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Ready for the shovel

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Somalia.jpgI wonder if anyone else has the experience of wanting to visit a place in exact proportion to the awfulness of its description.  I no sooner hear that a location is subject to such severe flooding that it can only be accessed on alternate Thursdays from October 1-12, and that, upon arrival, the locals will serve me a dish of fermented yak intestines, and I think: I have to go!  I can't hazard a guess as to how and when I drank from the tainted well from which this peculiar response springs, but I can attest to the pain it causes those who care about my well being.  For those of you thinking of describing your hells on earth to me, you'll do my mom a favor if you shade your account along the following lines: "Oh, Brazilian favelas?  They're lovely.  Quiet places where people sit outside on cleanly swept streets, drinking tap water and playing wholesome card games, like Go Fish."

Gerald Hanley's Warriors pushed my "must go to hell on earth" buttons.  Warriors is a memoir of Hanley's experience being posted in a variety of remote areas in Somalia during World War II.  The isolation was extreme, and he suffered many deprivations of food, intellectual stimulation, companionship, pay, etc.  His colleagues were committing suicide with a frequency that would have been impressive in a looney bin that'd run low on its meds.  So searing was his experience, that the first paragraph of his book asserts that,

it is in solitude that one can best understand that there is no solution, except to try and do as little harm as possible while we are here, that there is no losing and no winning, no real end to greed or lust, because the human appetite for novelty can only be fully satisfied by death.
(p. 7.)  Yet, despite his success in conveying viscerally the reality of his misery, I can't resist being charmed.  He makes the insanity he confronted sound so appealing:  

After the Somali troops under his command mutinied for the third time (they hadn't been paid in almost half a year), he gave an order that they could only mutiny on Fridays.  "They took it seriously," he reports (p. 13).  More on his troops:

Like white troops without cigarettes, they talked about ghee all day and night, but unlike white troops, held conferences about it, drew up statements, compiled measurements of the ghee they had not had, and must expect from me when the time of ghee came again, and some of them would come trembling with fury to me about the ghee, after having worked each other up over the camp-fire.
(p. 156-57.)  Then there was the case of the sleepwalking girl, staggering across the village in the dark hours, past curfew, because the elders had summoned her by means of magic.  "I gave [the matter] meticulous examination and was satisfied it was magic," says Hanley.  "I had to tell the askaris [the soldiers] to let this girl walk in her sleep whenever she was called, until the end of the curfew."  (p. 113.)    

Or the case of one of his colleagues who was trying to broker a peace between rival chiefs ready to send their tribes to war.  Beaten down by fruitless negotiations that rehearsed decades-old arguments that had been as useless then as they were now, and watching the chiefs depart to summon their warriors, the colleague said,

"'Remember that it is the elephant asleep in the long grass which defeats the greatest men."  He had no idea what he meant . . . and told me he had said it cynically, out of weariness, exhausted anger, but the chiefs stared at him, exchanged glances with each other, and nodded, went on nodding, and sat down, saying, "let us thrash this matter out again.  That is a splendid thing you have said."
(p. 154.)  And, speaking of saying splendid things, how about this "genealogy" insult hurled by Hanley's cook at his servant:  "'Son of a sick hyena, grandson of a noseless thief, descendant of vultures, father to be of a hermaphrodite baboon, filth and refuse untouchable, animal without religion' - and so on."  (p. 168.)

I love it!  I want to go!  Sadly, the Somalia of World War II doesn't exist anymore, and the one that currently occupies the horn of Africa is so explosive that breathing next to it is a hazard.  But never mind the impossibility: Hanley's hell is on my list of places to visit.

Why?  Undoubtedly, Hanley's storytelling skill and compelling authorial voice is part of the reason.  A good storyteller draws in the audience, even as he or she is saying, "Go away."  Go away, forsooth!  I want to know why I should, tell me more . . .

But even crap storytellers inspire my wanderlust: I've heard perfectly foul storytellers recount information about Senegal, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand - half the globe, really - and I still want to go.  Hanley would understand.  As he says towards the end of Warriors:

There is an enormous difference between the man who emerges from a safely ensconced segment of society, and the one who is flung into a world in which the shovel is waiting for him.  I recommend the latter to all as a far more exciting world to be thrown into.
(p. 201.)

(Map of Somalia from the UN website)  

Worth rereading

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tayeb_salih.jpgI have read Tayeb Salih's novel, Season of Migration to the North, more times than any other non-children's book - four or five times by my last count.  I first read it in college (it may constitute my only academic take-away from those years), and my ardor was instantaneous.  

In a sense, my devotion to Season of Migration to the North is odd because, even now, my understanding of the story is limited.  But from the beginning, I grasped that Season of Migration to the North was a book to be read when resiliency was needed, and that its author, Tayeb Salih, was a person of immense wisdom and deep understanding of human behavior and society.  That I never met him (he died last year) is one of the few regrets of my life.

Season of Migration to the North recounts the story of a young man (unnamed) who returns from studying in London to his native Sudan, where he takes a job as a civil servant in the newly-independent country's Ministry of Education.  On a trip to the remote village in which he was raised, he meets a newcomer to the village - Mustafa Sa'eed - who has a mysterious past.

Like the young narrator, Mustafa Sa'eed also studied in London and lived there for 30 years, a sojourn that culminated in tragedy and imprisonment.  After his release from prison, Mustafa Sa'eed returns to Sudan, where he settles down to the life of a farmer and marries a local woman, Hosna.  Confiding part of his backstory to the young narrator when they first meet, Mustafa Sa'eed soon dies and entrusts guardianship of his wife and sons to the young narrator.

Some years later an elderly man, Wad Rayyes, in the village decides that he wants to marry Hosna.  The young narrator is called upon to act - by Wad Rayyes, who wants the narrator to convince Hosna to marry him; by Hosna, who wants the narrator to marry her so that she can be protected from suitors; by the narrator himself, who is in love with Hosna.

Only after unearthing a more comprehensive version of Mustafa Sa'eed backstory than had been originally disclosed is the young narrator able to act.  The choice he makes is simultaneously inadequate to the demands of the situation and momentous, a polarity that Salih urges us to accept and embrace as implicit in the human condition.

Season of Migration to the North unfolds non-chronologically and impressionistically, allowing its story to emerge through juxtaposition of memories, conversations and scribbles.  From Salih's expert (and concise - the novel is a mere 169 pages) use of this technique, a kind of magic results.  The book is a page-turner and a prose poem, an analysis of all the major power dynamics of modern times (East/West, male/female, black/white, Christian/Muslim), as well as an affirmation of the human capacity to reduce such dynamics to irrelevancies.  Symbolically reenacting the confrontation of cultures wrought by colonialism, Season also contains stunning depictions of the destructive potential in sexual passion between individuals.  The novel additionally features some of the most haunting descriptions and quotable phrases I have read (in Denys Johnson-Davies' superb translation).

To this list of achievements, add another: Season's power is so visceral that it compels action.  "[H]alfway between north and south . . . . unable to continue, unable to return," the novel's narrator rejects paralysis and embraces volition.  (p. 167.)  This reader has never been able to read the book without doing the same.  

For this reason, Season of Migration to the North is indispensable.  I have  a copy with me anywhere I live, and I am confident that - given the life span - I will yet read it many more times.

(Image of Tayeb Salih from NPR)
I take from literature what I need at a particular time in my life - a reread at a different moment reveals another necessary - so I was impressed by the resonance of Nick's final gift in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  Nick's openness to seeing beauty in the world at the instant of his most foul excommunication recalled the last lines of Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese":

. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
In his aesthetic sensitivity, an expression of Nick's ability to love the world with "shocking" unconditionality, Nick has found his place in the family of things - whatever the verdict of the families - the Guests, the Feddens, the Charleses, the Ouradis - he has tried to join previously.

Alan Hollinghurst and Mary Oliver are not the only authors who have comforted me thus recently.  Kathleen Jamie's joyous poem, "The way we live," makes the same point as she celebrates (among others):

. . . .
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government.  To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.
Indeed, the power imparted by an unconditional love of the world - with its embrace of mortality as much as vivacity, hardship as much as luxury - also captured Karen Blixen's attention.  In "The Dreaming Child," she describes the helplessness an adoptive mother feels when her dying adopted son displays this very trait:

All her life she had endeavoured to separate good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness.  Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship.  The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick-bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.
"The Dreaming Child," Winter's Tales, p. 178.  

This lesson was one Karen Blixen appears to have grasped, not by innate inclination, but through repeated suffering at the hands of men - Bror, Denys - who didn't see debt, alcoholism, war, illness, loneliness, or her own misery as conditions to be avoided - who swallowed life knife-edge first and wondered why Karen seemed to cut her throat on it - whose phenomenal fortresses of apparent independence "did away with all need" of her and "seemed to abolish her very existence."  No wonder she looked on this unconditional love of the world with awe.  Bror and Denys may have found their places in the family of things, but Karen seems to have gone to her death still looking.

Perhaps what Karen Blixen needed was, not better men, but better literature.  The last poem Denys read to her, standing with one foot in his idling car, from a book of poems by Iris Tree that burned with his body in the plane crash at Voi, is also about geese:

I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands
Wild geese vibrant in the high air -
Unswerving from horizon to horizon
With their soul stiffened out in their throats-
And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies
And the spokes of the sun over the crumples hills.
Compared with the use Mary Oliver makes of wild geese, Iris Tree's effort is crap.  Were it that Karen Blixen could have nonetheless taken the tambourine she so badly needed from it.

Following The Line of Beauty to the shape of truth

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Alan_Hollinghurst.jpgReading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty for a second time, I was more impressed even than I'd been the first time - and I'd been smitten on my initial go-round.  Hollinghurst is so well-rounded as a writer that it's a wonder his book is still bound in the conventional manner and not shaped like a globe, so near is he to what's meant by "universal" in his scope.

Of course, my neighbors in Beijing might be lost in all the references to classical Western music, art, architecture and literature (though not in the refuge sought in "high culture").  My colleagues in Pune might not relate to the Feddens' permissive attitude towards their daughter Catherine's misbehavior (but they'd understand the Feddens' general denial of her mental illness).  My friends in Nairobi might be turned off by the explicit descriptions of Nick's homosexual sex (but they'd recognize the moralistic and hypocritical condemnation of it as "vulgar and unsafe").

Still, the receptive reader from any culture will respond to the novel's surprising hopefulness.  Despite his rejection and betrayal by every member of the Feddens' household and circle, despite his absolute solitude and vulnerability in his anguish, despite his conviction that his latest HIV test will return a positive result and the hallucinatory patina his fear throws over his vision, Nick's final impression in the book is one of beauty, provoked by the unexpected discovery within himself that his "love of the world . . . was shockingly unconditional."  (p. 501.) 

Nick's apprenticeship to the masters of aesthetics has imbued him with resiliency beyond his years, his experience and, possibly, his innate capacities.  His appreciation of the line of beauty is a treasure more valuable than all the money of the Feddens, the Kesslers, and the Ouradis combined because, in the end, all must die, and money - if anything - weakens one's capacity for recognizing in mortality a beauty that's of a piece with the finest objets d'art.  

At the risk of damning the book with faint praise, I'll hazard that The Line of Beauty is the finest argument ever penned in favor of aesthetics as capacity building.  That his argument has not been more universally accepted - in developed but mediocre cultures like America, as much as in the developing world - is a loss that money-chasers are apt to discover too late.  

(Photo of Alan Hollinghurst courtesy of The Guardian

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