The Making of the Impossible

Review by GWEN ANSELL

October: The story of the Russian revolution
China Mieville
Verso, 2017

The Last Days of New Paris
China Mieville
Picador, 2016

“There is a brand of naive anticolonialism,” China Miéville has said, “that falls back into the ‘Noble Savage’ narrative; that simply replicates a notion of beautiful natives and a place or a past that, if we could return to it, would answer all of our political problems. And it is very difficult to recognize the toxicity of colonial relations without getting caught in this kind of narrative.”

Miéville was not – but could have been – discussing the tsunami of anti-colonial romanticism that has washed through cinema audiences since the release of the Hollywood fantasy, Black Panther, in February 2018. He’s caught both sides of the debate. Colonial relations were and remain more toxic than polonium, and must provoke the radical desire for a different world. The joy unleashed by simply seeing on screen one vision of such a world can’t be dismissed. But invoking a utopian, allegedly unpolluted Wakanda – where feudal dictatorship is unproblematic, where the non-elite are present only as mute and beautiful walk-ons or battle fodder for contending kings, and where the CIA, the UN and a charitable foundation are part of the solution – doesn’t even start talking to today’s political problems, never mind answering them.

But while Western cinematic engagement with the fantasy genre has historically often relied on lucrative superhero tales, writers from Ursula le Guin and Octavia Butler to N. K. Jemisin, Anne Leckie and Nalo Hopkinson have chosen other paradigms. They have conjured protagonists and settings encompassing all imaginable social and narrative structures, sexualities, origins and degrees of difference.

Where apolitical genre critics box his radical speculative fiction into the category of “New Weird”, Miéville prefers to describe it as “Socialist Irrealism”:  his concern is with “alterity, not utopianism”. His two most recent books, The Last Days of New Paris (2016) and October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017), use two apparently opposing approaches – an alternative history fantasy in one, and historical narrative in the other – to explore the “real” and socialism (both regular objects of implicit interrogation for him) very explicitly indeed.

Yet, despite these different forms, there are ways in which the two works speak eloquently to one another, and in which other parts of Miéville’s opus provide a copula between them. The Last Days of New Paris is an alternative history of a Second World War that stretches into the 1950s: a prolonged guerilla war in an irreal New Paris, not only between the Resistance and the Nazis, but also between the accidentally deployed manifs of the Surrealists and Nazi-aligned demons from Hell. It is told almost cinematically, with deliberately disrupted narrative lines and disturbing jump-shots.

Literary commentators often treat surrealism as a European phenomenon. Philistine and racist critics and acolytes, such as white beat poet Jack Kerouac, sometimes reduced the movement to something exclusively and toxically masculine. (There were precedents. Andre Breton was a notoriously vicious homophobe.) Similarly reductive is the statement that surrealism’s invocations of the bizarre and the grotesque are mere “fantasy”. For the peoples of Africa, America and Asia, alien invasion, experimentation and the forced grafting together of irreconcilable thoughts and forms are lived experience: they are called colonialism.

So it is unsurprising that some of the most radical architects of surrealism were black, female and revolutionary, rejecting via their work the colonialist distinctions between metropolis and periphery, and between “sophisticated” and “primitive” creative expressions. The Légitime Défense group were black poets and philosophers from Martinique, including Suzanne Cesaire and Simone Yoyotte. They declared in their manifesto, Murderous Humanitarianism: “We surrealists pronounced ourselves in favour of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”

Threaded through the fantastic imaginings of New Paris, those political truths are always present. Real evils exist and must be fought; wars entail real horrors and heroism. In a world where the imaginable gets realised, the soporific and overworked clichés of banal art exert their own malign power, “bringing peace and prettiness… Paris will be an empty city of charming houses [under its] terrible, emptying, picturesque gaze.”  The book ends with a victory – but to say whose would be to spoil the ride.

Yet there’s also a Bakhtinian sense of the carnivalesque in what Miéville describes, and as much playfulness in his own juxtaposition of tropes, images and events as in the surrealist juxtapositions he recounts. He constructs a story within the story: the whole tale is the memoir of one of its survivors. There are Casablanca moments in smoky Resistance cafes, and helter-skelter, shoot ‘em/ kill’em sequences straight out of Grand Theft Auto – except that the targets popping up are hybrid bicycle-women, sickle-headed fish, bat-winged businessmen and giant eyeballs.  “It’s a tie-in,” Miéville says, “to a video game that doesn’t exist and may or may not ever exist”.

October, by contrast, is a carefully researched, conventionally narrative re-telling of events in our historical record: the October Revolution of 1917. The work has a useful index, thumbnail biographies of key figures, and a curated reading list for those who want to find out more. For those who have only read about the revolution in dry school textbooks or as a cautionary tale embedded in free market propaganda, October provides another, more compelling, human reality. Making change mattered to the people who made the revolution. They hated their conditions of oppression and ached with desire for a different world. Miéville breathes life into them as they bring to the struggle their hearts and their dreams as well as their sickles, hoes, typewriters, paintbrushes and guns.

Those dreams are where the two books start to talk to one another. Part of the power of dominant discourses is their capacity to render the existence of different ways of relating, working, and seeing invisible. In those situations, we must fight to think and realise them, even as the hegemony calls them “unrealistic”. Miéville has spoken of the need for a sense of hope and wonder in both the crafting of speculative fiction, and in the struggle for social change. He has called the manifs “something that you can’t possibly recognize, yet that you really do feel as if you recognize.”  That’s also how people feel when they glimpse alternatives to omnipresent oppression naturalised over time––ways of living together that could replace tsarist feudalism, for example, or the global hegemony of the 10 per cent.

But Miéville is explicitly not constructing an analogy of “as then, so now” in October. He finds much to admire in the events whose beauty and power he describes: “There is an incredibly moving poster (which I’ve never been able to find again since seeing it, so if anyone who reads this can help, please do!) which consists of two pictures,” he told the International Socialist Review. “Above is an image of a worker working, I think, on the wheels of a train, and it reads, ‘Before, I was an oiler; I oiled the wheel.’ In the picture below he’s giving a speech before an audience, ‘Now I’m in the soviet; I make decisions.’ That move from the first to the second is an historic and profound shift.”

At the same time, he acknowledges Victor Serge’s characterisation of multiple strands within Bolshevism, of ways in which things could have gone differently. October ends with an extended and arresting riff on Marx’s characterisation of revolutions as the locomotives of history. Miéville works with that metaphor not only because it reflects the technology of the times – revolutionary events and victories often depended literally on open lines and clear signals – but because it also entails the question of “not only who should be driving the train, but where.”  

And that train also recalls the Miéville novel that offers a bridge between New Paris and revolutionary Russia, Iron Council (2004). Workers who turned a strike into a successful revolt now run their own autonomous collective on a train far from the capital. Struggles over who should drive the train, how and where, intersect with bigger debates about how to interact with that capital – now embroiled in a destructive colonial war – and the struggles going on there. It is both a gripping story of revolutionary endeavour, and a visually audacious evocation of disparate, sometimes manif-like, bodies. And like the other two works, it defiantly asserts what any revolution also proclaims: that there is, in Miéville’s words, “joy in the making of the impossible”.

 

 

 This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.

The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?

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