Darkness Visible

What do recent instances of imaginative literature make of the affliction of terrorism and the tragedy of war?

The ‘Underpants Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a painting by Daisy Rockwell. ALL IMAGES COURTESY DAISY ROCKWELL
01 August, 2012

“WHAT, THEN, WAS WAR?” wonders Robert Graves in his poem ‘Recalling War’. It is, he muses, “an infection of the common sky” and “the duty to run mad”. World War I, the experience he’s recalling, was well served by British poets. Soldiers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon turned to their pens to battle the pain they witnessed (and inflicted) daily. From Shakespeare to Blake to Tennyson to Graves to the poets in the recent anthology, Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets (Ebury Press, 2011), war has been as eternal a theme in English poetry as nature or love.

This martial tradition in British poetry makes Colonel Richard Kemp’s response to the recent collection Poetry of the Taliban (Hurst Publishers/Hachette India, 2012) particularly ironic. The former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan denounced the collection, calling it “self-justifying” (which, he might not realise, is a compliment only extraordinary poems deserve) and claiming it gave the Taliban the “oxygen of publicity”. In arguing that The Poetry of the Taliban is propaganda, Colonel Kemp betrayed that he hadn’t read the book, for these poems convey several moods: caustic, melancholy, frightened, imploring, resolute. The only thing they’re not is unified. By the first law of propaganda—that it must have a message—these poems signally fail. All that unites them is the editorial conviction that the ‘enemy’ is also human, a courtesy that apparently infuriates Colonel Kemp. His worry is that future generations will lose their certainty that the Taliban are barbarians incapable of introspection or moral complexity.

The Poetry of the Taliban represents, according to the preface, a “prolific culture of versification”. The collection is dominated by ghazals, and to read these poems is to be transported to the origins of writing, to shared campsites and the chance meetings of allied strangers. Even translated, some of these poems retain their primal magic. As Elham says in ‘Burning Village’, “Words were like fire there.” These poems remind us that spoken verse is the foundation of literature and that generations of bards went into the building of the great epics of human history.

If war poetry creates a bridge between hostile cultures, what about war novels? Can novels capture the truth with the vivid economy of verse? Must we add to the acreage of prose every conflict receives? Assuming literature must witness reality, what can fiction achieve that reportage cannot? This was a question so sweeping it left me uncertain in its wake: where to begin? Then a sentence from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ swam into my memory: “Sophocles long ago/ Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery…”

Sophocles’ tragic drama Antigone is a tale of human misery and divine wrath. Polynices and Eteocles, Oedipus’ sons with Jocasta, battle over the city of Thebes after their father abandons the kingdom. Cursed by their incestuous heritage, the brothers only succeed in killing each other. Thebes prevails over its invaders, with their maternal uncle, Creon, as the new king. Antigone begins with the weight of this history, and asks a deceptively simple question: should the brothers be treated similarly in death when they fought each other in life? Creon rules that Polynices, who betrayed the city, shouldn’t be allowed the ritual burial his brother receives. Their sister Antigone disagrees, calling upon “Justice, Justice dwelling deep”. She is condemned to death for her disobedience, while her sister Ismene, who also mourned her brother’s death, is willing to be bound by the laws of the city. Creon ensures that Polynices remains unburied and Antigone is vanquished, but only at the cost of losing his son, his wife and finally his city. “I am under the wheels of the world,” he laments, “smashed to bits by a god.”

Antigone is often interpreted as a parable of tyranny and resistance. The most famous modern adaptations were Jean Anouilh’s staging of the play during the Nazi occupation of France in 1944, and Bertolt Brecht’s reworking of the play as an allegory of Nazi Germany (Antigonemodell 1948). Anouilh retains Sophocles’ ambiguity towards authority, while Brecht is more strident in his denunciation of docile Germany and its willingness to be party to atrocity. Of these two traditions, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch (Random House India, 2012) situates itself in the first. Transposing Antigone to Afghanistan, his story unfolds in an isolated garrison near Kandahar. It begins in the aftermath of a devastating attack on American soldiers by forces they assume to be the Taliban. It turns out that the raid was organised by an unallied tribal chieftain as revenge for the death of his family in a drone attack. He’s killed during the raid, and when his crippled sister comes to claim the body, the Americans refuse to return it. They intend to fly it to Kabul as evidence of one more victory in the war against terror.

The Watch strips Antigone of all divine and literary resonances, and there is little geographical or cultural context either. Sophocles might have written the play in response to the dramatist Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes (an account of the defence of the city by Eteocles against the invasion led by his brother Polynices), but The Watch ignores the city as the theatre of war. Roy-Bhattacharya further dispenses with the family that binds the drama together. Nizam (Antigone) and Masood (Ismene) are related only by their nationality; Yusuf (Polynices) and Lt Nick Frobenius (Eteocles) by the fact they’re both charismatic war leaders. Such appropriation can be significant: it suggests that all soldiers are brothers under their skin, that in life as in death they belong to a common clan. Their family can’t imagine them dead; their regiments can’t imagine them in ordinary circumstances. The Watch, however, alters the dynamics of Antigone so fundamentally that this equivalence remains purely notional. Thebes is now an army garrison and Antigone a threatening intruder rather than a princess challenging her uncle. While the novel makes all the appropriate anti-imperialism noises, the only homeland Roy-Bhattacharya seems genuinely interested in is the one that the American soldiers yearn for. This is more than passing strange for if ever a people believed in standing their land, it is the Afghans. As Matiullah Turab notes in his poem ‘Warning’ in Poetry of the Taliban, “It is part of my inheritance that I cannot escape the trench.”

I couldn’t help wonder: Why plunder Sophocles if all you take away is a fledgling plot? Antigone’s demise in the play is predictable because it’s inevitable; Antigone is tragedy precisely because the grey everlasting fates trample roughshod over the best laid plans of men and kings. In Sophocles’s vision, it is not the king that drives her to death, it is the gods; Creon is their agent and they extract their price even from him. Creon’s hubris as the temporal king was in accordance with the divine agenda, as was the downfall that accompanies hubris in every tragedy. Sophocles’s “Women strong with the gods” are their own doom and they always have been, from the reckless Helen of Troy to the vain Niobe, punished for her maternal pride, to the intransigent Antigone. But supplanted into The Watch, Nizam’s death is not so much a foregone conclusion as a cruel accident, unless one is willing to attribute divinity to a viral media policy. Creon’s penance remains uncertain, and one imagines the captain who rules the garrison will be promoted rather than punished by the army. On other counts, though, the transposition works well; when the protagonist is horror-struck by the prospect that her brother’s corpse might be photographed (thereby stealing his soul) she echoes the blind prophet Tiresias asking Creon: “Where’s the glory, killing the dead twice over?”

This sentiment frames The Watch and is the most challenging question it raises; it’s a pity the author doesn’t spend more time investigating the callousness involved in displaying a decaying corpse. A current of disbelief underlies the narrative—how can so much trauma result from the ridiculous idea that death isn’t death until certified by the international media? The novelist, sadly, is too preoccupied with petty army politics to consider such absurdity with the attention it deserves. We discover the musical tastes and sexual preferences of the soldiers rather than the vicissitudes of living in an invaded country.

Luckily, other recent books on our times address this contemporary conundrum with greater élan, such as Daisy Rockwell’s The Little Book of Terror (Foxhead Books, 2012), a compilation of her paintings and essays. The book’s five short essays are about the experience of alienation, whether it is the dismal isolation of a terrorist-suspect in custody or the calm loneliness of an elderly Indian seeking minarets in the Chicago skyline. Rockwell’s focus in the book is on her art, and most of the portraits collected here are based on photographs of terrorists, albeit not the bleak, exhausted portraits we associate with convicts. In one, she paints ‘Jihad Jane’ (Colleen LaRose, who conspired to kill the Danish cartoonist Lars Vilks, controversial for his 2007 drawings of the Prophet Mohammed) wearing cheerful polka dots against a bubblegum pink background.

Rockwell’s quest is to rehabilitate people from their passport photographs, and the best way to do this is to restore them to their daily lives. In the final section of her book, she creates a ‘Rogues Gallery’: here is potential al-Qaeda conscript Mohamed Mahmood Alessa lounging with his cat, there’s ‘The Underpants Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, trying on a new hat. In another portrait, she paints a quiet pastoral scene in the immediate aftermath of a drone attack. A young man drinking tea in an orchard has been suddenly decapitated, though his porcelain cup and the apple trees remain miraculously unscathed. He was Ilyas Kashmiri, the caption tells us (the al-Qaeda leader who planned the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and who was allegedly killed in June 2011), but it could be any unlucky shepherd peaceably enjoying his chai. The most chilling painting in the book is of a happy couple on holiday. With its benign background of blue seas and sunset skies, one could almost forget that the smiling twosome are, in reality, Abu Ghraib torturers escaping their gory lives. Charles Graner and Lynndie England were convicted of prisoner abuse in 2005, partially on the basis of photographs in which they wear eerily similar smiles whilst posing above corpses and behind human pyramids. Rockwell’s exuberant art communicates an elemental truth: people are constructed by their circumstances.

Rockwell restores the notorious to their everyday lives. Here Abu Ghraib torturers Charles Graner and Lynndie England are seen on holida

Take up your pen and go down the path of existence,

You can’t reach anywhere if you just stop one place.

Go and beautify the red blood,

There are more flavours in its water than just honey.

—Badar Bakhari, ‘Neck’, Poetry of the Taliban

THE 21ST CENTURY IS A RADICAL DEMOCRACY of imagery; in the age of Twitter hashtags like “pic or it didn’t happen”, what is art? If we are increasingly a graphic culture in every sense of the word, what does that imply for the artist? The Little Book of Terror ponders a question similar to the one Julian Barnes raised in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989):

How do you turn catastrophe into art? Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We’ll have the play on the London stage in a year. A president was assassinated? You can have the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets… Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for.

Rockwell doesn’t assign a ‘role’ to art in an age of catastrophe, but I suspect she’d agree with Robert Browning’s suggestion that art is resurrection. Traditionally, artists defended their relevance by claiming to be the memory of civilisation. Nowadays, the microchip has usurped them and immortality has become banal. We need great art today to revive us from the stupor of infinite archives and jolt us fully awake. We need art to reanimate the dead, to preserve the humanity of those whose souls have been stolen away by stereotypes.

Stereotyping is also the theme of Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Fourth Estate, 2012), an exploration of love and identity in a diverse world. Despite its title, the novel has very little to do with the practice of terror, choosing instead to study what AS Byatt once called “the topos of the tortured betrayer”. How to Fight Islamist Terror is about three South Asians sharing an apartment in present-day Aarhus, Denmark: the unnamed narrator, an atheist Pakistani academic; Ravi, a historian and novelist; Karim, a devout cab driver. As the novel progresses, the narrator gets increasingly restive about his position as a Muslim in Europe living with someone he assumes is a radical Islamist. Ravi is more open-minded, but he ignores the growing conflict between his flatmates once he falls in love. The tension between the narrator and Karim is as much about class as religion, which Khair makes evident to the reader, even though the narrator never confronts his discomfort about the cab driver’s background. Eventually, Ravi and the narrator go to the Danish police with their suspicions about Karim leading a terrorist cell.

How to Fight Islamist Terror is about the choices we make in sizing up the people around us. At what point does someone conclude they have ‘assessed’ a person’s ideology? Does subscribing to a set of metaphysical beliefs always imply deranged behaviour? What burdens does close observation place upon a person? What forces people to turn on those they respect? Are we ever justified in internalising ‘other’ cultures and their opinions of ‘our’ people? Does Khair’s narrator think he redeems South Asian Islam and its eccentricities by being a ‘modern’ atheist? One wonders how he would react to the dignified simplicity of Afghan poetry: “Oh Zeerak! Telling the truth is considered to be jihad” (‘Thin Tongue’).

Khair’s deliberate ambiguity regarding such questions sometimes forces him into odd corners. Ravi, for instance, announces that “Islamofascism” isn’t fascism at all, for it is universalising whereas fascist ideology is provincial. Perhaps, theoretically, this is valid. Yet, to me, it seemed a facile gloss on a complex problem: all radical movements, ‘Islamic’ or otherwise, want to dominate their own society, and Hitler was certainly expansionist.

How to Fight Islamist Terror is a fable: it investigates morality rather than personality. Yet, for a novel about the construction of identity, its characters are remarkably unidimensional. Ravi and the narrator read like they could be two facets to one complex person; Karim is intended to be a puzzle, if not a very compelling one. The bland protagonists are relieved by occasionally clever writing, but the novel rapidly descends into almost tragedy, never quite farce.

Each of these three books—The Watch, The Little Book of Terror and How to Fight Islamic Terror—examines terrorism as an affliction. The authors’ careful dissection compels us to re-evaluate its victims, but Roy-Bhattacharya, Rockwell and Khair are all diagnosticians convinced that terrorism is a malaise ravaging global politics. Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic (HarperCollins, 2012) and Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) probe terrorism as an addiction. To them, terrorism isn’t a disease, it’s a narcotic as exhilarating as it is destructive. Shriver and Eco are fascinated by the people that profit from, rather than persecute or propose, terrorist activity.

The New Republic is modelled along Evelyn Waugh’s magnificent novel Scoop (1938). Edgar Kellogg, an American cub reporter, is sent by his newspaper to cover the events in a fictional province in Portugal called Barba, which is notorious for being the base of a violent secessionist movement. Edgar’s predecessor in Barba, a veteran journalist called Barrington Saddler, is absconding. Once there, Edgar meets many jaded journalists who initiate him into the trade while he searches for his missing mentor. So far, one might say, so Scoop, which introduced us to the timeless wisdom of newspaper tycoons: “The Beast stands for mutually antagonistic governments everywhere…Self sufficiency at home; self assertion abroad.”

Shriver’s characters are as aware as Waugh’s of their own complicity within the war economy; if they didn’t publicise violence, it might be less effective as a negotiating tactic. They are, she writes, blasé journalists “for whom a killer was no more than a rent-a-quote with exceptional cachet”. It’s a valid argument, if a slightly lazy one, for people are no less dead when there’s no one watching, and atrocity precedes newspapers and is likely to persist long after them. The New Republic explores the ramifications of the dilemma hinted at in The Watch: What obligations do the witnessing of death place upon a sensitive observer? Given the extent to which terror is now staged, an irresponsible press can be a devastating weapon, as Edgar, a self-styled “Robin Hood of the paramilitary underground”, comes to realise.

The real similarity between The New Republic and Scoop is form. Like Waugh, Shriver has written a journalism satire, the kind of novel that runs on offence and needs to maintain a glinting edge to avoid sounding either coy or slapstick. Waugh knew this (he could infuriate a glass of water) but his was a democratic nastiness. He was as rude about the English as about Africans, as merciless to journalists as he was to political henchmen. In our politically correct times, it is fashionable to despise his racism, but no one can accuse him of failing to be funny. Even he, however, confined himself to a gentle, naïve protagonist to allow his own voice the viciousness it craved.

Shriver’s antihero, Edgar, is interchangeable with her own voice. When Edgar isn’t condescending to his contemporaries, the narrator’s condescending to him; when both tire, Shriver turns to Barrington’s ghost. No one in the book captures our empathy as well as our interest, and unadulterated cynicism cannot sustain an entire novel. Not only is the reader never allowed a quiet moment, The New Republic is so attuned to the briefest flicker of attention that it seems to mock itself. As a result, her brilliant aphorisms often fall flat. There are plenty of them littering the book: “Journalists are history’s secretaries”; “Barrington collected meaning like lint”; “The new journalism is screaming fabrication”. These riches, unfortunately, stay flip and rarely provoke more than a quick smile. Too often, in trying to be whimsically profound, the novel sounds merely facetious. When Edgar finds “escalating savagery harder to finesse”, I found myself muttering at Shriver, “So do you.” This is a heady book, but it’s not a cerebral one, and the chief sensation I felt upon finishing it was fatigue.

The New Republic is strongest where Shriver allows Edgar vulnerability. This is a novel about personality and popularity, about why some people are destined to be celebrities and others sidekicks. Edgar tries desperately to transcend the divide and most of the humour is in watching him flail. Shriver has a gift with damaged characters, and for all Edgar’s affectations he can be riveting when he’s not trying too hard. In his disastrous personal life, he’s delicious, and Shriver supplies him with precisely the kind of diva smart boys lust after: the woolly, arty, Pre-Raphaelite Nicola Tremaine, straight out of a Bob Dylan ballad. In his moments with Nicola, with his defences down and his pretensions melted, The New Republic becomes, as Edith Wharton might have said, a “distinctly pretty story”.

Dust is awake and alive, even if you suspect it and do not accept it,

Ask him what the details are.

—Anon, ‘What’s the Explanation?’, Poetry of the Taliban

UMBERTO ECO CLAIMSThe Prague Cemetery will be his final novel. It is, appropriately, the culmination of several themes he has explored over the decades. Like The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), it weaves together personal, popular and political memory. Like Baudolino (2002) and Foucault’s Pendulum (1989) it’s enamoured of conspiracies. Like The Name of the Rose (1983) it’s a murder mystery, and like The Island of the Day Before (1995) it investigates the machinations of mysterious doppelgängers. It’s his most ambitious invention yet, for the despicable protagonist, Captain Simone Simonini, is the only fictional thing about the novel. All the other characters really existed and the events it describes, however fabulous, did take place in 19th-century Europe. The Prague Cemetery begins with the Italian Unification and concludes with the Dreyfus Affair, and Simonini has a finger in every conspiracy hatched during his tumultuous times.

Simonini is a forger, and he pits one secret society against the next until they all begin competing for his services. He sets up the Jesuits against the Freemasons against the Satanists against the spy network of four empires. He rides the subterranean currents of the 19th century, writing with equal verve against women, Christians, republicans, revolutionaries and royalists. All along, he nurses an “erotic anti-semitism” and eventually emerges with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, concocted (where else!) at the Prague Cemetery.

Simonini is the patron saint to every muckraking profiteer that ever lived. He would’ve recognised Sharafuddin Azm’s fatalism in his poem ‘Eid’, especially when he says: “Doomsday came, but I am waiting for another doomsday.” What makes Simonini superhuman is that he is no more plagued by conscience than the Nazis he inspired. He retains his self-righteousness even as he is slowly losing his self-possession, exclaiming with little hint of irony: “My god, how is life possible in a nation of counterfeiters?” It is this insouciance that takes a hilarious book and turns it, imperceptibly, into a tragedy. We watch this splendid joke of a man disintegrating, and wonder: is that not, truly, what is happening in our world today? Aren’t we, too, descending from an expedient and vicious cosmos into utterly unintelligible chaos?

Simonini is pure myth, invented to suit the slippage involved in all historical writing. The past is always tainted by the present, and neither historians nor novelists can recover events as they happened rather than as they are presented. Simonini embodies the shadowy forces that govern this translation. The events construct him like they construct the postmodern terrorist. “A mythographer lives,” Roberto Calasso wrote, “in a permanent state of chronological vertigo”. Simonini survives this vertigo by honing the disbelief necessary for forgery, and his texts are in constant negotiation with themselves and the altering perceptions of readers. The Prague Cemetery is proof of Robespierre’s axiom that history is a novel.

The French Revolution conventionally begins late modern history. No less than the ancien régime it overthrew, however, the Republic systematised and justified state terror as a virtuous act that protected citizens. This conviction seeped from speeches into legislation, so that the infamous Law of 22 Prairial (or the Law of the Reign of Terror, which did not permit prisoners to employ counsel for their defence and suppressed the hearing of witnesses) could not only withhold defendants’ rights but talk of annihilating conspirators. By then, the Republic was devouring her own children, often for the flimsiest heresies. Camille Desmoulins, who led the mobs in 1789 and 1792, was executed in April 1794. Liberty, he wrote in one incensed editorial a few months before his death, is a bitch who likes to be bedded on a mattress of cadavers. It was with superb skill, therefore, that official oratory continued to blame feeble revolutionary tactics for the growing anarchy, and the disparity between the revolution’s liberating rhetoric and its blood-soaked reality has ensured that each generation of historians and novelists rewrites it.

The history and the fantasy of the Revolution were first coupled by Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (1837) and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). In the past few decades, the novelist Hilary Mantel wrote A Place of Greater Safety (1992) soon after Simon Schama wrote the definitive Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989), which follows Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that all history is properly biography. Mantel’s book, while fiction, cleaves close to the events as seen by the Dantonists, a faction within the Jacobins that moved, within a single year, from the extreme leftwing of the French revolution to the rightwing of the resulting republic. She writes in the first chapter:

Everything that happens now will happen in the light of history. The light of history: not a mid-day luminary, but a corpse-candle to the intellect; at best, it’s a second-hand lunar light, error-breeding, sand-blind and parched.

The gaze of posterity has haunted humanity ever since Hermes invented the alphabet. Mantel’s Danton realises this, asserting that “revolution is a great battlefield of semantics”. It is apt, then, that a single Greek word—Āté—encapsulates the entirety of cataclysmic evolution. Āté, the founding goddess of Troy, began her life meaning “divine infatuation”. She contains the kind of love that includes its own punishment, the kind of love Antigone bears her brothers, the kind of love that facilitates her betrothed’s suicide. It was this that Sophocles meant when he wrote that “mortal life can never have anything great except through Āté.” All too often, however, what Roberto Calasso calls “the knot that cannot break” breeds disaster, so much so that the goddess has come to imply ruination and folly. In time all myths subvert themselves, and now, says Calasso, “Āté tramples whatever is weak”. She is the afterlife of death-dealing, when the time for heroes is done and the time for tyranny begun. She is the French Revolution grappling with the Terror, she is America reeling after Obama killed Osama.

Future writers will wrangle our lives into precise lattices within which all our brutality has motivation, even meaning. Time, Wallace Stevens said, never relents. Today is always obscurer than yesterday, yet the question remains: what is the purpose of literature, of any art, in a world denuding itself of beauty?

The panelists on the ‘Journalism as Literature’ session at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival were asked a version of this question. They were requested to comment on the cleavages of truth between fiction and narrative non-fiction. Jason Burke, who covers South Asia for The Guardian and authored the penetrating The 9/11 Wars (2011), answered with an anecdote about being in the mountains of Afghanistan at dawn. He said that while modern journalism allowed him considerable freedom (Shriver’s “screaming fabrication” at play), depicting the beauty of sunrise is still considered poetic verbiage rather than observant reportage. Confined by demands of relevance, reporters are rarely allowed to discuss the totality of human experience. They can write about bombings and rapes and all the gruesome paraphernalia of a war-torn landscape, but never about the landscape itself, or the people that survive in it without being either traitors or heroes. They talk about the martial Taliban, not the lyrical one; they describe fundamentalist mosques and avoid the music of the azaan. We need fiction, he argued, to fill the silences of such writing. He might well have said, following the German Romantic Novalis, that novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. We require fiction like we require Āté, to renew our capacity for love in a time of ruins.