Mari Cohen (assistant editor): Since editing Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Noah Kulwin’s interview with the journalist Vincent Bevins on his book The Jakarta Method two years ago, I’ve been meaning to read Bevins’s account of how US Cold-War-era intervention in Indonesia, Brazil, and elsewhere supported deathly and authoritarian political movements in the name of anticommunism. I finally got around to it this month, and I’m glad I did. Through interviews with coup survivors as well as long-term on-the-ground reporting and archival research, Bevins offers an intricate and heartbreaking account of Indonesian politics in the 40s and 50s. He chronicles how a moment of possibility after the country freed itself from Dutch rule—during which the country’s independent Communist Party built an impressive coalition and was seen as a leader among Third World socialist movements—gave way to a 1956 anticommunist coup, followed by the mass killings and imprisonment of up to a million Indonesians for suspected “communism.” This was supported by US military training, intelligence, and propaganda.
Bevins also chronicles how the events of Indonesia reverberated around the world, serving as a template for similar violence in Latin America, including in Chile, where, Bevins shows, right-wing groups began graffiti-ing ominous “Jakarta is coming” messages in public in the months before Pinochet deposed Allende in a 1974 coup. (That coup led to the killings and forced disappearances of tens of thousands of the new regime’s political opponents.) Bevins chronicles the excitement and energy of young leftists in Indonesia, Chile, and elsewhere who took a flexible approach to communist ideology and put their faith in social democratic movements, only to learn that their countries’ fate would be influenced less by their successful democratic organizing than by the heavy hand of the CIA and its anticommunist allies.
After finishing The Jakarta Method, it’s tempting to want to insist every American be made to learn about this history of US foreign policy—and sobering to remember the major right-wing backlash that currently rages against any attempt to make educational progress in that direction.
Aparna Gopalan (JC fellow): If, like me, you prefer your prose poignant but plain-spoken, you really shouldn’t read Meena Kandasamy’s writing. Don’t get me wrong: having interviewed her, I’m convinced of Meena’s literary genius. I also like complex novels as much as the next person and get why stories need to contain non-linear chronologies, unreliable narrators, or a roving point-of-view. But Meena’s madness goes much, much further. While her new book Exquisite Cadavers and her bestseller When I Hit You are better known examples of Meena’s stylistic defiance (and might well merit their own reviews), it is her first novel The Gypsy Goddess that really inaugurates the genre of mutilated novels.
The book is ostensibly “about” a horrific massacre that took place in 1968 in a South Indian village, where upper-caste landlords locked 44 low-caste peasants—including pregnant women, infants, grandmothers—in a thatch hut and then set the hut afire to punish their crime of demanding higher wages. However, the book doesn’t so much depict a massacre as commit one, hacking and tearing at every conventional way of telling the story. The first chapter is about the novel’s first sentence. Meena shares several versions of it, imagines readers’ reaction to each, then revises it. A few pages in, she asks, “Are you still hunting around for the one-line synopsis and the sixty-second sound bite? Do you want me to compress this tragedy to fit into Twitter? How does one even enter this heart of darkness?” The sheer magnitude of the tragedy that is a peasant’s life in Tanjore district, then, seems to defy every attempt at painless narration.
It can be hard to stay with this generous explanation for the book’s tortured form, especially when the author spends time reproducing scathing criticisms of her book, (“its English [is] a crime against the language”); spending another chapter on a dozen possible titles for the novel, explaining that the one she settled on has nothing to do with the book, only with the publishing industry push to sound catchy; yet another chapter on an imagined Q&A with a confused reader (Q: “Why can’t you follow a standard narrative format?” A: ‘if that’s what you want, go read the following academic articles’). Is any of this self-indulgence really necessary to do justice to the story? I’m not sure I know. What the broken novel does do, though, is equip you for what is to come. “Hate is haphazard,” Meena writes, “with a mind of its own, and a reckless impatience...Even if we stylistically try to recreate the texture of every other old-maid’s tale...hate is not always obedient to plot.”
So it is that after Meena finally writes “Fuck these postmodern novelists” and gets into the “actual” story of the war between landlords and Communist peasants (it is less “postmodern” than the first half of the book, but only just), the story itself is as haphazard as the hate driving it. By the time the beatings, rapes, murders, and massacres appear interspersed with lawsuits, formal letters of complaint, association meetings, and gatherings at tea shops, you’re listening not because of attachment to a specific character whose humanity Meena has convinced you of but because of the intense believability with which the fury of the powerful and torment of the downtrodden scream off the pages in a discordant cacophony: refusing to explain themselves to the unconvinced reader, refusing to do work to make you care about these burning bodies or despise these arsonists, just putting you in front of the violence and leaving you there to do what you please. The choice to engage, to read the list of 42 names and descriptions of the bodies recovered, to figure out who the “I” is in each chapter—the assassin? the murdered?—and whether to believe them, is left to you. The author is too busy undermining her own authority as a storyteller and prose’s power to help you understand. This is what happens when a poet writes a novel. Read at your own peril.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Faced with the corpus of a prolific major writer, there’s something thrilling about beginning with a minor work. Certainly there’s much to recommend starting with the most celebrated masterpieces—the books where the writer’s vision finds its fullest expression—and deferring the rest until one’s finished what’s most essential. But the imperfection and obscurity that often mark minor works can make them particularly potent sites of entry, allowing more direct access to a writer’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions than the achievements whose acclaim may unwittingly conceal the work itself.
I felt this way about Exteriors, a 1993 book by Annie Ernaux, which I’d never heard of before I saw it at my local bookstore last weekend. (It was the only Ernaux they had; perhaps the more famous ones flew off the shelves after last week’s announcement that the French novelist and memoist had won the Nobel Prize.) Exteriors, translated into English by Tanya Leslie, compiles a selection of diary entries from 1985 to 1992, each briefly detailing a scene Ernaux observed in her home city of Cergy-Pontoise, a planned community built outside Paris in the 1970s. The project is conceived as a departure for a writer whose central subject is her own life. Here she aims to look only outward—and no further than exactly what sits before her eyes. “I have sought,” she writes in the preface, “to describe reality as through the eyes of a photographer and to preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.”
But Ernaux understands that even if it were possible to strip away all interpretation, to write merely what one sees would remain a way of writing about oneself, a self that emerges in the shape of what attracts its attention or escapes its notice. The book ends by articulating this principle; Ernaux, seeing a stranger who reminds her of her mother, reflects, “So it is outside my own life that my past existence lies: in passengers commuting on the subway or the RER; in shoppers glimpsed on escalators at Auchan or in the Galeries Lafayette; in complete strangers who cannot know that they possess part of my story; in faces and bodies which I shall never see again.” An index of surfaces thus becomes an account of the self distributed over space and time, returning to itself in endlessly shifting iterations.
This is not to say that the self subsumes those it observes: Exteriors is also a glimmering archive of other lives, whose richness springs forth like a shadow from the glimpses of gestures, scrawls of graffiti, bursts of overheard laughter. In the manner of Elizabeth Hardwick’s autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, Ernaux perceptively evokes the worlds through which she passes, leaving some scenes’ meanings open, working others into aphorisms of startling brilliance: In songs one remains locked in desire. All storytelling operates along the same lines as eroticism. The transmission from reality to symbol is a form of release. As the entries accrue, this partial record of seven years of waiting rooms, subway cars, and supermarkets seems to exceed its own bounds even as it remains fixed within them, affirming the infinity latent in the most mundane encounter.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Though I’ve had the novels of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness in my library for years, I’ve assiduously avoided reading them for just as long. I’ve assumed these works describing lives lived in rural Icelandic would be noble and uplifting. If there’s anything I hate, it’s noble and uplifting.
But my wife and I recently traveled to Iceland where, unlike most tourists, I fell in love not just with the landscape, but with the Icelandic language, which I am now studying. So I decided the time had come to read Laxness, and to start with what is widely considered his greatest book, Independent People. Reading this novel has been described as “life-changing,” and if that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one.
Over the length of this epic work, a Nordic Zola novel, Laxness tells the story of the archetypal “independent man,” Guðbjartur Jónsson, known as Bjartur, working his holding in the Icelandic wastes, refusing to accept assistance or any ties, either of family or friendship or class. Bjartur, who struggles mightily to maintain and sustain the land and sheep he purchased with such difficulty, represents not only the Icelander who has fought nature and isolation for the thousand years of settlement in the country, but also—in his insistence that only independence matters, that any compromise with others, any acceptance of help from others, destroys that independence and must be rejected—the egoism and individualism that for Laxness the Communist is the cause of the perpetuation of the real enemy, capitalism.
Bjartur is a profoundly unpleasant character, perhaps the most profoundly unpleasant hero of any great novel ever published. The deaths of those near to him matter less than the loss of a sheep; losing his children and wife to death merits little more than a shrug: Life is that way, has been that way, and will always be that way. Misfortune for the greater world, in the form of World War I, causes the price of Icelandic products to rise, and thus is a good thing. He and his fellow farmers’ only regret is that the war didn’t last longer. Bjartur is not only independent and disagreeable but also indomitable, and the one chink in his seemingly impregnable armor is his confused feelings for the girl he raised as his daughter, Sollilja. Laxness keeps the humanity this injects into Bjartur subterranean, saving the key moment in their troubling relationship for the final few pages of the novel.
Even a society as small Iceland’s is subject to the blandishments of wealth, and just as in 2008, when the crash crushed Iceland harder than almost any other country in the world, Bjartur is buried under debt taken on in the expectation that the good times will last forever. Laxness tells us that “the free man of the famine years has become the interest-slave of the boom years.” There’s one cause for the miserable life of the crofters: “The lone worker will never escape from his life of poverty forever and ever; he will go on existing in affliction as long as man is not man’s protector, but his worst enemy.” But it is Laxness’s genius that his own hero doesn’t seem to accept this lesson. There is no neat tying-up of the tale.
I’ve always held up The Magic Mountain as exemplary of the kind of book whose continuation you’d kill to learn. I can think of no higher compliment for Independent People than to say that I regretted not being able to follow the characters of this magnificent novel across the wastes, hoping against hope that things will work out.