Tag Archives: Ramon Glazov

Ali Alizadeh’s Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc

Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

jeanne.jpgI have a number of St Joans in my head.

Joan of Arc was one of the array of saints who populated my Catholic childhood. She did stand out from the crowd, but I don’t remember being much impressed that she was a cross-dressing, gender-bending, sword-wielding, authority-defying young woman – her armour was no odder than the flowing robes of many male saints, her defiance of authority was mild compared to Jesus’, and even her death was no more terrible than, say, St Laurence roasted on a spit or St Maria Goretti stabbed 14 times when she rejected a young man’s sexual advances.

joan.jpg

I loved George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (first performed in 1923) which I read as an 11 year old in the Collected Plays I sneaked from the top shelf of the china cabinet. (I also loved Man and Superman, despite its disappointing lack of superheroes.) I was thrilled that a Big Name Writer was acknowledging someone from Our Team – Team Catholic. I probably read it again or saw a performance as a young adult, but I don’t remember any change to my sense of the play. Rereading it just now, I realise that Shaw was actually trying to poach Joan for Team Protestant (or at least Team Proto-Protestant).

In a Sydney University Film Group screening in about 1970 of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Maria Falconetti’s silent tears as the flames rose  left an indelible imprint. The first (and only?) night of Dorothy Hewett’s musical Joan in Canberra in 1978 was a fabulous feminist event, complete with bonfire:

Mother, I’m rooted
spurred and booted,
fucked, and far from home.

Jeannd'arc.jpgWhen we visited Rouen in 2002 I insisted on being photographed at the Eglise Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc. I’m the tiny black-clad figure to the left of centre.

So, I’ve got lots of Joans. And I’m not the only one. An essay on the Overland site by Ramon Glazov, ‘The Maid of Orleans, sacred and profane‘, has a wide-ranging survey of Joans, including Shakespeare’s calumny in Henry VI Part I (news to me) and some bizarre French science fiction/fantasy.

When I heard that Ali Alizadeh, raised in a majority Muslim country and a formidable presence in Australia’s poetry scene, had written a Joan novel, my ears pricked up.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc gives us a Joan for the early 21st century.

For a start it acknowledges that it occupies a territory somewhere between known fact and informed invention. It insists on Joan’s historical reality, and her status as a great military leader who changed the history of Europe. A lively sixteen pages recount highlights of hostilities between England and France from 1329 to 1429, when the young peasant girl Jeannette Darc first visited the court of Charles VI and offered to drive the English out of France. At a number of points elsewhere, the narrator reminds us explicitly that historians have been arguing for a long time about aspects of Joan’s story.

Issues that were of little interest to Bernard Shaw – which might be summarised as sex and violence – loom large in our culture now, and Alizadeh’s novel attends to them. It engages with the tactics of war, and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of medieval European warfare: Jeanne has to face the hideous slaughter her idealistic mission unleashes. Her English prison guards are as predatory as the elite footballers who these days regularly make headlines. The book faces the now obvious question of Jeanne’s sexuality, and where lesser hands might have made something tacky or bandwagonish of this, Alizadeh makes something deeply affecting: at the heart of his story is Jeanne’s deep, troubled yearning for intimacy with another woman – sinful in the eyes of the Church, though less unambiguously so according to Jeanne’s Voices. The love story is complex, joyous, devastating, harshly cool-eyed and – in a brilliant final twist that takes us forward in time to the church in the photograph above – supported by evidence.

Another thing that makes the book very much of our time is the language. Here’s a typical passage from the early chapters outlining the back-story:

1413
In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their new ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty that his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France. Raises an army of ten thousand men and a fleet of 150 ships for the journey across the channel.

It would be hard to find a paragraph in the early part of the book that doesn’t disregard schoolroom rules of syntax in this way. The early pages that deal with Jeanne in her prison cell are similarly syntactically non-conforming (‘Two men enter. Agitated, brusque. Steel helmets and steel kneecaps.’). The effect is unsettling: who knows where the next full stop will fall, or whether there will be a verb in the next sentence? You just can’t skim these pages.

Later, during the love story, there’s a daring device where point of view changes frequently and without warning. There are at least two narrators in these chapters: Joan in her cell telling own story to Piéronne, her absent confidante; and an omniscient narrator who describes events in the present tense, as if creating them in his imagination as he writes. Here’s a taste, from a scene where Jeanne has just had an awkward encounter with a fanatical friar:

I knelt, ate, crossed myself and rose to my feet. She feels tipsy, giddy and a little disoriented. She nearly trips over a pew and falls against the chapel’s arched entrance. She pushes disorderly locks of hair off her face. My hair was getting too long. It almost reaches her shoulders. I wondered if you would cut it for me.

The voices alternate, sometimes just one short sentence each at a time. I found myself experiencing something like vertigo. There’s probably a better technical term for this, but Brechtian is the best I can do. (Perhaps it won’t be so disorientating in the audio book, where I expect there will be at least two readers.) Paradoxically, the effect is to underscore that Jeanne’s story is real, including and perhaps especially the parts that are explicitly invented.

There’s a new Jeanne in my head. None of the others have been damaged, but this one – at least for now – is more recognisable than any of the others as fully human.

Giramondo sent me a review copy of The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, and when I lost the bag it was in I spent my own money on a replacement.

Overland 226

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 226 (Autumn 2017)

226 cover.inddI’m an issue behind in my Overland reading, but I’m glad I resisted the temptation to skip this one.

Over the dinner table last night, someone complained that the left is obsessed with identity politics. Well, that may true of the left as understood in the mainstream media, but Overland is probably as close as we’ve got to an official organ of the left in Australia, and I can report that identity politics are a long way from dominating this issue. Article after article sheds light and brings precision to areas that are too often discussed in dim and befuddled terms.

All worlds die’ by Angus Reoch is the stand-out piece for me. Responding to what the article’s subtitle calls ‘the politics of despair’, he argues:

Chomsky was correct when he argued that climate change is an unprecedented crisis and that mankind’s potential for destruction is unmatched. Yet culturally, the twenty-first century does not have the luxury of claiming ‘the end of world’ as a unique historical moment. We have no other choice than to fight climate change, but we are not unique in human history to be living in an apocalyptic predicament. Many societies have seen ‘the end of history’. The First World War was only the final gut-wrenching body blow to the old world, upon the corpse of which the Second World War was fought, and the new world order erected. Many of the great writers before these events, from Leo Tolstoy to Natsume Sōseki, directly grappled with the realisation of a passing era, and the decline not only of aristocracy but of the old world itself. These writers were highly aware of the passing of their era and realised that in the modern age of European hegemony there was no choice but to adapt. […]

I recommend the whole article. Here’s the second last paragraph:

Perhaps we should not celebrate the demise of this world, for we do face the very real spectre of barbarism, but we should recognise the brutal and limiting nature of the world in which our societies have flourished. The fall of the neoliberal era is a necessary condition of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

There are at least four other articles that would have justified the price of the journal. And they’re all available on line for free).

In ‘It is still the Balanda way‘, Amy Thomas argues that while some Aboriginal languages such as Wiradjuri and Marra are being retrieved, this does not mean that Aboriginal languages are generally being respected and resourced. On the contrary, living languages are threatened with extinction by Northern Territory government educational policies and the continuing Intervention (aka Stronger Futures).

It is important not to overstate the way that language shapes our worldview. We create language, rather than the other way around. Yet what is lost when a language dies is more than just a linguistic curiosity; a community’s history and ways of viewing the world are lost with it. Losing your mother tongue through the forced imposition of a dominant language is disempowering, at least partly because it is an attempt to reshape your identity to suit someone other than yourself.

C J Chanco, a Filipino/a living in Toronto, addresses the phenomenon of Duterte in ‘Law and order’, in particular the question of how his murderous ‘drug war’ command such widespread support, not just from the churches and the far right, but also from the general population and until recently from the Communist Party of the Philippines.

The quest for primordial whiteness’ by Ramon Glazov exposes the weird theoretical underpinnings of contemporary white supremacist ‘thinking’, beginning with Arthur de Gobineau’s 1853 opus, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, which now reads as outright deranged. Sadly events since this Overland was published have increased this article’s relevance:

How should we respond to the spread of ‘race realist’ arguments? Moral condemnation is not enough; it does not faze alt-righters to be called ‘racist’. Their ideology already assumes that racism is true, so accusing them of it is like accusing a Trot of being unpatriotic. What is more likely to give the ‘redpilled’ pause is the suggestion that they are being naïve, that their newfound politics is just as gullible as the liberal ‘cuck programming’ they have allegedly shed, that race realism is not a suppressed Grand Theory of Everything but a useless red herring

To be a queer teacher’ by Elizabeth Sutherland lays out the enormous burden placed on the shoulders of LGBTQ+ teachers. I guess this could be called ‘identity politics’, but I read it as bringing much-needed specific experience to current debates (though the marriage equality debate was still on a distant horizon when the essay was written).

The regular columnists all shine: Giovanni Tiso laments the way social media mean we can never escape ‘the unbearable closeness of others’; Alison Croggon writes a personal tribute to the late great John Berger; Mel Campbell talks about wanting to be liked as a writer, particularly a female writer; Natalie Harkin offers a dense reflection on kinds of responsibility and accountability at play for Indigenous writers, and – citing Kerry Reed-Gilbert – she  challenges non-Indigenous readers to understand multiple ways of belonging; to act and engage in the political struggle with Indigenous Australians.

Then there’s the literary / creative content, a strong feature of Overland from its beginning.

Each issue these days showcases the work of a different guest artist. The striking cover and all the internal artwork of Nº 226, including title pages for each of the fiction pieces, are by comics artist, illustrator and bag designer Nicky Minus (link is to Minus’s website). It’s a pleasure to be introduced to this artist’s work.

Overland sequesters poetry and fiction in separate sections rather than having them punctuate the rest of the journal, and they usually incorporate the results of at least one competition. The ten-page poetry section in #226 features the winner and runners-up of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, with a judges’ report from Toby Fitch and Jill Jones that’s a bit of a lesson in how to read poetry; and there are some startlingly erotic poems by Omar Sakr. The 22 pages of fiction comprise five short stories, including the winner of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, Katy Warner’s ‘The Trip‘, a which deals with family relations in a way that made me want to cower under the bedcovers, in a good way (the runnersup are online). The other story that stands out for me is Afopefoluwa Ojo’s ‘A consequence of things’, a tale of teenage pregnancy told in Nigerian English, with a twist where what looks like an awkward metaphor becomes a literal reality.

Then at the very end of the journal, as if it’s an afterthought, there’s ‘Through the eyes of a humanist’ by Subhash Jaireth, a discussion of the work of 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Someone in my book club recently proposed that we read one of her books. If I had read this article, I would have been an enthusiastic seconder. Jaireth says:

It can be hard to imagine a book or work of art helping to topple a dictator, stop a war or shield a person from a bullet. But I (perhaps naively) believe that the strong moral imperative driving Alexievich’s work, and the chorus of voices given space to bear witness to human-made tragedy, create what are, effectively, works against war, brutality and tyranny – if only we seize the moment to listen.