[A] reader’s attention isolates some minimal segments... like elemental particles making up the work’s nucleus, around which all the rest revolves.
-Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler
By the time Goshkin had heard of–and offered to write about–the memoir of the French graphic artist Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future, four volumes had appeared in English (Henry Holt; 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019). It had been reviewed extensively. Sattouf had been interviewed by the Guardian, profiled in the New Yorker, and had established himself not only as a cartoonist of the first rank, but a director of award-winning feature films. What, Goshkin wondered, might he add? Besides, while this quartet took Sattouf from 1980, when he was two, through 1992, when he was 14, two subsequent volumes, available in languages which Goshkin neither spoke nor read, covered the rest of Sattouf’s adolescence and some of his adulthood. Goshkin felt as if, just when Ahab had spotted Moby Dick, the publisher decided it’d had enough of Melville.
When Goshkin inquired of Holt about the chances of it rectifying this situation, its web site informed him all queries had to be directed to the imprint involved, Metropolitan Books - which seemed to no longer exist. When Goshkin emailed Sattouf’s translator, Sam Taylor, to see what light he could shed, Taylor had none. (Lack of sales, he speculated.) When Goshkin queried Arab’s editor, he might as well have queried Uranus. When Goshkin found Sattouf on Facebook, he seemed to have gone silent in 2020. (And when he had posted, it was, naturally–and unhelpfully–in French.) It was enough to make Goshkin feel he had become a character in a Calvino novel himself. A story begun; an ending denied; all leads pointing to confusion.
If this did not impose enough of a barricade between him and a creation of significance, Goshkin had undertaken his project at a time of debate over who was entitled to write about whom, with national origin and ethnicity often deemed determinative. Sattouf, the son of a Syrian father and French mother, had been raised in France, Libya and Syria, while Goshkin had never lived outside the United States. In considering his case, Goshkin saw he was one of 7.6 million Jews in a US population of 332 million. Plus, less than two percent of the 332 million were, again like him, over 80, which, when applied to the 7,600,000 (and diminished by the half that was likely female), left him in a group of 75,000. Factor in that one-fifth of Americans never marry and that, of those who do, only five percent, like he and Ruth, last 50 years, and you are down to a pool of 3,000; and who-knew-what-percent of Jewish, male, octogenarian, half-century-married Americans walked around with a post-OHS fluttering heart. With the enduring marriage and the weakening heart the factors which most clearly defined his present self for Goshkin, it seemed the market for which he could be permitted to write could easily slide into Café Bongo beside him for a morning espresso.
On the other hand, special attention was also being paid to the “under-represented.” And who better than he was that?
The first note he took was “Charming!”
“Grotesque” shortly followed.
A small boy occupies the opening panel. He has a big nose, startled black dot eyes, a barely open tiny mouth. A haystack of hair covers his ears and forehead, falls halfway down his back, and spreads half the width of his face around his head. Words circling the picture clarify it: “Long, thick, silky, platinum-blonde hair.” “Bright puppy-dog eyes.” “Lips made for suckling.” A caption says, “My name is Riad. In 1980, I was two years old and I was perfect.”
The disconnect between these judgments (“perfect”) and the representation (far from it) sets the tone for the entire work. The story will be told purportedly by a boy as he experiences it, but, in reality, it comes from an adult, selected from his (no doubt) incomplete memories, influenced by events which have impacted him since what he is depicting occurred, recognizing with humor and affection, horror and dismay, the unable-to-anticipate that awaits the boy. The narrative’s “truth” is further compromised by its having appeared in volumes produced over five or so years. The result is several “past” times written about over several “present” times with no assurances what was translated in 2015 about, say, 1978, would even have been written in 2019.
The first chapter of Benjamin Labatut’s novel When We Cease to Understand the World tells of the German chemist Fritz Haber, whose “genius” developed the poison gas which killed 5,000 French soldiers at Ypres. (Labatut tells us the fictional component of his book increases with each chapter. In the first, only one assertion, which he does not identify, is untrue. He should be read with Wikipedia handy.)
Haber escaped efforts to have him prosecuted as a war criminal and received a Nobel Prize for his work in taking nitrogen from the air to make synthetic fertilizer which (a) saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation and (b) enabled Germany to continue fighting for two years, resulting in several million additional casualties. Following WWI’s end, Haber helped develop another gas, Zyklon B, with which the Nazis exterminated, among others, his half-sister, brother-in-law and nephew.
Riad’s mother, Clémentine, met Abdul-Razak, his father, when Abdul-Razak was studying for a PhD in modern history at the Sorbonne. They will live in Tripoli, while Abdul-Razak teaches at the university; his home village of Ter Maaleh, while he teaches in Damascus; and her home town in Brittany. (Abdul-Razak will also live alone and teach in Saudi Arabia, which he considers “wonderful” and Clémentine “the worst country in the world!”) They will have two more sons.
Clémentine’s life in Libya and Syria is one of boredom, exhaustion and depression. She occupies herself by making never-ending tapestries and completing 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Her attempt to work as a newsreader on Libyan radio ends when she breaks into hysterics at the political nonsense she is expected to announce. Ter Maaleh lacks cafés, restaurants and stores. Children defecate in the street and urinate in fountains. The river runs black with refuse and the tap water is brown. Homs, the nearest city, is littered with garbage and the buildings near collapse. The market reeks and rats abound. The good fruit is for display only; the actual produce for sale is rotten. Clémentine longs for supermarkets - and France.
She is in a place at a time when women are expected to go about with heads and bodies covered, walking behind their husbands, obeying their commands. At meals, men eat first, and women get their leavings. Men are permitted multiple wives. Women who are pregnant outside of marriage are killed by their families. Girls are not schooled. Superstition abounds. By the time children are brought to doctors, a pediatrician says, “they’re already dead.”
Elon Musk proposed only allowing people with children to vote, since only they have a stake in the future. Goshkin had thought being childless had given him and Ruth a detached, wise man status. Now he reconsidered.
It made even more sense to allow one vote for each child, though it did not seem fair for each parent to have a vote, so perhaps they should go halfsies. Then, as each child became an adult, the parents would be stripped of the vote that went with that child. (The child could regain it only by becoming a parent.) Eventually even Elon Musk, with his 10 children, would be disenfranchised.
Of course, Goshkin realized, turning the country over to the young would mean the end of Social Security, Medicare, probably his and Ruth’s house and IRAs, and likely then their booking on the next departing ice floe from Utqiagvik.
When we meet Abdul-Razak, he loves France. (“People can do whatever they want here!”) He hopes to become a professor at a prestigious university - though he needs Clémentine to make his thesis “intelligible.” Abdul-Razak envisions himself becoming a political leader, unshackling the Arab masses (“lazy-ass bigots”) from the chains of religious dogma and leading them into the modern world. (Knowledge, he says, will enable them to “free themselves from the old dictators.” “And what will they get instead?” Clémentine asks, “Young dictators?”) By volume 4, disappointment laid upon disappointment will have extended Abdul-Razak’s feet of clay up beyond his nose.
He scorns France for having been taken over by “Negroes” (he compares them to gorillas) and North Africans (“only here for the welfare”) and controlled by Jews (“the worst race in the world”). He lands only non-tenured posts at universities with dingy offices and not particularly bright students, some of whom bribe him to receive passing grades. Instead of living in a grand villa and owning a Mercedes, he occupies a barely-furnished apartment and drives a VW. He swallows the pronouncements of Muammar Gaddafi and supports the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen. His political judgments (Saddam Hussein is “[t]he greatest Arab politician alive” and his invasion of Kuwait “a dazzling act of foreign policy”) are boneheaded. He falls under the sway of his fundamentalist mother, makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, and establishes piety as the foundational rock for his self.
Following Fritz Haber, Labatat parades a line of mathematicians and physicists of singular genius: Karl Schwarzschild, who wrote papers obsessively while his body devoured itself with abscesses and blisters; Shin'ichi Mochizuki, who denied himself food and sleep to the point of delirium and existed within “a complete universe, of which... he [was] the sole inhabitant”; Alexander Grothendieck, who lived like a mystic hermit in a flea-infested cabin without electricity or drinking water; Werner Heisenberg, who, on an inclement island, drove himself to the point of hallucinating breakdown; Louis-Victor De Broglie, locked within a castle surrounded by “the works of all the madmen of Europe”; Erwin Schrödinger, who, in a TB sanitarium, drove himself to the point of madness. They wander amidst mist and fog on edges of precipices. The abyss looms. The stink of death is present.
These men led us to black holes and quantum physics, a world where the outcome of any interaction depends on chance. Space and time became meaningless, “chaos... enthroned as principal.” The “void” transcended all forms. “Darkness” lay at the heart of all things. Any system could “collapse... into disorder.” An “inescapable abyss,” “new horror” neared, a “black sun... capable of engulfing the entire world.”
Back then, I didn’t understand very much. But I was sure of one thing: my father was fantastic.
-Riad Sattouf, the adult, on Riad Sattouf, the misguided child, in the first volume of The Arab of the Future
How did this child become this adult?
(How do any of us become any of us?)
The four books at hand offer “facts” but neither analysis nor explication.
Riad was a straight “A” student and “gifted” artist, but his Syrian classmates mocked him as a Jew because–of all things–(a) his blonde hair and (b) lack of circumcision, and his French classmates laughed at his name and mocked him as a “fag” because his speaking seemed effeminate. The favorite recess game in Ter Maaleh was “Syrians vs. Jews.” Class hours were spent singing the national anthem; others were filled with rote–not understood–readings of the Quran. Canings were common. His lunch was stolen with impunity. In France, a classmate knocked out one of his teeth, and his only friends were two other “outcast” boys. He fantasized, without quite knowing why, about a woman teacher, a female older cousin, Cindy Crawford, girls in his class.
Home offered neither security nor comfort. Cracked walls and leaky roofs were standard. Food shortages were endemic. Appliances had to be bought on the black market and smuggled in. Libyan houses were “free” but could not be locked from the outside, so if someone did not remain within at all times, another family could claim it. Syrian houses remained under perpetual construction because, once finished, they could be taxed.
From these decades, Sattouf carried away, primarily, not sights or sounds or objects of substance, but smells: incense and animal poop; dust and sweat; urine, sweat and perfume; urine and pine trees; manure and sweat; dried cobwebs, concrete and oil; bleach and cigarettes at his father’s university; cleanliness and death in the hospital where his mother lay.
And then there was the cruelty, everywhere he lived. Donkeys stoned. Frogs tied to bicycle wheels and squashed. Kittens beaten to death in sacks. Sparrows slaughtered with shotgun blasts. Puppies kicked like soccer balls and impaled on pitchforks. Faithful retrievers shot once their owners gave up hunting.
Bodies hangmen left to swing.
Each morning, no matter how happy the memories of the day before–the glory of the bay view; the delight of a sentence falling into place; the comfort of lying beside Ruth, watching Seaside Hotel– leaving bed was a challenge. What, Goshkin asked himself, was the point? Was his heart reminding him with each flutter of hopelessness? Was it his age, narrowing his future with each moment added to his past? Was it the fates recorded daily in the news, floods and fires, starvation and bombings, the daily discussions at the café of failing organs and developing dementia, the arrival of yet another “Sad News” e-mail announcing yet another passing? Once-momentous-event after once-momentous-event were vanishing. Once he was gone, the singing of “Strange Love” on the D-bus might have never as well have happened. Who would recall Mike Christopher in the kitchen at the party tossing the egg, a pistol in his belt?
In the dream he had been alone, stripped of all company, descending a deserted street. He recalled the divergence of lives, accounted for by events beyond control and choices gambled upon, no more predictable than the molecules within a cell - and why should that not be so, we being nothing if not molecules?
“Morning!” Ruth called from the kitchen.
And he threw the blankets back.
How do you judge a life?
What you or others think about its achievements?
Whether it is one you would have wanted for yourself?
Calvino writes all stories are about two things: “the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”