Monday, 21 December 2015

Between Friends

I bought the hardback of Amos Oz's Between Friends (2012) this year from a good bookstore, on sale for $5. I felt a bit sad buying the book at this price, like a man taking pity on a stray dog at the pound of some undoubtedly good pedigree, misplaced. And that feeling of melancholy lasted with me as I read the book, the fourth I have read by the Israeli writer, peacemaker, and intellectual. This is a short book so I will tell a little of my other readings first.

Black Box (1988) is written as a series of letters between divorcees with shared responsibility for their son, Boaz. Just having a character, Alec, as a university professor, travelling between locations as part of the correspondence introduces a political and social complexity. It’s an intellectual book about emotional issues; something that fills me with envy as a writer. In the Land of Oz (1983; 1993) is a memoir of voices of Israel and the West Bank from the 1980s – of both and all sides (if you can see that paradox) in the Arab-Israeli conflict; it’s something like a memoir, a travel story, and war correspondence that resonates with important reflections, like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I read Panther in the Basement (1995) as semi-autobiographical, a twelve-year-old living in Jerusalem in 1947, with British soldiers on the streets and trouble at the door.

I understand that Oz is the author of some thirty books, so this is just scratching the surface. I do keep a line from Oz in my office at work, not because I can claim to be confronting anything like the difficulties Oz has thought about and lived through, but because as a teacher, I have opportunities to think about the notion of idealism and compromise in my own, small way. The quotation, from an interview reads as follows:  

The concept of compromise is not particularly in vogue, especially among young idealists. This is because it is perceived as an immoral agreement; as a betrayal of pure and absolute principles. For me, however, compromise is a synonym for life. “Compromise” does not mean to surrender or to turn the other cheek, but to succeed in meeting the other half way. The opposite of compromise is not idealism, but fanaticism, which is equal to death. art-of-compromise-57191

It seems to me, that even if he wasn’t a great writer (and I think he is), Amos Oz would be worth listening to.

Between Friends can be read as either eight short stories, or as chapters in a novel that focuses on different characters or people living in a Kibbutz. The characters are all treated with great tenderness, even though they are clearly flawed people – flawed by idealism, in some cases, which can lead to an inability to compromise and let others grow. Flawed by the failure to live up to the high ethical standards demanded by a community that shares everything, including and especially gossip; flawed by youth and inexperience or age and bitterness. In ‘At Night’, Kibbutz secretary Yoav Carni, the Kibbutz’s ‘first baby’, is now a responsible if not particularly happy man. As he walks on the guard shift at night, he thinks: [he] didn’t believe in God, but in moments of solitude and silence such as this, Yoav felt that someone was waiting for him day and night, waiting silently and patiently, soundlessly and utterly still, and would wait for him always’ (p.116). Then he bumps into Nina, who has left her burly husband in the middle of the night in search of sanctuary – and Yoav is torn by a temptation to respond to signs of affection, while keeping faith with his detachment as a leader, and his own marriage vows. Oz utilises the symbolism of streetlamps to foreshadow the inevitable, when they are spotted talking together and whatever innocence there is in their conversation is bound to be misread. In another story, ‘Deir Ajloun’, a young man Yotam must confront the committee if he wishes to study abroad, something he doesn’t have the will to do – and yet escape he must. These are examples of the simple, human dilemmas which fill the stories, stories not based on immediate danger from the surroundings outside the Kibbutz, but from the sheltered life within.

A funeral ends the collection with the death of a holocaust survivor, an anarchist and a believer in ‘Esperanto’ (the title of the story). His eulogy could almost sound like the sort of tribute paid to Amos Oz: ‘He saw with his own eyes how low human beings could sink, but still came to us imbued with belief in people and in a future burning with the bright flame of justice’ (p.196). That’s not bad for $5, not bad for a short novel or collection of short stories, which allow the reader to listen to the ruminations of characters who think one thing, and often say something else. This is the nature of the simple yet profound resonance of the prose, as honest as any half-hidden, half-true conversations ‘between friends’.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Unknown Terrorist,204,203,200_.jpgI am very intrigued by writers who seem to be able to shift gears so dramatically. Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist is like a Stephen King novel, skilfully written as a genre piece, almost with the trace of the author’s style. If you are a fan of Flanagan’s earlier books, particularly Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish, then you will scarcely recognise the prose. But form suits the message here. Flanagan is writing for a wider audience, and he wants to give them a very clear message: we construct our own monsters, from our own fears. This is a case of using a popular form of fiction to portray an unpopular idea; the irrational fears that beset us make us vulnerable to manipulation by government agencies bent on power, and media outlets bent on profit.

I wondered whether the title, ‘The Unknown Terrorist’ is something of a play on W. H. Auden’s famous poem, ‘The Unknown Citizen’. Auden writes about a man who has done nothing wrong, and indeed, is a modern saint in terms of his quiet compliance and service. His very blandness does him the credit of being one who causes no fuss; his opinions are predetermined. The poem ends with the sad fact that behind this life, there is little joy: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

The unknown citizen in Flanagan’s hands is a poll dancer, who has left her western-suburbs life behind and has attempted to be invisible through a fixation of celebrity fashion and style that has allowed her to remain hidden in plain sight. She earns her money in cash, literally keeping $100 bills in the roof of her apartment, avoiding the tax man and the fixed identity of banks, tax offices and so on. And yet her dreams are those of the everyman – to save enough for a deposit on her own apartment, as the first, slippery step towards a horizon of freedom and happiness. For now, she is content to dance her way forward, being less demeaning in some respects than the nine-to-five grind of low paying she has tried in the past. The Doll’s views of the world are uninformed and prejudiced (“I’m equally racist about everybody,” she would say, “but slimy lebs I really hate” p.11).

Flanagan takes this unformed character and places her, by a whim of fate, in the midst of a terrorist scare. After dancing her shift at The Chairman’s Lounge, she meets Tariq, an exotic stranger with bland-luxurious goods and an equally unknown life in a high-rise with city skyline views. They have a night together, and then the Doll becomes the mysterious figure linked to a terrorist suspect. Whether Tariq is anything more than a mid-level drug or people smuggler is never really made clear, though it seems likely that the terrorist charge is trumped-up. As for the Doll, she becomes a much-hated figure as a desperate media figure, Richard Cody, takes revenge on her rejection of his sexual advance and through the dark arts of reconstruction, turns her into the “unknown terrorist”. Although not Muslim, the narrative runs, the Doll is disaffected and has become the internal enemy that is the next phase of terrorism, as events in Bagdad and Kabul turn slowly, inevitably, towards self-destruction at home.

To say much more about the characters or plot would be to give too much away, for Flanagan uses a simple thriller technique of labelling the sections of the book by days of the week and building the level of tension that literally reaches its crescendo on a hail-stone evening when the heat is finally released in apocalyptic stones falling from the sky on the city of glass. The Unknown Terrorist wears its politics on its sleeve, and could be criticised for its caricature of the media, government agencies and corrupt police (at least in terms of the figures that represent them). On the other hand, it makes a simple point well, and it is an important message for us all to consider. Do we create our terrorists, at least our home-grown ones, through some sort of pathological need to experience fear and terror, or are we at least complicit in their popularisation, if not their fermentation? I’d call this an important book for the here-and-now, rather than a book that will necessarily become part of the works which I think Flanagan will be remembered by in the longer term. And that, it seems to me, is a very good use of popular fiction – to sell books, yes, but to engage in important ideas at a popular level, as good crime and thrillers do.