Thursday, December 30, 2010

Love and Obstacles

What I find most interesting in Love and Obstacles is the way Aleksandar Hemon keeps coming back around to worry over the problems of what he calls “antibiographical writing” in his New Yorker interview. As he describes it, antibiographical writing means writing about things that didn’t happen to you but did happen in contexts you experienced, taking a few details and spinning out new ones to create a story. At the same time, the stories in Love and Obstacles, and perhaps most stories written with this method, are so likely to invite biographical readings that a rejection of excessive realism has to become a theme—almost to the extent that the reader (or at least this one) then wonders whether Hemon protests too much in a desperate bid to declare himself a real creator and not just a mimic of reality. So, as someone likewise averse to (auto)biographical fiction, I am a little puzzled by the solution Hemon tries to enact here.

Another frustrating thing about the book—although this may be its most redeeming attribute—is that Hemon never quite lets us sympathize with any of the stories’ characters. This includes the narrator(s) at every age—he (they) comes across as naïve as a youth (not especially surprising) and increasingly obnoxious and obtuse as an adult. Nonetheless, the supporting characters aren’t any better. In the later stories, the narrator first meets with an film student who wants to interview him for a documentary, then, in the final story, with a fellow writer in the narrator’s home city of Sarajevo. Both are candidates to serve as foils to reveal the narrator’s flawed ways of looking at or behaving in the world. Indeed, the American writer Macalister’s writing method, as it is revealed by the end, seems much like Hemon’s. Nonetheless, both are perfectly abhorrent in their own ways: the film student is as stubbornly bent on putting her interpretation on events as the narrator; Macalister is the worst kind of cultural tourist.

What comes through in this last story, and numerous others, is Hemon’s distaste for fellow immigrants desperate to win the appreciation of Americans. The collection is bookended by a story where the narrator as a youth encounters an American in Africa (his father is diplomat) and the final story about the narrator’s encounter with Macalister. In both cases the satire critiques the narrator’s slavish desire to be loved by the American. When Macalister finally includes a minor, disguised reference to the narrator’s family in his fiction, it indicates not so much the validation and recognition the narrator desired but rather that Macalister has simply consumed the experience and moved on: the narrator and his family really mean very little to him. Thus it is also strange that Macalister’s narrative technique should resemble so much Hemon’s own; the story seems to offer a self-repudiation of the writer as a sort of colonialist, taking his resources from everywhere without acknowledgment. In the initial story, set indeed in a colonial situation, the narrator carries around a copy of Heart of Darkness, and Hemon seems to be working out the problems of inheriting the representation of a fictional Other that supplants real others. From these stories, he comes across as a writer not fully convinced of his chosen aesthetic. That may not be a bad thing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A "To Read" Bonanza from Granta

Before this slips away from me, I want to make note of Granta issue 113, the Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, which came out this month. Three Percent has run a series of interviews and excerpts about all of the writers involved--one a day, ending just this past Wednesday. The whole series can be found here.

I'm looking forward to reading the issue soon, and I'm especially excited to see a number of women writers included (although the men well outnumber them). I've noticed that, amid my much increased reading of literature in translation over the past few years, and particularly my reading of translations from Spanish, the reading has nonetheless been dominated by male writers. This has been brought home to me especially by my negative reaction to Marquez's Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores and my biggest beef with Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai (though all in all I've quite enjoyed Zambra's work)--both related to their gender politics.

Perhaps I can begin to correct that this imbalance this coming year, and I hope this issue of Granta helps find some good prospects. (I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions, but maybe reading more women in translation should be one for 2011.) In the wake of all the publicity for her Cervantes Prize win, Ana Maria Matute will certainly be on the list as well, although I haven't decided where to begin.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Name Is Red

The last month has been a bit crazy, and it took me longer than I would have liked to finish Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red (1998, trans. from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar in 2001). This novel is one of those that have sat on my to-read shelf for a while, but I’m happy to have finally gotten around to it, and luckily it is a novel easy to come back to if you have to put it down after, say, reading the first half over the week of Thanksgiving.

My Name Is Red takes place at the end of the 16th century in Istanbul, where the Sultan has commissioned the creation of a secret book to give as a gift to the West. Amid speculation that the book is illustrated in a style offensive to Islam, one of the miniaturists is murdered. The book opens with this victim speaking from beyond the grave in a chapter titled “I am a Corpse,” and much of the rest of the book concerns the search for his murderer. The “detective,” albeit a somewhat unwilling and unqualified one, is Black Effendi, the nephew of the man in charge of the book’s creation. Black has returned after years of exile in the hope of marrying his cousin, Shekure, and his role in the search for the murderer is more about proving himself to his uncle, Shekure, and the authorities than it is about a desire for justice. Pamuk, like many other authors, takes up the mystery plot and modifies it to make his own literary concoction: Black’s love story and the mystery vie for prominence. The other play on the form lies in Pamuk’s shift in narrators between the chapters, including, as mentioned above, some chapters narrated by the dead, and others narrated by the murderer in a disguised voice.

These multiple voices and the combination of genres are, in many ways, what the novel is most about, as the situations involve extensive reflections and dialogues about the purposes of art. The novel offers a kind of political intrigue around the controversial nature of portraiture, with some factions in the novel opposing painting and illustration of any kind and others, the majority of the characters at the center of the novel, debating the proper role of art. The debate seems fairly simple at first glance: the established line is that illustration may only happen in the mannered style of the “great masters” of tradition, and that its goal is to portray the world as Allah sees it rather than as man sees it. On the opposite side are those who, under the influence of Western artists, have a growing interest in portraiture and realism, and who are thus condemned for privileging man’s perspective on the world over Allah’s, for disregarding tradition in favor of experimentation. But what is most fascinating as the novel goes on is that the distinctions between these opposed sides fall apart: not only do the artists painting in the new style have justifications for how their methods fit into a religious context and serve tradition, but the advocates of tradition themselves acknowledge that art has a history of change rather than a simple passing of tradition, sometimes giving the sense that the idea of tradition is itself just a rhetorical tactic. So many characters give their own slight variations on what they think terms like realism, style, and tradition mean that the novel reveals not so much that these two “sides” are the same thing but that they conflate a much more complicated debate where allies may not believe as similarly as they think and opponents may have a lot in common.

In all of this, the novel’s ideas and form are somewhat boilerplate poststructuralist and postmodernist of varieties that are very familiar by 1998. I think it might be fair to say that there is not a tremendous amount that is new here—although you have to reject the novel’s ideas outright if you uncritically privilege the new over the old without realizing that the new is often a matter of reproducing the old. I think I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in its adoption of the mystery plot and medieval religious context for pomo ends, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone dismissed My Name Is Red as being too much the same thing. Nonetheless, as I read on I found myself thinking more and more how the pleasures offered by Pamuk’s novel vary from those of Eco’s, and I wound up valuing it on its own rather than as a way of reliving my enjoyment of the older book through a newer, lesser copy.