BOOK REVIEWS

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

‘All I could feel was a terrible hollowness in my heart. A door had opened, promising the sublime, but then it had slammed shut, robbing my life of all hope and meaning. I felt as bereft as if I’d woken from the sweetest of dreams to face the pain of truth.’

Madonna in a Fur Coat surprised me in many ways.
I thought that it had been written in contemporary times, and was simply set in the early-ish 20th century rather and it was only after reading a good part of it that I discovered that Sabahattin Ali had died in 1947 and that this particular novel has just now been published in English.
The translators have done a marvellous job: I never did feel as if I was missing out on anything.
The style and themes tackled within this novel are very reminiscent of the ones James Baldwin addresses in Giovanni’s Room: the narrator is remembering a past relationship while incorporating an introspective evaluation of themselves.

‘Having never known such intimacy before, I was desperate to protect it. […] I was, in effect watching the most beautiful bird in all creation and keeping perfectly still for fear of frightening it away with a sudden movement.’

It is a rather short novel, yet it is in some ways it didn’t feel like it given that it was very dense: it has no chapters whatsoever. Most of which has Raif, our narrator, giving the reader a continuous inner monologue.

‘I was only too aware that I still knew next to nothing about her. My judgements were formed of my own dreams and illusions. At the same time, I was absolutely sure that they would not deceive me.’

The reader can already predict the outcome of Raif’s days in Berlin: we are first introduced to a version of him that has obviously suffered some form of loss.

‘My distrust of others was so great, and so bitter, that I sometimes scared even myself. Everyone I met, i met with hostility. Everyone I encountered, I assumed to be full of malice.’

Raif’s loneliness is a constant throughout this novel; he is rather remote in some ways. His character seemed to feel really something only when with ‘his’ Madonna. I believe the author has done this intentionally. Raif is meant to be a ‘cursory’ character. We are only aware of his differences to others: he is an observer, a bystander. Yet, it is because of his sometimes aloof narration that made him intriguing.

‘Perhaps she’d been all I needed. I suppose that is what any of us need: one single person. But what if that person wasn’t really there? What if it all turned out to be a dream, a chimera, a delusion?’

His relationship with Maria was the heart of Madonna in a Fur Coat. A relationship that cannot be always defined; it is more than a friendship and more than a ‘romance’. Maria herself often struggles with this. Their immediate calamity to one another contributes in making their relationship intense.

“Where’s the tragedy in that? The essence of life is in solitude – wouldn’t you agree? All unions are built on falsehood. People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest,”

This novel offers clever observations and piquant monologues. At times, both Raif and Maria, could feel a tad melodramatic. Their poignant reflections and comments were dimmed by their prolonged complaints.

‘The more I dwelt on my absurd anxieties and needless, groundless apprehensions, the more I castigated myself for letting my paranoia and wretched intuition darken what should have been the brightest days of my life, and the more I despaired.’

Nevertheless, it was a very well written and enjoyable read that attempted to analyse a relationship between two very bereft individuals; I especially appreciated their not wanting to condemn their relationship by defining it , a quite modern idea.

“Whereas friendship is constant and built on understanding. We can see where it started and know why it falls apart. But love gives no reasons. “

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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