The Plague

camus_the-plagueIn Albert Camus’s celebrated novel of a plague outbreak, he tells us that at a certain point, the citizens of the afflicted North African town of Oran turn to reading. Specifically, they show a “remarkable interest” in “prophecies of all descriptions. [. . .] The local printing firms were quick to realize the profit to be made by pandering to this new craze and printed large numbers of the prophecies that had been going round in manuscript.” But there is not enough material to satisfy demand, and so after searching “in the municipal archives for all the mental pabulum of the kind available in old chronicles,” they turn to “journalists to write up forecasts” that are devoured eagerly to find literary clues to their personal fates.

Some predictions were based on far-fetched arithmetical calculations [. . .] Others made comparisons with the great pestilences of former times [. . .] and claimed to deduce conclusions bearing on the present calamity. But our most popular prophets were undoubtedly those who in an apocalyptic jargon had announced sequences of events, any one of which might be construed as applicable to the present state of affairs and was abstruse enough to admit of almost any interpretation. (221-222)

Much the same could perhaps be said of The Plague itself, which surely admits of many possible interpretations and is often enough read as an allegory of the German Occupation of France. Plague does, after all, make for a fine metaphor. Even in Camus’s own text, we see how pestilence is made to signify by those affected by it, not least in the fiery sermon delivered by a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, as the fever begins to take hold. “Plague,” the priest tells his congregation, “is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor” (95). Yet as the disease progresses, Paneloux somewhat backs down from his certainty as to what it all means. A second sermon, we are told, “display[s] more uneasiness than power” (229). Perhaps sometimes a plague is simply a plague, and brings with it no great moral lessons or truths.

Indeed, by the end of the novel the narrator’s main worry is how fleeting any such lessons may be, as he observes a population, finally liberated from the epidemic, now prepared to

den[y], in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies [. . .]. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn. (297-298)

The real problem, in other words, is that the trauma is all too easily forgotten, that it is a text that frays or is soon invisible. Hence the narrator’s impulse to write everything down, to draw on his experience as well as the documents left him by others, “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Yet it is not clear whether people’s propensity to amnesia, to forgetting what they have been through, is one of these admirable qualities (a sign of resilience?) or a fault that the text has therefore to rectify.

A similar ambivalence shrouds then the main characteristic imputed to the citizens of Oran, and perhaps to humans more generally: the fact that they are creatures of habit. For it is part and parcel of the way in which the town is described from the outset as unremarkable, ordinary, and frankly mediocre in every way (“a thoroughly negative place” [3]), that in it “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits” (4). Such routines both hide and are a symptom of “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits” (5). People don’t think, perhaps they do not even really fully live, dedicated as they are to “fritter[ing] away at card-tables, in cafés and in small talk what time is left for living” (4). So a plague, whose first consequence is to disrupt those habits, might even be welcomed (in theory at least) as an opportunity for reflection, for awakening and seeing what life could be about when faced with the possibility of its extinction. Indeed, for Camus (but surely not only Camus) the question raised by pestilence is precisely the question of existence, of what it means to be human in the here and now when the promise, or threat, of transcendence wavers in the face of calamity.

Yet ultimately, in a book that struggles to shake off the religious vocabulary that it purports to reject, if there is salvation it is to be found in the repetition that constitutes habit. No wonder, as Camus famously argues elsewhere, we should imagine Sisyphus happy, for what is a man endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but an image of a creature defined by his habits? Likewise, here, the doctor who attends to the plague victims and the others that help him with the task do so not out of any great ideological conviction or faith, least of all out of any illusion that they are making much of an impact against the implacable foe that is the disease. In the end, after all, the plague disappears because it is imagined to have ended of its own accord, “leaving as unaccountably as it had come. [. . .] It had, so to speak, achieved its purpose” (271). Nor, we are told repeatedly, can we regard those who choose to fight it as heroes: “there’s no question of heroism in all this” the doctor says at one point. “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is–common decency” (163). As for “those who enrolled in the ‘sanitary squads,’ as they were called, [they] had, indeed, no great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do” (132). The plague itself, rather than being any great spectacle or event, is also a habit–if it means anything, it is simply “the same thing over and over and over again” (161)–and yet it can and should be confronted by a sort of counter-routine, a sense of obligation that is almost unwilled and unconscious. Hence if there is any “saintliness” (and the novel rather doubts that there is), it can only be “an aggregate of habits” (118).

We are now, of course, in 2020 learning new habits. And let us hope that one day we will have forgotten many of them. One I personally rather like is the custom of applause, of making a noise of some sort, every evening (here in Vancouver) at 7pm, in tribute to the health workers and other key workers, often underpaid and long overlooked, who are going about their jobs in the midst of the pandemic. It is rightly pointed out that that, indeed, is what they are doing: simply what they have to do. And that the applause is ritual without much meaning. But if we learn anything from Camus’s depiction of the plague, it is that such habits may be part of what is quietly admirable, and should not be so readily despised.

Pre-Prison Writings I

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing is quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up. (13)

Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family [. . .]. Such intervals as I had I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day [. . .]. (58)

I cannot be the only person who, in these strange times of pandemic and confinement, is turning to narratives of plagues and pestilences past. Indeed, in early March it was reported that Penguin was rushing out a reprint of Camus’s La peste, while sales of novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand were similarly booming. And if these texts were once read as a species of horror, perhaps now we are turning to them for their (more or less) happy endings. At least, after all, they do finally end: their plots arc to some kind of resolution. And so, extrapolating to our current circumstances, we can be assured that this, too, shall pass.

defoe_plague-yearUnlike Camus and King, Daniel Defoe does not present his A Journal of the Plague Year as a work of the imagination (though the same could be said of Robinson Crusoe), and in fact it is said to depict quite accurately the Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666. Indeed, though it was written over half a century after the period it describes (Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665), there is some debate as to whether the text should be regarded as fiction or not.

Still, Defoe’s book does not exactly follow the template of what we now know as the novel (a genre that he himself of course helped to pioneer), even as it cannot easily be described as a “journal,” either. There is much digression and repetition, and a strange mix of conjecture and certainty, while the narrative frequently pauses to draw essayistic and even quasi-scientific conclusions, for instance about the means by which the infection spread or the role (or otherwise) of divine providence and predestination. It reads, in short, as a patchwork of styles and discursive forms. There is a surprising amount of statistics and reportage, chronicling the numbers of burials in various London parishes as the plague spread, even as Defoe tells us that the numbers can hardly be trusted: “It drove us out of all measures. Men did no more die by tale and by number. They might put out a weekly bill and call them seven of eight thousand, or what they pleased; ‘tis certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps, that is to say, without account” (178). There are reflections on public policy, not least about the wisdom (or not) of confining the sick and the well together in boarded-up houses.

There are also anecdotes and stories, presented either as the narrator’s experience or as what he has heard and is uncertain or doubtful as to how much credit he should give them: “It was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things” (64). One long section follows a biscuit-maker, a sailmaker, and a joiner (John, Thomas, and Richard) in their attempt to flee the city and traverse the villages of Essex in search of safety. This extended narrative might almost stand on its own account, but it opens hesitantly, after many false starts, and somewhat tails off at the end: “They got colds in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection; and then about December they came home to the city again” (113). Perhaps this is because, overall, the plague does not follow any particular logic: it arrives, sweeps through the city, until at last it just seems to exhaust itself. The book comes to an end, but not to any great resolution.

Indeed, and I am unsure if we should regard this as great comfort or not, Defoe’s conclusion is that ultimately not much changes once the crisis has come and gone. There is no “new normal.” However much, during the plague itself, common practices and prejudices were briefly overturned, such that (for instance) religious divides no longer weighed so heavily, by the end “It was not the least of our misfortunes that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before” (176). Old habits all too quickly resumed, old enmities were re-established: “The quarrel remained: the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the Dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents retired” (177). It is as though nobody has learnt anything.

It is almost as though the plague had not happened at all. On the book’s final page, Defoe (or his narrator) quotes a man who, once the infection has passed, exclaims “’Tis all wonderful; ‘tis all a dream” (186). But the over-riding impression is that, for all the brutal reality of the pits turned into common graves into which countless bodies were dumped, it is the plague itself that is experienced as a “dream.” And this perhaps is the rationale for Defoe’s book, which repeatedly presents itself as a pedagogic text (“the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow, in case the like public desolation should happen here” [45]): even fifty years after the event, it still had something to teach its readers. Indeed, the plague had yet to be constituted as an “event” at all.

It may be that the same question faces us now, in our present pandemic: whether Covid-19 is to be cast as an event, and if so of what kind?

Lost Children Archive II

lost-children-archiveJust over halfway through Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, the book takes a sudden turn as the narrative switches from the point of view of the mother to that of her ten-year-old stepson. “What else do you see, Ground Control?” the mother has just asked (186), alluding to one of the key tracks on their shared road-trip playlist, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song that is of course very much about alienation (becoming-alien) and (mis)communication. “Calling Major Tom,” the boy seems to respond. “This is Ground Control. You copy me, Major Tom?” (191). But it soon becomes clear that this is not exactly a response to the mother’s question (though it is not exactly not a response, either), for as well as a new narrator we also have a new addressee: “This is the story of us, and of the lost children, from beginning to end, and I’m going to tell it to you, Memphis” (191). Memphis is the boy’s (step)sister, who has taken on that name as part of a round of collective familial renaming: “I’ll be Memphis. Just Memphis” (107). The boy, meanwhile, has adopted the name “Swift Feather.” And so, as the children start to inhabit and speak from these new identities, the book’s tone also changes, from the (over?) analytical realism of the mother’s narration to something more like myth, an epic (albeit in miniature) reminiscent of a classic children’s tale such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, much like Huck, Swift Feather and Memphis are about to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.”

From the back of the car, the boy and his sister have been listening to their parents’ stories–both the stories directed at them, and others that they were not necessarily intended to overhear, as well as still others that perhaps the parents did not even know they were telling. Sometimes the girl falls asleep; sometimes the boy has been pretending to do the same. And through it all the children have been coming up with their own stories, many of which are echoes or slightly distorted versions of and responses to the narratives that the adults have been providing them. It is these echoes that come to the fore now, as the boy decides to take his sister in hand so that the two of them can look for themselves for the “lost children,” the refugee sisters (and others like them) crossing the border from Mexico, that the mother has been talking and worrying about all this time. Of course, as the kids set off, first ransacking their mother’s “archive” (a box in the back of the car) to take a map, a sound recorder, and her copy of the book she has been reading, Elegies for Lost Children, “Swift Arrow” and “Memphis” also join the ranks of the lost. Indeed, the boy will come to realize that his plan that they should look “for themselves” (on their own account) will overlap with a broader project, forced upon them, to look “for themselves” in the sense of trying to figure out how the two of them fit in to the wider world of which they are necessarily a part.

So Swift Feather and Memphis embark on their own trek, which is itself an echo both of their parents’ expedition and of the arduous journey undergone by the Central American migrants whom they are hoping to contact. There is something childishly narcissistic about this endeavor, as their aim is in part to reclaim the attention of their mother and father: “if we too were lost children,” the boy imagines, “we would have to be found again. Ma and Pa would have to find us” (238). But at the same time they are exposing themselves to many of the same kinds of dangers faced by refugee children; they shed the creature comforts and protection of the family unit and their relative privilege to ride a train much like the Bestia and to hike through the desert with minimal food or water. They start to inhabit a struggle for survival that is otherwise barely unimaginable. And this too, perhaps, explain why here the novel becomes almost dreamlike, even as it narrates an encounter with something like the real of danger and deprivation.

Everything comes to a climax (if not a resolution) in an extraordinary passage of almost twenty pages that is one interrupted sentence in which the point of view regularly switches between the brother and sister on the one hand, and the bedraggled migrants (now reduced to a small group of four) on the other who walk almost literally out of the pages of the Elegies for Lost Children. Their disparate stories finally if briefly coincide, at an abandoned goods train whose open sliding doors “looked like a window I was looking through from our side of the desert to the other side,” where the boy hears a sound that “got louder and louder so I knew it wasn’t an echo but a real sound,” and where he throws a rock only to find

a rock come flying back at us, [. . .] a real rock that the boy and his sister would have mistaken for an echo, confused as they were about cause and effect as the normal link between events, were it not for the fact that the rock thrown back at them hits the boy on his shoulder, so very real, concrete, and painful [. . .] who’s there I said, who’s there he says, and hearing the sound of his voice, the four children look at each other in relief, because it is a real voice, finally, clearly not a lost desert echo, not a sound-mirage like the ones that had been following them all along (330)

And in the transition from “I said” to “he says,” the change in point of view is marked by the shift in pronouns, but a common ground is also established precisely as “I” becomes “he,” as first person becomes third person, as a point of identification is established that renders the echo tangible and material without depriving it of any of its mythic qualities.

It is as though Luiselli were saying that it is only by treating such stories with the seriousness and naiveté, the trusting literalness, with which children treat the tales they are told, that we can establish some kind of connection with the unbearable and unimaginable horrors of the migrant experience. Her previous book, Tell Me How It Ends, which is also about Central American child migrants, never quite loses the adult point of view and insists that “the stories told in this essay are true” (107), adding footnotes to document each of its accusations about the injustices of the US judicial system that processes asylum claims. Lost Children Archive, by contrast, whose “Notes on Sources” list instead the series of literary works (from Pound’s Cantos to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), achieves, or comes close to achieving, the much more difficult task of imprinting on us the sense that the stories it tells and the voices it conjures up are real.

The People of Paper

plascencia_people-of-paperSalvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper portrays the revolt of its characters (people, literally, of paper) against the author who has created them. The author, who himself takes on the character of an (almost) all-seeing “Saturn” is described as a “tyrant, commanding the story where he wants it to go. That is why they fight against him, why they hide under lead [which apparently protects the characters from his authorial gaze] and try to push him to the margins” (228). And yet at the point at which Saturn actually comes into view, he seems to be about as tyrannous as the Wizard of Oz after Toto opens up a curtain in the Emerald Palace to reveal merely a middle-aged “humbug” and “a very bad wizard.” In Plascencia’s novel it is a carnation-picker by the name of Smiley who “saw[s] through the layers of newspaper and glue” that protect Saturn’s house and comes across an author who is “no longer in control. [. . .] I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, [. . .] the linens and towels unfolded and dirty, books stacked in badly planned towers [. . .]. And paper, unbound and scattered everywhere” (103-4). Unlike the other characters, Smiley had been less keen to enlist in the war against his creator, wondering “Could he not be protecting us?” (95). Once exposed, however, it appears that the mighty Saturn can scarcely look after himself, let alone anyone else.

Yet the real disappointment in Smiley’s encounter with Saturn is the discovery that not only is he neither threatening nor protecting his characters; it seems he is unable even to keep track of them all. “Smiley?” he asks bewilderedly. And perceiving the dismay that this failure to recognize his own creation engenders, he goes on to explain that “there are many characters, plots, and devices, and in the jumble of things sometimes minor characters are forgotten, even by the author” (105). Saturn/Plascencia has been caught up in his own plot, which runs parallel to that of the carnation pickers, and involves a woman who has left him for another man, a woman to whom the novel is apparently dedicated (“To Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and who has her own concerns about what its author is writing: “You need to remember that I exist beyond the pages of this book. [. . .] Sal, if you love me, please leave me out of this story. Start this book over, without me” (138). Plascencia seems to be besieged on all sides: both by the characters that he has imagined, who live and die (and in at least one case are swiftly resurrected) as a function of this story that he has dreamed up; and also by other characters that are all too real, over whom he has no control, and against whom the best he can manage is rather petty revenge, for instance by scratching out the name of Liz’s new lover whenever it appears. Though he does indeed start the book over, as a new title page appears in the wake of Liz’s protests, with the dedication merely “Para mi papa, mama, y hermana” (143; this is after all a Chicano text that is also about border-crossings as well as being a parody of urban gang life), yet he tries to have it both ways, as the original dedication still stands. Liz is, and is not, the novel’s dedicatee. No wonder Saturn has trouble keeping tabs on everything.

Saturn’s problem is to some extent also the reader’s. There is a lot going on in this novel: many plots and sub-plots and indeed innumerable minor characters, including a Merced, a Little Merced, and a Merced de Papel, as well as carnation pickers, Burn Collectors, mechanics, mechanical tortoises, a Mexican wrestler, a beekeeper, a Cardinal, a curandero, a “Baby Nostradamus” whose thoughts are inscrutably hidden by blocks of ink, Rita Hayworth, and even another ex-girlfriend for Saturn/Plascencia. And ultimately perhaps we suffer the same fate as Saturn as he is depicted by his creation, Smiley: we find it hard to care too much about any of them. Least of all, Saturn himself, who comes off as at best a little pathetic, and at worst self-obsessed, spoiled, sexist, and vindictive. (“Cunt” is his one-word retort to Liz’s plea to leave her out of it [139].)

Of course, especially in a self-reflexive and metafictional text such as this one, Plascencia’s defence would be that his unlikeable self-portrait in the novel is indeed precisely that: a portrait, an unreliable representation, a performance, a mask whereby we come to see that “Plascencia” the author is as fictive a character as Smiley or Little Merced. We have no reason to believe that “Liz” actually exists (in any case, it is Plascencia who has come up with the lines he ascribes to her), and so no basis to credit the “sadness” that we are told “circulate[s] through Saturn, clogging capillaries and inflaming his lymph nodes” (242). The author is as much a creature of paper as any of his creations, and as such in fact has no capillaries or lymph nodes. But this recognition hardly prompts us to care any more. Indeed, quite the opposite. And however much the novel reminds us that paper can cut, and that people of paper can wound and affect us equally if not more than “real” people can, the fact that this book illustrates that point with descriptions of men whose tongues are lacerated thanks to cunnilingus with the origami woman Merced de Papel leaves me, at least, unmoved.

Lost Children Archive I

lost-children-archiveHow to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.

Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.

Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.

The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” [74]). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.

When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant

Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)

Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.

But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.

The House on Mango Street

mango-streetDozens of characters flit through the pages of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Alicia, for instance, who “is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university”; but her mother has died and so she has “inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness” as she has to get up early and look after the family, before taking “two trains and a bus” to study because “she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (30-1). Or Elenita, “witch woman,” who earns a few extra dollars by telling fortunes in her kitchen where “the top of the refrigerator [is] busy with holy candles” (62, 63). Interrupted by her kids, who she has shunted out to a living room where the sofa is covered in plastic, she “gets up to hit and then hug them. She really does love them, only sometimes they are rude” (64). Or there is Sire, a boy who hangs out on his bike with his friends and watches as the narrator, Esperanza, passes and crosses the street: “It made your blood freeze to have somebody look at you like that” (73).

Many of these characters disappear in the wake of these quick but arresting pen portraits. It is as though the book can hardly settle long enough on any of them for us to come to know where they come from or where they are going to. Yet almost always we are left with a startling detail, revealing perhaps more than the child narrator knows or intends to tell, a detail that indicates that there is much more still to be said. In Alicia’s case, this is when we are told that she is afraid of nothing except the mice she sees (or imagines she sees) late at night as she burns the candle at both ends. “And fathers” (32). Then the narrative swiftly moves on–to a tale of “Darius & the Clouds”–leaving the suggestion of some unmentionable violence hanging in the air. Mango Street is as vibrant and colorful as the tropical fruit that gives it its name, but it is also permeated by shadow, not least the shadow of gendered violence and the expectations that young women above all find it nearly impossible to shake off.

In fact, Alicia returns almost at the end of the book, in one of its final vignettes. Not that we hear much more about her fears. She and Esperanza are talking, and “she is listening to my sadness because I don’t have a house” (106). But Esperanza does, Alicia points out, have the house that gives this very book its title:

You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. (106)

Shame is a recurrent feature of Esperanza’s experience in this Chicago neighborhood: she is made to feel (and internalizes) shame for being female, poor, and Hispanic. In some ways, indeed, shame is the book’s dominant affect, if it weren’t for the humor and quick-witted observation that also pervade almost all these brief stories. And Alicia, perhaps the one (other) possibly upwardly mobile figure we meet, already knows that Esperanza will not so easily be able to deny her origins, for to do so would be to try to erase something that is by now integral to her very self: “No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too” (107). This may sound like a prediction (or projection) of failure: that every attempt Esperanza makes to escape will be doomed.

But Cisneros suggests that Esperanza (or Cisneros herself, in so far as this book is broadly autobiographical) will be able to negotiate the tension between escape and acknowledgement, between shame and pride, though writing itself. “You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza,” her Aunt Lupe tells her, “It will keep you free” (61). At the time the young girl “didn’t know what she meant”–and in fact she and her friends treat her aunt shamefully, imitating her, mocking her blindness and incapacity, “with our heads thrown back, our arms limp and useless, dangling like the dead” (61). But by the end of the story, Esperanza has realized that the stories she is telling are a means to take her distance from Mango Street: “I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes” (110). But they are also, of course, a way to return, to render homage to those who stayed, to those, “las mujeres” to whom the book is dedicated, who were unable to leave and had to live in the shadows. Without exactly shining a light on that darkness, without pretending to give us anything like a full representation of these lives at the margins, Cisneros’s book at least offers a glimpse of a myriad of stories that would otherwise go untold, stories that if told in full should shame us all.