Ahmed’s Revenge

By Richard Wiley

This past June saw the death of the prolific British adventure writer Hammond Innes. Innes was best known for his thrilling action novels set in ruggedly exotic locations. When I was a kid I thought they were the best thing going. They were pulp, but they were good pulp. I remember one of them, The Big Footprints, was about elephant poachers in Kenya.

Which brings us to Ahmed’s Revenge, a novel about a colonial Kenyan named Nora Grant and her attempt to uncover the mystery behind her husband’s involvement in an ivory smuggling scam, and his not-quite accidental death. I couldn’t help thinking that it was just the kind of story Hammond Innes might have come up with. And how he would have done a better job.

In the first place, Ahmed’s Revenge has what is known in film as an “idiot plot,” defined as any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots. Which is not to say they aren’t helped along by the improbabilities in the plot itself. There is, for example, a letter written by Nora’s husband before his death that explains pretty much everything that is going on. Unfortunately, when Nora’s father gives her the letter it blows away in a sudden gust of wind! And then the one page she can’t retrieve is the most important page! I just hate it when that happens!

Despite all this silliness, things do get interesting. For some odd reason, however, none of the characters are very involved. Time and again Nora appears on the verge of clearing everything up, only to decide that she has better things to do.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such a disengaged protagonist. Has her father just been kidnapped? Maybe so, but it’s late, so she has to go to bed. Should she dig up the mystery treasure buried in her yard? No, she might as well wait till morning. Will she stay at a bar where she has arranged to meet with the detective investigating her husband’s case? Not our Nora! She gets tired of waiting, so she goes for a walk instead. (Indeed, when the detective does show up Nora can no longer remember why she wanted to talk to him, and wishes he would go away!)

It gets worse. When the villain’s father offers to explain to Nora why his son is doing so many bad things to her, she tells him that she is no longer interested! (This despite the fact that she was the one who brought the subject up in the first place.) It then takes Nora most of the rest of the book to find out what it was she wasn’t interested in knowing.

Best of all is Nora’s response to the confessional letter from her husband explaining what is happening and what she needs to be doing about it. She sits down to read it, tormented by unanswered questions.

The torment is too much for her. She falls asleep, the letter unread.

All of this would be funny if it didn’t take itself so seriously. Unfortunately, Richard Wiley is a “real” writer, a past winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award and a professor of “fiction writing.” He proves he is of the quality by dividing his drama into “Acts,” and indulging in literary stunts like beginning and ending the book with the same three sentences.

There are, in addition, the throwaway bits that let you know this is high-brow stuff. The first chapter is titled Jules et Jim (ah, yes) and the finale takes place at a performance of Madama Butterfly. None of this has any connection to what is going on, but that doesn’t really matter since it’s only there to remind you that you’re not reading a hack like Hammond Innes.

You only wish you were.

Review first published July 25, 1998.

From Sarajevo, With Sorrow and Yesterday’s People

By Goran Simic
By Goran Simic

Both of these books – one a collection of poetry, the other of short stories – were inspired by the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian-born author Goran Simic, who now lives in Toronto, is witness and survivor of the Bosnian war, and his writing is both “epitaph and testimony” to the experience.

It is not reportage. The poems in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow were written in the belief “that when compared with the cold newspaper reports which would be forgotten with the start of a new war elsewhere, only poetry could be a true and decent witness to war.” A true witness would not be cold but hot. Coolness suggests detachment, escape. It’s an attitude of instant forgetfulness that Simic admits to finding seductive. After days full of horror he would

like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?

But as a poet Simic doesn’t want to forget.

Aside from their disposability (newspapers wrap sandwiches in another poem), what makes the newspaper reports cold isn’t the style they’re written in – Simic’s poetry is frequently as direct and plainspoken as the daily news – but their generic, abstract, and impersonal quality. Plus the fact that they’ve been tidied up. In the poem “Love Story” Simic writes about a pair of lovers shot on a bridge leading out of Sarajevo. Their deaths became a “major media event” as “newspapers from around the world” took angles like “the Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” and “a romantic love which surpassed political boundaries.”

But then the papers got tired of it. The dead lovers became yesterday’s people, forgotten ghosts. After the major media event had run its course their corpses still remained by the bridge as each day “maggots, flies, and crows finished off their swollen bodies.” The stench got so bad soldiers guarding the bridge had to wear gas masks. Simic concludes: “No newspapers wrote about that.”

Simic’s poetry was tidied up as well in the first translation into English of some of these poems, a collection titled Sprinting from the Graveyard published in 1997. In addition to making Simic’s writing more “poetic” (heightening the language and making it less rough and offensive to “Western sensibilities”), this version became the copyright of the translator, turning the original into what Simic describes as a “ghost book.” From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is a re-translation by Simic’s ex-wife of the original work, with the addition of some unpublished pieces also written in Sarajevo during the siege.

It is a ghost book haunted by ghosts. Sarajevo is an unreal city populated by those forgotten by the newspapers, “last year’s story, people who really died last Fall but don’t know it yet.” Where there is no representation, there is no reality: “The TV’s off. There is no war.” This experience of being de-mediaed is given an odd twist by the fact that during the siege a Bosnian daily newspaper twice published Simic’s name among the list of those killed, effectively turning him into a kind of ghost. In the poem “A Short Lecture on Life” he even gets into an argument with his father over whether he is still alive. His father remains unconvinced.

The poetry in From Sarajevo, With Sorrow is at turns anecdotal, hectoring, and coolly visionary. It’s all written in the first person, sometimes in Simic’s own voice and sometimes as dramatic monologue, but there’s nothing introverted about it. Its voice is one of witness rather than confession.

The stories in Yesterday’s People, which are also concerned with the Bosnian war and its aftermath, share a similar interest in the people of Sarajevo. In “Minefield” and “The Game” we are introduced to small casts of characters, identified by nickname but fully imagined as real. Simic puts flesh on the ghosts. The stories are also obsessed with “before” and “after,” locations (Sarajevo and Toronto) that are associated with states of mind. “Before” is the past, the place of ghosts that still dominates the present and that none of the haunted narrators can ever escape, even, as the penultimate story suggests, in death.

It’s the same world as From Sarajevo, With Sorrow, but Simic’s stories are more dramatic, even theatrical constructions than his poems. And so while his handling of the short story form is skilful, the effect is less direct. One has the sense of emotion recollected, of a book less possessed by an immediate horror than controlled by invention.

But this is more a tribute to the unique power of the poetry than anything else. In both books Simic successfully composes epitaph and testimony to a people and a place that the newspapers indeed forgot with the start of a new war elsewhere. His writing is a living bridge negotiating the shadow between now and then, here and there, the experience of war and its expression.

Review first published March 25, 2006.