Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.
We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.
The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.
Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.
Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).
Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.
Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.
While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.
TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0
To him, Kurdishness meant growing old as a gypsy on the streets and highways of the world. Kurdishness meant driving your motorcycle like a man possessed, never looking back. It meant putting your foot on the pedal and, like a prisoner escaped from Hell, never having to ask what had happened in the Hell you left behind. Kurdishness was tantamount to a disease in which you spent your entire life trying to forget Hell.
It seems appropriate to be posting on Kurdistan just as the Kurdish region in northern Iraq is voting on whether to become an independent nation. The Kurds seem to be the biggest ethnic group in the world without their own independent country (perhaps excepting Punjab?), although this was (yet another of) the Allies’ broken promises after the First World War. A century later, they have managed to establish a de facto semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, where they may hold an independence referendum today (25th September) and have also fought into control of much of northern Syria). However, in Turkey, where most Kurds live, the situation doesn’t seem as promising for them. This is about where Kurdistan might come in order if it were an independent country – who knows, perhaps it will be one day, since the Kurdish region in northern Iraq has achieved semi-autonomy and reasonable success (so it’s appropriate that Iraqi Kurdistan should be the standard-bearer for my little project).
I Stared at the Night of the City is apparently the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English – just in time for me! And it is great. The author, Bakhtiyar Ali, was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but now lives in Germany.
Appropriately, for a country that does not exist except in hopes, this is a novel all about the imagination. Ann Morgan, writing during her own reading project, was taken by the idea of books ‘talking to each other’, as am I. I was reading this one at the same time as Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, which is also about the imagination. I think this must have the cheekiest start to any novel I’ve ever read. The narrator (and through him, the author) seems to be constantly playing with you, taunting you, contradicting your expectations, trying to shock you.
The plot ricochets back and forth and between a circle of friends led by the poet Ghazalnus (‘ghazal writer’) on the one hand, and on the other, the ‘Barons’ who live in a corrupt ‘independent’ enclave of ‘Baronistan’, in an unnamed city (they are Kurds who undermine their own culture, afraid of artists & thinkers). Their leader, the ‘Baron of the Imagination’, tries to get the resistant Ghazalnus to build a dream ‘city of the imagination’ there which can be shown off to visitors, to hide the grim reality of the city.
The tale is related by the multiple unreliable authors from the two bands (including a former torturer and a weaver of magical carpets, and two ‘Magellans’), and spans a long period of time around which it jumps backwards and forwards.
On the whole, I felt conflicted about this novel. I definitely felt that it’s too long (that may be because I was also bogged down in my massive Kazakh tome at the same time). It seems a little too self-conscious and abstract – the characters seemed a bit symbolic to me. A more minor niggle is that not many of the Kurdish words are explained – it is not one of the world’s better known languages, and personally I love glossaries of exotic words and concepts! On the other hand I loved its quirkiness. It has some wonderfully memorable quotes: “Real love is not the desire to sleep with your beloved, but the desire to die with her.” “Lovers do not die – they turn into books or flowers.” “There are two types of paradise in the world: the paradise God gives to man, and the one that man gives to God. He who cannot give a paradise cannot receive it.” “We need to examine the details because, contrary to the proverb that says ‘the Devil is in the detail’, we believe that generalisations are the Devil’s work: it is the angel who pays attention to the detail”.
You can understand a Kurd like the Baron of Imagination being obsessed with maps – those abstract symbols of the world which draw lines where none exist (and which have not yet drawn one around an entity called ‘Kurdistan’).
The novel is like a combination of a magical realist and a postmodernist novel, but like nothing I’d ever read before. It presents a passionate argument for artistic freedom. I found it confusing book, but with often wondrous prose. I’m glad I chose to give the Kurds a space, otherwise I might have missed this intriguing novel. Let’s hope that not for much longer will the Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains’. Any people could be proud of this work, especially one who was forbidden to name itself and whose very language was banned in more than one country until quite recently. I would definitely re-read it and I’m sure I will get much more out of it the second time, now I know what it was on about!
ALI, Bahdiyar (بەختیار عەلی,) (1960 – ), I Stared at the Night of the City, translated from (Sorani) Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman, Reading, Periscope, 2016, ISBN 9781859641255
“A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy’s back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights. There was pressure behind his eyes. He leaned his head to one side and a nurse’s ready hand wiped sweat from his brow. He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie’s highly trained police.”
So begins this fiery tale set at the time of the overthrow of the regime of Ethiopia’s last king. The central character, the surgeon Hailu, is dragged unwillingly into it despite his best efforts to keep out, while his sons split, one of them attracted to the resistance that was to become the socialist Derg dictatorship. The descriptions of inhumanity, violence and torture perpetuated in its name are quite confronting. The characters, especially Hailu, are torn between loyalties and courses of action. At the outset he is forced to make a wrenching decision for what he hopes is the best interest of his patient, the victim of terrible torture. There are no apologies for the hated old emperor (yes, the one revered by Rastafarians), but the new dictatorship is worse. Perhaps we should have learnt by now that we can’t expect a bloody revolution to be better than what it replaces. Since we haven’t, this stunning book about what may seem old history is fully relevant today.
MENGISTE, Maaza (1974 – ), Beneath the lion’s gaze: a novel, Norton, New York/London, 2010, ISBN 978-0-393-33888-1