Friday, October 3, 2014

A Sense of Place

The most sought after facet of a good story: whether fictional, an attempt at an allusion to something, or as reportage, is unarguably a sense of place. In the visual medium the conventional tropes are: the city skyline, a body of water and a detail of an architectural/ natural element or an easily recognisable icon meant to trigger the recognition of the target audience by an assumed common knowledge of the geographical region in question. In writing, it has been the weather and many many other things, including in references to a part of the anatomy of an individual who is representative of a group of people known to belong to a certain place, and not necessarily in a derogatory way. Sometimes the reference is a combination of the physical attributes of the populace and their engagement in a past-time that is commonly associated with them in the fevered imagination of the removed observer... such as a friend's online photo album, descriptively titled, 'Cycling Girls of Copenhagen'. (Sadly, the link to that album is lost.)
For someone like myself, disclosing herein to a certain proclivity for day/week/month/quarterly/half-yearly/annual-tripping in times past to regions of the world where I was as bemused as anyone else at having found myself, I used to think it was the smells. More recently however, I recognise that those olfactory associations are less accurate in hindsight, referring to moments with friends and family in happier and sadder times, and reflective of other compulsions of a notoriously unreliable and sentiment-driven memory.
What drives it all is, I think, the very human need to belong, however temporarily, to the place one is travelling through or from or towards. For the migrant, the need is less clearly articulated. Is one trying desperately to base oneself in, all other factors notwithstanding, a place that he/she has to justify having chosen as home for the rest of one's life? The troubling corollary to this is the less than incidental interactions I have had with people at work and other places who have made the same decision to relocate as I have and unequivocally reject the sense of place, whether in their desperate retaining of prejudice, their consumptive choices, or their home economics. To mitigate this disorientation, I have taken recourse in local literature and it has been enlightening so far because the writers reflect a diaspora as dislocated as I find myself today, and their collective sense of distress at not belonging yet, or belonging so much that they find themselves stuck, is palpable through the page, comforting in the shared befuddlement of a messy discombobulation.

The list so far, and all very very good:

- The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. 1940
- My Brother Jack by George Johnston. 1964
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally. 1972
- The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe. 1983
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. 1987
- Dirt Music by Tim Winton. 2001
- The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. 2005

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What remains in the shadows

In a world where children are killed without compunction right in front of the unfeeling glare of the global media, where a military superpower will intervene in a humanitarian crisis that has been escalating since the summer of 2011 only when its business interests are being threatened, when a plane ferrying passengers between two destinations in a world within a world suddenly crashes into the intervening space between worlds and triggers the full brunt of economic pressure being brought to bear on a long suffering people as much in need of deliverance from oppression as the rest of the world imagines their notional enemies are, and where hysterical frenzy is being stoked about all adherents, whether brown, black, white or yellow, of a faith that is so poorly understood by the powers that be that it is being demonized simply by virtue of their ignorance of it... there arrives a novel about the emotional and psychological toll that being an individual who encapsulates 'the other' in the western imagination, try as he might to escape the circumstances of his birth, exacts in all its bitter, angry and frustrated manifestations in a modern world that for all its glorification of personal achievement is exposed as hollow and exclusionary to anyone who dares to embrace their own individuality.

'In the Light of What We Know' has as its hero that curious entity - a character who is a success in every way that counts in the modern world, telling us his story in his own words (through an intermediary) without ever referring to that hard-won success except in asides about the reactions of school authorities and parents, colleagues and recruiters, lovers and friends, and others, to his achievements. This is a book primarily about a phantom, Zafar, who represents 'the other' in the west's perception of 'us'. And in every chapter, while delving into the ideas and theories and studies and discoveries that collectively and relentlessly illuminate the rot at the heart of the human condition, the author, Zia Haider Rahman, doesn't fail to remind us that all the knowledge and scholarship in the world doesn't make one iota of difference to the gulf that divides 'us' and 'they'. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Tobias Wolff reminds us that, 'In order for us to live comfortably with ourselves while living on unjust terms with others, we have to tell ourselves a story that makes us innocent'. In the light of the continuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and the regular pronouncements by government representatives and prominent public figures on refugees, Asians and national 'values' here in Australia, it is time to examine the moral quandary at the heart of this façade of universality and shared space that we call the modern world. And books like, 'In the Light of What We Know' throws light on what it is like to view the expanse of that gulf through the eyes of the masters of the universe, as it were, the one-percent, the ones that control the ebbs and flows of the common perception of the world within the larger world we inhabit.

There is a particularly revealing passage in the novel that describes the struggle of Zafar trying to come to terms with the ethical double-standards of western society:

'What does an optical illusion tell you? It tells you that you have no direct access to reality. How do you begin to control a world you cannot see, a world that includes you? How much of what we do is driven by the vanity of gaining dominion over others, not to own them but with the purpose of shielding our beliefs from evidence that would contradict them?'

There is an equally revealing passage later on in the novel that indicts us as individuals for being responsible for the monster we have wrought by blinding ourselves from the facts in spite of the relentless empiricism we convince ourselves we use to view the world in all its uncompromising and unblinkered light:

'Think of two people who don't know each other very well, when their conversation chances upon a book, a rich and expansive book they both love. They become animated and bear a sudden goodwill towards each other, as if each is thinking, You see the world the way I do. Yet no two people ever feel the same way when stumbling on a book they both dislike. The conversation soon moves on.'

In its essence, the novel is about violence. The violence we use all the time on each other, the violence we use in our interactions with those who are different from us, the violence we are exposed to as a society and the violence we wilfully ignore even when it happens all around us. Little wonder that two instances in the book that shape Zafar's life profoundly, and the reader's perception of him in the earliest and latest stages of our encounter with him, come as a shock when we should have been expecting it all the time, and contain all the madness of the world in brief eruptions that seem more authentic than the all-pervasive 'absence of malice' we tell ourselves is our defining virtue and our legacy to the world.

In a television appearance since the release of, 'In the Light of What We Know', Zia Haider Rahman once spoke about a journey he was making through Asia that was interrupted because of personal bereavement, that eventually led him to write this book. In a novel that brims over with so much personal angst, I shudder to think about what was lost to him.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The stinky, black and fetid pool that Narcissus looked into

I can't get over the fact that the world is literally unravelling (by specific design in the Ukraine and most of the Middle-East, and as a by-product of myopic consumerism all over the rest of the world) exactly while I am at my most tired, strung-out, anarchic, riven by compulsions of violence towards my fellow-man and yes, depressed that I have probably ever been with the possible exception of those few moments of sobriety while surviving my late teens and early twenties.

Money is an all-pervasive driver to these markers of despondency, but so is a futility at striving after the signposts of a successful existence. It is as if I have decided that I will have a life of pseudo/bashful/unjustifiable/pitiable materialism while compulsively exploring the pseudo-ism, bashfulness, unjustifiable-ness and pity of that desire through every waking moment.

Being a father definitely has something to do with everything I feel, but there again the escape-clause inherent in that admission is almost an invitation to forsake blame for a very real state of dangerous personal turmoil while not redirecting that blame to another on account of her inability to accept responsibility for the condition because of her current dependency. In other words, a cop out.
The job I have these days is a natural agitant, of course - menial, repetitive, devoid of meaningful social interaction and devoted to and sustained by the very consumerist ideal that I naturally recoil from, at least during those times when I do have a choice about it. But it pays the rent, and in doing so sustains a chance at fulfilling that ultimate goal of creature comfort and bragging rights encapsulated by a future photograph of a happy teenager wearing a mortarboard and graduate gown while posing next to a late-middle-aged grey and/or balding man in board shorts and unmarked white t-shirt who is, in turn, posing next to a red Ducati Monster in bright sunshine, smug grins all around.

Life is short, they say. Four Palestinian boys on Gaza Beach yesterday probably hadn't heard that from them.