Literature and silence

How Libyan writers thwarted the Gaddafi regime.

With the end of Gaddafi regime in sight, the consequences for the Libyan people remain uncertain. What the cultural life of a liberated republic will look like is difficult to imagine, because almost no Arab literature has been as heavily marked by the history of dictatorship as that of modern Libya.

This has been, in part, down to the limits on free expression under Gaddafi. But some writers have managed to break the silence. Ibrahim Al-Koni, born between the end of Italian rule and the founding of the kingdom under King Idris, is a Tuareg, one of the nomadic desert peoples that supported the revolution in 1969; a number of his novels have been published in English, mainly by smaller presses. They draw heavily on Sufi mysticism and Berber folklore, and are best compared with Latin American magical realism or Mikhail Bulgakov's fabulous satires under Stalinism: the pressure of dictatorship provokes odd invention and irony. Alongside al-Koni, a number of voices have broken through over the last few years. The English-language journal of Arab literature, Banipal, published an issue in the spring dedicated to Libyan fiction, and included work from a host of previously unheard voices, and excerpts from translation work apparently in progress. Some of the more promising voices in the issue live outside Libya, or first found recognition outside the country, often in other Arab countries - or they came from the more independent areas in eastern Libya, the parts that started the uprising against Gaddafi.

It included a short story from Ahmed Fagih, born near Tripoli in the last years of the Idris regime, and a major figure in Libyan cultural life as a diplomat and founder of the Union of Libyan writers. His trilogy The Gardens of the Night was published in translation by Quartet Books in the 1990s, and they are now bringing out an English edition of his 2000 novel Homeless Rats. The novel describes the teeming life of the Libyan desert and its population of desert rats, or jerboas, who are engaged in a constant struggle with nomads, metropolitan Libyans and various predators. As Susannah Tarbush of the Saudi Gazette remarks, "the novel's desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonate curiously with the war currently raging in Libya. Even the title of the book has a new timeliness, given Gaddafi's propensity in his ranting speeches to denounce his enemies among his own people as 'rats' and 'cockroaches'". Homeless Rats and a 12-volume novel called The Maps of the Soul were both published outside of Libya, in Egypt. As the apparatus of censorship assembled by Gaddafi begins to be dismantled, it seems wholly likely that this strategy will become less and less necessary. The possibility arises that Libyan writing will again belong to Libya.

One of the few Libyan novelists who has achieved major recognition in Britain is Hisham Matar. The son of Libyan dissidents, he was born in New York in 1970. His two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, have been published by Penguin, and their stories are marked by the shadow of the dictatorship. In the former, the nine-year-old narrator must cope with a father who is in and out of custody and an alcoholic mother, and a best friend whose father has been imprisoned for anti-Gaddfi activities; men as distant and cold as those who brought him up regularly search the house, and watch from the omnipresent images of the dictator. In the latter, the narrator looks back on his vanished father's affair with an older woman with whom he was infatuated. The difficulties and cumulative stress of everyday life under Gaddafi are brilliantly conveyed; Matar's own life was repeatedly touched by the regime even in exile. His father was disappeared by Libyan secret police in 1990. As he told the NS's Jonathan Derbyshire in 2010, his family feared that he had been killed in a prison massacre in the 1996; as he came towards finishing Anatomy of a Disappearance, he "was contacted... by a former prisoner who said he had seen my father at the high-security prison in Tripoli in 2002". The revolution spells the possible end for such agonies. As Matar wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

We got rid of Muamar Gaddafi. I never thought I would be able to write these words. I thought it might have to be something like: "Gaddafi has died of old age"; a terrible sentence, not only because of what it means but also the sort of bleak and passive future it promises. Now rebel forces have reached Tripoli, we can say we have snatched freedom with our own hands, paid for it with blood. No one now will be more eager to guard it than us.

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The Lure of Greatness: Anthony Barnettt's punk polemic grasps the magnitude of Brexit and Trump

Despite its idiosyncrasies we need more books like it.

If the early hours of 24 June and 9 November 2016 sit in your memory as times of racing thoughts and lurching anxiety, you will probably agree with the basic thesis of this book as a matter of instinct. “Something irreversible has happened, which people feel in their bones,” writes Anthony Barnett. “It is the end of an era, a truly historic moment.”

Britain is embroiled in the fiasco of its exit from the EU; the US is in the midst of a comparably chaotic reinvention, authored by an overgrown child who happens to be the president. But thus far, beyond a mountain of electoral analysis and the kind of books that focus exclusively on high politics and court intrigue, it often feels like the deep significance of what has happened has yet to sink in. Barnett, by contrast, is in no doubt: 2016 was a year of revolution, as replete with importance as 1968, and its events were expressions of a set of seismic crises – of the state, the economy and politics on both the left and the right.

As its response to the Brexit vote showed, British political commentary is never terribly comfortable with this kind of stuff. A year on from the referendum, the pre-eminent work of non-fiction about the saga remains All Out War, by the Westminster-centric Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman, while bigger thoughts about the national condition have seemingly been left to writers of novels (witness Ali Smith’s brilliant Autumn, or Anthony Cartwright’s Brexit story The Cut).

In that context, there is no little symbolism in how the writing of The Lure of Greatness was enabled not by a mainstream publisher but by the crowd-funding platform Unbound, and financed by a great array of benefactors listed at the back. From its amateurish graphics (the title is written on the cover as “The Lure of Great Ness”, which rather suggests a tribute to an obscure Scottish village) to the sense of a text written at a furious pace with precious little editing, the whole thing feels like a kind of punk polemic, much less concerned with the standard rules of political writing than the need to respond to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments.

This is mostly a good thing. A one-time director of the constitutional reform campaign Charter 88 and the co-founder of the online platform openDemocracy, Barnett is a veteran of the kind of maverick politics that exists to push beyond useless orthodoxies and is usually built on a profound sense of history. One of his topics is the lack of those qualities in a caste of politicians he calls the “CBCs” – it stands for Clinton (Bill), Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron and Clinton (Hillary) – and the dire style of politics that Trump and Brexit have probably rendered extinct. Here, his paradigmatic story is of the 84 slogans invented by people working for Hillary Clinton – “Rise up”, “Move up”, “Family first”, “A new bargain we can count on”, the flatly weird “Next begins with you” – before they settled on “Stronger together”, a close relative of the Remain campaign’s equally awful “Stronger in”. Such, he says, was an approach that “regarded sincerity, independence, principle… and believing what you say as positively dangerous”.

All of this comes into even sharper focus in his treatment of David Cameron, an elegant exercise in damnation that has echoes of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s searing 2007 monograph Yo, Blair!. One of the two chapters in question is titled “Words Pop Out of His Mouth”. Cameron, Barnett writes, was “one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose”.

Worse still, he “took the capacity for self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch of rootlessness, and distilled the era’s deceitful spirit of government to perfection”. He said he had “no plans” to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance or raise VAT and then did both; he pledged not to means-test child benefit and then made precisely that change; and though his form of words was conveniently vague, he even said he would not allow any building on the green belt. In that sense, the referendum and its outcome were Cameron’s doing not just in the sense that he was daft enough to call the vote but that his casual deceptions were part of what people were rebelling against.

Most of the book is focused on Britain and, under the heading “Brexitannia”, the text moves beyond the rituals and personalities of politics into deeper themes: “the market-driven form taken by globalisation whose name is neoliberalism”, the serial failures of the EU (about which Barnett is bracingly honest) and hard questions about the supposedly United Kingdom. Clearly, the identities of Wales and Scotland have been renewed by devolution – and, in the latter case, by a party of the centre left that confidently speaks to people’s sense of belonging. Meanwhile, England has continued to be subsumed under the decaying idea of Britain and bossed around by the UK’s essentially 19th-century institutions, leaving it in dysfunctional limbo.

“English people… are losing their belief in Westminster and its self-important debates,” writes Barnett. “It is no longer funny that MPs fiddle their expenses. The Lords is ridiculous… Hideous over-centralisation makes local government pitiful. The result is a displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them… on to Brussels.” He rightly locates Brexit in what he calls “England-without-London” and bemoans the reluctance of people on the left – of all persuasions – to channel its feelings of powerlessness and resentment.

This leads on to a closing section written before this year’s general election, in which Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are largely presumed to be locked into decline. Some of the arguments ring true (he calls Corbyn a merchant of “regressive radicalism”, which is spot on), but Barnett’s trenchant tone inevitably sounds a dissonant note. Elsewhere, the uneven pace and sheer range of subjects can be a bit much, and he makes the odd mistake, as with the claim that Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, is a “village”, when it’s actually the county town – the kind of metropolitan slip-up that one might associate with his loathed CBCs. But for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause. Precisely because of its idiosyncrasies, this is a very good book, and in times like these, we need more like it.

The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump
Anthony Barnett
Unbound, 416pp, £8.99

John Harris writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear