Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Slouching Towards Sausalito

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
by Etel Adnan. City Lights Publishers, 2005.
xvi+120 pp. $14.95 paper. ISBN 0-87286-446-4

Etel Adnan is Franco-Lebanese-American. According to her standard bio, she was "born in 1925 in Beirut to a Muslim Syrian father and a Christian Greek mother." In those days, Beirut was a cosmopolitan city of considerable wealth and beauty: the "Paris of the Middle East." Her parents were able to send her to Catholic school. This was followed by studies at the Sorbonne, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard, which were followed, in turn, by stints teaching at various U. S. universities.

In 1977, Adnan wrote a novel, Sitt Marie-Rose, in French, that has since become a "cult classic". The novel was published in an English edition in 1982. It has come to grace the reading list of a great many Arab studies courses in the U. S. and more than a few women's studies courses.

A number of books followed this success. The most recent of these is In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country and marks her ascension into the creme de la creme of the small press world as represented by City Lights Publishers.

Like so many books of recent vintage, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country occupies that nebulous and sometimes fruitful genre of "creative non-fiction". Adnan has read William Gass's collection of short stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and been intrigued:

The piece that gives its name to the book is not a story in the ordinary sense.
It engages the reader immediately with a series of paragraphs, or sections, each with a heading that sometimes recurs, but often does not.

She has taken the format and transformed it into a loose structure for an otherwise unstructured flow-of-consciousness commentary upon life as she has come to know it.

As In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country begins, Adnan has returned, after seventeen years largely in and around San Francisco, to Beirut. Under headings such as "Place," "My House," "Weather," and "Vital Data," she will recall days passed in Beirut, San Francisco and New York, travels through such places as Benghazi and "Sidon (called Sayda today)."

I left this place by running all the way to California. I came back on a
stretcher and felt here a stranger, exiled from my former exile. I am always
away from something and somewhere.

Hers is not a carefree wanderlust but something more in the line of the exilque deus nascitur omnis homo of the Medieval Christian mystic. An adherent of no religion, however, she is not born into exile from God but rather from herself, not from heaven but from the previous places she's lived.

My place: highways, trains, cars. One road after another, from ocean shore to ocean shore. From Beirut to the Red Sea. From Aden to Algiers. From Oregon to La Paz. I keep going, prisoner of a body, and my brain is just a radio station emitting messages to outer space.

"I keep going" is the operative phrase here. Whatever books compose her bible it seems a fair guess that they favor the tone of Albert Camus' The Stranger and the early novels of Alain Robbe Grillet. Adjectives are few and generally simple, adverbs all but unheard from. The occasional yearning for an epiphany reads as an inevitable human weakness, a breach of the rules, a velleity certain to be disappointed.

Being "the previous place" (thus what there is of Eden), California is the subject of the few flourishes the author permits herself:

The wind plays its games with the pelicans, and the redwing blackbirds sound their little trumpets. They greet each other with an effervescence that enchants the hour.

But even this playful memory of Rodeo Beach dissolves into an incoherence that here is an attempt at an intuitive "higher" understanding:

But nowhere as by an ocean does Time speed by. Everything is in constant,
visible change. There's more than color to such an environment: there is our
desire to embrace the emptiness that shelters all these events. But that
emptiness is immense. So we lie on the beach, talk to it, kiss it... grains of
sand try to find their way into our mouths. We spit them out.

All the machinery of cosmic embrace being forbidden by the prohibition of exalted style, and the length of the runway, as it were, restricted by the snapshot-structure Adnan has chosen, this kind of expansion is all but impossible. The author's problem in a flow-of-consciousness narrative is that, no matter how liberated from design it must seem, everything must somehow nevertheless be earned.

The short snapshot is more fitted to quotidian observation and passing acquaintance, often quite poignant, and that is where it best succeeds in In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. Perhaps it is equally well fitted, in the realm of narrative, to describe events that threaten to have little more relationship to each other than that they belong to the same person's life. At its most engaging, it can achieve the heights of aphorism.

Whether intending to or not, then, a progression of snapshots will beg the question as to how the images cohere, as a whole, and it can only be expected that the reader of In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country will ask exactly that question. The author's answer, here, beyond the fact that they belong to the same life, and can be grouped by geographical location, is the headings that represent her ways of ordering experience.

But even this is not altogether the case. To read the individual topic headings, sequentially, as one comes to them scanning the pages, is to discover that Adnan clumps together the most diverse -- even disconnected -- reflections under them. Moreover, they are entirely thrown off in section IV (there are six sections) for a longish series of reflections, innocent of headings, relating to Lawrence of Arabia, presumably intended to go to the root of a sickness of European-Arab relations.

While the characters she wrote about in Sitt Marie-Rose are attached to tribe and soil, Adnan herself has chosen to escape precisely those influences by living in the West. She is all but deracinated. It is, however, the but in the "all but" that most immediately attracts the reader. As in-coherent as In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is, as unavoidable as it is that "failure to achieve coherence" will be its overarching theme -- that coalescence will be the most that can be hoped for, and will itself be suspect -- the reader will likely appreciate the small observations upon Lebanese life above all:

During my last stay in Beirut, Lebanon, it wasn't the war and the damage it did to people and things that pained me most but, rather, what people are currently doing to their own faces. The booming business in town is face lifting. Faces are being transformed at a scary pace.

Adnan's observation (for another example) that Arab women have never been looked at like a sunset is again brief and shockingly poignant. Such moments are liberally scattered throughout. There may be a tendency to perceive the book as a travelogue with inexplicable interpolations.

At its best, her sense of the absurdity of exile is expressed with equal eloquence:

It is hot, and it is night. We speak of the civil war. Everyone digs into his memory to bring out what is most painful. John speaks of his mother's death. He received her in the mail, incinerated and put into a plastic box. "I didn't know what to do with her," he said, "when she arrived that way in New York. I did not know any funeral rite. I had to invent one. I drew flowers on the little box that I did not dare open, and I put it in the garbage."

But in the end she is also as exiled from eloquence per se as John is from the rituals of his birthplace. French in her foundations, American in her predilections, confirmed in post-modernity, eloquence equals style equals lying. It exists in the thing itself, plainly expressed, or not at all.

While all of these prohibitions are gratifyingly egalitarian, and our deracination is both our liberation and our shared experience, there remains the question as to what will take the place of rootedness and style. A truly contemporary writer -- such as Etel Adnan clearly is -- is a bird, it seems, that can never nest, the implication being the imposition of just another partial perspective. As a result, life is picked up on the fly, and the honest writer can only write it as it came to him or her: a jumble of outmoded crumbling structures, the purpose of which implies intolerance and insidious manipulation, couched in ennui and counter-pointed with glittering baubles of disconnected experience.

The final section of In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (also without headings) is a radical departure from what has gone before, a gambit, or at least appears to be. It is composed of 18 pages of concatenated infinitives:

To say nothing, do nothing, mark time, to bend, to straighten up, to blame oneself, to stand, to go toward the window, to change one's mind in the process, to return to one's chair, to stand again,...

The first infinitive -- the title -- is the point of departure: "To Be In a Time of War". At such a time every thought and action, no matter how insignificant, it seems, partakes of the quality of "being" in a time of war.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the method provides some resolution, however temporary, of the difficulties mentioned above, as well. These pages seek a style-less style and there is predictably no cohesion beyond the life to which the experiences attach themselves. The tools of description are strictly limited. Even the distance that the infinitives might be called upon to provide is not attempted.

What it does provide is a sense of what it is like to be in a time of war in which the war exists as little more than a series of media reports. (Adnan is in New York City during the time described in the section.) Interspersed with reading the news are tea and cakes, trips to the dentist, poetry, jazz, fixing dinner, pumping gas, reflections upon Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge and frustration:

To look calm, polite, when Gaza is under siege and when a blackish tide slowly engulfs the Palestinians. How not to die of rage?... To scare the innocent, by following the Israeli way of spreading terror.

Less intentionally, one assumes, it also provides a sense of what it is like to be in a time without cohesion. Stripped to its essentials, every infinitive is charged with roughly the same value. "To wonder if the human race is not in chaos." is no more or less to any point than:

To wake up, to stretch, to get out of bed, to dress, to stagger toward the window, to be ecstatic about the garden's beauty,...

Everything except for war and government (the purpose of which implies intolerance and insidious manipulation) has a roughly equal right to happen -- free of judgmental stylistics.

The final section of Adnan's In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is arguably the perfect ending for the book. As throughout the sections that went before, it has notable strengths and weaknesses; and the weaknesses are every bit as expressive, after their own fashion, as the strengths. It would be a less effective book without them.

It may be said of the exile described in this volume as Adnan says of Beirut:

The desert is at my mental door because Beirut is a special kind of wasteland. It defies our means, belittles our intelligence, defeats the will.... Once this is said, its mystery unfolds, its beauty too.

As true as this is, it is important to remember that the mystery and the beauty suggest no practical possibilities, no resolution, by any foreseeable concatenation of actions, of the situations she finds so offensive.

Thus the dilemma of the post-modern writer: to be perfectly free of limited perspective means that all resolution is left to those whom one cannot countenance. Under ideal circumstances, on the other hand, matters are expected to resolve themselves in some organic fashion which willfulness, as prevalent as it is, within all historical models of the organism, can only undermine. Furthermore, the temptation to forward volitional alternatives seems irresistible even for those dedicated to uber-perspective and those alternatives foredoomed to be feeble. One is left with the fact of dissent, ill-defined and dysfunctional as it must be, and the mystery and beauty of life.

In the case of Etel Adnan's In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, we have both: 1) an often interesting travelogue with inexplicable interpolations; and, 2) a half-intentional, ironically expressive, portrait of the daunting task involved in overcoming the radical fact of our physical and artistic deracination in order to achieve a cohesive and harmonious self and to describe the experience with the tools of "honest" expression at hand. In either instance, the reader will find some finely turned portraits, poignant observations upon the times, and more than a little that is thought provoking.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review (University of Georgia); Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.