Image credit: Goodbye to All That, curated by Lavinia Greenlaw, published by Pushkin Press
‘I look at the line of men with the rifles aimed. It’s just another random image. I’m looking at it and I’m feeling nothing. If I look at it much longer something in my brain will close over and may never open again.’
There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.
Did you know about this? I say to my father. There was a German linguist who went round the prisoner-of-war camps in the First World War with a recording device, a big horn-like thing like on gramophones, making shellac recordings of all the British and Irish accents he could find.
Oh, the first war, my father says. Well, I wasn’t born.
I know, I say. He interviewed hundreds of men, and what he’d do is, he’d ask them all to read a short passage from the Bible or say a couple of sentences or sing a song.
My father starts singing when he hears the word song. Oh play to me Gypsy. That sweet serenade.
He sings the first bit in a low voice then the next bit in a high voice. In both he’s wildly out of tune.
Listen, I say. He made recordings that are incredibly important now, because so many of the accents the men speak in have completely disappeared. Sometimes an accent would be significantly different, across even as little as the couple of miles between two places. And so many of those dialects have just gone. Died out.
Well girl that’s life in’t it? my father says.
He says it in his northern English accent still even though he himself is dead; I should make it clear here that my father’s been dead for five years. We don’t tend to talk much (not nearly as much as I do with my mother, who’s been dead for nearly twenty-five years). I think this might be because my father, in his eighties when he went, left the world very cleanly, like a man who goes out one summer morning in just his shirtsleeves knowing he won’t be needing a jacket that day.
I open my computer and get the page up where, if you click on the links, you can hear some of these recorded men. I play a couple of the Prodigal Son readings, the Aberdonian man and the man from somewhere in Yorkshire. The air round them cracks and hisses as loud as the dead men’s voices, as if it’s speaking too.
So I want to write this piece about the first war, I tell my father.
And I want it to be about voice, not image, because everything’s image these days and I have a feeling we’re getting farther and farther away from human voices, and I was quite interested in maybe doing something about those recordings. But it looks like I can’t find out much else about them unless I go to the British Library, I say.
Silence (because he thinks I’m being lazy, I can tell, and because he thinks what I’m about to do next is really lazy too).
I do it anyway. I type the words First World War into an online search and go to Images, to see what comes up at random.
Austrians executing Serbs 1917. JPG. Description: English: World War 1 execution squad. Original caption: “Austria’s Atrocities. Blindfolded and in a kneeling position, patriotic Jugo-Slavs in Serbia near the Austrian lines were arranged in a semicircle and ruthlessly shot at a command.” Photo by Underwood and Underwood. (War Dept.) EXACT DATE SHOT UNKNOWN NARA FILE: 165-WW-179A-8 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK no. 691 (Released to Public).
There’s a row of uniformed men standing in a kind of choreographed curve, a bit like a curve of dancers in a Busby Berkeley. They’re holding their rifles three feet, maybe less, away from another curved row of men facing them, kneeling, blindfolded, white things over their eyes, their arms bound behind their backs. The odd thing is, the men with the rifles are all standing between two railway tracks, which curve as well, and they stretch away out of the picture, men and rails, like it could be for miles.
It resembles the famous Goya picture. But it also looks modern, because of the tracks.
There’s a white cloud of dust near the centre of the photo because some of these kneeling men are actually in the process of being shot as the photo’s being taken (EXACT DATE SHOT). And then there are the pointed spikes hammered in the ground in front of every one of the kneeling prisoners. So that when you topple the spike will go through you too. In case you’re not dead enough after the bullet.
Was never a one for musicals, me, my father says.
What? I say.
Never did like, ah, what’s his name, either. Weaselly little man.
Astaire, I say.
Aye, him, he says.
You’re completely wrong, I say. Fred Astaire was a superb dancer. (This is an argument we’ve had many times.) One of the best dancers of the twentieth century.
My father ignores me and starts singing about caravans and gypsies again. I’ll be your vagabond, he sings. Just for tonight.
I look at the line of men with the rifles aimed. It’s just another random image. I’m looking at it and I’m feeling nothing. If I look at it much longer something in my brain will close over and may never open again.
Anyway, you know all about it already. You don’t need me. You did it years ago, my father says, at the high school.
Did what? I say.
First World War, he says.
So I did, I say. I’d forgotten.
Do you remember the nightmares you had? he says.
No, I say.
With the giant man made of mud in them, the man much bigger than the earth?
No, I say.
It’s when you were anti-nuclear, he says. Remember? There was all the nuclear stuff leaking onto the beach in Caithness. Oh, you were very up in arms. And you were doing the war, same time.
I don’t. I don’t remember that at all.
What I remember is that we were taught history by a small, sharp man who was really clever, we knew he’d got a first at university, and he kept making a joke none of us understood, Lloyd George knew my father he kept saying, and we all laughed when he did though we’d no idea why. That year was First World War, Irish Famine and Russian Revolution; next year was Irish Home Rule and Italian and German Unifications, and the books we studied were full of grainy photographs of piles of corpses whatever the subject.
One day a small girl came in and gave Mr MacDonald a slip of paper saying, Please sir, she’s wanted at the office, and he announced to the class the name of one of our classmates: Carolyn Stead. We all looked at each other and the whisper went round the class: Carolyn’s dead! Carolyn’s dead!
Ha ha! my father says.
We thought we were hilarious, with our books open at pages like the one with the mustachioed men, black as miners, sitting relaxing in their open-necked uniforms round the cooking pot in the mud that glistened in huge petrified sea waves over their heads. Mr MacDonald had been telling us about how men would be having their soup or stew and would dip the serving spoon in, and out would come a horse hoof or a boot with a foot still in it.
We learnt about the arms race. We learnt about Dreadnoughts.
Meanwhile, some German exchange students came, from a girls’ school in Augsburg.
Oh they were right nice girls, the German girls, my father says.
I remember not liking my exchange student at all. She had a coat made of rabbit hair that moulted over everything it touched, and a habit of picking her nose. But I don’t tell him that. I tell him, instead, something I was too ashamed to say to him or my mother out loud at the time, about how one of the nights we were walking home from school with our exchange partners a bunch of boys followed us shouting the word Nazi and doing Hitler salutes. The Augsburg girls were nonplussed. They were all in terrible shock anyway, because the TV series called Holocaust had aired in Germany for the first time just before they came. I remember them trying to talk about it. All they could do was open their mouths and their eyes wide and shake their heads.
My father’d been in that war, in the Navy. He never spoke about it either though sometimes he still had nightmares, leave your father, he had a bad night, our mother would say (she’d been in it too, joined the WAF in 1945 as soon as she was old enough). My brothers and sisters and I knew that his own father had been in the First World War, had been gassed, had survived, had come back ill and had died young, which was why our father had had to leave school at thirteen.
He was a nice man, poor man, he said once when I asked him about his father. He wasn’t well. His lungs were bad. When he died himself, in 2009, my brother unearthed a lot of old photographs in his house. One is of thirty men all standing, sitting and lying on patchy grass round a set of First World War tents. Some are in dark uniform, the others are in thick white trousers and jackets and one man’s got a Red Cross badge on both his arms. They’re all arranged round a sign saying SHAVING AND CUTTING TENT, next to a man in a chair, his head tipped back and his chin covered in foam. There’s a list of names on the back. The man on the grass third from the left must be my grandfather.
We’d never even seen a picture of him till then. One day, in the 1950s, after my parents had been married for several years, a stranger knocked at the door and my mother opened it and the stranger said my father’s name and asked did he live here and my mother said yes, and the stranger said, who are you, and my mother said, I’m his wife, who’re you? and the stranger said, pleased to meet you, I’m his brother. My father said almost nothing when it came to the past. My mother the same. The past was past. After my mother died, and when the Second World War was on TV all the time in anniversary after anniversary (fifty years since the start, fifty years since the end, sixty years since the start, sixty years since the end), he began to tell us one or two things that had happened to him, like about the men who were parachuted in for the invasion of Sicily (my father was an electrician on one of the warships going towards Italy) but by mistake were dropped too far out from land so the sea was full of them, their heads in the water and the ships couldn’t stop, you couldn’t just stop a warship, we waved to them, we called down to them, we told them we’d be back for them, but we knew we wouldn’t and so did they.
Now I tell my father, who’s five years dead, you know, I wrote to the Imperial War Museum recently about that old picture with your dad in it, and I asked them whether the white clothes he’s wearing meant anything special, a hospital worker or something, and a man wrote back and told me maybe your dad was an Army baker but that to know for sure we’d need Service records and that the problem with that is that sixty per cent of First World War Army records were burnt and lost in a German raid in 1940.
Things get lost all the time, girl, he says.
Do you know if he was a baker, maybe? I say.
My grandfather doesn’t look much like my father in the picture, but he looks very like one of my brothers. I’ve no idea what he saw in his war. God knows. There’s no way of knowing. I’ll never know what his voice sounded like. I suppose it must have sounded a bit like my father’s. I suppose his voice was in my father’s head much like my father’s is in mine. I wonder if he could sing.
Red sails in the sunset, my father sings right now, out of tune (or maybe to his own tune). Way out on the sea.
Gas!—GAS!—quick, boys! That was the Wilfred Owen poem. In it, gas was written first in small letters then in capitals, which, when I was at school, I’d thought very clever, because of the way the realization that the gas was coming, or the shouts about it got louder the nearer it came.
Oh carry my loved one. Home safely to me.
And Owen had convalesced, and met his friend Siegfried Sassoon, and learnt to write a whole other kind of poetry from his early rather purple sonnets, at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, which was close to home, even though Edinburgh was itself a far country to me, at fifteen, in Inverness, when I first read Owen.
He sailed at the dawning. All day I’ve been blue.
My father’s voice is incredibly loud, so loud that I’m finding it hard to think anything about anything. I try to concentrate. There was a thing I read recently, a tiny paragraph in theInternational New York Times, about a rare kind of fungus found nowhere else in the UK, but discovered growing in the grounds of Craiglockhart and believed by experts to have been brought there from mainland Europe on the boots of the convalescing soldiers. Microscopic spores on those boots, and weeks, months, years later—the life.
But I can’t even think about that because:
Red sails in the sunset. I’m trusting in you.
I sing back, quite loud too, a song of my own choice.
War is stupid. And people are stupid.
Don’t think much of your words, my father says. Or your tune. That’s not a song. Who in God’s name sang that?
Boy George, I say. Culture Club.
Boy George. God help us, my father says.
The 1984 version of Wilfred Owen, I say.
Hardly, he says. Boy George never saw a war. Christ. What a war would’ve done to him.
Wilfred Owen was gay too, you know, I say. I say it because I know it will annoy him. But he doesn’t take the bait. Instead:
People aren’t stupid. It’s that song that’s stupid, he says.
It’s not a stupid song, I say.
You got that Wilfred Owen book as a school prize, he says.
Oh yes, so I did, I say.
You chose it yourself at Melvens, he says. First prize for German. 1978.
How do you even remember all this stuff? I say. And really. What does it matter, what prize I ever got for anything?
You were good at German, he says. Should’ve kept on with your languages. Should’ve learnt them all while you had the chance, girl. You still could. I wish I’d had the chance. You listening to me?
No, cause you never listen, he says. And you were learning Greek last year—
How do you even know that? You’re supposed to be dead, I say.
—and gave it up, didn’t you? he says. As soon as it got too difficult.
The past and the future were hard, I say.
Start it again, he says in my ear.
Can’t afford it, I say.
Yes you can, he says. It’s worth it. And you don’t know the first thing about what it means not to be able to afford something.
I’m too old, I say.
Learn anything, any age, he says. Don’t be stupid. Don’t waste it.
While I’m trying to think of other songs I can sing so I don’t have to listen to him (Broken English? Marianne Faithfull? It’s just an old war. It’s not my reality)—
Here, lass, he says. Culture Club!
What about them? I say.
That fungus! In that hospital, he says. Ha ha!
Oh—ha! I say.
And you could write your war thing, he says, couldn’t you, about when you were the voice captain.
When I was the what? I say.
And you had to lay the wreath at the Memorial. With that boy who was the piper at your school. The voice captain for the boys. Lived out at Kiltarlity. His dad was the policeman.
Oh, vice-captain, I say.
Aye, well. Vice, voice. You got to be it and that’s the whole point, he says. Isn’t it? Write about that.
No, I say.
Well don’t then, he says.
It was a bitter-cold Sunday, wet and misty, dismal, dreich, everything as dripping and grey as only Inverness in November can be; we stood at the Memorial by the river in our uniforms with the Provost and his wife and some people from the council and the British Legion, and we each stepped forward in turn below all the names carved on it to do this thing, the weight of which, the meaning and resonance of which I didn’t really understand, though I’d thought I knew all about war and the wars, until I got home after it and my parents sat me down in the warm back room with a kindness that was quiet and serious, made me a mug of hot chocolate then sat with me in a silence, not companionable, more mindful than that, assiduous.
Damn. Look at that. I just wrote about it even though I was trying not to.
It’s a relief.
That image of the soldiers on the railway tracks is still on the screen of my computer.
I click off it and look up some pictures of Inverness War Memorial instead. Red sandstone, I’d forgotten how very red. I never knew before, either, that it was unveiled in winter 1922, in front of a crowd of 5,000. Imagine the riverbanks, the crowd. I’m pretty sure I never knew, either, till now, and it’s a shock to, that one in every seven men from Inverness who fought in the First World War died, or that the Scottish Highlands had the highest casualty rate, per capita, of the whole of Europe.
Then from God knows where my father says:
And do you remember, girl, when we drove around all that Sunday for the project you were doing at university, and you needed to record people speaking for it, but no one would stop and speak to you?
Yes! I say. Ha ha!
It was for a linguistics class. I’d wanted to test out something I’d been told all through my growing-up, that the people in and around Inverness spoke the best English. I’d made him ferry me round the town and all the villages between Ardersier and Beauly trying to stop random people and get them to speak sentences into a tape recorder so I could measure the pureness of their vowels. For a start it was a Sunday, so there was no one much out and about. But you know why it’s called the best English, one of the three passers-by who did stop when I asked said into the microphone. It’s because of the Jacobite wars with the English, because in the late 1700s when they banned the Gaelic—which was all anybody spoke here—and they moved the troops into Fort George and Fort Augustus and the soldiers intermarried with all the local girls, then the English that got spoken was a Gaelic-inflected English.
Inflected, my father says now as if he’s turning the word over in his mouth.
That’s it. I have a clever idea.
I go to the shelf and take down my Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Its spine is broken and pages 187—208 are falling out of it.
I take a blank page and a pencil.
I flick through the book and I make a list of everything I’ve happened to underline in it over the years.
Consciousness: in that rich earth: for the last time: a jolting lump: feet that trod him down: the eyeless dead: posturing giants: an officer came blundering: gasping and bawling: you make us shells: very real: silent: salient: nervous: snow-dazed: sun-dozed: became a lump of stench, a clot of meat: blood-shod: gas shells dropping softly behind: ecstasy of fumbling: you too: children: the holy glimmers of goodbyes: waiting for dark: voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn: a god in kilts: God through mud: I have perceived much beauty: hell: hell: alleys cobbled with their brothers: the philosophy: I’m blind: pennies on my eyes: piteous recognition: the pity war distilled: I try not to remember these things now: people in whose voice real feeling rings: end of the world: less chanced than you for life: oaths Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice: many crowns of thorns: emptied of God-ancestralled essences: the great sunk silences: roots in the black blood: titan: power: in thirteen days I’ll probably be dead: memories that make only a single memory: I hear you still: soldiers who sing these days.
I read it. A man of mud and sadness rises like a great wave, like a great cloud much bigger than the earth, like an animation from a Ministry of Information film, amateur, jerky, terrifying, made of spores, bones, stone, feet still in their boots, dead horses, steel. He speaks with all the gone voices. He is a roaring silence. There are slices of railway track sticking out of his thighs and wrists.
I’m in tears.
The men in that picture were shooting people so close to them that they could have reached forward and touched them without even moving their feet, and the dust simply rose in the air as the people got shot.
My father jogs my elbow.
Come on, girl, he says.
He sings the song as loud as he can in his Gracie Fields falsetto.
Sticking out my chest, hopin’ for the best.
He waits for me to sing.
War is stupid, I sing again.
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye, he sings. Cheerio, here I go, on my way.
He waves. I wave.
Say it in broken English, I sing back.
‘Why should I have to consider my own nation, religion, complexion when reading? Surely the whole point of reading was that fiction had nothing to do with a person’s lived experience? ’
I should start by saying I had the happiest of childhoods. This assertion is necessary, and I ask you to continue to refer back to it, because it may otherwise get lost amidst the dictators, house arrests, dead dogs and watercress fantasies that follow.
My earliest narrative memory—by which I mean a linked series of moments rather than a sensation or a single image—takes place not in Karachi, the setting of almost all my childhood, but in London. It’s fairly unremarkable as childhood memories go: lost on an unfamiliar street, aged just under three. It was the middle of a summer holiday and some babysitter, whom I remember not at all, had taken four children between the ages of three and eight on an outing, and couldn’t find her way home. I remember the feeling of panic, followed by relief when my father leant out of a window across the street and waved at us. Years later it occurred to me that the babysitter, whom I had long thought of as singularly incompetent for getting lost mere feet away from her destination, had been stymied—as I so often am, now that I live in London—by a street on which every building looks the same and buzzers yield no more information than “Flat 7” and “Flat 8” and “Flat 9”. It’s a disappointment to me, this memory, because it relegates to second place the memory which I would far prefer to claim as the first thing I remember when I think in terms of narrative.
While that first memory can be located only in “summer 1976”, the date of this second memory exists in the history books so I am able to pin it down to 7th March 1977. In the hallway of the house we lived in then, my father shows me the black stamp on his finger pad. There is sunlight coming through the long windows. He’s been to vote, he explains to me, and although I don’t yet know that I live in a country where this right has been rare, and will soon disappear again, I understand he’s telling me something important. The stamp won’t wash off for days, he says, so no one can vote more than once without their thumb giving them away. Then he says he’s voted for my uncle, a politician in opposition to the incumbent party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Do you think your uncle would make a good prime minister? he asks me. Although I don’t say as much what I think is how would I know? I’m three years old.
A few months later my first long sequence of memories is formed, spanning days rather than minutes. With my parents and sister I travel to the north of Pakistan to visit my uncle in the hill town of Abbottabad. The elections have led to a military coup. Bhutto is in prison and my uncle under house arrest. On the way to see him we stop in Murree, another pretty hill town where I see snow for the first time. One night while we are there, I turn on the TV to watch the highlight of my weekly viewing, Little House on the Prairie. But instead of Laura Ingalls Wilder there is General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the President who has imprisoned my uncle, addressing the nation at such length that the transmission of Little House on the Prairie is cancelled. It is from this moment that I become aware of despising the military dictator.
From Murree we travel to Abbottabad. (Many years later the English-speaking world will do everything possible to mangle the straightforward pronunciation of this town, named after an Englishman named Abbott, in order to make the place where Osama Bin Laden was killed sound as foreign as possible.) In the car my father explains that we have had to receive permission from the government to visit my uncle—and there, as we reach our destination, are two men in uniform who ask for our names, check them against a list, peer into the car and open the gate for us. It feels thrilling.
I have little sympathy for my uncle’s predicament. He has a book-lined library, and a garden which seems as vast as a park to a four-year-old (the next time I visit, aged eleven, I’ll be amazed at the ordinariness of its size). I wouldn’t mind being under house arrest, I decide, if the house were this house. But the next day, or the day after, there’s a picnic in the hills surrounding Abbottabad. My aunt is in the car with my parents, sister and me as the uniformed men open the gate and let us drive out. I turn around and see my uncle, waving goodbye to us from the driveway.
He doesn’t know when he’ll ever be able to get into a car and drive out again, I think. It is my first moment of empathy, my first attempt to imagine how it must feel to inhabit someone else’s skin. In that, it is the moment of awakening for the novelist in me. And, relatedly, this particular narrative-memory, with its span of time, its sub-plots, its character development, is the first of my life which I can think of as “novelistic”.
Of course, all these firsts (and seconds) I recall have more to do with the myth I’ve created about my own life than with the truth of what I experienced between the ages of three and four. There must have been a thousand wounds and joys that seemed far more significant than elections and house arrests— and missing Little House on the Prairie would have been all about Laura Ingalls Wilder and not at all about General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. Even so, this is the narrative I’ve inhabited all my adult life: my own personal Origin Story.
It may come as no surprise, then, that my first novel, In the City by the Sea, told the story of a young boy whose uncle is under house arrest. The political strand of that novel started via a letter I was writing to a friend while at university, recalling that visit to Abbottabad: Despite the fear and uncertainty that must have pervaded my uncle’s house what I remember most clearly about that winter was the smell of pine cones. And then I wrote Hmmm… that sounds like the opening line of something. For a long time a minor variation of that was the opening line of the novel, though eventually it became the first line of the second chapter. (I regret the use of “pervades” now.) There was almost nothing directly autobiographical in the novel other than the smell of pine cones, but I did have a child watching a man under house arrest waving goodbye to a departing car—and the look on Salman Mamoo’s face was that of a man who watches a car drive through his gate and knows he may forever have to stand on the driveway and wave to it, goodbye.
I was only twenty-one when I started to work on In the City by the Sea and it’s impossible now for me to look back and separate the writing of the novel from the writing of my Origin Story. Which came first? Did the novel reveal truths about the events of childhood which had deeply ingrained themselves into my psyche, or did I construct a fictional version of my own childhood in the process of writing the novel? It doesn’t particularly seem to matter. What mattered was how early in my writing life I came to link Pakistan and its politics to memory and narrative.
Except, twenty-one wasn’t really so early in my writing life. I was nine when I first declared I would be a writer and eleven when my best friend and I embarked upon a co-authored novel about dog heaven titled “A Dog’s Life, and After” (I remain impressed by the comma, though I suspect that was the work of my best friend in whose handwriting that title, with punctuation, appears on the first page of the school exercise book in which we wrote it). We’d both had pet dogs who had died recently—the death of Topsy was a far more significant and traumatic event in my childhood than military coups or imprisoned uncles. When that was done, we wrote another novel about a time machine, in which our characters encountered Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. And then I branched out into a solo act with two fantasy novels which were set in green and pleasant lands which looked nothing like the world around me and came straight out of the Tolkien-inspired fantasy novels I was reading at the time.
I wrote the first fantasy novel before General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a plane crash in August 1988, and the second after the elections which brought the thirty-five-year-old Benazir Bhutto to power. Those days leading up to the elections were a time of dizzying optimism. Karachi transformed into a vast party, with its own danceable soundtrack in the form of all the catchy election songs for the different political parties. Benazir’s party had the most catchy song of all. You wouldn’t know any of this was happening by reading my fantasy novels, in which princes were born to rule and those who opposed them were on the side of Wrong.
The truth is I didn’t know at the time how to bring the world around me and the world of the novel into conversation with each other. I grew up in Karachi, reading novels in English, which were all set in faraway places that bore no resemblance to the world I was in. Nothing stopped me from loving C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books in which the villains had dark complexions, curved scimitars and turbans. If those were the rules of this imagined world, so be it. Why should I have to consider my own nation, religion, complexion when reading? Surely the whole point of reading was that fiction had nothing to do with a person’s lived experience? What was there anyway in the world around me that could possibly be as interesting as the picnics and watercress sandwiches that filled the days of Enid Blyton’s characters? (The vast disappointment of discovering that “watercress” was merely some leafy green thing can hardly be expressed.)
But soon after the death of Zia-ul-Haq all this was to change. Was it merely a pleasant coincidence of timing that, just as one kind of openness was entering the political world, another kind was entering my reading life? This came via the writers on my mother’s bookshelf, who became of great interest to me as I approached the age of sixteen: Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Gabriel García Márquez, Angela Carter. The novel, I came to understand through these writers, was a vaster place than I had ever imagined, and could accommodate stories of all the nations of the world and their complicated histories and social intricacies. I’d had a glimpse of this at twelve when I read Anna Karenina but at that time I wasn’t yet ready to understand the lesson that Tolstoy’s world—so strangely familiar to me with its strictures and hypocrisies—was delivering. It would probably be accurate to say that at twelve I was simply too young to understand Tolstoy, let alone lessons about the novel form, but I want to make another claim about my inability, in childhood, to believe in new possibilities. At twelve, at fourteen, at fifteen I accepted the inevitability of the world as it was given to me. These were basic facts: Pakistan was a country under military rule; the English-language novel (which included Tolstoy as far as I was concerned) had no space in it for stories of Karachi. I was so convinced that nothing could change what I took for as one of life’s certainties that even when Zia died and the adults started to talk about elections and Benazir Bhutto I wondered how they could be so foolish.
And then I was wrong, and it was exhilarating. How could that exhilaration keep from diffusing through my bloodstream and affecting everything? How could it not be responsible for the sense of wonder and possibility that I allowed to be awakened in me by Rushdie and Desai and Carter and García Márquez? Anything was possible in history! Anything was possible in the novel!
So it continued: this entwining of Pakistan’s politics with my ideas of narrative and, therefore, the novel. Now it’s entirely clear to me how completely this is an intellectual construction and, simultaneously, that it’s one I’ve written and rewritten for so great a part of my life that I’ve made it the truth of who I am even if it wasn’t that to begin with.
My writing was suspended a few months into Benazir’s first term of office. There were O-levels to study for, novels to read, a social life to conduct, and then university to apply for. I tried to return to the fantasy genre, but ended up abandoning the book midway. I do, however, remember clearly the end I had in mind for that novel which was one of disillusionment: heroes were tarnished and victory had a bitter aftertaste. By this point Benazir’s first government had been ousted from power after eighteen disappointing months in government, and the new Prime Minister was a former protégé of Zia-ul-Haq. The worlds of my fiction and politics were beginning to draw closer together.
It was at university in America a year or two later that I began to write fiction set in Karachi. It started as an act of homesickness, but quickly established itself as the only way of writing that made sense. It was the way in which it allowed me to burrow down deep into the world I knew to find the raw material for my fiction. For several years my life was spent between two vastly disparate worlds—seven months of term time on bucolic East Coast campuses and five months in the increasingly violent and divided world of Karachi. Writing was the bridge. Whether on one continent or the other, part of my brain continually inhabited an imagined Karachi. This imagined Karachi took particular root in graduate school where, still on the East Coast, I started to work on In the City by the Sea.
Over the next ten years, one book followed the other as military rule, the Partition of India and Pakistan, the 1971 Civil War and Karachi’s present-day conflagration, the return of military rule, the legacy of the political activism of the ’80s all found a way into my first four novels. My life continued to be nomadic, with London joining Karachi and the East Coast as a place where I would stop for a season before moving somewhere else. But it was always Karachi, and the history and politics of Pakistan, that I wrote about—and it was in Karachi that I did most of my writing. I came increasingly to think of the city as essential to my work. Wherever else I might travel to, and wherever else my plots might transit through as characters moved into and out of Karachi, there was no denying the source and seat of my writing.
I still think of it as accidental that, after four Karachi novels, I ended up writing Burnt Shadows,which has a Japanese woman as its central character and opens in Nagasaki in 1945. I had thought I was writing a novel set in Karachi during the summer of 1998 when first India, then Pakistan, tested their nuclear bombs—but somehow it got away from me entirely. Through writing what I had thought would be a very short prologue in a place and time I didn’t know at all, I discovered the pleasure and deeply satisfying challenge of writing yourself from ignorance into familiarity rather than mining the stories you’d lived with your whole life. I didn’t immediately realize that I was severing the cord which had connected the most essential part of me—the writerly part—to the country of my birth and upbringing.
When the first draft of the novel was done, I realized I no longer had to be the nomad who always returned to Karachi to write. If I could write about Japan, I could write about anywhere—more specifically, I could write about places without spending a large part of the year there. And so I moved to London, the city which I loved but in which I had long believed I couldn’t live because it would mean giving up the world from which my fiction derived.
Writing has felt terrifying ever since. In the Karachi years, as I now think of them, there were always these elements in place at the start of a novel: location (Karachi), time period (within my living memory), recurring theme (some aspect of Pakistan’s history/politics which would tangle with the lives of my characters). Now that has fallen away. The tangle of history and the lives of individuals continues to recur, but now it can take place in the life of an Englishwoman in London and the Ottoman Empire at the start of the First World War, as in my most recent novel, A God in Every Stone. The familiar ground that was once the point of departure has gone. Now, at the moment of beginning, I stand on an unfamiliar street facing row upon row of possibilities, all undifferentiated from the outside, waiting for a hand to extend out of a window and call me home—panicked that it might not happen.
I don’t know now how to return to that safer ground where early memories were formed and ideas of narrative first took root. I have written myself out of the Pakistan of my childhood and early adult life, and into this place of terror and panic—and previously unimagined possibilities.
‘They stand in a line and look at one another with a strange sort of pride. He has given his orders, they have obeyed them, and they like themselves in this role. He’s stopped using suggestibility, they’re no longer in a trance, what’s been issued here is a straightforward order, point-blank, brutal.’
We meet in front of the theatre. Both of us are nervous: I’m determined to make it onto the stage today. My friend Rafael, who was the one who organized the tickets, is seeing this magician for the fourth time; he’s never been invited up onto the stage either, but this time is supposedly going to be different.
“Incredible,” he keeps saying. “It’s truly incredible. You’ll see, the man’s a genius.”
Naturally we want to sit as close to the front as possible; the magician is supposed to notice us and single us out. To be sure of getting good seats, we get to the Admiralspalast a full twenty minutes before the show starts — but to our astonishment the place is already full. It holds 400 people, there are approximately 380 already inside, how can this be, how long have they been waiting? Feeling pissed off, we keep climbing the rows; we don’t find two seats until we’ve reached the second-to-last. But maybe, says Rafael mournfully, it’s actually good this way, sometimes the magician calls on people who are sitting right at the back, so it may turn out that we’re in exactly the right spot.
The audience is laughing, giggling and chattering excitedly. The mood is oddly edgy; for most people, myself included, there is nothing less appealing than being dragged on stage in the middle of a performance. But when the show involves a hypnotist, that’s the whole point of the exercise: you accept that you may be called on, and you’ll make a fool of yourself. Maybe that’s why I’ve always avoided such shows, and I said no to Rafael each of the three previous times, but now I’ve run out of excuses. I published a novel recently in which a magician plays a major supporting role; since it came out I keep being asked if I myself have ever been hypnotized, and I don’t like having to keep smiling self-deprecatingly and shaking my head. I’ve reached the point where I want to know what it really feels like. I want to have something to talk about.
I leaf through the programme. Front and back are pictures of the magician wearing a serious, penetrating look, which is a given in his profession—hypnosis and laughter don’t go well together. Every page contains another photo of him, always with the same serious expression, always with his right hand against his head, two fingers pointing upwards while the others are balled into a fist; it must be some classic hypnotist pose. I learn from the programme that intelligent and creative people are particularly susceptible to hypnosis. The most immune turn out to be the really stupid and the lame-brained.
The show starts. The stage lights dim theatrically, strange oscillating music begins to spread throughout the theatre, and the magician enters. He is tall and imposing, he’s wearing a knee-length black coat, and he’s a lot plumper than in his photos. He talks about self-determination and freedom, sleep and waking states; he says that we all shape our particular reality the way we want it to be, and this is what constitutes our freedom. He says several times that hypnosis is never more than self-hypnosis: “I don’t do anything, you are the one who does everything.” His voice reverberates, every word carries its own faint echo. And suddenly he’s calling the first people up onto the stage. “Raise your hand if you want to join in.” Rafael and I raise our hands, but we’re too far at the back, he can’t possibly see us, and indeed the only people he calls on to come up are from the first three rows. “Please come—you, you, and you, and—yes, you!”
I’m relieved. It’s not exactly consistent, but although I do absolutely want to be hypnotized, at the same time I absolutely don’t. For on top of everything else I’ve just had the stupid thought that maybe he knows something about my book, maybe he’d recognize me and seize the opportunity to make a fool of me—presumably hypnotists do read books that feature hypnotists, don’t they? I pull myself together and tell myself that I have no cause to be afraid of this portly, middle-aged man. I know that hypnosis is nothing out of the ordinary, and that in some European countries—Switzerland, for example, though not Germany—you have to pass a practical exam in clinical hypnosis in order to receive your licence as a psychotherapist. It’s perfectly normal!
But I notice that I don’t really believe this. Hypnosis is astonishing. Hypnosis is magic. How can someone who has no magical powers make total strangers obey his commands?
The magician hands a book to three members of the audience, one after the other; each of them is to silently pick out a word, then he’ll tell them what it is. Not hard, he says once he’s done it, they’ve all made this or that movement, glanced in a particular direction or leant this way or that, thus giving things away, people are always communicating non-stop, and if you understand how to read the signals there are no deceptions and no secrets. The audience is impressed by what he’s saying, they murmur and nod. Rafael is impressed too, and when I whisper to him that this is a standard trick in the mentalist repertory and has nothing to do with body language, just with how the copy of the book has been prepared, he shakes his head and asks me to spare him my nonsense.
“The man’s a genius,” he says indignantly.
“Perhaps he is.”
“That wasn’t just some trick.”
“It was, but it doesn’t matter.”
“He does it exactly the way he says.”
As always when it comes to Rafael, I don’t know if he’s being serious or not. Rafael’s day job, when he’s not writing witty books or producing records, is building and selling bookcases. These bookshelves are coveted by everyone in Berlin, even I have several, he makes a very good living from them; yet nobody can figure out whether he’s serious about them or not. I have my suspicions that the whole thing is a practical joke that has taken on a life of its own. Rafael is well known, and actually typical in some way of contemporary Berlin, with its laid-back, ironic inhabitants. A lot of time has gone by since the Emperor ruled here. On the other hand, we’re sitting here with a hypnotist, the place is full, and everyone is waiting to receive orders from the stage.
The magician does more tricks: members of the audience write key words on notecards, he guesses what they are without having looked at the cards. Body language and psychological insight, he explains; for those who understand human beings there are no secrets. He seems to be relaxed and calm, and when he slips up and gives a woman a wrong date of birth he covers up the awkward moment smoothly, apparently unaffected. And yet: I saw this exact trick with the key words and the notecard performed by another magician some months ago, but that time there was no psychologizing attached, and I liked it better.
But the audience is entranced. From time to time I can hear the clink of bottles tipping over on the floor; many people have brought their own beer, which is normal in Berlin—you take beer along to almost everything you do. The magician is now visibly sweating; it must be really hot on stage. Whenever he calls on someone to come up, he stands a little too close and bends down towards them. It can’t feel particularly pleasant; I wouldn’t want him coming that close to me. But then suddenly he bows and walks off stage. It’s the interval.
“Things will really start happening in the second half,” says R. “That’s when he begins hypnotizing people.”
“We have to get up on the stage,” I say.
As we’re waiting out in the lobby, I think about this strange place we’re in. The Admiralspalast was once where Erik Jan Hanussen appeared—the first hypnotist to become famous all over Europe, who became a supporter of the Nazis despite the fact that he was Jewish, and shortly thereafter was murdered under circumstances that remain mysterious to this day. And 100 feet from here is the Friedrichstrasse station, which was once the border station on the suburban rail line between East and West; not 120 feet from here the Berlin Wall stood, and it’s barely 500 yards to the Brandenburg Gate, and barely a couple of miles to Charlottenburg Palace, where 100 years ago an incompetent Emperor dispatched his enthusiastic subjects to a war which everyone believed was going to be over almost before it had begun.
A bell rings to summon us back to our seats.
Twelve chairs have now been placed on the stage. The lights go down, some peculiar music of the spheres begins to play and the magician enters. There’s no such thing as hypnosis, he explains once again, only self-hypnosis. “Everything that happens comes from you! I do nothing. You do everything!” And, moreover, it only occurs when someone is in a trance state, not when they’re asleep: they hear everything, they’re aware of everything, and they don’t notice that they’re hypnotized. “So don’t wonder about it. Don’t ask yourselves if it’s already happened. Don’t turn it over in your minds. Just go along with it, go with the flow.”
He’s silent for a moment, as if he’s pulling himself together. “So,” he then orders, “clasp your hands in front of your faces with the index fingers extended.”
We all obey. Every single one of the audience. My heart pounds—it’s already really exciting.
“Look at your index fingers, breathe deeply, your index fingers are magnetized, they’re being pulled towards one another, they’re touching, your index fingers are touching!”
This always works, as I’ve known since my schooldays. It’s a normal muscular reaction: if you clasp your hands with the index fingers outstretched, they will always start to touch after a time. I watch obediently as my fingers try to make contact with each other. It takes a few seconds and then they touch, just as he said.
“Now close your eyes,” says the magician. “Breathe in, breathe out. Hands clasped tight. Breathe in, breathe out. They’re clasped tight, really tight, you can’t unclasp them, it’s impossible! Open your eyes.”
I open my eyes. The deep breathing has actually taken effect, I feel calmer, almost totally relaxed. I look at my hands. They are clasped tight, just as he said, which naturally is because I did the clasping, and they’re gripping each other because I’m doing the gripping, and then suddenly, while the magician is uttering the critical command: “Everyone who can’t unclasp their hands—up on the stage!”, I have the clear feeling that I could decide not to be able to open them. If I don’t want to do it, it won’t happen, precisely because it’s my choice, and I wouldn’t be not wanting to do so just because he told me I can’t. And suddenly it’s as if I’m not one person but two: I could give myself the order, and although it would be coming from me, it would still be his order. Then I would literally be unable to separate my hands. So then he would have been right.
The first members of the audience are already on their way to the stage, hands clenched; most of them have a strange, glazed expression on their faces, and even my hands are so tightly clasped that it almost hurts. I’m ready to get to my feet, but then I have a thought that shatters it all.
It’s just not true, I think. These are my hands. I can unclasp them whenever I want. It’s that simple.
I try it. And of course it’s perfectly easy.
“Oh no!” Rafael exclaims in disappointment. His hands have parted too. I should have faked it, I immediately think, feeling guilty. I should have made my way down, if only to see what would have happened. Perhaps no one’s noticed. Perhaps I can still do it! . . .
But the moment has already passed; it’s too late. There are about sixty people up on the stage, all of them with hands clasped, and the magician is going from one to the next, looking closely at their faces, tapping their hands, and he sends twelve of them to the prepared chairs. He is going to carry on with them; he thanks the others and sends them back into the audience.
And now he embarks with the twelve on the astonishing things we’ve been expecting. He instructs them to lean to the side with their eyes closed, and they do it and seem to fall into a deep sleep. He tells them to say their names, one by one, then he orders them to forget their names, and all but two of them actually say that they no longer know what they’re called (two of them obstinately do pronounce their names, and the magician, totally unbothered, laughs the same way he laughed when he made the mistake about the woman’s date of birth; he’s really masterful). Then he tells them all to stand up: “Your feet are glued to the floor, you can’t take a step. Try!”
They stand up. They try to propel themselves forwards by waving their arms, they twist this way and that, convincing everyone that it’s true, they are incapable of walking even a single step.
I realize something. Something I’ve never found mentioned in a book or an article. It’s hard to explain, almost impossible indeed to put into words. The people he’s picked out. . . well, how in the world can you say it without sounding condescending? Well, of the people on the stage, whom he’s chosen to keep, none could exactly be described as charismatic. If contrariness and spiritedness had been the criterion, he’d have had to select twelve completely different ones; it’s pretty clear that the opposite is the case and the ones who remain are visibly people who have no problem obeying orders.
And didn’t he actually say this himself? “It all stems from you! You do it all, I do nothing.” Can this be taken literally? Do we simply obey because we want to obey?
Once again I think of the irony that we’re right here in Berlin in the Admiralspalast, taken up with a form of stage entertainment that reached its full flowering 100 years ago. And the magician had said in a recent TV interview that his greatest role model was Erik Jan Hanussen.
Now he wakes the twelve again: “Open your eyes, no more suggestibility, you feel fresh and clear-headed and awake, your subconscious is working for you, not against you; whatever you wish to do, you’ll be able to do it. Stand up!”
They bow, laugh in embarrassment and want to return to their seats in the audience, but he tells three of them—a thin man with tattoos on his upper arms, a woman with a silver ring in her nose and a grandmother with white hair and a colourful sweater—to stay behind. “Stand still! Are you awake? Of course you’re awake. But you still can’t move. Your feet are fixed to the floor.”
And quite literally they can’t take a step. They stand in a line and look at one another with a strange sort of pride. He has given his orders, they have obeyed them, and they like themselves in this role. He’s stopped using suggestibility, they’re no longer in a trance, what’s been issued here is a straightforward order, point-blank, brutal. Why do they follow it?
They follow it because stage hypnosis really is no form of magic. There’s no secret concealed in it, not even some spiritual mechanism that’s been insufficiently researched, it’s nothing more than the most normal effort to be like everyone else, to experience what everyone else experiences, to behave the way the authorities want you to behave. And then of course there’s the desire not to do anything wrong in full sight of so many other people. There’s nothing reprehensible in this. But suddenly I understand more of what makes dictatorships possible, and why people march off to war and even rejoice as they go.
Now he’s sending the trio back into the audience, and he starts talking about freedom again. Anyone who can mould the world according to his own desires is free: he can see what he wants to see, hear what he wants to hear, his reality is the reality that suits him. Hypnosis thus teaches that you don’t have to be a slave to reality. “Thank you very much, and have a safe journey home!” He bows, there’s clapping, it’s still very hot.
“A genius!” says Rafael.
“Seeing what you want to see—that’s freedom! Did he really say that?”
“Maybe we dreamt it.”
On the way out we see the magician standing behind a table in the foyer; he’s smiling and sweating and signing copies of his book without sitting down. The dust-jacket has a picture of him looking serious, two fingers against his forehead. So why isn’t he using a chair? It must be exhausting having to be continually dominant. There’s a poster with a grinning troupe of cabaret artists who are going to go on stage tomorrow and take the piss out of the government, and the day after tomorrow it’ll be the turn of a transvestite performing songs from the ’20s.
We get out into the open air. It’s warm, even this late in the evening, people are wandering along the Friedrichstrasse. I catch fragments of English and French. We’re back in twenty-first-century Berlin, the multilingual city of Internet start-ups, graphic designers, advertising agencies and obligatorily hip haircuts. Looking around, you might think that the past is a very long way away.
We walk across the Weidendamm Bridge, past the cast-iron Prussian eagle.
“Pity!” says R.
“We didn’t make it onto the stage.”
“He’s going to be back in two months.”
Nobody was against it 100 years ago, I think to myself. The generals were for it, the aristocrats were for it and the journalists, the engineers, the painters, the street-sweepers, the waiters, the hairdressers and the doctors, the writers—particularly the writers, they all wanted war. There was no mass intoxication, no drug rush, no poisoning: it was all the most normal human quality of wanting to agree with everyone else.
“Good,” I say. “Then we have to try again.”
‘Yes, literature alone is a true testament of war. Forget about newspaper reports and official documents. Even letters to soldiers, penned by their wives, can be questionable. The closest we can get to what truly happened may be in literature and photography, perhaps some films. Historical essays almost always serve one ideology or another.’
I don’t recall how many years have passed since I last saw Z. Her telephone call takes me by surprise. How, I wonder, did she come by my phone number? Yet, as if she were regularly on the other end of my line, I immediately recognize her unusual, impulsive laugh, which is being interrupted by incoherent apologies. She has something urgent to share with me. We agree to meet in the History Museum café, not far from my work. It is April. The rain falls solid, night and day. But not on Monday morning, the day of our meeting, when the skies shine bright for the first time in two weeks. Z is punctual, down to the second. She has changed. We last met at a literary festival, many years back. She wears a rose-red tracksuit, at least twice her size, with a scarf embroidered with star-shaped glitter, and white tennis shoes. Now, her smile draws her face into deep creases. Her hands shiver. I would never have noticed had she not kept repeating that she couldn’t stop shuddering, and that I must have thought her call, so out of the blue, to be strange, and how now she really feels crazy. But she just had to see me. We order tea. Z talks about the weather, how rain never bothers her, rather the other way around, but that the sun is also fine. She keeps on examining the space in which we sit. The café walls are decorated with posters that feature military aircraft from the Second World War and the ancient people of the Roman city of Emona.
Unlike you, I don’t favour rain. Water everywhere, too much of it. The last two weeks have been completely draining, I say. Thank goodness the sun has come out. You brought it, I tell Z.
Z says nothing in response to my compliment. Instead, she continues to eye the space around us. What an odd place, she says. I never sat in this café before.
I often come here. It is peaceful, in particular when it rains. Now and then I stumble upon a pensioner, a class of primary-school students who storm in only to vanish soon after. It is beyond time and space, this place. An island of peace and solitude. The museum itself seems to attract little attention. Even though its permanent collection isn’t at all bad. They also mount temporary shows every now and then, but that wing is closed these days. They are putting on a new exhibition, though. You know, it’s the centenary of the First World War and everyone is raving about it, I respond to Z, while she pulls down the zipper of her oversized tracksuit, the red of her wool jumper spilling out from beneath it.
Interesting, she says, and thanks the waiter for our tea.
You think so? I reply. I don’t find it interesting at all. It is far too predictable. No different from other big anniversaries. But I must not complain. The museum invited me to write something for their exhibition catalogue.
What about? asks Z, and pushes the sugar packets aside.
I would have to write something about the First World War.
So? She sounds bored to death already.
I’m in a dilemma, I say. I have acquired a shelf-load of books on that period in history, yet the more I read, the more I realize how alien the First World War feels to me: a fabrication, a monument, an archive, I continue, before she is able to say anything. None of us played our part in it, and we no longer know anyone who did. The truth is that all the exhibitions and monuments do is mask the events they are intended to commemorate. At least, that’s what Robert Musil thinks; with whom I can only agree. All these commemorations, exhibitions and films are nothing but rituals, pre-programmed rituals. We know, to the very last detail, what is to come, and we believe that such pomp can defend us against oblivion. But the war is long past us! We put it behind us long ago. In all honesty, is it not exactly oblivion that is the true saviour, the one we long for, even in spite of our rhetoric? Just take the Second World War, for example. Seventy years later we can hardly wait for the remaining witnesses to die off. What for? So that Hollywood, corporations and politicians can at long last appropriate the stories of those who were there as their own. Also, much that happened during the Second World War is still visible, palpable, there to haunt us.
I take a sip of my tea. Z, her mind semi-absent, stares at the reflected light playing across the floor. The silence is painful, so I further unravel my thoughts.
You recover from the ghosts of the past only once the final witness has gone. Once the historical textbooks, documentary films, along with the statistics, are all that remain. And the First World War has evolved to be pure statistics. According to the standard principle of gradation: a lie, a bigger lie, statistics. Apropos of statistics: do you know that the nation that suffered the greatest loss during the First World War was Serbia? Interesting, isn’t it? Especially if you take into account the role they played in the ’90s during the Yugoslav wars. Serbians are the record holders of the First World War. Not in the absolute number who fell, but in casualty rate per capita. They lost as much as sixteen per cent of their entire population. Can you imagine? The numbers concerning Germany, England or France are, compared to Serbia, insignificant. Only about three per cent of their entire populations, I say, realizing that I was speaking too loudly, which had the waiter await my words from behind his counter. Needless to say, I go on, every soul lost in the war is one soul too many, every fallen soldier is the defeat of civilization. Just imagine, sixteen per cent of the entire population. That is colossal!
Z looks at me with her doubtful deep-blue eyes, and slurps her tea.
I think you may need something brighter. This jumper doesn’t suit you, this navy blue encases you, she says. I know quite a bit about colours, you know? I’ve been healing people with colour therapy for years. You need yellow, perhaps something in orange, says Z, and takes another sip of her herbal tea.
I thank you for your colourful advice. Do you offer such guidance to your husband, as well? Does he no longer work in black and white, I reply, surprised at being lightly offended and sardonic in my response to her.
I help my husband, my son and many others, Z says quietly. People seek me out. The ability to think in colours is one we all carry within. I attract those who need me, for reasons unknown to me. Sometimes they invite me into their apartments. I walk in and I see the space, I see the people who live there and I ruminate over ways to heal them all. Just yesterday I visited a pair of architects. Their home used to be all white, pure minimalism. I suggested they paint the kitchen wall warm, with a tinge of orange. They were about to fall apart when they first saw me, but now… says Z and smiles.
Your husband, is he planning to exhibit any time soon, I ask?
This coming autumn. I find his exhibitions quite stressful, though. He is a marvellous photographer, but from the development of the photographs onward I do just about everything for him—the exhibition concept, the selection, says Z. I curate the exhibition, prepare the invitations, I oversee the promotion, everything. He is simply not designed for this line of work. I do everything and then I vanish. You will never see me at an opening event. I hate crowds, talks, forced kindness. And all that small talk, it would drive me crazy!
Think of it as a part of your work, I say to Z, and take a sip of my tea.
A part of my work?
A part of your work, yes, I say. You know, today nothing happens without publicity, especially in the arts. All the things we do for money…
Some go to war for money, Z grumbles, her gaze fixing on a poster of a shot soldier at rest in an idyllic meadow, all in bloom.
Those were different times. Vast numbers of volunteers went to the Front during the First World War for honour. The war was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to achieve fame, to become heroes and to participate in something never to be forgotten. Nobody expected the Front to be a slaughterhouse. A final destination for the trains that arrived crammed with the boys who sang patriotic songs with great enthusiasm, and left crammed with only corpses and the wounded. No songs were sung there. That’s unthinkable today. Everyone backs out at the first mention of the war, I say.
Z studies my face and shifts, restless, lightly about the chair. You think, she asks after a long, silent pause?
Well, perhaps not everyone, I say back and silently brood over my vacillation. What has made me feel this insecure? Something about Z irritates me, not her oversized rose-red tracksuit, not her red jumper, not her imperturbable mind. It is her quiet superiority. What could that be founded on? Anyway, she makes me feel inescapably as if I must defend myself or even apologize somehow, which bothers me a great deal.
We all were adults when Yugoslavia fell apart, I continue. Had all that really come on at full blast, I would have been drafted. My parents pondered ways to get me out of the country, which I wanted to hear nothing about. I must have been brainwashed by too many films about the Partisans and Germans, which I had seen in my childhood. But if I were in such a situation now, my advice would be to pack and leave. No war is worthy of my head. I shall never be the poet behind the front line.
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Z recited quietly under her breath.
Who’s the author? I ask.
Edward Thomas, I thought you knew him, Z replies, rather astonished.
I don’t, I say, mildly upset. Yes, literature alone is a true testament of war. Forget about newspaper reports and official documents. Even letters to soldiers, penned by their wives, can be questionable. The closest we can get to what truly happened may be in literature and photography, perhaps some films. Historical essays almost always serve one ideology or another. They project nothing but the most current views, they project only what we are and how we perceive the world today onto a long-gone and radically different time.
Different how? asks Z, slipping off her white tennis shoes and tucking her bare feet beneath her.
That’s exactly the point! Reconstruction would be viable if we understood how different we are, compared to our ancestors. History strives to do just that, yet it fails, time and again. Only through literature can we realize how impossible it is to have any true insight into the past, any true experience of it, and what’s more we will become part of some other equally incomprehensible past.
Z stares at me. Thinking she needs to say something, I fall silent. But she continues to stare until, eventually, she whispers vacantly, I see your aura, it has a hole, here. She reaches across the table and lightly touches my jumper. Here, your heart chakra is pierced, you’re leaking energy.
Perhaps I was shot by God, or by a woman, I laugh, and take another sip of my now cool tea. Or perhaps an old shell blew up while I was eating pasta, like in Hemingway? You read it, didn’t you, A Farewell to Arms?
More than that, says Z, and gently begins to massage one of her feet.
That is what makes history in my view: cold pasta at the Front, not battle reports, not data on war casualties and the wounded, on military transport, weaponry and other logistics. What does such data tell you? Nothing! It just generates the clichéd images: mud, howitzers, wounded soldiers, cripples and the victims of gas attacks, field hospitals, women crying over the loss of their loved ones. We put these together however we choose and no one will object, because no one’s left who could counter our version.
I don’t know what historians would have to say about this, remarks Z.
You mean the market in academic history? The perpetuation of the ideology of the victorious? As if it were not enough to win on a battlefield but the war of interpretation has to be won too! All that is nothing but an industry for the creation of past times! I have got so worked up that the waiter, now leafing through a newspaper at the bar, glances in my direction.
After a brief silence I add, more quietly, I have no past.
What do you mean, you have no past? Z smiles and extends her bare feet before me. Each and every one of us has infinite pasts!
As research for my piece for the museum catalogue, I consulted three experts on the history of Yugoslavia from the First World War to its disintegration. They each gave me a list of five, one of them even a list of seven, relevant books. Every book they recommended was written in English and they all were published in America or the UK. Their authors were all educated at either British or American universities. Don’t you find that slightly odd? If our history is penned by Americans or the British, then whom is this history written for? We don’t even know, we can’t, or are not allowed to write our own, at least not the sort that would mean something more broadly. Our grandfathers fought on the Fronts, at Soča, Flanders, Turkey, and while they may be of mild interest to some local historical institute or museum, such as this one, what they did could easily mean nothing, even fifty kilometers outside of Ljubljana.
Z grins, as if I were endlessly entertaining. She uncurls her toes and lightly circles her feet, alternating directions. Then suddenly, as if struck by something, her face becomes serious and once again she tucks her feet beneath her.
Have you ever experienced regression? she asks, looking straight into my eyes. You know, into past lives? That is what I wanted to talk to you about. It must seem very strange. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and then I show up with a question like this. My God, this is making me tremble. What must you think? I didn’t know what else to do. I am here to ask your forgiveness.
I look at Z and pour more cold tea into my cup.
Why an apology? You never hurt me, I say.
Haven’t you ever felt as if you had been here before, as if all that is happening to you now happened before?
Well, I say. We have all heard of déjà vu. I know of people who believe they were Cleopatra or Jeanne d’Arc or the head of a concentration camp in a past life. But, joking aside, I’ve always been, hmm, not fearful, but wary of such unveilings.
Have you experienced perfection? What about God? A moment when all colours crystallize into light? Sometimes I dream of light so bright that I wake up in tears of happiness, grateful for all I can experience and see. I see you, I see your navy-blue jumper. You are closed in, you know. Probably you will never in your lifetime get to see what I see every month, sometimes every week. And perhaps that’s good for you. It’s all good just the way it is, says Z, and slowly begins to pull her while tennis shoes back on her feet. Everything is good for something.
I did see a bio-energy healer once. I had some problems and he came highly recommended, and I was curious. And then something unexpected happened. The healer circled his hands around my head for a while before finally admitting defeat. He had failed only twice before to see into his clients’ past. I was the third such case. Presumably I walk the world with an impermeable barrier within, I laugh.
And that is why you think you have no past?
I don’t know. I feel as if I’m guarded. As if there is a thick wall between me and any previous lives.
The amount of tea drunk slowly reminds me that I must soon use the restroom, but at this point I am not willing to interrupt our conversation.
Let’s say that I go through regression and discover that I was Archduke Franz Ferdinand or Hitler, or that, as a soldier, I gassed others during the First World War. So what? How is anyone to benefit from this idiocy? I don’t mean to offend but such insights, even if they were true, are of little use. They can only fog our perception of ourselves. I am convinced that many gurus get wealthy from instilling such fog in us. Come to think of it, this is much like reading history books. I read a story and think that I have learnt something new about myself, when in fact I am merely confused and subject to manipulation.
But you were there. I know that you participated in the First World War, Z says, and readjusts her star-glittering scarf, which falls from her shoulder to sweep the floor.
Of course, I look at her and say, I am always there, when I read poetry from those days. I have certainly entered the past, if you mean in this manner. But the rest is only projection or wish fulfilment.
Z continues to stare at me.
No one touches poetry these days, in particular old war poetry, even though it is often surprisingly interesting. When abroad I used to be asked often what it meant to be a responsible writer in time of war. What a question! Do these people have the slightest idea what it means to write in time of war? And who cares? Please! Consider the scope of things that poets took up during the Yugoslav wars. They held weapons, were in command, they were murderers, they defended or they rescued. There was nothing they didn’t do. War is a stupidity, a horrendous simplification of thought. Sure, it must have been difficult to write poems.
Once again I shift in my seat, and ask myself why, in the name of God, I feel a sour taste in my mouth each time Z looks at me.
War poetry, once war draws to an end, is relegated to those who rummage through the past for whatever reason and to the classroom, where it’s supposed to serve as a deterrent. Much of this material is devoid of literary value, I say, and shift about my seat once more. There are honourable exceptions though, I admit. My bladder feels ever tighter, and I know that I won’t last much longer.
Z smiles. Still, had these poems not been written, we would have no history. Didn’t you say just a minute ago that you only believe in the testament of literature?
I do, but I alone am irrelevant. The market wants something else. People want a ritual to be performed, a void to be filled: brass bands, wreaths, an opening ceremony of an exhibition held at a war centenary, this is what most people want, not poems. A spectacle is what placates them. The real past would only disturb them.
Are you feeling better? Z asks silkily, and rises.
I wasn’t upset, I answer, wiping sweat from my forehead.
Still, I would like to apologize once more and ask your forgiveness, says Z and draws near, almost brushing against my armchair.
I stand up.
When I arrived, did you see anything?
What do you mean?
I mean, did anything cross your mind when you laid eyes on me?
It might have, I say.
What was it, asks Z?
I don’t know, but for a moment I thought I’d dreamt of this place, and of something that happened here. Then again, I come here often. No wonder it creeps into my dreams.
What else do you dream about?
Most of the time I don’t remember, I say, and shift from one foot to the other. The pressure has slowly built up to become unbearable.
You truly can’t remember?
Well, perhaps I do remember something. Lots of water. I often dream of water.
A river, cold and crystal-blue… a waterfall, I mutter, and manage a smile.
I know the river, says Z.
I do. It is the Soča River. I saw everything, while in the state of regression, and I will never find peace unless you forgive me.
Forgive what, I ask, anxious?
I murdered you, she says. It was in Solkan. We were engaged when the First World War broke out. You loved me dearly, and I took advantage of your love. I betrayed your trust. And today I ask your forgiveness for all that I brought upon you.
Z, I honestly don’t know, what… I feel my flesh creep.
Water in your dreams is the water that swallowed your life. And I am responsible for it.
Z, it’s not a problem, I forgive you everything, even though I don’t know what… I try to force a smile.
In that moment Z embraces me. I feel her shuddering body pressed against mine.
I am sorry, I will be right back, I slip from the grip of her arms. Wait for me, so you can tell me how a femme fatale costs a young fellow his life, a life lost in the depths of the Soča River, lost not through a grenade but sadness.
Z dives deep into my eyes. Thank you, thank you! You know, you really should dress in brighter colours, she says, and takes a step away from me. Here, in your heart, here is your hole. You must do something about it. As if performing a healing manoeuvre, eyes shut, she reaches out a hand and holds it just above my heart. Moments later she exhales heavily, opens her eyes and says, you really don’t remember? I was the soldier, and you were my fiancée.
The memory of a recent dream hits me. I’m falling, a river beneath me, a soiled, lacy skirt that flutters about my hands as my body sinks infinitely slowly, towards a glacial river surface.
Uncomfortable, I hurry past the waiter, who continues to read his newspaper.
Z is gone when I come back. Her star-scattered scarf is draped over the chair where she sat. A little tea, hers the colour of amber and mine perfectly black, remains in our cups. I put on my coat and pay. The world outside is again grey with the rain, but I barely notice it. I am caught up in a rather absurd thought I don’t know how to decipher: even if I were to meet Z again, I will never see her again.
‘Then why is it, I ask myself, that though women have been dominant in oral culture, their presence in written culture, especially in “highbrow literature”, has been so limited? For even though there are great female writers today, just like yesterday, the world of culture is dominated by men.’
Some children grow up listening to the tales of the past; others grow up listening to the silences of the past, though this they might not be aware of until years later. East and West, there are so many houses in which the family memory is handed down from one generation to the next, like a precious dowry from grandmothers to granddaughters. In other houses, however, it is silence that looms over the shadows of the past.
In the land where I come from silences are telling, weighty. There is more discontinuity than continuity, more amnesia than memory. As you saunter along the serpentine streets of Istanbul you won’t come across signs that will inform you about who lived in that beautiful mansion by the Bosphorus once upon a time or what happened to the residents of an oldkonak or the students of a military school or the attendants of a church or synagogue now in ruins. Berlin and London are peppered with signs of urban memory: “George Orwell drank here!” claims a notice on a pub door. Characters from novels by Charles Dickens greet you on another wall at a busy street. Signs of remembrance, no matter how sad or tragic, adorn the streets of Berlin. Not so in Istanbul.
In the 1900s an educated Turk would speak and read Ottoman Turkish, which was written with Arabic script but retained a Turkish syntax with Persian elements. After the establishment of the modern Turkish nation state in 1923 a wholesale cultural transformation was initiated. Since the alphabet was changed in 1925 from Arabic to Latin, today the average Turkish citizen cannot read anything that dates from before that year: the text on an Ottoman grave, the inscription on a dry fountain or a poem carved in marble… Every day millions of Istanbulites walk by the remnants of the past without seeing, without knowing. Somehow we have become a society that cannot read the tombstones of its ancestors. There is too much forgetting in Istanbul and very little remembering. It’s odd that a city so ancient now has the memory of an infant.
Only a flimsy, selective memory survives in the collective consciousness in Turkey. In order to learn more about history one ought to dig deeper into not only written culture but oral culture—songs, lullabies, recipes, tales. In the local customs and folklore reside traces of history.
The national and nationalistic official history taught at schools dictates what we are to remember, what to leave behind. And we, millions of us, obediently comply. Forgetting is way too easy in Turkey. Things are written on water, except the works of bygone architects and artists, which are written in stone, canvas or paper, and somehow can outlive the era they were born in.
“What do you remember of the First World War?” I once asked my maternal great-grandmother. I was a student in high school and she was in her late eighties or early nineties, no one knew for sure, least of all herself.
I called her Cicianne, “Cute Mama”. She seemed impossibly old with her high cheekbones and grey-blue eyes clouded with cataracts. At the dinner table I would close my eyes and listen to the rhythmic cracking sound her jaw made as she chewed her food. At times she would get suddenly edgy and start accusing everyone of putting various kinds of poison in her dish. I was both mesmerized by and slightly ashamed of her. She lived amidst us like a relic from another country, a figure from a novel none of us had had the chance to read.
“You want to know about war?” she asked back.
“Well, yes,” I said, now unsure.
A frown set heavily between her eyebrows. Clearly she didn’t like the question. Her answers were evasive and incomplete. Strange, I thought, for a woman who loved talking about her life and harked back to “the good old days” at every opportunity.
Still she told me bits and pieces, hearsay and anecdotes, too many names of places and people, conveying the experiences of strangers as though they were her own and her family’s undertakings as though they had happened to someone else. She mentioned women who had sold their golden bangles, and larders that offered nothing to eat. She described soldiers frozen to death, hundreds of them in trench after trench, still standing, like trees of ice. Were such things real or made up? If real, were they events she had heard about from someone else or had she witnessed them herself? I did not explore such questions.
“Horses,” she said, “take longer to freeze than humans; it’s their blood that keeps them warm. Did you know?”
I knew nothing about horse blood.
Soon after the day we had this conversation I finished high school, went away to college and did not see much of my great-grandmother. The same year she passed away. I greatly regret that I can never now learn the details of her life. Why hadn’t it occurred to me to sit beside her for longer and just listen? What had I been thinking?
I was upset at myself for not asking the right questions at the right time, for being too infatuated with books and ideals and love affairs that seemed extra-important back then and left so little behind them. But mostly it was my desire to change the world that kept me busy in those years. I was so immersed in the wider picture that I did not see the story right there in front of my eyes waiting to be told.
“Has the past said its farewells and left us for good or does it continue to exist within this moment, Cicianne?”
Where silences loom heavily over a family or a country, we writers fill in the gaps with our stories.
If wars were songs, the First World War would have been one long ballad, swirling in the wind, stretching high and low, reaching deep into our souls. The lyrics would effortlessly flow from one language to another: a verse in English, followed by one in German, the next in French… There would be words in Russian, Italian and Ottoman Turkish. And words that would be present through their absence, there but not there, like the ghosts of fallen soldiers.
The First World War changed everything, though it could not bring the peace so desperately needed. Still to this day it lives on in our collective memory more deeply and hauntingly than any other conflict. Challenging though this might be, we cannot help but ask: what would the world be like today had the First World War never happened? Would the “Second World War” have taken place, for instance? Would there still have been the Holocaust? A Cold War? Would things have turned out so differently that none of the tragedies of the twentieth century would have occurred?
Similar questions loom as to what might have ensued had the Germans won the war instead of losing it. What exactly the conflict achieved, and at what cost, are matters that are still debated, now that we are commemorating 1914’s centenary, more than ever before. Whichever way we look at them the narratives of the First World War seem to offer more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s why we can’t help going back to it, time and again, with more questions ready to hand.
Given the enormous bulk of literature that focuses on this dark episode, one might assume there is not much left to say about it. Nevertheless its social, cultural, philosophical, literary and artistic repercussions have still not been fully understood. Those repercussions reach far and wide. After all, it was too quick to be waged, loaded with rival jingoistic interpretations, and to this day too slow to be unravelled.
“The sick man of Europe…” That is what the Ottoman Empire was called by European politicians and diplomats in the days preceding the war. I find two things noteworthy in this description. First, that the phrase wasn’t “the sick man of the Orient” or “the sick man of the Middle East”, but of Europe. The Ottomans were regarded as part of old Europe, albeit perched precariously, as if about to fall off Europe’s edge at any moment.
Secondly, there is the matter of gender. In caricature after caricature published and circulated at the time the Ottoman Empire is depicted as a thin, etiolated, at times hunchbacked male wearing a fez or a turban, in either case the headwear accentuated to demonstrate his difference, his striking contrast.
The Ottomans themselves were no strangers to Europe’s battles and conflicts. There had been increasing tension in the Balkans since the early 1900s. The First Balkan War erupted in 1912. Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece were on the way to declaring independence, one after another, each country fuelled by a wave of nationalism. Meanwhile, the Muslim-Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire had been developing close ties with the ruling elite in Germany. One particular Ottoman official was quite adamant that the country should be on the side of the Kaiser. His name was Enver Pasha—a name that not only Turks and Kurds would remember for decades to come but also Armenians, many of whom would soon after lose their homes, lands, families and lives.
The Germans were keen to keep the Ottomans loyally on their side. It suited Kaiser Wilhelm to play the magnanimous role of “the protector of the Muslims”. The Ottoman military was not the juggernaut it had been in its glorious days but the land itself was of strategic importance. The turning point occurred late in the summer of 1914 when a secret treaty was signed between Turkey and Germany. Only five Turks knew about it, among them Enver Pasha. It was his great wish to see the Sultan and the Kaiser uniting forces against the British and the French, and so the Ottomans joined the Central Powers.
There were, however, other Ottoman officials who fervently opposed the idea. These officers were alarmed that things were happening too fast and critical decisions were being taken without proper discussion. One of them was Rifat Pasha, the Ottoman Ambassador in Paris. A born diplomat, he stated with some urgency that an alliance with Germany would bring only catastrophe and the best thing to do was to remain neutral. He wanted his nation to steer away from the madness that had the world in its grip. Rifat’s words fell on deaf ears. Soon, his voice faded away and Enver’s voice became louder and louder.
I have often wondered about this detail. How is it that a few individuals can decide a nation’s fate? How could a handful of people possess this much power—uncontrolled, unbalanced and unquestioned? Certainly there were other factors that paved the way for the Ottomans’ entry into the war. Yet it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that many political verdicts of crucial importance, including those involving a decision as tragic as war, are not the outcome of long-planned, well-calculated strategies, but emotional and personal judgements of a few fallible minds. In the end, not only in the Ottoman Empire but throughout Europe and beyond, a small number of men would decide the fate of millions.
In lands of collective amnesia, such as Turkey, women are the bearers of memory. It is women like my Cicianne who have shouldered the responsibility to remember. They hold the keys to oral history and are the custodians of cultural continuity, transmitting knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. Women are also wordsmiths—narrating legends and folk tales, reciting poems, speaking in riddles. Then why is it, I ask myself, that though women have been dominant in oral culture, their presence in written culture, especially in “highbrow literature”, has been so limited? For even though there are great female writers today, just like yesterday, the world of culture is dominated by men. No wonder, then, that when an anthology of Turkish writers and poets was published in Turkey, out of the 1,000 names included only 90 were women. Female voices constitute nine per cent of the literary establishment in Turkey. When that number goes up to ten we will call it “progress”.
I dived into the ocean of stories not because I dreamt of becoming a novelist. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. But books mattered to me. Greatly. I never thought about how they were written or considered the fact that there were real people behind them. I craved the stories inside them. I was an only child raised by a single, working mother. I spent my early years close to a traditional, superstitious grandmother who, among other things, was a healer. She introduced me to a magical dimension to life, in which it was not bound by pure logic.
I started writing fiction at the age of eight. It all began with a turquoise notebook, a gift from my mother who was worried that I talked to imaginary friends too much. She must have thought that if I could keep a diary and get used to writing down all the things that I did every day, I would be more firmly rooted in reality. But I saw it differently. I thought my life was too boring to write about. So I began recording in that diary things that had never happened and people who didn’t exist. The journal that my mother had intended to ground me in reality became my window onto storyland.
Books kept me sane and glued my pieces together. I drank the stories I came across, both written and told, with an unquenchable thirst. I made up new ones of my own. In time I began to see my imagination as the only continuity in my life. And in order to keep imagining, I needed words. I yearned for nuance, too.
After the First World War, around the time Turkey changed its alphabet, another major cultural transformation was under way. Words derived from Arabic and Persian were excised from the language. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Such was the extent of the purge that if you place an Ottoman dictionary next to a Modern Turkish dictionary, the latter is around half the size of the former. The modernist elite believed that if there happened to be two words for roughly the same thing, the old one should be discarded. They wanted Turkey’s language had to be ethnically pure, and therefore got rid of the Arabic and Persian components of our vocabulary.
Hundreds of words have been plucked out of the Turkish language between the two world wars. Nuances of meaning have been lost. When our vocabulary diminished, our imagination shrank too. Philosophy and literature, fields that depend heavily on subtlety, suffered the most. Like everything else in Turkey, language became polarized and politicized. Depending on the ideological camp you feel attached to, e.g. conservatives versus Kemalists, you could use an “old” or a “new” set of words.
My writing is replete with all kinds of words taken from across the board. But I have had to do some digging, learn the Ottoman script and study my mother tongue as if it were a foreign language. It wasn’t enough to be able to say “blue” or “green” as I sorely needed the hues in between. Most of those words had disappeared, since they originated from Persian. So, time and again, I was pulling the words out of the pits where they had been buried, shaking off their dust and incorporating them into my novels. Language is organic, an open-ended journey. It should only be enriched, not impoverished.
Some nationalists have been upset with me for my usage of ethnically “impure” words. Some conservatives have been upset with me because of the sexual and political themes that I have dealt with. And some Kemalists have been upset with me because I am interested in spirituality and mysticism, which they regard as backward. Turkey is a land of quarrelling, clashing collectivist identities. In such a setting it is an ongoing struggle to be and to remain an individual.
Rather than “purity” and uniformity, I defend cosmopolitanism and hybridity. Rather than sameness, I am at home with diversity. My writing combines the Western genre of the novel with the Middle Eastern and Eastern modes of storytelling. I strive to bridge the gap between oral and written culture. I write in both English and Turkish. The commute between languages, cities and cultures inspires me endlessly. I refuse to pluck words out of language just as I refuse to reduce any human being to a single, monolithic identity. Literature harbours a strong desire to transcend frontiers—be they boundaries of class, religion, nation or gender. If our imagination is not going to do that, if stories are not going to do that, what else will, what else could?
There are so many questions about the past that the sixteen-year-old me never thought of or cared about but the forty-year-old me would have loved to ask Cicianne. Yet even if she had been able to answer me in earnest, the story would remain partial, incomplete. The First World War, like a kaleidoscope that offers a different truth at every glance, will mean different things to people of different nationalities. It is only when we take into account all of these voices and aim to move beyond nationalistic rivalries and cultural dogma that we can attain a better understanding of this most fascinating slice of our shared history.
‘I imagine bones stirring in mass graves. Broken bones, smashed bones, desecrated bones, wronged bones, all rising as if they have heard their forgotten names read in a voice so loud it penetrated the earth.’
On 25th March 2010, Zimbabwean visual and installation artist Owen Maseko holds an exhibition at the National Gallery in the city of Bulawayo. I imagine the attendees dragging around with reluctant steps like they are entering a place of dread, heads bent as if they will eventually drop off like overripe pawpaws and roll away, the eyes never to look at what they have come to see. I imagine bodies so tense you could shatter a glass on somebody’s back and they would not feel a thing, women’s arms crossed just beneath the breasts, men’s hands clenched tight inside trousers pockets, fists so taut they could split the seams. I imagine the kinds of faces you would duck across a street to avoid because you wouldn’t know what to say to them—solid masks glazed with pain so proper, so charged you could touch it and sear your fingers. I imagine a well-built young man reaching for the wall to balance himself, digging into it with his left shoulder, but, because something in him refuses to be steadied, sliding down until he is a heap on the cement floor, shoulders heaving in sobs. And, somewhere far away, in Matabeleland, the western region of the country, in the bushes of places with names like Plumtree, Lupane and Tsholotsho, where I was born just a year after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain, I imagine bones stirring in mass graves. Broken bones, smashed bones, desecrated bones, wronged bones, all rising as if they have heard their forgotten names read in a voice so loud it penetrated the earth.
The voice is Owen Maseko’s, whose exhibition addresses, through installations and graphic paintings some of which depict President Mugabe and members of the army, the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Zimbabweans by an elite unit of Korean-trained soldiers between the years 1983 and 1987. The massacres, commonly known in Zimbabwe as Gukurahundi, affected the Ndebele regions of the country, home to Zimbabwe’s second-largest ethnic group. Years and years later, the atrocities have never been redressed, there has been no accountability by the government and perpetrators, there has been no justice for the surviving victims, no monuments to honor the dead; there has been nothing. By holding his exhibition, Owen Maseko has been provocative on at least two levels: he has publicly broken a sealed silence, and through the specificity of his art has pointed fingers right at the regime for its role in the atrocities. It is more than enough reason to get arrested.
Like many Zimbabweans, I am not shocked by Owen’s arrest; it is, after all, 2010, the closing year of a decade of government repression. Citizens and active members of the opposition who criticize the government to the extent that they are perceived as threats have been routinely subjected to illegal arrests, intimidation and torture and, in a few headline cases, murder. The news of Owen’s arrest blazes across the Internet—it’s emailed, blogged, twitted and Facebooked by concerned Zimbabweans and sympathizers. I too join the online conversations; this is where those of us in the diaspora have taken to following and making sense of events in our country. We were here, for instance, during the illegal arrest of human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, who was kidnapped in her home in 2008, during the arrests of too many members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, during the torture of civilians in the 2008 post-election violence. The Internet is our other village; on it we talk freely about what we most probably would not dare talk about were we on the ground.
Along with most of my countrymen, I am disturbed and angered and grieved by every crime against Zimbabwe’s people, but somehow Owen Maseko’s arrest grabs me by the throat, and squeezes. Owen is an artist like me, and this common ground makes his ordeal even more personal. There is more to our connection: at the moment I am studying for my MFA degree at Cornell University where I am working on a novel that grapples with the very beast that Owen is being persecuted for. One of my characters, Bornfree, is a victim of Gukurahundi. Bornfree’s father, Sabelo, a schoolteacher, is killed alongside his own brother and other villagers after being first made to dig a mass grave and then stand in it before being shot. We encounter Bornfree, now a young adult and activist, fighting against the same regime that murdered his father and uncle. It has not been necessary to use a lot of imagination to come up with Bornfree’s narrative; versions of it have filled my childhood. It is, after all, the story of my people, the Ndebele, who were the targeted victims of the massacres.
After working on numerous drafts I eventually drop Bornfree’s backstory from the book. It is too large and overwhelming a narrative, and it deserves to be a novel of its own. I come to understand that my project, which will eventually be known as We Need New Names when I publish it a couple of years after I graduate from Cornell, does not have room for this gigantic thread, at least in ways that would allow me to do it justice. It is thus that I make the choice to keep only Bornfree (who himself gets murdered for his activism) and shelve the Gukurahundi narrative, but of course I know that it is a subject I will and must one day return to; it is more than an obligation to bear witness to this ignored part of Zimbabwean history. In the meantime, the arrest of Owen has significance for me as someone working in the territory that has got him in trouble—it is a message about what is not acceptable in the telling of the Zimbabwean story.
Every socially engaged artist must at some point face defining moments when she must reckon with forces in the world around her, grand or small, and must—even if it’s only the stones that know this—take a stand. This is what explains why Ngugi wa Thiongo renounced writing in English in the late ’70s and continues to work in his Gikuyu mother tongue for example, why Toni Morrison has consistently written about race throughout her career, why Carolyn Forshé has looked without flinching at human rights abuses. But in 2010 I do not yet appreciate this —I have not quite reached that level of engagement with what it means to be an artist, and if you were to probe me for what I do, I would not tell you with confidence that I am a writer.
Among other things, I cannot shake the feeling that perhaps I am making a mistake by being in a writing program instead of law school, which is what my father and family back in Zimbabwe believe I am doing. I have all along kept my writer aspirations private, even imagining that a switch might flick within me so that I would go on to enroll in law school after the termination of my first graduate degree and finally study what I came to the United States to pursue when I left home for college years ago. But the switch never flicks in the end. Although I am not comfortable disappointing my family, I know I could not face myself if I were to go against what is in my heart, even a heart mired in hesitation. Still, I am just not yet at ease with my writer self and, while I am enrolled in a reputable creative writing program, the fact that I have not published a single word means, at least to me, that I do not have the license to claim that writer self. I remember that for a while I resist calling my work in progress a novel, and whenever I am pressed to talk about what I am working on I call it a “thing”. So much goes into naming and calling, and for me the word “thing” makes my project more approachable and less intimidating— after all, I have not written a novel before so who I am to speak about writing “novels?”.
All this is to say that the 2010 arrest of Owen Maseko finds me at the very, very beginning of my writing career and looking to make sense of myself, a novice trying to find footing. But of course life certainly does not always knock on your door to check if you are ready before entering with its sacks of challenges. When the arrest of Owen Maseko comes to my door, it is the first force that shakes my slumbering core. My writing, all along a solitary endeavor, suddenly feels connected to my community in more ways than I have imagined. As James Baldwin writes in his 1970 letter to Angela Davis, “If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own… For, if they take you in the morning, they will come for us at night,” I understand that the arrest is beyond Owen, that it is a threat to my own freedom of expression, as well as the art of every Zimbabwean who confronts the Gukurahundi or any other topic that our government deems unacceptable.
In my response to Owen’s incarceration, a poem entitled “For Owen”, I go beyond the immediate event and comment on the larger picture of Zimbabwean repression in lines such as:
… like nobody didn’t teach him[Owen]—didn’t tell him
Zim is a land of silent silence,
where they edit expression on final cut pro
with police whips and guns and prisons
people living hand to mouth,
famished for rights, for freedom,
for the sound of their own true voices
see us walk like zombies in Zim, like
paralyzed by fear of the state in Zim
we could flee our shadows in Zim,
we see nothing, we hear nothing in Zim
let them silence us, beat us in Zim, like
what does freedom matter in Zim?
I publish the poem on a blog I keep at the time, which has been largely devoted to my responses to the Zimbabwean situation. I post it on Facebook too, where I hope it will be shared among Zimbabwean circles. At this point I know that “For Owen” is not just for Owen alone (who at the time is definitely not seated behind a computer, ready to read the poem and perhaps, if he is moved enough, respond to me)—it is also for the regime that daily continues to trample the rights of Zimbabwean citizens. “For Owen” is for my people because we must speak even as change refuses to come, “For Owen” is for my fellow artists so that they may continue to create in defiance, “For Owen” is for myself, so that I never choose silence. “For Owen”—it gives me a clarity that I have not had before.
This clarity stays with me as I evolve from novice to determined writer, and while Owen is granted bail and faces trial for “Undermining the authority of or insulting the president” and “causing offence to persons of particular religion”. The charge would be laughable were it not for the fact that Owen’s freedom is on the line. Still, this does not stop him from working, and from being the face of those of Zimbabwe’s artists who continue to create under the threat of censorship. I am inspired by Owen and many of Zimbabwe’s other artists, both in and out of the country, who continue to carry the soul of our nation in its difficult times, who help keep our humanity intact. That we also share our various works on social networks—writings, spoken word, music, visual art, dance performances—speaks to me of our collective purpose; and seeing our work received by and meaning something to our countrymen and the world is the force that allows my writing to move forward. Difficult as this period has been, I will always remember with fondness and gratitude the efforts of artists like Cont Mhlanga, Peter Godwin, Novuyo Tshuma, Comrade Fatso, Batsirai Chigama, Christopher Mlalazi, Petinah Gappah, Iyasa, Emmanuel Sigauke, Tendai Huchu, John Eppel, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Outspoken, Tafadzwa Gwetai, Sandra Ndebele and many, many others for providing community and strength and sometimes support, for forging ahead when conditions, especially for those on the ground, were so that it may have been easier to lean against trees and find shelter from the sun.
Fortunately, the unrest and violence in Zimbabwe stabilizes after the regime and the opposition sign a power-sharing agreement that gives birth to a unity government. Robert Mugabe remains the country’s President, and Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC-T leader, assumes the position of Prime Minister. It is a sorry marriage of convenience, beset with problems that speak to an unfair union from the get-go, but the country still welcomes the move. Not only do we not have many choices, but we are worn out and just want to say goodbye to the terrible years. It feels like we have walked on thorns throughout the lost decade and this at least is a little bit of grass. Conditions on the ground are still hard, the most urgent being a failing economy, which affects people’s livelihoods; but at least this change means we can stop holding our breath again, we can now rest on our buttocks again after sitting on just one butt-cheek for years, and on the edge of the seat at that. We can stand at full height and hope again. And live again, and dream again.
It is perhaps this stabilizing of conditions that encourages my writing to change. Whereas I’ve mostly been writing dense poetic prose that now makes me wince to read it, I feel my writing loosen up. It removes its belt and tie and kicks off its shoes. It cuts its hair and keeps a short, unkempt Afro, runs around in socks of different colors. For the first time I feel like I am not just writing, but speaking as well. I imagine I am addressing a party that is out on the streets of New Lobengula, my town, perhaps standing under a guava tree, with folded arms, processing my story through the ear. In order to tell the story to full effect and reach the listener while still sounding true, I have to tell it in my language, somehow. This is how I start actively to bring my native language, Ndebele, into English, to have my sentences sound just like they would strike an Ndebele ear if they were translated. Writing this way, I am delighted to find, captures my full and specific experience and allows me to say things that would otherwise remain unsayable. Removed as I am from my homeland, and living in a space that—while being rewarding and important in giving me the opportunity to pursue my art—still reminds me, always, that there are people at the center and that I will never be one of them, my decision feels like a liberation, an affirmation of a self that is not always able to find voice. When I write in this new mode, I feel like I am writing on my own terms.
I regret that no one taught me this crucial lesson in my early English instruction. Our education system, adopted from the days of British colonial rule, did not allow us much freedom where language was concerned. The English we used remained standard and inflexible, never mind that we only encountered it in school and did not take it home with us—at least it did not happen in the type of neighborhoods I grew up in. This meant we could not have an easy relationship with the language, and when it came to writing creatively it kept us on leashes that could only allow our imaginations to go so far. Today I shake my head when a young writer emails a story that is written in the wrong English, the English that, because it does not come naturally to the storyteller, feels contrived and breaks the story’s flow. It is my prayer that these young writers wake up to the magic of their true voices, that they realize that their languages, too, are enough.
In my novel We Need New Names, Stina, Darling’s childhood friend from Paradise, observes that “a country is a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you”. The intuitive young boy comes to this knowledge from watching his country come undone. One wishes this part of the story were fiction, but unfortunately it is not. It is also unfortunate that it is the story of a lot of countries today—we simply have not figured out how to live. Still, a country’s story is impossible to fit in Coca-Cola bottle; telling it is an enormous task, and cannot be managed by a single voice and in a couple of hundred pages. I am very much aware that in We Need New Names I have told only a small fraction of the Zimbabwean story; and what is more, I have also chosen to voice what to some may not seem like my story to tell, being that I have not lived in Zimbabwe in the past fourteen years. At the end of the novel, Darling, the protagonist who has left her unnamed country for the US, connects with Chipo, her childhood friend from Paradise, via Skype. The conversation occurs at the height of the country’s crisis, and Darling expresses her anguish at what has become of her homeland. Chipo, however, has a different opinion:
“I know it’s bad Chipo, I’m so sorry. It pains me to think about it.”
“What is so bad? Why are you feeling pain?” Chipo says.
“What they have done to our country. All the suffering,” I say.
“Well, everywhere where people live there is suffering,” she says.
“I know. But last week I saw on BBC—”
“But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the color of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody,” she says. Her flippant tone comes out of nowhere and slaps me in the face, just taking me by surprise. I am so shocked I don’t know what to say.
“What? I can’t— well, it’s my country too. It’s our country too,” I say. Here Chipo laughs this crazy womanly laugh and I shake my head and think to myself, what the fuck? Where is this even coming from?
“It’s your country Darling? Really, it’s your country, are you sure?” she says, and I can feel myself starting to get mad. I hover the mouse over the red phone button, wondering if I should just click it and hang up because really, I have no time for this. When I look up my eyes meet the eye and I let go of the mouse.
There are times I have felt like Darling in this particular instance for, just like her, and like many Zimbabweans in the diaspora, I have experienced the country’s crisis from outside. I am aware of the privilege that comes with distance; I know I have been spared from living through all the hardships that my countrymen have suffered. I felt this in the especially hard times following the 2008 election, when people moved from the euphoria of the promise of change to the uncertainty that came with the post-election repression. I remember a conversation I had with my father around the time. Not long before that, and up until election day, his voice had been full of sunshine as he spoke of a change of government with a conviction that sounded so true I mostly believed it.
When I speak to my father after the election, after the people have waited and waited and waited for the results until they almost go mad with suspense, my father’s voice sounds far away, bleached of the laughter and confidence that have always been a part of him. When I ask him what is going on he says, “We don’t know any more. And the people are being beaten like hell in the rural areas.” I grip my cellphone tight at the new crack in his voice; I have never heard my father sound like this before and I am caught off-guard—I have no idea what to say to him. As in other times, far too many of course, that I have not been able to do anything, I am riddled with the guilt that comes from being far away, from being protected from day-to-day challenges that my family and countrymen have to endure. When I write especially the hard parts of their experience, parts that I know come from the pain that real people are living through, tears hold their breath in my eyes.
Perhaps I include the Skype conversation in We Need New Names for this reason: it is my way of saying, “I know—I know”, my way of trying to show that I am aware of the position I occupy. It is my way of washing my hands in a text that I consider a love letter to my people because while it comes from a difficult time, it exists mostly because of my love for my country and people. Even with the limitations of distance, I am still Zimbabwean, and moreover, it seems to me better to speak than not to speak at all, knowing that one day decades from today, a century from now, the future generations of my homeland will look back at this recent lost decade and want to feel its pulse. I would like to spare them the experience of my generation, looking back in search of the Gukurahundi. I do not wish for them to find silence; I wish them clarity.
‘The past cannot die in the act of remembering. It cannot become truly past because it is not given a story, and so remains hanging, unresolved, in silence—in the community of sealed lips.’
My grandmother called herself a substitute child of the Great War. She did not experience it herself, but if it had not broken out, she was wont to say, she would never have existed. A year before her birth in March 1919 her eldest brother, whom she never knew, died of Spanish flu. He was born in the summer of 1914 and succumbed to the disease in the spring of 1918. The duration of the First World War was his whole life.
There is only one photo of him, rendered thoroughly opaque by time, in which an infant with big eyes like those of an owlet looks into the lens. Actually I know no more about him than his death. When Spanish flu reached the flat country between Ghent and Bruges, where my mother’s family had worked the land for generations, it attacked the lives of mostly children and young people, weakened as they were by the occupation and the scanty food rations. Older people had more resistance to the virus, and most survived it.
Every day children came to my great-grandparents’ farm begging for food, bread, milk and eggs. Children of day-labourers, indigent weavers, small farmers who had to scrape a living from poorer soil than the rich earth gleaming with clay on which my family grew their crops and reared their livestock. My great-grandmother dipped the children’s cups and mugs into the jugs containing the morning milk fresh from the cows, but first she blew aside the cream which had floated up to the top. Cream meant butter, and butter was destined for the Germans, as was the grain, as was the meat. There was hunger everywhere.
My grandmother told me that when the flu struck, the dead of the previous night were carried through the farmyards and orchards to the side of the road, almost all of them children. A cart drawn by horses—old horses, since all the strong ones had been requisitioned by the Germans—came to collect the bodies. The speed and scale of the deaths were too great to be able to give everyone a decent funeral, and there was also the danger of infection. Nor were there enough planks to make coffins for all those bodies. Many children, said my grandmother, were simply put into the earth in their pyjamas or nightgowns, or in a shroud of bed sheets hastily sewn together.
She told me what her mother had told her about that time and what she could have told her children, if her life had not been so imbued with the shame two wars had engendered in her, if there had not been so much that she preferred to keep to herself: things that I sensed were charged, gaps in the narrative universe that embraces every family, because we never come into the world truly naked. As soon as we leave the womb we exchange the amniotic fluid that has surrounded us for nine months for a sea of stories in which we are submerged long before we are aware of it. And, just as we learn the hard way that it is not sensible to touch a hot stove or a frozen door handle, we gradually realize that silences occur in the stories in which we are embedded that are equally untouchable. Memory too has its sore spots.
My great-grandparents cannot have allowed themselves much time to mourn after the death of their eldest child. There are scarcely ten months between the death of my grandmother’s eldest brother and her own birth, four months after the end of the war. A farmer without progeny is a farmer without a future. My grandmother knew she was the fruit of a second attempt, and what’s more an only half-successful one. True, her birth brought new life, but she wasn’t a boy. She was not the son who would one day take over the farm from my great-grandfather and continue the work on the land for another generation.
That son was born a few years later, in 1922, but I never knew him either. He was killed in January 1944 in the Ukraine, on the Eastern Front, as a recent recruit in Hitler’s army, during the liberation of Berdichev, the town where three years before the Nazis had murdered 30,000 Jews. A comrade-in-arms took him, badly wounded in a grenade attack, to a field hospital and left him there as the Red Army approached.
My grandmother hoped that there was someone to tend his grave over there in Russia. She was always busy scrubbing the graves of her family members with bleach to fight the moss. I never dared tell her that her younger brother may never have had a grave. Her older brother did have a gravestone, but there was no body under it, since the child had been buried together with many others. The remains of her younger brother probably lie somewhere in a Ukrainian field or meadow, without a cross or any other sign, and I just hope he was already dead when the Russians reached the hospital, because when they found wounded soldiers in German field hospitals they usually shot them.
Perhaps my grandmother realized all that too, but she said nothing about it, and nor did I. I had understood from an early age that the war was one of those sore spots in the family memory which I would be well advised not to prod at.
As a child, war was a word I could not link to any concrete memories or meanings. It seemed to evoke mostly silence, the silence of hidden mourning, the silence of loss and bereavement, of shame and guilt, and not only at home, in my first nest, but virtually everywhere.
The veterans of the Great War also seemed to want mainly to be silent. On 11 November they gathered in the church square around the monument to the fallen, their coat collars covered in medals, their fingers raised in a trembling salute as the national anthem rang out. After the ceremony they made for the pub and silently drank their beer or gin.
“When I saw what I’d done, I felt ashamed,” said one of them, who was invited by the head teacher to come and talk at school about his time at the IJzer Front. He told the same story every year. One night he was ordered to leave the trench and advance into no man’s land for a counter-attack. He threw a grenade ahead of him and later saw the havoc the thing had wrought: four dead soldiers, Germans, cowering in a bomb crater. “Lads like me,” he said. “Farmers’ sons like me perhaps.”
However loose-lipped he was compared with the other veterans, I felt that there was much more about which he was silent. His voice regularly faltered because of his inability to capture the scale of the devastation, the violence, the stench and the death in his limited language. And there was also astonishment at the waste of so much good agricultural land, possibly just as shocking as the human slaughter, I suspect, for someone who saw himself as a scion of the aristocracy of the earth, the proud farming class that fed our nation.
There is a lot of silence in my fatherland, where there is much that cannot be said. Belgium is a land of “non-dits”, as the French call things that are taboo. The visit of that 1914—18 veteran was also a way of not having to talk about the following war, which had divided communities into those who collaborated with the occupying forces, like my grandparents, those who resisted and the countless others who compromised in order to survive. No one felt much like looking back afterwards. Our head teacher had fought in the Resistance in the Second World War. Now he taught the grandchildren of collaborators to read and write just the same as the descendants of those who had fought on the side of the angels, or those who had tried to survive the Nazi occupation as unobtrusively as possible.
Social cohesion, being able to live together as harmoniously as possible, is the aim of a community, not necessarily coping with painful and complex, even paradoxical truths. It is a strategy that helps us to return to a more or less normal existence, but it also carries a price. The past cannot die in the act of remembering. It cannot become truly past because it is not given a story, and so remains hanging, unresolved, in silence—in the community of sealed lips.
As a child I was so fascinated by words, by language, precisely because on my mother’s side so much was cloaked in silence. Where matters are cloaked in silence, it is difficult for the silence to keep quiet. Everything seems irradiated by secret speech. Sometimes I fantasized that the long lines of poplars, which divide up the vastness of the sky and the land in my native region into tolerable rooms, whispered when the wind brushed their crowns. I thought they whispered because so much whispering went on in the grown-ups’ world. My mother made fun of me because in the evenings before I went to sleep I would talk to the pine trees from my bed, the line of blue-green pointed hats outside the window of my room, in which the wind, unlike in the poplars on the street side, produced a soft whistling; the song of countless pine needles trembling in the breeze.
Sssh, sssh, they said, hush now. Sssh, sssh, like someone pouting their lips to lull a child to sleep. My mother laughed at me because, according to her, trees couldn’t talk. The trees have no voice, she laughed. But if our voice is no more than air causing two elastic bands to vibrate in our pharynx, why should trees not be able to speak when the same air that we exhale in speaking plays upon their foliage?
As children we only become human when we learn to listen to language as language, when we begin to realize that the words of the beings and things that surround us are not properties like their colour, their smell, their form, but sounds that we produce and teach each other in order to make ourselves understood by ourselves and each other. It is the moment when we bark instead of saying “meow” when asked what sound a cat makes.
That playful child’s lie symbolizes a ritual rupture of the unity of world, word and body. It marks our real birth into language, which is first and foremost an experience of alienation. Lying opens the spaces between words and things, between words and ourselves, our desires, our fears, our motives. The lie is the keyhole in the door beyond which are the dim chambers of the inner self—the other person’s and our own. Of course I knew as well as my mother that trees do not speak, but by imagining that the whole of nature was capable of language I could cling for a little while to the illusion that the unity remained intact.
It was a happy household that I grew up in, both in my parents’ home and at my grandmother’s, with fancy-dress sessions under the beams in the attic, where the clothes of our great-grandparents and other garments awaited us. We looked at tadpoles in glass bowls, played hide-and-seek in the orchard and caught butterflies. For our birthdays my grandmother baked enormous cakes, architectural marvels of dough, chocolate, puff pastry and whipped cream. In short, we had everything that belongs with a carefree childhood, not least buckets of unconditional love, warmth and affection.
But there were also fears, vague fears that could take hold of me particularly at night. I don’t know how many times my father (my mother took care of the talking trees) opened the wardrobe in my room when I was little, to chase away the bear or dragon that had hidden in it. My father felt that I had too much imagination. I would be better off spending a little less time with my nose in strip cartoons or watching Star Trek, he thought.
But the bears and the dragons were figments of my imagination. The fears that were besetting me had no shape—that was precisely what made them frightening. With bears and dragons there was still a possibility of communication, in view of my dialogue with the local flora. I was still too young to realize that where much is kept silent, silences become wandering emotions, exiles in search of something to hold onto, of a body to harbour them and perhaps finally give them shelter in language and narrative. I heard them and they frightened me. Perhaps they were searching for me.
What if it had all turned out differently? What if the owlet had not died of Spanish flu? What if my grandmother had not had the feeling that she really ought to have been a boy and that her birth had been a disappointment to her parents, however loving they had been?
What if her father with his horse and cart had not been dragged along by the Ghent-to-Bruges train in 1928, because the horse started rearing on the level crossing and refused to move ahead? What if my great-grandmother had not had to leave the imposing farm because, as a widow with two small children who demanded all her attention, she could not possibly also head a flourishing farming business? What if she had not died of bone cancer a few years later and left two orphans behind: two teenagers alone in a world still licking the wounds of the Great War, plagued by an economic crisis and increasingly in the grip of political movements which were soon to spread their regime of gruesome terror?
Would my grandmother and her younger brother have been less susceptible to the vision of a world ruled by purity and harmony if my great-grandfather had still been alive? Would my grandmother have had a different life, without silences and shame, without mourning that could not express itself, without gnawing feelings of guilt, and would her brother not have ended up in a grave in Russia, in the uniform of an SS Grenadier?
I don’t know, I don’t know. And there is no one left to answer those questions. My grandmother has been dead for six years and perhaps she would not have answered anyway. On the few occasions that I asked her about the past, I found myself sounding very much like an inquisitor, and I heard and felt her shame. What right did I have to drag her before the court of history? No one is totally transparent to themselves; no one can always give equally clear reasons for the choices he or she has made. I would have liked her to say: “I made mistakes, errors and I have to live with them.” But she was too proud. Probably she would also have had the feeling that by forswearing the past she would have been spitting on her brother’s grave, however much incomplete mourning continued to overshadow her own life. She was scarcely twenty when the Second World War broke out. She lived to be ninety. Seventy years spent cherishing the memory of a dead relative who embodies the shame of the family is a long time.
Shortly before she died she gave me a sheaf of family papers. She said I was entitled to them and that she knew I would look after them. There are no secrets revealed in them. The sheaf contains her diplomas for French and German and dressmaking—she was proud of having an independent income as a dressmaker apart from her husband’s, and of speaking a number of languages. The daughter who should have been a boy obviously wanted to prove that she was a match for men. She had also kept the bills for the funerals of her father and mother, and for the Requiem Mass she had dedicated to the memory of her fallen brother. There are also a few letters of his from Russia—insignificant letters from a green youth who in his own words hoped to defeat the Communists for the greater glory of Flanders. His last letter dates from a few weeks before he was felled by the fatal grenade.
I filed all the papers away in an archive box. Now and then I take them out and hear them whispering. They don’t say much. I’ve long since stopped talking to the trees and the fears of the past have evaporated. Writing, I have learnt, is not intended to solve riddles. It is speaking and silence at the same time, my way of dealing with the community of sealed lips. Not by breaking them open, but by giving them a farewell kiss and making their silences audible.
Dave McKean, Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips are among the stellar contributors to this new anthology of illustrated short stories exploring the resonance of the war today.Find Out More