February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act. At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action. The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.
Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example: Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations, income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe. But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.
And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one. Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.
Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency. At worst it encourages it.
As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?
I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make. What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions. Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.
Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.
Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays. But political parties – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says – and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale. To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.
And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope. It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place. Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning. Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.
What about novels? Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society. Need more contemporary examples? His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America. The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.
Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely. It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.
September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Title: His Own Man
Author: Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Translator: Kim M. Hastings
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 159051 698 0
Marcilio Andrade Xaviar – known as Max to friends & colleagues alike – is handsome, charismatic, intelligent, cultured and endlessly complicated. In short, the perfect diplomat. It is the late 1960’s and he is embarking on what will be a remarkable career in the Brazilian Foreign Service. A career that will span some of the most tumultuous decades in Latin American history. Through the coups and purges, the government shifts from left to right and back again, the making & breaking of political alliances – Max thrives. He is a golden boy. Incapable of a misstep, even if he tried.
Across Latin America governments will fall (in the words of one character) like “right-wing dominoes”. Socialist and Communist leaders will be replaced by military dictators backed by Western powers. A Cold War game of RISK played on Central & South American maps. “… We went through Brazil in sixty-four and from there all the countries toppled one after the other, just like a house of cards: Argentina in sixty-six; Uruguay and Chile in seventy-three (a good year for us); Peru at some point, I no longer remember when; then Argentina again in 1976 (after the brief and pitiful Peron hiatus); and so on. A beautiful domino effect… just perfect.”
And at the center of it all stands Max. Except we aren’t given Max’s version of events. Instead, His Own Man is narrated by a colleague and former friend. Obsessed with the trajectory of Max’s career and the wrecked lives left in its wake, the narrator (known only as N.) seeks out Max’s ex-wife, associates, even Max himself – anyone and anything that can provide insight into the actions of his former friend. Structured like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Bolano’s Distant Star and Matthiesson’s Shadow Country trilogy – His Own Man pieces together a flawed portrait from bits of rumor, chance encounters, speculation and fading memories. And like the main characters of those books, Marcilio Andrade Xaviar comes to embody the evils of the society ruled by terror. Operation Condor, the Argentine Dirty Wars, the kidnapping of the Uruguayans, Pinochet’s coup and Chilean “Operation Silence”, the torture & murder of millions – somehow we are meant to understand that Max had a hand in all of it. Yet, when pressed, he appears entirely disinterested in politics.
“After giving me a good-natured glance, Max repeated, ‘That’s right, he drank from the wrong well.’ And he concluded, ‘He only saw what was directly in front of him. Whereas…’”
I finished describing the scene to Marina. Turning his back on the ministry esplanade, Max had slowly rotated, a motion I had to follow, given how close to him I was standing. And he’d gestured broadly with is arm from right to left through the space in front of us. His fingers glided past Burle Marx’s suspended gardens, descended to the people on the marble terrace – lost in their hopes and longings – and, without lingering, moved over the circle formed by the president and his entourage, all lively and elated. With the elegance of an orchestra conductor, his hand then swept past various groups of men in tailored suits,hovered over well-coiffed made-up women, reaching the new graduates and their relatives, until finally landing on the works of art, which ranged from Aleijadinho to Portinari, from colonial furniture to Persian rugs. Once his panorama was complete, he leaned toward me and whispered, “… Whereas this is what I pursued.”
Ribeiro uses N.’s idealism to contrast Max’s opportunism, and then leaves it to his readers to determine the grey area where the truth resides. Max is mercenary, ruthless and ambitious. But N.’s idealism never translates into concrete action. N’s position allows him to shelter his family from the violence and upheaval taking place around them – but he fails to use it to change or even impact the world. He coasts through events as a witness more than a participant. In fact, a lot of coasting seems to occur throughout the plot of His Own Man. Max seldom instigates events, rather he stumbles into most of the opportunities that shape his career. Or finds himself manipulated into position by foreign government agencies. His Own Man is something of a misnomer.
It stands to reason that a former diplomat turned author would avoid the clichés found in most espionage novels. Edgard Telles Ribeiro – journalist, film critic, author, career diplomat with 47 years in the Brazilian Foreign Service and the UN – knows the world of which he writes intimately. Not the shadow world of 007 and George Smiley, the real Diplomatic Corps is made up of men and women who exist somehow independent of the governments and nations they serve. Stationed in embassies located around the globe, they often seem far removed from the events taking place in their home countries even as they help shape them. They live their lives, marry and raise their children in little oasis set on foreign soil. Ribeiro’s characters are intelligent and cultured, they are surrounded by elegance and view world politics as a particularly challenging game of chess. They believe themselves grandmasters, moving the pieces across the board. But in reality they are just as likely to be pawns – manipulated and eventually sacrificed.
Kim M. Hastings translation is straightforward, with some lovely moments like the passage quoted above. Overall, though, I found His Own Man more interesting than engaging. The Latin American history is fascinating and the premise – an espionage/political commentary novel set firmly in the diplomatic (versus the intelligence) community – is a novelty. But the 1st person narrator, so important to this novel’s success, comes across as a less charming, a less engaging, a less vibrant version of Max. That N., in his 60’s at the time of the story’s telling, is jaded and consumed by regret lends authenticity to his character. But it also flattens out his perception of people and events. The sections involving Max’s wife Marina are some of the best in the book, because N.’s empathy and humanity is on display. I’d have liked to seen more of that same kind of emotional depth somewhere in N.’s portrayal of Max.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & with an introduction by Neel Mukherjee)
March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Quesadillas* is set in the Mexican backwater of Lado De Moreno, in a house on a hill called Cerro de la Chingada (which roughly translates into “the armpit”) and tells the adventures of a boy named Orestes. “Oreo” for short. This follow-up to last years’ Down the Rabbit Hole is about many things: adolescent angst, class economics and the impact of gentrification on a family. And you can’t leave out: alien abduction, sibling rivalry and grass-roots revolution… which should just about cover the first 2 chapters.
Orestes is the second of seven children (reduced to five in the first few pages when the fake-twins Castor & Pollux go missing). All – Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux – are named for classical Greeks. Despite their father being a high school teacher the family lives in abject poverty, surviving on a diet of quesadillas. A good portion of the narrative is spent describing the varieties of quesadilla Orestes’ mother cooks. Changes to her recipe directly correspond to changes in the Mexican economy.
We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalization of every member of my family. We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listen in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.
Like Tochtli, the hero of Down the Rabbit Hole, Orestes is unhappy with his family’s circumstances and trapped in a world of his parents making. But there the similarities end. Orestes and his problems in no way resemble those of a Mexican drug lord’s son. He is speaking to us from 25 years in the future about his 1980’s adolescent self; describing “the period when I passed from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to youth, blithely conditioned by what some people call a provincial world-view, or a local philosophical system.” This system collapses when a wealthy family moves next door and his own family’s poverty becomes glaringly apparent.
‘Father, forgive me for being poor.’
‘Being poor is not a sin, my child.’
‘But I don’t want to be poor, so I’ll probably end up stealing things or killing someone to stop being poor.’
‘One must be dignified in poverty, my child. One must learn to live in poverty with dignity. Jesus Christ our Lord was poor.’
‘Oh, and are you priests poor?’
‘Times have changed.’
‘So you’re not?’
‘We don’t concern ourselves with material questions. We take care of the spirit. Money doesn’t interest us.’
My father said the same thing when, in order to prove my mother was lying, I asked him if we were poor or middle class. He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity. That confirmed it: we were poor.
This scene takes place after the disappearance of the fake twins. Oreo goes on to consider the relative merits (more quesadillas!) of getting rid of a few more siblings.
Irreverent, profane and strangely touching – Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey have captured the sarcastic and rebellious voice of adolescence. Just as they did a 7-year old’s innocence while describing a world he didn’t fully understand. Oreo’s take on the world is ridiculously funny. At its best Quesadillas is George Carlin-brand comedy; laced with anger and frustration and politics and sheer astonishment at the absurdity of human foible. As the novella progresses the situations increase in absurdity to the point of incredulity. And yet Villalobos always provides a possible, if unlikely, explanation. Regardless, most readers will happily suspend their disbelief for the brief period of time it takes to breeze through this book. That’s the beauty of the novella: longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. An author has the time to throw out a few curve balls, be a little crazy and break some rules.
All without running the risk of losing his audience.
Publisher: FSG Originals, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 374 53395 3
*FSG Originals published the U.S. edition of Quesadillas. The imprint has positioned itself as Farrar Strauss & Giroux’s “edgy” paperback division – meant to target the publisher’s “well-educated, pop-culture-obsessed, young-ish urban readership” whose needs, one assumes, were not being met by the house’s current catalog and who were more likely to seek out the non-traditional offerings of smaller, independent publishers. There are a few facts that I find interesting about this. First that the FSG Originals catalog is a carefully curated (or life-styled, as they say in the fashion world) mix of titles – some of which in their original incarnations were websites, apps, and other non-traditional/non-book storytelling mediums; in 2013 FSG Originals introduced a Digital Originals program; the aggressive targeting of a specific demographic of consumer; and that both the Villalobos titles were originally released by & Other Stories – the UK indie publisher (with a U.S. office) that’s been making a name for itself with a roster of unusual and innovative authors like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rodrigo de Souza Leao & Deborah Levy.
June 1, 2012 § 5 Comments
A basic grasp of 20th Century Iranian history is advisable if you plan to read Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, published in English last month by Melville House Books. Readers might be able to get by on the information provided by the publisher in footnotes and a glossary, but a little time spent on Wikipedia can’t hurt. (I also recommend Lisa Hill’s excellent review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog). The Colonel is both a political novel and a family drama – knowledge of the former is essential in understanding the latter. To complicate matters further: it also functions as a Persian fable.
Two colonels are referenced in the title. The first, “the colonel” (always in lowercase letters), is the novel’s protagonist and one of its two narrators. He served in the military under the Shah. After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted the colonel was arrested and sent to prison. (I’m fuzzy as to whether this was because of his politics or because he killed his wife in a drunken rage). He has five children. The eldest son, Amir, witnessed his mother’s murder.
Amir is the novel’s second narrator. His life, in many ways, mirrors that of his father’s. Both men have troubled pasts. Both men supported different, fallen regimes (Amir supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who deposed, and was later deposed by, the Shah); both were imprisoned and tortured; both men played a part in their wives’ deaths. Their combined actions and choices – particularly their political choices – have led to the destruction of their family, contributing to the deaths of Amir’s two brothers and youngest sister. A second sister is married to a brutal opportunist who holds both his wife and her family in contempt. At the point where the story begins Amir and his married sister are the only children of the colonel still alive. We meet the other three in flashbacks. We learn the details of their deaths and, as the story unfolds, understand that they were sacrificed.
The catalyst which sets the story into motion is a knock on the door in the middle of the night. The colonel is summoned to collect the body of his fourteen year old daughter, Parvaneh, from the police station. She died in custody and he must bury her before dawn in an unmarked grave. Two soldiers accompany him to assist with the burial, which turns into something of a farce… almost a comedy of errors (except it’s not funny). There is no women to bathe the body, they have no shovels to dig the grave, the rain never stops, the ghost of the colonel’s dead wife makes a tragic appearance… as does the ghost of the second Colonel.
The second colonel of the title – The Colonel (always capitalized) is a historical figure. The details of his life would be familiar to most Iranian school children. Footnotes and the book’s glossary provide some detail. To my mind, his importance is more as a symbol and less as a man. The colonel keeps his picture in a place of prominence in his home. As he loses each of his children he places their photographs in the frame at The Colonel’s feet.
Dowlatabadi moves back and forth between the colonel and Amir to tell the story. The Colonel is non-linear, filled with flashbacks, memories and hallucinations – making the timeline of events sometimes difficult to follow. I initially believed this was done on purpose to reflect the states of minds of the two narrators. To demonstrate how their individual psyches and family are deteriorating apace with the nation. But if Dowlatabadi meant for this novel to be taken as a fable then it’s possible that what I identified as hallucinations were meant to be visions or, even, actual occurrences. This is just one instance among many where I fell short as a reader. (Another being my failed attempts to grasp the amazingly complex political and cultural traditions depicted in the book).
Iran seems to be a country where lines are constantly blurred – with so many regime changes and each member of the colonel’s family aligning themselves with a different political cause – friends and enemies are difficult to keep track of. It wasn’t entirely shocking when Amir welcomed his former torturer, a man named Khezr Javid, into his father’s home as a guest and hid him from the revolutionary mobs crowding the streets. Or for that same torturer to reappear later on dressed as a Mulla, now serving in the new government. After telling Amir how he also served the Shah at one time, he explains his situation –
“Listen, boy. Political police are like a religion. Has anyone ever heard of a religion being overthrown?… A new gang may take over, but they don’t go and overthrow the very basis of the old régime. I grant you that some of us were strung up by a few of your hot-headed brethren, but that’s not the end of the story. Not by any means. We’re the very foundation of everything, we are the underpinning of the state, my engineer friend!”
I’ve read only one other Iranian author. The difference between Shahriar Mandapour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is palpable. Both write about the political and social climate of Iran – but Censoring An Iranian Love Story is more indulgent in its tone. Mandapour creates a metafiction narrative that acknowledges the reality of his main characters’ situations, but forces upon them unrealistically happy endings (while acknowledging the implausibility of these endings). Whereas Dowlatabadi is the complete opposite. The Colonel has not been published in Iran due to censorship. This poses a problem. He is the quintessential Iranian author, as Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Dickens the British, even in his open criticism of the current government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And so his novel is dependent on and assumes readers with a certain level of knowledge about his subject matter. Yet, I can’t help but wonder, outside of Iran and it’s neighbors, how many people have that knowledge? Dowlatabadi’s writing is more dramatic…grittier… then Mandapour. His story takes place in damp basements, muddy streets, dark mortuaries and smokey, confined spaces. He paints a dark and bitter picture of Iran and its politics – of a nation that sacrifices its young people. While I don’t doubt the truth in what he says, is it an objective or a subjective truth? Amir speaks of the events leading up to his sister’s, Parvaneh’s, death.
That was when people started talking: it was the duty of any respectable family to repudiate a girl like that and send her packing. She was now mahdour ud-dam*, fair Islamic game. It would be an honour killing.
A few pages later the colonel, that girl’s father, recalls speaking to a crowd at his matryed son’s funeral (the morning after burying Parvaneh in an un-marked grave).
…the memory of what he had said about Parvaneh over the unseen, echoing loudspeakers at Masoud’s funeral. He could not believe that he would ever have been capable of uttering those words against a child who was not even fourteen, a girl to whom he was both a mother and a father. Had it really been his own voice that had yelled: ‘This girl is mahdour ud-dam… She must be killed. She is impure, possessed by the devil and now lost to us all…’
Passages like these are incredibly disturbing to read. Particularly for a reader without the experience to recognize concrete fact from what is being shaped by the author’s opinions and artistry. Much like his character Amir, Dolwatabadi’s writing portrays him as disenchanted with and disenfranchised from his homeland. Reading these pages it’s difficult to find any redemption or hope for Iran. I don’t dispute the book’s brilliance, even I recognize the genius behind it. But for those readers (and I count myself among them) coming to these pages ignorant of the background material, The Colonel is an intense experience.
Note: The Colonel was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is being whispered as a possible future Nobel Prize winner.
*deserving of death
Publisher: Melville House, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 6121 9132 4
December 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
- The Readers Podcast, hosted by the UK litbloggers Savidge Reads and GavReads, is compiling a long list for The International Readers Book Awards 2011. Due to some technical difficulties with the website they’ve decided to extend the deadline until Tuesday, December 20th. ANYONE IN THE WORLD can nominate a book (that’s been published in 2011 in hardback or paperback format) and there are multiple categories to choose from. Including: Best Character, Best Opening Line, Best First Novel and, of course, Best Book of the Year. Follow the link to fill out the longlisted nomination form. And I strongly encourage you to download an episode of The Readers while you’re there (they’re on iTunes as well).
- Kimbofo of Reading Matters has designated January 2012 Australian Literature Month – complete with a challenge. The rules are simple: read an Australian book and celebrate the writers from the land down under (and NO! New Zealand books do NOT count! I’m still blushing over that faux pas). If you blog – not a requirement – Kim has created a set of 5 badges to use in your posts. Each one features a different Australian native animal. And, finally, if you’re unsure what to read I recommend visiting Lisa at ANZ Litlovers. I guarantee she’ll set you on the right track.
- Closet political junkie? Levi Asher over at Litkicks has been hosting an ongoing discussion about the Occupy and Tea Party Movements. Whichever side of the debate you fall on – or if you find yourself performing a balancing act on razor-wire between the two – you’ll be welcomed. Your opinions (as long as you keep it polite) will be heard. And let’s be honest. That’s more than most of us got over Thanksgiving dinner with family.
- Speaking of politics: it seems that there’s a new Republican front-runner! Lori at TNBBC is hosting a giveaway of TAFT 2012, a novel by Jason Heller published by Quirk Books. Follow the link to learn about the book, view the trailer and to enter to win the fantastic prize pack that includes a campaign pin and poster! (I’m such a geek). 5 winners, U.S. residents only and the opportunity to join a group discussion with the author on GoodReads in January. All entries need to be in by December 21st.
- If we’re handing out points for creativity: Quirk seems to be ahead of the curve in keeping print books relevant in the wake of the e-book revolution. How do they do it? By making the physical object as unique and desirable as the text it contains. Case in point: their upcoming January release The Thorn And the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story by Theodora Goss.
This novel is beautifully illustrated, comes with a slipcover and without a spine. It’s what is known as an accordion book. In Goss’ incarnation each side opens up to the same story told from a different perspective, each perspective containing new revelations. (A shame this wasn’t out in time for the holiday because it would make the perfect stocking stuffer). Watch this space for my upcoming review.
- And last, but not least, check out this tweet from last week:
Are you as excited about a new Toni Morrison book as I am???
Please feel free to use the comments to post any contests, challenges, awards and exchanges that you’re hosting, taking part in or just geeking-out on. ‘Tis the season for sharing!