Topical Solutions

Fiction

By Joshua Cohen

Published August 29, 2007, issue of August 31, 2007.
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Lost Between the Edges
By Eldon Garnet
Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 240 pages, $14.95.

Outcast
By Shimon Ballas
Translated from the Hebrew by Ammiel Alcalay and Oz Shelach
City Lights Publishers, 210 pages, $13.95.

The moment a newspaper headline is made, writers of ambition break ranks with journalism and come to attention with books, ostensibly products of a deeper engagement: Literary First Responders, they pop open their laptops to word process our world’s newest reality into plot. At the same time, the home languages of whatever contemporary conflict or newsmaking event are, as Susan Sontag put it, “patrolled,” for native artistic response. Suddenly we are reading military memoirs “as told to,” and previously unknown Arabic writers become celebrities for a Warholian gauntlet of publicity suffused with sound byte diplomacy. Such topicality has always made its own genre, as if itself a war zone, involving the capable and the incompetent alike.

Two new novels have recently hazarded topicality — commenting on our world, as it exists, now and nonfictively — but with a difference. Both of these books — one by Canadian Eldon Garnet, better known as a visual artist, and the other by Shimon Ballas, a Jew born in Baghdad, resident of Israel and France — attempt to bring to readers a consideration of ambiguities much grayer than the black and white of syndicated column and partisan punditry. Garnet’s “Lost Between the Edges” is, formally, the stranger text, more tangled and, ultimately, though purposefully, frustrating. Written in two alternating parts, sections of conventional narrative always give way to sections of what might be termed “documentary support,” which Garnet refers to as “footnotes.” Expectedly, this documentary support, in the end, supports nothing — and this ambiguity, or frustration, is Garnet’s ideal. If you can’t trust a character, trust the author, the received wisdom goes, and if you can’t trust the author, trust yourself — but what if you can’t do even that? Garnet’s great achievement is this strain on the reader’s credulity: His book, when read, if read, is a deposition, or questioning, of the reader’s own self.

The narrative is this: Ernst Zundel is, fictionally, a German-born, Toronto-based denier of the Holocaust enjoying the freedom of speech offered him by the Canadian government. The anonymizing X is a graduate student troubled by his thesis on antisemitism, and an activist in a local, university-affiliated anti-racist faction. This X takes it upon himself to firebomb Zundel’s headquarters; an investigation ensues: X is obviously pursued, and the traditional elements of novelistic entertainment do their workmanlike work, referencing procedural pulp and theatrical thrillers.

The other part of the text is far more compelling if not in content, then in contraposition: The majority of Garnet’s “footnotes” are composed of quoted exempla of the literature of antisemitism and Holocaust Denial. They include a chapter from Henry Ford’s “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” “appearing originally in the periodical published by the Ford Motor Co. ‘The Dearborn Independent’”; an excerpt from “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel of race war by William Pierce, former leader of the white supremacist National Alliance (writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald), and most revealingly, court testimony from fellow Holocaust denier David Irving at Zundel’s trial for incitement, and related “ZGrams,” “email blasts” from the Web site of the indefatigable defendant.

The latter two are what startle the fictional contract: Irving’s own and very public prosecution is famous, and so his name is known, or should be (he sued Penguin Books and author Deborah Lipstadt for libeling him with the Denier label, and lost), but — and here’s the surprise silently realized upon reaching Irving’s testimony in Zundel’s defense — Zundel is, even if not famous, real himself; call him infamous, in Canada at least. Beyond the binding of Garnet’s own possibly libelous book, Zundel is Ernst Christof Friedrich Zündel, English-language publisher of such antisemitic Scripture as “The Hitler We Loved and Why” and “Did Six Million Really Die?” lately extradited from his North American exile, put on trial in Mannheim and presently serving time in prison for the German crime of denying the Holocaust.

This realization, that Garnet’s fictional Zundel is the real and truly repulsive Zündel (and might X, who destroys Zundel’s headquarters, actually be a version of the young Garnet, the incendiary author himself?), is stirring, and establishes the author of “Lost Between the Edges” as a master commentator on the contemporary religion of relativism — in his revision of fact exposing even fiction as the product of ideological context and political agenda. As Irving’s “evidence” against the Holocaust mounts in testimony submitted to the court as “expert,” Garnet’s fictionalized “evidence” of Zündel’s hatred exploits the exploiters, and does so with unforgiving intelligence.

The topicality of “Outcast” is necessarily truer — as though the official Nazi regime has long been defeated the Middle East still exists, and extremely. Baghdad’s Shimon Ballas came to Hebrew from Arabic upon arriving in Israel in 1951, and his newly translated novel is rife with such wrenching displacements. Just as Zundel is Zündel, Ballas’s Haroun Soussan, a Jewish convert to Islam, is, or is an incarnation of, Ahmad (formerly Nissim) Soussa, an Arabian Jew who converted to Islam in the 1930s, and whose anti-Zionist, antisemitic propaganda earned him the later life accolade of, among others, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Ballas’s novel is presented as Soussan’s memoir, composed at the biliously biblical age of 70, and intended, so Soussan relates, for posthumous publication. Here Soussan recounts his early, family-sponsored education in the United States, his young love for the Christian Jane (a student of Semitic languages whom he tutored in Arabic) and his later repatriation to Iraq, followed by a belated conversion — done with pure intent, or so Soussan avers, while allowing that it also might have helped him advance his career, as both civil engineer and weekend historian. Soussan’s memories focus on his relationships with two friends: Nissim Assad, perhaps a version of Iraqi Jewish writer Anwar Shaul, and Qassem Abd al-Baki, a militant communist. Both ultimately suffer, Assad from his birthright and Abd al-Baki from his political convictions: Assad eventually makes aliyah; Abd al-Baki seeks lonely asylum in Prague, in communist Czechoslovakia.

Soussan, like Shimon Ballas, his creator, is a figure of extreme compromise, of virtuosic doubletalk, and unpracticed triple identity (as Iraqi, Jew and “Arab,” or Muslim): “I am not an ideological man,” he asserts, “I am the creature of the time between the two wars, the most turbulent period in the 20th century, an era that changed the face of the earth, the high tide of ideologies — Communism, Fascism and Nazism. Europe was wild with excitement, fomenting war, and in our region colonial rule was consolidated and Zionism established itself like a dagger in the heart of Arab soil.”

Soussan finishes his memoir in the midst of twinned upheavals: The Iran-Iraq war is beginning, just as he is about to make corrections and write the preface (in lapsed English) to a new, English-language translation of his masterwork, a book titled “The Jews in History.” This book within a book, in part a disabused call for the assimilation of Iraqi Jews, for their submission to Islam under the imageless flag of a pan-Arab, anti-West nationalism, is so clear-eyed, and so clean-souled, as to blur unconsciously into hatred, and incitement to jihad — finally becoming a manifesto for nothing less than patriotically occasioned Judeaocide. Despite the acclaim of Saddam, the elderly but undiminished Soussan is left with no friends among the Jews (though the majority of his Iraqi co-religionists have already followed Assad to Israel), and, as well, as a stranger amid the Muslims with whom he might seek political brotherhood. Such, too, might be Ballas’s bind: After teaching Arabic literature for years in Israeli universities, he now spends his retirement writing his novels in Paris.

These two fictions are published in America during what’s become a summer of exceptional routine: Antisemitism is a recurring headline in our secular dailies, as national magazines and newspapers struggle to maintain focus on the sad fact of Iraq amid the falsities that are Paris Hilton and iPhones. Lost in this cycle of the topical are fictions, are novels — literature that offers the Realist pretense of possibility as a way to explore strange “hearts and minds” that are not and cannot be made familiar through quick hits, tickers and clicks. The great vice of the topical is its expiration date, its label of “sell or use by,” marking its products as ephemeron and so as disposable, unimportant. And yet the great virtue of the topical might be a subsidiary of such shelf life: its ability to directly engage, with the imprimatur of immediacy. These two very different books are both indelibly engaging and violently immediate: If you read them, you will lose sleep; the morning paper can always be used as a bookmark.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward


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