26 March, 2005

Fallaci: an antidote to Hugo's romanticism

Long-time readers of this weblog will remember that I occasionally exhibit pretensions to literary criticism. Indeed, I recently added a new category on this to the archives below. The biggest obstacle to these pretensions is that I am a notoriously slow reader — one of my high-school chums could not believe that it took me a week or two to read a book that he could polish off in hours. To make matters worse, I've lately been working on my thesis. So, even though I've been working on Oriana Fallaci's Insciallah since January, and my last update was at the end of a post in early February, I'm still not done. However, I am in the last 200-page stretch, so it's time for an update.

When reading Hugo's Les Misérables, anyone familiar with 18th- and 19th-century philosophy will recognize a triumphalist romanticism. I've talked about this before. If you want to know what the difference is between Hugo's unabridged novel, and the versions we usually read in high school: editors lop off half the book because Hugo does little more than digress into philosophical rambling. The book is less a novel than a screed extolling the noble savage's aspirations (and rights) for education and labor. Hugo looks forward to the 20th century as a time of peace and enlightened progress.

Fallaci, who actually experienced the 20th century, is having none of Hugo's piety. Insciallah is set in Beirut, 1983-1984. This was a period of unrestrained carnage, and Fallaci describes the abundant hatred and ill-will between Shi'ite and Maronite alike — and "enlightenment" does little to change things. Gassan, arguably the coldest of the cold-blooded killers, is a one-time enlightened pacifist avenging the murder of his Maronite father; a "high point" in the plot is a description of Gassan's patient wait for Bilal, a poor Shi'ite dwarf. What does Gassan have against Bilal? Inspired by a religious tract, Bilal, a street sweeper, has led his neighbors to seize a tower that had been occupied by government forces after French peacekeepers abandoned it.

Fallaci and Hugo have their similarities: both were journalists, and both appear to be writing about their personal observations — Hugo of the poor, Fallaci of the war. Both go into "the unwashed masses" to tell their story: Hugo makes a long and (in my opinion) boring digression to justify his use of Argot, the language of the poor and uneducated Parisian; Fallaci sprinkles Italian dialects throughout her novel, from the Germanic Tirolian and Milanese to the otherworldly Venetian to the brash and worldly southern.

I am familiar with southern Italians, and Fallaci does not depict southern Italians inaccurately. Her characters appear to be real characters, not merely stereotypical servants of her socio-political agenda. The best example of this is her description of the Neapolitan Aquila Uno ("Eagle One"). By race a Jew, he asks for the intercession not only of Moses and Elijah, but also Saint January (san Gennaro), the patron saint of Naples. Like all Neapolitans, he is superstitious to the point of worrying about a dream — a dream that Fallaci uses to foreshadow the coming Christmas Battle between Maronite-controlled government forces and Shi'ite militants.

Hugo's characters are unreal; they are, in a sense, Platonic forms that he uses to lead the mind to the "higher truths" he wishes to instill. Fallaci's characters are all-too-real, complex characters possessing profound flaws. They are cynical and self-centered; the closest character to an idealistic Marius or a self-sacrificing Jean Valjean is Angelo, who however possesses none of their idealism.

Hugo focuses on romance to the exclusion of sex; even Fantine's sexuality is largely a consequence of her romanticism; one might argue that her subsequent poverty is a consequence of her lover's romanticism. Fallaci, by contrast, focuses on sex to the exclusion of romance. Angelo attempts romance with Ninette, but she is having none of it; Falco (or perhaps Armando, I forget) has a wife in Italy, but finds himself drawn to the friendship of a French nun in Lebanon. Salvatore Bellezza fu Onofrio's romanticism costs him thirty years in jail; four soldiers order a sex doll to satisfy their urges, with hilarious consequences. One soldier, a homosexual, struggles with his feelings.

Hugo appreciates religion so long as it is charitable; Fallaci disdains religion even when it is charitable.

Hugo's characters overcome tyranny and suffering by using their freedom and initiative; Fallaci's characters suffer tyranny. Freedom does not seem to exist in Fallaci's novel; people are victims of various circumstances, which impel them to act the way they do. In Hugo's novel, both Valjean and Javert transcend their emotional limitations by self-discipline and self-sacrifice; it is only Javert's empty religiosity and obsession with perfect adherence to rules that prevent his taking the final step towards mercy. In Fallaci's novel, self-discipline and self-sacrifice do not exist; transcendence is not merely insurmountable, it is inconceivable: characters are bound by emotions that fate has set about them like chains.

I suppose that the biggest surprise is that I wanted to read this book to learn a little about Arabs, but I am learning a lot more about Europeans than I am about Arabs. I'm not sure I'm learning anything at all about Arabs, except that with the end of the novel approaching, Fallaci does not consider them any worse than the Europeans. She's very sympathetic to her Shi'ite characters, even while she fears them and, outside her novels, has supported the Bush administration.

Almost 200 pages remain, of course, so I could be in for a pleasant surprise. However, given the recent turn of events in this novel, and given what I know about Fallaci herself, I'm not holding too much to hope.

No comments: