FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Horror, the Horror

It takes a bold writer to tackle a hackneyed theme and repackage it in fresh wrappings so that the most jaded reader finds the story imaginative.  For the most part, Kira Salak is that writer, giving us a contemporary version of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness (1903); engaging readers a hundred years after Conrad provoked   his readers.  Ironically, if Conrad’s late Victorian readers didn’t understand the attack on their own racist views, Salak’s shouldn’t miss the rebuke on their own narrow-minded ethnocentrism, assuming they read The White Mary to its bitter end.

Salak’s Kurtz?called Lewis in her novel?explains to Marika Vecera, the novel’s protagonist, who has followed her hero to the end of the world, “[Americans] never had anything really bad happen to them.  They’ve never witnessed a massacre.  They’ve never been raped or tortured or seen family members shot. You know how you can tell when you’re with one of those people?  Because they’re obsessed with what’s pointless, thinking it matters.  Try telling them about a genocide in Rwanda or East Timor.  They have no … mechanism …to grasp what you’re talking about.  They’ve grown up in a world where everything horrible has been turned into entertainment, made into some goddamn movie.  The only thing that wakes them up is if something awful suddenly lands on their doorstep, throwing them into flames.”

Unfortunately, the only thing that lands on their doorsteps is the morning newspaper, and it’s not in flames?though its contents may describe those fires.  More likely, on the front page the headlines proclaim the results of the latest high school football or basketball game, with anything about the real world buried in a brief paragraph deep inside the paper.  Which is only to say that most Americans keep their heads in the sand whenever the topic becomes unpleasant.  How else does one explain Americans’ proclivity for permitting their government to unleash the most unspeakable acts against others around the world?  Repeatedly, I should add, not in an isolated incident.

It is those unspeakable acts that Kira Salak writes about in The White Mary, though her focus is not on what America has done overseas but what traditional societies and governments inflict on their own people?simply another source of mayhem.  Sierra Leone, Chechyna, Sir Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda?these are the areas that the author of this horrific narrative describes for her readers.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; I’ll certainly admit to that.

To get to Lewis’s diatribe above, Salak?an award-winning journalist, who has reported about the major trouble spots in the world during the past eight years?drags the reader through atrocities in the Congo, East Timor and in Papua New Guinea, the setting for most of her riveting novel.  No one escapes the lash of her venom, including United Nations peacekeepers who stand aside and watch mankind’s inhumanity, as long as their own lives are not threatened.

The real question behind Kira Salak’s story, however, is what it is that keeps the journalist who reports on the worst atrocities mankind inflicts on its fellow citizens returning home from such unbearable carnage and then, months later, moving on to the next trouble spot in the world where the violence?the total lack of respect for another person’s body?may even be worse?  Danger?  Perversity?  Sadism?  Witnessing? A simple love of blood and gore?  Of Marika, the author remarks, “What Marika hated to admit to herself was that she felt at home in such places.  The danger gave her an increased sense of purpose.  Her life?the great senselessness of it, the mystery of it that she hade never understood?found direction in a place like Bodo [in the Congo].  She felt absolute, unequivocal confidence that there, finally, was a place that wanted her and could use her. She had only one issue to face at all times: living or dying.  Everything else fell into the realm of the meaningless.”

And much later, almost at the end of the story, Salak adds, “Real courage isn’t about visiting the world’s hells and returning alive to tell about it?it’s easy to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed.  What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs.  Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out.”

The White Mary?a term that Papua New Guineans use for white women during the time of their monthly cycle?is an ambitious but flawed novel.  The questions that Kira Salak asks, she answers convincingly; the plotting is fast-placed and full of imaginative twists and turns; but some of the writing (and too often the dialogue) is stilted.  Salak creates real people, places them in extreme situations, and then has them speak in unbelievable voices.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: clarson@american.edu

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 15, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Ukania: the Land Where the Queen’s Son Has His Shoelaces Ironed by His Valet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Spraying Poisons, Chasing Ghosts
Anthony DiMaggio
In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics
Christopher Ketcham
Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve
Meena Miriam Yust
Today It’s Treasure Island, Tomorrow Your Neighborhood Store: Could Local Currencies Help?
Karl Grossman
Climate of Rage
Walter Clemens
How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers
Brandon Lee
Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition
Kim C. Domenico
An Anarchist Uprising Against the Liberal Ego
Elliot Sperber
Pythagoras in Queens
November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail