Imaginary homelands essa.., p.20

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 20


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  Its final section, when Rian Malan goes to sit at the feet of an old white woman living among Zulus in a remote comer of the country, is the least successful, because here Malan seems to be straining for the metaphorical resonance which, elsewhere in his book, comes naturally out of his material. But it is here that we find the key to this tormented book. The old woman, Creina Alcock, tells Rian Malan: ‘Love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat … Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.’ My Traitor’s Heart, which tells us of the defeat of its author’s illusions, his ideals, his sense of his own goodness, his courage, and his ability to comprehend his fellow South Africans as they dance their death-dances, which is full of bitterness, cynicism, anger and storms, is a triumphant instance of this type of defeated love.



  Here is a starving child, there is a mad dog; feed her, bomb him … information about Africa reaches us, most of the time, through a series of filters which, by reducing the vast continent to a cluster of emotive slogans, succeed in denying us any sense of complexity, context, truth. But then, as Nuruddin Farah reminds us in his new novel (his sixth), the West was always rather arbitrary about the names it pinned to Africa: Nigeria was named for an imperialist’s mistress, Ethiopia lazily derived from the Greek for ‘a person with a black face’.

  For many years Farah, one of the finest of contemporary African novelists, has been bringing us a very different world. His Africa, most particularly his native Somalia, is in revolt against the long hegemony of cartographers and bestowers of names. To be a Somali is to be a people united by a language and divided by maps. Maps is a book about such political divisions, and the wars they cause (the conflict in the Ogaden is central to the story); but what makes it a true and rich work of art is Farah’s knowledge that the deepest divisions are those between men and women, and the rifts within the self. Maps charts the chasms of the soul.

  An orphaned Somali baby, Askar, is found and raised in the Ogaden village of Kallefo by a non-Somali woman, Misra. The book’s first movement—the musical term seems necessary—is a meditation on their relationship. He is a preternaturally wise child, and his growing up is at once mythical and sensual, punctuated by such strange images as the discovery of a man violating a hen. The passion and intimacy of what develops between Askar and Misra culminates in a surreal rite of blood, when the boy, just once, and inexplicably, menstruates.

  Later, as a young man in Mogadiscio (its local name, Xamar, the red city, echoes and underlines the importance in the novel of blood), he encounters Misra again. Now she is a woman under a dark cloud, accused of an act of treason that led to 600 people in Kallefo being executed by the Ethiopians. Askar, who is being drawn to the life of a Somali revolutionary fighter, is set at war with himself: will he find her guilty or not? She denies the treason; and, as Askar’s uncle points out, ‘throughout history, men have blamed women for the ill luck they themselves have brought on their heads.’ The struggle inside Askar is that ancient struggle, and it is also an echo of the ‘real’ war, and of his own divisions and doubts. The resolution is ambiguous, but Askar does arrive at a certainty of sorts, a characterization of life as sacrifice, as blood.

  Around the central narrative, Farah weaves a web of leitmotifs drawn from folk-tales and from dreams; and in the end it is this web in which the novel’s strength is seen to reside, as the meaning of names, the remaking of history, meshes with nightmare and myth to form the basis of a new description of the world, and offers us new maps for old.



  What kinds of life should we call ‘ordinary’, here in the late twentieth century? What is ‘normal’ in these abnormal days? For many of us, any definition of the quotidian would still include notions of peace and stability. We would still, perhaps, wish to picture everyday life as rhythmic, based on settled and repeating social patterns. Ryszard Kapuściński’s work seems to be based on his knowledge that such conventional descriptions of actuality are now so limited in application that they have become, in a way, fictions.

  There’s this ‘spry old dame’ whom Kapuściński meets in the emptiness of Luanda, Angola, during the civil war of 1975. She’s worried that the white race is about to enter ‘the vestigial phase. Barely two per cent (of the inhabitants of earth) will have naturally blond hair. Blondes:… a rarity of rarities.’ You could say that humdrum, predictable lives are getting to be as abnormal as those blondes.

  Kapuściński’s own life hasn’t been dull. He’s been to twenty-seven revolutions in fifty-five years, which could be a record. The statistic reveals more than just his line of work. It suggests that the revolution, that thing of rumours and broken rhythms, amorphous, bloody, fitful, is now one of the normative processes of human affairs. When peace becomes abnormal, combat fatigues, automatic rifles, missiles, hostages, hunger, fear become the building blocks of a new, uncomfortable definition of the real.

  In such a brave new world, it’s not surprising that the foreign correspondent has become a myth-figure. He goes out there, doesn’t he, and sends us the bad news. And when we’ve had too much reality, we turn the page, we switch channels, enough is enough.

  Alas, our intrepid correspondents tend to run into brick walls. The situation is too confused, they can’t find anything out, it’s time to file a story. In these stories Ryszard Kapuściński is able to admire ‘the opulence of human fantasy.’ One hundred thousand Cubans were in Angola according to the world’s press, whereas in truth the total fighting strength of the leftist MPLA was about 30,000 soldiers, ‘of whom about two thirds were Angolans.’ The MPLA’s Cuban allies had brought over lots of extra uniforms, because a Cuban uniform scared the pants off the right-wing FNLA and UNITA troops.

  If war reportage is so often make-believe, from whom are we to hear reliable accounts of the horrific, metamorphosed reality of our age? To answer this question is to understand the profound importance of Kapuściński’s writing. There is a difference between invention and imagination, and Kapuściński possesses in abundance the gifts of the true imaginative writer.

  In his books on Haile Selassie and the Shah, and now in Another Day of Life, his descriptions—no, his responses—do what only art can manage: that is, they fire our own imaginations. One Kapuściński is worth a thousand grizzled journofantasists; and through his astonishing blend of reportage and artistry we get as close to what he calls the incommunicable image of war as we’re ever likely to by reading.

  Another Day of Life is about the birth-crisis of independent Angola. It is also a superlative, vivid piece of writing, containing many of the resonant surreal visions that have become Kapuściński’s trademark.

  In the opening section, the capital, Luanda, is emptying rapidly, its inhabitants convinced that Holden Roberto’s FNLA forces, backed by Zaire and the West, are about to devastate the city. ‘Everybody,’ Kapuściński notes, ‘was busy building crates.’ From this prosaic beginning he launches into a rhapsodic account of the emptying of the city’s stone buildings into the wooden crates. ‘Gradually … the stone city lost its value in favour of the wooden city … Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city … But afterward, [it] sailed away on the ocean … I don’t know if there had ever been an instance of a whole city sailing across the ocean, but that is exactly what happened. The city sailed out into the world, in search of its inhabitants.’

  The seagoing crate-city belonged to the Portuguese who had fled Angola. Kapuściński finally traced the crates to their destinations: Rio, Capetown, Lisbon. His ode to the wooden Luanda is perhaps a shade too long, but it’s still a little bit of genius. Of all those who wrote about Luanda, only Kapuściński saw the wooden city. It was there under everybody’s noses, but it still needed eyes to see.

  In this Angola, a roadblock uses ‘a ceiling-high wardrobe built in the form of a huge triptych with a movable crystal-glass mirror mounted on the central section. By manipulating this mirror
so that it reflected the rays of the sun, they blinded drivers.’ At such roadblocks, death is always close. It can come when you greet the guards with the word camarada, not knowing that this is the faction that uses the greeting irmão.

  After a journey down one of Angola’s many dangerous roads, past the Russian roulette of roadblocks and the constant probability of ambush, Kapuściński’s companion Nelson murmurs, ‘Another day of life.’ He is celebrating their survival, good, so we live until tomorrow at least. But Kapuściński appreciates that the phrase has a secondary meaning: this is how life is now, this is just the way of it, it is what living has become: a daily escape from death, until the day you don’t.

  Kapuściński counterpoints his portrait of this shifting, uncertain, terrified world with his telexes home, setting up a tension between the rich, ambiguous truth of life in war-crazed Angola and the need of newspapers for facts. For most of the book, his portrayal of the nightmare seems far more important than what might ‘really’ be going on. But in the book’s last movement, facts do begin to emerge. History takes centre stage, the MPLA comes to power, the poet Neto becomes President, a page turns, a day of life ends.

  This concluding, albeit temporary, victory of facts over uncertainty shows us that Kapuściński is not the kind of purely ‘literary’ writer who might have been content with an open-ended, unresolved portrait of life as chaos, studded with many brilliant metaphors of unknowing. The truth may be hard to establish, but it still needs establishing.

  ‘Overseas, they don’t know,’ Kapuściński writes, but he often does. He knows that the whole war has depended on two men: the pilot Ruiz, who flies ammunition to besieged border cities, and the engineer Alberto Ribeiro, who manages to keep Luanda’s water supply going. Without these two, the cities would have had to surrender to the South Africa-backed enemy forces.

  Such details are, like the wooden crate-city, proof that Kapuściński’s is a very piercing eye. He hears well, too. Of an MPLA commissar, he says: ‘Ju-Ju’s communiqués are brief and calm when things are going well … But when something turns rotten, [they] become prolix and crabbed, adjectives proliferate, and self-praise and epithets scorning the enemy multiply.’ Ours is the most cryptic of centuries, its true nature a dark secret. Ryszard Kapuściński is the kind of codebreaker we need.













  The young John Berger was memorably described by Stephen Spender as being like ‘a foghorn in a fog.’ The remark was intended to be derogatory—in those days Berger’s art criticism in the New Statesman was getting up a lot of distinguished noses—but Berger wrote to Spender thanking him for the compliment. ‘What could be more useful in a fog than a foghorn?’ he wondered.

  Over thirty years later the fog is thicker than ever, and the foghorn is still working. Berger’s great gift has always been his ability to help us see how what we see can be manipulated. At the end of the influential first programme of Ways of Seeing, he said: ‘I am controlling and using for my own purposes the means of reproduction needed for these programmes. I hope you will consider what I arrange—but be sceptical of it.’

  Ways of Telling by Geoff Dyer is the first book-length study of Berger’s work, and its author, who calls it ‘an extended response from an interested and grateful reader’, writes primarily in celebration of that keen but sceptical eye. And why not? ‘All his work,’ as Dyer rightly says, ‘is criticism in the sense, noted by Barthes, of bringing into crisis, and the intellectual stimulation of such an approach reminds me of a very different manner of critic, Kenneth Tynan, because they both put themselves on the line, at risk, in the manner of all artists and very few other writers of criticism.’

  Berger is, of course, not only a critic but a creative artist (albeit one of disputable quality). His novels G., about whose ‘strikingly cinematic’ structure Geoff Dyer is particularly good, and Pig Earth, the first part of a trilogy in which Berger proposes to examine nothing less than ‘the intricate movement from peasant society to metropolis’, bear witness to his imaginative gifts. But to me, and to a generation of the left, his ideas have meant more than his dreams.

  E. P. Thompson has reminded us that political discourse in this country was not always the narrow, managerial thing it is today, but an argument about morals, about what kind of world we wished to live in. For John Berger, politics remains an ethical discourse; so does art. He is a formidable protagonist in one of the most crucial battles of our age: the war over the nature of reality.

  Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht understood long ago that ‘realism’ is not an aesthetic concept. It is not a set of rules to write or paint by. It is, rather, an attempt to respond as fully as possible to the circumstances of the world in which the artist works. Realism depends, Berger says, ‘upon the nature of the conclusions drawn about the subject’, and not on any particular technique. Mimetic naturalism, which Berger calls a ‘thoughtless, superficial goggling at appearances’, is a very different affair. The technologized nightmares of a J. G. Ballard are, to me at least, a deal more realistic than the cool, poised worlds of an Anita Brookner.

  Migration, and the situation of the émigré as worker and as artist, has been another of Berger’s long-standing concerns. In his novel A Painter of Our Time, and later in A Seventh Man, the study of European migrant labour undertaken in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, he looked at, respectively, the bourgeois and working-class variants of the phenomenon. In both books, the experience of cultural displacement results in forms of degradation. The painter in the novel feels crippled by his émigré status, capable only of ‘a very limited art’; the workers of A Seventh Man are ‘homeless’ and ‘nameless’, and in their eyes we see the effects of centuries of ‘infernal’ history.

  One can appreciate the compassion of Berger’s vision, and admire the brilliant originality of A Seventh Man, and still wish to start pushing beyond such apparent despondency. To migrate is certainly to lose language and home, to be defined by others, to become invisible or, even worse, a target; it is to experience deep changes and wrenches in the soul. But the migrant is not simply transformed by his act; he also transforms his new world. Migrants may well become mutants, but it is out of such hybridization that newness can emerge.

  Ways of Telling is a good, solid job of work. Geoff Dyer is no hagiographer, quite capable of pointing up the utter humourlessness of Berger’s work, and of taking his hatchet to the unsuccessful early novels. He takes us on what is, for the most part, a skilfully conducted voyage round John Berger that manages to be both readable and scholarly.

  He is particularly sharp when he discusses Berger’s present idea of himself as story-teller, a role which Berger interprets as a submerging of self: ‘Story-tellers lose their own identity and are open to the lives of other people.’ Dyer, shrewdly, comments that Berger is not the right type to remain simply a witness, suggesting that there is ‘something so eager in Berger’s witnessing as to turn it into an overly participatory activity … Berger is simply too self-conscious to write as a detached observer.’

  A few niggles creep in. In the passage on The Foot of Clive, the dully dog-ridden novel, I waited in vain for some comparison to Grass’s majestic Dog Years, published within months of the Berger book. And when Dyer discusses the failure of Corker’s Freedom and its attempt to write about people who ‘are deprived of the means of translating what they know into thoughts which they can think,’ it is extraordinary that the master of inarticulacy, Harold Pinter, remains unmentioned.

  Dyer is also far too bothered about the opinions of the egregious Auberon Waugh and Graham Lord. John Berger can do without their praise. The book reads at times like a plea fo
r Berger’s inclusion in that very establishment which he has opposed all his life, for all Dyer’s disclaimers. I think this is because Dyer, exactly like Berger, has terrible trouble with such words as ‘greatness’, ‘genius’ and ‘masterpiece’.

  Berger himself admitted that his failure to deal with the idea of genius was the ‘immense theoretical weakness’ of Ways of Seeing. He has continued to need, and to employ, such descriptions of exceptionality, but, as Dyer says, ‘has never applied himself to developing a systematic theory of the aesthetic.’

  Like master, like pupil. What does ‘masterpiece’ mean when it can be used like this: ‘Boucher’s image is one of the great what-the-butler-saw masterpieces in painting’? Which, one wonders, are the others?

  It is when our ideas of quality, of transcendence, even, are ill-defined, that one gets to worrying about the approval of the ‘literary establishment’. There is work to be done here, because such worries are faintly absurd. The foghorn does not desire the good opinion of the fog.



  The Captain and the Enemy

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