Sunehri zulfon, nasheeli ankhon ki desh ko khokar;
Main hairaan hoon woh zikr waadi-e-kashmir ke karte hain. (After losing Bangladesh, I am troubled to learn they still go on about the Kashmir valley.) - Habib Jalib
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Can Agatha Christie be political?
Hercule Poirot may not be a highbrow hero, but he still has plenty to teach us about life. Portuguese author José Rodrigues dos Santos on why all literature packs a political punch
Thou shalt not kill … David Suchet as the eponymous detective in Agatha Christie's Poirot. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features
Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be the finest crime mystery ever written. It tells the story of how Hercule Poirot investigates a killing, and stuns us when he identifies the culprit. Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama is the most awarded science-fiction novel ever, and tells the story of an unidentified spaceship that crosses the solar system and leaves behind more questions than answers. José Saramago's Blindness is frequently pointed out as one of the best 20th-century novels in world literature, and it tells the story of a sudden epidemic of blindness in Lisbon.
Apart from the obvious quality of these books – a quality that arises either from their storyline or their written style – what do they have in common? Well, they are not political. Even Saramago, who has never hidden the fact that he was a communist, and an active one at that, never actually wrote an obvious political novel.
What, then, is a political novel? Politics is not necessarily something that involves political parties, as we might immediately assume, but rather an activity related to the management of societies. Decisions and actions that affect us all are politics, but also ideas and concepts. Actually, it's the latter that provide the blueprint for the former.
We can find many quality novels that do have a clear political message. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary questions the social anathema of 19th-century female adultery; George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm are powerful critical metaphors for communist totalitarian dictatorships; Eça de Queirós' O Crime do Padre Amaro brings us a strong critique of the Catholic Church's hypocrisy towards priests' celibacy; and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath shows us the misery spread by unregulated capitalism in the wake of the Great Depression.
Should we say that O Crime do Padre Amaro is a superior novel compared with Blindness because it has a political message? Can we honestly claim that Animal Farm is more literary than The Book of Illusions just because Orwell's novel conveys a political meaning and Paul Auster's novel doesn't? Incidentally, is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code a political book? How can we say it isn't if it deals in a critical way with deep political issues such as who Jesus Christ really was, how his legend was shaped for political purposes, the role of women in the religious system of power and what the Opus Dei really is?
These are not easy questions, but they do point in different directions and help us clarify things a bit. A novel can be literary without an obvious political message. And the fact that the novel has a political message is not tantamount to a quality novel.
By the way, who decides what a literary novel is? Is The Da Vinci Code literary? Who can say it isn't? Me? My friends? The newspapers? A committee for good literary taste? Who belongs to such a committee? How was he or she elected? Does each one of us have to obey and accept the critical judgment of such a committee? How many times have committees of the day misjudged a work of art? Nobody cared about Fernando Pessoa's poetry when he was alive, and today he is considered the pinnacle of contemporary Portuguese poetry. Dashiell Hammett was thought of in his day as a second-rate popular author, but today his The Maltese Falcon is cherished as a classic. In his prime, Pinheiro Chagas was praised as an immortal author, but today nobody has even heard of him. If we probe deeper into what is and what is not literature, we find many questions and no solid answers.
So, we get back to the starting point. Should literature be political? Well, some might say this is like asking if art should be beautiful? Yes, by all means, art should be beautiful! Can't we, then, create ugly art? No, we can't! If it's ugly, it's not art, it's a failed attempt at it.
This is an interesting point because, faced with the idea that art has to be beautiful, French artist Marcel Duchamp presented in a 1917 New York art exhibition his latest artistic work, which he called La Fontaine, or The Fountain. It was actually a porcelain urinal made in an industrial factory. La fontaine created an uproar because it introduced the world to a new concept: art that is disgusting. It is ugly, and yet it is art.
Duchamp made a powerful point. He told us that an artwork is what the artist decides. So, what is a literary work? Well, it's what the author decides. Me, you, my friends, the newspapers, the committee for good literary taste may or may not like it; that's not relevant, because art can be ugly and yet be art. A literary work can be political or not political, and yet be a literary work.
Should literature be political? Hell, who cares? It is political if the author thus decides, and it isn't if the author so wishes it. The literary quality of a book is not linked to its political message, in the same way that the artistic quality of a sculpture is not linked to its beauty. They are different issues.
What is, then, a political novel? Can Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a simple, albeit interesting, crime investigation – somehow be a political novel? The book does present us with a political message, though probably not even its author is aware of it. And that message is simple: thou shalt not kill. How more political can a message get? Thou shalt not kill is a political order given by the highest ruler of them all, God Almighty Himself. It is a sheer political message, created for social management.
French sociologist Louis Althusser once wrote that when a woman visits a shoe shop and buys high-heel shoes, she is making a clear ideological statement. By wearing high-heel shoes, she is expressing her idea of what society is and what her role in society should be, and what can be more political than that?
So, the question is not indeed if literature should be political. The real question is: could it be otherwise?