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Exit West and Dark at the Crossing: Two Novels of Syrian Refugees

It has been a long six and a half years since the Arab Spring, the popular movement of early 2011 that toppled dictators and challenged regimes across the Middle East. While Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have since then followed different political paths trending either upwards, flat, or downwards respectively, Syria has virtually fallen off a cliff. Over six years of constant war between four major belligerents have left the country with perhaps half a million dead and at least two thirds of its people displaced. The formation of Daesh created a new terroristic boogey-man for Westerners that somehow distracted from the consistently cruel inhumanity of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues unabated. The neighbors of Syria–Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq–have taken in most of the refugees. The paltry number of victims that have made it into Europe or North America has prompted a xenophobic and Islamophobic backlash resulting in a resurgence of far-right parties. In such a world of hard-heartedness, it is often art that helps us rise above the quotidian news mill and find shelter in stories of compassion, love, and our shared humanity. Two new novels by two very different authors have attempted to tell the stories about Syria and its refugees that we need to hear: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman.

Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, is the fourth novel of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, focusing on how their relationship begins in an unnamed city (presumably Aleppo) before and during a civil war. The first third of the novel follows a straight-forward narrative arc of the main characters’ increasing desperation in the face of the violence surrounding them. Nadia, independent and rebellious by nature, agrees to leave her flat and move in with Saeed after his mother is killed in her driveway by a stray bullet. Hamid describes the life-altering horror of trying to survive in an urban warzone: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.”

As the fighting escalates, there are rumors of doors around the city that transport you to other places, the kind of desperate superstition that takes hold when true hope for a reprieve is nearly lost. Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide to pay an agent to lead them to one of these doors; they give him their money and don’t hear back from him for weeks, the victims of con artist. Until he does actually call back and lead them to an bombed out dental clinic with a pitch-black opening where the supply closet should be. They both walk through this portal and find themselves on a beach in Mykonos, Greece. The reader also suddenly finds herself in a new type of book that is no longer realistic narrative but Borgesian speculative fiction. It reminds me of last year’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (my review here), in which straight-forward story of slave plantation brutality opened up to a literal Underground Railroad in which the characters ride from state to state.

The novel changes focus from survival in a war zone to survival as a refugee in a foreign land. After a bit of bartering and wandering between the numerous refugee camps on the Greek island, the pair are helped by a local to another escape door, this one landing them in London. They find themselves in an abandoned but curiously well-appointed condiminium with plenty of food and soft towels. Hamid does not ignore details like the pleasure of a long, hot shower after weeks of living in a dusty tent. Soon, numerous other refugees from all over the third world start filling the house. It turns out that the system of transport portals is not limited to Syria and Europe. Hamid writes: “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northeners moving to other northern places.”

As you would expect, the locals do not like the presence of millions of new residents inhabiting their cities, and a violent nativist movement begins to isolate and attack them relentlessly. Unexpectedly, an eventual accord is reached and people begin to live in relative peace and start a new socialistic society. During their final move to the Bay Area in California, the same pattern repeats. Hamid makes an allusion to the historic promise to freed slaves in America in this passage: “In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”

Throughout the novel there are short episodes of unrelated and often unnamed characters in the same alternate universe, following the tone of the main narrative by telling stories of how other humans are dealing with the radical change of free movement. In one, a Japanese man ominously follows a pair a young Filipinas in a dark alley; in another an elderly Dutch man meets a Brazilian artist and moves to Rio; in yet another an elderly English lady who has never left her mansion watches as society changes around her while she stays in place. As Hamid writes: “We are all migrants through time.”

In Exit West Hamid has created a convincing and uplifting portrait of what the world could become if humans evolve ever so slightly out of their instinctive tribalism. The author is in fact an avowed optimist with an interesting biography, which he discusses in his collection of personal and political essays called Discontent and Its Civilizations. The titles of some of these essays include “When Updike Saved Me from Morrison (and Myself)”, “Get Fit with Haruki Murakami”, “Nationalism Should Retire at Sixty-Five”, and “Why Drones Don’t Help”. The relatively sanguine attitude he conveys in this quote, for example the picture he presents of modern Pakistan, is indeed a refreshing view in an increasingly unoptimistic world: “But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.” He is also the author of a gripping, enigmatic novella called The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I highly recommend and which can be read in a few hours (and has even been made into a film that I have not yet seen).

Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi former interpreter who wants to cross the Turkish border to fight in Syria. Haris gained American citizenship in return for services rendered from years of loyally working with Special Forces in Iraq (a plausible but unlikely occurrence in real-life). He was able to bring his sister along to his new life in Michigan, but he loses a sense of purpose for his own life after she gets engaged and he does not have to support her studies anymore. He travels to south-eastern Turkey to fight for a cause in Syria. It turns out that neither he nor the readers ever get a strong sense of what exactly that cause is. A large part of the narrative involves waiting in Turkey trying to cross the border, and flashbacks to his time working with SF.

The only American character (other than the naturalized protagonist) was one of the SF team members named Jim, who seemed to be a stand-in for the muscle-bound, arrogant, secretly sensitive, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks American soldier trope. This is similar to Ackerman’s previous novel, Green on Blue, in which a mysterious CIA operator known as Mr. Jack is the only American among a cast of Afghans. In flashback scenes, we see Jim involve himself again and again in Haris the interpreter’s life, including drunk midnight confessionals in his tent. Jim obviously meets an untimely death, and the guilt Haris harbors is part of the reason for his quest.

During the long period of waiting to cross the border, Haris is taken in by a Syrian refugee couple, Amir and Daphne. Educated and sophisticated, they were among the first revolutionary protesters before the civil war started. Now their lives and relationship is stuck in place as Amir wants to move West and start a new life, but Daphne cannot abandon the dead daughter she thinks is still alive in their old village. As Haris becomes entwined with these two and other seedier characters, an opening is found to enter Syria, and their journey together continues inexorably, bewitchingly towards its destined climax.

Ackerman was a Marine Corps officer for eight years, serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, Green on Blue (review in The Wrath-Bearing Tree here), was a remarkable tale of an Afghan boy’s gradual rise through the ranks of militancy in War on Terror-era Waziristan. In fact, it was riveting reading for me because it is set exactly in the Afghan province of Paktika in which I also spent two years deployed to Forward Operating Bases, specifically around Bermel, Shkin, Gomal, and Orgun. Ackerman has also published a short story in the veteran’s anthology The Road Ahead (to which I am also a contributor), and now lives in Turkey.

One of the greatest benefits of literature is that it can build empathy for people whose lives you could not previously imagine (a theme I discussed in my essay Why Black Literature Matters). I have visited the western part of Turkey, but never the eastern borders of Syria and Iraq, nor have I personally met any Syrians or Iraqis. The only Syrian characters I have previously encountered in my reading are the types of conniving, cultured, expatriot merchants that occasionally dot the pages of a Conrad, Durrell, Naipaul, or Greene. With their characters and their stories that let the reader experience the lives of others, Hamid and Ackerman, like all great authors, show how ultimately we all share the same hopes and fears, and that our humanity defines us more than our nationality.

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Stalin’s Biography: For Serious Readers Only

Diving into an 850-page biography of one of the most monstrous and powerful men who ever lived is not something one does lightly. So it was with some hesitation that I opened the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s acclaimed Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003).

Montefiore begins the biography on a night in November 1932 in which Stalin and all the leading Bolsheviks and their wives were having an intimate holiday party. Up to this point, despite the mass carnage they had wreaked on Russia and the peasant class, the political elite lived a charmed life together, a so-called “golden age”, strolling around the Kremlin relaxedly with their kids, and taking vacations to the same Black Sea resorts. All of this would come to an end on this particular night in which Stalin’s beloved second wife, Nadya, returned home alone after a public row and killed herself. Thirty-one years old to Stalin’s fifty-three and mother to Vasily and Svetlana, she had been his secretary since before the Revolution and, like many of the Bolshevik women, a historically important character in her own right. In a gripping novelistic account, Montefiore shows how this most mysterious and tragic event of Stalin’s personal life began the downward spiral towards the Great Terror of the Thirties.

As a student of history, political philosophy, and literature, I have long been interested in the phenomenon of the dictator–the set of conditions that facilitates his rise to power, the ways he remakes a government and state in his image, and the ways he is portrayed and resisted by writers and artists (the topic of my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump). Stalin, more than any merely regional potentate like Rafael Trujillo or Mobutu Sese Seko, was basically the Dictator to whom all dictators bow down in (dis)respect; the cannibalistic Cronos who ate all his own children; the monster who out-monstered even Hitler. The fact that Hitler is (rightfully) our universal archetype of monstrously inhuman dictator rather than Stalin is mostly because of the not insignificant detail that we were allied with the latter in the world’s biggest war. Regarding Hitler, the title of world’s worst human and author of the most heinous genocide has not stopped him from still being read and worshipped by neo-Nazis in America in 2017 (including the current American president). Regarding Stalin, even his image as an ambiguous but not-all-bad tyrant is being rehabilitated by the current Russian government. Vladimir Putin, himself an illiberal second-rate dictator and master of false equivalence, has stated that “there is no difference between Stalin and Oliver Cromwell”. Whatever that means. Someone named Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Stalin and Hitler formed a secret alliance that led to WWII; Putin and Trump are now allies. Draw your own conclusions.

The importance of reading true history and biography is that it allows us to work out complex series of causes and effects, and to make sense our own world and how it got to be this way. But also because that old cliche about history repeating itself really is true in a certain fundamental way–this is because the ways in which humans wield political power is fairly limited and predictable, and also because most ideologies human have created share many commonalities. If we want to examine 20th century authoritarian ideologies, for example, we can quite easily find a set of overlapping traits between Fascism, Nazism, Falangism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism. They all believed that the ends justify the means, that individual lives are meaningless, that violence is necessary or even good, and that the Leader is indistinguishable from the State. Resistance to existing dictatorships requires no knowledge of the leader’s biography; resistance to future potential dictatorships, on the other hand, does. While I have no interest at all in reading about Hitler (Don Delillo’s White Noise was enough), reading Stalin’s biography has been slightly disturbing but also very insightful.

Montefiore is quick to dispel the common myth, first propagated by Trotsky, that Stalin was a “colorless bureaucratic mediocrity” but was in fact “exceptional in every way”. Early on, he gives a powerful summary of Stalin’s character:

“The man inside was a super-intelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches from his deformed arm and the iciness of his Siberian exile. Garrulous, sociable and a fine singer, this lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia. Damaged by his childhood and abnormally cold in temperament, he tried to be a loving father and husband yet poisoned every emotional well, this nostalgic lover of roses and mimosas who believed the solution to every human problem was death, and who was obsessed with executions. This atheist owed everything to priests and saw the world in terms of sin and repentance, yet he was a “convinced Marxist fanatic from his youth.” His fanaticism was “semi-Islamic,” his Messianic egotism boundless. He assumed the imperial mission of the Russians yet remained very much a Georgian, bringing the vendettas of his forefathers northwards to Muscovy.”

Montefiore avoids the familiar territory of the Russian Revolution and Soviet foreign policy in order to focus almost exclusively on how Stalin interacted with the small inner circle of Bolshevik leaders to wield power and dominate the Soviet Union from Lenin’s death in 1924 until his own in 1953. Using previously unreleased archival documents and correspondence, Montefiore paints a vivid picture of this unique group of revolutionaries who remained a close-knit family for the first decade and a half after the Revolution: “They were surrounded by the other Bolshevik magnates, all hardened by years in the underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the Civil War, and now exultant if battered by the industrial triumphs and rural struggles of the Stalin Revolution. Some, like Stalin, were in their fifties. But most were strapping, energetic fanatics in their late thirties, some of the most dynamic administrators the world has ever seen, capable of building towns and factories against all odds, but also of slaughtering their enemies and waging war on their own peasants.”

Despite my having no credentials in psychiatry, it did not take me long to recognize Stalin as a clinical psychopath, rather than the madman he is often dismissed as. Montefiore writes: “He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive.” He was also an extremely charming and even lovable person to everyone around him, and this was his best tool of manipulation. “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm. Stalin possessed the dominant will among his magnates, but they also found his policies generally congenial… While incapable of true empathy on the one hand, he was a master of friendships on the other. He constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to charming a man, he was irresistible.”

I usually skip past the first pages of a book which contain laudatory blurbs from journals and reviews, but in this case I found myself reading with great interest the several dozens of such examples. The cognitive dissonance between how an excellent book about a horrible person was expressed, and the contradictory language used for such a delicate purpose led to typically awkward phrases like this: “A wonderful, well-written, extensively researched portrait of a terrifying, inhuman madman.” Some of the reviews seemed to blur the lines to a slightly disturbing extent between the superlative skill of the biographer and the superlative monstrosity of the protagonist. Some examples of this include the words “hero”, “humanizing effect”, and “black humor”; one even spoke of how Labour and Tory ministers should read it for tips on “how to become an efficient fighting machine”, whatever that means (presumably start murdering your enemies and allies alike on industrial scale). One brief review by notable war criminal Henry Kissinger jumped out due to the sheer arrogance of this would-be universal expert: “I did not think I could learn anything new about Stalin but I was wrong. A stunning performance.”

It’s not always easy to continue reading such a book, heavy with chapter after chapter of paranoia, manipulation, and the vicious blood baths inflicted by Stalin and all his equally monstrous lieutenants. It is only Montefiore’s telling of this important story that really draws in the reader and makes it impossible to quit. Neither the man nor the ideology find any semblance of redemption here, but it does help to account for the lengths to which humans can go (or the depths to which they will sink) in furtherance to their ideology. Bolshevism, as much a religion as a political system, maintained that a classless utopia was possible if only the old capitalist corruption were destroyed. One of the most useful facts we can understand by reading history is that there is no utopia that will ever be free of human corruption, and that power should never be concentrated into individual hands. Montefiore comments that: “It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and faults.” Now we must continue to be on guard against the next would-be dictators of our own age, the type of charming psychopath who values power over others as the ultimate goal and would subsume entire continents to achieve it.

John Berger, Max Sebald, Teju Cole: International Men of Culture

I think it was Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese author and filmmaker, who talked of the writer being the voice of the voiceless. That is still true in all societies. Art should ignite our dreams for a more human world.   –Teju Cole

In a previous essay on the Dictator Novel, I touched on the question of whether we can concurrently have good art and good politics. It remains an open, almost rhetorical, question. The most reasonable response is that we will rarely have anything approaching good politics, but we hope (or take for granted) that we will always have the ability to create and appreciate good art, because of or in spite of an apocalyptic or at least uncertain future [note: I use the terms politicsart, and artist in the broadest possible terms]. An even more relevant question might be how much the artist treats with politics (or, to put it more bluntly, to what extent politics intrudes on art). Some think that the ideal artist should rise above petty, or quotidian, political concerns; others would claim that all art is grounded in some kind of political milieu, whether overt or not. As much as I would like to believe in the possibility of a creative genius who follows her muse isolated from the messy world around her, it is simply not realistic. Paraphrasing Aristotle, there is nothing in human life that is outside of, or untouched by, politics, and that goes for artists and writers as much as farmers, laborers, managers, and secretaries. Even Shakespeare, the ideal artist and writer, was limited by the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and produced many propagandistic “history” plays to placate them. John Berger, in his book The Success and Failure of Picasso, states that the Cubists (1907-1914) were the last group of revolutionary artists who could at the same time be optimistic and almost wholly unconcerned with politics. Since World War One, no artist has been able to divorce herself, intentionally or not, from the real-world. Utopia is dead. For the foreseeable future, we are all grounded on the earth, condemned to be free, struggling in our various ways to survive, and, if we are able, to create and consume art. Therefore, for me, the important question in examining art is not whether or not it is political, but how politics influences artists and is manifested in their art.

In this essay, I will examine the works of three writers and artists, John Berger, Max Sebald, and Teju Cole, who all share a “family resemblance”. All three are sophisticated, polyglot, cosmopolitan writers who combine wide-ranging erudition and serious-minded aesthetics with a profound sense of humanity and social justice. All three are cross-genre writers, combining fiction, essay, criticism, and memoir; all three employ embedded photographs or drawings to support their prose. They all thoroughly investigate the arts in their stories and essays: Berger focusing especially on painting and drawing, Sebald on architecture, and Cole on photography. They are all self-imposed exiles from their homeland who use their own cross-cultural experience to reflect on the lives and sufferings of others. Politics, on the other hand, is treated differently by the three: Berger was a highly engaged marxist whose politics were central to most of what he wrote; Sebald’s work always deal obliquely or subtly with politics; Cole lies in between these two extremes. All three benefit from being able to live and work where they want, in free societies where politics does not interfere with art; nevertheless, all three extend their perspective beyond artistic solipsism well into the the political project of global justice for all.

John Berger

John Berger died in January 2017 at the age of 90. Originally from London, he had lived in a tiny village in the French Alps for over 50 years and was a highly prolific author of 10 novels, several plays and screenplays, and roughly 50 collections of essays and art criticism. He won both literary and public renown in 1972 when his novel, G, won the Booker Prize, and his popular TV miniseries, “Ways of Seeing”, was broadcast on BBC. Berger donated half of the Booker Prize money to the Black Panther party as a token of support and a way of calling out the racist and exploitative legacy of the Booker foundation, whose fortune was built in the Caribbean slave-working sugar trade. Here is a key paragraph from Berger’s essay explaining his rationale:

Before the slave trade began, before the European de-humanised himself, before he clenched himself on his own violence, there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals. The moment passed. And henceforth the world was divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters. And the European carried this mentality back into his own society. It became part of his way of seeing everything. The novelist is concerned with the interaction between individual and historical destiny. The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors. And in their struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism — but only through and by virtue of this common struggle — it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.

G is a picaresque novel based around a Casanova-like protagonist in pre-World War One Italy. The most memorable sections for me are about the first flight over the Alps, and the dark atmosphere in Trieste before the war. With the rest of the Booker Prize money, Berger spent years researching and writing A Seventh Man, a photography-based book about the struggles of migrant workers around Europe. One of his later novels, To the Wedding, is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve read (comparable with other stories of the death of one’s child such as Cry, the Beloved CountryBeloved, and The Child in Time). This beautifully written novel recounts the journey of an estranged husband and wife traveling across Italy to the wedding of their dying daughter.

John Berger, 1926-2017

As good as his novels are, Berger’s essays and criticism are probably his most important and lasting legacy. I have only begun to delve into these, but I have greatly appreciated and enjoyed everything so far. I have already mentioned The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), which discussed a watershed moment in art history with such depth and persuasion that I was forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about art (which admittedly was not much in the first place). He summarizes, towards the end:

I have tried to show you, on the evidence of paintings from 1900 to 1952, how Picasso’s imagination and intuitions have always presented him with an alternative to modern Europe: the alternative of a simpler, more primitive way of life. The Cubist period from 1907 to 1914 was the great exception to this. Then, the influence of friends and of other artists led him to believe for a short while in the opposite alternative: that of a more complex, more highly organized, more productive way of life. Except for this Cubist period, his genius has always owed allegiance to the comparatively primitive. It is this allegiance which underlay his self-identification with outcasts in the so-called Blue and Pink periods. It is this which inspired the rage of the Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is this which explains the fancy-dress and magic with which he protected himself after the First World War. It is this which was the secret of the physical intensity of his work in the thirties and early forties when he was painting autobiographically. It is this which is now the excuse for the sentimental pantheism of most of his original paintings (original as opposed to his variations on the themes of other artists) since 1944.

In his Selected Essays (2001) there are many fascinating theories and narratives weaving his erudition and knowledge of every artist in the Western canon with his political activism. As a vegan and animal rights activist myself, I was particularly interested in his “Why Look at Animals?”, which discusses in surprising detail the long and evolving relationship between humans and animals, to the mutual detriment of both. His 2011 book Bento’s Sketchbook uses the story of Spinoza’s lost sketchbook for Berger to demonstrate many of his own sketches and the story behind them. In one episode, Berger tells of how he was kicked out of a museum by an overly zealous private security guard while sketching Antonello da Messina’s “Crucifixion”, because he was not allowed to leave his backpack on the floor.

What is especially striking about Berger’s fiction and non-fiction is the proliferation of incredibly beautiful and powerfully true lines of prose that complement the larger story he is telling. Here, for example, from Bento’s Sketchbook:

The human capacity for cruelty is limitless. Maybe capacity is not the right word, for it suggests an active energy, and, in this case, such energy is not limitless. Human indifference to cruelty is limitless. So also are the struggles against such indifference. All tyrannies involve institutionalised cruelties. To compare one tyranny with another in this respect is pointless, because, after a certain point, all pains are incomparable. Tyrannies are not only cruel in themselves, they also exemplify cruelty and thus encourage a capacity for it, and an indifference in the face of it, amongst the tyrannised.

And another:

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

Here, from G, at a moment when the protagonist witnesses some of the widespread labor riots in the pre-WWI, pre-Soviet years:

Every ruling minority needs to numb and, if possible, to kill the time-sense of those whom it exploits by proposing a continuous present. This is the authoritarian secret of all methods of imprisonment. The barricades break that present.

Here, from To the Wedding, at the exact moment after the daughter, Ninon, learns that she has AIDS:

All I had to offer, old as the world, God-given, balm for pain, honey for taste-buds, promise for always, silken welcomes, oh to welcome, to welcome, knees turned on their sides, toes extended—all I had has been taken.

And later, after the wedding:

The wedding guests are becoming a single animal who has fed well. A strange creature to find in a widow’s orchard, a creature half mythical, like a satyr with thirty heads or more. Probably as old as man’s discovery of fire, this creature never lives more than a day or two and is only reborn when there’s something more to celebrate. Which is why feasts are rare. For those who become the creature, it’s important to find a name to which it answers whilst alive, for only then can they recall, in their memory afterwards, how, for a while, they lost themselves in its happiness.

Max Sebald

W.G. “Max” Sebald died in 2001 at the age of 57 after having had a heart attack while driving near his home in Norfolk, England. He was from a small Bavarian village near the Swiss border, and lived in England as a professor of literature for most of his adult life. Though he began writing late, publishing only four books in the last ten years before his premature death, his works won him many admirers in the literary world and it is certain that his fame and recognition would have grown. What we are left with, those four novels and a collection of essays, is a unique, powerful, and extraordinarily thoughtful body of multi-genre work. His novels are classified thus only for marketing reasons–they are all similarly constructed pseudo-memoirs of a character, seemingly exactly like Sebald, wandering around Europe and recollecting, often at second or third hand, the stories of places and people he encounters. They all deal indirectly with the paradoxical European legacy of Humanism and inhumanity, in which scientific and cultural development sits alongside constant imperialist war and exploitation. He focuses especially on World War Two and the Holocaust, treating this history in comparably non-traditional ways as, for example, recent Nobel laureates Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich (in 2001, the Nobel Committee chair said that Sebald, along with Derrida, were two recently deceased authors who were under consideration for the prize).

W.G. “Max” Sebald, 1944-2001

Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo (1990), combines a travel narrative across northern Italy with short vignettes from the lives of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. As the title suggests, one of the main running themes between the four separate narratives is a lingering, unplaceable feeling of dizziness or anxiety; the reasons for these feelings remain unsaid, but it is possible to surmise, especially with the hindsight of Sebald’s later work, that the weight of European history surrounding each of the characters was enough to produce a certain existential dread. To paraphrase Adorno, it is impossible to see the full beauty of a continent and culture that ultimately produced the Holocaust. Venice is a city with such a rich literary history that it is hard to say anything new, but here is how Sebald manages to work in a subtle shade of foreboding:

As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit. These brief exhibitions are of an almost theatrical obscenity and at the same time have an air of conspiracy about them, into which one is drawn against one’s will. If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate. It was with a certain feeling of liberation, therefore, that I came upon the Grand Canal once again.

While the main character takes a long rest at a resort on Lake Garda en route to his tiny Bavarian village he hadn’t visited in decades, he encounters some of his compatriots, leading to a sentiment I, as an American based in Italy for the last decade, can sympathize with:

I heard Swabians, Franconians and Bavarians saying the most unsavoury things, and, if I found their broad, uninhibited dialects repellent, it was a veritable torment to have to listen to the loud-mouthed opinions and witticisms of a group of young men who clearly came from my home town. How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.

Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants (1992), more explicitly takes up the theme of exile from one’s country. In four parts, it tells of four characters, all related to the narrator in some personal way, who were all emigrants from the greater German Reich before or during the Second World War. In all of these seemingly true biographies, the narrator only gradually begins to understand the deep secrets and traumas buried in these characters’ past lives, hidden under a veneer of seeming polite normality. In three of the four cases, the characters commit suicide. In the last story, the most powerful in my opinion, the narrator recounts his long friendship with a Mancunian artist and his late realization that he had never asked the necessary question of how the artist had come to live in England without his parents. The artist, based on Frank Auerbach, later showed the narrator a letter written by his mother while she and his father awaited transport to Auschwitz. The very slow and indirect unfolding in which Sebald deals with such a monumental tragedy as the Holocaust is sublimely cathartic.

His third novel, considered the last of the trilogy, is The Rings of Saturn (1995), which is ostensibly a walking tour across Suffolk with long discourses on various historical personages that are somehow connected to the places he visits. In one long section he gives an account of the life of Joseph Conrad, and how much he was affected by the brutal exploitation he witnessed in the Belgian Congo. As is typical in Sebald’s work, there is always as much lurking under the surface of the explicitly stated. In this case, though I don’t recall any mention of the Holocaust by name (though he markedly uses its original meaning of a burnt sacrifice), there seems to be a subtle ongoing dialogue about human capacity for cruelty, even in scientific experimentation. In one example, he says, almost as an unimportant aside to the main story:

Again, the inspector of the Rouen fish market, a certain Noel de Marinière, one day saw to his astonishment that a pair of herring that had already been out of the water between two and three hours were still moving, a circumstance that prompted him to investigate more closely the fishes’ capacity to survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster.

Here is another evocative passage during a recurring discourse on Thomas Browne:

The almost universal practice of cremation in pre-Christian times should not lead one to conclude, as is often done, that the heathen were ignorant of life beyond death, to show which Browne observes that the funeral pyres were built of sweet fuel, cypress, fir, yew, and other trees perpetually verdant as silent expressions of their surviving hopes. Browne also remarks that, contrary to general belief, it is not difficult to burn a human body: a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey, and the King of Castile burnt large numbers of Saracens with next to no fuel, the fire being visible far and wide. Indeed, he adds, if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his own pyre.

Near the end, Sebald concludes the last of many references to the history of the silk worm across Europe with this strangely disturbing passage which is as close to a literary climax as Sebald ever gets:

After all, the Professor added, quite apart from their indubitable utility value, silkworms afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom. Any number could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage in their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. —In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs despatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.

His last book, Austerlitz (2001), seems like a full-length version of one of the biographies from The Emigrants. The narrator tells of his many conversations with the main character, Jacques Austerlitz, over the course of three or more decades in which they randomly meet each other in stations and libraries across Europe. Austerlitz is an architectural historian, and the narrator always recounts his own version of the many precise details about the various buildings and cityscapes they encounter in their mutual peregrinations. The narrative is presented in an even more oblique and unreliable way than Sebald normally uses. For example, a typical line from the narrator could be something like, “Years later, I remembered what Austerlitz told me his landlady had remembered what his mother had told her the night before leaving.” Austerlitz, like the narrator and then the reader, gradually learns of and then reveals the details of his background. He was raised in Wales by a pastor and his wife under the name Dafydd Elias. When his parents died he was told by the headmaster that his real name was Jacques Austerlitz. When he asked what that name signified, he was merely told, “I think you will find that it is the name of a famous battle.” That battle, as well as the Paris station named after it, play a role in the narrative. It is also notable how similar the name Austerlitz is to Auschwitz. The story comes round eventually to the fact that Austerlitz was sent on one of the last refugee boats to England as an infant, and later travels to Prague to discover more about his parents. This haunting novel is a significant work, probably Sebald’s best. Like all his novels, the narrative is supplemented by found photographs that add to or silently comment on the text. One of these is a close-up of Wittgenstein; most often they are anonymous pictures of architecture, signage, or family gatherings. In his introduction to the novel, James Wood writes: “As Roland Barthes rightly says in his book Camera Lucida, a book with which Austerlitz is in deep dialogue, photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been. We look at most old photographs and we think: “that person is going to die, and is in fact now dead.” Barthes calls photographers “agents of death,” because they freeze the subject and the moment into finitude.” Sebald’s novels as a whole tend to do something similar: to freeze the disturbing history of modern Europe both in order to preserve it, and to help block its return.

Teju Cole

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American, was born in 1975, making him conspicuous in my comparison as the youngest of the three authors, as well as the one who was most influenced by both of the previous writers. He openly and enthusiastically speaks of Berger’s influence in many public dialogues, including a valedictory celebration of that writer’s life after his recent death. He has dedicated at least two essays to Sebald, including one story of how Cole visited his grave near Norwich, England. Cole’s first novel, Open City, was widely praised and widely noted for following a Sebaldian construct–a narrator, apparently similar to the author, wandering and meditating on modern cityscapes and the history they conceal, and engaging in intellectual but emotionally fraught conversations with friends and strangers along the way. As with most of Sebald’s works, we gradually learn of secret crimes and forgotten traumas that are not-so-neatly hidden away in the subconscious. It is a powerful and important debut novel.

Teju Cole, b. 1975

Cole’s second novel, Every Day is for the Thief, does not appear to be a novel at all except that it is labeled as such. It tells of the narrator’s visit to Lagos after over a decade’s absence. It is partly a travelogue, partly a story of the corruption that has so pervaded Nigerian society as to pervert even human relationships.

Cole is a notable photographer and critic, as well as a popular Twitter writer until finally closing his account. Many of his essays appear in his recent collection Known and Strange Things (2016). This book is divided into three parts on writing, photography, and travel. The whole reveals an almost impossibly thoughtful, erudite, and wide-ranging mind. Every essay is littered with references to poetry, art, history, as well as popular culture. One fantastic review of A House for Mr Biswas is preceded by an essay telling of how Cole came to be invited to a dinner with “Vidia” Naipaul. After the dinner Cole and Naipaul flip through a Mark Twain first edition and laugh together at his witticisms. Naipaul is taken aback when Cole beats him to the punch in comparing them to La Rochefoucauld. Despite this, Cole is unsparing in his appraisal of the Nobel laureate’s personal faults. The essays in the photography section are so well-done as to have captured my interest even though I know nothing of that craft. It has prompted me research many of the named photographs and artists and begin taking more note of photography in general.

I think the best piece in the collection is the strange, short, stream of consciousness essay called “Unnamed Lake”. It was supposedly written in one sleepless night as Cole’s mind wandered variously between the Tasmanian tiger, Derrida, Furtwängler’s version of the Ninth, concentration camps, the Biafran War, and the atomic bomb. The book’s final section on travel is more explicitly autobiographical, personal, and political than Cole’s usual work. In one piece he reflects on a six-month paid residence in Switzerland, in which he walks in James Baldwin’s shoes. He writes of the troubling disconnect between Obama’s rhetoric and his escalated drone killings. He writes of Joseph Kony and the white savior complex. He writes of a trip to the Mexican border and a Berlin-style piece of the wall he brought back. He rewrote the first lines of famous novels as if they were all part of a drone assassination report. Everything he writes makes you think, often long after you’ve finished reading; like the best essays, everything in this collection not only warrants a rereading, but it is essential to do so, which is the greatest praise I can give to a writer.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us in regards to my original question of the relationship between art and politics? I do not have a final answer, and do not think there exists a final answer. Rather, every work by every artist is part of an ongoing dialogue between every other work of that artist, as well as his interlocutors, and the world around her, both past, present, and future. An artist can make politics her raison d’être, like John Berger, or deal with it occasionally or obliquely, per Sebald and Cole. All three artists have benefitted from their personal freedom to create, living and working as they did in countries of the post-war western democracies. I would not say that any of them engage with politics in their art as a result of personal traumas or limitations, but rather due to their sense of humanity and the cold injustice of history. If any of them had been born a few decades earlier, or possibly later, or in another country, they could have possibly been killed or imprisoned for their art. Insofar as all three writers understand this, I would guess that they understand freedom more globally than just their personal ability to create art.

As Geoff Dyer writes in his introduction to Berger’s Selected Essays: “The ‘invasion of literature by politics’ may have been inevitable but Orwell was somewhat grudging about having to forgo the single-minded literary devotion of Henry James in favour of the manifold obligations of pamphleteering (though his distinction as a writer depends precisely on this abandonment). For Berger, there was no tension or regret on this score. Responding to his critics in a letter to the New Statesman (4 April 1953) he insisted that ‘far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics’.” What is necessary to the artist, beyond mere survival, is the freedom to produce art. This underlines the fact that whether or not “art” is political, its existence is always predicated on a set of political circumstances that are either more or less “free”, and thus more or less open to art. This counts whether or not the artist subjectively considers politics as something that happens around us without our control, or something we choose to value or fight for. No matter what politics she claims, defending this freedom should therefore be the central preoccupation of the artist.

The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”  Chinua Achebe

Of the thousand and one reactions of horror and shock following the illegitimate victory and first months of the Trump administration, one of the most interesting variations I have heard is: “at least there will be good art.” The hypothesis is that dangerous political years inspire greater art than do times of relative safety. That this is an unverifiable consolation distracts from the obvious point: Why can’t we have good art and good politics?

The Dictator in Context

The installation of Trump as president has prompted endless historical comparisons to various dictators and fascists. As I previously argued here, I firmly believe that Trump hews closely to many of the methods, if not always the ideology (it is apparent that Trump has no agenda beyond his self-aggrandizement), of what Umberto Eco labeled “ur-Fascism. Even before the emergence of Trump I wrote of how the Republican Party’s rejection of democratic principles was ultimately a road to fascism. The difficulty in such definitions is that, like unhappy families, dictators, tyrants, and fascists are all infelicitous in their own unique ways. I would still argue that Trump shares certain characteristics and methods with Mussolini, Idi Amin, and yes, Hitler (this is a serious and relevant historical parallel rather than an ad hominem attack, thus Godwin’s Law does not apply). On the other hand, Trump is also different from every other past dictator since, to give one example, he rose from outside the military or political ranks and was merely a failed businessman and con man who played the reality TV character of a successful businessman. Trump’s peculiar brand of power politics is sui generis, but our understanding of the Trump phenomenon is very clearly rooted in our reading of history and literature.

While it is necessary to explore the parallels to Trump in American history (the closest are Andrew Jackson, whose portrait Trump placed in the Oval Office, and of course Nixon) and European history (there are many; regarding Italian politics, to give but one example, a mixture of Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi seems apt), I think the most appropriate family resemblance to Trump is found in the Latin American caudillo, or charismatic strongman. The reasons for this include: 1) personal enrichment as the only constant and coherent ideology, 2) the need for constant praise and adulation, 3) the exaggerated chauvinism, misogyny and virility, 4) the carefully controlled image, 5) the promotion of family members and cronies to key political positions, 6) the claims of a singular ability to interpret the “people’s will”, 7) the appropriation of kitsch over culture, 8)the use of the epithet “enemies of the state” for anyone who criticizes or opposes his will, 9) the total disregard of all existing democratic values and institutions, as well as 10) disdain for writers and intellectuals of every stripe (who are always among the first to be persecuted). Many of these traits overlap with more overt right-wing or left-wing ideological positions held by dictators in modern history, but all depend solely on authoritarianism for the sake of power itself rather than any particular ideology. Of course, there are ways that Trump differs from the typical caudillo, such as lack of a popular nickname (the Chief, the Supreme, Generalissimo, etc.) and a glaring lack of exquisitely adorned military uniforms (give him time, though–he might come around). The cult of personality that is another universal trait of caudillismo easily lends itself to each individual dictator giving his name to the political system, i.e. Peronism, Trujillism, Trumpism, Chavism, etc, and requiring personal loyalty to the dictator himself over any other abstract value like the constitution, the laws, or the welfare of the people. The various labels of dictator, tyrant, despot, strongman, autocrat, autarch, president for life, and the corresponding adjectives for the type of government (authoritarian, totalitarian, kleptocratic, oligarchic, etc.) are all, in my opinion, synonyms differing only in context and nuance. The phenomenon of the caudillo is always located in an American (in the general sense of the Western hemisphere) context, and has a history in almost every Latin American country going back 200 years to when Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín threw off the Spanish yoke.

The Myth of the Benevolent Dictator

Are there any upsides to being ruled by a dictator? There is an old chestnut that says “at least Mussolini got the trains to run on time”. This is probably more propaganda than historical fact, even though he certainly did drain the swamps around Rome (finishing a plan drawn up by the Emperor Claudius). Hitler is sometimes given credit for the Autobahn. Stalin gets credit for…(let me get back to you on that one). In fact, it is inevitable that the apologists of any dictatorship will cite the improvement of public infrastructure and massive building projects, as well as the order, stability, and national sovereignty such regimes bring. There is a lot of truth to these claims. After all, even a budding dictator of below average intelligence (like Trump) would quickly figure out that he (because always men) needs to supplement constant state-run propaganda with big visual signs of progress to pacify and distract the little people under his thumb. Likewise with order and stability—if these are the highest ideals of a regime, they are relatively easy to enact by empowering the secret police and suppressing all individual freedoms.

Another occasional positive side effect of dictators is the unilateral protection of the environment, seen for example in the Dominican Republic under the arch-caudillo Rafael Trujillo and his authoritarian-leaning successor, Joaquín Balaguer (Jared Diamond discussed the latter in depth in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). Is stopping deforestation and pollution and aggressively protecting natural areas worth tolerating autocratic rule? I think not, especially since we can achieve those goals democratically (as the countries of northern Europe and Costa Rica demonstrate). However practical or progressive a dictator may be in one particular facet of governance, there are always mountains of horrors piled up on the opposite side, clearly disproving the notion that it is ever beneficial for the host country to be under the dictator’s heel. Have there ever been any historical instances of a mostly benevolent dictator?

In the original practice of the Roman Republic, a dictator was summoned only during the most urgent national crises and given complete control of the military and government, but only for six months. This temporal limitation seems like the best way to ward off the universal corruption of power. Kemal Ataturk was the father of the modern Turkish state, liberating it from European militaries after World War One and ushering in centuries worth of reforms in a couple decades. I ranked him here as an overall beneficial dictator, doing the best for his country, with few downsides (one-party rule, authoritarianism) that could not be avoided in that context. Even more exemplary is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the superhumanly heroic leader of Italian Unification. He led from the front in hundreds of battles and dozens of wars over 50 years, always in the name of freedom and what we would today call “human rights”. In his most famous and important campaign, he singlehandedly conquered the southern half of Italy with 1000 men and a few rusty carbines, ruled as a dictator (when the word was still used in the Roman sense) for six months instituting many reforms, before voluntarily handing power to the new king of Italy in the name of national unity, and retiring to farm on his private island. The hardest thing to get right in any transition from dictatorship to democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. That is why early Roman dictators like Cincinnatus, who gave up power and returned to his latifundia, or George Washington, who chose to finish his life as a civilian farmer instead of serving as president-king for life, are so celebrated by later generations (even though Cincinnatus was also violently opposed to the plebian reforms, and Washington was also a slave-owner). It is rare in the annals of history to find leaders uncorrupted by power, or who give up absolute power willingly. That is why the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the president to two terms, is so important, and why, at a minimum, there should be term limits for every executive office in every country. Only when a precedent for this has been set in a country can it begin to dream of a time without dictators.

Trump the Would-be Dictator

Trump’s open disdain and flagrant assault on hallowed democratic principles like the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press is a deeply disturbing spectacle which clearly demonstrates his authoritarianism. Most dictators have their own particular brand, and Trump uses a strange mix of hyper-partisan, hyper-individualistic, privatized pseudo-fascism that prizes winning (though not necessarily violence) as the highest good, and total humiliation for those who are not “winners”. Not exactly Nazi rhetoric, but there is a family resemblance. Dictatorships do not happen overnight. There is a strong case to be made that America has been creeping towards authoritarianism for 40 years, and thus the reasons for the installation of Trump are many and varied (and have little to do with his skills as a politician). Kitsch, another universal trait of totalitarian regimes, is a powerful tool to control and subvert real independent thinking with sentimentality. Milan Kundera famously discussed the role of kitsch in the Communist bloc in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, saying: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.” Mike Carson has argued on this website how ubiquitous kitsch is in American society.  Maximillian Alvarez has written that even my identification of Trump as a fascist can be seen as a type of counterproductive cathartic use of kitsch.

No matter the underlying causes of the illegitimate Trump election, even an openly authoritarian president backed by a cowardly Congress cannot unilaterally dismantle 240 years of republican government. Therefore, there are still reasons to be hopeful about the outcome of this constitutional crisis. One is the incompetence and corruption of Trump and his administration. Their conspicuous weaknesses will prevent them from accomplishing some policy goals, and could sooner or later lead to impeachment. Another is the unprecedented unpopularity of Trump (almost every dictator had authentic claims to mass popular support at least in the early years, something Trump certainly lacks) and the highly energized resistance movement by the majority of Americans that will in turn greatly reduce this aspiring tyrant’s capacity to subvert the U.S. Constitution. This counts not only for the big-ticket marches, protests, and lawsuits, but even for a more profound reawakening to the values of civic participation in civil society, and widespread grassroots involvement in things like discussion circles, teach-ins, and reading groups. Indeed, the burgeoning interest and sales of classic dystopian novels like 1984, The Plot Against America, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale, to name four of the most famous, is a sign of these troubled times. As important and relevant as these English language novels are, I would argue that there is a less well-known but even more relevant genre: the Dictator Novel.

The Dictator Novel

The novela de dictadore is a sub-genre with wholly Latin American roots, and drawing on the long history of caudillismo in the former Spanish American Empire. Most of these countries have spent many more years as dictatorships than democracies, and by my rough count there are at least 50 examples in Latin American history of strongmen (yes, all men, though Eva Peron comes the closest to being a strongwoman; it is actually unsurprising that I cannot find any examples of female dictators in world history). The development of the Dictator Novel was a reaction by the writers of Latin America to the endless parade of caudillos preying on their people like wolves guarding flocks of sheep. The first example is the 1845 novel Facundo by Domingo Sarmiento, which is a criticism of Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, the first major caudillo and a model for many subsequent ones. The sub-genre became especially popular since the Latin American Literary Boom of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat recounts the horrific totalitarian regime of Rafael “el Jefe” Trujillo, who made the Dominic Republic into his personal fiefdom from 1930-1961. Vargas Llosa, a master storyteller who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, was also a political activist who ran for president of Peru in 1990. He is therefore well-placed to write about politics and dictators in Latin America. I first encountered the horrors of the Trujillo regime via Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I would consider a semi-dictator novel, about how the protagonist is the recipient of a multi-generational curse caused by the rapaciousness (literal and figurative) of Generalissimo Trujillo.

The Feast of the Goat is concurrently told from three perspectives each revolving around Trujillo’s last day before being assassinated. One part is told by Urania Cabral, the daughter of a disgraced official of Trujillo who visits the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years. One part recounts the harrowing tale of the conspirators who kill Trujillo and seek to evade capture and torture. The final part enters in the mind of Trujillo himself as he goes through every minute of his final day, interrogating and humiliating ministers, while also revealing his own most humiliating secrets to the reader.

The main character, Urania Cabral, tells her family the story of why she never returned to the Dominican Republic, ending in a harrowing climax at the long-dead dictator’s country mansion: “I don’t think the word ‘kitsch’ existed yet…Years later, whenever I heard it or read it, and knew what extremes of bad taste and pretension it expressed, Mahogany House always came to mind. A kitsch monument.” The tyrant’s horrors reach deep, and continue to haunt long after death.

Trujillo was certainly one of the most prototypical of the caudillos, both by his beliefs and his actions. At one point Vargas Llosa’s version of Trujillo says: “I don’t have time to read the bullshit intellectuals write. All those poems and novels. Matters of state are too demanding.” Then later, echoing every dictator ever, he says to Balaguer, his puppet president and unbeknownst successor: “I’ve always had a low opinion of intellectuals and writers. On the scale of merit, the military occupy first place… Then the campesinos…Then the bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, businessmen. Writers and intellectuals come last. Even below the priests. You’re an exception, Dr. Balaguer. But the rest of them! A pack of dogs.” That these words were put into the Generalissimo’s mouth by a notable writer and intellectual is part of the irony. One can easily imagine Trump expressing the same sentiment, if much less coherently and eloquently.

One of the most nightmarish aspects of living under a dictator is the vague idea that his reign will never end, or will swallow up entire generations like Saturn devouring his children, rendering the future well-nigh hopeless. This is the central theme of the 1975 dictator novel The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and the most esteemed Latin American writer. In an unnamed country, the unnamed Patriarch has been the sole ruler for nearly 200 years. The novel is a poetic meditation on the dangers and solitude of absolute power. At the beginning, the superannuated tyrant’s corpse in found in the presidential palace, but his allies, the people, and finally the reader, are led to wonder if this is really the unimaginable death of the eternal leader, or merely one more of his ruses to root out enemies and tighten his stranglehold on power. Absolute power is absolutely corrupting, and frightening to imagine. The lengths to which the dictator must go in order to gain and hold power for decades always leads inexorably to a regime of terror and torture. The Patriarch reminisces about past actions he has taken to defeat one of his foes or increase the awe of the people, but the narrative is not explicit about the details of this dark-side regime. Vargas Llosa’s novel is a much more straightforward prose account of such a regime, while García Márquez’s deals more obliquely and poetically with the nightmare of a never-ending totalitarian ruler.

There are a great many dictator novels, just a few more of which I will mention. The Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos wrote I, the Supreme (1974) about the first dictator of Paraguay, Dr. Francia (whom Adrian Bonenberger has written about on this website here). Dr. Francia was a populist despot who isolated his country from the outside world, both for trade and immigration, and cracked down on all political opposition and criticism (sound familiar?). Bastos’ novel is widely considered an attack on the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years over a repressive regime and forbid the Bastos to return to Paraguay after the novel’s publication.

García Márquez wrote a second dictator novel, The General in His Labyrinth (1989), about the last month of Simón Bolivar, the Liberator of South America whose rule once extended to Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Bolívar has most often been treated as a universal and mythical hero, a portrayal that García Márquez does away with. He shows the Liberator with all his defects, dying prematurely, scheming for a return to power, howling about betrayals by his enemies. It is a powerful meditation on power and death. Likewise, Vargas Llosa wrote another dictator novel, the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), which describes life in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría

While the Dictator Novel has its roots in Latin American history, its impact has spread to other continents. Two examples from Africa are Chinua Achebe’s 1987 Anthills of the Savannah, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 2006 Wizard of the Crow. Both of these novels are excellent works of fiction from two of the most eminent African writers, showing both the horror and black humor that can paradoxically be found in the dictator’s regime. Like the caudillo, the typical African strongman also has a love for buffoonish uniforms, which is possibly the only thing separating Trump from their ranks.

One final aspect of the dictator novel is the constant presence and impact of United States imperialism, whether implicit or explicit. Insofar as the U.S. does intervene in Latin American politics, it is virtually always by means of the C.I.A. and its bag of dirty tricks. For example, the precariousness of the last two years of Trujillo’s regime before his assassination can be directly attributed to loss of American patronage, C.I.A. agitation and material support for the assassins, and threat of invasion by the Marines. Trujillo, originally trained by the Marines himself, always considered himself the United States’ strongest supporter in the Western Hemisphere, and was long treated by the Americans as an important and reliable bulwark against Communism. It is either ironic or just sad that the same organization that is responsible for propping up so many dictators and overthrowing or assassinating so many others in the name of “American interests”, is now one of the principle means of stopping the new would-be American dictator. If Trump had read any dictator novels (even though he is functionally illiterate), he might have been able to understand that waging a war on the entire press as well as the many powerful intelligence communities is the wrong way to consolidate power. It is a war that he will lose decisively, we can be sure, but Trump’s bungling experiment in tyranny have exposed the flaws in the American political system, possibly paving the way for future exploitation by a younger and much more competent aspiring dictator. From now one, we must always be on guard, never taking for granted the inevitable survival of our democratic principles, and never forgetting the lessons of historical and literary cautionary tales.

Conclusion

There is something very disturbing, for me and millions of others, in the fact that we are veering towards an outcome we have been warned against by our literary prophets (not to mention our reading of history), and it is a message people are taking seriously. Two plus two is four, the emperor has no clothes, and the dictator is neither omnipotent nor immortal. For all the comparisons to the Nazi rise to power, one advantage we have as historical latecomers is our awareness of the past, our vigilance against a Reichstag fire-type event, and our will to resist the encroachment of the totalitarian dystopias we have read about. The power of the pen is real—satire and mockery of dictators are some of the best ways for writers to fight for freedom, as is the relentless reportage of the truth for journalists. I do not believe that all art is or should always be political. The artist is free to transcend or vie with the bounds of politics and history in her own search for beauty and meaning. However, there are times when, as Hannah Arendt said about 1933, it is no longer possible to be indifferent. We are living in one of those times when no one, including the artist, can afford to be indifferent.

J.M. Coetzee: The Master of Cape Town

South African-born writer John Coetzee is one of the most decorated and celebrated living writers. He has won the Nobel Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and was the first two-time winner of the Booker Prize. He has written 13 novels, 3 fictionalized autobiographies, and numerous essays and translations. Every one of his works from his first novel, Dusklands (1974), to his most recent novel, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), is uniquely compelling, difficult, ambiguous, and, for me and many other readers, richly intellectually rewarding.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 to white, liberal, middle-class Afrikaans parents who insisted on speaking English at home and sending him to English, rather than Afrikaner schools. He was a sensitive, poetry-loving child in a land of ruddy, big-boned, bullying brutes who maintained violent separation of blacks and whites, all of which gave him a life-long sense of being a foreigner in his own land. It is no wonder that one of the most ubiquitous themes among the many to be found throughout his works is the solitariness of the outsider, and the need for individuality to resist powerful systems of government or societal control.

Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

He has long had a reputation in the literary world as a writer of austere, inscrutable, almost Platonic prose, and as something of a recluse with no sense of humor. Always a moderately experimental novelist, since approximately 1999, when he won his second Booker Prize for Disgrace, he has adopted a confessional, highly metafictional style of writing which has revealed an intriguing portrait of a renowned author who is wrestling with his legacy, his mortality, and his place in the literary pantheon, while also subtly hitting back at critics and giving academics much more to analyze and debate.

Coetzee is himself an academic, with a Ph.D. in literature (written on Beckett’s novels), and decades of university lecturing in America, South Africa, and now Australia. He is the namesake patron of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at his current position at the University of Adelaide, and he is well-respected, studied, and taught in the academic world (he has inspired as many monographs and research papers as any living writer). Coetzee once ruminated on his critics by writing that he consoled himself for many years of his early teaching career by telling himself that he was actually a novelist; once he became famous it was frequently claimed that he was just an academic pretending to be a novelist. Either way, his work is indeed steeped in the history of literature and ideas, with widespread intertextuality a key feature. His most important influences are Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett.

The two phases of Coetzee’s career can be roughly divided based on his relationship to South Africa; the first phase lasting through the last years of apartheid and the presidency of Mandela, culminating in the publication of Disgrace in 1999. The second phase is ongoing since his move to Australia, where he has been a citizen since 2002. It seems apparent that Disgrace is the final novel that derives most of its ideological and narrative intensity from the need to resist colonial violence and the pressures of the apartheid state. The “Australian” phase novels and autobiographies are much more focused on literary and ethical concerns. Coetzee was always an opponent of apartheid and the National Party in general, but he chose to deal with politics in his works obliquely, unlike other South African writers and intellectuals, such as Nadine Gordimer. The key quote to help understand this perspective was given in a 1987 interview, during the death throes of apartheid. “In times of intense ideological pressure like the present when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry.” For Coetzee, the role of literature is too important to allow it to merely supplement politics (which is present history, temporary, and changeable). In his eyes it is necessary for novelists, and artists in general, to create their own reality and history that challenges real-world events on its own terms, and, one assumes, striving for universality and timelessness that are beyond the province of merely history or politics. Coetzee’s first-phase works, often enriched by the reader’s awareness of the landscape of contemporary South Africa, do in fact surpass local politics, reaching the level of literary allegory or fable (I’m thinking especially of the two most important works of this phase: 1980’s Waiting for the Barbarians and 1983’s Life & Times of Michael K), though they still suggest complicity in the systems of violence that are often present in these books.

The second, Australian, phase is characterized by more metafictional experimentation, and a preoccupation with physical mortality and literary immortality. In Elizabeth Costello (2003) the title character is a quintessential Coetzean (he has attained nominative adjectival status) creation: an aging Australian novelist with a prickly personality, a problematic relationship with her surviving relatives, and a set of strong, contrarian opinions despite inner uncertainty.  She first appeared in the short campus novella The Lives of Animals (1999) which presents her two speeches at an American university to accept an award, all within a narrative frame involving her son and daughter-in-law’s reluctant hospitality, and the various (skeptical) reactions to her speeches afterwards. Interestingly, these two speeches were really delivered by Coetzee at Princeton before this book was published, and the whole of this novella was later subsumed into Elizabeth Costello. The most memorable and controversial part of these speeches is when the character compares the modern system of factory farming and the suffering it imposes to the Holocaust. Coetzee is himself a longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist. In a break from his usual fictional renderings of his own ideas, he has written essays and editorials under his own name arguing for the immorality of factory farms and abattoirs, and his concern for animals has featured in some of his other fiction (such as the treatment of dogs in Disgrace). The second novel gives much more substance to the character of Elizabeth Costello’s life and travels, with each chapter featuring other speeches she gave on different continents (and all of which were actually given by Coetzee in real-life, which could be considered an example of literary performance art). Coetzee’s fictionalization of his own life for novelistic ends is an ongoing project (or joke) of his. The last chapter of Elizabeth Costello is a direct homage and appropriation of a Kafka story, where the protagonist finds herself in the afterlife trying to express her inexpressible beliefs before a tribunal in order to gain access to the golden gates. The meta-character of Elizabeth Costello also appeared in Coetzee’s following novel, Slow Man (2005), as well as a short story in which the author’s alter-ego visits her daughter in Nice. Elizabeth Costello is probably my favorite of all Coetzee’s novels due to its fascinating ideas presented with great literary craft and exceptionally intelligent dialogue.

Another recent novel, his most autobiographic, is Diary of a Bad Year (2007), featuring another thinly disguised authorial doppelgänger known as Señor C. The main character, an author whose life and works almost totally align with Coetzee’s, is working on a collection of serious essays about politics and other things called Strong Opinions to be published in a German magazine. One of the most powerful and recurring arguments deals with his horrified reaction to the Iraq War and the use of torture by the Bush regime. The range of the essays is broad and reminiscent of Montaigne. He discusses the relative merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and also reaches the conclusion that the music of J.S. Bach may be “the best proof we have that life is good.” The most interesting part of the book is the almost Bach-like contrapuntal narrative in which each page of the essays is shared by the story of author’s working relationship with his beautiful, part-Filipina secretary who lives upstairs with her sleazy investment banking boyfriend. Two threads of narrative strands are woven in simultaneously with the essays–the conversations between C. and the woman, and also between the woman and her boyfriend. It is another complicated self-conscious metafictional gambit that Coetzee somehow pulls off successfully, in the end revealing personal stories and opinions that are deeply revealing and anything but banal.

His two most recent novels, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), both tell the ongoing story (I’m sure we can expect a third part in a few years) of a young boy named David, his guardian Simon, and his adoptive mother, Ines. The setting is an unnamed Spanish-speaking country (or afterlife) where everyone arrives by boat with no memory, everything seems to be vaguely socialistic, and people go about their daily routine with no real problems but also no real passion. These inscrutable novels are highly open to interpretations in what message they may be conveying from the author. This is exactly the point, to my mind. Coetzee in these latest works seems to be trying to set up a stage for universal questions that have always been present in his work, but which results in the raising of even more questions than answers. At its heart, the questions are what is truth, what is happiness, what does it mean to be an individual in a rule-based society, what would a post-historical society look like? Coetzee has apparently drawn heavily on his literary influences with a Beckett-like stage and Kafka-like mysteriousness and inexplicability.

The three novelistic “autre-biographies” of late Coetzee also introduce a fascinating way to subvert a well-worn literary form. Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009) are all narrated in third-person, present tense, and they all present the author in the harshest possible light. The first deals with his time growing up, attending school, and visiting the family farm in rural South Africa in the 40’s; the second covers three years from finishing university in Cape Town to working as a computer programmer for IBM in London in the early 60’s; the third acts as a posthumous series of interviews by a researcher talking to four women and one man the author was close to in the mid-70’s. None of the books say much at all about any of the published novels or even ideas of the great writer; rather, they detail an endless series of personal shortcomings and character flaws, especially his emotional immaturity, selfishness, and sexual ineptitude, of the young man to an almost uncomfortable degree. Of course, it is highly fictionalized and it’s hard to know how much to take seriously and how much is some sort of dark humor, but they make for fascinating reading. The first two books are clearly Künstlerromane in the mold of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Another obvious precursor is Tolstoy, who also wrote self-criticizing autobiographies called Boyhood and Youth. The confessional spirit of Rousseau and especially Dostoevsky seems ubiquitous in these and all Coetzee’s later works. In all three autobiographical works, it is clear that Coetzee’s holds consistently to his devotion to literature and art as rivals to history even when it is his own personal history.

Dostoevsky’s influence on Coetzee is very overt in one way: he wrote a novel about him. The Master of Petersburg (1994) recounts (mostly invents, actually) a few turbulent months of the Russian writer’s life in 1869, three years after Crime and Punishment was written, and during which time he was writing the lesser-known novel Demons (aka The Possessed). The story is that Dostoevsky returns from exile in Germany to Petersburg to investigate the apparent suicide of his 20-year-old stepson, Pavel. The author stays in his Pavel’s lodgings, starts a relationship with the landlady and (possibly) her young daughter, and interacts with police authorities and the leader of an anarchist group with whom his son was involved. The novel is very evocative of 19th-century Russian literature, and there seems to be some attempts at dry humor or irony that is part of Dostoevsky’s style (he was a great admirer of Gogol). The novel’s style is occasionally reminiscent of the Russian’s work, in the later scenes with the landlady and her daughter, and with the anarchist leader, Nechaev. While real-life Dostoevsky did lose his newborn son with his second wife around this time, the stepson story is wholly invented. Real-life Coetzee, on the other hand, lost his 23-year-old son to a mysterious accident similar to Pavel’s four years before this novel was published. Knowing that fact helps explain how this is one of the darkest and difficult, but also most moving, novels in Coetzee’s oeuvre.

One way in which the common critique of Coetzee as an academic, austere, even pedantic writer rings true is in another of his major influences: poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory. As a lifelong literary scholar and academic himself, Coetzee is obviously steeped in these theories that have more or less dominated university humanities departments since the 60’s. Various themes that can be found in many of his works include the limitations of language, the paradoxes of post-colonialism (including Coetzee’s common theme of awareness and complicity in violence carried out for the sake of others), the subversive role of the author, and the impossibility of locating unambiguous objective truth or semantic meaning. There are entire monographs dedicated to poststructural deconstructions of Coetzee’s work. The French philosophers of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault figure prominently, as usual. As an example, the novel Foe (1986), a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, is overflowing with poststructural ideas. A woman named Susan Barton lands on Crusoe’s island where she finds the old castaway living with Friday, a mute ex-slave who had his tongue cut out by slavers (or possibly by Crusoe). Crusoe dies en route to England, and Barton hires the writer Daniel Defoe to make the story into a best-seller. It is very easy to see Barton as a representation of feminist critique, and Friday as representing postcolonial theory. The somewhat duplicitous character of the writer Defoe is also interesting; at various points he says things like: “you must ask yourself, Susan: as it was a slaver’s stratagem to rob Friday of his tongue, may it not be a slaver’s stratagem to hold him in subjection while we cavil over words in a dispute we know to be endless?” Curiously, Coetzee returned to this theme in his 2003 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he read a short story called “He and His Man” also questioning the nature of fiction by way of the conflicting authorial relationship between Defoe and Crusoe (and Coetzee).

Another novel that is ripe for poststructural analysis is the Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K. The hero is a very simple (or perhaps autistic, or just severely uncommunicative) black South African (though there are only the faintest explicit references to location or race in the novel) who journeys from the city to the country to help his mother find her childhood farm. She dies en route, and Michael finds himself adrift in a confusing and unforgiving world. He spends a lot of time living rough outside an abandoned farm, before being taken to a camp, where he stops eating and eventually escapes by floating away and walking through the fence. At one point towards the end a medical officer at the camp imagines addressing Michael directly saying: “Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word. It was an allegory—speaking at the highest level—of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.” This is a reference to Derridean deconstruction in the apparent lack of any final meaning to the words that comprise the novel. The novel also plays off the story of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial, where the search for knowledge is always elusive and incomplete. Michael K.’s personal agency and continued survival on his own terms is also paradoxical and subversive of such merely intellectual constructs as deconstruction.

The effects of violence, especially in colonial and imperial societies, is the last major theme I will discuss that runs through many Coetzee novels, figuring most prominently in all throughout the “South African” phase. One of the questions he also raises, and struggles to answer, is how the writer, qua artist, can represent violence and torture without supplementing or becoming complicit in it. This is most apparent in Waiting for the Barbarians. An unnamed magistrate represents an unnamed Empire in a small provincial town at the Empire’s northern edge, beyond which lie nomadic barbarians. The question of torture and its psychological effects is explored in great depth here. In an essay, Coetzee wrote that the writer’s duty is to “establish one’s own authority to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms,” and to refuse to “play the game by the rules of the state.” Resisting the regime is not only the job of real-life dissidents (in apartheid South Africa; the martyred Steve Biko, for example), but also writers by way of their characters’ actions, and how the state-sanctioned violence and torture is dealt with in narrative form. Though the magistrate (and Coetzee) resist the violence and torture of empire, Coetzee always acknowledges the complicity of “ordinary” citizens that make state terror possible. The novel, whose title is taken from a poem about the Roman Empire by Constantine Cavafy (“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.). It also evokes the Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony.” This is a powerful allegorical masterpiece that I would recommend as the best place to begin for first-time readers of Coetzee.

I will briefly touch on three other novels from Coetzee’s first phase whose narratives all feature varying types of political (imperial and colonial) violence and implied resistance to it. His first novel, Dusklands, a fusion of two thematically-related short novellas, features his most unsettlingly explicit verisimilar representation of violence; he refined his allegorical and distancing technique in subsequent novels. The first is a tale of a psychological warfare analyst writing a report about effective propaganda in the Vietnam War, involving the campaigns of terror that characterized much of the American effort, and who ends up going mad. In this harrowing excerpt, the narrator ponders the use of the torture and prison camps by Americans in Vietnam: “These poisoned bodies, mad floating people of the camps, who had been–let me say it–the finest of their generation, courageous, fraternal–it is they who are the occasion of all my woe! Why could they not accept us? We could have loved them: our hatred for them grew only out of broken hopes. We brought them our pitiable selves, trembling on the edge of inexistence, and asked only that they acknowledge us…But like everything else they withered before us. We bathed them in seas of fire, praying for the miracle.” It is worth mentioning that Coetzee was arrested, but never charged, for participating in an anti-Vietnam protest while a faculty member in SUNY Buffalo; this is apparently the reason why his permanent visa was later denied, forcing him to return reluctantly to South Africa in 1971. The second tale is of a brutal Dutch colonizer named Jacobus Coetzee who marches inland from Cape Colony on an elephant hunting expedition in the early 18th century. As the first white man in these parts, he “discovers” the giraffe and the Orange River, ends up being humiliated by a “Hottentot” tribe, and returns later to exact vengeance (I am reminded of an ice-cold line from the scientific Vietnam report in the book’s first part: “Atrocity charges are empty when they cannot be proved. 95% of the villages we wiped off the map were never on it.”). In these two stories of imperialism, the theme of complicity (by way of awareness and complacency) in violence becomes personal since one of the characters is an actual, though completely fictionalized, ancestor of the author.

Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country, is the story of a white Afrikaner woman on an isolated farm in the Karoo desert. She first imagines her father bringing home a young wife and murdering them both; later, she does commit patricide after her father begins an affair with the young wife of the black farm worker. Afterwards the power relationship between the black worker and the white woman reverses when they are left to survive unaided on the remote farm. It is narrated in numbered paragraphs representing the main character’s lonely and disjointed thoughts.

The final novel I will discuss is Age of Iron, in which an old white South African woman who was a classics professor becomes terminally ill. The novel takes the form of a letter to the woman’s daughter in Canada. She is completely alone and allows a homeless black man to live with her, drive her around, and listen to her one-sided conversations (he rarely speaks). Two young black men, the son of her housekeeper and his friend, are murdered by the police, and the woman protests vehemently but ineffectually (even this harmless, liberal old woman concedes that the system was designed to protect “people like her”, thus conceding her own complicity in the violence) against the state of affairs in the country. It is Coetzee’s most explicit political commentary on South African politics. It is a powerful and thought-provoking meditation on mortality, which also features Coetzee’s first attempts at the confessional style he will later perfect.

Albert Camus said that “the whole of Kafka’s art consists in compelling the reader to re-read him.” This is high praise that can only be applied rarely, though subjectively, in the canons of literature. Borges, Chekhov, perhaps, for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, the universality and depth of human experience captured by Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy makes them the undeniably strongest precursors to their literary inheritors. Below this holy trinity, the slopes of the literary Olympus become more and more populated the farther down one goes. John Coetzee will never be as re-readable as Kafka, nor does he reach the rarified heights of the summit (or of one of his heroes, Dostoevsky); nevertheless, by great imaginative skill and intellectual tenacity he has climbed higher up the mountain than any of his coevals. That is a significant achievement, and a gift to readers like me.

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