- City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran—Ramita Navai
- Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland—Patrick Radden Keefe
- Trespasses—Louise Kennedy
- Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia—Emmanuel Carrère
- The Hummingbird—Sandro Veronesi
- Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California—Matthew Specktor
- Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow—Gabrielle Zevin
- Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me—Ada Calhoun
- Festival Days—Jo Ann Beard
Well, here we are, back at Believer Towers, and before we get on to the subject of books, I’m going to have to lie down for a little while. It’s been quite a journey. Regular readers of this magazine may know that the Polysyllabic Spree, the fragrant young men and women who founded this magazine, sold it to people in Las Vegas, some say for a price north of a billion dollars; the fragrance used to be patchouli and the smell of fresh-mown grass, but for a while back there in the Vegas days, it was reputedly Bvlgari and Henry Jacques. I say “reputedly” because nobody ever got near enough to the Spree to smell them. They were on a private Caribbean island, and the people who put them there—me and I suppose even you—were not invited. I understand that E. L. James and Lee Child were frequent guests.
Anyway, the new Vegas owners got bored of us discussing books about veganism and interviewing collagists, and passed us on to an internet hookup site. This odd coupling, between a left-field arts magazine and purveyors of sex toys and other titillations, shouldn’t have worked, but it really did: those couple of weeks were the happiest and most lucrative of my professional life. The new proprietor and I had a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby… well. Maybe I should keep that story for another time. Suffice it to say that it’s not often that one feels both understood and financially valued. The Spree went and ruined it, of course, by insisting that the sex-toy site was an inappropriate home for their precious magazine, so after all that, I’m back to where I was nearly twenty years ago, penniless and surrounded by chanting bohemians who are now well into middle age. (It looks to me as though they have burned through the reported billion dollars, if the quality of the catering and choice of herbal teas are anything to go by.) I am a little bewildered and resentful, but perhaps you will forgive me. Like professional athletes, Believer writers just go where they’re told to go. No agency, no choice. We just make the best of it and turn in our copy.
I don’t think the sex-toy man would have encouraged me to read the books listed above, however. I promised him “clickbait,” but neither modern Tehran nor the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland would necessarily drive traffic toward the wares he had on offer. (It would probably be more accurate to say “the wares we had on offer,” although that reveals more about our business arrangement than I wanted to disclose.) There is quite a lot of illicit sex in Ramita Navai’s City of Lies, but if there is an unhappier book about the subject, then I’m not sure I want to know about it.
Navai’s book consists of eight brilliantly observed and researched case histories, each dealing with a contemporary Tehrani at a point of crisis. And their crises are really not like ours: they invariably involve the police, repression, violence, a terrifyingly authoritarian interpretation of Islam, and, occasionally, death. Leyla’s parents divorced when she was sixteen and immediately remarried, and the aftermath of all that produced a rebellious streak. She fell in love with another young rebel, and they married much too young. They didn’t want to marry, but they had already started having sex, and they could live the life they wanted only if they were man and wife. The marriage went wrong quickly—Leyla found her husband having sex with his cousin in their marital bed—and she ran out of money. She could no longer afford her apartment, and moved in with a friend, who supplemented her salary through prostitution. Before long Leyla was turning tricks, too, and though she was arrested and given a whipping, eventually she became the mistress of a cleric and was well looked after.
It is in the chapter about Leyla that we learn of sigheh—“a temporary marriage approved by both God and the state, between a man (who can already be married) and a woman (who cannot), and [that] can be as short as a few minutes or as long as ninety-nine years.” This is of course a rather neat trick for a married man, especially a cleric. It enables him to get what he wants without troubling his conscience. The worldly judge Leyla slept with was more cynical about the protection sighehoffers, but he took it anyway. Leyla ended up making a porn video for a client, and it became an underground sensation. She was extremely careful not to show her face, but the cyberpolice got hold of it and tracked her down via the visible serial number on her electricity meter. They hanged her.
“You can invent anything you like,” Tolstoy said, “but you can’t invent psychology.” In a way, Navai’s gripping, heartbreaking book shows a state and its citizens trying to prove him wrong. The book is called City of Lies because the author believes it’s impossible to live in Iran without lying. Gay men cannot be gay men, not without living in fear of discovery and punishment. One character, Morteza, tries to “compensate” for his sexuality by belonging to a wild, violent, self-flagellating group of religious extremists and by beating up a gay man. Finally he finds peace by living as a woman. Kids can’t listen to Lady Gaga, but they do anyway. Nobody can drink or take drugs; nearly everyone drinks and takes drugs. Hypocrisy is survival. People constantly have to make their interior lives disappear. City of Lies is an extraordinary piece of work about an extraordinary society.
If you have ever been in a London Underground station and looked for a rubbish bin in which to throw a banana skin or a disappointing betting slip, you won’t find one. Rubbish bins were removed sometime in the 1990s, when the IRA were in the middle of their attempt to take their war to the British mainland. It was easy to leave a bomb in a rubbish bin. Londoners’ troubles were not the Troubles, of course, but we were not unaffected by them, and they certainly helped shape who we are. To look at a list of bombs planted by the IRA in London between 1973 and 2001 is to remember that the threat was almost constant. There were fifty incidents in 1992 alone—most, though not all, caused no casualties, but they created an atmosphere in which there was danger under every bus seat, in every parked car and pub and department store. I was once on a Tube train when tourists who’d just arrived from Heathrow found a small case on the seat next to them; they picked it up, examined it, and then opened it, and every single other person in the carriage imagined the blinding flash, the thunderclap, and the pain that was bound to follow. The case turned out to contain a flute. In 1996 I was at home when a bomb exploded several miles away and my house shook.
So to read Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s definitive and addictive history of the sectarian conflict and the shameful part that the British Army played in it, is to be taken back to a past that we lived through but have maybe tried to forget. The large cast of characters contains many familiar names: Jean McConville, single mother of ten children, who was removed from her home and made to disappear; Gerry Adams, the consummate Republican politician, who was arrested for the disappearance and released without charge; Bobby Sands, of course, but also the nine others who died on hunger strike, one after the other, in the summer of 1981, while Margaret Thatcher did nothing; Dolours Price, who took part in the first mainland car-bombing campaign, drove former IRA colleagues across the Irish border for execution, accused Gerry Adams of ordering the murder of McConville, and was emotionally and physically ruined by her war; Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, for a while Britain’s youngest member of Parliament, who was shot nine times by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association in front of her young family, and lived.
These names were part of my life from my teenage years onward, and one of the many valuable services Say Nothing provides is context, some of it surprising to me. I didn’t know that when the Troubles began, the IRA was “practically defunct,” with only a hundred or so members in Belfast. They were almost unarmed, as well, apart from a few antique guns left over from World War II—they had sold the rest to the Free Wales Army in 1968. (Wales, for those of you who don’t follow the politics of the British Isles, is no longer a hotbed of armed revolution, and even voted for Brexit.) But the Loyalists viciously beat participants in a peaceful Catholic march in 1969, while the Royal Ulster Constabulary mostly watched, and then three thousand soldiers raided the Falls district of Belfast, where Catholics lived, and then, and then, and then. The IRA robbed banks and shot informants, and the British Army tortured suspected IRA members, and before too long Belfast had become as hellish, as dangerous and violent, as Tehran.
Say Nothing, like City of Lies, personalizes its terrible story—Patrick Radden Keefe never loses sight of his characters for very long, and they are threaded into the narrative. Northern Ireland is a small place, after all, and everyone knew everyone else. Dolours Price was one of the three IRA members who shot Jean McConville, the mother of ten. She deliberately missed her shot, but she was there, and knew all the time what had happened to her. The disturbing thing about both City of Lies and Say Nothing is that they make you think about what these places at those times would do to you. If you are a liberal, would you be a liberal in Tehran? What kind? The kind who must behave like a conservative, through fear? The kind who reports on neighbors who have had a drink or own a satellite dish? Or the kind who has a drink and owns a satellite dish and faces imprisonment? If you had grown up in Divis Flats, would you own a weapon? Would you avoid any trouble? Or would you remain defenseless in the face of army brutality and Protestant hatred? Because those would be the only choices you had. You couldn’t be you, the you that is reading this in a California coffee shop or a New York independent bookshop, that’s for sure. (Go to the cashier and pay for the magazine, by the way, cheap New Yorker.)
I read a second book set during the Troubles recently, Trespasses, a very fine first novel by Louise Kennedy. Her people are trying to be themselves, to live between the fault lines, but for Cushla, a young Catholic woman, that means falling in love with an older married man, a Protestant lawyer with Republican sympathies. If this makes the novel sound schematic in some way, it’s really not: these people are complicated, damaged both by their choices and by the environment. And this being Belfast in the 1970s, there is no unlikely romantic outcome. It’s a beautiful book, serious, deeply felt, wry. I have to say it was a real pleasure, also, to read a first novel by someone who has lived a life before attempting to write. Kennedy, now in her mid-fifties, was a chef for thirty years before writing her debut story collection; she lived through the Troubles herself.
I haven’t left myself much space to write about Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, and there’s a lot to say about both the author and this book. Carrère is something of a phenomenon in France. He has directed films and written scripts, fiction and nonfiction. On a recent visit to his native country, I found that everyone knows who he is and has firmly held views about which of his books is the best. There is a lot of love for The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, a short, brilliant nonfiction account of an apparently ordinary man who murdered his own family, while others prefer The Kingdom, a longer novel about the early history of Christianity. That probably gives you a sense of his extraordinary range. He has recently been in trouble for writing about his ex-wife, after promising her that he wouldn’t, although, as you can imagine, that’s a complicated story. Limonov is a novel or a biography, depending on where and when you bought a copy, but either way it is a thrilling book, and this is a perfect time to read it: the hero of the story, Eduard Limonov, was born in Dzerzhinsk in 1943, and his story is the story of the Soviet Union, and Russia, and quite a lot of other places, as it turns out. Eduard is a no-hope teenage hoodlum who is beaten unconscious by the police after starting a brawl; he could have gotten five years, but his father was in the military and someone recognized his name. He works in a foundry, he writes poetry, he’s sent to a mental institution, he moves to Moscow, he makes jeans, he emigrates to the United States, he writes polemics for a Russian-language newspaper, he becomes a butler, he sleeps with women, he sleeps with men, he writes a novel. His work is published in Paris. He becomes a literary sensation. This shit actually happened. We are now halfway through the book. He fights for the Serbs in the Bosnian War and ends up back in Moscow at the dawn of the cowboy oligarch era, founding the quasi-fascistic National Bolshevik Party. This is really not a dull book. I can see I’m going to end up reading a novel about early Christianity.
I am not a great reader of science fiction, mostly because I don’t understand a lot of it. But these last few weeks I have been visiting worlds almost beyond comprehension—at least, beyond comprehension for those of us who live in Western Europe or the United States. The way things are headed, though, we’ll understand better soon enough. Who am I? Someone hiding in the corner, with my books and my music and my streaming subscriptions. Someone will probably take it all away soon enough, but until then, it will do.