"May I be free from oppression..."--The Sublime Attitudes
I have been traveling. In my mind, that is. I have been reading novels. They have transported me effortlessly through time and space, and given me hours of out-of-this body experience. It has been a while since I spent so much time in novel-land, and I had almost forgotten what a pleasure it can be. Let me tell you...
... about my trip to pre-World War II Europe with Alan Furst, who writes about the period as though he had lived it (he can't have done: he looks much too young and besides, his website informs us that he was born in Manhattan.) His characters move typically not at the center of historical action, but at the periphery; not primarily in the familiar theaters of war--Germany, France, England--but at the uncomfortable edges, places like Spain and Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria; and they are drawn in by the centrifuge of history into the mass of small intrigues that fuel it. I first learned about Furst from my son--thank you, Jason--and just recently finished the third of the three books I have read, "The Foreign Correspondent," whose central character is an underground Italian journalist, engaged, with a small coterie of associates, in the dangerous work of keeping the flames of freedom safe from the oppression of fascism with the small-circulation Italian newspaper that he covertly writes and edits. It's absorbing to accompany him on his missions through the crowded cafes of Paris, the seedy hotels of Hitler's Berlin, and the oppressive back streets of his Mussolini-dominated homeland. It's Furst's instinctive grasp of the history, of the diverse national identities, of the currents of power and cultural detail that sweep me into the experience of an historical period from whose example we should now, in the present, be learning about the dangers of secrecy and the seizure of civil rights.
I have also made a painful journey into the heart of Afghanistan, courtesy of Khaled Hosseini, whose first book, "Kite Runner," was the gripping tale of a boy growing up in that cauldron of the current Middle Eastern struggle with its own history, and the conflict of its religious and cultural traditions with the modern age. "A Thousand Splendid Suns," Hosseini's second book, follows the dreadful, ever worsening fate of two women through the recent history of Afghanistan--from the quasi-medieval pre-contemporary period to the Soviet occupation and the armed resistance of the mujahadeen, to the expulsion of the Soviets and the arrival of the despicable Taliban, and the eventual rout of the Taliban after jihadist attacks on New York's World Trade Center. Theirs, too, is a story of oppression--by a society traditionally dominated by men, whose sense of honor, entitlement and religion justifies any abuse they choose to visit upon their wives and daughters, from the deprivation of education, to virtual imprisonment, all the way to physical abuse and murder with impunity. The two brave women at the center of this story--one of them from the country, barely educated but innately sensitive and intelligent, the other from the city, secretly educated by an enlightened father--are married to the same monster of a man, to whose abuses one eventually succumbs, while the other barely survives. This, in the context of flying bullets and raining morters, destroyed lives at times near starvation. The reader is relieved, at the end, by a note of hope and the miraculous survival of love--along with the realization that the post 9/11 American intervention in that country was truly an act of liberation, but one from which, tragically, our own country was distracted by the ill-thought invasion of Iraq. To any reader of this book, the notion that the Taliban might be permitted to reestablish power in Afghanistan is an unimaginable nightmare.
Ah, yes. And then Australia, where Richard Flanagan's "The Unknown Terrorist" takes place, in a society depicted in a way that the American reader cannot but make comparisons with our own. Flanagan's Sydney is a city whose denizens are obsessed with materialistic notions of well-being and success, where the media become the willing vehicle for product promotion and the expansion of corporate control, where politicians cynically distort the truth in order to satisfy their egos and consolidate their power, where the police capitulate to the whims of the politicians and the media, where the rich parade their wealth and the poor descend into despair, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, and degradation. Against this backdrop, the book's main character and focus, the Doll, a pole dancer in a strip joint, falls victim to lies, calumny and innuendo in a momentary bout of civic hysteria about a supposed terrorist plot (non-existent, as we eventually discover) to attack the city. We follow her as she becomes, innocently, more and more deeply entangled in the twisted schemes of evil men who claim to have the interests of the homeland at heart, and accompany her in a tragic descent into a finally inescapable destiny.
"The Unknown Terrorist" is a compelling read--one of those books you want to read at a single sitting--and one that offers a terrifying picture of the current state of the world, dominated as we are by genuine fear and pumped-up paranoia, and where we all too willingly surrender our rights--along with our good sense--to the hysteria of the moment. Fear itself, readily exploited by those hungry for wealth and power, is the oppressor; and the book is a timely reminder of our need to remain conscious and alert to the ever-present danger of being swallowed up in the nightmare.
As a part of my daily meditation practice, I include that wish from the Sublime Attitudes: May I be free from oppression... May all living beings be free from oppression. These three books make that wish all the more urgent, all the more needed, all the more real.