Troubled countries usually cause troubled minds in their writers, as do troubled families or systems of belief: but while being so troubled may be a powerful incitement to literary production, it may equally get in the way of real achievement. Writers can find themselves facing a dilemma, a choice between fidelity to their own passionate confusions and the possibly spurious lucidity of analytic detachment. The duties of a citizen will clash with those of an artist when both realms seem to call for full-time devotion, and writing can be propelled towards propaganda in the desire to avoid political irrelevance or the accusation of it. To create further fictions, in a nation already infested with political lies, risks complicity and redundancy.
It was political pressure applied by the Peron dictatorship that forced Ernesto Sabato, who was born in Argentina in 1911 of Italian descent, to resign from his chair of theoretical physics not long before the publication in 1948 of his novel El Tunel (translated previously – like Camus’s L’Etranger – as The Outsider). After a decade of work on radiation he became a full-time writer partly because disillusioned with the scientific point of view, partly because the Peronists forced him out of his professorship, and partly, as he put it, ‘so as not to die of sadness in this distressed nation’. Sabato has since become known, in the blurb’s words, as ‘a champion of social justice’. His first novel, however, in spite of his political engagement, is not a polemic concerned with national politics, but what Le Soir rightly if ripely called ‘a beautiful poem of madness and death’. It is indeed a striking and impressive work, which makes one hope for English translations of his two later novels, Concerning Heroes and Tombs (1961) and Abaddon the Exterminator (1974).
The novel’s hero and narrator begins with the intriguingly insufficient statement that ‘it should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne’: the rest of his first chapter speculates on the unpredictability of memory, argues for the bumping-off of individuals who are ‘a menace to society’, and proves the terribleness of the world with the image of a pianist in a concentration camp being ‘forced to eat a rat – a live rat’. We are clearly, as in The Good Soldier or ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in the presence of a mind not right; and as the work advances we may also think of Beckett, with his protagonists obsessively calculating distances and probabilities. Castel falls in love with Maria when he sees her raptly gazing at a corner of one of his paintings. Maternity, at a detail which shows a woman on a desolate beach. This passionate attention seems to promise him authentic contact with another human being – something for which his solipsistic soul has yearned – and he spends months hunting the streets of Buenos Aires for her, his head crossed by insane trains of thought, forlorn hopes that they might have a friend in common (though he doesn’t yet know Maria’s name), or that she’ll speak first when they do meet (thus sparing his shyness). He does find her, and, though married, she begins an affair with him. His fatal instability soon becomes all too clear: that she betrays her husband for him makes Castel only more demanding and suspicious: as he tells her, ‘I have never forgotten that Desdemona’s father warned Othello that a woman who had deceived her father could deceive another man.’ As in Browning, the obsession with union and possession, here arising from a profound existential loneliness, leads to morbid distrust and destructive cruelty. Castel’s life has seemed to him an oppressive tunnel, but one from which Maria will allow him to find release into her ‘parallel passageway’. By the end, that seems ‘a stupid illusion’, his solitude is ‘unredeemable’, and ‘after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood, my youth, my entire life.’
At times in his confessional narrative, written from a madhouse cell in an attempt to make contact with a sympathetic reader, Castel is agonised by self-rebuke: ‘It was I who killed you, I, who saw you mute and anxious, but could not touch you through the wall of glass. I, so stupid, so blind, so incredibly selfish and cruel!’ His inability to sustain a settled union with someone else is naturally matched with his schizophrenic failure to achieve any unity within himself. He is doubled up in the pain of self-division, and Sabato sees a real pathos in Castel’s contortions: ‘How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts? While one part of me strikes a pose of humaneness, the other part cries fraud, hypocrisy, false generosity.’ Such moments of tortuous lucidity, and the fact that Castel’s madness takes the form of a severe if irrational craving for evidence and computation make The Tunnel’s progress towards the darkness of its disastrous terminal point all too concise and too clear for our comfort.
A character in the book, of whom the evidence-gathering Castel is pathologically jealous, expounds in conversation a project for a novel which applies helpfully to Sabato’s.
I think that something similar to Don Quixote could be done with a mystery: a satire of a detective novel – just as the Quixote was a satire of the chivalric romance. Imagine an individual who has spent his life reading mystery novels and has reached such a point in his madness that he believes the world functions the way it does in a novel by Nicholas Blake or Ellery Queen. Then imagine that this poor fellow set off finally to solve crimes, and to act in real life the way a detective in a mystery novel does. I think such a book could be entertaining, tragic, symbolic, satirical ... beautiful.
Castel’s paranoid version of the world, in which every tiny fact and nuance of expression becomes a clue to a plot, makes him an individual who conforms to this pattern – not through reading mysteries but through real mental illness. The book repeatedly finds grim comedy in its hero’s restless analyses of Maria’s conduct; like Winterbourne in ‘Daisy Miller’, he acts more like a detective than a lover. There is, moreover, a Keatonesque fallibility in his ponderously logical procedures. ‘I soon realised that my earlier conclusion had been naive: I had thought (correctly) that Maria need not necessarily love Hunter for him to be jealous; I had been lulled by this conclusion. Now I realised that although it was not necessary, neither was it precluded.’ The moment when Maria confides to Castel her most intimate memory of an early lover finds him grotesquely preoccupied in struggling with his own murderous urges, and he misses her ‘priceless confession’ – the sign of trust of which he has made a fetish – when it finally arrives. Sabato makes this both moving and amusing. It is no more than just, then, to welcome The Tunnel as itself ‘entertaining, tragic, symbolic, satirical ... beautiful’, while wondering why it has taken forty years for a translation to be published in England.
The love-affair in Pilgrims Way, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who teaches literature at the University of Kent, comes under threat from the deeply-inscribed complexes of its hero: but he’s not actually mad, and love puts him back on his hinges, communicating again with the outside world. Daud’s fear of mockery and violence at the hands of the population of Canterbury, and his readiness to anticipate betrayal by the English rose he becomes attached to, a nurse called Catherine, are not signs of paranoia: for Daud is a black Muslim from Tanzania, and most of the white locals are either patronising or unforthcoming or directly hostile about ‘coons and wogs and smelly niggers’. The special intelligence of Gurnah’s novel is to realise that the psychological damage caused by real persecution need be no less serious than that caused by a condition of mind like Castel’s which creates its own delusive threats: and Pilgrims Way is essentially the story of Daud’s struggle, through comic extravagance, answering hostility and the energies of love, to regain a self-respect of which England has helped to rob him.
Daud has arrived in England as a student, bearing his parents’ hopes and meagre lifesavings, both of which have rapidly shrunk to nothing; so that five years later, in 1976, when the novel begins, he is a hospital orderly, full of shames and despairs, living in squalor. This menial position belies his liveliness of mind, which expresses itself in ferociously sarcastic letters to possible enemies composed in his head and never sent, and in fanatical support for the West Indies cricket team. He is isolated in England by the fact that the British Empire has meant far more in his life than in those of the natives; and through his poverty, his social exclusion and sexual tentativeness he is kept artificially in an adolescent state, restless with disconnection and unused potential, anxious for and about initiations. His idiom is eloquently parodic and second-hand, an unstable ironic blend of the languages of others, pointed by Gurnah in a way which situates him poignantly between the two cultures from which he feels shut out. ‘It’s being a stranger. That is what’s so crushing,’ he tells Catherine. Yobs are always suggesting that he ‘get out of our fuckin country, nigger.’ Daud’s stoical response to this painful predicament contrasts favourably with the more violently macho attitude of his friend Karta from Sierra Leone, whose name is an Africanised version of Carter Benson-Hylen – for Karta’s cultivated anti-white prejudice, justified as anti-imperialist agitation, issues in a frighteningly brutal and uncontrolled fight in which he injures Daud’s mixed-up young white friend Lloyd. Daud’s efforts to retain his sanity against the odds are heroic:
When the realisation came to him in those early years that he provoked such profound disdain, he had fell a bitterness that was now hard to credit. It had unnerved him, made him lose heart. But that was not how people were made, he thought, not to live on pain and bitterness. When he could, he hid his misery behind better things, covered the lesser with the pleasure that he took in small acts of recovery.
These ‘small acts’ include his creative accounts of racial aggression towards him. That of ‘some high-spirited vagabonds chasing me through half-deserted streets’ carries a rueful updating of the dignified melancholy of Eliot’s Prufrock. Elsewhere he notes how ‘the sedge swayed along the margins of the lake,’ and leans over to shut Catherine’s ‘wild, wild eyes with kisses four’ – here the echoes are of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, where things end up even worse, with the sedge withered and the poor knight lured into a doom-laden sleep. Daud’s relationship with the merciful Catherine, which demands a good deal of adjustment from them both, seems to have a less debilitating, indeed a revivifying effect: he finally finds someone to whom he can unburden his deeply-buried shames and anxieties, brought from a turbulent distant homeland and till now festeringly private. Towards the conclusion, he recounts to her as to no one before bright, cruel memories of the death of his closest friend and of a barbaric coup shortly before his departure for England: this passage has among other effects that of asserting the value of his sensibility, his capacity for tragic feeling.
This act of received confession as a gauge and guarantee of intimacy (in contrast to poor Castel’s unlucky inattention when Maria yields up her secret in The Tunnel) leads towards the novel’s hopeful ending, the impassioned utterance of a secular pilgrim’s aspiration. The novel’s main weakness seems to me to lie in the treatment of Catherine, who seems to be apportioned an undue charge of sentiment and glamour. The love-object in The Tunnel does not become a rounded character in Castel’s account: which has led Gabriel Josipivoci to claim that ‘we get no sense of Maria as a living person, or of her husband or her lover.’ But if one grants the formal premise of a first-person narration by a crazed solipsist, whose sense of others as ‘living people’ is under growing threat until its collapse has led him to murder his mistress, then to insist on roundedness in his autobiographical account is inappropriate. One can in Sabato’s brilliant work discern real people behind the ‘wall of glass’ which separates Castel from the world: it is dramatically true that the process of his writing should flatten them, and be seen to do so. Gurnah’s novel, though, close as it sticks to Daud’s sorely-tried consciousness, chooses to operate at a third-person distance, and thus takes on a greater responsibility in terms of roundedness for Catherine. The chief difficulty comes with Catherine’s dialogue, which reproduces almost exactly the banal inauthenticity of contemporary middle-class speech, but often seems intended to show her as spontaneous and likeable. I say ‘almost exactly’, because, while her way of talking is realistically lacking in intensity, it simultaneously arouses the suspicion that it has been touched up into more literary turns by a solicitous author. How many nurses today would say, in just these words: ‘He used to treat my musical accomplishments as something of a joke, turning up the volume on his radio when I was practising, that kind of thing’?
This reservation about the degree of Gurnah’s success in that most challenging of creative tasks, making ordinary English life interesting, should not obscure his genuinely arresting achievement in Pilgrims Way, his second novel – to report with troubling accuracy, with comic resilience, and without doctrinaire predictabilities, on the experience of having and receiving ‘dark looks’ in an English provincial town. The submerged presence of Daud’s Tanzanian exaltations and despairs, his memories of bloodbaths and lost beauties, gives the book unique force as a rendering of racial tension while keeping away from the cliché-ridden territory of the ‘right on’, the ideologically pre-processed.
One wishes the same could be said for André Brink’s States of Emergency, which should perhaps be described as a would-be novel. Its subtitle is ‘Notes towards a Love Story’, and it represents – minimally fictionalises – an attempt by a South African writer, André Brink, to produce a ‘love story’ at a time of political crisis, in 1985, when the current State of Emergency was declared. There are generous impulses at work in it – to assert the value of love between men and women, to resist racial oppression, to be frank about authorial difficulties – but more than equally, there are distressing traces of uncomfortable self-consciousness about what one might call the apparent stupidity of fictional creation, uneasy reachings for the support of deconstructive authorities from Paris, gestures towards an imagined centre far from South Africa.
Brink’s lovers are not like Gurnah’s of differing race – his idea is that their liaison begin remote from political and racial reality and then be forced to recognise that its authenticity depends on political engagement – but while one is happy to grant him their whiteness, it is harder to take without irony his decision (after some deliberation) that they be a married professor of literary theory in his early fifties and his attractive blonde graduate student of 23 (who addresses him as ‘prof’). There seems to be no significant satirical intention in this. The book’s title refers to the actual situation which surrounds them in South Africa, to the inner troubles of the characters (the ‘prof’ and Melissa have ‘an emergency within themselves’), and to the author’s own crisis and dissatisfaction with ‘this emergent story’, which he is making up as he goes along. At the end, the lightly fictionalised André Brink decides, ‘No, I don’t think I shall be writing my book after all’ – only for the real André Brink to go ahead and publish it.
That Philip Malan should be a professor of literary theory allows Brink to develop his leading idea, which to many will seem a duff one, that there is a fruitful analogy between old-fashioned structuralism, which he sees as imposing a rigid barrier between the text and the world, and South African apartheid, which imposes a rigid barrier between the comfortable lives of some citizens (including academics) and those of others less fortunate. Late in the work, in one of the passages of authorial reflection and name-dropping (apparently modelled on the sometimes charming tendentiousness of Roland Barthes), this flabby notion gets expounded in a characteristically portentous way: ‘To keep things apart, distinct, separate (man and woman; life and death; beginning and end; the inside and the outside of a text; life and story), to define them in terms of their exclusivity rather than in terms of what they have in common, must end in schizophrenia, in the collapse of the mind which tries to keep the distinctions going. In this lies the failure of apartheid, and the failure, as I see it, of structuralism.’ The evil of apartheid is not, though, evidence of the evil of making distinctions, only of the possible evil of false distinctions; and a true sense of relatedness is not the same as an acceptance of what he calls a moment later ‘the fluid oneness of things’. It seems to me that the idiom of theory here leads Brink to an incredibly simple – and thus incredible – opposition. He depicts a too rigid orderliness failing to cope and then plunging into total collapse. The failure of ‘André Brink’ to write a novel tritely mimes the interference of life with text, the breaking down of boundaries.
The love affair at the book’s centre its – main ‘text’ – is set up to be initially an equivalent to structuralism and apartheid: it is a thing apart, secretive (because adulterous), and irresponsibly pleasurable. It is aligned, through a hefty apparatus of allusion, with various mythically transcendent loves, including those in Wagner, in a Zulu legend, and that of the invented Jane Ferguson, a young dead writer whose journal and unpublished novel have come into the hands of André Brink (who shows himself stealing inspiration from them). Eventually Philip and Melissa discover that their love is too intense to be kept apart from the rest of their lives – that is, both the political situation and the fact of Philip’s marriage. In respect of the second of these concerns, we might contrast the achievement of another novelist who associated adultery in real life with adultery in grand opera – Flaubert in Madame Bovary – because of the vivid pathos of the betrayed spouse there, who is so treated as to become a substantial moral presence. Brink occasionally gestures towards giving Greta Malan her due, but finally makes her rage unsympathetically and unfairly and thus conform to the romantic convention of the cheated partner more sinning than sinned against. And this moral and aesthetic lapse in the book’s representations seems connected with the priority being given to the political end of the plot. Philip was in Paris in 1968, involved in thrilling demonstrations and a thrilling love with a non-white girl called Claire – but when it was over he chickened out, ditched Claire, forfeited his authenticity and returned to South Africa. Now he has his chance to expunge his liberal guilt, espouse radical action, and participate in the ‘total exposure’ of love by ecstatically holdings hands with Melissa in the anti-apartheid demonstrations on the campus. ‘In the simplicity of this singing all separateness is transcended.’ And then:
It is as if the events of the morning have torn open new depths inside them which must be plummeted immediately, urgently, passionately, triumphantly. Her orgasm is so violent that in a sudden rush of fear he wonders whether she’s lost consciousness; he has to check that her heart has not stopped beating ... This is what it was like in Paris, he thinks ... When at last she gets up it is to kneel beside the record-player on the floor where she puts on a record, skipping a few cuts to find the groove she wants. Nana Mouskouri.
Brink is vitiatingly conscious that many of his lines track too worn a groove, but banks on the protection of ‘Notes towards ... ’, on disarming criticism by pre-emptive apology. But in the words of John Wayne, ‘Sorry doesn’t get it done.’ Thus he writes, ‘(This really has the makings of a Mills & Boon)’ – but lets it stand. He inserts a footnote in a scene between Philip and his rival for Melissa: ‘It is difficult to render simultaneity in literature. If this were a film I would have used the dialogue as off-screen voices speaking over a collage of Melissa images as recalled by both men.’ We may be grateful it is not a film. And there is another footnote: ‘This scene, even more than some of the others, will require drastic revision if it is to be incorporated in a novel. The tit-for-tat confessions are too glib.’ States of Emergency not only did but still does ‘require drastic revision’. The ‘novel’ never emerges in any proper sense; it just comes out.
The troubling facts of 1985 in South Africa inhibit Brink’s writing of fiction. It is less clear with Tadeusz Konwicki’s kaleidoscopic Moonrise, Moonset (first published in 1982 and now translated) how far it is the stirring events of 1981, the year of Solidarity and of the declaration of martial law in Poland, that are responsible for the work’s eccentric, fragmentary form (the blurb calls it a ‘life-novel’). There appears to be no deconstructive agenda – just a lot of cunning and satirical edge – behind the wily Konwicki’s buttonholing, bragging, whingeing, prickly approach. He portrays himself grotesquely as ‘hamming it up, exaggerating, putting pepper in a bland soup, overdoing it as always’, and unsettles the reader (‘to hell with you’) by the gusto with which he parades his sour old fart persona for ironic purposes.
At first sight a rag-bag of confessions, complaints, boasts, reminiscences, editorials and bits of fiction. Moonrise, Moonset leaves a surprisingly unified impression, not merely because of the Falstaffian centrality of Konwicki himself, but more particularly through the oblique but constant reference of its parts to the master-slave relation of Russia to Poland (there are few direct references to the events of 1981). The major strand of memory takes us back to the region of the Wilno Colony at the time of Konwicki’s late adolescence, when he fought against the Nazis and then, in a chaotic period, had experience of the liberating – or invading, as hindsight paints it – Russian Army.
He wrote in 1948 or 1949 a novel, never published, called The New Days, looking forward optimistically to the effects of Russian occupation – and most of the last hundred pages of this book are taken up with a revised and selective extract from what he then immediately swings round to disown as ‘this idiotic profession of faith in the good intentions of the victorious regime’. His formative experiences in these early years of Russian-Polish contact have made him, in his characteristically grotesque and hyperbolic expression, ‘a hideous hybrid formed at the boundary of two worlds’, so that his life as a Pole, partisan, then communist, then dissident, becomes representative of his subject. He shows himself as unstable, divided, cut off in time from earlier alien selves, so that he can at one moment give voice to a passionate love of Russian literature and at others see Russia as systematically destroying Polish culture, or tell the Russians that they ‘must become European, meaning human’ (maybe what they’re now attempting).
Konwicki is not only a sour individual but an unrecruitable individualist as well. We can’t imagine him as ‘transcending all separateness’ by singing along with Solidarity – a movement which appears only very indirectly, to be treated with fierce scepticism by this most pessimistic of writers, who sees the world going to the bad and ‘totalitarian Communism’ as neither better nor worse than the new Western alternative, ‘selfishness and the rapacious instinct for possessions’.
Konwicki, the inventor (according to himself) of the Polish ‘life-novel’, makes some of the same gestures as Brink: referring back to his earlier novels; commenting, ‘That was badly written’; and confessing that ‘it’s shameful to write at a time like this.’ But the paradoxical gusto and linguistic inventiveness of the writing (judging by Richard Lourie’s confident translation), and its rapid and always disconcerting shuffling of tones (lyrical, affectionate, snide, farcical, grumpy, bitter), manage to prevent our feeling as with André Brink that postures are being adopted in careful conformity to an ideological line. In the course of his lurid performance of candour we get fascinatingly sharp anecdotes about the actor Zbigniew Cybulski, about Konwicki’s coeval and fellow film director Andrzej Wajda, and about his relations with Czeslaw Milosz, whose novel The Issa Valley he goes off and films while this book is being written. With the other odds and ends he throws in, these constitute a fascinating picture of forty years of Poland and of Konwicki himself, ‘the above-mentioned and below-mentioned me’. André Brink stages in his work disruptions of the narrowly literary by the invasively real (defined mainly as the political); Tadeusz Konwicki makes his life of writing pungently incorporate the irreducible complexities of Polish history, and effectively supplants the real with the imaginative. He has a decently troubled mind on Poland’s unhappy account: his ‘un-kosher book’ is upsetting and valuable, a good but nasty read.