Arundhati Roy's War Talk

Book Review by Gilles d'Aymery

July 21, 2003


Roy, Arundhati, War Talk, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003 - ISBN 0-89608-724-7 (Paper), 142 p.

Supporting our local businesses is sort of a civic duty in this household. A week or so after having received a review copy of Ms. Roy's short collection of essays, War Talk, we made one of our customary visits to Kepler's, our wonderful local bookstore in Menlo Park, CA. There, on a five-foot square table dedicated to "Current Events," laid some 50 different works, each neatly piled in small bundles of a few copies, a majority of which was about war and US power. War sells. War is money -- and not just for the military-industrial complex. It trickles down the pipeline toward Hollywood, all the way to book publishers and authors.

Enticing titles competed for the buyers' attention. Chris Hedges' War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, with his subliminal machismo, was selling briskly, we were told. The Los Angeles Times' reviewer went as far as to say it was a "bitterly poetic and ruthlessly philosophical [work]" No wonder, it sells! So was Ann Coulter's latest diatribe against the Liberals, Treason: The Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.

With a shelf life of two to four weeks, good timing is a matter of life and death (or profit and loss) in the publishing business. That the gates are only opened for a very short while before the public is led to the next big thing (or entertainment) forces authors and publishers to rush their carefully packaged products to press. The crop is abundant as it lasts. War Without End (Anton La Guardia), At War With Ourselves (Michael Hirsh), Dreaming War (Gore Vidal), Power Trip (John Ferrer), Full Spectrum Dominance (Rahul Mahajan), Empire (Niall Ferguson), Target Iraq (Norman Solomon), etc.

For those publishers -- and authors -- who missed the boat, but still want to take advantage of this window of opportunity, there is an old recycling trick: Simply publish for a relatively modest price a short 100-page or so collection of essays already published in the past year or two in various venues. Even in this category, the competition is ferocious. Ms. Roy's War Talk was on the display, but so was Joan Didion's Fixed Ideas - America since 9.11 (remember 9/11? No? Wait till the summer and fall of next year...), Christopher Hitchens' A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq and Noam Chomsky's Power and Terror: Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews.

We glanced through Mr. Hitchens's bombastic work -- a series of columns he wrote between November 2002 and April 2003 for Slate, the on-line M$ magazine of fame. This slim book (103 pages) is dedicated to "Barham Salih, Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, comrades in a just struggle and friends for life," and tackles "what was the true nature of Saddam's regime." That the style is polemical and incendiary is a bonus to the reader; that the content is bogus is irrelevant. Hitchens' name sells.

We passed.

Joan Didion and Noam Chomsky went home with us (well, umm, their books!). Yes, of course, we could have saved 20 to 30 percent through Amazon.com, but Amazon.com does not lavish its visitors with comfortable chairs and benches where one may read any book or magazine for hours on end, without even being asked to buy anything. Kepler's does; and we support the store as much as we can (Kepler's is a member of BookSense, the sound and sane place to purchase a book through the Internet).

$7.95; that what it cost to enjoy Ms. Didion's Fixed Ideas. The 44-page "book" (talk about slim work!) is based on the Robert B. Silvers Lecture that Ms. Didion gave at the New York Public Library on November 13, 2002. It was published in the January 16, 2003 of The New York Review of Books. This book-print edition is complemented by a preface from Frank Rich of The New York Times. Mr. Rich owns the copyrights of the preface. Assumingly, he will share in the profits, if any. At least, the book design is immaculate and the essay, depicting the reactionary agenda of the current US administration -- an agenda that has dramatically accelerated after 9/11 -- has the superb quality that one can always expect from Ms. Didion.

Noam Chomsky's book was a purchase based on convenience (Mr. Chomsky is a central figure in Ms. Roy's book), more than anything else, and slightly out of guilt. The good professor's work can be found all over the Internet, particularly on his protégé's Web venture, ZNet, who's also the publisher of War Talk. * Professor Chomsky's political interviews and opinions are a familiar recitation of his anarchist (secular) catechism: Power is wicked. The U.S. is powerful. Therefore the U.S. is wicked. Israel is a US military base and will do as its mafia don (the U.S.) directs. Governments are inherently corrupt. Milosevic was bad; Saddam was bad; Mugabe is bad; Castro is bad. Anarchism is good. Plato is good. And Utopia is good. The media are not influenced by government but by the big corporations that control them (notwithstanding the revolving doors)... It's an old litany that would deserve a second, somewhat different story. As Tikigak Shaman once said, "Never tell one story. Always add a second. That way, the first one won't fall over."

This reviewer is aware of course, that in some quarters, particularly within Academia, Chomsky's stories are a big hit and need no supplement. Chapels are like that...just chapels... Talk to the head of the 700 Club. He knows the technique.

Still, out of guilt toward the good professor, we bought the book. Hopefully, the gesture will bring forgiveness from this generous man for our recent e-mail exchange where we dared to question his signing of a destructive petition against the Cuban regime, a petition concocted by Joanne Landy and the Campaign For Peace and Democracy .

Arundhati Roy would eminently disagree with our assessment. After all, she has moved up the ladder of international attention, from a novelist who won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, "The God of Small Things," to the lecture circuit in the Western world on the back of Noam Chomsky and his followers. One can imagine a powerful rebuttal from this talented author. Then again, these days, with Gödel in mind, any argumentation will do...

Part of War Talk is about Chomsky. One essay is the duplicate of the introduction Ms. Roy wrote for the new edition of Chomsky's For Reasons of State (New York, New Press, 2003). According to Roy, she discovered the world as it "really" is by reading Chomsky:
As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralized each other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshalling of evidence, the volume of it, the relentlessness of it, was a little -- how shall I put it? -- insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky's work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope, and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he's up against. (p. 99-100)
To say that the author is a devotee of Chomsky would be an understatement. She is a rabid devotee, riding the guru's fame to her own might.

And might she has...

Arundhati Roy may not rival Joan Didion's exquisitely honed knowledge and caustic assessment of the US political idiosyncrasies, but Ms. Didion will never match the power of Ms. Roy when words are in the balance.

There is something beyond Ms. Roy's adulation of Professor Chomsky -- "one of the world's greatest mind . . . . not only brilliant but heroic" -- and her uncritical adoption of the Chomskian mantra; something far beyond. She's a storyteller at heart whose hors pair craftsmanship captivates the audience, be they readers or listeners.

In a September 18, 2002 lecture in Santa Fe, NM, reproduced in War Talk as "Come September," she begins:
Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I'm beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it's actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative - they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of storytelling. For reasons I do not fully understand, fiction dances out of me. Nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.

The theme of much of what I write is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless conflict they are engaged in. John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote:
Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one.
There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a storyteller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not about nations and histories, it's about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power. I believe that the accumulation of vast enfettered power by a state or a country, a corporation or an institution - or even an individual, a spouse, friend, or sibling - regardless of ideology, results in excesses such as the ones I will recount here.
Right there, one imagines both Maya Angelou (or Toni Morrison) and Noam Chomsky on the same podium; the marriage of poetry and arid analysis; the teller and the thinker, each secretly envying the other. An old story, indeed!

On 9/11, she declaims:
Three thousand civilians lost their lives in that lethal terrorist strike. The grief is still deep. The rage still sharp. The tears have not dried. And a strange, deadly war is raging around the world. Yet, each person who has lost a loved one surely knows secretly, deeply, that no war, no act of revenge, no daisy-cutters dropped on someone else's loved ones or someone else's children will blunt the edges of their pain or bring their own loved ones back. War cannot avenge those who have died. War is only a brutal desecration of their memory.

To fuel yet another war - this time against Iraq - by cynically manipulating people's grief, by packaging it for TV specials sponsored by corporations selling detergent or running shoes, is to cheapen and devalue the grief, to drain it of meaning. What we are seeing now is a vulgar display of the business of grief, the commerce of grief, the pillaging of even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a state to do to its people.

It's not a clever enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is loss. Loss of losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute, relentless, endless, habitual unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole peoples who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?
That Ms. Roy is increasingly regarded as a porte parole for the disenfranchised and the Joan d'Arc of the anti-globalization movement should not surprise anyone. She possesses both the talent and the passion.

Elsewhere, she tells a gathering at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil (January 27, 2003), what can and should be done to "confront the empire." Says Roy, "We can re-invent civil disobedience in a million different ways. In other words, we can come up with a million ways to becoming a collective pain in the ass."

War Talk is not just about our navel-centered western, feel-good, BBQ and beer, NASCAR and LPGA, Tour de France, Williams' sisters, (football season is coming), laden selves. There is much about India in the book that deserves a reading. India, a country of over one billion inhabitants is being led by a nationalist, anti-secularist government on a deeply destructive, possibly suicidal path. What Ms. Roy writes about the gruesome events in Gujarat is wrenching. The three essays on her country of birth are tantalizing and sickening. They should be read over and over again to hopefully grasp the dangers of fundamentalism (whether Hindu, Christian, Islamist or Jewish).

The New York Times keeps discrediting Ms. Roy. The Indian government keeps trying to put her in jail (if a maniac does not kill her first). Somewhere, somehow, she must be on track... It's becoming increasingly obvious that she'll keep her eyes on the prize, whatever the consequences.

It's summer. Ms. Roy's brief work does not qualify for beach reading but from all the other offerings we went through, let's give credit to South End Press: they met the window of opportunity. War Talk is a taker.

*  [Author's note added June 3, 2004: I have just learned that ZNet and South End Press are separate organizations with no overlapping personnel. I stand corrected and regret the error.]  (back)

Roy, Arundhati, War Talk, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003 - ISBN 0-89608-724-7 (Paper), 142 p.

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Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published July 21, 2003
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