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Monday, February 27, 2012


First sentences: Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Content warning: torture, pain

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee's bleak masterpiece, takes place in a strange and timeless country where our narrator, the Magistrate, tries and fails to sustain moderate decency and dignity in a small town on the outpost of the 'Empire.' Human comfort will be rendered ridiculous by the end of his journey through pain, human ordinariness a humiliating failure: the Empire's torturers will have reduced him to nothing more than physical fear. One of the most important passages on the nature of power I have ever read is part of this book:

In my suffering there is nothing ennobling. Little of what I call suffering is even pain. What I am made to undergo is subjection to the most rudimentary needs of my body: to drink, to relieve itself, to find the posture in which it is least sore. When Warrant Officer Mandel and his man first brought me back here and lit the lamp and closed the door, I wondered how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure in the name of his eccentric notions of how the Empire should conduct itself. But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself. They did not come to force the story out of me of what I had said to the barbarians and what the barbarians had said to me. So I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces. They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.

This is humanity in Waiting For The Barbarians: the utter humiliation of discovering that pain and discomfort take up all our attention.

The Magistrate's first sentence is proportionately small-scale. The man wearing the sunglasses is Colonel Joll, foremost among the brutes of the Empire we will meet, and within a few pages he will be torturing some 'barbarians' who have been captured while travelling to the city in search of a doctor. He will be doing it off-stage, though: the Magistrate has some compunction about the torture and doesn't like to see people suffer, but knows better than to try and halt Joll in the course of his business and does nothing more than accept Joll's suggestion that he does not attend. Yet amidst this quiet horror, already permeated with the revelation later wreaked upon the Magistrate's own body that one person's suffering causes no disruption in the world, ordinariness cannot be banished. Joll is wearing a peculiar apparatus on his face, and the Magistrate cannot help noticing it, quite as if nothing else notable were happening.

This first sentence does, in fact, present a notable event: it is the first impression of a man who has only just arrived and will bring hell with him. But the message of this book, repeated throughout like a cry of dismay, that we are small creatures who depend upon physical limits, is already present in this first sentence: the Magistrate cannot help but notice the odd sunglasses. As well as the dismay of littleness, of course, it's also a reflection on the avoidance of painful thought: just as a body tries to find the least sore posture, so the Magistrate, at this stage of his life, tries to find the least painful psychological position. He is a servant of evil and required to enact cruel commands that he has little power to soften: reacting to Joll as a curiously-dress colleague is, after all, less painful than recognising him for a monster.

At the same time, there's an element of monstrosity in the description of his sunglasses: they are chilling, alienating, they conceal his eyes. On examination, Joll explains how they save him from squinting and protect his face from wrinkling: the hardships of physical reality, which he imposes so efficiently on others, are not such a problem for him. While the Magistrate is already complicit in the Empire's brutality, there's something almost prelapsarian about his naive wonder at this strange, protective, intimidating invention: the first sentence is close to a last flicker of innocence. After Joll's arrival, the Magistrate will see many things he has never seen before, and they will be terrible things that he cannot unsee.

As well as innocent, the tone is intimate. 'I have never seen anything like it,' the Magistrate tells us: his voice is conversational, mildly exclamatory, willing to share emotion. He will be sharing his findings about vulnerability with us, and even in his first sentence he has no problem revealing his ignorance. Incomprehension, bafflement and the inability to form conclusions will, in fact, permeate his broken consciousness: we begin with minor bewilderment and will end with utter desolation. There will be no 'high-sounding words' or confident conclusions: the fragility of the human body does not allow for them. There will be disaster, and there will be surprise, and mild, threatened surprise is about as close to safety as we will ever come.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


First sentences: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I was not sorry when my brother died.

One of the most famous first sentences of African literature.

In the introduction to my copy, Professor Abena Busia tells the story of how a storm of controversy erupted when she mentioned this novel at the African Studies Center: a 'distinguished professor and poet from Southern Africa' (male, as Busia remarks without surprise) declared that 'No self-respecting African girl would make a comment like this, and expect to get sympathy.' Busia comments that 'He, and other African men in the room, were outraged and could not, or did not know how to, focus on a story centred on a woman's self-identity. That the book was fictional, and strategic, did not seem to be important.' Busia describes the situation:

It is pertinent that what made the men pause was an unexpected intervention from my mother, the 'elder' present, who could not let their refusal to recognise the bitter experiences of many women across the continent go unchallenged. Her testimony of women who could bear witness to Tambudzai's frustrations - denied access to schooling, their dreams dying unnoticed and unfulfilled - provoked her into a fierce defence of the opening of the work. Only then did the men concede that the strategy might have basis in reality. Fortunately, both on that day and in the decades following, those oppositional voices have been subordinate and increasingly rare. Nevertheless, their very resistance shows what a superb interrogation of the interconnections of patriarchal structures, whether colonial, or native and familial, Nervous Conditions really is.

Well, quite.

Nervous Conditions is the story of Tambudzai, a bright and conscientious girl growing up in a Shona village who struggles to advance despite the disadvantages facing both her people as a whole and girls dealing with sexism both European and African. Tambudzai is an observer both sharp and sensitive, respectful to her village traditions but hopeful of an educated future, trying hard to be a good African girl in a world where both whites and Africans can make it very difficult for such a life to be bearable.

This first sentence, then, speaks with both conscience and honesty: to us, if not to those around her, Tambudzai will tell the truth, however difficult it may be. Simple and open: she was not sorry. Already we see the subtlety of her observation: 'not sorry' is an altogether more complicated emotion than 'glad'. Nhamo's death is an opportunity for Tambudzai because there are only the resources to educate one child from her family, and Nhamo himself has not been a good brother. His education has gone to his head and he has become arrogant and exploitative towards his sisters while, significantly, pretending to have forgotten how to speak Shona - a situation which Tambudzai describes with characteristic fairness, seeing him at least in part as a victim who was 'doing no more than behave, perhaps extremely, in the expected manner.'

Tambudzai, then, has double reasons, both a positive and a negative, not to regret Nhamo's passing: his death opens doors for her, and he has made himself all but impossible to love. The combination of pressures on them has, in fact, severed family bonds: by pitting the interests of brother and sister so completely against each other, Tambudzai is left with nothing but cool assessment of his death. She can speak only in mild terms: not pleased, not happy, just not sorry.

For all her passionate aspiration, in other words, Tambudzai is put in a position of such deep ambivalence that the best way to introduce herself is with a negative. She begins by telling us that she did not feel what she was supposed to feel: that is the key to her experience. For all that she has a definite personality, the fundamental expression of herself - which spoke so resonantly to Busia's mother - is simply that she is not able to occupy her 'expected' role, however she might try. This is an honest girl speaking out of a context so oppressive that her very first words to us must refer to that context if we are to understand anything else about her. She does not have the luxury of defining herself as separate from her circumstances.

From a white English perspective at least, the language is also interesting. Language itself, English versus Shona, is an important element of the story, seen in the first chapter in Nhamo's foolish pretence that he has shed his native tongue; Tambudzai speaks to us in English. Her first sentence has a delicate formality to it: not 'I wasn't sorry' but 'I was not sorry.' English is the language of education and status in Tambudzai's Zimbabwe, and she handles it with a mixture of respect and caution. Her speech is clear, even eloquent, but it is never casual: her experiences are not a casual matter, and the language in which she speaks of them is fraught with contradictions: the language imposed by conquerors who offer opportunities - especially for a girl trying to get out of a patriarchal village - while demeaning one's original identity, confusingly mixing salvation and destruction. Tambudzai takes things seriously, and the English language - the 'Englishness' Tambudzai's mother declares will 'kill them all if they aren't careful' - is too serious a matter to reduce to slang.

Nervous Conditions is a book at once simple and subtle, angry and careful, witnessing psychological devastation while warning that 'blame does not come in neatly packaged parcels.' Here in its first sentence, frank in its rebellion yet nuanced, careful, even moderate in its fine choice of words, we meet its uncertainty regarding blame. Tambudzai cannot say whether Nhamo's death was in itself a good or bad event: she can only say what she herself felt about it - and even then, she can only express herself by saying what she did not feel.

Neither the grief appropriate to a good African sister nor the vindication appropriate to a stereotypical Western feminist can reflect Tambudzai's true experience. She isn't sure what she agrees with or who she trust; all she knows for sure what is she cannot pretend.

Monday, February 20, 2012


First sentences: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Hello, I'm back! There has been a long hiatus because the other blog I co-run has had a massive infestation of trolls, which has taken up much of my time and a big bite out of my wellbeing. If you like these analyses, do not feed the trolls.

Anyway, to return to first sentences:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

As is characteristic of Orwell, a sentence complex in its implications and lucid in its language.

The simplicity of the language makes this an approachable work for any reader - it's not uncommon to give it to teenagers in school, for instance, which is how I first read it - but it's also an important thematic and political statement. One of Orwell's most passionate statements is hiding in plain sight.

In 1946, three years before the publication of this novel, Orwell published an important and influential essay called 'Politics and the English Language'. In it, he sets out and argues the thesis that language 'becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts' - which is not merely an intellectual sin but a human disaster, because political writing lends itself to 'defense of the indefensible' when it uses euphemism to conceal brutality. 'If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy', he writes, setting out six famous rules for writing:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four - note that the date is spelled out, not rendered in numerals, forcing us to read it at a slower, more reflective pace, as if seeing something new - Orwell invented 'Newspeak', the jargon language intended to replace English, specifically designed to narrow down the range of thought until 'thoughtcrime' becomes impossible - or at least, impossible to express in the language available. Jargon partakes of lies, and it is lies that are at the heart of evil, from the dull daily tampering with records that makes up Winston Smith's days working at the Ministry of Truth to the torturer O'Brien's blinding insistence that truth does not exist at all. Orwell is consistent. His language is spare, clear and purged. The very style of the book stands in opposition to the evils it will lambast.

So, the sentence is simple. 'The clocks were striking thirteen' - not 'The clocks were just striking thirteen', but a plain, bald rendering of the facts in as few words as possible - or rather, as few words as necessary. Just as Orwell will not cushion us from his anger and disgust with happy endings or hopeful possibilities, neither will he cushion us with phatic verbiage. The world is bare, and so is his writing.

I've mentioned in a previous post that the clocks striking thirteen is an important detail. While Orwell disdains cliched images, he is quite willing to invoke myths through implication: the ill-fated number warns us of Winston's fate before we ever meet him.

On one level the effect is to jar the reader, especially the 1949 reader accustomed to naturalistic fiction from this author: the combination of military time with the old-fashioned striking of a clock is disturbing. The world of this book is not the world we know, and the narrative presents this matter-of-fact. Rather than having things explained to us, they are simply told to us through the eyes of a character accustomed to this grim grey world: Winston has never known a life like ours and is far from certain that a world with political freedom could ever have existed, and the narrative is straitened by his ignorance. He does not know us, so we will hear nothing that acknowledges our presence.

(In this context, the militarism of the twenty-four hour clock is also important. The Party controls people by controlling time, and in the first sentence we see time under control - not just because the old twelve-hour clock has been removed - and imagine the bristling, cluttered face of a twenty-four hour clock with hands - but because the twenty-four hour clock removes ambiguity. Interpretation is forbidden by the Party: one thinks exactly what one is supposed to think or one is arrested, tortured and executed. Any exercise of judgement is dangerous, even down to deciding for oneself rather than being told by the clock whether it is morning or afternoon.)

On another level, of course, there is that unlucky 'thirteen'. For Winston, it merely means the middle of the day, but for us, it's the witching number, the hanging hour. The clocks strike like a chime of doom: the bell tolls for Winston. We need not turn to the last page to know that he is lost. As the Party slogan has it, 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' Memory has been abolished in the name of control, and Winston never stood a chance: we may enter into his life as the story progresses, but here at the beginning we see him as if we were O'Brien watching through the telescreen: Winston has no secrets from us and we know he will never escape.

It's also worth noting that to pick up this resonance, we must be aware of the superstition. Thirteen is a number with a past. By invoking its history, Orwell quietly reminds us of the privileges that are denied to Winston. Any connection with the past is a crime in this story: possession of an antique paperweight is illegal, knowledge of old place names can only be scratched from fragments of half-recalled nursery rhymes. Winston clings to a few lines of 'Oranges and Lemons', spoken to him by third parties, as fragile remnants of all that has been erased. He would not know that thirteen is unlucky - or if he did, he would endanger his life if he did not immediately employ doublethink and forget it. We are allowed cultural history, Orwell whispers in our ear, but don't get complacent: such things can be taken away.

Also present in this sentence is the beginnings of squalor. 'The physical texture of life' in Airstrip One is grimy, gritty, sour: the English weather has us from the beginning. But again, the language is not just literal - though it is that, bright cold days are a common feature of the English spring, and while April may not be the cruellest month in Nineteen Eighty-Four it's no kinder than any other - but also resonant. 'Bright' might be hopeful on its own, but coupled with 'cold' it's hopeless. The day is bright: there is no darkness to hide you. The day is cold: there is no warmth in this world. Citizens of this dictatorship are constantly observed, and the brightness is the brightness of an uncaring sun that casts no forgiving shadows.

With another writer, one might say the language was deceptively simple. With Orwell, the language is vehemently simple, ideologically simple, a declaration of war against obfuscation and half-truth. Language and speech are at the heart of this novel, and in this first sentence - stripped of false ornament yet reminding us of our luxuries - we are shown all that we may one day lose. This first sentence isn't just the opening of a story: it's a memento mori to freedom.


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