The Messiness of Now: A Conversation
Amitava Kumar: There was a man in the nineteenth century who anticipated everything that Ilija was going to do and write, and lived his life accordingly: Richard Francis Burton. Burton lived in Bombay, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, he went to Africa and discovered a lake. Burton and Ilija mirror each other, walking up the Ganges, across centuries. Now Ilija has written a novel about Burton, called Der Weltensammler, or The Collector of Worlds. Could you speak a little bit about how you see this man in the mirror when you look at yourself in the morning?
Ilija Trojanow: Well, I don’t have a mirror, unless I’m sitting in a hotel room, where you can’t avoid mirrors. The thing about historical figures is that you don’t have to invent them, and sometimes you come across a figure who is too good to be true. Burton had everything that a character should have: complexity, an adventurous life, interest in religion and sex and violence and traveling—all the exciting topics in life. And he lived and worked and suffered in the middle of the nineteenth century, which is absolutely central to today’s perception of the Western world, and to the way it defines and sees difference.
The nineteenth century is not over. The way we—by “we” I mean the Western world—the way we talk about “the Other” is substantially determined by definitions and decisions from the nineteenth century. One famous example is Hinduism, which, as a term, is a European invention. It simply means “behind the endless river,” and it gives a systematic boundary to an enormous diversity. Another example is what the West calls “the tribes of Africa.” So-called explorers like Burton would go into a village and say, “What are the people called here?” And the people would usually say, “We’re called humans”—but of course they wouldn’t say “humans,” they would say the word from their own language. So the explorer would jot down, “They’re called this and that,” and he would go into the next village. And the next village would have a slightly different language, so he thinks, “Oh, these are different people.” Then when Village A fought against Village B, the usual explanation in anthropology was that it was because they are different, because they have different names for being human.
Kumar: Richard Burton was reviled by some of his contemporaries because they thought he had “gone native,” right?
Kumar: “Going native” is a term that today appears anachronistic. But people like William Dalrymple, say, who has written White Mughals, and you, too, have gone native. You did so with a knowledge of and a sense of distance from those earlier models. In a world that is being forced into sectarian conflict, this move can say, “I’m not defining myself in opposition to the Other, I am defining myself in alliance with the Other.” And then you try to tell that story, and call it into question, too.
Trojanow: Yes. And the way you perceive the Other, the unknown, is decisively shaped by the way the Other looks at you. As a European, say, the Tanzanian villager looks at you in a different way when you come out of the woods with a backpack and on foot, as opposed to when you step out of a big Jeep and you are a representative of a privileged and affluent world. So the only way I could write this book was by writing most of my physical experience into it.
Kumar: In the novel Transmission, Hari Kunzru, a British writer of Indian descent, says that anyone walking on foot, in California is either an immigrant or a jogger or insane. And so indeed it is your mobility that defines, in certain places, your identity. How you move, where you’re going, and the rate at which you are getting there—all tell a broader narrative than we usually anticipate.
Trojanow: I spent last summer in L.A. I walked down Wilshire Boulevard, because I thought that was a way to understand the city. It was amazing how many people stared out of their cars—because it took me several days to walk it, it’s a very long boulevard. Some people stopped and asked me what I was doing—and the police stopped once. So I became a major event on Wilshire Boulevard just by walking.
Kumar: No film stars strolling down the boulevard?
Trojanow: No. But I have to tell you something that you probably didn’t know. I once acted in a Bollywood film.
Kumar: You have the good looks to act in a Bollywood film.
Trojanow: One day someone called me and said, “There’s a film being shot by Shyam Benegal,” a very good Indian director. “The film is on the life of Netaji—whose real name was Subahs Chandra Bose—and it’s called The Forgotten Hero. He needs a German for one of the scenes.” “Okay,” I said, “I’m not really German, but I can probably pass for a German.”
He calls me to the office of Shyam Benegal, and I learn that I am supposed to play the Nazi ambassador to Kabul. I’m a Bulgarian who grew up in Kenya, who has some German, who’s supposed to play a Nazi bastard with a German accent, in Bollywood, in the year 2003. Shyam says, “That’s not a problem, we’ll practice your accent, we’ll give you a nice old-style hairstyle and we’ll put you in an old suit and you’ll pass for a Nazi bastard.” We shot the scene and it’s actually in the movie. Talk about transformative identities.
Kumar: We should take some questions from the audience, but I have one quick, self-interested, selfish question. You spent five years in India. What can one learn from Indian writers, in twenty-five words or less?
Trojanow: Well, the first problem is that there’s so many of them, and so many of them are good, so you have to invest a lot of time.
Kumar: And they all write thick books now.
Trojanow: They all write thick books, and you read a dozen of them and then you realize that you have no time left for, say, Sierra Leonean literature. But the wonderful thing about a writer like Amitav Ghosh, for instance, is that all the simplistic notions about an author belonging to a certain tradition, to a certain culture, a certain language, a certain perspective—these are overthrown by authors like him. He moves freely among different systems of both perception and writing. And his essays show a free spirit combined with a free form, which is both beautiful and inspiring. So I suppose I have learned from Indian writers the width of freedom that one has as an artist in this world, so long as you refuse to acknowledge cultural boundaries that other people build up.
Kumar: That’s beautiful. Ghosh’s book In an Antique Land is a great example of that. It follows two parallel narratives, both describing Indians in Egypt. The first begins in 1148 and the second in 1980. In the first, a slave from India is serving an Arab master and going to Arabia. Eight hundred years later this document about him is discovered in the Cairo Geniza, in a synagogue, because the man was Jewish. Of course, the document doesn’t become intelligible until someone takes it to Princeton after the Second World War. And then a young scholar at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh, finds it. He sees this Indian name and thinks he’s entitled to visit the Geniza to research its origins. In going there and in learning the Egyptian language, he meets these new migrants, devout Muslims who act as his guides as he, a Hindu, pieces together the journey of the slave from India to Egypt. These migrants later leave to work in Iraq.
This enormous mix of things confuses us because we don’t have a sense of history. Read, say, Thomas Friedman, who says that the world is flat, and you’d think that globalization was suddenly discovered by Thomas Friedman when he woke up one day. But globalization did not happen yesterday, and global exchange and global commerce and the sharing of goods and bodily fluids across all kinds of boundaries happened in other centuries too, often in easier ways.
Trojanow: That’s one of the myths of globalization. Samuel Huntington is ignorant beyond belief when he says that, in today’s world, suddenly cultures are coming together. The Indian Ocean, for example, was one big area of interaction, throughout many, many centuries. It was much easier for someone, say, three hundred years ago, living on the seaboard of the Indian Ocean, to have cultural exchange with someone else than it is today. For an Omani trader, or a Persian trader, or an Indian trader, or an Indonesian trader, there were certain highways—very seaworthy routes—defined by the monsoon. And today it’s quite difficult for a trader from Bihar to go to Mombasa, for example. He needs a passport, which in India is not easy. Then he needs a visa, which is even more difficult. And then he needs to save money for a plane ticket, which is almost impossible if he’s a small-town trader.
Kumar: Okay, let’s take some questions. Yes?
Audience: Do you count any writers from the former German colonies in Africa among your influences?
Trojanow: Well, not from the German colonies, no. But I used to publish African literature from around the continent, back when I ran a publishing company—including some literature in African languages. We published a beautiful novel called The Gunny Sack by M.G. Vassanji, an African-Indian who now lives in Canada. We published one novel that was partly written in pidgin, which was really exciting because, together with the translator, we had to invent a German pidgin. The Germans left their colonies early on, so there wasn’t enough time for a German pidgin to develop. And we found a book in a library, one of the great finds of my life, called Kolonial Deutsch, or Colonial German. It’s a crazy book, and I want to publish it one day. It was written by some guy in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, growing coffee perhaps, and he decided, “These Africans are not going to learn German, so, in the service of our economy, we must simplify German.” And he invented a simpler German, similar to pidgin English, so he could communicate with his workers. I find that incredible—a singular feat of language creation motivated by exploitation and racism.
Audience: It seems to me that the big difference between writing in Burton’s period and writing today, for an Anglo writer, is the declining currency of whiteness and of white male manhood. How does that influence narration? And is “postcolonial” actually the term we need for what seems to be a funkier moment?
Kumar: Postcolonial is the wrong word—this is, as you call it, a funkier moment. Postcolonialism is an academic word, and academia is interested in purity, in clear distinctions. That term doesn’t quite apply to this moment of mixing, of hybridity, perversity. Our travel literature is not by folks like Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh—or even Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin—who go and frolic in other parts and write about it. Instead we have immigrant literature that performs a similar task, but is not travel lit—it’s an exploration of identity. I like, for example, Hanif Kureishi’s writing. He’s not overly concerned with identity as an academic term. Instead he wants to sink his hands, Indian style, up to his elbows, in the messiness of life. And that is the funkier moment for me.
Trojanow: My novel about Burton begins with a servant called Naukaram. He’s been thrown out by Burton, his employer, without a letter of recommendation. He’s illiterate, and he needs something in writing to help him find a job. So he goes to a public scribe. The scribe hasn’t earned money in a while, and he’s a wily elderly gentleman. So he keeps asking for more details, to keep the meter running. “I need to know this. I need to know more about that. I need to have more details.” By the middle of the first chapter, the servant has no more money, and he says, “Just give me what you’ve written, I can’t pay you any longer.” Then there’s a complete inversion of roles and power. The scribe needs to know how the story ends, so he starts paying the servant money to hear the end of the story.
In the second part of the book, the Ottoman governor interrogates the people who performed the hajj together with Burton, to find out if he was a spy, or a believer, or a fake. And the third part is about Sidi Bombay, who was probably the greatest African traveler of the nineteenth century. He was the guide for Burton, Speke, Stanley, and Cameron, the men who led four of the biggest expeditions. This man did more than any of these European travelers, but he’s hardly known—he’s just a footnote. In the books by these explorers, he’s a minor figure, in the margins somewhere. So I gave him a voice. And of course his narration is completely different—it mirrors what you call the declining currency of whiteness. So in the perspectives of Naukaram, and Sidi Bombay, and those who performed the hajj with Burton, you have a story that does justice, I hope, to this development.
In order to write a successful novel you have to become the Other. Characters only come alive after they truly have their own identity in your head. If they’re just stage-managed by the author’s narrative program, they’re flat. Sidi Bombay, for example, developed his own identity in my mind. And if it’s possible for an author to have an eighty-year-old Zanzibari former slave in his head doing things he didn’t plan him to do, then our capacity for empathy is far greater than we think.
Audience: I’d like to suggest that the globalization that we’re talking about today is different, in some ways, than we might have had in the past, for a couple of reasons. With the Silk Road, people could get goods that they couldn’t get other places, and therefore it was an enriching experience. Today we have direct competition between General Motors and Toyota, for example, because of globalization. Small towns in Japan are losing their local shops because a huge, big department store moves in nearby and then leaves and then they’ve got nothing.
Kumar: The difference between the Huns and Wal-Mart is that the Huns would come and invade and take your land and batter you and you would recover, with time, and then you’d have to wait until the next invasion. But we don’t know if we’ll recover from Wal-Mart. I think that society has been irredeemably altered.
Audience: You mentioned Huntingon and the ignorance of his thesis. What, do you think, accounts for the popularity of his misconceptions? And how can that be turned around?
Trojanow: Well, the simplicity of his thesis makes it easier to sell. You only have two minutes on TV, so it’s difficult to sell ideas about hybridity and confluence. It’s much easier to say blacks don’t like whites, and yellows don’t like greens, and that’s why they clash. Just recently, the main newsmagazine in Germany, Der Spiegel—which means “the mirror,” though I’m not sure what it mirrors—ran a title story called “The Islamization of Germany.” They took three cases of Muslims beating their children, and one case of someone burning his daughter-in-law, and argued that Germany now is more or less Islamicized. Of course, it’s utter nonsense, but a theory like Huntington’s is useful when you’re propagating that kind of hysteria.
Kumar: As for turning it around, Mohsin Hamid has just written a book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which stages a dialogue between a Muslim man educated at Princeton and an American who is visiting him. And it was number six on the New York Times best-seller list. So people are interested in this dialogue. And writers like Hamid, and Ilija, and Amitav Ghosh can create the space where these certainties dissolve and a dialogue opens, however precarious it is.