In May 2016, Gresham College in London hosted a symposium on the subject of ‘Cultural Heritage and War’. Chaired by Professor Tim Connell, it featured Sir Derek Plumbly, speaking on British and American policy and the temporal lapses between historical awareness and political action, Dr Elisabeth Kendall, discussing ‘poetry as war’, ‘poems as swords’, and the question of ‘Manipulation and Re-interpretation: al-Qa’ida, Islamic State and the Re-Claiming of the Arab Poetic Tradition’ and Dr Mark Altaweel, who described the ‘Patterns of Looting in Syria/Iraq and the Western Art Market’. Few perhaps were able to attend. Some may have listened to the talks or read the transcripts at a later time. It is not known whether Laurent Gaudé may have been aware of either the scholarship or the academic topos of what is indeed the subject of his own novel, Hear Our Defeats (first published in French in August 2016); namely the cultural catastrophe that has accompanied the rise of Islamic State, the question of ownership and of the right to a voice that is inherent in any discussion of the past, of the material and spiritual legacy of a people. The conceptual alignment is eerie, and Gaudé’s novel provides a muscular complement to the reflected arguments of the participants at the Gresham symposium.

Gaudé too begins with poetry, in particular with C.P. Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Anthony’ in the celebrated Keeley–Sherrard translation. Cavafy permeates the text, his historical as well as his more interiorised, erotic poems. His lyricism, the sense of the timelessness of Oriental time, are something Gaudé would like to emulate, and especially to render corporeal and magnificently present. Like the Alexandrian poet, he makes use of parallel strata and of bifocal (multifocal) vision, of Socratic questions and of suspended answers in his search for a genuine, if literally dying humanity.

Above all, he seems to ask, is wisdom the total sum of accumulated experiences and recollections? In long, echoing sentences that create a sense of atemporality, spacelessness or even of a state beyond humanity, Gaudé sabotages readerly expectations and plays wry, ironic games with our assumptions and misconceptions; with our range of vision and the depth of our blindness. The two central voices attempting to penetrate into, peregrinate through, re-emerge from a world that is rapidly disappearing in the most harrowing way, are like tango dancers: one tracing the steps of a dance of death, while the other is seeking a choreography out of death and into life – on a personal level that is a confrontation with aloneness and mortality, and as an archaeologist seeking to bring the past back to life, to prevent the annihilation of history, civilisation, mankind, the very substance of humanity.

Everyone knows about events, but few seek to understand their meaning, which for Gaudé is encapsulated in the realisation that no war is truly won.”

Gaudé uses four narrative planes and reflectors of experience: the present of daemonic devolution in the territories under current or prior ISIS control; the Abyssinian Campaign through the eyes of Haile Selassie – to filter the inscrutability of Western intentions and actions (in particular the rather perfidious Graziani); Hannibal and his plan to expose Rome to its allies; and the American Civil War, through the prism of Grant’s narrative and the sotto voce commentary of his friend Mark Twain. The point is that everyone knows about events, but few seek to understand their meaning. For Gaudé, this meaning is encapsulated in the realisation that no war is truly won, since the loss can never be undone, or even remedied.

There is a powerful mix of the sense of a humanity caught in a savage, primordial struggle and the Vico-like repetition and cyclicity of history. Also sharp social commentary, although on occasion there is a slide to rather pejorative philosophising and interiority, to a certain arbitrariness or even spuriousness where arguments and facts are concerned.

Hear Our Defeats is a lament on the irrationality and totality of violence, on the zero-ness that suffices to obliterate infinity; or, at least, this would seem to be the presumption of the jihadists, the fanatics, the alt-whichever-way militants, for whom material extermination and spiritual terrorisation appear to be the omnipotent means to domination. Human, mortal lives that are ruthlessly massacred are pitted not against but alongside monuments to and beyond time and their demolition. Gaudé would have us intriguingly, engagingly and judiciously stop and ponder whether there is a versus clause here, or whether in fact the destruction of culture and the ravaging of lives are the two swinging extremes of a lethal pendulum in motion.

The human effort to attain beauty and wisdom, a higher state of individual and communal awareness and connectedness, the effort to create, protect, retrieve what makes life worthy of living only has one versus state, namely the arrogance and greed for destruction. And so Gaudé gives us archaeologists, humanists and human beings to counter warlords and (literally) bloody-minded marketeers. He is not as naïve to believe that this is a clean binary distinction, and Hear Our Defeats is essentially a poignant, if at times circuitous exercise in assessing the ambiguity of Western presence and involvement, the degrees of culpability and innocence entailed in arbitrating culture and humanity, from within as well as from without.

The story is both complex and simple. A love story, a spy thriller, a war drama and a docu-essay on the dustiness and nebulousness of every side and aspect of that particular historical narrative. There seem to be skeletons and dirty secrets everywhere, angels and demons, trauma and lyricism. Above all, nightmares and dreams. Middle East archaeologist Max Mallowan, Agatha Christie’s second husband, also makes a memorable appearance. One problem with Gaudé’s style and sense of writing agency however is the indulgent appropriation of interiority, of the field of vision and the spectrum of conscience and consciousness of characters specifically demarcated as ‘Others’, especially historical Others, in pursuit of a total Grand Narrative. There is often a sense that, as he argues against the cultural appropriation of the past, he may be falling prey to his own caution or audacity. Yet he offers sharp takes on the cultural dispossession of the very notion of civilisation by ISIS, which feels entitled to decide whether the past should be pulverised, or by the West, which presumes for itself the authority to judge to whom the past should belong and who should be appointed as its guardians and custodians. Echoes of Nazi lootings of Jewish property, the question of optics as regards cultural heritage, and of cut-off dates as regards legitimate or illegitimate pillaging, the ethics of museum or private collecting, combine with a Huysmans-style essay on history, on existence, on relationships, on a future even for humanity.

There seem to be skeletons and dirty secrets everywhere, angels and demons, trauma and lyricism. Above all, nightmares and dreams.”

Excellently translated by Alison Anderson (with the exception of a solitary sore thumb, an ungainly ‘colossuses’), Hear Our Defeats will feel to some readers like a maze of a novel, made of thick layers of superimposed palimpsests, which, if anything, hurl them right into the midst of the darkness, the senselessness and the terror, the pain and horror, of all that it contains, as well as bringing them to a new juncture with the inextinguishable human need for hope. Protean characters melting away and fusing with one another across time and space do not always make for a clear perspective, but perhaps this is just the point, Gaudé seems to say: this is about “casting off the burden of the human in order to confront obscurity.” What he does not want us to forget is that there is, after all, an important distinction: we should not wonder about where bin Laden’s remains are, or Gaddafi’s; yet we ought to care for “Alexander the Great’s, yes. Hannibal’s too. Because they had a vision, because those are the bodies of men who saw History abandon them, when they could have reigned over it, because they were men who brought down worlds and gave words to new worlds.”

Or, as Cavafy put it in his 1928 poem ‘You Didn’t Understand’:

Vacuous Julian had the following to say
About our religious belief: “I read, I understood,
I condemned.” He thought we’d be devastated
by that ‘condemned’, the silly ass.
Witticisms like that don’t get by with us Christians.
Our quick reply: “You read but didn’t understand;
Had you understood, you wouldn’t have condemned.”

(translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press, 1975)

 

Laurent Gaudé is a French novelist and playwright. After being nominated for the 2002 Prix Concourt with The Death of King Tsongor, he won the award in 2004 for his novel The Sun of the Scorta. His reportage from Port-au-Prince, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Calais Jungle gave rise to his first collection of poems, De sang et de lumière (Editions Thélème, 2017). His other books in English include Hell’s Gate (Gallic Books, 2017). Hear Our Defeats, translated by Alison Anderson, is published in paperback and eBook by Europa Editions.
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Author portrait © Christophe Abramowitz

Alison Anderson’s translations include The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and works by Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio. She has also written two novels and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Translation Fellowship. She has lived in California, Greece and Croatia, and speaks several European languages.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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