Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.
This is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade.
The writer begins her account by saying, “Seven bodies lay scattered across the cave floor like leaves in the wind. Some were missing limbs or parts of their torsos or craniums. One’s detached head had rolled a few feet away.” And she continues:
Even though this was a cold case, one that I was reconstructing from black-and-white photos while the actual bodies were now in a lab in Paris, it was hard not to feel the visceral presence of these seven. I immediately connected to their humanity through what I imagined were their emotions in their last moments of life. My thoughts burned with a single question. What had happened to them?
No one who reads the title of the book or glances at the flyleaf will be taken in by the pretense that this is a contemporary crime. What’s important here is that Beebe Bahrami feels the visceral presence of these long-gone Neandertals and she connects to their humanity. Early in this work she confesses to carrying a flame for these pre-historic people. “My love affair with Neandertals,” as she calls it, flows through her writing, a constant in this shape-shifting narrative.
In 2014 — I think it was 2014; it’s sometimes as difficult to date events in this memoir as it is to date Neandertal sites — she joined a team of scientists at a dig in La Ferrassie, in Dordogne in southwestern France. Her participation began by a fleeting glance as she was shopping for shallots at the market in the nearby medieval town, Sarlat-la-Canéda, in May of 2010. Bahrami had been drawn to that area two winters prior when she was exploring spiritual experiences and sacred roots. She had eventually landed in Sarlat and “found it had a pull on me like no region I’d ever inhabited.” As she explained later, “I actually felt as if I had come home.”
And there, while shopping for shallots, she caught, out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of a familiar figure who “sped past garden stands, olive sellers, foie gras tables, jarred black truffles, and walnut liqueurs,” hurrying along with a companion, another man. After paying for the shallots, Beebe Bahrami was unable to find that familiar figure in the market. She thought it must have been Harold Dibble, a name the reader had come across in the book’s first chapter, a paleolithic archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Now he emerged in the narrative as a mentor and friend -–“no one else had that figure, an archaeologist-foodie’s figure of a man unafraid of cooking with butter, cream, bacon and duck fat, all in the same dish. Harold was famous for hosting digs where he cooked for everyone and the wine flowed as if at the Wedding of Cana.”
The change of scene and especially the difference in tone, the brief sketching of Harold Dibble’s character and the increased richness of language, suggest that this book is actually a memoir with characters as fully developed as figures in a novel. But that doesn’t quite happen, and this alteration in tone is merely the first of many such shifts and turns that Beebe Bahrami takes in this work.
I began reading Café Neandertal because I was interested in these early human inhabitants of our planet. As the book unfolded I went with Beebe Bahrami’s story of the bodies at La Ferrassie, the paleolithic archaeologists Harold Dibble and his colleague Dennis Sandgathe, and –-briefly — filmmaker Sophie Cattoire in her “low-cut dark blue spaghetti-strap top,” and “her long, flaming red hair atop her head, accentuated further by the cherry-toned lipstick that she pulled off with the easy elegance so common among French women.” And I took in the plain, well-written information about Neandertals that surfaced now and again from the broadening narrative stream.
Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.
Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.
Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:
- Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
- Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
- Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
- Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro. He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and announce that he has risen from the grave.
No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.
I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.
Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.
Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.
Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.
Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.”
This story follows a woman into solitude and readers are fortunate that she has an exceptionally wide ranging and lively mind. In the midst of this sexual scene she pauses to tell us that “In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts. Perhaps this is not the time to bring this up, but it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.” (That note about publishers and writers is the first of a scattering of similar remarks about books throughout the novel.) Happily for Marguerite, she remembers a certain apostate nun she saw burned the previous summer and that memory drives her to her orgasm “and I come, shouting Hail Mary.”
Not only does no one know why the historical Marguerite was among those sailing to New France under the command of General Roberval – whatever his family relationship to her – also, no one knows what caused him to abandon her with her lover and her maid on a desolate island. As happens in one of the earliest accounts of this event, Douglas Glover has her lover, Richard, leap from the ship to the small boat carrying her ashore. In this version the ardent Richard misses the boat and plunges into the water, but emerges to share her fate, which was his intention.
The author invents freely and believably the circumstances of her being among those colonists in a chapter called What Do You Do with a Headstrong Girl? in which Marguerite describes herself as not only headstrong, but too sensual, too curious, too brave, too forward, and especially as having a too great an interest in books. Her exasperated father wanted to be rid of her and she wanted to escape her home; her going was a convenience for both of them.
Marguerite doesn’t suggest any reason for her punishment beyond bad behavior. As for the nature of the punishment, she says at one point “I am particularly reminded of the Greek princess Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon put her to death on a lonely beach on the shaky theory that this act would ensure decent sailing over to Troy, where he hoped to win back his brother’s runaway wife Helen (another woman led astray by her heart in a world of men). It’s a male thing, I suppose, not to be persuaded from murder by the threat of revenge, pangs of conscience, pity, justice, the tug of family affection, not to mention the purely unscientific basis of the premise that killing a virgin will cause sunshine and warm, westerly breezes.”
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
Douglas Glover is a Canadian writer, but Canada isn’t far from the United States and if you live in a Northern state it’s quite close. Glover resides on both sides of the US-
Canada border and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Our paths crossed many years ago when we were both teaching in upstate New York. That was so many years ago I cannot recall actual dates, but I was on the faculty of the State University of NY at Albany and Doug was hosting The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program. If it’s possible to remain in contact with another writer simply by reading his books – even when you haven’t seen each other for years — then I can say we’ve remained in touch.
In this little essay I’ve quoted a lot from the opening pages of Elle, because I know of no equally sensuous way to convey the voice of this narrative. Of course, the voice in Elle belongs to Marguerite and is merely transcribed by Doug Glover who has his own voice. And, naturally, it varies from novel to novel and from one short story to another. Though it may be impossible to find the writer’s own personal voice in his fictions, you can meet his literary mind directly in his non-fictional book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight. To be precise, the book isn’t about Cervantes but about his novel, Don Quixote – and, actually, and it’s not so much about that novel, as it is rather on Glover’s theory and craft of fiction writing. In addition to writing and teaching, Doug Glover also is the editor of the online literary magazine Numero Cinq which, despite it’s name, is in English. Finally, I must add that Douglass Glover is obscure. Let me quote from the masthead of Numero Cinq:
Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.”
There are a lot of dramas on TV and no matter how the plot zigs and zags you know how most, or maybe all of them, are going to turn out. The only time that’s not true when you’re watching a sporting event – like, say, Super Bowl Fifty-One. Only an incomplete mind, or a terribly deprived one, fails to engage the drama inherent in any game, and the Super Bowl Fifty-One was certainly dramatic.
Aristotle – I’m thinking of the Greek philosopher born in 385 BC, not “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal – had some interesting things to say about the dramas that he and his countrymen saw performed in Greece. The play, Aristotle said, should have one action from start to finish, should occur in one place, and should begin and end in one day.Those happenings on stage, he said, weren’t true actions or events but “imitations of an action.”
Despite this, the spectators, were engaged as if the imitations were actual events – as if the actor on stage were really Oedipus, as if, at the close of the play, he has murdered his father and bedded his mother and now, blood streaming down his face, he has actually put out his own eyes in self-punishment.
Adults have the strange ability to simultaneously know that what they’re witnessing is merely a imitation of an action, and at the same time, says Aristotle, they are moved by genuine pity and terror by what they see. We know what the characters in the drama are scripted to feel, we identify ourselves with them and feel the emotions we’d feel if we were in the little world portrayed on stage. The drama played out in a football game engages us the same way, but it’s greatly heightened by our knowledge that what we witness is not bogus, but is actually happening to the players on the field.
The New England Patriots were favored to win by three points. Most New Englanders identified with the Patriots, of course, but despite the odds, the rest of the United States poured their emotions into the Atlanta Falcons. To put it bluntly, the Patriots had become the team to hate. Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was thirty-nine years old, had already won four Super Bowl games, tying the best performance by any other quarterback in Super Bowl history, but he had also been tainted by a cheating scandal for which he was punished by being sidelined for four games, a staggering penalty. On the other hand, the Falcon’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, at thirty-one, was in charge of a team of comparative youngsters and had just won the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. Ryan was leading an exceptional team, a team with a very bright future — a future that might arrive with this game. Maybe Brady was the past.
The trajectory of Super Bowl LI had a stunningly dramatic arc. Over 111 million viewers watched the game on TV, caught up in the emotion of a championship game that tied and went into overtime, a first in Super Bowl history. It obeyed the unities of time, place and action, but no spectator felt terror for the losing Falcons or Matt Ryan – pity, perhaps, but not terror. Super Bowl LI wasn’t an Aristotelian drama and nobody noticed. They were too caught up in the action, real action, not an imitation.
So, Donald John Trump became president after all. He won the election and was inaugurated and now he works in the Oval Office and lives in the White House. I’m still surprised. I occasionally read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but I get most of my news from TV. It turned out that the authoritative news analysts on NBC and ABC and CBS and CNN and MSNBC and PBS and NPR didn’t know what they were talking about.
They had been observing the political scene, day in and day out, for the two-year runup to the election, and they had got it wrong.
But the analysts weren’t daunted. The day after the election they sprang up on television again, as knowledgeable as ever, telling us about the voters in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, explaining why so many of those folks had voted for Donald Trump. And the analysts continued their journalistic probing of president-elect Trump. During the campaign, Donald Trump had been a bullying nationalistic, “America first!” demagogue, attacking the media elite, sewing fear among our minorities, insulting and scaring our allies, delighting in his followers as they chanted “Lock her up!” about his opponent, and claiming if he were defeated, it would show the election had been rigged. But the political commentators, most of them, assured us that Trump would reveal his benign and civil presidential self now that he had won the election.
The commentators were somewhat uneasy and defensive as they ventured that prediction, because it was the same forecast they made when Trump had defeated his last primary opponent. But Donald Trump hadn’t turned presidential. He was still displaying indifference toward the norms of political discourse and a hostility toward what he called “political correctness,” which in his vocabulary meant ordinary politeness. And he lied a lot.
Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015. During the endless primary period he demolished each of his Republican rivals, crushing them with scorn, mockery, half-truths and lies. The billionaire won the Republican nomination on July 19, 2016. Without pausing to become presidential, he turned his attention to Hillary Clinton and, using the same low demagogic tactics he had developed in the primaries, he rolled through the sanctified electoral college and handily won the presidency. That was on November 8, 2016. He didn’t reveal a presidential self the next day nor on any of the days that followed to his inauguration.
Donald John Trump’s inaugural speech, much of which was shouted, included an insulting passage about the three presidents seated a few feet from him, conjured up a depressing and bogus picture of our nation’s economy and social state and, with a few notable exceptions, radiated a vague hostility toward other nations of the world. Donald John Trump is our president and is the same Trump we’ve seen for the past year and a half, the same bombastic billionaire we’ve seen for years on The Apprentice TV series and for decades prior to that. He’s not been in disguise. He’s not going to reveal a better self. He has no better self.
Some analysts of the political scene are calling Trump a populist. Theodore Roosevelt was a populist, Robert LaFollette was a populist. Both espoused progressive policies. It doesn’t clarify anything to call Trump a populist; quite the contrary, it puts him in an American tradition where he doesn’t belong. Our President is a billionaire who has gathered to his side the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the United States.
Donald John Trump, our Trump, is a vulgar man. He’s a boastful and clownish billionaire, a mocker, a bully, a distorter of the truth, a fabricator of errors of fact, a liar and a demagogue — one third buffoon and two thirds menace. Through the folly and opportunism of the Republican Party, and the complacent venal delinquency of the Democratic Party, he now commands more power than any other mortal on earth. And we, the people, are the only hope we have.
We’re happy to reprint the following essay by Robert Gray which appeared in Shelf Awareness, the online journal essential to critics and booksellers.
A Day for Eugene Mirabelli
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
–From “Distressed Haiku” by Donald Hall
Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.
November 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”
As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before–and after–Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns… and works.
When I read Mirabelli’s two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter’s narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.
“Anybody who’s written a first-person novel knows that you’re going to be identified with the narrator,” Mirabelli told his audience. “My wife died after I’d written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication.”
Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife’s death, Mirabelli recalled that “for two or three years I didn’t feel like writing at all. And my friends said, ‘Oh you’re a writer, you’ll write.’ That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted…. not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.
“And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn’t write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what…. And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn’t unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion…. But grief is something you’ve never felt unless somebody you love has died. It’s a remarkably unique emotion…. One of the curious things is how similar people’s experiences can be while being unique in all the details.”
Mirabelli added: “It’s funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it’s a life-affirming story…. I didn’t intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird… I went back to Renato, the Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don’t know how that happened, but it just happened.”
His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: “I’ve been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he’s been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding’s Tom Jones through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance.”
Maybe you don’t frequent the Oxford Dictionaries site and you missed their choice for Word of the Year. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries don’t just put a bunch of neologisms into a hat and blindly pick one. In fact it took a lot of discussion, debate, and research before they chose post-truth as the Word of the Year — it’s an adjective they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ”
The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries are cool. They aren’t working in an ivory tower, remote from the rhetorical muck and fantasy of our eighteen-month campaign for president. They had this to say about the hyphenated word: “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”
There was a time when post-truth meant “after the truth has come out.” No more. Now the word is used to mean a disregard and discounting of facts and an embrace of whatever you wish to believe. So, greetings to post-truth, the Word of the Year, and to the weird politics of the year 2016..
Anil Menon is a writer whose most interesting book you probably won’t find in your local bookstore. Menon, born in India’s tropical Kerala state, has gained broad attention in this country as a writer of speculative fiction. As a kid he aspired to be an accountant – his father was an accountant who delighted in his work – but when that kid had completed his undergraduate education he went to Syracuse University in non-tropical upstate New York.
At Syracuse, Menon entered a PhD program and emerged to write papers on evolutionary algorithms. If you can imagine a computer program that mimics the blundering processes of Darwinian evolution to achieve its ends, you might consider exploring the field of evolutionary algorithms. Menon still does work in mathematics, but he has written more and more fiction, short and long, and now defines himself as a writer of speculative fiction. In fact, he’s a writer of complex intelligence, verve and wit.
There can be a playfulness in mathematics akin to the wittiness you hear in Mozart or Bach — and that same playfulness is everywhere in Menon’s recent novel. Half of What I Say, a 436-page work in English, was published in India by Bloomsbury’s New Delhi office, the independent publisher and innovative writer making a good match.
Half of What I Say is structured as a roman policier in which Vyas, an agent of the nation’s powerful Lokshakti security apparatus, is tasked with investigating people involved in making a subversive but unreleased movie based on the Ramayana. At the same time, Vyas himself is desperate to recover a letter he wrote to his wife expressing doubts about the role of the Lokshakti, and the letter apparently had been in the possession of a high-profile intellectual who was murdered, presumably by another branch of the omnipresent Lokshakti. As the story gets going, the author introduces, one by one, a number of apparently unconnected characters who later turn out to be linked in an intricate chain which includes a bright university woman, a wealthy industrialist and his beautiful wife, an exceedingly popular movie actress, an sexually neutral poet, an upcoming computer entrepreneur, plus their sidekicks, subordinates and dependents further down the social food chain.
It’s a real-world fact that Lok Shakti (People Power) was a political party that rose to prominence in the late 1990s in Karnataka, a state bordering Menon’s Kerala, but the Lok Shakti eventually sank in significance, partially absorbed by a another political movement. Lokshakti, as a single word, is Anil Menon’s invention. Menon told an interviewer in the Indian Express that the novel grew out of his antipathy toward Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “Many of my Indian friends were in favour of it,” he said, “but the more I learned about Hazare, the more convinced I became that the proposed cures were worse than the disease.” Menon believes that tyrannies are mass movements gone wrong, and that such movements get started because people are easily led by stories. And those stories can be simple falsehoods, national myths, legends from the past, slanted news items, popular movies – in other words, stories of any kind.
The India that Anil Menon portrays is counterfactual — an India where the anti-corruption movement has succeeded and there’s now a central agency, not answerable to anyone, dedicated to rooting out corruption. Half of What I Say comes to the reader first as a police story, but it’s clearly a critique of trends which Menon sees in India’s political world. The author’s deeper, recurrent preoccupation in Half of What I Say is the role of story in the political life of the nation. Of course, Half of What I Say itself is fiction, so, yes, we have a bit of postmodern gymnastics going on here, too.
At this point we might puzzle out the book’s title which is cut down from the sentence “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” In Europe and America, the phrase is most often attributed to the Beatles song, “Julia,” by John Lennon and, possibly, Menon may have had that in mind, but if so, he probably also had in mind the same lines from Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam. So the question arises as to which level of this layered novel was the author’s throw-away part. The danger in writing an adventure tale in order to critique political dynamics is that your reader may simply read for the police story and not take in the criticism at all, or may take in the critique, and merely wonder what the repeated references to story are intended to convey. Many reviewes were content to talk about plot and not much more.
Anil Menon’s very large cast of quickly sketched characters, the broad stretch of society he looks at, his rapidly shifting scenes and the use of public as well as private events to propel the plot — these bring to mind the sweeping novels of John Dos Passos. Menon has said he’s familiar with Dos Passos and, indeed, Menon’s work has many of the virtues and flaws as Dos Passos’. For readers in the United States, the big difference between these two authors is that Dos Passos wrote about the life in the States whereas Menon is writing about India — a country most Americans know very little about and half of what they do know is often wrong.
Despite the very large cast, each person is fully named, and doubtless those names suggest or convey information to Indian readers that American readers wouldn’t be able to grasp, such as where those characters come from, maybe their particular religious affiliation and social class. People in this book sometimes switch from English to Hindi or their home dialect and we have no idea what those nuances might convey to an Indian reader. (There are twenty-two official languages in India and many more that are not official — but you knew that already, right?) Then there’s the question of dealing with any foreigner as to whether his or her behavior is typical of the culture or unique to the person. It’s hard to figure out whether the boorish sexual groping displayed by some men in this novel is typical of India or is intended to demonstrate class or caste or ignorance or simply to show the guy’s an oaf.
There are wonderful things in Half of What I Say. Anil Menon loves ideas and they pop up, page after page, from the conversation of his characters. Indeed, maybe there are too many allusions to this or that intellectual position; some critics are as upset as cook over a pan of exploding pop corn. But Menon has a deft sure hand at dialog and the conversations of his Indian characters — the vocabulary, the zigzags, the allusions and witticisms — might just as well have taken place among Americans on a university campus in Indiana.
The range of reference is remarkably far reaching. Victor Dorabjee, a general in the Lokshakti, in a talk with his subordinate, Vyas, refers to Charles de Gaulle’ attitude toward the electorate and then asks Vyas what he thinks of The Giving Tree. Vyas replies, “Pretty much identical to Raja Harishchandra, sir.” Readers here probably know about Charles de Gaulle and if they’re acquainted with children’s literature they might well know Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. But they probably don’t know the legend of Raja Harishchandra, though it’s found in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
It’s hard to understand how people living in the India revealed everywhere in this novel can also be so Western, so at ease with the lingo, the attitudes and intellectual references of the with-it intellectual class in the United States. Half of What I Say offers a fascinating glimpse – alas, only a glimpse — into an elite Indian society that sounds remarkably American. At one point in this novel, Vyas alludes to a trip he and his wife took to the United States. Vyas tells the reader, I was also curious to study the American in his native habitat, and she was curious, I think, to see if she could pass for one.
He goes on to say:
The main thing that surprised me about the United States was the remarkable similarity with India. The same preening self-satisfaction, the same narcissistic disinterest in the world, the same multiplicity of idols, and the same passion for violence, masked with the same hypocritical claims to a superior morality. It gave me a lot of hope; there’s no reason why our toilets couldn’t be raised to the same superior standards.
Bloomsbury Publishing, headquartered in London and with an office in New York city, probably made the right decision not to issue the this novel in the United States. But readers here can hope that Anil Menon will write a novel with an American readership in mind. We need it.
Faust in Copenhagen is an account of an extraordinary group of people who explored the mysteries of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and early 1930s. The author is Gino Segre, a physicist himself, and in the Acknowledgments of this finely written and carefully researched volume he says, “Writing this book has been a labor of love, allowing me to spend time in the company of many of the intellectual heroes of my youth.” Indeed, the figures he writes about were heroes to many of us who had a youthful interest in physics.
In Segre’s book, the lines of history converge on April,1932, in Copenhagen. There a group of physicists meets to review the advance they’ve made in understanding the baffling world of quantum mechanics. They’ve made amazing progress and 1932 was a “miracle year.” At the end of the meeting they’re entertained by a small theatrical production, a comic skit written by fellow-physicist Max Delbruck. It’s a light parody based on Goethe’s culturally heavy Faust, but with the names and personalities changed to resemble the physicists themselves. Of course, we know what they did not, that the political storm gathering in Europe would make their swift gain in knowledge look like a bargain with the devil, a Faustian bargain to be paid for with the horrific birth of the atomic bomb.
Faust in Copenhagen is written for the general reader. It focuses on the physicists, their friendships and conflicts with each other, their competing attempts to understand the structure of the atom, the twists and turns in their lives. For readers with an interest in physics and physicists, this is a fascinating stretch of history — those not interested in such things would probably not pick up the book. There are no equations in this volume, no mathematics at all.
I wonder if you can say much about quantum mechanics without saying at least a little about numbers. One of the people at the center of Segre’s story, Lise Meitner, was an experimentalists, but the others — Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbruck, Paul Ehrenfest — dealt primarily with numbers, the results of experiments which were expressed in numbers. What made quantum mechanics so baffling was that these physicists had to figure out what was happening when they couldn’t see what was happening – they couldn’t peer inside an atom. All they had were numbers and the relationship between certain numbers, and from that they had to work backward to guess at would produce those numbers. It took a while to figure things out because, as they discovered, the weird rules governing the sub-atomic world were nothing like the familiar laws of Isaac Newton that determine the world we experience.
Of course, the same set of experimentally derived numbers can mean different things to different people. Certain numbers might suggest that an electron makes elliptical orbits around the nucleus of an atom. But you can’t really trace the orbit and see it do that; maybe the electron does something else that merely produces the same effect as an elliptical orbit. Werner Heisenberg, very young and very bright, hoped to erase what he felt were false visualizations, and he came up with a way of handling the numbers that didn’t depend on a theory of orbital motion but did produced the right results.
At the same time, another physicist who wasn’t part of the Copenhagen group, Erwin Schrodinger, did like to visualize the sub-atomic world and he came up with a completely different way of dealing with numbers and, like Heisenberg’s mathematics, his produced the right answers, too. The two men soon hated each other’s math. Of course it’s possible to discuss their conflicting ideas simply as ideas, but explaining a little bit about Heisenberg’s matrices and Schrodinger’s wave equations might allow the reader a better sense of how different those approaches were.
As it happens, one of the physicists not able to attend that meeting in 1932 was George Gamow, who was detained in Russia by the Soviets. He had had a couple of sojourns in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen in the past and he eventually escaped Soviet Russia, rejoined the physics community in Europe and settled in the United States. Gamow, who was writing important papers in quantum mechanics when he was twenty-four, later wrote a series of books on physics for the general reader; one of those books, Thirty Years That Shook Physics, tells the story of the people who developed quantum theory, much the same tale that Gino Segre tells at greater length and with more detail fifty years later.
Thirty Years That Shook Physics is lighter in tone than Segre’s book and has anecdotes, illustrations, sketches and cartoonish drawings by Gamow himself. It also has some mathematics — not a lot, not blindingly difficult, but real and useful in giving the reader a sense of what the physicists were doing. Segre’s work, with its extended conceit of the Faust story, has more artistry to it, and happily Gamow’s book is still available as a follow-up for interested readers of Faust in Copenhagen. After all, if you don’t like the look of an equation you can always skip it, but if it isn’t there, you won’t know what you’re missing.