To Hear the Universal Voice of Violence, Guest Post by Palash Mahmud

Milkman: To Hear the Universal Voice of Violence

One fine day Aristotle proclaimed man is a political animal which is still echoing at the very moment of our time, however, this omnipresent idea of politics pushes the lives of “us” and “others” into troubles, into a split nut but not equal halves, always in discomfort; and one bad not-fine night the same Aristotle preached woman is a mutilated male lacking of principle of soul which is still resounding from “over the road” to “over the water”, nevertheless, that ubiquitous logic of womanhood pull all of them back to the blind alleys of losses and sorrows, always in silence. Politics in knife-edge times and womanhood in tight-knot communities are the two prime themes have been dissected under the spotlight of Anna Burns’ exquisite narratives in ‘Milkman,” which won Man Booker Prize (2018), National Book Critics Circle Award (2018), and The Orwell Prize (2019) respectively and most recently won for the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award. It is one of most award hunter-gatherer novel in this century.

Back in early October in 2017, the whole world was suffering from the Harvey fever infected by the sexual exploitations by the men sitting at the centre of respective power structures. I was doing an assignment on Rebecca Walker’s seminal personal essay “Becoming the Third Wave”, a reaction to the hearing of Anita Hill’s harassment allegation, where she opined so intensely asking “how many men not used their protected male privilege to thwart in some way the influence or ideas of a woman colleague, friend, or relative” and “assault of the human spirit”. In addition, I was swaying in indecisiveness to choose a thesis statement of my research paper for the course titled Research Methodology in Literature and Cultural Studies during October, 2018, at the first anniversary of #metoo movement, Milkman earned the acclaimed 50th Man Booker title and I had immediately decided to write up on it. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had to travel inevitably to Singapore at the eleventh hour of my writing the first draft of the paper. And I had to keep on the writing while I was waiting at the departure terminal, on the flight, in the immigration queue at Changi Airport, in the hotel room at Outram Park, on the Bank of Singapore River at Boat Quay and at the café and restaurants in Little India. It was an overwhelmingly tenacious and forceful experience I had gone through. Now I find a resemblance between my writing-while-flying or writing -while- travelling and middle sister’s, the protagonist of Milkman, “reading-while-walking”.

The author has invented a unique narrative technique, apparently almost-stream-of-consciousness but in author’s testimony it is not, and applied it so adroitly to tell us the story of an unnamed girl, a middle sister, standing at the last dot of her teenage year deviant from status quo, opted for living in Victorian mise-en-scene and tagged as over-the-pale by her communities, and  then milkman, an associate of obsessively nationalistic paramilitary, appeared in a shape-shifting white-van on the scene without any hint out of nowhere and approached her and she could not deny him only because he was not rude and then she turned into an epicenter of gossips and rumors that unlocked the Pandora box of state-sponsored-violence, civilian terrorism, community policing, almost panoptic surveillance on every citizen, that locked the main gate of reality- as if what is not happening is seen but what is going on is hidden- above all, the narrative is a marathon race between state and individual, especially women experience in it.

Politics emerged in Milkman with negation to exercise its power like thunder creates a crack in the sky; they drew a map of “religious geography” and created a nationalistic weather, and swayed between in unitary territory (totalitarianism) and in sectarian territory (nationalism) of power in “troubles”, an unspecific time in seventies in Northern Ireland, they administered a dichotomy of “groupdom”, of renouncer-of-the-state and defender-of-state, of over the road and over the water, on top of that between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The first negation they imposed on freedom by conducting never-ending recordings of everything in the territories as “They even photograph shadows. People here can be deciphered and likeness discerned from silhouettes and shadows”, on the basis of “audible clicks”, they decoupled the right butter and wrong butter, they compressed the room of information as ‘Every resident was supposed to know what is permitted based on what was not permitted”, by that the reality is distorted in many folds and James-Bond-like-lies and Walter Mitty-like-hope occupied the civilians’ mind.

The protagonist, the middle sister, acts as an archetype of every woman at anytime, anywhere in the world. The experience she went through, at first with the “lewd remarks” and “manipulative nosey questions” by her first-brother-in-laws; with an imbalance characters of her third-brother-in-laws because only he regarded woman as an “essential element” or “higher aspect” contrary to Aristotle’s half-formed-creature; with aggressive stalking and talking of Somebody McSomebody, her wannabe husband; with compulsive contacts in rendezvous with her maybe-boyfriend who wanted to live together in red light street; and finally, the antagonist, milkman, tracked and trailed her without her knowledge backing up by paramilitary references and fell her into an “emotional numbness” that pushed her to find his invisible existence everywhere in her room. In response to anomalous approaches, she took refuge in “silence” in her defence. As in Milkman, Anna Burns questions the relationships between female experiences and male domination, in other words, does women‘s silence generate men’s privilege or vice versa? They also show how both silence as a resistance and power as an aggression can naturalize an individual’s sexual harassment in society.

Like silence, “marriage,” is another weapon “after territorial boundaries, is the foundation of the state” to consume privileges and to exercise domination over women. Like nineteenth-century, the traditional women take the position of in-charge of patriarchy, her mother so adamantly pursues her to lead “an ordinary life” by marrying McSomebody, and her longest-friend convinces her to “stop her stubbornness”. They are pleased to tell her the purpose of woman body that “they called menstruation stopped inside you because you were excessively sporty” and they also teach her physical violence is undefined until “your blouse ripped off” and sexual charges is denied until they have evidence of “one-quarter rape”. “I, too, came to find me inaccessible. My inner world, it seemed, had gone away” is one of the most heart-twisting sentences in the entire narrative which scratches the mental aberration a woman can go through, that claims an existential answer also.

“Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking”, comments Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the judges for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, “and form in surprising and immersive prose.”  The form of the words, syntax, and narrative technique is as interesting and important in parallel as the contents of the book. They are influenced by Russian formalism like not calling the characters and places by their proper names and German phenomenalism like looking at the reality at different angles, like in French class the chorus get suspicious about fixed idea of le ciel est bleu, like the Russian literature middle sister was reading-while-walking obsessively.

In an interview with Aubrey Moraif in New School Writing, Anna Burns says, “My own history and experience of growing up in Ardoyne in Belfast at this time of huge pressure undeniably informs my interest in these issues. This is based on my need to understand and explore how these pressures built up and worked out in that specific time and place, as well as of what this might mean for similar places throughout the world in all different time frames.”  This alluring and brilliant novel forces us to ask about the nature of reality and its validation, to see the experiences of women in the time of turmoil and to hear the universal voice of violence. 

The Review of “History of Violence” by Edouard Louis, a Guest Post by Palash Mahmud

History of Violence Binds Us to Live a Life We Don’t Want to Live

L’existence précède l’essence

                          -Jean-Paul Sartre

When Eddy Bellegueule at the advent of his teenage was carrying the unbearable lightness of Anglo-Saxon name representing constructed masculinity intoxicatingly to present himself to the expectations of the social system and to act as per the principles of social exclusion and to  remain silent–  

a crisis of gender representation,

I standing at the exit door of my teens had encountered an event among the gathering of orthodox Muslim relatives first ever to be acquainted with in my own sister’s marriage ceremony and when I had introduced myself, obviously, as Palash Mahmud, a name combined by Arabic-Bengali words, within a second showing a distaste and shock on their faces, they asked why I am bearing the Bengali word despite of being a Muslim; I could not open my mouth further but to remain silent

a dilemma of lingo-religious representation. ‍

As Eddy said to Alessandro “Every reality is secretly built upon the rejection of something else,” he excluded the imposed qualities of masculine archetypes for Eddy Bellegeule and transcended to the exposed desires of human qualities for Edouard Louis, on the other edge, I am still carrying the bearable weightiness of intersectionality and enduring the pressure of excluding my linguistic identity to hold up my religious spirit, I could not say anything or write anything but only asking over and over again inside my mind that what’s the sense of not taking a Bengali name along with Arabic name although I don’t speak in Arabic but in Bengali.

Edouard and I have been going through the same societal pressure living in the opposite pole of the world, tolerating the same mass of humiliation and suffering by the different and distinct reasons that proves the objectivity of the human conditions, and adopting two opposite defense mechanisms – rejecting the name Eddy and being a voice of Edouard, oppositely, for me keeping the name Palash and being silent that also denotes the universality of human resilience.

The French debut novel, a global sensation of Edouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule in French, 2014) sets in Hellencourt in segregated far-right dominated and melancholic grazing land in Northern France which deals with name, sexuality and identity that are formulated by the norms of class-systemized cultures, social and political decisions that bring shame, humiliations, abuses and sufferings to the individuals. It links up Eddy’s gender representation and sexual preference with his family’s honor and dignity, political bourgeois and supremacy with Eddy’s ruthless poverty which make the analogous tones and themes with Scottish-American novelist Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain which is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize and the National Book Awards for fiction; and with Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake which won Palm d’Or in 2016. It shows us the basic structures on which persons and politics intersect and react with each other.

In his second novel, History of Violence (Historie la violence in French, 2016) which has been shortlisted for the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award extends the structure into more deeper level where readers can know how person’s identity is reconstructed over and over again by the political malice; and in process politics effectuates violence as a workable instrument evidently.

To show a model of violence in the universal characters, Edouard use bodily assault, the incident of rape from his own life which is very unique in the literary landscape illustrating his psychological journey of pain and grief, rage and revolt so subtly. The truth is no violence or injustice is not singular in nature – it is like multi-folded spider’s web- as soon as you are victimized by any kind of violence- like touching any thread of the web – you are immediately included in the other associate and collateral violences, injustices, humiliations, dominations and sufferings. But the thing is to find out the formula of remodeling the web to degrade the degree of violence and to upgrade the line of human freedom and spirit.

The story has been unlocked after “a whole year since it happened” on the Christmas Eve in 2012 at dawn in Edouard’s apartment when his sister, Clara, is throwing up the swallowed stories of the rape violence to her husband. “Hidden on the other side of the door” Edouard is adding the edited memories and practicing “anxious nagging feeling” and failing to describe the event truthfully because of lacking appropriate vocabulary.

Humans are far behind to picture their conditions in deficiency of exact lexical resources for the feelings and emotions which are kept under the veil of avoidance and rejection.

Being distorted by the rave feeling of reading way back to home, he encounters an Algerian man, Reda, whose “features were soft yet rugged masculine” and with a feeling of romantic and carnal desires for being close together as a man and a woman. They spend a very intimate time, crossing the boundaries of prohibitions and exclusions. During the departure time, Edouard witnesses his valuable appliances and gadgets are stolen and against his charges and protest, Reda exhales his air of violence, rapes him at the death threat. Though the whole narrative is sourced from Edouard own life, he can also replace his physical tribulation and post-traumatic upshots with William Faulkner’s Temple Drake’s rape and its ramification in Sanctuary (1931).

Palash Mahmud

Consequently, Edouard as in Hanya Yanagihara’s Jude in A Little Life (2015) starts to pass through the chronic struggle, internally and externally, to resolve mental trauma; to clean his body, belongings and even his memories. After being raped with physical bruises and spasms he goes to the hospital for medical checkup for “post-exposure prophylaxis against HIV” and speaks “the torrent of words”  to make believable the violence to everyone  he faces not knowing either is nurse or switchboard operator. He even takes a tactic “remained stuck in metallic moments,” he speaks:

I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, his gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, … I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.

The reader will also be possessed by every word and even every punctuation mark will occupy you. The most  absorbing scenes start to appear when he begins to clean the mirror where Reda  has observed and even absurdly strives to dissolve Reda’s reflections and shadows inhibited on it, meanwhile, “possessed by an almost maniac energy”  he yields that it’s not any object but his own body and existence to be washed out:

I was the problem. I got in the shower; I washed myself once, twice, three times, and so on. I lathered my body with soap, shampoo, conditioner to perfume it as best I could, it was as if his smell were encrusted inside me,

We know the rape thing happens in everywhere around the world but how many we know their feelings, emotions and everything they endure and adapt except pathological reports, legal and judicial hearings and the most popularly journalistic testimonies. As soon as I come to know the first hand narratives of Edouard’s history of violence disclosing shame, humiliations and the chain of sufferings, I slide down into the whirl of befuddlement  and fail to decide of which feeling of him I would exclude or skip over from my list of quotations. 

There are controversies and mixed reactions to narrative forms like History of Violence where you cannot draw a clear demarcation between fiction and fact, reality and imagination. Many says without aesthetic imagination you cannot define the ideology of literature, but, surprisingly, Edouard Louis believes when finding truth is the only purpose or making change in human despondency and on the map of violence is the only utility of literature then ornamental literature is an obstruction, and l’art pour l’art is a bygone dream.

 Like social or political exclusion, Edouard revolts against the literary exclusion by which writers and poets escape our lived realities to make it more appalling and tantalizing. He uses his own life in the first-person narrative view as a literary material like Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knasusgaard uses in My Struggle series (2009-2011) and Seasonal Quartet series (2015-2016); Annie Ernaux in The Years (2017) uses third-person narrative angle with her memories, impressions, archival documents and visuals. Svetlana Alexievich uses “the real testimonies that make a unique literary form. Writing lived realities is very much risky and dangerous that can make furies and cries into the hearts of people involved.

The next door neighbors, old school-friends, accidental acquaintances or the closest persons will confront the author incriminating for defamation of their images and disclosure of silence.

Edouard Louis has acknowledged in public his indebtedness for the sociological and political analysis of Pierre Bourdie and Didier Eribon; he had published, in collaboration with philosopher Geoffroy de Langasnerie, the article “Manifsto for an Intellectual and Political counteroffensive”  on the first page of Le Monde imposing the vitality of the redefinition of ethical principle and praxis in politics:

Si l’on veut redéfinir et transformer la scène intellectuelle et politique, il est urgent d’adopter quelques principes éthiques la pensée et l’action.

The mythology of the working class exposes when people get down to status of muteness and the difference from the mainstream then people only survive and not have a chance to live a flourished life that brings the spiral of violence to society. As Toni Morrison brought the voice in Black literature in America; as Teju Cole commented in the essay “Unmournable Bodies “(2015)  “that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”; or as Edouard tries to break the silence of “the compulsive racism” in France:  

At the police station I’d given a brief description of Reda, when they asked, and immediately the officer on duty cut me off: “Oh you mean he was an Arab.” He was triumphant, delighted would be an exaggeration, but he did smile

Lorin Stein, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Paris Review (2010-2017), is the translator of History of Violence (2018) and subsequent completion of Who Killed My Father (2019), who has been patrolling the fictional world for years restlessly to find the narrative that always speaks the truth and can “settle a troubled conscience”. Like Edouard Louis he also keeps faith in Ken Loach’s maxim, “art should be anything, it should be what imagination produces”.  A translator is a surrogate author who goes through the same creative labor and impeccable pressure to make a bridge between two minds, languages and cultures.  As Edouard’s real life appears almost fictional and fictions emerges nearly real, Lorin’s quality of translation draws a blur line between linguistic differences and creates a vivid impression down to the original in the French version. It’s a perfect example of oxymoron (blur-vivid) in transfiction.

The tone of the narrative pushes us to feel stranger than Camus’ L’Ėtranger (1942) because it depicts our minuet life that we are habituated with that always has been excluded from the ink and letters. The submission of the story is more on pluralism, truth and optimism than Houellebecq’s Soumission (2015). Memory and imagination make the archeology of knowledge and story that governs and binds us to live a life we don’t want to live.

Once you cross over the title you cannot look away, in some parts you will wish to transplant yourself with the characters only to know how it feels to live a life you have never seen at its core or have been ignoring or keeping in the dark shadows.