NI picks the best books of the month
The Red-Haired Woman
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap (Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571330294)
Despite its title, the focus of The Red-Haired Woman appears at first to be the dynamics of father-son relationships.
Teenager Cem, whose leftwing radical father has been absent for most of his childhood, goes to work for well-digger Master Mahmut. As they excavate down through the layers of unforgiving earth, they reflect on Western and Eastern mythology, from the Greek Oedipus to epic Persian poem the Shahnameh, and Cem finds himself both drawn to and fearful of his new father figure.
One evening he slips away to a Theatre of Morality play – a defining moment in his life. Subsequent events create a black stain on his soul that haunts him into adulthood.
As multi-layered as the earth being dug out of the well, the novel offers different interpretations of filial and paternal responsibility. For example, the ‘father’ is also the Turkish state, whose relationship with its sons is far from benign, as reflected in an aphorism recalled by Cem: ‘Poets must first be hanged, then mourned at the gallows.’
The extent to which we can change our destinies is also pondered. Are we condemned to repeat history? Does life always follow myth? With the story of Oedipus running as a leitmotif, the climax of the novel comes as little surprise. However, the narrative twist towards the end reminds us that there are many sides and many truths to every story.
Pamuk’s 10th novel is a compelling modern morality myth that challenges preconceptions.
Walking on Lava
Selected works for Uncivilised Times
by The Dark Mountain Project (Chelsea Green, ISBN 9781603587419)
You would be hard pressed to find a more consuming collection of exquisite writing and thinking than the pieces brought together here. The Dark Mountain project emerged in 2009, the creation of British writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, who perceived
the collapse of civilization to be already in progress. Those of us who read their work and attended their ‘Uncivilisation’ festivals, saw the movement as exciting but to be viewed safely, from a distance. In 2017, there is nothing safe nor distant about their prognosis.
The magic of this anthology is the realization that to embrace the collapse of civilization is not to be left facing a pit of nothingness but a plethora of possibility.
Hannah Lewis’s ‘On This Site of Loss’, for example, describes the Geo-Piano, invented by an Iraqi refugee artist called Rashad. Salvaging ruined pianos from Ghana – battered, rusted relics from the colonial period – he reconstructed them to represent the various countries, cultures and geographies of the world, to be played in completely new ways. ‘This broken machine and its decaying materials had become the ground for something new, improvised out of elements of the old, a hopeful synthesis.’ And so is Walking on Lava a hopeful synthesis, not a dismal adventure at all, allowing new thinking to develop without the old myths of progress and industry
to rankle the soul of those who dream.
The Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (& Other Stories, ISBN 9781908276940)
Ávila Laurel, a prominent opponent of the oppressive regime in Equatorial Guinea, now lives in exile in Barcelona and his latest novel tells the stories of desperate refugees attempting, quite literally, to scale the walls of ‘fortress Europe’.
Mount Gurugu is a hill overlooking the fortified North African Spanish enclave of Melilla. Here, in a series of caves above the city, dwell a motley band of migrants, dreaming of the European future that awaits them if only they can make it across the fences.
The novel, inspired by first-hand accounts, is structured as a series of personal tales as each individual tells their story and then passes the baton on to the next voice. Hailing from Morocco, Senegal, Cameroon and all points of the African diaspora, they form a makeshift village with its own rules and customs. With varying degrees of success the refugees attempt a mutuality of the dispossessed as they embark on the daily necessities of evading the Moroccan border police and finding food. They even manage to arrange a football tournament of sorts in the transient community they dub, with no little irony, ‘the residence’.
By turns heartbreaking and humorous, The Gurugu Pledge is a book right on the frontline of the refugee crisis and a stinging and necessary rebuke to those who believe that walls and fences are a solution rather than a shameful reminder
of abject failure.
Out of the Wreckage
A New Politics for an Age of Crisis
by George Monbiot (Verso, ISBN 9781786632883)
I am an admirer of George Monbiot. In his column in The Guardian and his books he has laid out a consistent alternative to the neoliberal consensus, speaking truth to power and arguing for community and co-operation rather than the gradualist amelioration of a failing system. His previous book – How Did We Get into This Mess? – was an intelligent analysis of our predicament, both national and global. It is therefore, logical that, having described the situation, he should propose ways in which we can re-engage with a vision of a better society for all.
There is much here that many progressives would agree with: the Tobin tax, participatory democracy, Universal Basic Income, a re-balancing of the global economy, the fettering of the power of the corporations. However, on finishing the book, I was left feeling deflated rather than energized, with the question, ‘is that all there is?’ A lot of the content here feels cursory, rehashed and lacking in joy – perhaps a clue lies in Monbiot’s admission that it was written to a tight deadline under pressure from his editor. The book ends with an overlong paean to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Surely a much better exemplar of the New Politics would have been the re-energizing of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, most particularly the part the mass-movement Momentum played in that transformation. Barring a brief mention early in the book, Monbiot is oddly silent on this subject. Perhaps time pressures following the election precluded this but the signs were there for those with eyes to see before 8 June. Overall, Out of the Wreckage feels like a missed opportunity.