Just when I thought that I was getting too old and that there were no real page-turners left for me in this world, I find a quite unexpected one, a novel inspired by and half the size of War and Peace. I had started reading Freedom almost a year ago, but the realist gossipy opening seemed like a drag, so I abandoned it. Deciding to give it another try recently, I’ve gotten so engrossed that I devoured it in a couple of days. It really made me forget about emails, facebook and all the time eaters, just like the author intended (he said that in an interview), I barely even turned my laptop on while I was sunk into the story of the Berglunds, a middle class family dealing with the usual personal problems, in the first decade of the 21st century. It shows the cycles of the generation gap, the dynamics of rebellion and conformism and how conformism is also a means of rebellion, it’s also about the mistakes we make, the complications of love and sex, ambition, but also selflessness, about youth and the sad, but sobering revelations of adulthood, but most of all about freedom and its entanglements. Freedom has become a commodity too much taken for granted by the Western world in the 21st century and the entanglements, paradoxes and limits of it become subtly evident in the everyday drama of the characters whose main struggle with themselves is to be “good”, each in their own different understanding of the term. Without being pretentious or too didactic, the novel shows the inescapable contradictions we are facing nowadays as citizens of the so called “civilized” world and how our best intentions are turning against us in the long run, how on a personal level we abuse our freedom and how that same freedom tears us apart draining us of ambition and drive, how the whole globalizing process of “making the world safe for democracy” by spreading the free market, middle class prosperity, liberal ideology is draining the world’s resources at a staggering pace, how we focus on petty struggles for power, while the environment we all depend on is dying out before our blind eyes. The most amazing achievement of the book however is that it manages to weave these huge themes in a very intimate story of love, marriage, friendship, adultery, betrayal and coming of age, very discreetly. While you’re turning pages to see who’s gonna sleep with who and whether some character is gonna kill himself or not, you’re also pondering the future of this planet and the legitimacy of the social order you inhabit to claim supremacy over others. It is a love song for the middle class family that also shows how disfunctional and destructive a model it can be, how we’re all gradually going to hell, but might as well love each other and try our best till that happens. It’s also a laugh out loud funny and heart-breathtakingly sad story, it’s both a dead serious and a deliciously self-indulgent read. I might have to get back to it with a clearer head later, but for the moment I’m still enjoying being under its spell.
There are some books that I root for, I want them to be good because they seem to carry an important message that might get lost due to too little or too much artistry. The premise of Jasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack is enormous, it deals with the causes of Islamist terrorism from a Middle Eastern perspective. The author is an Algerian army official writing under his wife’s name. The novel itself is like bag full of good and bad beans that have been mixed together and it takes so much effort to separate the good beans that you just want to set the whole thing aside. The writing is seeped in linguistic cliches and melodramatic, I wonder if the translation had anything to do with that, and the first person narration in simple present was quite awkward, it felt like reading a bad movie script at times. But still, the topic itself drew me in and despite its lack of artistry, the novel manages to capture the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the type of terrorism that is fostered in this vicious circle of violence and retaliation on both sides and of two ways of life that threaten each other’s existence. Unlike Western authors like Don DeLillo, John Updike or Martin Amis who wrote from the perspective of a terrorist, Khadra uses an in-between narrator: the clueless husband, a successful Palestinian doctor working in Israel, whose world is turned upside down when he finds out that his wife is a suicide bomber. I was quite disturbed by the Western authors’ ease when claiming access to the mind of a terrorist and I think Kahdra’s more indirect approach, the investigation the husband gets involved into after the shocking event, is a lot more effective and politically correct. It showcases the difficulty a non-terrorist person encounters in his effort to understand a phenomenon that is so foreign to most of us. The same effect is achieved by Orhan Pamuk in Snow, a novel that is beautifully written and constructed at the same time.
I wish I had a book to read and get lost into that had the mood of these songs, a kind of sensual sadness, if that makes any sense:
There is something about a crowd with an apparent common goal that is extremely moving and it triggers some kind of unconscious solidarity in me, like the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt that got me following the news with an interest I haven’t had in a very long time, but there is also the violent mob, the group dynamics that lead to an escalation of destructive violence, like the recent still unexplained phenomenon in Britain, which makes me cringe.
Two striking images supposedly stand as the starting point of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II: one depicts a Moonie wedding, hundreds of identical couples getting married on a huge stadium and the other is of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author ambushed by the paparazzi after a long period of absence. The first is an image of absolute conformity and the other of extreme individualism and it is these opposing ideologies that are both paradoxically part of what it means to be human and the tension between these two inner tendencies of belonging and of setting oneself apart that DeLillo deals with in the novel. I remember a critic dismissing DeLillo as a novelist by calling him something like “a Frankfurt-School entertainer”, meaning that he is representative for a type of novel that is idea driven, rather than character driven, that he deals mostly with socio-political phenomena rather than the complexities of human psychology like, say, Henry James would. To me asking DeLillo to be James is just plain pointless and the reason why I keep going back to DeLillo is precisely because he writes idea novels. Falling Man for instance is character driven, but Mao II is an idea novel and aside from Underworld it might be DeLillo’s best. It is prophetic in so many ways and it somehow prefigures, at the end of the Cold War (it appeared in 1991), the next big conflict, the rise of terrorism.
Despite his macho author image, I think DeLillo’s female characters are actually much more interesting and powerful than the male ones. It is of course easy to identify the voice of the novel’s protagonist, the recluse cult novelist Bill Gray, with that of the author himself, but that would be a trap. Bill enunciates some of the most quoted of DeLillo’s ideas, namely that there is some parallel between the work of a novelist and that of a terrorist, as they both conduct “raids on the human consciousness” and that in recent history the novelist is losing most of his power of influencing the public mind while the terrorist takes over it. This parallel only holds when one has a modernist conception of art, in which the artist is the genius that revolutionizes the way we perceive the world by making us look at it from a new and often times uncomfortable lens. A revolutionary work of art is in a way an act of violence. Another, more modest way of looking at art in the novel is embodied by the photographer Brita, who is commissioned to make Bill’s portrait after a very long absence from the public eye. She is an artist too, but of a different type. Unlike Bill she is not a tormented one that wants to change the world and tragically aware of the limits of this approach, but rather a witness to the wonders of this world, who modestly tries to capture all the beauty and pain and contradictions in her work. These might not be literature’s most psychologically complex characters, but who cares. I haven’t had such a thought provoking read in ages…