A Sami family, Lapland, c.1900. They saw their homeland as the centre of the world. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt
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John Burnside: The tyranny of the world’s “centre”

For generations, people on the periphery have watched their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – being sacrificed for “resources” for those in central nations. 

Recently I took part in a conference that brought together writers, economists, business strategists and politicians to discuss the future of European culture in a changing world. It wasn’t the usual kind of event for me, so I took the prompt for my panel debate – “Where is the middle of the map?” – as a provocation, a fun talking point rather than a serious concern; but in this, it seems, I was mistaken.

Having pointed out that Europe had been “at the centre” for a very long time, the opening speaker seemed troubled by the notion that the centre might have shifted away, first to North America, and now, with the growth of Asian economies, somewhat towards the east. Another speaker said it was possible to decide where “the middle” was by studying the surface of the earth from space, to see where the greatest concentrations of artificial light were to be found. Everyone seemed encouraged by the fact that Europe was still one of the “brightest” – that is, most light-polluted – areas of the planet.

By this time, I was lost. I am not accustomed to thinking of culture in terms of its competitiveness or possible superiority (one panellist felt that European capitalism was more humane than the American version, and asked that “we” should strive to hold the centre for that reason). In fact, I am accustomed to assuming that this argument is moribund – and as the discussion continued I kept thinking of the Sámi atlas that the activist and artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen gave me many years ago. This is a set of maps that re-envisions the world from a Sámi perspective, the centre at one point being the North Pole, with the Sámi homeland illumined by polar ice while other territories, such as the US and central Europe, drop away towards the periphery, into darkness.

Surely by now, with a wealth of post-colonial studies behind us, we could all see that to create a centre is also to create a periphery; and, as power is established, that periphery is inevitably reclassified as “resource” (human labour, minerals, natural gas, dammed rivers, endless agri-industrial monocultures), a harvest to be reaped in order to keep those at the centre well lit and cosy in their superior culture.

We know that, in order to dine on beef and chicken as frequently as it does, the centre destroys vast areas of forest and prairie to grow fodder for its livestock. We know that somewhere else, poor farmers are denied water so that luxury golf resorts can be well irrigated. We know that fish stocks have been exhausted all over the world, that precious rivers have been dammed to provide cheap electricity to major cities. No wonder the centre’s concerns seem so callow; the only philosophy it seems to have espoused is “out of sight, out of mind”.

For generations, people on the periphery have watched as their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – have been sacrificed for these “resources”, or to create spaces for weary centre-dwellers to escape into well-managed pockets of “nature”. These peripheral folk do not speak of “the centre”; they speak, often in an elegiac key, of home. Sitting on that panel in the centre of Europe, I remembered a definition that Kathleen Dean Moore offers in her powerful collection of essays Holdfast. Home, she says, is:

salmon and yellow cedar, the River, the Inlet, and a little town where wooden houses stand on stilts above great schools of fish . . . A place where bears roll boulders on the beach, sucking up crabs and sculpin. Where gardens grow in milk crates stacked above the tide – daffodils and garlic, and rhubarb for pies. A place where women’s voices call to children across the docks, and salt wind carries the laughter of men. A place where people can make a living, but not a fortune. A place where enough is great riches.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era