The Mag This Week

In the Books page this Sunday, G Sampath reviews Chennaivasi (who used to be Books Editor at DNA before me) and Joanna Lobo (who works on the page with me at present) reviews The Tattooed Fakir. There’s also a large-ish piece I’ve written, looking at Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt and Benyamin’s Goat Days, the unedited version which I’ve pasted below (damn you, word count). I feel like we should have T-shirts that say “TEAM BOOKS”.

I’ll update the link to Sampath’s review if and when I find it on our blessed site.

Here’s my piece from the Books page.

Prison Diaries

In 1978, a young Taiwan-born artist named Teching Hsieh built a prison-like cage, fitted with a cot, a sink and some basic accessories. Then he locked himself inside it and for a year, he remained in self-enforced solitary confinement. A friend brought him three meals and took out his waste. Hsieh would not speak, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television. For Hsieh, who went on to become a cult legend, the isolation of being imprisoned was liberating because he said he was able to think without being interrupted or distracted. It was a radically different perspective on a prison cell, which usually symbolises confinement. Hsieh, on the other hand, subtly pointed out through his decidedly extreme performance art project that the pace and tedium of every day life actually constrains us.

While Hsieh’s imprisonment was unreal, the prison experiences of Roger Casement and Najeeb Muhammad, the protagonists of The Dream of the Celt and Goat Days respectively, are factual. However, Roger and Najeeb’s stories have something in common with Hsieh’s: enforced isolation gives the two men the freedom to think, and these thoughts make up the two novels.

Cage Piece, by Tehching Hsieh.

From the beautiful epilogue to The Dream, it becomes clear that Nobel prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s interest in Roger Casement arose from the novelist’s conviction that his extraordinary needs to be remembered, rather than reduced to a footnote in historical research. Barely-remembered today, Roger was one of the greatest humanitarians of the early twentieth century. His work in the Congo and Amazonia forced Europe to acknowledge the human rights abuses in these areas. In 1911, Roger was knighted for his humanitarian work. Five years later, he would be stripped of his honours and executed for treason. Although it would seem that his espousal of Irish nationalism in his last years led to Roger being arrested, his politics are not the reason he was the subject of scandal and bundled out of public memory. Roger’s trial became one of the most infamous of his time because after he was arrested, the police produced in court a diary of his that recorded numerous, casual homosexual encounters. He had already lost the support of influential friends like the novelist Joseph Conrad for his anti-British politics but the nail in Roger’s coffin was his little black book.

Born in Ireland to a Roman Catholic mother and an Anglican father who had served in India with the British army, as a boy Roger was fascinated by and convinced of the Empire as a benevolent force. He listened to his father’s stories about India and Afghanistan, read about the old navigators and devoured news about explorers like Henry Morton Stanley (famous for the line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”). Colonisation was a force that brought disparate parts of the world closer to one another, he believed. However, as an adult travelling with Stanley, Roger was quickly disillusioned and his hero-worship of the explorer dissipated when he saw Stanley’s horrific treatment of Black people. Having witnessed the evils of colonialism on two continents, it is perhaps not surprising that Roger’s patriotism began to crack and he became increasingly sympathetic to the cause of Irish nationalism.

In Llosa’s telling of Roger’s life, it was in Amazonia that he had the realisation that Ireland could only wrest freedom from Britain through military means. Unfortunately, with a misguided optimism that foreshadows Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian legion, Roger’s turned to Germany while the World War I gathered pace and tried to create an Irish brigade comprising Irish prisoners of war in Germany and secure arms for the revolutionaries in Ireland. It was all an unmitigated disaster. Roger was sidelined by the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood and when he managed to return to Ireland from Germany, he was captured and arrested for treason just before Easter Rising, which despite its failure did galvanise Irish nationalism.

Najeeb Muhammad of Goat Days, on the other hand, is a thoroughly humble man. Working as a diver in Kerala is hard work with little pay, which is why when he gets an opportunity to work in the Gulf and earn more money, he leaves his mother and pregnant wife to go abroad. It’s a common story in Kerala, but Najeeb’s experiences are literally off the beaten track. An Arab man picks him up from Riyadh airport and takes him to a goat and camel farm in the middle of the desert. All Najeeb has around him are goats, camels, sand and a fellow worker whose appearance is so unkempt and filthy that Najeeb is initially terrified of him.

Their master, known as arbab which (ironically) translates to “saviour”, is a vicious man who treats his workers like they’re scum of the earth. They live in a tent, sleep on the ground, eat bread and water, and tend to the goats and camels. Basic amenities like bathwater and clean clothes are forbidden. For years, Najeeb survives the inhuman conditions and treatment. Looking after the goats, which initially seemed alien to him, becomes a comforting tedium and little by little, he stupefies himself with his routine. The goats become his world. He names them after people in his village and ends up turning to them for physical, emotional and sexual comfort. Finally, with the help of two other workers from the neighbouring farm, Najeeb escapes. He has nothing, not even his passport since the arbab took it from him, and the journey through the desert almost kills him, but Najeeb makes it to Riyadh, where he finally finds some kindness. Once he has regained his strength, he is advised to get himself arrested and imprisoned since that is the only way that he will be repatriated.

The two novels are set in starkly different time periods and have very different protagonists, but there are interesting resonances between them. For instance, both the heroes show remarkable resilience and the ability to withstand physical trauma. There’s also a naïveté in both men. Najeeb suffers bodily as a servant of his cruel arbab. Roger’s master is equally cruel – the colonial government, which fashioned itself as the saviour of the people it oppressed.

Goat Days begins with Najeeb exulting in the freedom he enjoys in prison. The author acknowledges the oddness of Najeeb’s reaction by making repeated but vague mentions of his past suffering. His experiences as a goatherd form the bulk of the novel, which is told in flashback while Najeeb is in prison. There is the danger that his arbab will come and reclaim him – it happens to one of his friends – but afraid as he is, Najeeb is also determined to not return.

The Dream begins with Roger in Pentonville Prison, but it is not a refuge in the way Sumesi prison is for Najeeb. In solitary confinement, Roger is waiting to find out if the British government, which once applauded his efforts and now considers him a traitor, will show him clemency. He has few visitors and no news from the outside world reaches him. All he has are his thoughts and memories and the novel shuttles between the present and the past. This is his freedom – to travel through time and understand both himself and his past with the benefit of honest hindsight. In this way, Llosa presents his reader with Roger’s achievements, ideas and the events that moulded his thinking. It mirrors what the unseen lawyer has to do in court – provide a testimonial that will convincingly portray Roger’s heroism and his naïveté.

Benyamin chooses to tell Najeeb’s story in first person, possibly to lend a sense of immediacy but the translation lets down both the author and his subject. Joseph Koyipally’s translation of Benyamin’s award-winning Malayalam novel is awkward and every word reminds the reader that they are not reading the novel in its original language. In contrast, the ever-brilliant Edith Grossman’s translation is fluent and at no point is there a sense of disconnect between the story and the subject. This is particularly admirable when you consider the fact that Roger, being an Irishman, is a real-life character whose first language was English, whose person was translated to Spanish by Llosa for The Dream and then was translated back to English by Grossman. While the translation of The Dream is assured and sophisticated, Llosa’s storytelling becomes slack when Roger is in Germany. Llosa’s fans will delight in the epilogue that is heartfelt and evocative. In contrast to it, much of The Dream‘s narrative tone feels journalistic.

For all their differences, at the heart of these two novels by two very different authors, is a very contemporary concern with how we perceive those who are other-ed and human dignity. The exploration of power dynamics in the two novels offer intriguing parallels. The Dream considers the narrative of colonialism from the unique perspective of someone who belonged to the camps of both oppressor and oppressed. Goat Days is comparatively uni-dimensional but it presents neo-colonialism and details exploitation from the perspective of a victim who, with help from the privileged novelist, ends his silence. In the fictional “I” of Goat Days, the author whose voice is heard and the voiceless are fused. Najeeb’s experiences underscore the importance of Casement’s humanitarian work. We may belong to a postcolonial era, but the underprivileged remain easy victims. The lies and deceit that make slaves of people remain unnervingly similar. Najeeb is as easily bedazzled by the hope of making money, much like the tribes of the Congo were by glass beads and promise of wealth. People like Roger may have taken a hammer to the old empires, but new and equally oppressive systems have replaced them with smooth efficiency.

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