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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

permeable dreams

“I can never remember faces, only feelings,” says the narrator of Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons.

The narrator in question is himself pure feeling, pure memory. As a man he is insubstantial; in fact, he is not a man at all. As we realise with a start after the first chapter of the novel, he is a gecko. He lives in an old book-lined house in Luanda, a house that is a bit like an old steamship hauling itself through the river mud. He is the lifelong pet, or more accurately the friend, of an old man called Félix Ventura, a bibliomaniac, romantic, and dreamer.

When the story begins, Félix Ventura is inviting a nameless stranger into his house. The stranger comes with demands. Félix obliges him, for it is his work precisely to work with nameless strangers, and to turn them into men with names, with identities, with noble genealogies. This particular stranger, though, wants more than stories: he wants a passport, certificates, authentic official documents. “I invent dreams for people,” Félix says, “but I am not a forger.”

But a bag full of money, five-thousand dollars to be exact (with more on the way), soon convinces him that perhaps being a well-paid forger isn’t the worst of fates. Within a few weeks, he has created for the stranger a solid new identity as José Buchmann, war photographer, and scion of one of the most noble families of Sao Pedro da Chibia, in the south of the country.

All this is told from the point of view of the gecko. Now, I am not necessarily fond of animal narrators—I have no inclination to pick up Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, narrated by a dog, or Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home starring the eponymous bear as a New York jazz musician. I prefer my stories to be narrated by human beings. Call it speciesm. But perhaps I have misjudged the genre. Agualusa shows one way of doing it right: give the talking animal enough human sympathies to keep our interest in the story alive.

In the case of the gecko (not a chameleon, but more about that later), these sympathies come from the fact that, in a previous life, he was a human being. And so, though he is but a laughing gecko now, a rare reptile kept as a domestic pet, he is attuned to the shifts and turns, the longings and deceptions of human beings. He can scuttle to the ceiling or behind a bookcase, and be privy to any and all conversations. The reader imagines too that the narrative, with its short, sharp takes, is a mirror of the reptilian brain. Events flick in and out quickly, like a gecko’s tongue extending and retracting at speed, as it consumes mosquitos.

“Whenever I hear about something completely impossible, I believe it at once,” Félix says at one point, to Angela Lucia, another photographer he has befriended. Agualusa’s method seems to be that of accruing weirdness, defying disbelief. And though his prose style is brazenly indebted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and to Jorge Luis Borges, I find that the sensibility also echoes that of Lusophone writers like Fernando Pessoa and Antonio Lobo Antunes—a wise, declarative style, plainspoken when viewed from one angle, but almost deliriously lush when viewed from another.

The emotional core of Agualusa’s tale is in the matter of shifting identities. Félix introduces himself as a genealogist, an inventor of pasts. But at a certain point, it’s not even clear whether he can distinguish between what really happened in the past, who was whose grandfather. All assertions threaten to become the truth within the swirl of his memory. As an albino, his appearance is ambiguous. He is neither white nor black; he is an Angolan who looks vaguely European.

His finest invention, José Buchmann, is not José Buchmann, but a man playing that role, a man who vanishes into the role invented for him. Another major character, the previously mentioned Angela Lucia, is a beautiful woman. She also happens to be a photographer, though she prefers to describe herself as a collector of light. Felix harbours hopes that she will soon invite him to bed. In her every gesture, both a yes and a no are present. Her inconstancy wafts through the old house like a perfume.

And the gecko, most intriguingly, inhabits the slippery boundary between his reptilian present and his human past. At moments, one is almost convinced that he is a personified homage to Borges himself (indeed, the epigraph of the novel is from Borges).

Scattered across the book are short, weird dreams—no weirder, it must be said, than the regular narrative of the novel—and these dreams with often involve the gecko’s past self in one interaction or another with Felix. The day afterwards, without fail, Félix would recount the exact same dream to a friend or acquaintance of his. At a loss at what to call this man who keeps appearing in his dream, Félix names him Eulalia, seemingly plucking the name out of the air. The name seems to code something: Eulalia literally means “the one who talks well.” It is an ironic name for a gecko who is restricted to an uncanny human-like laugh. The irony is deepened, perhaps, by the awareness that even Agualusa, the author’s name, is an assumed name.

The repeated telling of Félix and the gecko Eulalia’s shared dreams intensifies the playful, hallucinatory atmosphere of the book. Navigating this story is like moving through a Murakami novel that has been transposed to Central Africa. Readers who like the latter author will find much to cheer them in Agualusa.

The book, towards its end, takes a late twist into Angolan politics, a blood-soaked foray that, perhaps, does not arise organically from the preceding tale. Nevertheless, who requires an invented past more urgently than a war-troubled country? The real strength of The Book of Chameleons is not in the characters it evokes, as they are mostly fabulous and rather unrealistic, nor is it in the plot, which is barely there at all. The strength is in Agualusa’s summoning of moods: their quicksilver changes, the fleeting beauty which, in his magic-realist inflected prose, affects the reader viscerally—evocations of rain, of piano music, of feminine beauty, of the character of night.

By the time the reader lays aside the book, he or she, like Eulalia, can’t really remember the faces. Only the swirl of feelings remain. But what vivid and human feelings they are, feelings finely mixed to the point of hallucination.

Credit is due to the translator, Daniel Hahn, who Englishes Agualusa’s Portuguese very effectively. Their joint achievement was recognised with the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. I would quibble only with the decision not to render the original title O Vendedor de Passados in a direct translation, The Seller of Pasts. That, I think, would have captured the spirit of the book more poetically and more exactly.

Filed under: literature

in the shadow of plague

Disaster is by now familiar. We have all seen exploding cars and imploding buildings, battle scenes and massacres. But for most of us, this experience is secondhand, absorbed through the media of film and television, and often viewed as entertainment. The cable news networks make their money by dramatizing the awful for us. Watching the World Trade Centre crumble in 2001 evoked in many a strange but entirely predictable response: “It’s just like a movie.”

This over-familiarity with the imagery of disaster affects how nations, when faced with the threat of a crisis, respond. Leaders instinctively go into superhero mode, as though they were the stars of their own movie. The drama around the event, whether it be natural disaster, military conflict, or public health issue, is amplified. Fear leaps out of the shadows, and citizens are easily persuaded to surrender their civil rights. The language of politicians becomes even emptier than usual.

To observe the coverage of the recent swine flu scare was to watch all of this unfold. I was struck by how, in the United States, almost all the initial statements about the scare were made not by the President or the Secretary of Health, but by the Secretary of Homeland Security. The ominous pronouncements combined necessary diligence about public health with a vague sort of xenophobia. This, we were made to understand, was a Mexican flu. The threat was cast as an insidious thing that involved foreigners. You could have believed that fighting the flu was simply going to be a continuation of the war on terror.

Disease is often enough used as a pretext for xenophobia. In the media here, AIDS and the Ebola virus are taken to be African, and SARS and avian flu are thought of as Chinese. If we go all the way back to 1918, to the biggest of the twentieth-century’s flu pandemics, we will discover that the earliest cases were in Austria and in Kansas. But, of course, it wasn’t called the “Kansan flu.” It was called the “Spanish flu.” This was for no other reason than the fact that, although every country in Europe was infected, only Spain did not censor the true facts about the death tolls.

The 1918 flu was both highly communicable and seriously pathogenic. Probably 20 per cent of the world’s population caught it between 1918 and 1919, and of that number, between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent died. The numbers are staggering: some 50 million or more people lost their lives. It is in the record books as the biggest medical disaster of all time.

The flu of 1918, and milder but nevertheless devastating recurrences in 1957 and 1964, are the historical background to the current flu worries. The 1918 flu, SARS, avian flu, and the current swine flu are all caused by influenza viruses and related to one another by a complex network of avian, porcine and human infection patterns. The big problem is that although the influenza virus only has eight genes, and although the proteins those genes code for have been studied in detail for decades, the virus itself is highly susceptible to mutation. It is a tricky creature, always one step ahead of scientists.

So, the threat of this one, a variant of the virus scientifically known as “novel H1N1,” is real. However, much of the approach to the problem by governments in these past weeks has been theatrical as well as hysterical. This swine flu has behaved rather similarly to the seasonal flu that infects thousands every year. I have therefore found myself curious not only about the disease, but also about what the threat of disaster, does to societies.

For instance, the U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden, went on record to say that he wouldn’t advise anyone to go on a plane, a subway or any “enclosed spaces.” His office quickly apologised for spreading misinformation. The Chinese government, meanwhile, decided to confine hundreds of Mexicans in a Hong Kong hotel, because one person appeared to be sick. This set off a diplomatic firestorm. And the Nigerian Health Minister, Babatunde Oshotimehin, added his own, cautioning Nigerians against travelling to the United States and Mexico. Nigerians should not go to America? Was he joking?

These kinds of reactions are mirrored well in the literature of disaster. For public officials, it seems, there is no cure for the habit of only doing too much or doing too little. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, is about a pandemic in the Algerian town of Oran. The spread of the disease is at first disbelieved by all but a few, but shortly afterwards, it becomes the cause of mass hysteria. Only a handful of people, notably Dr. Rieux and Dr. Castel, serve the greater good. Everyone else is unhinged by fear. Some even profit from it, such as Father Paneloux who uses the plague to promote his own profile within the town, and Cottard who becomes rich by smuggling goods in and out of the barricaded town.

What if, I asked myself, this swine flu really became widespread and deadly? Quite apart from our medical readiness, are our societies emotionally prepared for real disaster? I turned to a much older novel as I mused on these questions: Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the 1665 plague that devastated the city of London. The unnamed narrator of the story decides to remain in the city as the disease rages, and the story he tells is a grim one: burials, bodies piled on carts, the appointment of watchmen and nurses, and increasingly draconian rulings by magistrates. Similar to the people of Oran in Camus’ book, the Londoners of A Journal of the Plague Year become more superstitious, seeking out quacks instead of authentic doctors. Many go mad from fear and desperation, undone by their terror at being undone. The sleep of reason, as it is said, produces monsters.

And this, I suppose, is what we really should expect: the mere threat of suffering pushes people towards irrational beliefs. Though the North American expression of this latest flu seems now to be under control, it isn’t clear that all the danger is past. Leaving aside CNN’s gleeful reporting, the public urgently needs to be educated about the flu. Yes, it is highly communicable. No, it isn’t usually fatal. No, there isn’t a vaccine for this particular mutation yet. Yes, there probably will be one soon. If the flu does come back in about a year, as some say it might, we will (medically speaking) be readier for it by then.

I think there’s something to learn about what life under a pandemic might be like from books about the AIDS crisis (Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country are two powerful examples that come to mind). Officials, we will realise, are generally self-serving liars; irrationally fearful people make poor, and sometimes hateful, choices; and some of the deepest and noblest instincts of human emerge from the shadow of plague.

Should we ever have to face a deadly flu pandemic again (and sooner and later we will) it would be a shame if it became an occasion for hating foreigners or for needless suffering. Instead of playing superhero or looking for excuses to impose martial law-the equivalent of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre-governments need to help their citizens refrain from panic.

For now, though, things are stable. The experts say we should feel free to eat bacon, ride the subway, and take planes. And I’ll add to that: should you be in possession of a visa and plane ticket, don’t mind the Health Minister. Carry your load and come to America. I can absolutely guarantee that once you get here, you’ll be so busy dealing with unemployment, racism, bills, violence and flavourless chicken, that swine flu will be the least of your worries.

Filed under: literature

liberty leading the people

A little over a week ago, hundreds of women in Ekiti protested electoral fraud in the state. Some of the protesters went half-naked. The images from the protest, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and websites, inspired horror and pity.

There was great respect for the women by some, others were revolted (and suggested that the protesters had been manipulated). There was fury at the politicians who had forced them to such a dramatic pass. Consensus opinion is that both the PDP and the AC made use of thugs during the recent elections. Journalists were intimidated, citizens beaten, and officers of the state were subjected to appalling personal threats. The independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission came under question. Olusola Ayoka Adebayo, the Resident Electoral Commissioner, who is in her 70s, was put in fear of her life by political goons. Bizarrely, she was also threatened with arrest by the Federal Government if she resigned her position.

The situation was an unsalvageable mess. At a point, a group of elderly women in the state said: “Enough is enough.” Twenty or so of them, clad in white cloth at the waist, their breasts exposed, led a crowd of some three hundred (mostly female) protesters to the streets and demanded that Mrs. Adebayo be allowed to conclude her duties in peace. The protest was under the body: Ekiti Women for Peace and Development. The sight of any woman half-naked in public is significant. It draws startled attention, wherever in the world it might be taking place. Within the specific context of Nigeria, women marching with their breasts exposed has a great ethical and political resonance. This resonance is founded on the seriousness with which we consider elderly women: they are all mothers, regardless of whether they have children of their own or not, regardless of whether they are related to us personally or not.

To a large extent, political activity in Nigeria is still dominated by men. But when things become messy and frustrating, when legal avenues are exhausted, the elderly women (these mothers who are the true repository of the society’s wisdom) advance the fight. They do so with the only tools available to them: their voices and their bodies, and nothing is more powerful than the mothers’ ability to remind their adversaries of the norms of our culture. They warn the powers that be that they are supposed to nurture the people, not strip them of their rights.

Viewing the images from Ekiti (viewing them, one hopes, with great discomfort), everyone would have understood that the shame that comes from being naked in public accrues not to the mothers themselves, but to the symbolic children who have forced them to expose themselves. Indeed, it would also have been understood that to ignore the message being sent by these women would be to invite a curse on the state’s leaders. A strong part of the impetus for the protest was the disrespect shown to the person and office of Mrs. Adebayo. And without shoes, their waists wrapped in white (white evoked the spiritual aspect of the march), the Ekiti mothers stood tall on behalf of another old woman.

Few of these women, I imagine, would style themselves “feminists.” Yet this was precisely a protest that showed the power and dignity of women in particular. These are the facts, regardless of any suggestion (as some have claimed, without evidence) that these women were tricked into marching for the AC.

There are historical precedents. In November 1929, at the beginning of the struggle to free Nigeria from British rule, thousands of rural women from Owerri, Calabar and environs (after months of preparation and strategy) participated in protests against the British colonialists or the African Warrant Officers who aided them. The conflict was over a harsh taxation policy, and the Ibo and Ibibio women involved were scrupulously non-violent. The main tactic was “sitting,” which was the act of following the Warrant Officers everywhere, until their demands were heard. They also destroyed the colonialists’ property, but never laid a hand on any person. The British response, predictably, was brutal: Many women were massacred and their villages were burnt. But the women did not quit, and the eventual result was that important concessions were earned, and women were themselves appointed as warrant officers, and to positions on local courts.

This early struggle, which came to be known as the Women’s War (or, in the pejorative term of the colonialists, the “Aba Women’s Riot”), served as an exemplar for women-led protests throughout the twentieth century. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti organised one such protest in 1949 against the Native Authorities, a successful action against another harsh anti-female taxation regime.

And it is surely no coincidence that, in 2002, when women in the Niger Delta town of Escravos were at loggerheads with the corporate behemoths of ChevronTexaco and Shell, they made their presence felt with 10 days of “sitting” at the corporations’ offices. Crucially, their most potent threat was that they would take their clothes off. ChevronTexaco, whose Nigerian employees were alarmed at this threat, sent senior executives to negotiate with the women. They gave in to the women’s demands: Employment of more local people, and investment in electricity and infrastructure projects. These women had succeeded where young men with guns had failed.

In our local cultures, the breasts of a woman sometimes stand for the whole body, just as the woman stands (sometimes literally) for the whole society. Bared breasts remind viewers of where their nourishment comes from, where their childhood health was guaranteed, and what they should respect above all else. Looking at the images from Ekiti, I was put in mind of the famous painting by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People.

This is the central painting of the July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew the hated monarchy of Charles X. The central figure in this loud, crowded painting is Marianne, the woman who symbolises the Liberty. Marianne strides forward, over the bodies of the dead heroes of the revolution. In her right hand, she holds aloft the French tri-color, in her left is a musket affixed with a bayonet. But what we see, first and foremost, is her bared chest, on which a golden light falls. It is one of the rare instances in the history of painting where the fully-frontal nudity of a young woman is presented in a non-sexualised way. In fact, the purpose of the painting, which the French state bought from Delacroix in 1831, was to remind the new king that he served the people, not the other way around. It was a warning.

Some 50 years after Delacroix’s painting, France presented the United States of America with a gift: A monumental copper sculpture. The sculpture, by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was based on the pose of Marianne in Liberty Leading the People. Her bare breasts, in the sculpture, were covered up, the French flag was replaced with a flaming torch, and a tablet representing knowledge was put in her left hand instead of the musket.

On this slightly foggy New York morning, I can still make out, from the window of this room, the outline of Bartholdi’s statue, standing on a small island in the bay, rising some 300 ft into the air, a faint green presence: The Statue of Liberty.

Filed under: literature

pun the river

When I first got to America, I was struck most dramatically by two things. One was how new the cars were. The general class of those cars was nothing remarkable, but hardly any vehicle on the roads seemed older than five years, unlike on the streets of Lagos, where the shells of old chariots still go to die. The second was the talk shows on television, which seemed shameless to an unguessed at degree. The shows hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue shocked me by their crudeness, by the willingness of perfectly normal people to go on air and volunteer every piece of dirty laundry their families possessed.

These were the mild surprises of my first days in the US. Only later did I begin to understand more fundamental differences. Linguistically, Nigerian English is not that distant from its American cousin, and with some effort I could make myself understood, and I could understand, in turn, what Americans were saying. Misunderstandings of vocabulary, like the American habit of saying “silverware” when they mean “cutlery,” were easily cleared up. More difficult, and more lasting, were the basic attitudes about language use.

For a long time now, a certain American hostility to word play has puzzled me. My understanding of word play was that it was a welcome part of communication. To indulge in the slipperiness between sounds and meanings was to honour language. Brevity might be the soul of wit, but wit is the soul of communication. I had practically packed Achebe’s “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” in my luggage when I came to Yankee.

Americans view it differently (they have little use for palm-oil). Puns, in particular, are met with an audible groan. For years, I misinterpreted this groan as a sort of disguised pleasure on their part, a coy plea for more punnery. I was wrong: Americans genuinely dislike puns. They consider it the lowest form of wit. Why should this be so? After all, the British delight in them. William Shakespeare was an inveterate punster: Hamlet, when asked where (the recently murdered) Polonius is, he says, “at supper,” then clarifies, “not where he eats but where he is eaten.”And then he puns further over poor Polonius’ corpse: “Indeed this counsellor is now most still, most secret and most grave, who was in life a foolish prating knave.” He is “grave” (serious) when he once was foolish, but he is “grave,” too, for being dead and headed for the cemetery.

Nigerian speech, whether in English or in more indigenous languages, is also quick-witted, elusive, steeped in double-meaning. Wole Soyinka (who’s learnt more than a few things from the author of Hamlet) never met a clever turn of phrase he didn’t like.

He abounds in puns, alliteration, and double-entendres. In his hands, language is a fissile material, ever ready to explode into unexpected shards of meaning. “King Baabu” in the eponymous play is Hausa for “nothing” or “finished.” Quite apart from straight puns, what Soyinka does is place meaning on a slippery slope from which it careens into unanticipated chasms.

The Aafa character in his 1970 play “Madmen and Specialists” declares, in the middle of pun-addled speech that “the loyalty of homo-sapiens is regressed into himself, himself, his little tick-tock self, self-ticking, self-tickling, self-tackling problems…” Another character decides that “the end shall justify the meanness.” This is a finely-wrought madness, well-said as well as prophetic.

In his book Myth, Literature and the African World, Soyinka addresses the Marxist and other ideologues who tried to lay claims on him by quoting a Yoruba proverb, “A o le bara ni tan, ka f’ara wa n’itan ya.” In other words, the mere fact that we are related doesn’t mean that we can tear each others’ thighs apart. The phrase turns on the homonymity of “tan” (related) and “itan” (thigh). The most sophisticated puns I know are the Yoruba ones. Perhaps every speaker of the language knows the simplest examples such as “Nkan t’a wa lo si Sokoto wa l’apo sokoto”: What we seek in the city of Sokoto is actually in our trousers (the [Yoruba] word for trousers is “sokoto”). But in the hands of such orators as Samuel Ladoke Akintola (premier of the Western Region until his death in the 1966 coup), meaning migrates farther and sharper, casting a shimmering light on the mind.

Once, the story goes, Akintola met someone named Akpata (an Edo cognate of Yoruba, “Apata,” which means rock). He asked the fellow to spell his name, and he began, “A, K…” Akintola stopped him with an impatiently upraised hand: “Ki ni’ke nwa ninu apata?” (What is K doing in Apata?).

The triple-entendre here is that the Yoruba hearers would have known that only Bendelites spell Apata with a K, that “ike” (hump) sounds like the letter K, and that no solid rock worth the name should have a hump. Embedded in all this was perhaps a tribalistic dig as well, as Akintola was something of a Yoruba chauvinist. I would suggest that the labour involved in explaining a pun is inversely proportional to its brilliance. A truly great one has, within its brief compass, several layers; the power comes from grasping it all at once.

But I cannot resist another anecdote, more recent, which recounts how Alhaji Lamidu Adedibu, the late strongman of Ibadan politics, accused of thuggery, was reputed to have made the retort: “Ti ‘to’ ba tun jabo l’enu re, ‘giri’ to ku, aya re l’oma bosi.” Literally, this means “If ‘to’ should drop from your mouth again, the remaining ‘giri’ will land in your chest.” The joke is on Adedibu’s pronunciation of “thuggery” as “togiri,” and on the facts that “to” or “ito” is [Yoruba for] saliva, and “giri” evokes the sound of a shotgun. In other words, if you so much as say another word accusing me of thuggery, I will unload a cartridge of bullets into you. This goes beyond punnery: improvised on the spot, it traverses languages, employs onomatopoeia, and engages in deep irony. Word play on this level is the river of language delighting in its own rapid flow.

And yet Americans hate puns. This aversion of theirs has become one of the abiding mysteries in my linguistic life, itching like a phantom limb. Is it an American fear of cleverness, in this most “democratic” of countries? Is it a Freudian embarrassment at the inexpensive pleasure of luxuriating in words? I haven’t solved it yet. But I continue to pun deliriously, in defiance of their theatrical groans.

For me, punning is an act of self-recognition, a self-tickling and self-tackling hewed out of the substance of my Yoruba and Nigerian English heritage. The pun is simply an unvarnished name for ambiguity, and the ambiguous is the font of all true creativity. When I write or speak, I could no sooner stick to a single rigid meaning than walk on a solitary peg.

Filed under: literature

instruments of darkness

Ceridwen Dovey’s novel, Blood Kin, has no named characters. Each person is identified simply by job description, pronoun, or relationship to the president. This president himself is, at the opening of the book, dictator-for-life of an unnamed country, sketched out largely by his tastes and preferences than by any real exploration of his character. His character is dictatorial; that is all we need to know. The absence of names plunges the story firmly in the atmosphere of a fable, and Dovey’s almost archetypal focus on the roles by the main characters hints at an allegorical intent.

The most important of those roles are held by three men who serve the president: his barber, his portraitist, and his chef. The chef cooks for him daily, the barber comes once a week to clip his hair, and the portraitist does a new portrait of him every month. The opening pages are eerie, and the reader already suspects that the ensuing narrative will be dark. Dovey, a young South-African novelist, who won that country’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize last year for this book, introduces the work in ominous tones. Though what she describes in those first few pages are the respective procedures of the president’s men, and though these descriptions are at once precise and gently lyrical, she drops into each just enough of a hint of the menace to come.

So, there’s the chef, who takes apparent pleasure in disembowelling crayfish and beheading prawns. Her description of how he kills the abalones (large sea snails) is especially gripping: he must let them calm down for a half-hour before he smashes them with a rolling pin. If they see him coming and contract, the flesh becomes tough and inedible; they are wasted.The barber, meanwhile, having particular access to the president, idly muses about slitting his throat or snapping his neck in the middle of shave. He has no compelling reason to do so. The thought merely occurs to him. Even the portraitist is haunted by submerged violence, in his case the close observation that reveals the president ageing before his eyes. They are all present in the presidential palace on the day the president is deposed and, with him, they are all spirited away to another palace, outside the city, from which the rest of the story unfolds.

The story that Dovey tells is, as her title suggests, about kinship, blood kinship of two distinct kinds: the genetic connection between people, and the way people are bound by violence. Each of the book’s short chapters is narrated in the first person; as Banquo says in Macbeth, “the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” In the first part, the portraitist, the barber and the chef tell their stories, interspersing the stories of their lives with their current condition under house arrest and in service of the new dictator, a man who calls himself the Commander.

The second part of the book extends these stories, and gives voice to a few other characters we have met in the first part: the portraitist’s wife, the barber’s brother’s fiancée, and the chef’s daughter. These female voices deepen and complicate the story, a story in which two things can absolutely not be counted on: paternity and sexual fidelity. In keeping with the quasi-allegorical feel of the tale, none of these six narrators has appreciable differences from the others, at least in the telling of the tale.

The prose, spare and controlled, and as clean as a knife, is also burnished with a certain sensuality: around a mouth “wine is smudged like blood,” a child is “the size of a grain of rice,” ambition is like “a living creature, crouched and focused.” Dovey seems to have a special fondness for seafood, and there are many loving descriptions of crustaceans, of cooking fish, and even of the work of fishermen (the barber’s brother is a fisher-man). She doesn’t escape cliché completely: one character takes to politics “like a fish to water.”

But, for the most part, her prose serves the story well, and the story is essentially a report from the inside of power by people who have been mildly corrupted by their exposure to it. We see how easy it is for revolutionaries to become despots. There is little difference between the president and the Commander. Blood Kin reads, in parts, like what such a book about dictatorship by a South-African should. Some of these interlocking first-person narratives sound like testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, unvarnished confessions of what was done to whom, when it was done, why it was done. And the influence of her fellow South-African, J.M. Coetzee, is never far away, not only in the unemotional and fable-like narration, but also in specific incidents, such as when one of the characters overhears a man being tortured in the neighbouring room. It is impossible not to recall the cold-blooded Colonel Joll from Waiting for the Barbarians, who had no compunction about making other human beings suffer, allegedly in the service of the state.

Paradoxically, the strengths of the novel are also signals of its weakness. A certain circumspection in recounting violence is necessary, and we perhaps can only properly approach it if we don’t get too familiar with the stories it (violence) tells to justify itself. The burden of witnessing requires caution. On the other hand, to universalise it is to weaken the claims made by specific victims. The absence of clues about the location, or rather the presence of inconsistent clues (the country appears to be South Africa, but almost all the characters are white), creates a mystery that detracts from the main philosophical centre of the book. That centre is the question of why people are so ready to do violence to each other, eager to decapitate, unhesitating in sneaking up with the rolling pin. These quibbles aside, Dovey has written a beautiful book about a subject that many people, Nigerians not least, are uncomfortable thinking about.

One thinks back to the series of residents occupying Dodan Barracks, the broad networks of influence and power they cultivated, and the souls that were bought with money or recruited by force. It is impossible that there aren’t now large numbers of Nigerians who came close to power, and participated as auxiliaries in power’s horrors. But such is life. When power fades, its auxiliaries slip into normal life, and are happy to blend there, happy to have the past forgotten. Having consorted with killers, they retire, and try to enjoy life out of the spotlight. It goes without saying that this pattern continues right to the present day.

Blood Kin is marred, slightly, by some soap-opera plotting towards the end. But it is a fine book otherwise, an indirect tale that makes a contribution to an area of contemporary experience that urgently needs to be addressed, directly and indirectly.

Filed under: literature

design without end

Last week, The New York Times printed one of the most troubling articles that I’ve ever seen in the mainstream press. It would seem that the travel section, and the food and fashion pages are the last remaining places in America where a certain brusquely racist language is permissible. Those sections, apparently, are not required to move on from 19th century attitudes.

This particular article, by one Suzy Menkes, was unpromisingly titled, Out of Africa. The title is a triple reference, though it is unlikely Menkes was aware of all the layers involved. The 1985 film of that name, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, used Africa purely as a backdrop for the romantic entanglements of a group of white settlers. The sunsets are magnificent, the land is broad and strong, awaiting conquerors, and the animals are wonderful. In the film, as well as in the 1937 Isak Dinesen book of the same title, blacks are in a servile position, there to provide little more than local colour.

Dinesen’s own title probably came from a phrase by the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder. “Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre,” Pliny wrote; “Africa always brings us something new.” The quotation is often rendered in a subtly different form: “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” which means “always something new out of Africa.” In both forms, the intent is to present Africa as a source of the weird, the exotic, and the unbelievable. Once, hearing a story he couldn’t quite believe, Aristotle is alleged to have muttered, “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.” Out of Africa? Unbelievable.

And so Menkes’ New York Times article, some 2000 years after Pliny’s book, shamelessly revisits the same tropes. The ostensible point of the piece is to relay news of how much the haute couture of Vuitton, Dior and Gaultier owe to African inspiration this season. Other than the obvious objection that this is not news, any sensible reader is immediately troubled by Menkes’ language and descriptions. The article begins: “The masked face with its feathers of hair glares from the instep.” A shoe is characterised as a “savage hybrid,” for the designers, “African style is a drumbeat,” and the article is littered with words like “exotica,” “spicy,” “tribal,” and “wild.”

Is this a joke? Sadly, no: Menkes, and presumably her editor, are in deadly earnest. When they look at “Africa’s tribal fabrics,” what they see is savagery. Every paragraph of the story contains an insult, and she ends the piece with perhaps the deepest insult of all: “The irony is that one step on African soil in this high and mighty footwear would probably bring even a hardened fashionista to her knees.” Are there no buildings in Africa? No roads? No flat surfaces? Not according to Menkes, but if one were to wear the flat strappy sandals, then one could walk “on the shores of the Limpopo as in the world’s fashion capitals.”

Unfortunately, this sneering attitude to Africa and Africans is not unusual. It goes on because there is no one to complain about it, or complaints are ignored. Menkes, in fact, wrote a virtually identical piece for the Times in 1997, screeching about jungle animals and tribal bangles. “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”-many Western commentators care only about the peculiar and the savage. Reading them, one would think the likes of Franz Fanon, Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire had never published a word.

But there are some who do get it, who get that Africa is various and magnificent, not merely in the general but in the particular. A starker counter to Menkes’ article could hardly be imagined than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition on African textiles. One might expect that such a show would simply be wall after wall of pretty fabric, but something far more sophisticated is at work.

The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End seeks to understand the inner world of textiles, an art form that has, for too long, had only a tenuous grip on the respect of collectors. This is strange because, even in the Renaissance, tapestries were more expensive and more highly valued than paintings. In the case of Africa, textiles continue to occupy a complex of meanings, from materials made for everyday use to objects woven for sacred purposes. One of the most striking pieces in the show (which is curated by Alisa LaGamma) is a Hausa men’s tunic from the late 19th century. Every inch of it has been stitched with blessings and protective verses from the Koran, and it has thus been transformed from a shirt into a mantle of impermeable protection. The show also contains dozens of examples of restless creativity: lovely hand-loom pieces from the Ewe people, woven silk tapestries from Madagascar, tie-dye from the Gambia, and early 20th-century Yoruba adire. The cumulative effect is stunning.

But the Design Without End really soars in the way it incorporates contemporary African artists’ encounters with African fabric. “Between Heaven and Earth,” a luminous “metal textile” piece by Ghanaian-born Nsukka-resident artist El Anatsui, is made entirely of collected aluminium bottle-caps stitched together with copper wire. The shimmering result brings to mind kente cloth and at the same time looks like a medieval mosaic. Anatsui has said that he is influenced by Sonya Clark’s formulation: “Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.” It is a profound truth. For us, cloth commemorates and honours, it enfolds and it sacralises.

A wall-hanging piece in the show, by Yinka Shonibare, consisting of a hundred small panels, employs ankara (Dutch-wax print) in combination with acrylic paint. Another wonderful piece is “Nigerian Woman Shopping” by Sokari Douglas Camp, a life-size open-work steel sculpture in which adire has been transmuted into metal. And, in photography, there are several prints from the Malian genius Seydou Keita (1921-2001), who ran a portrait studio in Bamako from the 1940s to the early 60s, and was fond of juxtaposing his clients’ brightly patterned clothing against equally exuberant backgrounds.

Was there any chance at all that the New York Times’ fashion writer had seen this show? In its form, its content and its tone, the show respects African enterprise and African creative diversity. It’s an old lesson by now, that the way to really understand a people (or a group of peoples) is to pay attention to what they value. All across Africa, there is careful attention and vigilance where cloth is concerned. It is like a little window into the soul of our various peoples.

But perhaps it would be too much to ask that this be understood by those who are only after strappy sandals, something comfortable to wear on the banks of the Limpopo.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before “ex Africa semper aliquid novi” gains a richer meaning: that African ideas, African ideals and African cultural practices can refresh a Western world staggering towards exhaustion. It can happen, but if it does, it can only begin with respect.

Filed under: literature

walcott’s dizzying array

I experienced the election of Barack Obama partly through the poetry of Derek Walcott. There was no obvious reason why this should have been so: Walcott is not a nakedly political poet, nor is he American. In the run-up to the election, he hadn’t been particularly in the public eye, not much more than usual. There had been the spat with V.S. Naipaul, but that was a passing thing, a small scrolling item on the news-ticker, a pair of elephants trampling a distant patch of grass.

Yet his work was reviving itself in me. I had read the poems for years, had probably dulled them a little with familiarity. But, as America’s hectic electoral year rumbled to its close, I picked up the Selected Poems and began to dip into it for comfort and wisdom; and not just for those, but also for the sheer exhilaration of experiencing a master remake the world through his words.

Walcott came to mastery early. He was eighteen, a mere sapling, when 25 Poems, his first collection, was published. That was in 1948. The vigour of those poems, the ambitious reach of them-he employed a Miltonic-Wordsworthian blank verse-were a prophecy. Right from the beginning, the gift for startling imagery was there: not many teenagers can illuminate a poem with “the variegated fists of clouds” and “the bowels of the hours.” Forty-three years later, the sapling had become a stout oak, and he was awarded the Nobel.

This public acclaim can become a problem. Any winner of a great literary prize, especially that eminent one bestowed by the Swedes, risks becoming an institution. The books accumulate like unpaid bills, dusty, seldom read, found fit to furnish rooms and not minds. As August Kleinzahler put it, certain poems come down to us in Nobel-ese, full of their own importance, imprisoned in seriousness. But is this true of Walcott? A reputation can be a dreadful thing, setting up expectations that have nothing to do with the work of sitting down and writing. But let us remember that the proof of poetry is nowhere but in poetry. Walcott’s are fresh, with no hint of fustiness or mildew, perpetually surprising in their beauty and exactness: “Days I have held, days I have lost, days that outgrow, like daughters, my harboring arms.” Who would not wish to express the thought of past time in such invigorating language?

He achieves stateliness by opposing stateliness; his civilisation is of hybrid and brindled things, shot through with Caribbean slang and wit, and every poem from his half-century of creativity seems suffused by sea air. The first of his books I encountered was Sea Grapes, a collection from 1976 that I accidentally found some twenty years later in a small local library in Michigan. To fall into one of those poems was to plunge like a body into clear water, and then be brought aloft again by the water’s swell. The title poem began: “That sail which leans on light,/ tired of islands,/ a schooner beating up the Caribbean/ for home, could be Odysseus,/ home-bound on the Aegean.” And its final line was: “The classics can console. But not enough.”

This had the air of a manifesto, and it was fully manifested in his book-length poem, Omeros, published in 1990. A remix of Homer, Omeros lays down, in St. Lucian patois and English, a well-wrought narrative of Achille (a poor fisherman), Helen (a strong and beautiful local girl) and Hector (his rival for Helen’s love). The narrator, presumably Walcott himself, meditates on the history of the islands; the clashes and struggles that have brought them to their present form; the Dutch, French, English, African and native Caribbean origins; the consolations offered by the classics.

Such material can be heavy going, but in Walcott’s skilled hands, it is bright-hued, flecked with light and good humour; silvered. When half-literate Achille is teased for his boat, which he’s named In God We Troust, he shoots back, “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.” The smile is still playing on our lips when Walcott ends that verse with: “After Mass one sunrise the canoes entered the troughs/ of the surpliced shallows, and their nodding prows/ agreed with the waves to forget their lives as trees;/ one would serve Hector, and another Achilles.”

Such is the sense one gets from Walcott’s work: a talent held in trust, a gift deployed on our behalf, the shallows surpliced and the depths equally sanctified. It is commonplace, I suppose, to refer to such people as a treasure. And yet, opening the books, I feel how literal this description is.

The pleasure one feels, in fact, is darkened (if the reader is himself a writer), by a little cloud of envy. This poetry is an intimate, an embarrassingly intimate, connection to language, the connection we all hunger for when we set pen to paper. The metaphors and figures spin off the page in a dizzying array, page after page of lush description, the boon of a painter’s eye. The rhymes, slant or fitted, thrum to-and-fro like ocean waves, like the call and response of the black church. One imagines the poems set to music, a poet who sings and sings because he sings so well.

There must be some hope that generations to come will remain alive to such thrills. Is there anywhere else in human endeavour where the fleeting moment, and its eternal echo, are as expertly pinned as in a poem? But, in all countries, poets receive shabby treatment-they are honoured when it is convenient, but the deeper honour of being read and properly cherished is denied them. But there’s no arguing about taste. Walcott, or other poets, might mean nothing to some, even to intelligent people with open minds, and that is fine. Poetry, perhaps, is also found in other forms. So, I confess a private joy: these lines delight and trouble and heal. I find sustenance in the craft of lyric verse. It enlarges my world. And Walcott’s verse, as much as that of anyone now writing, honours that craft.

For me, on the 4th of November last year, as I attempted to make sense of the moment (Barack Obama-black, smart, with a precious instinct for human rights-just about to enter into the centre of world history), it made a kind of sense to reach for Walcott. I took The Arkansas Testament, in which his Antillean and black sensibilities confront the American South. Walcott captures America’s lassitude, its small beauties and small uglinesses. It was for me, on that day, at the moment of still hoping for a favourable outcome in the evening, the perfect note: “Afternoon sun will reprint/ the bars of a flag whose cloth-/over motel, steeple and precinct-/must heal the stripes and the scars.” The day had found its words, and I headed out to Harlem to meet the prophesied result.

And the following day, as fate’s sense of humour decreed it, the president-elect was seen holding a volume of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems.

Filed under: literature

rule-maker, rule-breaker

A grammar teacher, in the course of a lesson, writes the following example on the blackboard: “Bill had a succulent cheeseburger.” Immediately, hands shoot up in the classroom. “Bill? What kind of name is that?” The teacher, puzzled, says that Bill is an eminently normal name. There was a recent US president named Bill, he reminds them. The students respond, “We don’t know why you always use these honky white names.” They suggest he use something more normal: names like Aissatou or Rachida.

They then go on to argue that, anyway, intricate grammatical rules like the imperfect subjunctive are irrelevant to the way people speak today. The teacher is white, his pupils, as you will have guessed, are mostly not. This scene, from Laurent Cantet’s film The Class, neatly encapsulates the ongoing crisis in French education. The Class, nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, is set in a tough Parisian neighbourhood. It centres on the young teacher, François Marin, and his volatile charges. The character of Marin is played by François Bégaudeau, who in real life wrote a book about his experience as a teacher to French immigrant students, students much like the ones in the film.

Marin, when we first meet him, is intelligent, open-minded, and frank, and is easy to like. We are early on introduced to his skepticism. He knows how difficult life is for his students, but on the other hand, he’s not fooled by their many excuses to avoid doing their schoolwork. With a mixture of pleading, cajoling, charming and laying down the law, he attempts to get the best out of each of them. They, for their parts, do what teenagers everywhere do: try to get away with as much as they possibly can.

The teacher-student conflict is emphasised by the fact of their diverse homelands: Senegal, Mali, the French Caribbean, Morocco, Algeria, China. Some of these kids don’t come from French-speaking backgrounds, others are being practically raised by their older siblings, and one has a parent who is facing deportation. These facts help heighten not only the artificiality of the classroom encounter, but also some of its latent tensions. When Marin gives an assignment to the students to write biographical essays on themselves, we understand their reluctance. They all but accuse him of voyeurism, of trying to gain confidences he hasn’t quite earned. He insists, not entirely convincingly, that he truly cares about them and wants to know about their lives.

The kids are likeable. Even those of them who are doing badly in their schoolwork have a kind of street-smart sharpness that one can’t help but admire. They don’t want to be bossed around. Marin, no despot, nevertheless feels that he ought to exercise control over the classroom. Some of these tensions begin to boil over when one bright black student, Khoumba (played by the hugely gifted Rachel Regulier), refuses to participate when called on in class. In the post-class discussion he has with her, Marin insists that she apologise for her earlier surly attitude. The scene is painful to watch. She’s much younger than he is, of an ethnic minority, chafing under a teacher’s arbitrary authority. What we see through her eyes is not a mere teacher-student interaction, but one person needlessly using official power against another.

Marin, meanwhile, is intent on following the logic of that authority to its conclusion, however distasteful. He insists, and eventually extracts his apology, but we see that by then the student has lost respect, and any vestiges of affection she might have had, for him. And in him, too, there is a note of regret: after all, he is liberal, open-minded, not the sort to ever judge anyone based on place of origin or skin colour. But, as a teacher, as a French civil servant following a set syllabus, he is already implicated in a subtle form of oppression.

But this is only the beginning of Marin’s troubles. A Malian boy in the class, the seeming easy-going Souleymane, has a moment of anger and inadvertently injures a classmate. More troublingly, at least to Marin, Souleymane storms out of class, making it clear he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. By the school’s rules, a hearing must be held; it is likely that the result will be expulsion. This is a result Marin is keen to avoid, as he genuinely likes the boy. But Marin himself complicates the disciplinary process. In a moment of annoyance, he had addressed two clever but scheming girls in the class with the word pétasse-word quickly spreads around the school that Marin is calling his students “sluts.” Souleymane is facing a hearing, but the teacher can call students by rude names? Who’s the real rule-breaker here?

The Class dramatises these various conflicts absorbingly. Director Laurent Cantet made the film using three hand-held cameras, which catch not just the scripted action but also some of the longueurs and tedium of classroom life. Much of the lighting is natural, and the students, some of whom were actually in Bégaudeau’s real-life class, add immeasurably to the documentary feel of the result. It is not a “feel-good” film, but it is one that feels true to life: events take on a life of their own, and conflicts great and small seem to sprout from the most innocuous interactions. There is no neat ending. But, without explicitly doing so, The Class gives us an insight into the simmering immigrant distress that has hampered France in the last few years, most notably in the fiery riots that engulfed the Parisian suburbs called the banlieues.

The French want to insist that immigrants subjugate themselves, their cultures, and their habits into an overarching “Frenchness.” The immigrants, as far as they are able, try to get across the message that respect is a two-way street, and that to live and work in France does not mean becoming imitation Frenchmen.

The original title of the film, Entre Les Murs (“Between the Walls”), serves Cantet’s project better: the true subject here is what happens between the literal walls of a school room, as well as between the metaphorical walls created by rules. One leaves The Class wondering whether, as Marin insists, you have to know the rules before you break them, or whether it is Khoumba and her mates who are in the right: France has changed, the world has changed, and the usual rules no longer apply.

Filed under: literature

between savage mountains

The final image in Tayeb Salih’s imagistic 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North is of a man swimming in a cold river. The swimmer is the unnamed narrator of the book, a literary scholar recently returned to Sudan from the UK. Drifting along on the river, getting numb, falling into a dream state, he says, “I was halfway between north and south.” The story told in the novel, primarily the story not of the narrator but of a fellow Sudanese intellectual he encounters, is precisely keyed to this matter of being half-way.

The other man, Mustafa Sa’eed, is introduced at first as a quiet dweller in the same small village in Sudan as the narrator. This thoughtful man fits the languorous pace of the novel’s opening pages, and the pastoral air of immemorial rhythms in a small farming village is one in which each person’s contribution is “continuous and integral”. He is not, in fact, introduced as an intellectual, but as a stranger who, in the narrator’s absence abroad, had bought a farm in the village, married a local girl, settled among the indigenes. He is liked well enough, even if he’s found a little aloof; many in the village value his clear mind and practical approach to solving problems. That all changes one night when, in the presence of the narrator, Mustafa gets drunk and begins to recite English poetry. The following day, the narrator confronts him, and persuades him to divulge his story. Mustafa shares his past in a fragmented but matter-of-fact manner; it is a shocking tale, all the more so for hewing so close to normality.

Born in Sudan, robbed of his father at an early age, and raised by a stoic mother, he seized the opportunity for schooling offered him by a stranger. After distinguishing himself in Khartoum, particularly in the English language, he wins a scholarship to further studies in Cairo. From there, he makes his way to Oxford, and becomes a brilliant economist. But his brilliance and inflexibility have come at a price: his soul is deadened. A split develops in his personality. On the one hand, he lectures in economics at the University of London (where he is given a professorship at the scarcely believable age of 24), and on the other hand, he becomes a callous sexual predator. In particular, he seeks out young English women with Orientalist fantasies as his prey. These women are not entirely innocent. As one of them says to him, “I want to have the smell of you in full—the smell of rotting leaves in the jungles of Africa, the smell of the mango and the pawpaw and tropical spices, the smell of rains in the deserts of Arabia.” Given such easy pickings, Mustafa lies deliriously, and at one point, he lives with five different women all over London, under five different names. It ends badly for Mustafa’s women. Two of them commit suicide, another dies of indeterminate causes, and yet another is murdered—by him, and with her consent—in the throes of a sick sexual passion. He comes to trial for this last crime, but a clever lawyer gets him a light sentence at the Old Bailey. After seven years, he’s a free man. He returns to Sudan, and marries Hosna Bint Mahmoud, and she bears him two sons. All she knows is that he’s “from Khartoum,” that he’s a generous husband, and a generous father.

Season of Migration to the North has a feverish surface. Salih’s language (ably translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies) is pitched between the laconic style of the high modernists and the allusiveness of Arabic literature. Especially notable is the expert use of metaphors derived from the natural world. Mustafa, recalling how he deceived his many lovers, and how they loved to hear clichés of Africa and the Arab world, is fond of repeating the phrase, “My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible.” But Salih’s own language is anything but hackneyed. His images rise from the page with remarkable freshness.

Standing next to a girl in Hyde Park, laughing alongside her as they listen to a public speaker, eventually getting her to pay attention to him, Mustafa declares, “I felt that she and I had become like a mare and foal running in harmony side by side.” Elsewhere, the narrator is on a train travelling westwards across Sudan, “on a single track stretching across the desert like a rope bridge between two savage mountains.” The reader recalls how, much earlier, Salih had likened Cairo to a mountain, and London to another mountain. Now, the rope introduces the element of instability. Salih wrestles with the idea that, even for those who have scaled the mountains of Africa (however defined) and the West (in whatever conception), there remains an abyss between the two that can be literally maddening.

After Mustafa’s death (an apparent suicide), his wife, Hosna, is forcibly given in marriage to an old man in the village. She goes mad, and more deaths ensue. It almost unhinges the narrator who, by this time, has fallen in love with her. The contagion of Mustafa Sa’eed, who knew too much but who somehow got unmoored from humanity, spreads even from beyond the grave.

Season of Migration to the North is ultimately too wild to be a cautionary tale. This is no loss. It delves effectively into the fever of the post-colonial condition, particularly the perils of double-consciousness. It also has an unexpected vein of comedy.

A panel in 2001 named it the most important Arab novel of the 20th century. That seems a rather large claim, but what is not contestable is that the author, Tayeb Salih (who died last month at the age of eighty) was one of the most original literary minds in Africa. A new edition of the book, out in April of this year with a foreword by Laila Lalami, should introduce this fine novel to a new generation of readers.

Filed under: literature

cuttlefish ink

Less than a kilometre away from where I write these words is San Giovanni in Laterano. Built in 314AD, it is the earliest surviving Christian basilica.

Two kilometres in the other direction, sits the biggest, baddest amphitheatre of them all, the Colosseum. Overlooking it is the Capitoline Hill, with its Michelangelo-designed piazza.

Not far away is where Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus 2053 years ago this week. Earlier this morning, I stood within waving distance of Benedict XVI as he greeted a large crowd in front of St Peter’s. I am in Rome.

Rome is inescapable, even for those who are not here. The city inhabits our clichés—all roads lead to Rome; when in Rome, do as the Romans.

And what I have found, in these few days of my visit, is that the city also functions as a prototype for what it means to be a city.

It does so for four interlinked reasons: its antiquity, its prominence as the centre of the known world’s largest empire, its medieval rebirth as the centre of the biggest religion in the world, and its remarkable present state of preservation.

For these four reasons, Rome dominated the imaginations of all those who came afterwards. The early organisation of the lands of central Europe under Charlemagne was styled the “Holy Roman Empire” (though it wasn’t any of those three things—not holy, not Roman, not even really an empire).

For the British in the nineteenth-century, territorial expansion and colonialism were modelled on ancient Rome; many of the world’s best scholars of Latin were based at Cambridge and Oxford.

If you walk the streets and buildings of old Lagos, or consider the monuments of New Delhi, what you see reflects Victorian British ideals. London was the pattern for many cities built in the British colonial period, and Rome—the Rome I still see when I stand on the roof of the modest house I’m staying in —is the pattern for London.

The streets retain their cobblestones; there is a profusion of arches and domes, both Roman inventions.

The experience of déjà vu here is perhaps more intense for those of us who practice the arts. Not only visual artists contended to win fame here—Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo—but countless writers did too.

Edward Gibbon came here in the late eighteenth-century and wrote, “I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. Several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”

The result of his investigation was the massive book, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Byron, Keats and Shelley sought the city out and breathed its air, and gave birth to the Romantic movement in poetry.

Henry James, Goethe, Dickens: all arrived, and were humbled by what had gone before them. And it is the same now, for anyone who contemplates the idea that Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, set down his words here, that Virgil wrote the Aenied within these precincts, and Tacitus, Livy and Suetonius helped invent the writing of history within walking distance of each other.

But if there is a sense of lives lived here, and of vast vanished generations, if every circuit and road brings one face to face with a chastening ruin, it still doesn’t make the city into a sterile museum.

It is, on the contrary, an active cosmopolitan 21st century Italian metropolis, one whose passions are so well-known as to have become stereotypes: the wine, the beautiful women, the high fashion, the ubiquitous scooters, the fabulous food (I wholeheartedly recommend the tagliatelle with cuttlefish ink).

But, layered on that, are further modern complexities: graffiti, immigration, a sickening divide between rich and poor. There is a heavy military police presence in the centre of town, and the gypsies (or the Roma, as they are properly called) are evicted from the tourist districts on the slightest pretext.

On the trains and trams, one sees Indian nuns and Mexican priests; many of the newsstands are run by Bangladeshi men; a lot of the menial work is done by recent arrivals from Albania and the Balkans. Nigerians are here, too, in large numbers, as clergy, pilgrims, professionals, hustlers.

In the famous Feltrinelli bookshop on Via Orlando Vittorio Emanuele, I saw copies of “L’ibisco viola” and “Metà di un sole giallo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, books better known to us by their English titles.

The current prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a power hungry thug, and he is almost universally despised; on a single wall it is possible to see a spray-painted “Heil Hitler!” right next to an angry “Berlusconi = Fascisti.”

Berlusconi controls most of the country’s media, and has had numerous laws altered to favour his ambitions. But, as a Salesian priest I met explained it to me, Italians are too busy living “la dolce vita” to worry their heads about politics.

On the metro, there is a television screen that runs adverts telling you what number to call if you have been the victim of racism. But I also had several Romans tell me, “All gypsies are thieves.”

Unifying all of this is the Roman light, which falls across the city, low and tangerine yellow, bathing everything from the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican, a light unlike any other, impossible to guess at until you actually experience it, a light falling across the Janiculum hill, with its magnificent views of the Palatine and the River Tiber, falling all the way to the stark, tuft-headed pines lining the Appian Way to the east.

An 84-year-old friend of mine, a vital, brilliant woman who organised an international theatre group for many decades in the city, told me a story of how she often drove the film director Federico Fellini around Rome. “He was impossible.

Stop here, he would say, and we would stop. Stop there, and we would stop.” For Fellini, Rome was endlessly fascinating, infinitely distracting.

And thus was it for Goethe as well, centuries earlier: “Wherever one goes, wherever one stops, landscapes of all varieties are disclosed: palaces and ruins, gardens and wastelands, distant or cluttered horizons, small houses, stables, triumphal arches and columns, meet in such close proximity that they could be set down in a single sheet.”

This sprawling seat of emperors and popes remains exactly as Goethe describes it, and I confess amazement at this series of decisive moments shimmering across an eternal city.

Filed under: literature