Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
Borges tells us of a civilization where cartographers produced the perfect map: one “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” In the next breath, he concedes that this map was useless. Though Borges titles his tale “On Exactitude in Science,” it might serve as a parable for the novelist. One sets out to document a time, a place, a series of events… but even a single escalator ride (as Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine has shown us) can take up 50,000 words. It turns out that the novel, that capacious canvas, demands selection. Compression. Let this protagonist stand in for an army. Let this page break signify the passage of years.In his new novel, Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra sets out to map contemporary Bombay, and despite his many achievements, the novel threatens to become as boundless and ungovernable as the city itself. I don’t mean that Sacred Games is too long; I’d happily sit through another 900 pages of Chandra’s balanced prose, provided that each paragraph felt necessary. But if the same conversation occurs three times in the course of Chandra’s novel, he feels duty-bound to report each exchange. If a peripheral character has been scarred by the Partition that occurred 50 years ago this month, Chandra insists on telling us how. If a character takes a notion to cruise penis-enhancement websites, we get a list of URLs.The set-up is promising: Inspector Sartaj Singh, a sartorially adept member of the Bombay police force, is tipped off to the whereabouts of gang leader Ganesh Gaitonde. Gaitonde eludes capture in the style of a Roman senator – packing himself off to that great hoosegow in the sky – but the circumstances of his death disclose a plot that dwarfs any of his previous crimes. In alternating chapters, Sartaj races against the clock to thwart the conspiracy, and Gaitonde narrates, from beyond the grave, his own rise to (and fall from) power.Its potboiler conventions lend Sacred Games a measure of glitter, but it’s as an anthropological investigation that the novel strikes gold. The novel’s linguistic curry, spiced with Hindi and Urdu slang, delivers a taste of the polyphonic vitality of Bombay. A few vividly rendered locations – Chowpatty Beach and seedy Indian restaurants and a Sikh temple – evoke the entirety of Sartaj Singh’s world. (One senses always the teeming masses in the background.) And the various sectarian fault-lines of present-day India are fully, fictionally realized: not only does the author see them, he evaluates them. He instructs, as well as entertains.Likewise, Chandra excels at procedural detail. He depicts the corruption and brutality of Bombay police-work with a journalist’s eye for minutiae. If Sartaj Singh begins the book as a cipher, time chips away at the uneasy peace he’s made with the demands of his job. Eventually, we see him longing, underneath, for something better. Here is Sartaj contemplating a bomb-scare:”He was at his desk, in his dingy little office with the weathered benches and untidy shelves. Kamble was hunched over a report. Two constables were laughing in the corridor outside. There was a little pool of sunlight from a window, and a pair of hopping little sparrows on the sill. And all of it was dreamlike, as gauzy as the wafting of early morning. If you let yourself believe in that other monstrous thing, even a little, then this ordinary world of bribes and divorces and electricity bills vanished a little.”This last clause, cascading from the immoral to the amoral, suspends Sartaj between detachment and attachment. Detachment, attachment: isn’t this the dialectic that keeps our great cities alive?Gaitonde’s character moves in the opposite direction. As an outlaw, he begins the book with a certain charismatic capital, but the repetitiveness of his megalomania – “Ganesh Gaitonde Makes a Film”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited”; “Ganesh Gaitonde is Recruited Again”; Ganesh Gaitonde Gets Plastic Surgery – depletes our interest. And here the novel’s more-is-more aesthetic runs up against the more-is-less principle of Borgesian cartography.Pankaj Mishra, similarly vexed by Gaitonde, has pointed to Chandra’s ambition to transcend the bourgeois morality of the Western novel. But Chandra wants Gaitonde, like Hannibal Lecter, to interest us precisely because he’s bad. And Hannibal was more engaging on celluloid than on the page. Gaitonde starts out round, but ends up as two-dimensional as a movie poster. It’s a shame, too, as Chandra can invest a supporting character like Sartaj’s partner, Kartekar or his boss, Parulkar, with real weight. And in the case of Sartaj’s mother (the focus of one of the book’s four historical “insets,” or novella-length digressions), he can bring a character fully to life.Those insets, indeed, contain some of Sacred Games’ strongest writing. But they read like aborted novels, tangential to this one. Against the fine descriptions and effortless historical significance of an inset such as “The Great Game,” the Gaitonde-Sartaj plotline devolves into lunacy: nuclear terrorism, international espionage, and an evil-criminal-genius-cum-Vedic-guru. Chandra wants to license this “filminess” by appealing to the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Bollywood, but he fails to master the requirements of genre fiction, which are, in their own way, as demanding as those of realism. The palpable tension and richness of Sartaj’s quotidian life dissolve just as they should be deepening.Ultimately, Sacred Games comes off as a very serious book and a very silly one glued on to the same spine. This may well be part of Chandra’s program. But inclusiveness doesn’t always deepen our engagement in a fictional world. Sometimes, it can enforce a curious distance from it. Craving immersion in a perspective, we instead find ourselves standing outside a teeming flatness, unsure where we’re supposed to look.Notwithstanding Chandra’s debt to the realist doorstops of Dickens and Thackeray, the dissolution of point-of-view is (arguably like Bombay itself) a postmodern phenomenon. And perhaps in its Dhamaka plot, its refusal to reconcile the filmi and the literary, and its overwhelming expansiveness, Sacred Games corresponds more exactly to the city Chandra loves than a shapely narrative could. Still, fiction is no science. It is the art of illusion – useful illusion – and I look for this gifted writer, in his next novel, to focus his impressive energies toward some brighter (if not bigger) bang.
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone‘s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone‘s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead. My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski). I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school. I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise. Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.
Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer. I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them. The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.
Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett). The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away. I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.
James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink. It’s a hell of a story. In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process. This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.
Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all. What I learned about the actual events are as follows: the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans. Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously). Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war. There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists. The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.
Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam. He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy. I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception. He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war. In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.
The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist. If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine). An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).
The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material. Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them. For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot. That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara. That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t. That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with. That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior. That America lost the Vietnam War.
I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets). I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation. Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well. And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor. I don’t know. It’s a lot to think about. And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.