I. A Terribly Attractive Man
I probably first heard the name Qaddafi on the radio, from NPR, an always present background noise in my childhood. But the name only acquired meaning when I heard it uttered by my Great Aunt in a stage whisper to my mother: “That Mr. Qaddafi is terribly attractive!” She hissed, more than once. The A’s in Mr. Qaddafi’s name were flattened as with Sir John Gielgud intoning, “Mr. Gandhi.” My Great Aunt was well over six feet tall, a raven-haired beauty in her day, and a force to be reckoned with at all times. I imagine her commenting on the physical loveliness of Mr. Qaddafi while running her hand along her pearls, her dark eyes flashing naughtily, her lower jaw jutting out to make an emphatic point in her native lockjaw. I must have been around ten years old, and she in her lower seventies. The fact that such whispered pronouncements were not meant for my ears, though fully audible, was brought home to me by the many unsuitable stories she liked to tell my mother at that same volume. Most memorable of these was a lengthy narrative from her youth about being greeted by a surly abortionist clad in a bloodstained apron after climbing a narrow tenement staircase in New York when she sought to terminate an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Sitting a few feet away with a book opened in my lap, I always pretended to read as she stage-whispered one startling story after the next on winter’s evenings when we went to dine at her house.
Over the years I paid little attention to Qaddafi though his name gained additional accretions of meaning in my mental inventory. He was not just terribly attractive, but was also the insane dictator who harbors terrorists, sleeps in a tent, and wraps himself in flamboyant robes. It was not until the current uprising began that I began to pay closer attention– already an Egyptian revolution addict, I was sprawled on my voyeur’s divan hoping for another drama to unfold that would be just as thrilling and edifying as Egypt. As things began to go poorly, and as the situation became more confusing and our Peacemaker-in-Chief began to play drone video games with the Qaddafis, I started to look for more information about Libya. The tweets and articles of Libyan author Hisham Matar were compelling, and I ordered his 2006 novel In the Country of Men.
Thence began one of the most difficult reading experiences I have undertaken in a long time. In the Country of Men is beautifully written, spare and precise, and it does the novel a great disservice to speak of it as merely a source text for insight into the Qaddafi regime and the history undergirding the current situation in Libya. But the portrait painted of the pervasive and chilling influence of a powerful dictator is disturbing beyond belief and does much to dispel the opera buffa caricatures of Qaddafi in the Western media. This is, indirectly, and through the eyes of a narrator looking back on his childhood, a portrait of how a shrewd and powerful man managed to effectively infiltrate the homes, families and consciousnesses of his people so effectively that he was capable of shattering family units, neighborhoods, communities.
Two scenes stand out. One, in which the narrator, a child, watches the interrogation of a family friend and neighbor that is being televised. As with most transmissions on Libyan state TV, this program is bracketed by static images of pink flowers. Brutality nests in a soothing field of blossoms. It is said, the narrator observes, that the Guide has his own controls of the broadcasting system, and can switch on and off the images that his people see in their living rooms. The other scene features a phone call. There are more often than not, it seems, people listening in on phone conversations. But they are not merely mutely recording calls. They sometimes interfere, speak up, persuade. During one conversation between the narrator and a comrade of his father’s, a third voice insinuates itself into the conversation making remarks about the beauty of the narrator’s mother and asking questions about her alcoholism. These are just two of many examples of how the regime tampers with the lives and mental health of its citizens. This psychological control seems almost more devastating than the aggressive brutality of the state. Almost, but not quite. State TV also broadcasts executions of ‘traitors’ of the regime. Haplessly sitting in one’s living room, one can suddenly be subjected to the sight of a physically tortured human hanging to death while a stadium-full of people cheers its support.
It took me months to read this short novel because I could not bear the narrative tension. The way in which the story unfurled, the family unit disintegrated, and the state became more powerful than ever felt inevitable but worth avoiding as a reader. The palpable psychological control of Qaddafi’s regime makes one experience the suffocation and dismantling of the characters in a most uncomfortable fashion. This is the man that NATO is ineffectually attempting to take out, that rebels have shown great bravery in attacking. He is not a clown in a tent, he is a military mastermind in a bunker. There’s no doubt that he planned for, even expected the current turn of events. After reading In the Country of Men, it’s hard not to wish for his annihilation. And yet.
II. A Missed Opportunity
As a child, I was often seated at dinner parties next to an elderly gentleman with whom most other guests did not wish to converse. It was clear that he, a bit dull, and I, a child, were being pushed off into corner dead spaces so as not to ruin the flow of conversation. This gentleman was married to a younger woman whose sparkling wit and snappy repartee were a must at any smart dinner table. And thus her husband had to be tolerated. In anticipation of this recurring arrangement, my mother began to coach me in the car rides to dinner: “He enjoys history. Ask him what his favorite historical event was.” “He likes to play golf, ask him how is day on the course went.” I don’t remember his responses, or even if I got up the courage to ask him any of these questions. Last month, on the death of his wife (he had died years before), I learned from her obituary that he had been a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials. This fact would have meant nothing to me at the time, but now I felt confronted with an enormous missed opportunity. I have so many questions for him now.
When recently reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, I could not help but wonder if guests at the American Embassy’s terrible barbecue that the author imagines so vividly now sigh over the opportunities they missed by avoiding chatting with that crashing bore Osama bin Laden. In Hanif’s telling, bin Laden is a maladroit guest who lists about unsuccessfully trying to strike up conversations with important people. He is a teetotaling version of Peter Sellers in The Party, with the dénouement of his role in this particular party occurring many years later and extra-textually.
History is rife with Frankensteinian examples of the United States going to spectacular lengths to destroy the monsters it has gone to spectacular lengths to create. While bin Laden was one such monster, General Zia, the central focus of Mangoes, appears not to have been, to the discredit of our government. Zia, the planter of many ghastly seeds that continue to bear fruit to this day (among these fruits, the system which was able so handily to harbor Mr. bin Laden in his twilight years), Hanif weaves a Murder on the Orient Express-like web of motivations for the assassination of Zia, wherein the actual crashing of the aircraft that carried him was merely one of many knife-thrusts to his by then barely beating heart. None of his would-be assassins is American, however, and Very Important Americans go down with him when his plane crashes. Indeed, Zia is even infested by an internal army of tapeworms that could conceivably have taken him down. The godly stature of dictators lends them a very real air of immortality it seems, and their Rasputinish ability to escape death adds to the mythos that surrounds their persons. General Pervez Musharraf, for example, happily trots out story after story of his own nine lives in his memoir.
In Maria Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, it takes a carload of assassins, each of whom harbors a hair-raising revenge motive, to gun down General Trujillo as he drives to an evening’s assignation. The assassins are backed not only by the United States and the Catholic church but also by members of Trujillo’s own inner circle. The car, the driver, and the General are riddled with bullets, but Vargas Llosa has also imagined Trujillo as afflicted with prostate problems and impotence, conditions which are destroying his ability to satisfy his legendary libido. The truly awful dénouement, which is not his assassination, is a rape and deflowering by the impotent dictator of a young girl, offered up to him by an out-of-favor vassal. Vargas Llosa seems to imagine this moment as both a tribute to Trujillo’s numerous sexual victims and a metaphor for the way in which the old man was able to continue to screw over his people long after his real power was gone.
III. A Brand New Kind of Poetry
It is the peculiar challenge faced by the artist that he must continually come up with ideas that are wholly new and original. Yet once he is successful, he must also conform to expectations of his distinctive imprimatur. One of the dangers of fame, my father always likes to say, is that you can end up ‘doing yourself,’ by which he means that artists cursed with fame and renown run the risk of feeding public expectations by producing art that is imitative of their own most successful works. With fame, the works of Joe Smith become Joe Smithesque, pastiches of that Joe Smith style we’ve all come to know and love.
A similar challenge is faced by torturers. How to be creative enough to extract new information from detainees? To truly break a person’s spirit? What if the victim is jaded? Has seen and heard it all? What if he is even desensitized to torture? And furthermore, to combine these two propositions, how does a novelist write about torture in a manner that is uniquely horrifying but not the stuff of horror films? How does a creative writer create a creative torturer that shakes his complacent reader to the core but does not cause that reader to drop the book in revulsion? There will be humiliation, physical pain, rows of instruments, dark fetid chambers covered with disturbing stains. Some regimes will have particular trademark features to their torture regimens: ‘the chair,’ ‘the clamps,’ etc. As with the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, one’s initial horrified reaction can become dulled and desensitized. It’s natural to push our reaction to a psychologically acceptable position where we will not be in a position to feel tormented by disturbing information.
In succession I read A Case of Exploding Mangoes, In the Country of Men, The Feast of the Goat. Each one featured at least a modicum of torture. The Feast of the Goat featured a whole lot of torture. Just about enough torture to make it tortuous to read about the torture. I recall reading somewhere (Wikipedia, perhaps?) that Vargas Llosa included a great deal of realistic torture in his novel about Trujillo as an antidote to the tendency among Latin American fabulists to use magical realism to discuss the excesses of dictatorial regimes. Vargas Llosa chose instead to use regular realism to discuss these things. The result is both disturbing and strangely dull; there’s just a touch of Human Rights Watch report about the pacing of the narrative. Virtually every assassin and conspirator implicated in the murder of Trujillo is hunted down, incarcerated and tortured. Each torture is documented, as is each death. The narrative is part fiction and part accounting. It eventually wears thin, though the novel clearly serves a particular purpose that has nothing to do with creative work.
I later, on the advice of a friend who learned I was reading lots of novels about torture, read a slim novel by Naguib Mahfouz called Karnak Café. The novel concerns the habitués of a cafe in Cairo under the regime of Nasser. The narrator observes the slow crumbling of a social circle of young students as they are imprisoned, tortured and released in several rounds of purges of ‘enemies’ of the revolution. Eventually the social circle, reduced in its numbers, is reconstituted, the bonds between its members badly damaged. One day the man who has tortured them all, their direct torturer, appears in the cafe himself. In the interim, he too has been arrested and tortured. He is no longer part of the regime; through experience, he has become one of them. They are jaded, all of them, and they accept him with a strange equanimity. An encounter that one might imagine to be fraught and horrifying feels almost flat.
The strange flatness of affect in parts of The Feast of the Goat and Karnak Café make the not magical realism but certainly not conventional realism of Roberto Bolaño an excellent antidote. In Bolaño’s short novel Distant Star set during the beginning of the Pinochet regime in Chile, a character appears in a group of young poets who promises that he will totally change the nature of Chilean poetry. [Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD] The character turns out to be a bright young regime apparatchik and torturer whose wholly original poetic interventions include arresting most of the poets, murdering the most attractive women poets, sky-writing portions of Genesis in Latin for admiring crowds of fascist regime supporters, and creating an installation of photographs and poems documenting his torture and murder of women poets. Bolaño’s off-the-wall imagining of a revolutionary poet who uses torture and death as his art perfectly captures the torturer’s conundrum by marrying it to the conundrum of the writer or artist. How to create a signature style that is utterly new yet clearly one’s own? It’s classic Bolaño.