Truer than Fiction: three tall tales

"Reading Global"

I have, I realize, been treating this blog with altogether too much gravitas: the comment log makes clear I should worry less about what some virtual readers--a truly imaginary audience--might think.  So here, less polished, is some ongoing thinking, built on the juxtapositions that come from reading, writing, teaching and talking. 

Clifford Geertz' writing continues to provide a touchstone for larger considerations around the relationship between creativity and "real" social science.  I've been working at that seam--and, in particular, encouraging students to ackowledge that there is such a seam to be mined--through a class entitled "Reading Global: International Relations through Fiction"  at Brown. I've now around 50 students take the class in its three iterations (and including public blogs by students, in 2014 and 2015.  Some books have stayed on the reading list all three years (The "classic" Dutch anti-colonial novel Max Havelaar, which still has the power to bewilder and infuriate 21st century with its mid-19th century blend of satire, outrage, experimentalism and autobiographical backstory (not to mention its take up as a "brand" for free trade activism in the present); the Marine Corps-endorsed Ender's Game, offering practical lessons for disruptive thinking and the importance of initiative and rule-breaking in military leadership, but packing an apparently elegaic, pacifist takeaway - all from an author who writes so powerfully about the virtues of empathic thinking, while eschewing them in his life as a public intellectual); and the Chinese bestseller Dream of Ding Village, grounded in the realities of the Aids epidemic in Henan Province in the early 1990s, but telling a larger story about the experience of fast-capitalism). Others have been voted off by students (So farewell, the marvelous but demanding War of the End of the World); or crowded out by works that simply insisted in being included (a whole course could be built around novels by Nigerian authors tracing the impacts of race, empire and the new transnationalism: in Fall 2015, I realized just how compelling Americanah is for students with a range of personal experiences).

The highlight for many students was the visit from Lily King to talk about her novel Euphoria--a fictionalized reimagining that takes its departure from real life at the moment Nell (Margaret Mead) and Fen (Reo Fortune) meet up with Bankson (Gregory Bateson) on the Sepik River in the mid-1930s. The novel accurately captures the tone of would-be world-changers--and the different modalities of racism they exhibited--in that period, and also re-imagines the relationship between anthropological theory and Nazi ideology. The realistic feel of King's story--the way in which she enlists what she refers to as the "crust of reality" in the same way that film-makers do, so that (in Maya Deren's memorable phrase) ""the reality of a tree confers its truth upon the events we cause to transpire beneath it"--made me realize that I am particularly drawn to fiction-writers who work at the intersection. And also, make me realize that in my choice of books for the seminar (often unabashedly ethnographic) I reveal my own dogged literalism; for all my inclinations toward so-called post-modern multi-perspectivism, never quite willing to let go of what I take to be truth.

One part of the course's concept is to try to incorporate novels written by authors outside the Anglophone traditions.  Usually when I ask colleagues for "novels that illuminate international relations" they respond either by saying they don't have time to read fiction; or by suggesting John Le Carre. Aside from signalling that I need to get out more, this pushes me to read--or skim--more widely. Between Amazon, Goodreads.com, student suggestions. and the bibliographies and references of secondary literature on particular IR topics, I generally have a list of titles to sample.  I found my way to Yasmina Khadra's The Sirens of Baghdad, for example, via Suman Gupta's Imagining Iraq. Khadra's account of a wedding bombed by accident, a mentally handicapped boy being shot and killed at a checkpoint stop, and a humiliating night raid, brought home to students the radicalizing effects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq; and resonated with the documentary and journalistic reporting of thousands of such encounters between U.S. soldiers and Marines, and Iraqi civilians, over the years.  Each year I hope students will pick out the universal salience of a line from Max Havelaar from over 150 years ago now, that "what is fiction in particular is truth in general." 

As I read more, though--conscious of colleagues who urge me to think hard about genre and sub-genre--I realize there is more to it that that. Reading Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis for the first time in January 2016 brought this home.  I was lucky: Brown University's copy is stored at the Hay Library and can only be read there, and so I read what was, as far as I can tell, an unexceptional, paperback copy of the novel in the hushed, scholarly atmosphere of the reading room.  I found my way to Cercas' book (as I recall) through the Salamis reference in the title: after teaching a seminar in January at the Naval War College on the enduring relevance of the classics in our reflections on war and trauma, I am always on the lookout for evocations of the Persian or the Peloponnesian wars, especially in fiction produced outside the Anglo-American mainstream.  In part because I am always looking for new titles to rotate into "Reading Global."

Cercas's novel takes the form of a kind of historical detective inquiry, conducted by a main character, a journalist, named Javier Cercas.  Literally, there wasn't much about Salamis; it crops up as a digression offered by an interviewee in the early pages, in the title of the second part of the book (which constitutes a "book within the book") and in a reflective aside from the main character in a visit to an old folks' home in the third part.  What was far more compelling was the ostensibly fictional Cercas's encounter with Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano, in that third section, intriguingly titled "Rendezvous in Stockton."  Cercas is first charmed--who could not be?--when Bolano, before their interview, pulls from his bookshelves worn copies of Cercas's two previous books. "You read them?" Cercas asks, almost disbelievingly. Bolano's answer could be a motto for any bibliophile.

"Of course," Bolano sort of smiled; he almost never smiled but he never quite seemed to be entirely serious either. "I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street." (Cercas 2004: 140)

From their subsequent conversation, Cercas forms the conviction that by happenstance, Bolano once knew a former Republican militiaman who was a key agent in the story of the book within the book "Soldiers of Salamis."  The soldier's name is Miralles, and he lives close to Lyon. Cercas makes an initial attempt to locate him by telephone through directory inquiries (what is the age threshold at which that effort, and the frustration it entails, resonates?) which fails, at which point he reaches out again to Bolano, to see if he can help.  Bolano advises him to give up on the quest, and instead to make up an interview that will serve the function of the book. It will be better that way, he urges: "Reality always ends up betraying us" (ibid.: 165-6). The Cercas character (with a dogged positivism I recognize in myself) instead throws himself into a protracted set of calls back to directory inquiries, which will only give him the telephone numbers of old people's homes one at a time  Eventually, he does track down Moralles, and the novel's climax comes with his visit and conversation. 

Bolano's appearance was wholly unexpected - he is an alternative candidate for the course reading list, but I found it hard to make headway in the novel that seemed most promising for a class billed as "international relations through fiction," Third Reich. In Cercas's novel, Bolano's breadth of reading, his perfect recall, his productivity and his generosity of spirit are delightful and humbling. The fictional Cercas recognizes them as signs of genius, and as beyond his reach; he pursues his own dogged path, in a mix of journalistic integrity, and acknowledgment that in the last resort, he will be satisfied only with the voice of the eyewitness to the events he wants to understand as well as narrate.  Even if thwarted at the end, he makes us feel that urgency; in oral form, what the translator of Arlette Farge's work dubs The Allure of the Archives. Farge includes a distinctive quotation from a lecture, in 1988,  by Paul Ricoeur (regarding the Holocaust) - "One must never dull the sheer force of what happened, the sheer force of the events" (Farge 2013:98). The "real" Cercas, of course, is also the author of The Anatomy of a Moment - the thickest of all Geertizn descriptions of the events in the Spanish parliament on the 23 February 1981.

Robert Perisic's Our Man in Iraq is a far less polished and well-known work.  Originally published in Croatian, it offers a darkly satirical picture of what life is like for smart, young intellectuals in the aftermath of the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart, and set the stage for an economic order that many in the region experience as a fast and extractive variant of the capitalist dream. Perisic slyly suggests that his fictional protagonists--young men in their late 20s and early 30s--still fondly imagine that they will win out in the high-stakes game of speculative finance; that the shares they buy will skyrocket in value as foreign capital pours in the country, and this windfall will support lives of leisure for them.

In the midst of this, Perisic has his journalist protagonist conduct an interview with an old-school economist who exposes the delusion that this dream represents, at least from Marxian orthodoxy. And the economist also tells an extended story which, as in the other novels discussed above, abruptly introduces fictionalized versions of actual political figures active in the 1990s.  Specifically, he narrates a story of Macedonian President and veteran of the Anti-Fascist Struggle during World War II, Kiro Gligorov; and Macedonia's member of the Yugoslav Presidency, the younger Vasil Tupurkovski, who built a populist brand in the course of the 1980s. Capturing exactly the tone and style in which such stories circulate in cafes and bars across the region, Perisic offers a darkly comic take on the last congress of Yugoslavia, which many now see as sounding the death knell for the country, and the dream of brotherhood and unity which had both staved off violence, and delivered a better standard of living for a majority of Yugoslavs.  As they come away from the congress, Gligorov reflects that a historical epoch is ending;  Tupurkovski is hungry, and insists that before they fly back to Macedonia's capital, they visit a place he knows which does good grilled meat, and is open all night.  The episode closes with the two of them on the plane from Belgrade to Skopje; Gligorov half asleep, half worrying about Macedonia's future; and Tupurkovski, eating kebabs out of plastic bag.

Is the story true? For Macedonians, at least, it is profoundly plausible.  As part of his populism, Tupurkovski wore jumpers rather than grey suits;  he also had a little more heft than the average politician of the time.  So the idea that he would be comfortable with meat juices running down his chin, and that the call of his stomacn might distract him from affairs of state, makes cultural sense.  More broadly, his populism also consisted in telling people what they wanted to hear. This was never more glaring that in the course of a major crisis over access to water supplies in Macedonia known as the  "Studencica Affair" in 1990.  Tupurkovski's reputation was substantially damaged by media reports that in his "shuttle diplomacy" between the village where the water came from, and the city where the authorities had determined it should be delivered, he made incompatible promises to both.

The image of the unreliable, self-absorbed young professional politician also resonates with the larger point that the narrator--the old-school economist--wants to impress upon the protagonist.  We were serious, he wants to say: we knew war, and its costs: and we understood that it was driven in large part by capitalist competition.  The next generation, here represented by Tupurkovski, are the heirs of what we built; they take for granted the work that it demanded. They think they can maintain their fictions for ever. But in so doing, they shirk the true responsibility of leadership and decision-making; to face up to underlying realities and constraints.  The power and plausibility of fiction as a part of an International Relations curriculum, to my mind, lies in the windows it can open on the social realities and the hard choices that shape the lives of strangers distanced from us by space and time, but joined by the exercise of the creative, yet grounded, imagination.