Welcome to this month's book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we post a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you to join us for further conversation in the comments. January’s book is Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack and other forthcoming picks are listed here.
This month's book is Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam. Published earlier this year, Islam’s debut novel tells of Hedayat, the "glossolalist" narrator born on a flying carpet in the skies above an obscure land whose leader has manufactured the ability to hear every unspoken utterance of the nation. He records the contents of his citizens’ minds onto tape reels for archival storage. Later in Hedayat’s young life, as the unnameable country collapses into disarray around him, he begins an epistle, wherein, interspersed with accounts of contemporary terrorist attacks and the outbreak of a mysterious viral epidemic, he invokes the memories of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to revisit the troubled country’s history and expose the roots of its crisis. The Mirror, a gruesome, never-ending reality show, turns the city of La Maga into a permanent Hollywood-style film set where people gamble body parts and live in fear of the Black Organs, the paramilitary manifestation of the eviscerators that threaten to infect the nation.
Discussing Fire in the Unnameable Country are:
Nandini Ramachandran, an Indian writer and lawyer. She lives and blogs online as chaos bogey.
Ethan Robinson, an American critic who blogs at Marooned Off Vesta.
Aishwarya Subramanian:, a critic and PhD student working on post-war British children's literature. She blogs at Practically Marzipan.
The Tigerman group discussed the uses (and to some extent the morality) of creating fictional countries in which to dramatise real-world political/cultural ideas. How do we think this plays out in the creation of La Maga, and of the country itself, in Islam's novel? How does Fire in the Unnameable Country play with our expectations with regards to the real-world locations it suggests?
Ethan Robinson: I was interested to see this issue come up in the Tigerman conversation—and I'm glad we're talking about it now—because I'd had many of the same questions about the responsibility/irresponsibility of fictional places while reading Unnameable Country—especially because in so many ways the unnameable country itself does seem designed to stand in for so many different places in what westerners tend nebulously to refer to as the Middle East. And yet. It has a concrete location: it shares one border with Somalia, and it has a coast on the "Gulf of Eden," which is hard to take as anything other than a fanciful transformation of the Gulf of Aden. This puts the unnameable country pretty firmly where Djibouti is in the real world, or sandwiched in between it and Somalia, which severely limits the degree to which we can interpret it as—what would you call it?—"everycolony," maybe. For example it's not even on the right landmass to be Iraq, which the American imagination might want it to be, or Bangladesh, where Islam was born. I don't think anything in the novel contradicts this specificity, and yet it conflicts with the constant insistence on the country as "unnameable," vague, even fictional: it shows up only on certain maps, entering and leaving it seem almost as much magical acts as entering and leaving Oz, and so on. (Though of course "real" countries also sometimes only appear on certain maps, because they are political, not geographical entities; and crossing their borders can be even more difficult and mysterious than with Oz. . . .)
I think what I'd ultimately say is that in many ways the conflict between "the unnameable country as fictional, generalized allegory" and "the unnameable country as real, specific place" (along with other similar conflicts) is the fabric of the novel itself, is where the life of the novel lies. I think Islam asks the same questions of his novel that we're asking of it now. And this is just one of the ways that what I tend to consider the general responsibilities of any writer (e.g., can I just make things up? and what does it mean to do that?) go into hyperdrive when dealing with a work as a) fantastical and b) overtly political as this one. And the fact that Islam is so clearly concerned with these questions is why, I think, his novel is so able to. . . to speak, maybe.
Then too there may be a suggestion that, if we can (to whatever extent) take this very specific place as a stand-in for a lot of situations in a lot of different places, this "stand-inness" itself has to do with the uniformity of the oppressive world-system in which those specific situations occur—which is to say, every place is its own place, every event is its own event, but similarities will recur when the event in question is the coming of a place under the heel of empire. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this, though, in general or as an observation about this specific novel (especially as empire itself is so often just off-stage in it), and I'm even less sure that it's my place to have a feeling about it at all.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I was one of the participants in the Tigerman discussion, and was reading this book at the same time, and I spent a lot of time wondering why things that bothered me about Tigerman's use of its fictional space did not have that effect here. I still don't really have an answer to this, though I suppose I have a few possible ones.
As Ethan says, we're given enough clues to where the country is, even though it doesn't really map onto a specific place historically or geographically. And I'm with him in thinking that one of the effects this has is to resist its being turned into "everycolony" (that is a good word and I am keeping it). Sofia Samatar just wrote a fantastic post in which she argues (after Edouard Glissant) for the right to "opacity" of African literature—and this is probably where I stick in disclaimers about not necessarily reading a book by a Bangladeshi-Canadian author and set in North Africa as "African" literature—that I think is relevant here. I’m going to quote her, but the whole thing is here. She suggests that transparency, in contrast to opacity, is
. . . that thing that happens when you already know. There's a mass of "knowledge of Africa" you absorb by just being alive somewhere (sometimes even in Africa!), such that when you pick up a work of African literature it's already seen, comprehended, assimilated: there will be no surprises because you already know.
And I think one of the things that the book does with its unnameable country is to walk an interesting line between presenting it to us as knowable—as a familiar narrative (because oppressive systems have a lot in common wherever in the world they operate, because the effects specifically of imperialism have a lot in common wherever in the world they operate, because orientalism, because America-in-the-Middle-East)—and presenting it as not (because it’s not geographically locatable within our real-world knowledge of African countries, because it’s not Iraq, it’s not something we can neatly map an allegory onto). The whole movie-set aspect of the plot seems to me to be of a piece with this—it’s a country furnished with signifiers for people outside it to look at and know, and it is built around those movie sets so that they are a part of its life. But they’re movie sets, they’re ultimately telling a (single) story and perhaps part of the point is that places aren’t reducible to single stories. We must be constantly reminded that this country is unknowable/unmappable/unnameable.
Which—and perhaps it’s too early in this discussion to make such grand claims for the book but why not—seems to me to come down to the whole question of narrative itself. In the Tigerman discussion I found myself quite uncomfortable with the entire question of using fantasy to explore things that are "real"; recently I’ve also been reading Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess, a book that tells of real-world events and simultaneously works to undermine its own telling so as not to impose a single narrative upon those events. What Ethan describes above as the general responsibilities of a narrator (what does it mean to make things up, what does representing something do to it) are so basic to all forms of literature that we tend to overlook them, but in a book like this one (and I’d argue in a number of books in which they’re taken for granted) I think those questions become really important.
Nandini Ramachandran: I reread bits of Unnameable Country on a flight, marveling at how well it’s named (as is everyone/thing in the book, really). As both Ethan and Aisha suggest, Islam does a fabulous job of portraying a place that is both intuitively known as well as ontologically unknowable—but I was struck less by the terrain-markers and the borders than by the catastrophes. It’s like the unnameable country is The Definitive Collection of #thirdworldproblems; a concatenation of calamities more than it’s a country. There’s civil war and defunct surveillance experiments and peculiar diseases and drought and drones and bizarre lotteries that can change your life (reading about the Chance Games I was reminded of the "visa lottery" industry in India, where otherwise unqualified people compete for the chance to get a work permit for the US.) Perhaps, I’m trying to say, allegory is a difficult category to think through here because there’s no room for one, everything’s so overdetermined. To quote that excellent Sofia Samatar post Aisha linked to, this is a book that’s "lost in transnation." There is room for metaphor, though, and, to take something Aisha hinted at slightly further, I’d argue that the mirror-city is the guiding metaphor (is there such a thing?) in the book. Being reduced to a spectacle for the benefit/entertainment of those far, far away is the ultimate, even quintessential, #thirdworldproblem.
Right, I realize I haven’t answered the question. I haven’t read Tigerman, but it’s not hard to find terrible fictional depictions of real places. I’m thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which satirizes the construction of spaces/nations by international journalism, but I’m also thinking of more earnest attempts, like Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, which I recently watched. The play is set in a (fictional) kingdom that is allied with British India but isn’t formally/legally a part of the colony. It’s about the relationship between a British poet and an Indian painter, and it’s full of the best intentions. It didn’t offend me, but it did make me uncomfortable: it’s like there are two moulds for Western writing about India: the victimized subcontinent and/or the exotic subcontinent. The difficulty in territories dense with myth/fantasy is that the aesthetic imagination tends to overcome the political one, so that the space itself becomes simultaneously a commodity (useful for its resources) and an imaginary (controlled through imposed, external boundaries).
I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t imagine ourselves into new spaces. The only way to fight fantasy is with fantasy (not reality, whatever that might be) and I think that’s partly the impulse behind Fire in the Unnameable Country.
Ethan Robinson: I'd like to pick up on Din's identification of the invasive film project The Mirror, and its transformation of La Maga into a mirror-city, as the book's guiding metaphor, which feels right to me (especially when taken with the note about things being far too overdetermined to leave room for allegory—an important distinction). For one thing, I'm intrigued by Aisha's bringing up "opacity" versus "transparency" in a discussion of a book built so much around this metaphor/image. Mirrors play havoc with the concepts of opacity and transparency: functionally they're both, and/or neither, or one or the other depending—you could say that they're so completely opaque they mimic transparency. I'm not sure exactly where to go with that, but it seems suggestive at least.
Another thing that fascinated me about The Mirror is that it is a spectacle (with emphasis on that word) for westerners, an ongoing movie that reduces life in the unnameable country to a bizarre violent fiction, but by being built precisely out of mirrors it also reflects, while at the same time dividing (the mirrors are also walls). At least three simultaneous movements attend any possible "spectating" at this spectacle: flattening, reflecting, dividing. Is this not what the fictionalizing of place that we've been talking about does? Is this not what allegory does? And is this not what imperialism does? The unnameable country, both as fiction (words on the page out of which we create a nonexistent object) and taken literally as "a real place," is split up into discrete chunks reflecting reality into what an artist/spectator/power wants to see, wants it to be. And it's not only places that this happens to. I want to connect this to the double identity of Zachariah Ben Jaloun/Ben Janoun: when the generalities of both allegory and submission come into contact with the irreducible specificity of the individual, the conflict creates a shift, a split. One becomes two (or suddenly has always already been two, as we see when the interrogators present Zachariah with the birth certificate showing what he thought was the false name): the disinterested poet becomes also the vicious functionary, just as the unnameable country became also The Mirror.
Nandini Ramachandran: I really like Ethan’s thought about the simultaneous movements of spectating, especially in a city made of mirrors. One my favorite bits of the novel was when Hedayat meets Q in that hospice full of ghosts—people who forgot, amidst the endless reflections and refractions, that they had died. It made me think of the afterlife of famous photographs, especially those that depict violence, and the old belief that cameras capture souls. If I were photographed at a moment of extreme trauma—say sipping tea in an orchard only to suddenly find my head being blown off—it seems to me entirely plausible that my soul would flee to the nearest blank and contained space, i.e., a photograph. (Well, that went to a macabre place. Moving on. . .)
Despite Islam’s emphasis on observing-reflecting-spectating, his novel is so full of hiding: places hidden from the world, people hidden from each other and themselves, their thoughts hidden away on reels. Like Ethan, I also thought of the duality of character in the book once I began thinking about mirrors in the narrative. Perhaps here is another instance where Aisha’s thought about transparency/opacity might be useful. Zachariah is the most glaring, but most of the people (all the men, certainly) in the novel have split or multiple personalities. Could we say, tentatively, that one of them is the person that the reader intuitively expects to see (the poet) while the other is the one that we’re surprised, but not shocked, to find (because we know poets in the third world ultimately end up either dead or serving the establishment or both).
It strikes me that Unnameable Country approaches the question of liminality (and thus visibility) from the other side of a book like, say, China Miéville’s The City & The City (2009). In that book, people can’t see each other when it’s inconvenient or impolitic to do so; in Unnameable Country they can’t stop seeing each other and thus they tuck away the most important/vulnerable bits of themselves so deep that it takes a glossolalist like Hedayat or Mamoun to unearth them.
Finally, while I raised the possibility of a "guiding metaphor" instead of an allegory, I realize that a perfectly reasonable question would be what is the difference? To use a metaphor to explain the difference (in my head, anyway): If we imagine the novel to be a maze, I'm thinking of an allegory as a floodlight, while a GM is a tiny flickering torch in the far distance.
Ethan Robinson: I really like the "one is the one we expect, one is the one that surprises" idea, though I think I'd worry about any rubric-formation in regards to this book, which is so determinedly multiplicitous—it would be easy to turn even an explanation of how the book surprises us into a way of making it. . . not surprise us. (Not that I remotely think that's what Din did—just something I always try to be on guard against in my own reading.)
Which, actually, I think is related to the question of allegory—an allegorical reading of this novel would be one that reduced what is irreducible about it. Allowing the metaphor of mirrors to guide us through its maze (and not necessarily "through" in the sense that we ever find a way out, whatever that would mean), through its complexities and resonances, is quite different from demanding the kind of one-to-one "this stands for this, this stands for this," correlation that allegory requires. Another thing about allegory is that it insists on the primacy of meaning over. . . well, being. If this were an allegory, or if we read it as an allegory, the unnameable country would mean, say, Iraq, rather than being itself. And we've already seen the problems with that.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Here's a reply to a number of things at once.
Mirrors, the mirror-city: Yes! What else do mirrors do? Invert. Distort. (How far might we take this metaphor?)
I think Din's evocation of The City & The City here is fascinating because it's possible to create for oneself a tradition of literature that is about un/seeing and un/knowing (un/acknowledging?). The City & The City, but also "The Women Men Don't See" and maybe "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" are some of mine—and they all in their various ways address the condition of being the seer, of seeing rather than of being seen (someone's going to challenge me on the Tiptree here and to them I say bring it), of having the gaze wielded upon/against you.
Guiding metaphor vs allegory: I'd go further, Din, and suggest that an allegory is the maze's floor plan (and in doing so perhaps I've brought your metaphor closer to allegory so whoops.)
Nandini Ramachandran: I'm not hostile to allegories as such, if they're sufficiently subtexty that they don't overwhelm the reading, so let's say for a minute that we're seeking some kind of key to the maze. We've been absorbed by space and territory thus far, but if we are to locate a floor-plan in this novel maybe it's to be found in the use of time. For a novel that sets itself against easy comprehensibility, its broad chronology (by which I mean the overall shape, not the weird tangents he goes on) is almost conventional and fairly accessible: each story stacked inside another, a sort of spiraling history.
Or, if you will humor a weddings-inspired image: the novel is constructed the same way one makes ribbon-rosette. You take strands of variously coloured ribbon, overlay them, and then, as a climax, you tug at the open ends to resolve the pile into a rose.
It was Aisha's thought about mirrors and distortion that suggested this notion of allegorical time to me, for one of the most pernicious techniques of colonialism is its (mis)use of history: to make the colony's history linear and flat (more mirrors!) even as it's presented as disjointed and episodic. Consider, for instance, the tired trope trotted out by apologists of the British Raj: that it "invented" India and that indigenous people had no "real history" that bound them together. Simultaneously, however, such histories construct a straight-line narrative for the past, one that spans from Harappa to the Mughals (leaving out any inconvenient bits, like most of South Indian history.)
Aishwarya Subramanian: Further to the maze-as-metaphor discussion: I feel compelled to point out that this book has an actual labyrinth in it.
I’m intrigued by Din’s suggestion that allegorical time might be at play here—it's not something I considered at all while reading the book and yet there it is.
In the interest of not talking about mirrors for a bit (or talking about mirrors from a slightly altered angle) I also want to go back to the original question for a moment; because it asks specifically about creating fictional countries to dramatise political or cultural ideas in. Perhaps we could consider what those "ideas" might be in Fire in the Unnameable Country, because I suspect this is a lot less straightforward than it looks.
Ethan Robinson: Since Aisha asked what else mirrors do, I might as well say: when you can see someone in a mirror, they can see you. But, right, we're trying to move on. . .
On the question of time and the colonialist misuse of history, I'm thinking about it now (like Aisha I hadn't, explicitly, as I was reading) and realizing just how pervasive the novel's play with this is, in everything from the insistence that the story of the slave ship, the slave rebellion, and the counter-revolution are the most important facts about the unnameable country; to Hedayat's telling us that if this story (which is organized entirely around generations of men) has a "onetrue hero" it is Gita Nothingatall, his grandmother (p. 319). In talking about the use of glossolalia in the motorcycle gangs, Hedayat says to us: "Know that glossolalia is the term Hedayat has prescribed to a host of phenomena throughout the unnameable country's past, because the gift of the future—and its arrogance—is the ability to cull the past and call it anything it likes" (p. 105).
And now I want to connect this to everything (mainly by throwing quotes out seeing what sticks), like the incident of the team of scientists that finds "a bubbling alcove of ash" containing "strange flagellant insects and amino acid series that existed nowhere else on the planet"—evidence, says one of the scientists, that the unnameable country is "the oldest country on earth, though his comments did not result in an upgrade of our observer status in the United Nations" (pp. 51-2), and how this conflicts with the later assertion, during the slave ship episode, that at that time (only a few generations back from the present) "the unnameable country was young, a yearling or younger, and hadn't yet been tamed"—and so "the laws of nature hadn't yet settled into regular course" there (p. 288). It's as if Hedayat is determined to use the "gift and arrogance" of the future as arbitrarily as possible; or as if he wants us to remember that by "the future" he means the powerful (as in the UN reference); or as if he is struggling to resist the colonial erasure of history but is not always successful; or all of these things and more at once. . . ?
I appreciate Aisha's reminder that we haven't really talked about what the "political ideas" of the novel are; to a certain extent we've kind of just been assuming that we, ahem, already know. I'm going to sidestep the challenge to actually do it, though, so bear with me. To return to the Tigerman discussion, at one point in it Aisha, talking about her discomfort with the novel's use of fictional place, says: "in order for Lester and the reader to be reminded that the rest of the world does not exist for white dudes to have feelings in, a fictional island has to be created for a white dude to have feelings in. In order that we learn that the world is not disposable to those who live in it, a disposable island is created." And I think there's a point here to be made about the kind of novel Tigerman is (or seems to be; I haven't read it) as opposed to the kind of novel Unnameable Country is. Because I just don't think it would occur to me to talk about "learning" or even "in order that" in this book. It doesn't do X so that we can see Y; it does X, it seems to me, because X is. This might be one reason why it's not simple and straightforward to talk about what the book's ideas and standpoints are—it doesn't exist in order to impart them to us.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Absolutely. I think if this was another kind of novel we could talk about things like surveillance states and/or international relations and/or the war on terror and those would be the things that the book was about. I find it hard to imagine doing such a thing with Unnameable Country. It's littered with things that would signify that sort of narrative in many other books but they aren't its concerns—in many ways they're part of its furniture. What it is all about possibly has to do with its style and its language, which is something we'll return to later.
What do we make of the fractured narrator? Sometimes he's "Hedayat," at other times simply "I"; is there a logic behind the decision each time? More than one? In a mirror-reality where all the men, and some of the women, have competing identities, is there even such a thing as a coherent "character"?
Nandini Ramachandran: I think it might be easiest to unpack these questions into even more questions (because obviously) so here are two tangents I'm thinking through:
- Can we say that the slippage between Hedayat/I is a way to address the "othering" processes of imperial globalization? I need to verify this, but far as I can remember, he never refers to himself as me, or the object of a conversation/action. We've talked a bit about narrative distance in the novel, and I'm wondering if the choice of usage in each instance is meant to signal a different position/distance for him vis-a-vis the action occurring.
- I recently started reading Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1937). It's as difficult a book as Unnameable Country, but it's super-compressed where Islam is expansive. It's about, anyway, a narrator who is losing his personhood, and my first thought is that this is the opposite impulse from the Hedayat in our novel. The man in The Blind Owl responds to extremity by chipping away at himself, while our Hedayat responds by constantly complicating himself—but both render them, as people, almost utterly unknowable.
There, I hope have obscured things to everyone's satisfaction? Also I hope someone more coherent responds to this question soon.
Ethan Robinson: "Reluctance" is a word I'd use here: Hedayat seems reluctant to refer to himself as "I". And Din, I'm intrigued by the possibility that he never refers to himself as "me", in the first person as the object—I'd have to pay very close attention on a full re-read to verify that, but as soon as you said it I went, yes, I think that's right. A quick flip-through of sections where he is speaking in the first person rather than the third didn't turn up any uses of "me," and the first time in the novel he's the grammatical object of a sentence is also the first time he refers to himself in the third person: "The city, my metropolitan mother, drifts with her eyes ears lips sewn shut, in total darkness not unlike yours truly, Hedayatesque. . ." (pp. 3-4). At any rate, if there are cases where he calls himself "me," they're rare.
I say he's reluctant to call himself "I", but there he goes, doing it right at the beginning of the novel—though I suspect he's more comfortable doing so because at this point he has not yet been born. There seems to be more of an "I" for him during his eight years in the womb than at any time afterwards. Or am I imagining that? I have to confess, as I was reading, especially as I was re-reading, I kept trying to find a reason, why is it "I" here, why is it "Hedayat" here (or indeed "Hedayatesque" elsewhere—at one point, which I've lost in my notes, dammit, he says that this is the name of his "character" in The Mirror, but this hardly seems consistent), but found myself without any real conclusions. It's possible that there are no solid conclusions to be drawn?
Then too there's the long paragraph that takes up pages 345-351, where the "I" quickly gives way to "i", lower-case. . .
Obviously I'm not much more coherent on this than Din was (probably less). The segue may be illusory but I'll take it: the very notion of coherence seems to be something this book sets itself against (which is not to say "the novel doesn't make sense," because it does), or at least insists is not, at this time, possible. And so to the last part of the question I'd say that no, there is no such thing as a coherent character here; even though we're given direct access to many different people's thoughts (both in the way of standard narrative conventions and as a concrete fact in the book, i.e. the thoughtreels), it hardly seems possible to talk about anyone as having an "identity" or an "essence", and our access to these thoughts is layered with so much uncertainty (how does Hedayat know what these people were thinking? and how accurate are the thoughtreels, pieced together by so many different technicians?) that almost all of the authority of their depiction is undercut—a retort, perhaps, to the "epistemological certainty" of most fiction, which the blogger Steve Mitchelmore has argued is unethical.
One thing I do feel like I can say, though, is that all this is intimately tied to what we've already discussed, in terms of opacity—Hedayat, and I'd say behind him Islam, is unwilling even to give us something as basic as an "I" to recognize, to "already know." No, Hedayat is telling us, you don't already know me, you don't already know this story. And every time you think you do, I'll complicate myself (as Din put it). Which in turn is of course intimately tied to the bizarre language of the novel.
Aishwarya Subramanian: It’s tempting to latch onto the final part of this question and just answer "no", because nothing about this book makes me feel very articulate and that is clearly something we all have in common. So short answer: no, I don’t think there is such a thing as a coherent character here.
In response to the earlier question Ethan brought up the whole situation of Zachariah Ben Jaloun/Ben Janoun and his two names. I thought at the time of this whole notion of the split (because hybrid) self that postcolonial theory often returns to, and there are so many ways in which this novel fractures its characters. That goes for Hedayat as well even though (or particularly because) he’s the narrator.
Ethan, I think you’re absolutely right when you suggest that the novel sets out to undermine "epistemological certainty" (and what a fantastic phrase that is!).
And yet, and yet.
After Din’s reply to this I skimmed through again looking at pronouns. I think there are a couple of "me"s, but they’re rare (here’s one on page 363!). But there are quite a lot of "my"s, often in relation to family. Stripped down FitUC is a family saga, and that means it is about where Hedayat comes from and (do I want to commit to this?) therefore who he is. And that sense of historical narrative I think has wider implications; I’m thinking of this, towards the end of the book:
What kept me owl-eyed, focused on understanding our country’s unnameable past, was Q, who told me once upon a time before she left we have never been a nation, Hedayat, we have never been ourselves. I don’t understand. We are the world, she said. What do you mean. Sometimes I forget our name, she shrugged. (p. 385)
This might have implications for the earlier question as well as for the Tigerman discussion it referenced (fictional countries as stand-ins for the world, countries, however fictional, as things-in-themselves). But I also see a strong sense of history and narrative as identity, as conscious forms of identity-construction even when a country and its past are unnameable and a narrator can sometimes only be a lower-case i or "Hedayatesque". (I wonder as well, since this book’s form is so integral to it, whether we could extend this constructing of narratives for the self to a sense of literary or linguistic tradition—as Din points out above, there’s what feels like a clear conversation with The Blind Owl, and I think you could make a case for the narrative’s placing itself very explicitly in certain traditions and in opposition to others.) And then, of course, drawing on Din again, personhood can be protected through an overabundance of knowledge, offering up new information about oneself, being a glossolalist, perhaps providing an excess of alternate narratives? So that (to quote Din again) we fight fantasy with fantasy?
And so, eventually, I come back to: no, there is no such thing as a coherent character. Except sometimes when there needs to be.
What are the characteristics of the author's style, and what might he be seeking to highlight and/or undermine with it? What precisely is this book we’re reading?
Ethan Robinson: I could begin to answer this with a catalog of "techniques." The refusal to use question marks, which reminded me of Gertrude Stein (later, a reason for the refusal suggests itself when the absent question mark is sometimes replaced by the actual words, spelled out, "interrogation point"). The occasionally missing periods. The lack of quotation marks. The way the grammar and meaning of some sentences will suddenly pivot around a word or phrase, creating two overlapping halves that don't quite add up but don't cease to mean for all that (e.g., on page 78: "I gasped at Nehi's kind touch on my arm reminded me of the material world," where "Nehi's kind touch on my arm" is the object until suddenly it's the subject). The times when things turn staccato, almost the prose equivalent of a series of spondees (like the sentence I quoted before, "The city, my metropolitan mother, drifts with her eyes ears lips sewn shut. . ."). The lists, of clauses or adjectives or verbs just as often as of objects (in the non-grammatical sense). The repeated phrases (e.g. "What is x. And what do they say about x.").
Or I could begin by saying: from its opening lines, from the very beginning, this book gave me a tremendous sense of a voice speaking to me out of the silence of the printed page. "The universe is shaking. All the light enters the world in a great breath and I am asleep. What a shame" (p. 3).
This question in a way reveals the. . . arbitrariness? inadequacy? of the question-and-answer format we're using (though of course any other format would probably also be arbitrary and inadequate). The question of this book's "style", and of its what-is-this-ness, lurks behind everything we've talked about so far and is inseparable from it.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think Ethan's right that style and language are so tied up in everything else that this book is that most of this is going to be elaborating on things we've already said, but if we're going to successfully talk about style at all, all the other stuff was probably necessary first.
To start at the very beginning—the endpapers, which have the same phrase ("the universe is shaking," and this is echoed on the first page of the book proper) repeated over and over with different letters seemingly randomly capitalised. It's a bit disorienting, both visually and as a sentiment, and I wonder if part of the point of the different emphases is to suggest something about the book's narrative style? The ways in which narrative alters with emphasis, the importance of presenting all (or many) alternate possibilities; these feel to me to be fundamental to the spirit of the book itself.
I pretty much fell in love with this book on the first page; "the lout, no doubt, doing adda, nada, yada yada, talking as usual from evening till dawn", or possibly even earlier with "confectionarayan" in the table of contents. It just made me happy because there's a delight in linguistic silliness here (and a sense of "look how much more fun with words we can have if we have multiple languages to play with!") but obviously puns and other forms of wordplay are serious business and say a lot about a relationship to language. There are words in this book I know from Hindi, words I know as Urdu or Arabic or Bangla, and I'm sure I may be missing things from languages with which I'm completely unfamiliar. So much of it is so colloquial as well; I grinned at "adda", laughed out loud when I came across "duffer" and "total khatam" within a few lines of one another later in the book (and like all good language things I don't think I can translate why this is funny). I can't decide whether the result of this polyglot is to emphasise the unnameable country's everycolony-ness or to do something else entirely. [Such as create a sort of alternative to the world we know, in which (formerly) colonised countries have histories in relation to each other, rather than always being referred back to the centre/West? To suggest that our own world has always been that way?]. I love the uncertainty that the mere knowledge of the presence of these multiple languages brings with it, on top of everything else it's a reminder that I don't get to grasp all of this narrative. "Recall the unnameable history, alternative possibility you cannot know" (p. 133).
What else does it do?
I'm thinking of this, from Hedayat's account of his father's musical career:
But shhhh listen carefully, as my father eventually learns to do: realize that since the walls are thin, the compositions of all seven musicians are in fact tethered inseparable, fragments and rehearsals of one and the same song, and it is possible , by choosing the rhythmical shift from one attempt and the major-minor change from another, to sew together a track that stands up much better than any single attempt. Thusly, he manages by bricoleur's feat to write his first winning tracks [. . .] (p. 154)
Which might be one way to read this book—though I'd hesitate to suggest that it's the only way in which the book invites us to read it. Another is this: "[H]e is not a political man, but a writer in the style of certain modernists for whom poetry is a description of the effects of war on language" (p. 293). Which is great, and a useful "map" with which to read an unmappable book, but also further increases my conviction that to talk of this book's style divorced from the rest of it is meaningless.
The book’s cover furthers this sense that language and style are the entire point of it—there’s nothing but text: author’s name and title, and the inverted letters in "Country" suggest that it’s at the level of language that the important action is taking place.
I’d also like to mention the enthusiastic cover blurb from Margaret Atwood which is a prominent part of the cover, and which compares the book to The 1001 Nights (I am usually annoyed when books are compared to The 1001 Nights but in this case I think I am okay with it), but also to Calvino, Burroughs, "other metafabulist satirists". And those are flattering comparisons and I would absolutely read a book with that Atwood quote on the cover. Yet Unnameable Country's own references, when it makes them at all, feel to me to be setting up a different tradition of art (an alternate history?) in which to place it. Sadegh Hedayat, Satyajit Ray, The 1001 Nights (and things with flying carpets in them); I don't think it ever refers to G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr (1948), but that was in my mind throughout. And I think, considering the book's frequent returns to questions of narrative, history, and power, that pointing to an alternative genealogy might be an important stylistic tool?
Ethan Robinson: There's so much I want to respond to in what Aisha just said that I hardly know where to begin. Maybe best to start with the personally embarrassing part?
When Din brought up The Blind Owl—which I haven't read—it reminded me of my certainty while reading that there must be all kinds of intertexual references I wasn't getting (some—i.e. pretty much the European ones—I did get, as with the use of Alfred Jarry's "merdre" on page 66 or the invocations of Rabelais throughout). Now I'm reminded that the same was true of the language. As a white American, almost as monolingual as our reputation would suggest, nearly all the multilingual wordplay Aisha talks about went over my head. I was aware that it was happening, but the specifics, let alone the subtleties, were lost on me. I love the ideas Aisha's throwing out about the reasons for this play (and that she points out its silliness—we haven't really talked about how funny this book can be), all of them, but I'm especially struck by the idea that Islam is trying to create an alternative linguistic world, where the West is decentered as the common point of reference and the vast bulk of the non-Western world can converse amongst itself.
Throughout our conversation James C. Scott's notion of "legibility" has been on my mind (it seems very closely analogous to the idea of "transparency" we've taken from Samatar). As this discussion's stand-in (if I may) for The West, I can say: so much of this novel is, in Scott's sense, illegible to me. It's too complicated, too full of things I don't have immediate access to from my position, for me to be able reduce it to something I can understand, and through understanding, govern. I'm not, I think (I hope), talking about some orientalist notion of inscrutable mystery or what have you. This book is the opposite of a passive mysteriousness waiting for me to come along and investigate it. It actively resists my attempts (or any theoretical attempt I might make) to know it, to take control of it. In these complex linguistic realms, it's not talking to me.
This is especially important coming from what is after all a book written in English, in anglophone North America (if not, admittedly, in the US itself). Especially one adorned with that quote from Atwood (which I also puzzled over), comparing it to That Famous Eastern Classic and some verrrrry slightly risky but basically canonized Westerners—comparisons that are, as Aisha says, accurate enough in their way, but whose inadequacies become apparent as soon as you start reading. (Though of course hardly a moment ago I myself made my own similar comparison, to Stein—and, though I'm kind of proud of us for making it this far without dropping Borges's name, I'm about to quote something that. . . well, I might as well get him out of the way now so I don't have to bother later.)
All this strikes me as pretty closely related to the idea of bricolage, from the passage on Mamun's musical career. Who is Islam himself overhearing, from the other rooms? Damn near everyone, it seems. But this is not pastiche, not the more glib end of postmodern collage. What is it?
And here, not as an answer but as a pointer to further questions, I think Aisha's invocation of the line "alternative possibility you cannot know" is crucial. The whole book is so concerned with contingency, with what is versus what could be, with what you know versus what there is, a whole raft of similar questions. . . "The tale of now is the story of every now before now meaning present time" (p. 227). At the very end of the book, Hedayat recalls when The Mirror showed him a moment of pain from his own life.
The Mirror wants moments like that, he thought, to multiply a billion times bigger by ingesting all the realities that were and are, might have been and could be in the unnameable country, where traces of histories my glossolalist tongue never ventured to describe exist somewhere in this haunted library, where even traces of non-lives must exist on thoughtreel. (p. 447)
From here on, the last page and a half of the novel, Hedayat speculates on what might have been in some alternate world in which his grandmother had never come to the unnameable country, never met his grandfather. . . in short if the chain of events that is the novel, that leads to Hedayat's own existence, had never happened. Where then would Hedayat be? Where would this book be?
I think it's important to think about this in combination with the book's constant reminders that it's leaving things out, and with The Mirror's desire to "ingest" not just what is but what is not as well (and we have to remember that this book is massively fantastical, is full of things that are not that it insists are). A book, like a life, is a series of choices—and every choice (once final, which works differently in writing than in life), even as it creates, makes other possibilities cease to exist: this rather than that. But at the same time, a book, a life, and certainly the world are not simple, singular phenomena: this and that can both be. (Power is of course implicated here, too, in all the ways we've talked about and others: most obviously, all choices are constrained.) Would it be too much to say that this paradox, the contradiction between "this rather than that" and "this and that," is what this book is?
Nandini Ramachandran: I, like Aisha, fell in lust with confectionarayan and in love with adda and then it was all total khatam. Both Aisha and Ethan note the book’s humour, and it can be deadpan-brilliant, but what struck me most was the lyricism, the suppleness of Islam’s sentences. This is a novel that was written to be read aloud.
Islam captures South Asian idiom (or perhaps I mean only Indian-and-urban, having no experience with any other kind) so perfectly that I had a hard time imagining the novel as being set elsewhere in the world. This was a difficult novel to read in many ways, and I imagine the prose might be hard to parse for a lot of people, but for me it was home. A minute ago, I asked my mother to band-karofy the darwaaza so I could type this in peace—and then grinned at how rarely the language I speak and the language I read match, and how thrilled I am that someone less portentous than Rushdie is trying to talk to me, as Ethan might say.
I’m not sure, though, that asking what the book is will reveal anything interesting or useful about it. I mean to say that in some ways all we’ve done this month is try and answer that question, but stated quite that blandly it invites either the flip answer (it’s a novel!) or ten tomes of exegesis, neither of which tells us what it does. Ethan made a subtle and exciting move earlier when he argued the importance of being over meaning, and I think that’s the spirit in which to analyze this novel: it is what it is, and it’s probably all things to all readers. If it must be one thing, though, I’ll follow Ethan again and say that its founding impulse is contradiction. Here I am, I can go no further.
I agree that it’s important to construct an alternative genealogy for this novel—not that I have anything against Borges, Calvino, et al—and to Desani and Hedayat and Ray and Rushdie perhaps we could add Aubrey Menen? I’d also like to believe this is a world in which Kuzhali Manickavel and Ghalib Islam write long letters about telepathic sheep to each other. The polyglot prose points to yet another possible tradition in which to locate this novel—Babel-17 (1966), Embassytown (2011; yet more Miéville!), The Dispossessed (1974), all novels fascinated with imperialism at the intimate level/limit of language. It places the book firmly within a genre-lineage, which is important, I think, to balance Atwood’s glowing but lopsided blurb.
The question of why the prose is the way it is didn’t really occur to me during my reading. I guess I thought that a desire to relate to a tiny subset of over-educated and globe-trotting brown people was an entirely valid reason to spend ten years writing a novel. But I do like Aisha’s idea that Islam’s prose suggests a world in which history is radically reconstructed to allow for the reality that post-colonies have both a lot in common and a lot to say, and that we ought to cut the metropolis out of the conversation as best we can.
For further discussion:
- Is it useful to think through this novel as a mediation between the body-politic (where, provisionally, the nation is conceived of as a collection of citizen-subjects) and a bio-politic (where the nation is conceived as being itself organic?)
- If this is a difficult book, what are its methods of and purposes for "being difficult"?
- What are the functions of the different types of speech—direct, remembered, recorded, imitated—in the novel?
- What is Fire in the Unnameable Country’s relationship with SF? Does the presence of, for example, the thoughtreels mark the novel as belonging to that genre?