Monday, November 9, 2009

Ray Taras

Ray Taras is a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute. His many books include the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia and Understanding Ethnic Conflict, 4th edition. At the Campaign for the American Reader, he covers the Sundance Film Festival and regularly reviews world literature.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His response:
October is a great month for reading for someone able to bend to the rhythm of the academic year. Student essays are being written but are not yet ripe for grading. Grant writing to meet end-of-September deadlines is done with. In my case a book manuscript, on European Islamophobia, is in the hands of reviewers and there is nothing to do but await the reports.

So I have indulged, indeed, satiated, myself with reading. As I teach courses on Russian politics and foreign policy, what better way to absorb the cultural pathways that give them shape than to read contemporary Russian fiction. Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, Russian literature specialists on the faculty of universities in Montreal and Toronto, have compiled a collection of twenty-two short stories by young Russian authors and titled it Rasskazy (“short stories”). They identify the genre shared by these authors as New Russian Realism.

As with many comparative lit anthologies, the quality of the stories, and their rendering into English, are uneven. Clear standouts are narratives detailing the cruelties of war. One, by Arkady Babchenko, author of A Soldier’s War published last year in the U.S., details the hazing and persecution of young Russian conscripts stationed in the Caucasus. Another, by German Sadulaev, who is of Chechen background and the author of I am a Chechen! being published in English in the U.K., describes the indiscriminate killing of Chechens by the Russian military in the 1990s war. The two authors test the limits of literary censors while courageously suppressing the temptation to engage in self censorship.

Among the most inventive stories is one by Natalya Kluchareva, who describes the ever grimmer daily life of inhabitants and visitors in a Russian village named Paradise. An aged map of Russia hanging in a decrepit building gradually falls to pieces over the year a student spends there. Aleksander Snegirev applies a lighter touch in creating a character called Kostyan, whose life choices are dictated by the god of small things. When he retrieves his lost cell phone, for example, he is so elated that he wants his wife to be pregnant after all—after fretting that having a child would spell financial ruin in today’s Russia.

The reader gets little satisfaction from most of the 8-10 page stories whose “topics” include the fascination with cell phones—hardly unique to Russians—or use of hip Westernized slang in the city. For me the greatest mystery is why American novelist Francine Prose’s prosaic three-page introduction to the volume, which declaims “Ah, the Russians, we’re reading the Russians,” was included.

A weekend trip in October to Montreal, my home town, gave me a chance to buy several books not yet published in the U.S. I haven’t started Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro’s self-styled post-“retirement” collection. But the positive reviews it has received suggest that the celebrated Canlit author bears passing resemblance to Brett Favre and his post-“retirement” success. Annabel Lyon’s debut novel, The Golden Mean, has also received glowing reviews. It was shortlisted for all three of Canada’s major literary prizes--Governor-General’s, Rogers, and Giller—thereby outdoing Munro who was overlooked for the last-mentioned award. The Golden Mean is an imagined account of Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander the Great, and it is difficult to put the book down. The craftsmanship is impressive: the writing is clipped, the storytelling concise, and the denouement as it should be. Still, the intriguing topic promises readers more than it delivers. Conjecturing about Aristotle and Alexander’s daily lives is inevitably going to be dwarfed by their intellectual and military extraordinary legacies.

Beirut-born Montreal resident Rawi Hage was the envy of the literary world after winning the 2008 IMPAC Dublin award—the highest paid prize for fiction—for De Niro’s Game, a story set around Lebanon’s protracted civil war. I read his follow-up, Cockroach, over a couple of October days (I’m not a fast reader so that’s quick for me). Hage’s novels are fast-paced action thrillers, but introduce a character who can metamorphose into a cockroach when he needs to invade a home or escape from a murder scene and you have a phantasmagorical novel that will annoy most action story addicts.

The author specializes in turning over stones and exploring what lies beneath. “Nothing surprises me about humans,” Hage’s narrator despairs at one point. But it’s not just the underclass and the declassé that Hage puts under scrutiny. In Cockroach, Canada’s beloved moral high ground is taken down a couple of notches while its smug multiculturalism is given a hyperrealistic twist as Hage parodies popular stereotypes of the Arab huckster. For a Montreal-based novelist who writes in English, he also deftly captures French Quebecers’ cultural pathways.

It took me many months to finish reading David Hackett Fischer’s massive biographical study, Champlain’s Dream, but the October interlude provided closure on it. Published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Québec in 1608, the story of Samuel de Champlain’s explorations and peopling of three French-speaking communities in North America--Québécois, Acadians, and Métis—is edifying; my high school history texts never did justice to the man. Particularly noteworthy is the egalitarian spirit that Champlain was able to nourish in the New World, far removed from the courts of Henri IV, Louis XIII, and the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu. This approach differed significantly, Fischer stresses, from that taken by English colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia, not to mention the Spanish colonial enterprise further south in the Americas.

Champlain’s candid written reports, together with his sophisticated, pioneering maps of North America, became popular reading back in France. Fischer glosses over the ethics of the fur trade, the preoccupation of European merchants on the new continent, except to criticize mischief-making Scottish and English pirates who challenged French companies’ oligopoly over it. In contrast, he is attentive to Champlain’s exceptional personal skills in managing relations with many different Indian nations, even with the bellicose Iroquois who had it in for the French. It was all kickstarted by the holding of a tabagie, what we commonly call the ceremonial sharing of a tobacco-filled peace pipe, when Champlain first encountered Indian nation chiefs near Tadoussac.

Arguably Champlain’s persona is whitewashed beyond reason in this biography. But with his indisputably charitable nature, he convincingly comes across as one of the most sympathetic of all early North American explorers, more so than, for example, the Jesuit missionaries who retraced his steps from Acadia to Huronia.

The autumn leaves briefly enchanted us with their colors and now they are gone. In November my eye is trained on commas, quotation marks, and apostrophes—and their misuses—as I read student essays. The halcyon days of reading for pleasure have dwindled together with the sunlight hours.
Read about his teaching, research, and scholarship at Ray Taras' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue