A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
When Irving Howe reviewed J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians for the NY Times in 1982, he touched on the concern that Coetzee’s “universalized” (which is to say unnamed and fictional) Empire would “be ‘elevated’ into sterile ruminations about the human condition.” At the time of course, it was Coetzee’s South Africa, that obvious villain of the last half of the last century, that Coetzee’s crumbling Empire represented.25 years later, Coetzee’s choice to craft a novel about a nameless, malignant Empire seems prescient, as it turns out that other Empires can be viewed through the lens of the novel. Recent events have made the effect even more striking. As Howe goes on to add, “Waiting for the Barbarians renders a moment in our politics, a style of our injustice. Precisely this power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, ‘universal’ value.”Some plot summary will be useful here: Barbarians is told in the first person by a character known as the Magistrate, a benign bureaucrat comfortably ensconced in a settlement in the outer frontiers of a sprawling Empire. As happens from time to time, the Empire has become exercised by an outside force, its usual nemesis, the Barbarians, roaming bands of nomads that live beyond the Empire’s frontiers and always, it seems, present a threat to the heartland from the periphery. In the policies of the Empire and its bureaucrats and enforcers, this threat gives it license to throw its weight around. The Magistrate, meanwhile, is something of a softy, taken to indulging in women and rather aimless hobbies and more than satisfied to be positioned well beyond the notice of the officials in the capital. That is, until Colonel Joll and his men arrive on orders to take on the Barbarians that roam beyond the settlement walls. Ultimately, the Magistrate objects to the torture and ineptitude practiced by the soldiers in their dealings with the Barbarians and he is labeled if not a traitor, then someone of too weak a constitution to be trusted with the aims of the Empire. He too is subject to torture and humiliation.Much of the book takes place in the Magistrate’s head, both because he leads an isolated life and because for a portion of the novel he is in prison, with not much else to do but think. While the machinations of the Empire are very easily compared to those of our government and others’, the Magistrate’s inner monologue is no less comparable to the inner struggles of citizens of these “Empires.” Though the Magistrate’s moral compass is intact, he has grown fat and weak on the largesse of the Empire. We are left to wonder, are the Magistrate’s failings personality flaws or are they inescapable byproducts of our desire to live comfortably, even if it means that, as a result, others somewhere in the world are not?Allegories aside, the book is a fairly stunning, brisk read, dystopian and thoughtful. Coetzee’s Empire is finely wrought as are the people who dwell within it and without. Perhaps Coetzee had South Africa in mind when he created the Empire, but Barbarians will forever illuminate the price of power and hegemony.
A bomb named Trinity exploded at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, in a region of central New Mexico known as La Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of Death. Violence was destined for this stretch of the desert, and such inevitability was not lost on J. Robert Oppenheimer. A rather literary warrior, Oppenheimer wrote poetry at Harvard years before he directed the Manhattan Project. One poem, “Crossing,” likely depicts “ranges barring the sky” near the Norman Bridge Laboratory in California, where Oppenheimer did physics research. The poem’s setting is indistinguishable from Santa Fe, where he led the development of Trinity, as well as the bombs that would later destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer claimed the name Trinity came from John Donne’s representation of the “three person’d God,” though biographer Ray Monk thinks the physicist is being “characteristically evasive.” If the bomb delivered a snippet of God’s wrath, it was a merciless God.
Fat Man and Little Boy, the unique debut novel by Mike Meginnis, is a noteworthy contribution to the literary aftermath of these bombs. Meginnis’s style is perfectly suited to his subject, though that style has a curious antecedent in the prose of poet Dylan Thomas. “The Tree,” a story tucked into Adventures in the Skin Trade, is a surreal fable about a boy who nails a traveling beggar to a tree. Thomas’s prose whispers the violence. The boy is whipped into frenzy by his family’s zealot gardener, who “would sit in his shed and read of the crucifixion, looking over the jars on his window-shelf into the winter nights.” Thomas takes soft steps as he reaches the story’s conclusion, when “blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.” His one-sentence paragraphs are not breathless but heavy, and the boy’s perversion of the Passion narrative results in an uneven ending, as if the story was too raw to be edged. Meginnis’s prose commands a similar power, even during its moments of declarative simplicity. Fat Man and Little Boy is what it would sound like if Dylan Thomas wrote about the atomic bomb.
After the novel’s short, imagistic prelude, the bombs dropped on Japan — Fat Man and Little Boy — become human. Fat Man opens his eyes inside a bunker, surrounded by destruction. He sobs “without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body.” He is whole in body, but only a child in narrative age. He “remembers how it was to explode.” Little Boy, “gawky and thin,” whose “bones all protrude from his limbs like knobs on a young tree,” calls his larger friend “brother.” Their life together begins in kindness. Little Boy asks if he can walk by Fat Man’s side, and hold his hand, and speak to him. But Fat Man looks around to see the destruction they wrought. Meginnis’s talent is his ability to make the reader feel empathy for souls who killed so many.
Do bombs have souls? Is this metempsychosis or magic? If the bombs were not alive, then what caused these new births? These are literal questions for a surreal narrative, but they reveal Meginnis’s ability to make the absurd as tangible as the real. The brothers walk through destroyed cities, where “Bodies that from a distance seemed done with life, but, more closely observed, revealed themselves as dreaming, bleeding, faintly breathing, on a bed of any given thing, or dirt. Some also clutched knives, or bowls with jagged broken edges, or horseshoes, or broomsticks, or other improvised weapons.” They know death is near again. The bombs’ destruction was not merely one bright, loud moment. Now “a man at the edge of the fire standing in what was left of his home, calling out. He was inaudible, his mouth was open. The walls were collapsed to knee-level heaps; there was a metal bowl fused to his chin. Other kitchen items littered the ground around him, and there was a table overturned. He wrung his hands in front of him, pleading. His skin fell off his body in sheets. It hung from his fingertips and swung like streamers as he moved his hands.”
The novel’s first act is funereal. Meginnis is in his absolute element when he embraces the varying registers of folklore, when the specific lives next to the abstract. Like many folkloric characters in this tradition, the brothers are obsessed with birth: their own origin narratives, but also the round bellies of pregnant women and the distended sections of expectant animals. One scene on a farm is so eerie that it becomes eternal. A farmer tells the brothers that the “pigs must think you are their fathers” as laughter “dies in his throat. A darkness passes over his face. He understands something that he did not before. The hog shadows grow longer; the animals themselves do not move.”
Many pages in this novel feel like engravings, and those meticulous emblems carry the novel through uneven moments, as when the story strays from its folkloric center. The novel’s second act brings the brothers to France, and the trip first sounds like a joke, but the punchline is real. Their misadventures increase their dramatic humanity, but the book’s profluence slows until Meginnis carries the brothers to Hollywood. Fat Man has married Rosie, the owner of a hotel in France, and they have a daughter, Maggie. Fat Man is being chased by more than one character who wants revenge for the atomic blasts, but the family attempts as much normalcy as anthropomorphic weapons of mass destruction can manage. They come across a restaurant called “Atomic Burger,” and Fat Man hesitates, thinking “it’s in pretty bad taste” to eat there. The scene is hilarious enough to make one cringe, and signals Meginnis’s return to narrative control. The novel’s final quarter shifts between suspense and transcendence.
During the novel’s dramatic end, the family escapes to see a movie: “Seeing a movie in Hollywood is like going to church. Everyone dresses up. The ushers guide you to a place where you’ll feel welcome or at least out of the way. The room swells with talk until the show starts, and then everybody shuts up. The audience’s eyes swell with hope and need while the music blares and then, when the talking starts, they settle in. This one will be like the others. But you’ve got to respect it. The ritual of the movie is more important than the movie.” Meginnis has said that the novel had its origins in filmic representations of the explosions, how the cloud crawled wider and wider, changing the land forever. Meginnis has written one of the best, most natural novels about the atomic bombs. Dennis Bock’s 2001 novel, The Ash Garden, also examined the intersection between American and Japanese lives in the decades after the blasts. Bock’s novel, though beautifully written, feels more orchestrated and less organic in comparison. Literature often seeks to intellectualize methods of war, and to craft fictional revisions of conflict that offer transcendent theses. In making the bombs human, Meginnis switches the expected fictional order; he leads with idea, and then steps aside.
Fat Man and Little Boy earns its clever conceit, and carries its greatest power when localized to settings that felt the heat of these bombs. The novel begins in a broken Japan and ends in a fabulist Hollywood, where destruction often gets a second take. Fat Man and Little Boy is a second take on the legacy of American bombs. Despite the novel’s experimentation, it is ultimately more fact than fiction.
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.
In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.
Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.
But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.
No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.
But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.
Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.