Monday, May 31, 2010

khashoggi, eggers

Having looked at the calendar and discovered ALARMED that there are only 11 days to the World Cup, which means eleven days until the sleep of reason [and the sleep on the train commute, which is where I do most reading currently], I have decided to clear backlog as comprehensively as possible. Presenting two whole reviews in this post.

#58 Mirage, Soheir Khashoggi [re-read]

I read this book many many years ago in high school, in the halcyon days before everyone began to care about the veil as a political issue, female genital mutilation and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when all anyone cared to know about the Middle East was that it was full of fabulously rich but cruel sheikhs and fabulously beautiful but terribly oppressed women. Mirage is an excellent thriller about a woman on the run from the evil prince she has married, full of edge-of-the-seat stuff about whether the life she has built for herself in America under an assumed identity is going to collapse or not. As titillatory glamourised adventures riffing off real world problems go, it's pretty good, really!

Treading the high/low barrier, it aims to be a serious novel about the status of women in the Middle East, and it tackles an astonishingly broad range of issues in a complicated plot, ranging from the denial of formal education and extreme discrimination between sons and daughters, all the way up to forced marriage, domestic abuse and that awful staple of made-for-the-West narratives, death by stoning for adultery -- and chases the threads through to explore violence against women in America. The author has little time for cultural relativism: through her protagonist, she makes it clear that anyone who is not outraged by this is deluding themselves. But all of this seems a terribly casual approach to the detached reader. Soap-operatising the experience of one woman and applying it as the political framework for a wholesale rejection of a certain history and values -- I'm clearly no one to say that this is not justifiable, but can it truly be seen as definitive? Because, um, this book is also weirdly autobiographical. The main supporting character, for example, is a mind-blastingly wealthy arms dealer who got his start under Aristotle Onassis.

*looks at you*

*looks at author's last name*

*looks at you*

I know Slate and Feministing and other American websites love to talk about how soap operas in countries with poor human rights records empower women. I have no personal experience with female foeticide and child marriage, two subjects Indian soap operas linger over ultra-lovingly, and perhaps I am no one to judge whether these disgusting productions have been more or less helpful to women who do have to confront these issues than the tireless but not very sexy work of generations of women's rights advocates and workers. But I do judge these calcifying, fit-to-pattern narratives, anyway. I judge fiction in a way I would not judge biography [and I'm not sure if Hirsi Ali's books, for example, fall into this category -- stating upfront that I've never read them, but I've heard her speak about them and read her magazine writing, and in spite of her calling her books memoirs, they are also clearly doubling up as prescriptive scholarship, in which case they are outrageous, no matter what Tunku Varadarajan thinks]. The autobiographical strain in Khashoggi's novel apparently does extend beyond the Operation Diamond Racket brother, and I sympathise with the sincerity with which this book carries its message against violence, which I think salvages the book to a great extent. It just chose a wrong-headed medium in my opinion. And I wonder how Khashoggi herself feels about it in the wake of the deluge of concern trolling about veils, FGM and Ayaan Hirsi Ali that have succeeded this novel into the next decade.

#59 What Is The What, Dave Eggers

So carrying that thought forward -- is intent a necessary criterion by which to judge a novel? If yes, I suppose I'm glad to have put down money for What Is The What, whose proceeds go towards an education facility in Marial Bai, the Sudanese village from where the book's central figure, Valentino Achak Deng, originally hails. Deng is one of Sudan's Lost Boys, a child who saw his village ravaged by civil war and walked through the desolate war zone of South Sudan to get to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and thence to a new life in America.

Whether benefits should be predicated on the pleasures of a good book or not is a difficult matter. This is our culture now, the giving of benefit dinners and the purchase of DARFUR tee-shirts; who might even have heard of Marial Bai in this imperfect world, had Deng and Eggers not found each other and this much-discussed and extremely popular book come out of it? But I will say that if I could give the book back to be sold a second time, I would, because this is really not the book about Sudan I wanted to read. I don't mean to say it's a bad book -- it's not. It is an agonising, saddening novel, that nonetheless manages to imbue its characters with tremendous dignity, and it narrates a situation that defies the imagination in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone that does not pretend to reportage any more than it makes obvious attempts to provoke or titillate. But it is not Valentino Achak Deng's story. It's Dave Eggers' story, for which Deng has provided material. I spent a long time trying to figure out what was real about this book - since it helpfully advertises itself as a novel - and what was not. What is a 'fictionalised memoir'? Was Deng even real? Was this money really going to a real school in a real village? And if it wasn't, just what did Eggers think he was doing?

Clearly Deng is real, and I apologise to him for doubting it. But I can scarcely be more aghast at how completely someone would appropriate his identity to write this book. Why would you do that? Why wouldn't you want to stick to the standards of truth -- and the separation of the authorial voice from the voice of the subject -- expected in a straightforward work of non-fiction? If you were dedicated to Deng's educational project, why wouldn't you take the questionable but easily less fraught path of an 'as told to' story? Of course, Eggers may well have gone in the other direction and written a completely fictionalised work based on a bunch of imagined or composite characters, with names changed and situatons suitably cast to exercise the sympathy of the novel-reading class. But then he may have had to answer questions about how he succeeded in writing a novel about a human rights crisis without actually having spent time there. [And had he travelled through Southern Sudan, surely, he may have had to answer questions about why he chose to write a fairy story instead of reporting hard straight facts in a newspaper. I know. But if these questions are never asked, then who determines the standards of truth to which we hold the written word?] If the book is supposed to be a testimony, how can it have the name of a person who did not live through the events of the testimony on it? Surely that completely obscures its primary purpose?

Set against a civil war, a literary quibble over a single African's identity may not seem like much. But to a reader like me, who has so far only known what it's like through the eyes and voices of others, it reads like a tremendous betrayal, even with the consent of the person whose story it is -- it casts a shadow over the whole book. I was so, so glad to stop reading it when the end came.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
A Very Strange Man
Madame Sadayakko
Inverting The Pyramid
The Demon's Lexicon

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