Posts Tagged literature

In Sherlock Holmes’ Day

first_edition_1887The Washington Spring — 4 —

I will begin today’s article with a brief literary reminiscence. It concerns Sherlock Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which the narrator, Doctor Watson, first meets the famous detective. Holmes is looking for a fellow lodger, and a mutual acquaintance brings them together.

“Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?”

Holmes merely chuckles, and not until the following day does he explain how he worked it out. After going through a long list of deductions, he reaches this ironclad conclusion:

“Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

In the novel’s first paragraph, Watson tells us that he went to the Indies in 1878 as an army surgeon, but just as he was about to join his regiment, “the second Afghan war had broken out.” He found himself safe and sound in Kandahar, But says that he would have “fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly…”

The book was published in 1887. I suppose that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers knew what he meant by the “second Afghan war.” Personally, I must confess that I’ve lost track. Even if I consider only those Afghan wars in my own lifetime, I’m no longer sure which one we’re up to. The fourth? The fifth?

All this to say that, when President Obama announced that he would withdraw his troops from Iraq but reinforce his contingent in Afghanistan, I wasn’t convinced his decision was a wise one. The US Army had to withdraw from Iraq, of course. They never should have gone there in the first place, and once they had occupied it, they certainly shouldn’t have acted the way they did. I am not sure that the situation will be properly fixed after the Americans leave definitively; but I am sure that their military’s prolonged presence there did nothing to help.

Having made that clear, I must make a remark that no historian of the Middle East can readily contest: the least one can say is that Iraq is not a guerrilla warfare country. It took the Americans’ accumulated mistakes, blunders and gaffes for them to end up with such a war on their hands, in such bleak physical and humanitarian circumstances.

Afghanistan is another kettle of fish. It is the quintessential land of endless guerrilla warfare, as the British, Soviets and various other foolhardy powers discovered to their cost. And even if the American president wants to lead his campaign differently, even if he asks his troops to listen to the local population and he promises to reform the prisons, it remains an extremely risky bet.

The historic reconciliation that Obama is pressing for must materialise and produce tangible results before the Afghans – and Muslim nations in general – will accept an American military operation on their land. That certainly isn’t the case today. We are only at the beginning of a long road full of pitfalls, and it is foolhardy to behave as though we have already reached safe haven.

(First published in French on July 21st).

, , , , , ,

No Comments

Between “French” and “francophone”

Like all tools, a concept must be handled dextrously and advisedly, lest it proves dangerous and damages more than it mends. My preceding article could just as well have been entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of diversity” — a concept precious to me, and one that often recurs in my writing, given the great importance I attach to cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to the diversity of living species.

Following this line of thought, this article could just as well be entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of francophonie”. When the concept was begotten in the 1960s, it was an excellent thing. France and her former dependencies were anxious to move past the traumas of the colonial era towards a consentient alliance, founded on the most solid and highest ground there is, that of a common language. No longer would there be colonists and natives; no longer would French ancestry be a condition of entry into the club. From Brazzaville to Phnom Penh, Lyon to Montreal, Bucharest to Port-au-Prince, all those who “shared the French language”, those who had been born in the bosom of the French-speaking world as much as those who had adopted it — and even those who felt they had been subjected to it — found themselves henceforth equal, all brothers in the francophone world, united by the sacred bonds of language, which are scarcely less indivisible than those of soil or blood.

The semantic drift occurred afterwards. I use the word ‘drift’ here because there was no pernicious intent behind it. Indeed, from the moment the French-speaking world had rallied together, francophone institutions had been established and francophone summits held, it seemed natural that we start talking about francophone literature and francophone authors. What, after all, is a francophone author? A person who writes in French. This is patently obvious, at least in theory. Yet the meaning was immediately perverted, even overturned.

In France, the word ‘francophones’ should have meant ‘us’; instead, it has come to mean ‘them’, ‘the others’, ‘foreigners’, ‘people from our former colonies’. And as the meaning drifted, our identities became indurated and old reflexes returned. Few would think to call Flaubert or Celine ‘francophones’; and even those writers who come from abroad are quickly categorised as French writers, so long as they haven’t come from a Third World country; I have never heard Apollinaire or Cioran described as ‘francophones’.

Wilhelm-Apolinary de Kostrowicki, known as Guillaume Apollinaire

In an attempt to find the factors that govern this divide, I recently itemized a long list of names. I would be ashamed to write the results I found. Even if I listed only the factors themselves, I would feel stained. They contain discriminatory subtleties unworthy of France, unworthy of her ideals, unworthy of her place in the history of ideas and of nations.

Should I reel off a few examples? No, I will stop here. I will say only in a low, solemn but firm voice: let us put an end to this absurdity! Let us use the word ‘‘francophonie” only in the diplomatic and geopolitical sphere; let us make it our habit to say ‘French-language writers’ without rummaging through their identity papers and baggage, or delving into their first names or their skin. Let us consider our earlier blunders as an unhappy detour, a regrettable misunderstanding, and let us set off again on the right foot.

Doing so would align us with what is practiced in the most widespread and conquering of linguistic spaces, those of the English and Spanish languages, which know no segregation of this kind. No one would think to distinguish Spanish writers from ‘hispanophones’, or the English from ‘anglophones’. There are simply English-language writers, whether they are black or blond, or whether they hail from Birmingham, Dublin, Sydney, Calcutta or Johannesburg; and there are Spanish-language writers, whether they are Andalusians, Chileans, Columbians or Guatemalans.

The basis for the differences in how the question has been addressed is found not in the character of the nations in question, but rather in the facts of history and demography. England may be the birthplace of the English language, but it is the United States that nowadays sits at its centre. The existence of these two poles — to which a number of others, of varying sizes, can be added — prevents the language from becoming locked into a British-centric attitude. They same is true of Spanish, which is spoken by more people in Mexico or Argentina than it is in its mother country, a fact which, again, guards against any temptation towards Iberian centrism.
We can say that the literatures of the English and Spanish languages have acquired a global perspective thanks to the waning of the influence that the hubs once had on their former dependencies. France hasn’t experienced the same drifting apart, and so remains ensconced at the centre of its linguistic domain, without feeling the need to question or change its attitude.
Certainly, some writers occasionally unite to say that it is vital to move from a France-centred literary attitude to a global one; and that we must be done with the awkward, damaging dichotomy between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’. But old habits of expression die hard.

Do I need to point out that reconciliatory language in no way diminishes diversity? The English language contains Indian literature, Australian literature, Canadian, Nigerian and South-African literatures, Caribbean and Irish literatures, and so on. The same can be said of French. One does not write the same way in Paris as one does in Dakar, Geneva or Liege; Algiers, Casablanca or Beirut; Montreal, Quimper or Fort-de-France.

The diversity of voices will remain. Plainly, it contains a vast literary wealth. What we must abolish are those barren and discriminatory oppositions such as a literature of the North versus a literature of the South; White literature versus Black literature; a literature of the metropolis versus that of the peripheries. The French language must not, for those who have chosen it, become another place of exile.

, , , ,

No Comments