Americans in post-communist Prague

In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)

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There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.

I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.

“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.

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(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)

“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).

I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.

The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.

The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.

Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.

Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.

(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)

©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray

 

Abdication of responsibility by the Italian state

“When you act against your own interests (when you sabotage yourself), it is always out of loyalty to something more obscure which you secretly know is right.” — Yannick Haenal, Hold Fast Your Crown

I refuse to accept that State of Absence by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Leaving Tangier), published in French in 1993 is a novel, though both author and publisher refer to it as a “Mafia novel.” Where particular stories occur is not always marked, though Sicily is the predominant location.

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There is no continuity of characters, nor a single plot-line. I see the book as a series of variations on two themes. The first is the southern Italian code of omertà that forbids telling police what one saw and/or what everyone knows.

The other is the abdication of the (Italian) state from trying to curb the Mafia. The “absence” of the state is right there in the title. At one point, the state is likened to a soap bubble (138). “The state does not make its presence felt” (41) “They spend their time acquitting assassins and putting pressure on innocent victims.” (51) “We are passed over by the State, forgotten by the government., stuck in a third-class waiting room.” (58) “The real stranger here is the State. It doesn’t dare show itself here.” (77)

“Killing has become so easy, so simple, no one feels any surprise at disappearances.” (59) “Everybody knows and no one says anything.” (107) “In this country everyone knows the truth, but no one can prove it, so it’s of no use.” (119)

In addition to one story of an influx of Africans to harvest tomatoes (“African Night”), for me the best story is “Widow Courage, in which a woman inadvertently reveals who executed her husband (and why). The worst IMO is “Woman of Naples.” The author and/or characters obsession with large female breasts is tedious IMO.

I think things are better there now, after some the Mafia super-trials and outrage at the murders of judges.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

The Last Summer of Reason by Algerian writer Tahar Djaout is the Muslim 1984/Brave New World dystopian novel—and, alas, a chronicle of a murder foretold: the author’s own by the Armed Islamic Group (al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha) in Algiers in 1993. The manuscript of the novel told by Boualem Yekker is a bookseller in a society in which Islamists are extending banishment of any literature other than the Qu’ran, was found after Djaout’s murder. It includes memories of when Boualem had a family and women were not forced to cover everything except their eyes by wearing burquas, and people (like Djaout) were not being murdered for insufficient Islamist zeal and outright denunciation of the spreading intolerance. He dwells on the past because the future has been annulled. Nothing other than the Last Judgment is licit to speak about (even dreams are illicit, though not yet monitored by the thought-police).

One might think the ban on spare tires (as interfering with God’s will about whether a car should continue onward) is a satire, though within a few years the Taliban in Pakistan banned razorblades and transistor radios. The rationale for Djaout’s own murder was justified because he “wielded a fearsome pen” against enforcement of Islamists’ understanding of God’s word.

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Because he lacks the talent to write books and lacks any glamour, Boualem hopes that he will be left alone, though when some children throw stones at him, he realizes this is wishful thinking. This is followed by the “Prepare to die” phone calls. Books had been his refuge, but, now, owning any other than the Qu’ran is evidence of lacking faith that it contains all the licit knowledge in the world.

Boualem induces three rules for “approved knowledge”:

  • Science has the right to pay attention only to those questions not settled in The Book.
  • Any scientific result and any scientific discovery must be challenged by The Sacred Text in order to find justification for them there (or be rejected).
  • Our religion is the source of all knowledge Any scientific or moral law, any legislation decreed in the time preceding this religion, when humanity was steppe din darkness, lies, and barbarism is null and void.

Enjoyment of anything other than murdering the insufficiently righteous and martyrdom are suspect. The beaches are deserted, because swimming is not recommended in the Qu’ran. Television broadcasts only sermons and pseudo-documentaries dismissing any claims to knowledge other than from the Qu’ran. Weather forecasts are presumptuous and impious and long gone.

Boualem is appalled that “God should have to put up with such despicable representatives” as the Vigilant Brothers (the AIG in power). But “most devastating was the paralyzing cowardice that had taken hold of everyone, he himself being no exception” (unlike Djaout, though I’m sure he faulted himself for not doing more than what got him killed).

 

The penultimate sentence of the manuscript (though only a draft, it seems complete, if less polished than it might have been had Djaout lived to edit it)—“The course of time has gone crazy, and who dares swear to the appearance of the following day?” — was demonstrated by Djaout’s murder.

The book is not just a warning to non-fanatic Muslims, but to those in any society in which religious fanatics seek to impose conformity to their rigorist readings of whatever Sacred Text they are brandishing on others (including Mein Kampf and Mao’s Little Red Book) in the guise of “social cleansing.” In his foreword to the translation from French by Marjoljin de Jager, Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian (Christian Yoruba in origin) writer Wole Soyinka draws attention to Christianist fanatics, in particular those murdering doctors who perform abortion. Djaout bore “witness from within his own society, from within his own milieu, and in defense of his assailed humanity, but let no one be tempted to narrow the bane of bigotry and intolerance to just one milieu from which this powerful testimony has emerged…. It is only be recognizing that the individuality that we are enabled to recollect, and respond to the face of other individuals, to the fate of hundreds like Djaout, and the fate of hundreds of thousands on behalf of whom that voice has been raised, against whom the hand of atavism is also constantly raised, aiming ever more boldly for a body count that will pave the way of killers to a paradise of their imagining. The most ambitious enemies are the absolutist interpreters of the Divine Will, be they Sikh, Hindus, Jew, Christians, Muslims, born-again of every religious calling.”

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Djaout himself, shortly before his murder wrote: “It is useless to repress fundamentalism if the Algerian school continues to prepare for us new packs of fundamentalists who, in their turn, will take up arms in ten or fifteen years.” The Christianist assault on science and history curricula in the US is analogous, even with the faith-based policies of the Bush junta not occupying the executive branch of the US government. Our own Vigilant Brethren have not been as successful as the Taliban, but there is a strong stream of intolerance for difference and tolerance for slander in American history, especially from Donald (Don the Con) Drumpf.

 

(The manuscript was more finished than either Carson McCullers’s memoir fragment, Illuminations and Night Glare or the manuscript which Ralph Ellison had been unable to finish in decades. The Last Summer of Reason is a manuscript that had to be published in protest against his silencing.)

 

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Laila Lalami’s second novel, Secret Son

I think that Laila Lalami is a very good writer in her third or fourth language, English. It would be faint praise to bill her as “the best Moroccan-American novelist,” not a category in which there is much competition.

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Her second novel, Secret Son (2009) seems far more linear than Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), though some very crucial information is supplied out of sequence in Son. It also seems — not least in its title — to have a single protagonist. In the opening part of Hope, there was one, Murad, though his was only one of five backstories that followed (and the four stories of what happened to some of those who were together in the debacle of the opening venture). Most of Secret Son is from the perspective of Youssef, but there are chapters from the perspective of four other characters. Two important scenes are replayed from a second perspective (although I think doing this was a mistake).

The book opens with a flood ending a drought and Youssef El Mekki rescuing the portraits of the father he has never known. Youssef and his friends from the Casablanca slum neighborhood, Maati and Amin, are finishing high school. Maati fails the college entrance test and starts work for the mysterious Party that has opened an Islamist center with a tea shop and sermons. Amin begins law school and Youssef majors in English.

Second Son has been likened to African American classics Native Son and Invisible Man (Lalami’s editor suggested the latter, which drove her to read Ellison’s book, and “son” was not in the title until later still, so is not an homage or an echo). The one scene of a class discussion of a book, however, addresses The Great Gatsby. Youssef sees that Daisy is Jay Gatsby’s dream, an impossible ideal to which he aspires (and IMO an unworthy chimera). His own dreams are thwarted by the society, his station in it, and by such blood relatives as he has.

Youssef aspires to and even beds one of the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, that is, students from affluent backgrounds. He remains an outsider (this was the book’s working title) to the Islamists, the Marxists, and the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, longing to belong somewhere, envying those with fathers and family.

Gradually, he learns more about the background of both his mother and his father, is lifted up and thrown back down, and used in various ways by various people who claim to have his best interests at heart—not least his mother. The childhood friends are out of his life for a while, but become central, way-too central to the denouement.

Much of the pleasure of the book is in the complicated unfolding of relationships in two families, making discussion of what happens and even who are the other major characters spoilers. There is a female character with some of the author’s geographical experience (LA, albeit being an undergraduate math major at UCA, rather than a graduate student in linguistics at USC). Lalami has expressed frustration at assumptions that Amal is autobiographical.

Lalami does not write anything from the perspective of the Angeleño of Brazilian descent, Pedro, but writes convincingly (at least to me) from the perspective of Morrocan males, elite and unemployed. Blaming Mom is a venerable American angle, though smothering mothering seems even more rampant in lower-class Moroccan culture than in middle-class Anglo American culture. Still, I was startled that disaster is laid on the doorstep of a conclave of mothers determined to keep control of their men in a novel written by a woman.

As in Hope, the Islamist movement, the corrupt and brutal government, and the smug Moroccan elite are all shown to be not only disingenuous but dangerous, with the naïve youths of the slums at best pawns, but mostly nonentities. Lalami is interested in telling stories, not in being an analyst of the society in which she was born and grew up. At a book event Q&A, she said: “I am not pretendingt to know my native country, Morocco, any more than anyone else. I am just trying to write the best story that I can.” Nevertheless, the story is set in a place in which some of those in situations of chronic unemployment are aiming to overthrow the corrupt and highly stratified status quo through terrorist attacks, and her imagination is rooted in recognition of the appeals of hedonism and Islamism, often on the same individuals in sequence or simultaneously.

The characters Lalami has imagined in both her novels are interesting, but however indirect the social critique is, they are also inevitably read in part from interest in the milieu of poor Arabs that leads to desperate acts of immigration north to unwelcoming Europe and of terrorist attacks.

©2009, Stephen O.  Murray

Desperate Moroccan attempts to reach Europe

The 2005 novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was ritten in English by Laila Lalami was born in Rabat in 1968, where she lived through earning a she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the popular blog Moorishgirl.

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The book has, rightfully, been widely acclaimed both for her literary skills and for insights into those risking their lives to relocate north, across the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the Rio Grande. Showing the hypocrisy of both Islamists and secularists in Morocco has also made the book of wide interest. (It has been translated into six languages, including the languages of her earlier education, Arabic and French.)

Lalami has said that the original stimulus for this fiction was an online Le Monde article about an accident in which fifteen Moroccans drowned trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a fishing boat. The characters of her book— thirty passengers crammed into a Zodiac designed to hold eight — are mindful of the disaster and plenty scared when they set off.

The distance between Africa and Europe there is only fourteen and a quarter kilometers (8 miles). I can attest from personal experience that the waters can become turbulent quickly and are not warm. Currents are also treacherous (fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of that).

250 meters from the Spanish coast, the boatman forces the passengers (some of whom cannot swim) out. Some drown, a few make it and get away, while most of the others are captured by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco.

The novel begins with the trip then backtracks to tell how four of the passengers got to the desperate gamble of paying substantial sums to be ferried (most of the way) across to Spain.

Murad, a multilingual guide, specializing in Paul Bowles tours for Anglophone visitors to Tangier lacks connections to get a job befitting his education (a degree in English like Lalami’s from Université Mohammed V). More direct interference occurred in the education of Faten at the same university. Faten joined an Islamist organization and influenced her friend Noura to don a headscarf, study the Koran, and decide not to go to NYU. Noura’s father is an official in the education bureaucracy and reaches out to have Faten failed. (Faten has received answers to a test from Noura, so her stern ethics are not invariable.)

Halima is fleeing with her children because her drunkard husband who has lost his job won’t grant her a divorce. (Men can divorce women by repeating “I divorce thee” four times, but women have to go to court and even if granted a divorce are rarely given custody of their children.

Aziz leaves his devoted and beautiful wife behind (with his mother) to try to make some money. (He also leaves behind a bosom buddy who also loves him, though Aziz does not seem to realize that they are more than friends, or that Lahcen would like them to be.)

 

The looking back at disparate characters who were together at disaster recalls Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge at San Luis Rey to me. His characters perished. Lalami’s survive. One escaped into Spain from the water. Three were deported. One made it into Spain on a later try. (I think it would be plot-spoiling to reveal who is where.)

The stories of the post-crossing-attempt characters fill in more backstory as well as showing them a few years later. Life in Spain is not a paradise for those who are there (one of them with legal status) and remains tough for those surviving in Tangier.

The book is not as grim as my account might suggest. It has a guarded optimism more like Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army than like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s nihilistic Leaving Tangier. There are more than a few ironies to make readers smile and some betterment of some lives recorded. The hope of undocumented migrants leads to dangerous attempts to reach a better life. And the lives of those left behind may be even harder, but hope does keep springing.

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In an informative online interview at http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2008/interview.shtml

Lalami noted: “Most of the Moroccans who undertake these journeys are people who have no job opportunities and very few useful educational prospects, whereas I have been very fortunate in receiving a good education (first in Rabat, the capital, and then in London and Los Angeles) and in finding employment…. I think I feel closest to Murad, however, because the whole book grew out of a short story [El Dorado] about him…. In the process of revising this story, I realized I was adding flashbacks of his life before the trip, so I decided to take these flashbacks out and put them in a separate story featuring the same character, but set in a different period of his life. Then I became interested in each of the other people on the boat with Murad and pretty soon I had a collection of stories, each from a different point of view, with the only connecting thread being that these characters make the same decision about emigrating illegally. Still, I felt that something was missing. Then I realized that what I needed was to reach closure with each of these characters, to find out what happened to each of them after the captain abandons them.”

I started taking English in high school, at the age of 15, and majored in English in college. After I moved to the States, I continued writing in French, but it quickly became clear to me that French comes with an enormous colonial baggage when one is writing Moroccan characters. I switched to writing fiction in English in 1996.

I don’t know of any Moroccans who would look to Paul Bowles for a story about Morocco, but it’s certainly true that many American readers might look to Bowles for a story about the country. I think he is a fine prose stylist, but I am not a big fan of his writing because I find it devoid of any compassion for his characters.

 

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

Season of Migration to the North

The back cover of Tayeb Salih.’s novel Season of Migration to the North, first translated into English in 1969 (having been published in Arabic three years earlier) has an assertion from Edward Said that it is “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” This made me want to know what he thought were the other five. The history of the novel in Arabic is short and dominated by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

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In 2001 the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus was less equivocal than Said in judging it “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” I am dubious about the accolade from Said, and even more that this book by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) is the best, though the Arab novelists other than Mafouz whom I read write in French (Abdellah Taïa, Tahar Ben Jelloun) or English (Laila Lalami), and Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone is generally classified as “autobiography.”

Though it has some lyrical passages (and some that strike me as ‘florid’), there is much in the very disjointed short book that seems to me unbelievable. The jagged fragmentariness may be anti-narrative “modernism” rather than incompetence, though I suspect the latter.

The book opens well, with the return from postgraduate studies in England (of English poetry) by the narrator to his natal village on the Upper Nile in downstream from Khartoum.

The never-named narrator’s grandfather is among the most respected village elders, a spry octogenarian. During the narrator’s seven-year absence, a man not native to the village has bought land, married a beautiful local woman with whom he has produced two sons. Mustafa Sa’eed has aided villagers in co-operating to end dependence on provisioning by riverboats. He refuses office, but is relied upon for advice in improving the lot of the village. (It may be a backwater, but socioeconmic change has been occurring in what is not “timeless” rural life.)

The narrator is very curious about this man who in some ways has taken on the role of rural-urban liaison that should have been his by virtue of his elite/foreign education. Slowly, the narrator learns that Mustafa Sa’eed was a wunderkind, the first student from the Sudan to become a success in the colonial metropole. Along with publishing a number of books on economics, Mustafa Sa’eed was both figuratively and quite literally a “lady-killer.” English women in extravagant numbers swooned and were ravaged by him. The body count — and I mean corpses, not conquests — seems ludicrously high to me.

Many committed suicide after being “corrupted” by the Sudanese Superfly, and he eventually killed a woman who repeatedly rejected him (double penetration: phallus and knife). No one else in the village knows of the triumphs, crimes, and prison term of Mustafa Sa’eed in England.

About midway through the short (169-page) novel, Mustafa Sa’eed disappears in a sudden flood. The narrator suspects that this was suicide, I suspect that he went off to start yet another life.

Mustafa Sa’eed had gotten his affairs in order and left a sealed letter for the narrator with the key to a room in his house that somehow was built without anyone else having seen the room or its contents (in a village house???). The letter also asks that the narrator look out for his two sons. His widow, Hosna, is in her husband’s judgment quite competent to make economic decisions.

Ah! but regardless of her competencies and wishes not to be remarried, a lecherous old man is forced upon her. The narrator’s best friend reminds him ” how life is run here: Women belong to men, and a man’s a man even if he’s decrepit.” The narrator coulda/shoulda married her (he only has one wife), but leaves for Khartoum. Hosna does what she said she would do, and there is a second knifing in bed, this time without other penetration.

The narrator returns and goes into Mustafa’s room, where he finds more about Mustafa’s life in England, but nothing about Mustafa’s life (and marriage) in the Sudanese village.

IMO, the novel is padded with lists and with documents from Mustafa’s English period of corrupting and being corrupted (in a rather Victorian and very sex-negative mindset) with too many too large lacunae (the narrator’s romantic/domestic life in both countries, for instance).

What happens and what it is supposed to mean are both confusing (and I don’t blame myself). Salih himself wrote some other novellas, married (and stayed married to) a Scottish woman, worked for the BBC and UNESCO, and did not return to live in the Sudan (in which civil wars and genocide have been raging most of the time since 1955, the year before independence from England, though there was a hiatus from 1962 to 1973, the time during which Salih wrote the book). I don’t know enough about him to hazard a guess about whether Mustafa’s lethal conquests are fantasy or exaggeration of experiences of African students in the era leading up to decolonization (followed by betrayals as shown in the novels of Ghanian/Igbo writer Chinua Achebe; Man of the People, his fourth, also first published in 1966, and the first of Achebe’s with a first-person narrator, though his previous ones had conflicted characters in colonial and postcolonial situations)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray