Tuesday, 16 November 2010

M J Engh, Arslan (1976)

Spanking new Gollancz SF Masterworks edition of this extraordinary novel, with an introduction by a Sacha-Baron-Cohenalike in a stars-and-stripes top hat called, er, me.

That is what I look like, mind. Pretty much. Samuel Delany is blurbed on the front, there, saying 'this is the best political novel I've read in more than a decade.' It is a potent, subtle, far-reaching, psychologically acute masterpiece. But it also starts with one of the most shocking scenes I can think of in modern fiction. The warlord Arslan, having spread out from his Turkic home to conquer the entire world, arrives in the mid-America small town of Kraftsville, Illinois. He makes his base in the local school, and having billetted and feasted his troops, he rounds the evening off by raping one schoolgirl and one schoolboy in front of the appreciative audience of his own soldiers. It's horrible, and meant to be, but you shouldn't be put off by it, because the novel germinates this shocking moment into one of the most thougthful, considered and far-reaching analyses of the logic of tyranny, freedom, love and parent-child relations in fiction.
I think the novel’s boldness is predicated upon an understanding that what makes the ruthless dictator weirdly admirable is a certain sort of authenticity. Being above the law is something dictators have in common with poets. They have the strength to break and remake notions of right and wrong in the service of winning free space for their own actions, the expression of their will. Of the three main characters in Engh’s novel, two compel our respect by virtue of their pragmatic, flexible yet inviolable refusal to compromise their principles: Arslan himself and Franklin Bond. (The third, Hunt Morgan, is a more complex case). One deep consonance in the novel is its decision to represent the logic of charismatic dictator via a focus on childhood, children and childishness. There is, for instance, something of the precocious, energetic child about Arslan, I think. Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday (2005) muses on the nature of dictators via the example of Saddam Hussein (still, when that novel came out, alive):
It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfillment as one; perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. They reach back for what they can’t have. When they meet frustration their man-slaying tantrum is never far away. Saddam, for example, doesn’t simply look like a heavy-jowled brute. He gives the impression of an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hangdog look, and dark eyes a little baffled by all that he still can’t ordain. Absolute power and its pleasures are just beyond reach and keep receding. He knows that another fawning general dispatched to the torture rooms, another bullet to the head of a relative won’t deliver the satisfaction it once did.
What I especially like about this quotation is the way it suggests that children are always being dragged unwillingly along in the wake of ‘growing up’ so that the instantaneous joy of desire/gratification is always receding further and further away from them—a loss they feel acutely, if incoherently. Hitler’s mad tantrums; Stalin’s ludicrous ego; these are meager substitutions for the original jouissance.

But rather than slot her novel into the easy groove of satirical caricature, Engh takes the more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding approach of drawing Arslan as a fully rounded character. Arslan is a novel absolutely interpenetrated all the way through with a deep interrogation of ‘childishness’ and ‘adulthood’; with what is gained and lost in growing up, with questions of parental authority good and bad. We might say, and truly, that Arslan is a profoundly ‘grown-up’ novel; but that is not to say that it is a novel purged of childish intensities. Quite the reverse.
Read this book.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I tried to read this book in my late teens or early twenties. Not sure what made me pick it up - at the time I was relying pretty heavily on Amazon's recommendation engine - but I certainly had no idea what to expect. The opening scene shocked me so badly that I abandoned the book unread - which is still something that I'm hesitant to do, but at the time, an unpardonable offense - and let my copy go in the next cull of my books (come to think of it, it's possible that it's been traumatizing the clientele of my local library ever since). The recent praise for it - Graham Sleight mentioned it quite favorably earlier this year - has got me thinking that I should give it another chance, and your post convinces me to do so.

Adam Roberts said...

It is worth perservering with. There's nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.