He walked over to the Audi and looked inside the windows, black and opaque as metal. He had hoped to catch some sort of movement, some flash of an antitheft system (as if the car needed an antitheft system), but all he saw was himself, and it occurred to him that the sight of your own reflection in glass behind which you were attempting to find something rational to explain your gut fears was a fine metaphor for paranoia. His paranoia was rising in waves from somewhere in his stomach, his common sense telling it: “There is nothing to fear, the car could have come for anyone.” Or, “If they were following you, they would have parked right in front of your entrance.” His “I” was already churning, already whispering, already beckoning him to get the hell out of there and not stop, but he controlled himself. Then, just at the moment when he had convinced himself that the car’s doors were not going to open and no one was going to push him inside… Just when the absence of any discernible movement in the car’s depths had assured him that no one was inside, that the vehicle was deserted… Just when he was about to walk away… At that very second, confirming his horrifying suspicion that while he had been peering into the blackness behind the window, someone, or… or something (he shuddered) had been watching him from inside, studying him with birdlike (raven) eyes, just as he had been examining his reflection and thinking about his paranoia… In short, he already couldn’t remember what had happened first: had the motor, detonated by the ignition, turned over first or had the blinding xenon headlights turned on first? With the sleekness of a cobra the car turned its wheels and slithered off. Making an unnecessary circle through the courtyard, on the lookout, on the lookout for its prey – the circle of a predator, unhurried and ready to lunge – making this circle, the Audi picked up speed, picked up speed and disappeared.
I have to admit that I love occasionally wallowing in the misery of a devastatingly depressing dystopia, and Paranoia is that! With the difference that it is perhaps only too close to the reality in the last Communist dictatorship in Europe. It comes with a great introduction (to the current state under Lukashenko’s Belarus) by Timothy Snyder, and a fascinating preface by the translator.
As for the cheeky warning at the start of the book, it’s worth quoting in full:
“All the events related herein are fictional: the protagonists have never existed in any reality other than that of the present text. Any unsanctioned comparisons with historical figures or persons alive today may be qualified as a criminal offense punishable under international and national law. To avoid unintentionally committing acts prosecutable under the Penal Code, the author – fully aware that, essentially, he should never have written it in the first place – enjoins readers not to read this book.”
– no doubt I am guilty as charged, but you should definitely read this book!
Throughout the novel, we are asking ourselves, like the ‘subject’, Anatoly, is what he is experiencing really paranoia, or just reality?
Much of the novel from the outset consists of the surveillance reports kept by the MGB (Ministry of State Security), still called the KGB by Belarusians. (In the language of the MGB reports, a ‘person’ is called a ‘surveillance object’, and a ‘place’ is a ‘microphone’.) Paranoia has some of the most subtle and chilling descriptions of the spies’ work that I’ve read. For example, the minute description of the eaten pizza found in the subject’s rubbish. There is a report suggesting how to get Anatoly to commit suicide. However the spooks aren’t above making amusing mistakes – this doesn’t come across in the English translation, but a proof-reader had noted that the transcriber had incorrectly written ‘strange (in Russian, страннo) with a letter B’ instead of ‘the country (страна) with a letter B’. Such a shame these puns necessarily get lost in translation.
Anatoly’s girlfriend Fox had a relationship with the Minister of State Security himself, who would send her sinisterly described bouquets. Anatoly (like us) could never be quite sure if she wasn’t working for the MGB herself. The ‘friendly conversation’ with a snakelike interviewer is really, as Anatoly fears, an interrogation in which he is accused of her murder.
This is one that I will definitely re-read and that I highly recommend.
What’s distinctive about the present epoch is that nowadays anti-utopias can be based on entirely factual material. There’s no more need to invent 1984: just look around.
Martinovich, Victor: Paranoia, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8101-2876-7
Originally published in Russian by AST (Moscow) and Astrel’-SPb (St Petersburg)
Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips, and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’
This novel is set in Indian Kashmir, near the ‘Line of Control’ with Pakistan. Kashmir isn’t an independent country (though you suspect most Kashmiris might want it to be). When India and Pakistan gained independence, the Muslim-majority state was ruled by an indecisive Hindu maharaja who opted for India at the last moment. Open and covert warfare between Pakistan and India, and Kashmiri militants, for decades has been the consequence. Both countries claimed the state and occupy it (India the majority). India promised an independence referendum at the outset, that has never been held. Some sixty years later, no solution is in sight. The lovely valley is perhaps the world’s most likely flashpoint for a nuclear war.
In ‘The Collaborator’, brutal, drunken Indian Army Captain Kadian gives a marvellous self-justification for his actions, going through the full catalogue of rationalisations with which such people kid themselves (only). It’s their own fault that atrocities occur, can’t be helped, just part of his job, I’m just a tiny cog in the machine, it’s the law, those who whinge about human rights don’t understand, I have a family too, I didn’t kill them myself, they chose to die, it would have happened anyway, even if I agreed I couldn’t do anything.
He forces the boy narrator to ‘collaborate’ and count the fallen corpses in the typically beautiful Kashmir valley on the border (a job he considers too dangerous for his own soldiers); every day he expects to find one of his boyhood friends who had gone across to Pakistan to join the militants.
The high point is the visit of the Governor of Kashmir, who helicopters in as if on a military operation, humiliating the villagers (who had been warned by an azan ((Muslim call to prayer)) recited backwards), like the preparation for a massacre instead of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
There are a lot of Kashmiri, Arabic and Hindi/Urdu words used, but unfortunately no glossary is provided and they are not always explained.
Although he is speaking of his scavenging expeditions, when the Collaborator says he is tired of it all he must be speaking for most Kashmiris.
WAHEED, Mirza (1955 – ), The Collaborator, London, Viking, 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91895-9
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
Book 35: Argentina (Spanish) – El beso de la mujer araña = The Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel PUIG)
In her we see that she has something outré about her, that she’s a woman like no other. She seems very young, hardly more than twenty-five, the petite face a little catlike, the nose small and pert, the form of her face is… round rather than oval, the forehead wide, the cheeks large too but then falling to a point, like those of a cat.
This one was due to a late change in plans. I was going to write about Borges’ amazing Ficciones which is a collection of fantastic, deep and intricate short stories, but now I’ve decided to see if I can find a novel from every country to read. (I was also accepting short stories and epics, so I’ll have to choose a couple of new titles for some countries I’ve already read to catch up).
While this is certainly a novel, in a way you could consider Puig’s book as a series of short stories, linked by a framing narrative as in the Thousand Nights and One Night for example, although the frame is much more prominent here. (Only one and a bit of these stories made it into the great movie of this novel -filmed for some reason in Brazil, though the book is set in Buenos Aires – the first one, a story of a Nazi romance, along with a short appearance by the Spider Woman herself. As far as we are concerned, the Spider Woman is the gay man Molina, and he intoxicatingly relates the stories, in the manner of film synopses, to his cellmate, Valentín. For we are in prison, although it takes a while for us to realise this (unlike in the movie, where the bars are the first thing we see); Molina is in for “corruption of minors”, Valentín is a political prisoner. Each of them is a cosmic mistake: one a woman in a man’s body, the other a martyr who doesn’t want to be a hero. Each of them in fact, with differing degrees of willingness and success, attempts in turn to entrap the other. Molina, who has been apolitical until now, surprisingly turns out to be the stronger of the two.
When one of the pair is released, the authorities’ notes on the minutiae of his actions, as detailed as those of an entomologist studying a spider, are chilling.
One thing I found a little strange is the extensive Burton-like footnotes about the theoretical and psychological aspects of homosexuality, which go on for pages and were presumably placed by the author. Somehow they don’t seem necessary or appropriate in a novel.
Kiss of the Spider woman is a tour de force of storytelling and dialogue, powerful and thought-provoking.
PUIG, Manuel (1932 – 1990), El beso de la mujer araña, Barcelona, Biblioteca de Bolsillo, 1994 (first published 1976), ISBN 884-322-3026-X
A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.
COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4
This is the story of a young man who took as his wife a widow who was slightly deranged. (The story would probably have ended there had the widow not been his father’s wife.) And as the affair happened to take place in a small community, it grew into a major scandal which shook the morals of nearly everyone in the village and set one and all gossiping and passing judgment on the basis of whatever opinion each had formed about this abnormal relationship.
Rumor had it that, less than a month after his father died Fak had taken his stepmother as his wife. Some went so far as to claim that the two of them had cuckolded Old Foo even before his body had been laid to rest in his coffin.
This extract from the beginning of the Prologue is a good summary of the premise of this novel. It is a relationship considered scandalous and provokes the very mean treatment dealt out in the narrow-minded world of a village. The judgement of the title is that of the kangaroo court of public opinion. “The Widow Somsong” turns out to be a slightly mentally retarded Mrs Robinson to the weak but good Pak, who is like a leaf blown around by those around him. Korbjitti is a great writer and brilliantly captures the claustrophobic dictatorship of the commons. In the person of the villagers he is so cruel to his protagonist that I felt almost physical pain for him.
Many thanks to my friend Por for introducing me to this powerful book.
Chart Korbjitti: The Judgment, translated from the Thai by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-Kit & Marcel Barang, Howling Books, Nakhon Rachasima, 2007, ISBN 974-91491-5-7
(First published in Thai 1981).
If you would like a longer but lighter and more pleasant read from Thailand, try:
Four Reigns = สี่แผ่นดิน (Si Phaendin) by Kukrit Pramoj
Former Prime Minister Pramoj wrote this historical novel much loved by the Thais. It follows the lives of Phloi (who became a role model for Thai women) and her family over the reigns of Kings Rama V to VIII (unfortunately, including nothing about the mysterious and controversial death of the latter). It follows how Thais adapted, sometimes with bewilderment, to the extremely rapid changes that modernisation brought during this period.
On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.
He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storeyed house, and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady, who provided him with garret, dinners and attendance, lived on the floor below and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady and was afraid of meeting her.
After having struggled through Anna Karenina not long ago, and War and Peace several years ago, I wasn’t looking forward to (going by the title) another depressing, wintery Russian classic. But Dostoyevsky is nothing like Tolstoy. Crime and Punishment was far more readable for me, no doubt helped by his writing it episodically for a magazine. The (anti)hero, Raskolnikov, really is, as the New Guineans would say, a raskol. He commits a double murder and subsequently is so crazed with fear that he is suspected by everybody, and he seems to be constantly giving himself away, like a matador permitting the bull to pass dangerously close. There is quite a lot of humour, and philosophical discussion about the nature of crime and punishment from many points of view. This is a wonderful book.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881), Crime and Punishment, translated from Russian by Constance Garnett, UK, Wordsworth Classics, 2000, ISBN 978-1-84022-430-6
(originally published in Russkii Vestnik periodical, 1866)
“If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’
‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that – you can’t.’
‘YOU couldn’t, but THEY could and did.’
A heartbreakingly beautiful book about justice (and the lack thereof) – like everyone else the US falls short of its ideals, but surely that’s better than not having those ideals in the first place. It’s a reminder that without some brave people to stick up for what’s right, the world would be even more screwed up than it is now. It is a desperate call for us as ordinary people to be heroes and to stand up for what is right, even if necessary against the prevailing order in our society and our own narrowly selfish interests, so that a better world will prevail. The judgement comes as a total shock, almost physical, and it will leave you moist-eyed!
Lee, Harper (1916-2016): To Kill a Mockingbird, London: Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099466734