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.