World Dystopian Literature Day

The name of Orwell has been much mentioned recently, a product of society’s collective word-association – to each mention of Edward Snowden and his leaking of the pernicious spying activities by the NSA (and US government), come the words George Orwell or Big Brother. Whilst not exactly inaccurate, these reflexive responses are perhaps an exaggeration or rather an over-simplification, and by repeating them mantra-like, we block ourselves from truly engaging with the issues at hand. I believe they deserve proper examination, and not mere caricature.

My solution is to propose a World Dystopian Literature Day, with an inaugural date of the 2nd September 2013, on which citizens and readers from around the globe can come together, virtually or otherwise, and (re)read a classic novel from the canon of dystopian literature. By doing so we will refresh our memories of the potential horrors, rekindle in ourselves the fires of protest and will initiate a continued and informed debate about the nature of our free society. Perhaps that way we can avoid ever drifting too close to the darkness of an illiberal police state, to a state of dis-Enlightenment.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction – The Trial, Seeing, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

After all, a free and democratic society needs to continually rebuild and refresh its liberties to every new technological and worldly challenge, otherwise it will inexorably deteriorate into totalitarianism. Centralised power begets power.

It’s a cliche that we who learn nothing of our past are condemned to repeat it. No surprise then that the fictional warnings from literature about potential futures receive similar short shrift. It shouldn’t be thus, not when the novel reveals to us the very real human pain and suffering that such manipulative and oppressive states can cause, not when the novel as a storytelling medium can make us empathise with these people and do so perhaps more keenly than any non-fiction account of historical atrocities ever could.

The specific aims of World Dystopian Literature Day are therefore:

  1. To guard against complacency in society regarding our individual rights and freedoms.
  2. To encourage debate around the themes explored in these novels.
  3. To promote a critical appreciation of this genre of literature.
  4. To raise awareness of the continued abuse of human rights by governments around the world.
  5. To provide a check against the growing power and influence of transnational corporations.

So, which book to read to accomplish these goals? Orwell is one such precautionary voice, but there are many others of equal importance, and I mention only a few here.

There is perhaps an obvious sort of dystopian literature, especially common in science fiction, in which the author describes a self-contained and fully-realised world that is clearly different to our own, and there are often myriad futuristic details to reinforce this sense of otherness. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, excellent and famous books all, and ones that belong to this sort of dystopian literature.

But there is another kind out there, one more subtly defined, in which the fictional world is our world, or rather, is recognisably and substantively the world extant at the time of writing, with perhaps one key change. To my mind these stories are just as relevant, in some ways more so, and can project a sensation of utter terror. Examples of this second category in my opinion include, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Seeing by José Saramago.

Though The Trial speaks to a deep and painful sense of social isolation and misunderstanding, and permits many other readings besides, it can also be taken straightforwardly as an exposition of the horrifying and inhumane nature of a secretive, and potentially unknowable, justice system. Perhaps this is made more terrifying when one considers the rulings on certain aspects of the US’s treatment of security laws, namely the Patriot Act, whose interpretation by the executive office is allowed to be secret. And this in a democracy!

Seeing by Saramago is not at first sight literature of the dystopian class, but in its chilling tale of the cynical and antidemocratic response by a government to a democratic challenge to its authority, whereby the citizens return masses of blank votes, it reveals the lengths to which power will go in order to preserve its own power. Morals, truth, citizens – all will be sacrificed in the name of the preservation of the state. A powerful allegory given the revelations of the previous weeks, in which grave, potential abuses have been deemed necessary for the security of our society. And yet, we had no say in this, democracy was subverted and ignored. Our permission was not sought, for the simple reason that they knew it would have been denied.

So it’s clear that dystopian literature, though providing extreme visions of possible worlds, is still highly relevant today. If, like me, you believe the idea of a World Dystopian Literature Day is a worthwhile one, then please share this article via whichever means you prefer and let’s see if we can make it a reality. Please do add your thoughts and suggestions below, and if it does receive enough interest I’ll setup a separate website to promote it.

But whatever happens, come the 2nd September I’ll be rereading Seeing to remind myself just what’s at stake here. I do hope you will join me.

Andrew Cookson

Note: a list of dystopian fiction can be found on these wikipedia pages.

Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.

A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

Chapter 1

‘A mantra is a sentence where every word is where it should be’, said Boris Akunin, giving the 2013 Sebald Lecture at Kings Place, London. By its own definition, this sounded very much like a mantra. But mantra or not, surely we all wish to write sentences which meet this criterion, to organise our thoughts so that every word is where it should be. I wonder if there is an equivalent for the structure of a book: where every sentence is where it should be. Meta-mantra, perhaps.

Chapter 2

Preceding this lecture was the awards ceremony for The Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes 2012, which rewarded the efforts of translators working on novels from French, through Arabic, to Swedish. Margaret Jull Costa, longtime translator of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, Eca de Querios and many other key figures of Iberian literature, went home with almost a clean sweep, taking commended prizes for translations of Portuguese and Spanish novels, plus the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for her translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão. A very impressive achievement, and many congratulations indeed!

Chapter 3

Everything in my life is now broken-up into chapters.

It was the perfect opening to the lecture, a personal revelation, humorous and quirky, literary. Ever since he began to write, Boris Akunin has been unable to let something pass without deconstructing it into chapters; his novels, short stories, his Sebald lecture and even his day, none of them are immune to this sub-division. It’s quite possibly contagious.

Chapter 4

B. Akunin, so the blurb blurbs, is a Russian author, very widely read, and who has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His critically acclaimed series of detective novels, starring the character Erast Fandorin, are rendered into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Chapter 5

For Boris to live a hygienic lifestyle was the principal desire of his mother, and for that there were only two professions which were suitable, medicine or literary translation. Lacking the particular aptitude for science, a life of literature beckoned. To save a real life or translate a fictional one, that would be one way to view it; either way, one can see her point, as both careers aim only to improve lives. Curious though that the act of literary translation is pure, whereas creating the source material is not.

Chapter 6

Grigory Chkhartishvili is a literary translator and academic, who, with pure intentions, diligently transforms Japanese works into his native Russian. The pride of his mother then, who declared, on the occasion of his first translation, that Grigory’s wife had made a good choice.

Chapter 7

In Javier Marias’ novel A Heart So White, the narrator Juan, an interpreter, begins a private conversation with his professional counterpart during one particular assignment, changing the words uttered by his politician client into something far more interesting. It could well be a common phenomenon in those circles. Certainly Grigory became increasingly annoyed with how the writers were telling the story, privately exhorting them to get the preliminaries over with and commence the story, or wishing that the material were structured differently. To maintain his professional integrity, and possibly not trusting that he would leave the text unaltered, Grigory took the cleaner path and instead began to write his own novels. The risk of discovery taken by Juan was averted for the time being.

Chapter 8

Grigory Chkartishvili is Boris Akunin, a man who was born to be a sacrificial lamb, to bear the brunt of the disapproval imposed by Grigory’s colleagues. The metamorphosis was not as easy as it could have been, possibly no better than it was for Gregor Samsa; he, and his novels, had to endure the criticism of his colleagues in literary translation, and delivered in his company at that! Akunin is apparently a Japanese word that translates roughly as villain, it seems to have been a prescient choice given this unfavourable reception.

Chapter 9

The writer is never off-duty he said, referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull. I am beginning to understand.

My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano.

Funny though that clouds are always thought to look like something else, and not merely themselves. Why does no-one ever look at the grand piano and remark that it looks exactly like a cloud? Surely that would reveal just as much about a character as would their interpretation of those airborne inkblots.

Chapter 10

The first book Boris translated, as a teenage amateur, was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for him, the frustration of referring to the English-Russian dictionary fifty times per page ruined the experience to such an extent that all the works of John Steinbeck became no-go areas. And so they remain today. It’s a salutary lesson for all language learners who are motivated by a desire to read foreign literature.

Chapter 11

If the writer is never off-duty, then continuous working hours are not the only sacrifices to be made. A more surprising sacrifice was his enjoyment of music. Whenever Boris hears a piece of music that evokes a particular mood, he labels it appropriately and then stores it away. Some time later, when writing a scene that requires that particular mood, he re-plays that piece and others similar, a sort-of sonic mood board, to help the process along. Effective it might be, but those pieces, like Steinbeck, is ruined thereafter. It seems that clouds are not the only objects in jeopardy from an author’s attentions.

Epilogue

I wonder how Boris Akunin feels to be on the other side now that his own novels are translated into other languages. Does he ever worry that his translators will undergo their own personal rebellion?

K. rolls the dice

So, it’s the New Year, a time for ambitious undertakings. Here’s one: what is the power of literature? Perhaps that’s a little too ambitious. Slightly less ambitious then: what is the power of a novel? Just how much influence can one wield?

Let’s put aside political or religious tracts, those books explicitly designed to advance arguments and convert the minds of those opposed (or bolster those of the already converted), and consider only novels. Of course, works of fiction can still be constructed to assert (or through satire, to subvert) positions and thereby persuade, through whispers and allegory, reader to concur with author. They must do so by subtle means though, if they wish to succeed in that first and necessary aim of being a ‘good novel’; necessary of course if it is to be a novel that is read, without which there will be no deployment of its arguments.

We might think of Kafka, and the morphing of his name into the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. His depictions of unyielding, inhumane yet man-made bureaucracy have led to the labelling of similar, less extreme examples in real life. And yet the pithy designation of them has not, it seems, reduced the likelihood of such systems occurring. They still repel, confuse, and control us, and mankind suffers to relive analogous, edited versions of K.’s bewildering experiences. One might argue then that the fate of The Trial was to become one extended dictionary entry. An even longer one, if we include in it The Castle too. And this extensive dictionary entry could in turn be replaced by a few short words, and nobody need read Kafka ever again.

This seems unfair to Kafka, and indeed it is, and yet I feel it’s not a complete exaggeration to say it. Depressing, for all the obvious reasons, to those who care about the rich variety of the written form and the artful expression of imagined scenes, it is surely even more so to the aspiring writer. If this is the fate to befall Kafka, that strange, original, and brilliant author, then what hope for the rest of us? In attempting to engage with the world we become K. evermore completely.

Perhaps the solution is to remove our aim from society, and focus on the individual reader. And with that focus, give ourselves up to chance, forsaking our hoped-for influence.

In the post Thoughts at Intervals? I wrote that Saramago has been a big influence on me, and that continues to be true. The source of this inspiration can be traced back to the first book of his that I read, Death at Intervals. And this is the thing, it was not through advancing arguments, but the shear brilliance of the writing, the form of the expression, the gentle, incisive wit delivered with a warmth for humanity, that persuaded me to act. This writing style, and the revelation of greater and more appealing possibilities in literature, moved me to enrol on a creative writing course and try my own hand at fiction (to be uploaded to this blog in future posts).

Some months later, I happened to read an interview with Saramago in which he claimed that his sentences were constructed not just to carry meaning, and not even just to be elegantly structured, but that they were to possess a musicality that could be heard, so that by reading sentence after sentence something of a symphony would be produced. As excellent as Margaret Jull Costa’s translations are, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing this musicality that the sentences had possessed when in their original Portuguese. To hear the music then, there was no other solution but to begin learning Portuguese.

The third, but probably not the final, act of this story? Well, you are reading it now, without the creative writing, it is unlikely that this blog would ever have come into being. And what is more, the truly exciting thought regarding all of this is: what further influence on my life will this all have? The contemplation of future possibilities brings to mind the proverb For Want of a Nail .

A final point, or caveat, to make is that the book found, in me, a receptive reader who was minded to act, without which state of mind the book would have been just that, and I would have gone about my life unperturbed. The corollary of this is that the same book read at a different time would likely not have had the same impact, our tastes and personalities changing and maturing as they do, so that it could well be a different author who is now my favourite, and a completely different language that I would now be learning.

And so returning to my earlier suggestion. Writers, having no control over who it is that purchases their books, nor requiring assessments as to their sensibilities or suitability for the book at that time and at that place, really have no choice but to give up their own aims and instead retrospectively adopt those accomplished by their audience. In influencing then, chance is the thing, and possibly the only thing.

And now for some audience participation: if asked to pick the single most influential book (in terms of changing your outlook and particularly your actions) that you’ve read so far, and you are permitted to select only ONE, what would it be and why?