Editor’s Choice: Deals, Denials and Dystopias

What a difference a year does or does not make. In a previous post in 2016 I asked whether

the blurring of lines between fact and fiction or between fiction and non-fiction was a precursor of things to come, a harbinger of routine “revisiting” in both the arts and in politics. Now, a year after Brexit and six months into the Trump presidency, this question has gained even more obvious urgency, as policymakers try to rewrite the past to assure more favorable legacies or to shape the present and future in more flattering ways.

As if the daily reports of political high level deals and denials leading to real or artistic dystopias were not sufficient, the usage of other words beginning with the letter “d” is equally disturbing. Observers compete with each other to claim or disclaim “threats” to “democracy” via “disinformation” in acrimonious debates in the twitter sphere, in the blogosphere, and in the “despised” or disparaged conventional media. Many pundits agree that “sending a message” is the goal, but disagree  about whether anyone is listening and, if so, what it is that they are hearing.

Has identity politics reached its limits in terms of dividing opinions into ever smaller bits and pieces, especially about race, class and gender? Could literature, particularly novels, “trump”politics as seemingly so sordidly practiced? Before pondering this escape route, are there new books or revised editions  that synthesize these political trends that might be worth reading? The paperback reissue of Charlie Savage’s Power Wars is especially valuable. In a revelatory new preface to the 2015 edition, Savage explains how and why the Obama administration miscalculated in its assumption that its measured approach to the inherited “war on terror” would benefit its presumed successor, either Hillary Clinton or an establishment Republican of moderate views on national security, like Mitt Romney or the now ailing John McCain.

Ever cautious in its decisions about how to balance conflicting domestic and international demands, the Obama team sought compromises between national security and civil liberties that would guarantee flexibility. As Savage reports, “change” as an Obama campaign theme yielded to “mere adjustment” as a governing style (p. 14). Outlawing “torture” did not result in closing the Guantanamo base but it did lead to reopening Washington’s relationship with Havana eventually. Despite the typical Trumpian bluster about where to try “terrorists”, the U.S. may be the place of choice after all.

Already there are transient analyses of “populism" as a major explanation of election outcomes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Already there are countervailing interpretations of elections in Canada, Turkey, Britain and France that emphasize other factors that might shed light on how German elections might fit. Already there are questions, given the hung parliament from Britain’s hasty elections, about whether a “hard” Brexit is inevitable or whether the proverbial “muddling through” will prevail. Polls and surveys abound and often are contradictory as news cycles and attentions spans become shorter and shorter.

As usual, a careful skimming of articles and reviews in English language mainstream journals like Survival, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Review of International Studies, or International Security yields pithy summaries of some worthwhile books for those of us who try follow American foreign policy from at home or abroad. Follow up book tours and web-sites and podcasts demonstrate how authors deal with “distractions” as the ultimate test of whether any of these highly detailed “rough drafts” of history, like Savage’s, will endure even when interest in their precise reconstructed chronologies fades.

For scholars and investigative journalists like Savage, the larger issue remains what patterns of rhetoric and behavior are discernible. Here the Trump administration offers a test case of whether a background in business and reality TV is adequate preparation for governing as opposed to displaying the theatrics of rallies that appeal to an rancorous electoral base, a base remarkable for its verbal resistance to the upheavals of globalization. The accompanying fears of social change are not new. Nor is an apparent fixation on immigration or a decided preference for bilateral versus multilateral approaches to climate change and trade. Nor is an intense focus on personal relationships with political leaders with dubious commitments to democracy. Nor are staged White House meetings with close ups of handshakes and body language that fall woefully short on substance and long on optics.

A recent Economist Special Report:Trump’s America shows that what is happening on the ground still matters. Inconsistencies at both the state and federal levels of the U.S. government are not a barrier to Trump supporters who are more “polarized” and also subject to “groupthink”. The survey concludes that chaos and volatility, coupled with the instability and unpredictability that worked for Trump in business, could work in government perhaps when convoluted family loyalties buttress the fragile structure.

Potentially new in the Trumpian universe of incessant branding and marketing are other glitzy trappings of presidential power like foreign trips with military parades that offer temporary relief from unending domestic troubles like investigations of Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election in circumstances that underscore Trump’s penchant for demeaning women or obsessing about Obama and both Clintons for their alleged past slights. Amid these deals and denials, little wonder that some prime examples of classic dystopian fiction like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and George Orwell’s 1984, have re-emerged on best-selling lists or in altered television adaptations even though the comparisons are often inexact.

In this annual round up, I am again recommending some contemporary fiction, both novels and short stories, and two related movies/videos that convey political insights and provide context in more nuanced form. Fortunately, a second short course entitled Politics in Fiction and Film: Around the World in 40 Days evoked parallels to the current political scene. I found that organizing such diverse readings without the 2016 convenience of the approaching major 15th anniversary of 9/11 was oddly liberating.

Given a choice of Magda Szabo’s The Door or Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, many of the 10 participants chose The Door initially in the belief that the symbol of a “door” would open up political discussion more easily. Szabo portrays the relationship of two Hungarian women reluctantly bound together in war and peace but also widely separated by class distinctions. Each experiences difficulties with vague political “authorities”. Similarly, the Eco novel exposes various decades of Italian “corruption”. Rough comparisons between Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump were worth exploring in translation. The limits of semiotics in any language less so.

A second set of choices proved equally enlightening. Re-reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger and parsing Kamel Daoud’s  subsequent The Mersault Investigation ignited an interesting discussion of whether Daoud’s effort to correct the record, to view the same set of circumstances from the perspective of “the Arab” Camus deliberately ignored or downplayed shed new light or opened new “doors” on the remnants of colonialism that  still reverberate in France. Yet it was the Hilary Mantel short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and excerpts from Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady, that aroused the liveliest interchanges. Mantel is meticulous in her chronicling of street life and in dramatizing whether to admit a supposed plumber to make “repairs” even as she realizes that the IRA intruder is trying to avenge the death of Bobby Sands. 

Streep’s equally meticulous reconstruction of Margaret Thatcher’s voice and mannerisms echoes Mantel’s achievement. Doors become an obstacle as dementia sets in and family and friends have to decide whether to sustain Thatcher’s illusions or delusions. Mantel once described Thatcher as a “male impersonator”. Predictably, politicians like David Cameron excoriated her for doing so. (Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon might take note.)

The addition of “stranger” or outlier to the mix of course themes helped emphasize how and why politics could be implicit or explicit in driving character or plot developments and why it matters. The murderous history of Chechnya, a place ripe with shifting tribal enmities and perpetual “dark times”, has required men and women to reconstitute haphazard daily life in Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Characters like Sonja and Akmed discuss American and Soviet/Russian politics on tense rides to and from Grozny for scarce supplies including dental floss for intricate surgeries. They compare the two “superpowers” as they navigate crude check points where bribes are expected and paid. Such ”deals” (p. 71) make even humble routines almost impossible. The time ranges back and forth from 1994 to 2004.

Space, too, is flexible, especially in Marra’s nine part short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, where flawed characters like Galina are introduced in one place like Leningrad and then reappear elsewhere in other roles in later stories. Art work of mediocre quality passes from hand to hand as the “naming” of individuals becomes crucial, much as it did in Camus’s novel and Daoud’s reply. Marra introduces several narrators of obvious unreliability as a literary device to highlight the turbulent political history of the entire region.

Kanan Makiya’s novel, The Rope, includes Saddam Hussein as a leading character, the better to serve as Makiya’s own apologia for his support of George W. Bush’s Iraq war when he was writing under the pseudonym Samir al Khalil and exposing the cruelties of the Baghdad regime. The book’s format allows Makiya to use fiction to tell the story of betrayals and cover

ups that marked the Shia rise to power and their subsequent incapacity to share power with Sunni Arabs and Kurds. His insistence on  the “agency” of Iraq citizens is a refreshing antidote to the blaming of Americans for the rampant score settling and the endless airing of grievances.

Hisham Matar, in writing both a second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance and a memoir, The Return, traces other aspects of the fractious Middle East. In both selections, places like Cairo,Tripoli, and Nairobi, become characters. The author’s numerous relatives visit but conceal what they know about the writer’s father who led a secret life in Europe as well as his “official” one in Egypt, Paris and Libya. Uncovering these mysteries becomes a compulsion as Matar emphasizes that literature is a way of transcending both borders and “the self”. His surviving parent asks pointedly who is returning to Libya: Sulem or Nuri as she names the protagonists of both Matar’s novels. As he ponders his response, he writes that literature’s main value is to “disrupt”  authoritarian narratives, a sentiment with which Makiya and Marra would agree, as would Daoud and Mantel.

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a Pulitzer prize winning novel, offers a portrait of the United States in the era that culminates in the social unrest of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Its depiction of upper middle class Jewish life in New Jersey is based on the invented life of “Swede” Levov, an athlete and businessman, who first loses his wife and then his only child to “forces” he cannot control or even comprehend. The  deliberate pace of the novel is in sharp contrast to the film, one that took over a decade to produce as actors and directors went on to other projects. Like so many other adaptations, the film stresses action rather than the introspection that gives the novel its importance.

Amoz Oz’s Judas and Ward Just’s Forgetfulness are two other novels that take politics, places and generational betrayals into subtle realms of speculation or “what ifs”. Each of these books has a back and forth time and space structure that allows for extended discussions of counter-factual opportunities, of paths taken and not taken by political leaders. Set in earlier decades, each raises long standing questions of what has happened to the “novel of ideas”. Each displays, albeit indirectly, how contemporary writers cope with broad demographic and technological shifts. Both authors show how incremental political change and resulting arguments alter understandings of who belongs to particular communities and who does not. Israel (Oz) and France (Just) are more than convenient backdrops.

Yet to read these novels in a prevailing atmosphere of nationalism and xenophobia is especially rewarding, particularly Judas, where the three main personae remain stuck in time warps of their own making as they try to convert others to their political “values”. By alternating the Judas plot and the more recent one, Oz’s historically named Ash, Atalia and Wald re-enact the author’s “altered” betrayal of the Judas story. Oz is masterful in sharpening political references to the 1930s and 1950s. Phrases like “you wanted a state” are perfectly timed to celebrate or lament the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War of 1967.

Paradoxically, it is in these “uncertain” times, when American political “leadership” seems unusually fragmented, when official rhetoric is often hostile but some actual policies do carry over from one administration to another with only slight modification, that fiction is a surer guide than the perpetual rants and antics coming from the White House.

The stage is set for revisiting Vietnam in 2018 when we will explore if Josephine Livingstone, a critic of the lead author, Viet Than Nyguen, is right when she claims that: “sometimes a writer must wait and remember until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.”

Linda B. Miller, Wellesley College and Argentia Editorial Team

Matthew Hill