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issue 27: November - December 2001

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The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing: Flamingo, U.K. 2001

Instead of part three of her autobiography, Lessing has given us a novel "because of possible hurt to vulnerable people." Fair enough, although the voice of Frances Lennox is plainly that of Lessing and it's clear she'd like to set the record straight on a thing or two. Beginning in 1960s' swinging London, the novel centers around the household of Julia Lennox, widow, whose huge Hampstead home serves as communal gathering place for the 60s' crowd of young (and not so young) people, whose lives we follow through that decade and on through the years. The center of the household is Frances Lennox, who has been cast off by her charismatic, communist-leader husband Johnny, who took off with a lovely "comrade," blithely expecting his well-to-do mother Julia to take in Frances and their two children. Neither the independent-minded Frances nor the stiff, German-born Julia are keen on the arrangement, but a bond of sorts is formed over the years and they are indeed united against the selfish Johnny - who is a complete cad, can't see past the party line and revels in the glory of his position which assures him that he doesn't have to work (but rather can travel throughout communist countries staying in hotels and meeting the leaders and other lovely comrades).

Lessing, who herself was a communist supporter, now speaks out loud and clear about the shortcomings of the old Left. When, for example, news started leaking out about the Stalin purges and other atrocities, the Communist Party dismissed it as propaganda. A perfect example of the Left's blinkered attitude is shown when an Israeli socialist, who had supported peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, gives a talk about his time of imprisonment and torture in Czechoslovakia, where he had been sent on a Peace and Goodwill Mission and subsequently arrested as a "Cosmopolitan Zionist spy for American Imperialism"; he has seen Soviet Russia's ugly side, denounced the party, and wants to bring the truth to communist sympathisers in England. His speech is heard, but quietly ignored.

Frances, who has had to give up her desire to work in theater for a more lucrative position on a liberal newspaper, now has two sons in secondary school who continually bring home classmates, many of whom are dropouts and have actually taken up residence in the big home because their parents "don't understand" them and because they enjoy the communal atmosphere held together by Frances, who becomes a sort of earth-mother figure to them all. Johnny, to the annoyance of Frances and Julia, continues to drop in whenever he's in town - for a free meal, wine, and the captive audience of adoring young people who are usually seated around the large kitchen table. Various other members who drop in and stay for a while are the student Rose Trimble, who will become the worst sort of gutter-press journalist and later turn on Francis and Julia, the "imperialists"; one of Johnny's daughters, Silvia, an anorexic waif; two of Johnny's wives; political refugees; oddball freeloaders of all sorts; and a young black boy Franklin, newly arrived from Zimlia, Africa (read Zimbabwe).

We also follow the sons Andrew and Colin through their teens into adulthood. Colin becomes a novelist while Andrew, a graduate of the London School of Economics, becomes a dashing figure of global monies, who works with the corrupt leaders of Africa and other Third World countries in order to help funnel money to their starving nations, but remains blind to their corruption and misuse of money. Sylvia, the waif, has become a doctor, taking a post in the bush at a mission in Zimlia where the natives are living in dire poverty and beginning to die of AIDS. The new black leader of Zimlia and his beautiful wife are extraordinarily rich, and his ministers, such as the now adult Franklin, are acquiring vast wealth. Lessing paints a powerful portrait of the corruption of the new black leaders while showing the plight of the white farmers whose land is now being stolen from them. Of course the leaders hardly know what to do with these stolen homesteads, short of making homes for themselves or selling the produce to other nations for a profit. The issue of colonialization isn't addressed, as one would have liked, since this clearly isn't an "issue" for Lessing; nonetheless, she gives a clear and moving picture of the current situation.

Sylvia, whose hospital in Zimlia gets closed down, returns to England with two black boys who have helped her in her doctoring. Frances, now in her early seventies, and her son Colin and his family - all living in the house - will raise these two black boys as well. "Once a sixties home, always a sixties home," Colin says. And to make the circle complete, Johnny eventually comes to take up residence there too. He is now practically destitute as communism is hardly accepted anywhere. Like many of his old comrades, he simply says when asked, "I used to be a bit of a Red."

The Sweetest Dream is a sprawling novel with a full cast of characters, giving Lessing a chance to have her say on the sixties - the good, the bad and the ugly - and the decades that followed, with particular emphasis in the second half of the novel on modern-day Africa (her birthplace). An engaging overview of the sixties onward and the themes and causes that held our attention. J.A.

Shamanspace by Steve Aylett: Codex Books, U.K., 2001

"God has been found to exist and the race is on to take revenge . . . ." That’s the basis of the adrenaline-propelled, psycho-futuristic romp that follows - well, tries to follow - the slippery assassin Alix on his quest to take out God. The motive is simple enough:

God made us conscious for a reason. It knew that when its cells became self-aware, they’d experience a pitch of pain that’d send them for revenge. We’re nano-assassins. It just takes one of us little viruses to get to the right place. In our capacity as god’s suicidal impulse the idea’s always been to work covert, like a drink habit - god’s cowardly, it doesn’t want to know or take responsibility for what it’s doing. That’s why it delegated in the first place, yes? A part of it knows what we’re doing, because we are part of it.

Thus spake Quinas, a "burnout," who attempted the mission before and failed. He’s trying to educate the young Alix, but Alix’s way ahead of his ancient mentor (or so he thinks) and doesn’t need the deadhead rap. His employer, the esoteric Internecine network, headed by Lockhart, would have less trouble making the hit if it were not for the splinter group Prevail, headed by Casolaro. Although the two groups share the same objective, they’re divided in their understanding of its consequences. Internecine believes that "everything and everyone would vapourise moments after the hit"; hence, their epithet "ashers." Prevail doesn’t think the creator wants to obliterate completely; maybe, you know, it wants "to leave its words and deeds intact, in testament." The debate has them arguing and is delaying the mission.

Not to be deterred, Alix charges ahead to make the hit for Internecine while his young-boy counterpart, Moon, at Prevail "traces" him in a Matrix-like chase that sends Alix dematerializing through the "etheric" (an oft used word) in a cyber-shape-shifting escapade that lands him in Paris with the lovely Melody - friend or foe? - before he gets cold-conked and finds himself restrained in an etheric body buckle on Prevail’s submarine Bluetooth. Will he get loose? Will he achieve what others before him have failed to accomplish?

Aylett’s previous work includes the hilarious Atom and Slaughtermatic (the "Beerlight books") which contain the same level of frenzied energy and acid-laced imagination as this latest but with the added element of laugh-out-loud humor. Shamanspace, although not without humor, is doing something different. It’s the sound bites you’ll want to read out loud to whoever’s around rather than the belly laughs ("Originality irritates so obscurely that people may have to evolve to scratch it"; "All of us are the subconscious thought impulses of a shabby god.") The plot can be as slippery as its protagonist, but the hyper-paced, hyper-powered (etheric-powered?) prose pulls you right along even as it leaves you reeling. Take the opening to chapter one: "The girl was surgeon and singing bird, deadly queen of sharps. Resentments at the ready, we met in a nerve storm club. I went in as an untextured nobody, walls showing through me. Scar incarnate, third generation cool and moral omitted, washing one drug down with another as the world toxified around us."

In this new, post-Sept. 11 era, we have all wracked our brains to try and gain an understanding of the suicidal impulse that would wilfully take out as many people as possible for whatever cause. One thing bantered around in discussions here - because you want to try to understand every conceivable explanation - is the possibility of a suicide gene. This isn’t exactly the premise of Aylett’s Shamanspace (written well before that date, in any case), but it does resemble it, and the book - unlike many recently released - holds up eerily well right now. My point is, not to promote this idea in a serious way, but to appreciate all the more the creative and imaginative depth of Aylett’s work. His forte is cyber-surrealistic-futuristic fiction- and fans like me are grateful for that - but I couldn’t help thinking it’s minds like his we’d like in our think tanks. He’s one of the few truly originals. J.A.

Translated Accounts by James Kelman: Secker & Warburg, U.K., 2001

James Kelman, the voice of the Scottish working class, has swapped the bus, the giro and the pint in a pub for guns, politicians and refugees in foreign lands. There are no Scots in Translated Accounts and no Glaswegian twang. The suffering of the dispossessed under their politicians and administrators is still there, but now the language is recognisable only for its daring.

Perhaps this novel is not really his. In the preface, he tells us that "these ‘translated accounts’ are by three or more individuals domiciled in an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation". Domiciled? That sounds a bit high register for the man who translated Glasgow slang into prose with the word fuck serving as a punctuation mark. But I said "translated": the writer of the 1994 Booker Prize winner How Late It Was, How Late and A Disaffection (1989) is not in the business of phonetic transcriptions of the Scottish dialect but rather of capturing that linguistic something between the social and the self.

The accounts - made up of 54 chapters - are filled with the voices of unnamed, similar-sounding foreign speakers who recount, almost confessionally as though to some literal-minded interrogator, their experiences in an unnamed alien land of fear, oppression, torture and self-abuse where the threat comes always from the so-called "securitys". There is an interminable struggle with the language, which is awkward and may be coded or simply exotic - an encounter with words that cannot quite find the thoughts they are trying to express: "Someone, had put hands to my shoulders, onto. I did not strike at them punch at them, of course not, I was not attacked. He was to my rear, I did not see him, his breathing. The other held me. It was not rape. Held me. My penis. I have said it, it is not serious. But it is not serious. Men will masturbate". This is the language of men compensating for their lack of self-worth; in a world where they have become expendable, self-abuse is the only language they have to articulate their sense of existence. It is not that the language is foreign; the distance of the country is not geographical but proportional to the speakers’ alienation, which "translates" into a rather monotonous, disoriented text that is incapable of producing an emotional response in the reader.

The overlap between language and politics is not new to Kelman. In an article entitled "A Reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense", Edinburgh Review 84, 1990, he wrote: "Reports of atrocities by refugees are difficult to cope with. We are not used to such testimonies; not unless, perhaps the refugees are in flight from the same ideological enemy as ourselves". This now finds an echo in Translated Accounts: "No, she said, stories for our people and stories for foreign people will differ". But who is to tell these stories, and in what language? Kelman’s obsession with language takes unexpected turns in this novel. At the beginning of one of the accounts - "¿FODocument" - the page appears riddled with errors, due to the incompatibility of the computer programme reading the file: "^^^^tildnottildorforSummaryinformationor@ifdotcomwhatlanguageÚü". Yet the errors in the translation programme of this account offer, in a sense, a faithful transcription of an experience: it is as if we are listening through a mental antenna to the linguistic crackling of a man trying to hear himself speak.

Translated Accounts rejects grammatical correctness as the load line of translation, torpedoing it instead to reveal the political cargo beneath. At a time when global understanding is suddenly a matter of urgency, this book by the new professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow is proof of the continued political commitment of this former employee of Scottish Public Transport. This time his bus has not stopped at Easterhouse, Drumchapel or Castlemilk, but extended their frontiers throughout the world. Translated Accounts is an imperative to speak in whatever way we can best hear ourselves think. If that language is tortured, at time unreadable, and fails to move us, then we must ask ourselves why, push at the linguistic barriers and strain - and strain hard - to capture the meaning behind the emotionally damaged and bureaucratly strangled voices that are themselves struggling to speak to us in a foreign tongue. Can any meaning be found in these translated accounts? It would seem Kelman is saying yes and no: no, in so far as we are totally removed from the oppressive experience of the tortured speakers; but yes in the sense that the barriers - all that linguistic crackling - reveal the depths of the chasm that separates us and them. We must strain for understanding within the white noise; whether or not some connection can be made remains moot. F.V.

© 2001The Barcelona Review
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tbr 27               november/december  2001


Sahayl Saadi - Bandanna
James Carlos Blake - La Vida Loca
Patricia Duncker - Death Before Dishonour
Chris Reid - Scorin' for Ireland
Karen Seashore - Harvest
       picks from back issues:
Dorothy Speak - The View from Here
Javier Marías - Fewer Scruples

-Articles Review of em three
Film Festival of Catalunya:
Japanese anime
-Quiz Joyce Carol Oates
Answers to Virginia Woolf Quiz
-Book Reviews Doris Lessing, Steve Aylett, James Kelman...
-Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
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