How is one supposed to feel at the end of a journey? Finite. Infinite. Calm. Insane. There are as many possible sensations as can be named, and others which remain beyond the lexicon of man. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. This novel is my seventh journey – but even as this latest, most endemic journey winds to a close, I am not sure which road to take on the emotional crossroads.
White Clouds of Mourning: its first draft is finished. Now it is one small step closer to seeing the light of day. And yet, the euphoric, creative, intimate phase of the writing is over. When writing a novel I live with it, think through it, input all my experiences, thoughts, pains and principles into it. Like a diary but, you know, not a diary. Now, yes, I feel vacuous.
With this novel in particular, the end of the first draft signals a lonesome marker. I won’t go into plot details (they might yet change in later revisions) but I can’t help saying that the characters in this novel have come to absolutely dominate, like a gluttonous Ceaser, my mind, soul and heart, that most ancient of threesomes.
It was a novel a long time in coming. The story has been there for a long time, the story of this girl, trapped, sagacious, longing for freedom and a waylaid happiness. But for many a month I was stumped as to how to go about the writing of this semi-true story. I approached it, initially, as I had approached all my previous novels. But to my frustration and terror, the old ways weren’t working.
I tried to make it a war story. Then a postmodernist second-hand erotica. In sheer desperation I even toyed with historical magic-realism, whatever that might be (the girl was born in Ancient Greece but is an adult in modern times – banal, desperate stuff, really). The lead-up, planning and conception of this novel forced me into an existential crisis the likes of which only dried up artists ever go through. In fairness, this might prepare me for the later, inevitable mid-life crisis, the male menopause! I wrote countless short-stories trying to find the right platform for the story, testing out voices, settings and conflicts like a deranged scientist confronting an unborn theory.
And then, I stopped.
I backed away – and I can’t understate the importance of this. When you’re too close to something you need to back off and let life do its thing. Learning not to think is a hard thing to do especially for a writer. For this you need the support of friends and the environment. Do things that make you an animal; swim, drink, walk, travel and all the rest of it, get carnal too, if it helps.
And immersed in such simplicity, and continuing to hear new sides to the story, I realised that the story in itself – a story that had so hooked me – was good enough to be told with little frills, little artistic machinations. This was something new for me. Sometimes life does offer you beautifully dark outlines and it is your job not to fill them in – leave them true and honest like a cave painting in Lascaux.
Of course, I cannot say that the novel is entirely factual. Writers lie and twist and bend by nature. But its essence is honest. Not an untrue word is spoken. There are alterations and creative licenses taken, but no deceptions.
I was surprised, given the amount of dread and anxiety that preceded the lead up to the novel, how whole-heartedly and wildly I immersed myself in the writing. Hemingway called writing a blood-sport and with all my other novels I can concur. This was more like a good, long swim. Refreshing, immersive, cool and addictive. And the fact that so much truth went into it made it all the easier. This was a rarity, a shooting star of a novel – I don’t know if I’ll write like this again. Not through choice, of course. The need for a literary bullfight might yet return.
As I said before this is a character-driven novel. There are themes, strong ones, crucial ones, of course ranging from the religious, cultural, political and philosophical. But they are mere ghosts in the machine. The flesh, the heart and soul of it all are the characters, especially the girl, the Libyan migrant living on these Maltese shores, whose most crucial time in life is dominated by the death of her brother and her coming to terms (so poetically) with her grief – all the while her loving but regrettably repressive family constantly snuff out the light of her radiance.
The surprising theme that emerged as a dominant, unexpected behemoth casting its shadow over the terrain of the novel is the theme of manipulation. The happiness we crave, our very dreams, are they truly our own? Every character in the novel is somehow being manipulated, some subliminally, others more directly, violently. They all have to ask themselves do they want to be who they’re being told to be. Some submit, because being true would mean sacrificing power, others submit out of fear of harm, others still resist and revolt – causing shockwaves in their lives and those of their manipulators.
This is all played out in the interior of places we never venture to yet are right outside our own doorstep. The main character and narrator, after deciding to revolt against his wife’s manipulations and leave her, finds himself being put up by a Libyan family living in a small, hedonistic seaside town. The contrast between the Libyan household and the pleasure-seeking town cannot be greater and ideological faultlines inevitably begin to show. And thus the internal and the external collide – with the girl being right in the middle.
As I enter the laborious, painstaking phase of revising and editing, eeking out details, refining I can’t help feel like one feels at the start of autumn. The summer of writing is over and now the autumn of hard-work is setting in. But as with any season, some camouflaged form of optimism lingers – I’ve gotten over a brief dry spell with gusto. I realise now, thanks to this girl, thanks to this story, that novels are like any other good thing in life; simple, stripped-down pleasures.
As a teaser, here are a few snippets, quotes and descriptions… a teaser and, for myself, an exercise in nostalgia!
It was an embrace whose happiness exuded from its defiance. Despite me being of the wrong gender, the wrong culture, history and faith: she broke down all those second skins and embraced me like a human being. It was beautifully apolitical.
No truly happy man, no honest seeker of the heights of hedonism, can be worth anything without weaving the silken tread of altruism.
And in that moment I could understand why, and how, my father, that vicious bon vivant, could ever get married and have children.
“I don’t think anything ever changes. Not for the better, anyway.” She said in a whisper as if some Allah or jinn were eavesdropping on our conversation in the forgotten bay.
“Again… I believe that, but I refuse to live my life accepting it.”
“What do you do then?”
“You learn an important lesson. I think, the minute you are born you are burning bridges. Do you remember your midwife, your school friends, your great-grandfather?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you can’t worry too much about what you’re leaving behind. You just go forward.” I didn’t feel I was making sense. But I spoke fluidly, stoically, so at least, I looked like I was.
“I also think you can’t beat big odds.” She sighed, running her free hand between her breasts and settling it on her thighs.
“The odds are whatever you want them to be.”
“No, no. It’s not that easy. You don’t know. When everything, everyone, is against you, you don’t have any power, you’re like a chess piece without anyone to move it.”
Manipulate her… what a hypocrite I was… but no, I needn’t be. She showed me that manipulation is in itself neither a good thing nor bad. It was like natural selection or wind force. Just something that’s there, unchangeable… the only thing we could do is deal with it. To be manipulated, as I had been by parents, culture and wives, can’t be helped. You’re going to manipulate and be manipulated, and there’s no excuse not to play the game, the only choice you have is between success or failure.
“Do you like dogs?” She often asked me. She asked hesitantly, clenching, expecting the shock of a wrong answer.
And the wrong answer from me inevitably came: “I love them!”
“What does beer taste like?” She asked me after I ordered my second pint. She was on her first Coke still.
“What does Coke taste like?” I asked.
“Huh? YoutellingmeyouneverhadCoke?” She said condensing the entire English language into one spit-fire sentence. She didn’t get the joke, I moved on.
“It tastes like.” I paused to think. I had been a copious beer drinker since age fourteen and I had never paid much notice to its taste. As I thought she looked at me expectantly. I felt like a never-ending soap-opera and she my zombie-minded audience of one.
“I guess it’s like orange juice with the bitterness of bitter lemon.”
“Yuck.” She exploded into a pre-prepared expression of insulted disgusted that she would have pulled no matter what I’d said.
This was her game. Her means of circumnavigating the restrictions embedded in her mind. She indulges her curiosity but then she pretends she’s doing so only to confirm her beliefs. She was like an AI machine trying to overwrite her programming. Or an animal trying to overthrow its instinct.
“Why do you drink it?” She asked like a good Muslim. Children are good chameleons, they take tinctures from all things around them, their sight, not their ears, the guide that will ultimately settle the lottery of colours.
“You know even animals drink beers?” A new crusade was being laid out before me, a crusade over the merits and vices of beer; oh well, crusades have been fought over less.
“Aha! Many do. And just like people, some can handle it and some can’t. It’s all about fruits, you see. Some birds like the Bohemian waxwing drink from berries which ferment in cool weather and turn to alcohol. It turns out, drinking and flying is a bad idea too – some of these birds die on drunken flights.”
They know the best drinking holes of the town, and last night I went out with them and a few locals from the clinic. We were drinking Kilimanjaro beer – you would know it from Hemingway – all night and then, at sunrise, we drove to the lake and watched the sun rise over the still waters. It was exquisitely beautiful. This kind of happiness… it’s what I’ve forsaken everything for. It’s painful, but I don’t regret a thing, or maybe I do because I’m talking about it, but it’s easy to ignore, you know.