Thursday, June 20, 2013

Everybody Run, Run, Run

"He had introduced Ifemelu to Fela at university. She had, before then, thought of Fela as the mad weed-smoker who wore underwear at his concerts, but she had come to love the Afrobeat sound and they would lie on his mattress in Nsukka and lisen to it and then she would leap up and make swift, vulgar movements with her hips when the run-run-run chorus came on."

One need not know much about the music of Fela Kuti for this passage from early in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah to be evocative of college love affairs, for the run-on sentence to call to mind the running together of amorous recollections.

However, if one recognizes the "run-run-run chorus" to which Ifemelu is making her swift and vulgar hip motions as coming from a song entitled "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," which Fela had written about police violence in general--and a brutal police raid on his family compound in particular--then one is left with a sense of Ifemelu and Obinze (the "he" who is remembering) as people all too capable of taking their pleasures in abstraction from the social context that gave rise to the Afrobeat sound.

I have not finished the book yet, but already I have a sense that it is the sort of book that will be reprinted 30 or 50 years from now with an apparatus of scholarly endnotes, and deservedly so.

Everybody run run run
Everybody scatter scatter
Some people lost some bread
Some one nearly die
Some one just die
Police dey come, Army dey come
Confusion everywhere
Seven minutes later
All don cool down, brother
Police don go away
Army don disappear
Dem leave Sorrow, Tears, and Blood
Dem regular trade mark

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


'It is interesting how a historian of [modern Greek], Peter Mackridge..., argues that the use of quotation marks in Greece around any comment that strays too far from the literal is a noticeable stylistic feature and demonstrates an estrangement from metaphor. Others, too, have shown how bouts of authoritarian rule in Greece, not least during the last dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, were vitally opposed to the dangers of metaphor.... The early 1990s also elicited a form of literal reading as a way of controlling the ways others read the self. Foreigners who were keen to mock Greek sensitivities over the name "Macedonia" were told in no uncertain terms to "study history" and to learn "the truth"....'

I can't recommend the book from which I took this quote. (Vangelis Calotychos, The Balkan Prospect: Identity, Culture, and Politics in Greece after 1989, pp. 52-53) Among its several flaws, it is one of those academic books so heavily buttressed with an armature of footnotes, bibliography and parenthetical citations that one could never falsely accuse its author of having had an original insight: Each of my ellipses above elides over a citation, for the sake of readability and to draw out the essential point.

That essential point is that the authoritarian and nationalistic streak in modern Greek culture and politics expresses itself in the form of a deadening literalism that suppresses the self-contradictory metonymy at the core of modern Greek identity: That is, the notion that today's Greeks are the direct descendants and continuation of ancient Hellenic civilization, yet at the same time, the vanguard protectors of Orthodox Christianity. The illusory nature of this metonymy has been exposed by historical scholarship which Calotychos quotes in a later passage, showing that "contra the nationalist paradigm... Phanariots [a Greek-speaking Christian elite under the Ottoman Empire] were transnational before nation-statism: Greek was the dominant language for them, even though many had been raised as speakers of Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, and Armenian. Indeed ... many Balkan Christians saw Hellenization as a way of achieving social mobility in the mercantile classes or advancing in the ranks of the clergy." (124-125) Just as Zionism was premised upon the "invention of the Jewish people" (see Shlomo Sand's book of that title), ellinismos forged a modern nation-state through a series of metaphors which could not be recognized as such. Neither of these forms of nationalism is particularly unique in that respect; it is just that the antiquity whose heritage they claim is particularly distant, and thus the metaphors are especially strained.

This was an insight of which I had an inchoate sense from direct observation, but had not been able to put into words until I read the first passage quoted. It was an insight which had already guided me in the writing of an as-yet-unpublished story, set in Greece in a hypothetical future dictatorship, which opens with the young protagonist/narrator searching for a set of metaphors in which she can tell her story, a search in which she is often frustrated by the internalized notion that something she wishes to say is something she "must not say."

In some of the subsequent rejections, I have received praise for the quality of the writing of the story, coupled with complaints that the "plot" is slow to start. As it happens, the process by which the narrator finds a voice by which she can tell the story by way of metaphor is an act, a subversive act, on her part. It is thus part of the "plot."

Note that this is not a complaint about said rejections: I may not have executed it well, or the story may not have been well-suited to the venues in which I tried to have it published. It is intended only as an apology (in the original Greek sense of the word) for the type of writing I prefer, and the type of writing I try to execute: A writing that recognizes its metaphors as such, calls attention to them, and thereby casts doubt upon the literal truth of the events described in the telling, challenging the reader to uncover the deeper truth that is revealed by the mode of its telling.

On a somewhat related administrative note: It occurred to me recently, when I was trying to reference a recently read story in conversation with my wife, that since I stopped using Goodreads (after their acquisition by Amazon) I have been reading a great many good and interesting stories, but losing track of their authors and titles. I will therefore be posting more reviews on this blog than in the past.