The House of Journalists by Tim Finch: Exiles on Grub Street

The political satire in this debut novel is deft enough but it is its darker material that lingers in the imagination.

The House of Journalists
Tim Finch
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £16.99

If you want to create an atmosphere of paranoia, there’s nothing like using a firstperson- plural narrator, a mysterious “we” whose identity is never quite revealed. Haruki Murakami does this in After Dark with a conjoined chorus of narrators who seem to be surveillance cameras. The technique is also used in Joshua Ferris’s magnificent Then We Came to the End, in which the uncertainty of who exactly is speaking contributes to a febrile mood of fear and speculation in the story of an advertising agency struggling to survive a recession.

 In his ambitious debut novel, a black-hued satire about asylum-seekers, Tim Finch goes a step further. Not only is his narrator an unidentified “we”; the subject of their address is “you”. Though it quickly becomes clear whom this “you” refers to, the interrogative tone heightens the reader’s sense of suspicion and mistrust.

The House of Journalists is a refuge for persecuted writers established in a venerable old building in London. Its inhabitants are a shifting cast of exceptional asylum-seekers whose writing has brought them up against a variety of oppressive regimes.

Take Mr Stan, a newspaper editor from an island that was formerly under colonial rule. Mr Stan was an outspoken voice in favour of independence, but when he criticised the dictatorship that followed on the heels of British government he was arrested and subjected to a baroquely horrible punishment. His hands, the only perfect part of his disabled body, were smashed with hammers, leaving him with “repellent flesh clubs, studded with half-fossilised fingers and thumbs, nails and knuckles”.

Mr Stan is the longest-serving fellow of the House of Journalists and a rare permanent inhabitant. Most of its guests are passing through, finding their feet before moving on to a life of more or less successful exile. But is the House as benevolent as it seems? And who is the mysterious AA, the new fellow, whom the narrators keep addressing with that threatening, accusing “you”?

Both questions hinge on the House’s founder, Julian Snowman. Finch has fun with Snowman, a marvel of pomposity and paranoia who runs the refuge with absolute rigidity, despite his superficial charm. His main imperative is to safeguard the House’s long-term future by convincing benefactors and politicians of its importance. If this requires coercing vulnerable residents into spilling stories of torture and trauma, so be it.

A particular thorn in Snowman’s side is the Nobel Prizewinner Ted Crumb, modelled affectionately on Harold Pinter. Crumb made his reputation by way of plays composed of elegant silences. Since the Iraq war, he has suddenly become garrulous and foulmouthed, engorged with fury at his nation’s hypocrisy and violence.

Hypocrisy and violence are also Finch’s targets. He describes acutely the kinds of characters drawn to the House: the wellmeaning, the patronising and the actively exploitative, among whom Vanessa Boothby is a particularly repellent example.

Boothby is a writing mentor attempting to sell a radio play based on the experiences of her charge. “True,” she thinks to herself, “it is Edson’s story, pretty much in every detail, and using a lot of his words and turns of phrase, but it is a mistake, a profound mistake, to underestimate the skill it takes to fashion this raw material, to give it some shape and bend it into a narrative arc.”

This concern with stories and how they are shaped underpins Finch’s more playful forays. All of the refugees are under pressure to create a coherent narrative of suffering. They have been stripped of passports and even names, so a good story is their most valuable possession. (The brief section in which an immigration tribunal pleasantly explains its decision-making process is particularly sinister.) Yet stories can be tweaked and pruned and those capable of carrying out this work are by no means always innocent.

Adom is a case in point. A former headmaster, his account of a massacre at his school doesn’t quite conceal his culpability. On the other hand, the gentle Mustapha seems incapable of concocting the kind of narrative the tribunal needs, though he has been broken by his time in prison, waiting for torture that was agonisingly and perpetually delayed.

The political satire is deft enough but it is this darker material that lingers in the imagination. Finch’s greatest achievement has to do with scale. During one testimony, a poet called Sonny describes her painful, dangerous journey to Gibraltar, where she confronted the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Each had been subjected to oppression; each was in possession of a heartbreaking story. You might feel compassion for one refugee – but what’s to be done with so many, “an unmoving mass, waiting in line for a miracle that would never happen”?

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink” (Canongate, £20)

A journalist at work. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood