by Peter Byrne
Farhi, Moris: A Designated Man, Telegram Books, London, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-84659-068-9, 348 pages, $19.95.
(Swans - June 29, 2009) Moris Farhi's latest novel takes place on the island of Skender, which according to one character, the wise and maternal Kokona, remains true to its myth:
According to this myth, when God sought to punish Satan, Satan tried to appear innocent by spitting the evil in him far out to sea. That spittle duped God and saved Satan's life. And Satan, in a rare act of gratitude, transformed the spittle into the island of Skender. Leagues out at sea, as we are, and the way we continue to whip up the evil in our souls with our feuds, are given as proof of the myth's veracity. (Page 141.)
In latitude and longitude the island lies somewhere off Greece or Turkey. But its links to the mainland and central government are tenuous and it's very like Shakespeare's isle of The Tempest or an isolated valley of Tolkien's Middle Earth. For above all Skender is an arena for the battle of good and evil. The island has felt the pull of Albania and the weight of Ottoman rule. But it has also been sopped in the lore of ancient Greece. Now in a present that seems ageless, its Muslims, Christians, and Jews care little for religion and have given themselves entirely over to lethal family feuds. Apart from slaughter, these feuds have nothing to do with the forty-year ethnic and religious People's Wars that are said to have just terminated on the mainland. But the reader can forget history and geography; he's in a realm of fable that's blood-red and full of black and white truths.
Osip returns from the long war that seems an amalgam of recent Balkan conflicts involving unspeakable cruelty to civilians. (The novel can't be aligned with one side or another; it's not that kind of book.) He finds the same little world of feuds that his father opposed and died in. But worn down by the war, he seeks nothing more than a neutral haven. An old couple, perhaps the only good people on Skender, takes him up. Dev is an ultra-helpful dwarf and Kokona a former school teacher who sees life through the eyes of Odysseus or Penelope and counts a lot on Prometheus and Dionysius.
Both Dev and Kokona know that Osip will not be able to remain above the fray and quickly understand that he's a deeply troubled individual. As a mater of fact, Osip is the only character of any novelistic density in sight and getting to the bottom of him, at a peek-a-boo pace, will be the main thrust of the book. Skender's feuding is based on a code called the Law, imposed as a power-grabbing tactic long ago, and now embedded in the local psyche. The megalomaniac castrato Toma, who uses the Law to bolster his authority, is very much the villain of the piece. He says things like, "No one on this island should die a natural death. There is no honor in that."
In these Fascist rites, "a designated man" is in fact a woman whose family can furnish no more male feudists. She assumes not only male attire but the complete identity of a man and sometimes even pastes on a moustache. The locals in time actually forget the true gender of a designated man. But Osip, a medical doctor, immediately spots the crack-shot Bostan/Bostana as a female, and a not unattractive one. The obstacle to romance remains that she is completely absorbed in her duties as family assassin. Osip, moreover, has oodles of past life to dig out of before he can make eyes at the gunslinger.
It began at birth. His mother, soon after her wedding, converted to Toma's asexual code, that fearsome Law. She not only drove Osip's father from her bed but insisted that he get into feuding full-time. A gentle humanist, more given to bird watching than target practice, he complied and got himself killed. His wife then had her heart's desire and became the family's designated man. She would in time attain mythical strongman status as Eleanora the Falcon. Motherhood had never been her forte, and Osip felt unwanted from the first. His father, before biting the dust, shipped the boy out for a better life on the mainland.
He received a medical education and inevitably became involved in that long People's Wars. In the heat of battle, the line between doctoring and combat blurred, and he became a major with fighters under him. Indeed he became a specialist in laying diabolical booby-traps. As the cessation of hostilities approached, Osip's side proceeded to eliminate all witnesses to their misdeeds. This meant using flame throwers on a group of children after raping them. Osip wouldn't go along. He was particularly moved by a saintly young woman who had literally gouged out her own eyes not to see the horrors around her. Sofi, despite her sensitivity to evil, was convinced that everyone had goodness within and could be talked into acting on it.
As Osip in Skender recalls these events, the novel takes wing for the first time. (We are at page 176.) Until now Moris Farhi has given much space and effort simply to setting up the situation on the island gone wrong. The enormous amount of explanation needed has been sugarcoated somewhat by small bursts of action and his narrative method, which as in his previous books allows each character a monologue expressing his point of view. The fact that all our knowledge of what's happening must come through these monologues -- there is no overriding narrative voice -- makes for some clogging and clumsiness. The method was much more effective in the author's excellent Young Turk (Swans Review, November 6, 2006). But in that novel his characters, often from different ethnic backgrounds, had more realistic ballast to work with. Here his monologists have only their take on the feuding tradition and on huge abstractions like love and hate. After a while, too, each of their respective ways of speaking seem to blend into one, and we have to check back to the section heading to see who exactly is now doing the explaining.
The author has taken on other language challenges by casting his novel as a fable of sorts only loosely anchored to specific years. One wouldn't have wanted him to choose an archaic vocabulary for this island forgotten by time. But a more even and neutral choice of words seemed in order. The reader is disconcerted by a language pool that includes "wimps," "monthlies," and "love is peachy" beside mention of a "bard," a young man "enraged as the Erymanthian Boar" and Fate, with a capital F, referred to as "she."
Back on the battlefield of the People's Wars, which we left on page 176 and with the recollecting Osip returned to on page 220, he has prevented harm to the children for the time being and made off with the blind Sofi to save her from rape. But his unforgiving former comrades in arms proceed to track him down. The chase lasts for days in which he has time to be permanently influenced by surpassing goodness of the girl. Eventually the most sadistic of their enemies corners them. Sofi pleads with Osip to reason with and not to fire on their attacker. But in the ensuing encounter Sofi dies and the enraged Osip destroys the sadist with one of his horrendous booby-traps.
At last we have a clear picture of what's bothering Osip. His mother-spurned childhood set him on a glum path. Off at school on the mainland when his feud-denying father died feuding, he felt responsible, and also guilty for having left his Skender obligations to Eleanora the Falcon. His portion of guilt increased with his soldiering in the People's Wars and exponentially with his failure to protect Sofi. But the blind girl taught him that killing is never the answer. No wonder, returned to Skender, he opted out of its principal pastime and settled down, stultified, to nurse his psychic wounds. His body had been wounded too and the amount of scar tissue it bore astonished anyone who saw it.
Here the story takes a classic turn. A hero, not quite whole, has gone dormant. He will be awakened, manage once more to gather his strength, and spend himself again in a just cause. People will be the source of his rebirth: first Dev and Kokona who have escaped the Skender mindset. The dwarf, with the optimism and energy of a planter of gardens, helps Osip refurbish the water mill he has inherited. The two men also share brotherly as well as father and son affection, which neither has ever experienced before. To Osip, Kokona will be the mother he never had.. But with Greek gods always on her mind she's also a stern Sybil, goading him to re-engaging himself in life and forswearing self-pity.
Re-enter Bostana, fed up with drag, and now displaying full femininity. Osip finds himself in a protective role in the ensuing love affair. When Bostana, winding up her commitment as designated man, takes five bullets, Osip's medical know-how saves her life. The good Skenderis now number four and are able with shrewdness and Osip's gold, (harvested from the People's Wars), bring about reconciliation of all feuding parties. Certain writings of that deceased good man, Osip's father, make possible the temporary defeat of Toma and the Law. But this outcome enrages Bostana's young son who hates Osip and feels cheated of a future of feuding. He goes on a murder spree, killing his mother, Dev, and two minor characters. (Oedipus, one of the few ancient Greeks unmentioned in the novel, is everywhere.) Osip, in despair for not having protected Bostana any better than Sofi, takes his own life. Kokona is left to embroider on the unhappy ending.
She tells how the murders in no time undid reconciliation and returned Skender to its vocation as the epicenter of internecine death-dealing. She recalls the pessimistic conclusion of Osip's father:
As you will remember, he despaired of blood feuds and sought to eradicate them. Yet, in the end, he considered them a lesser evil than the endless wars that humankind endures -- wars which he saw as blood feuds magnified into global dimensions. Invariably, in the meaningless pursuit of honour; invariably, fooled into that pursuit by the need to satisfy the hunger for love. He wrote in a diary entry that since prejudices propagated in the name of nationalism, religion, ethnicity, notions of power, superiority and possessions -- all of them as vacuous as honour -- ended up killing millions, even threatened the very survival of the Earth, it's better that a few should die, here and there, than whole peoples. Why worry about a few deaths when humankind, suppressing doubts, fears and its longing for justice, equality and happiness, is comprehensively killing itself? (Pages 347-8.)
Kokona, herself getting ready to swallow poison, has second thoughts. She decides to live "as old as Methuselah...urging you to forget hate and embrace life and love." Hasn't she earlier insisted that we should all make sure only to die tending roses? She will ally herself with a young heretic now making himself heard and oppose the virgin bride of the castrato Toma who has followed her dead husband as prophet of the Law.
Moris Farhi has given us a philosophical novel whose philosophy on the surface is of the simplest. But it has an underworld where the weaver of tapestries Kokona-Persephone is Queen. ("Because she is wise and touches that which is in motion," says Plato.) Questions of motherhood and fatherhood ripple through the novel as does the idea that women as the only salvation of men must not have their femininity bridled. And on a deep level this is a story of blood. For Toma, the deniers of the Law have "bad blood" that must be purified. He fears outsiders, foreign blood. His enemies pour bad blood "into his soul." He says, like a true Fascist, "wherever we spill our blood, there we establish order in this orderless world." Lying wounded, Bostana sees the truth:
When Toma taught me to drink and shoot like a man, he always spoke about blood. We're born with bad blood, he said. We can cleanse it only with honour. We spill our blood to make it pure. We feud to give life to our souls. We honour Honour. He was wrong! Look at my blood! It's good blood! Beautiful. Pure. Like a spring of fresh water in the middle of the sea. That's how we're born! With beautiful blood! (Page 188.)
Shot near to death, Bostana heals by transfusions from the circle of good people around her, including her lover by whose hands the blood enters into her veins.
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