s comical alter ego, visiting a couple of friends, Vera and Michael, at the unveiling of their newly-decorated apartment. Vanek can’t help looking around with curiosity. The place is dripping with opulence. The room is decorated with a “mass of sundry antiques and curious objects,” and the floor is covered with “a thick, shaggy carpet,” Persian mats and, to cap it off, “a bear skin with a stuffed head.”

Vanek: It looks different here somehow –
Vera: I hope so! Michael has poured a lot of sweat into it! You know how he is when he gets involved in something: He won’t let go till he has everything just the way he’s planned it –
Michael: I only finished the thing the day before yesterday: we haven’t had anybody over yet, so this actually is a sort of an unveiling.

“As I was working on this,” Michael explains, “I thought about you often – what you were going to say when you saw it all.” But all the extravagance surrounding Vanek, a reserved and introspective intellectual, fails to impress him. The unveiling, however, progressively becomes an excuse for Vera and Michael to gloat over their perfect lives. The night comprises a series of situations for the happy couple to revel in their wealth, happiness and completeness. They’re a couple who have found new prosperity: Michael travels to Switzerland, from where he brings musical records and rare delicacies; they have a clever young son, Pete. They even brag about their active sex life, and demonstrate it in front of Vanek. In short, they have everything, and they rub it in Vanek’s face at the same time they criticise his poverty.

Vanek and his wife Eva, absent from the play, are chastised for everything: Eva is a bad cook and housekeeper, the couple claims; they should have children; they should take better care of their home. They keep insisting that Vanek’s marriage is having problems and become furious when Vanek defends Eva. Like an Epicurean, Vanek is satisfied with the simplicity of his life. This is one of the play’s themes: spiritual satisfaction versus materialistic completeness. Or as Michael puts it:

One really shouldn’t be indifferent to what one eats, one shouldn’t be indifferent to what one eats on, and what one eats with, what one dries oneself with, what one wears, what one takes a bath in, what one sleeps on. And once any of these things starts to matter, you’ll find that something else suddenly matters, too, and then another thing gets you, and so a whole sort of a chain of things develops – and if you head down that road, what else can it mean but that you’re upgrading your life to another, higher level of culture – and that you raise yourself to a kind of higher harmony – which then in effect translates itself into your with other people!

The first time I read the play this seemed like a witty attack on consumerism. But it would be strange that in a Soviet state in the ‘70s, with shortages, a playwright would bother to write about something as alien to his audience as consumerism. Now if this were a ’50s American play, I could see it. The play is actually an attack on conformism and peer pressure. The word conformism isn’t used, of course, but to paraphrase Borges, in a riddle about conformism the only word you can’t use is conformism. But you can notice its presence. The prosperity of Vera and Michael comes from their having caved in to the social pressure to conform to the Soviet party line. We can infer, from snippets of dialogue, that once they were like Vanek, possibly political activists sticking to moral values and fighting for civil rights. Hence Vanek’s surprise at seeing the redecorated apartment. In a state that controls every facet of life, including economy, you can’t get ahead in life without being an accomplice because there are barriers set up against you if you resist the system. Take Michael’s Switzerland travels, for instance; for that you need a visa; and you can’t get one if you’re flagged, as Vanek undoubtedly is, as a threat. Michael travels because he’s in good relationships with the party. Vanek, on the other hand, has a miserable job in a brewery: that’s the price for defying the authorities.

Peer pressure and conformism go hand in hand. Vera and Michael are doing the state’s job when they try to seduce Vanek into becoming like them with the promise of materialistic happiness. In a state where the pressure to conform is immense, friends and neighbours will try to indoctrinate the stubborn members who resist joining the others in the official social order. Vera and Michael aren’t just gloating, but trying to persuade Vanek to shed his identity and become like them. Everyone must be like everyone else, be stripped of their individuality and join mainstream society. For politely holding on to his own self, Vanek has become a pariah.

Unhappiness is also at the core of the play. Vera and Michael, for all their optimism, feel uncomfortable. Havel shows this by exaggerating the domestic bliss of their lives. They complete each other’s sentences, they complement each other; it’s like they’re putting on a show and Vanek is the audience. They’re insufferable soul mates, so perfect and harmonious and attuned to each other you almost suspect they exchange thoughts telepathically or that they’re robots following a program. But it’s imperative to convince Vanek they’re happy, because his own brand of Epicurean happiness, of the type that comes from not desiring anything, makes him dangerous. If a man doesn’t want anything, he can’t be bought, like Vera and Michael have been.

Although I wrote that this novel was not about consumerism, I meant for the time it was written. The funny thing about time is that it changes things. In the post-Cold War world, Unveiling only makes sense, to me anyway, about the dangers of consumerism, which is ironic considering Havel was in favour of a free market. The play makes the reader think about the power of materialism to lull people into obedience, to destroy an individual’s critical attitude. The message goes like this: once you start having things, you want to have even more things. And you’ll even learn not to disturb the social order that allows you to safely acquire them, even if that social order is depriving you of more important things, like civil or labour rights. Supporting this obedience, of course, is the need to provide for the family:

Vera: Just take the responsibility you suddenly have. It’s up to you what kind of a person he will turn out to be – what he’ll feel – think – how he’ll live –
Michael: But not only that: because it was you who tossed him into this world, who offered it to him for his use and who provides him with some orientation in it, you suddenly start feeling a much greater responsibility for this world that now contains your child – do you know what I mean?
Vanek: I guess so…
Michael: I never believed this, but now I see how a child gives you a brand new point of view, a brand new set of values – and suddenly it begins to down on you that the most important thing now is what you do for that child, what sort of a home you create for him, what sort of a start you give him, what openings you provide – and in the light of this awesome responsibility you start seeing the utter insignificance of most of the things you had once thought world-shattering –

If Vanek had a kid, he too would “see many things far more sensibly, realistically, wisely.” In other words, having a child means considering things like human dignity, freedom and rights more trifles. A child can wipe clean the critical attitude of a person and reprogram him with a new set of values, which won’t clash against the state’s values. It’s better to keep one’s mouth shut, not cause any trouble and behave like others. Mind you, I’m not mocking Michael’s position. It’s very easy to feel indignant from a chair in my living room, in a democracy, where I take my rights for granted. At the same time, I’m capable of enough scrutiny (and self-scrutiny) to realise that the number of people who behave like Michael (and I’m in that group – I’m typing this in a laptop probably assembled in China) has been growing steadily for years now, with horrible consequences to the world. After reading this play, I remembered a news I read some time ago: the average income in the USA has reached the lowest value of the past 25 years; that means Americans are earning less than what they did before the fall of the Soviet Union. On the same news, I read that corporations are declaring record profits. Around the world it’s the same grim picture of unbalance, with austerity being the future of Europe for the next years (decades?). And I doubt the victory of the socialist François Hollande on today’s French presidential elections will change anything. If the last years have proven anything, is that left and right are meaningless labels.

Unveiling is a play that could have been written today, in any country. It started as a satire of communism, but the Soviet Union has fallen and the world didn’t magically improve, as promised. Naomi Klein, a journalist many hate and many adore, argues in The Shock Doctrine that the reason capitalism seemed so awesome in the past was because it was competing against communism. Capitalism had to seem appealing because it was fighting for its survival. Now that capitalism has triumphed, it is free to show its true nature: misery for the masses and fortune for a small elite. No middle class, like in the 19th century. In 1953, the dissident Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote of the ‘captive minds,’ the intellectuals who supported communism. Havel’s play today can be read, perhaps against his intention, as a parable of our collaboration with capitalism for the sake of cheap LCD TV sets made in totalitarian countries. Funny how the dogmas change but the world continues the same.