(New York: World Editions, 2019)
One can be forgiven for approaching Johannes Anyuru’s novel A Storm Blew in from Paradise as “refugee” writing or diasporic fiction. It is not, though.
A Storm Blew in From Paradise is about the “still, sad song of humanity.” One can find it hard to put down, and not to carry it through one’s day as a collage of dim visions and whispered voices. But it is not a work of postmodern sensibilities and experimentation, not a pastiche. A Storm is a tour de force of significant talent and deceptively understated craft in every paragraph and on every page. Written in easy, quiet diction and register, with painstaking attentiveness to the beauty and richness of literary language, it is an unblinking exploration of suffering, isolation, and physical and mental pain. Anyuru’s novel is narrated in the dominant third person voice of a displaced Ugandan man, called simply P, whose crumbling memories are shored up in the infrequent but resolute first-person glossary of his son annotating the father’s story. It is not a story about redemption. It is about endurance, a thing that many refugees and immigrants know first-hand, but not only them.
The epilogue is informative: “He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t understand his story.” Because he is in it. We do, though. An abandoned, abused child once fled a home of mammoth proportions of disfunction and cruelty and “made it” in the west as a trained pilot. And his dream come true could be summed up simply as “being able to fly.” The sheer, stony power of the first sentence in chapter one relentlessly captures P’s transnational Odyssey and its timeless quilting point: “Why did you come back?” Why indeed does someone who flew away to supposed paradise come back? Why go home?
And what is home? As P is being interrogated and tortured for being a spy or a terrorist the reader too is helplessly riveted to P’s place in time and desperately wishes the torturer would accept the truth.
“I wanted to fly.”
From Athens, Greece to a torture chamber in Tanzania, from ace pilot in glittering uniform to cowering captive, this refrain from P in its hideous pathos contains the convergent divergence, like a knot or tangle that still resists the unraveling so clearly imminent, is analogous to going from feeling “like it was possible to start over. . . . As though history didn’t exist” to “the homeland is a lie. . . history can’t tell us who we are.” And “There’s no getting away. This is life, this abandonment in the abyss.” Again and again, history repeats, not emptying into a redemptive end time but stalling into meaningless desolation. Structurally, the novel does the same. The pilot’s life is recorded in two modes — before and after flight — and the terrifying truth is that the two times are the same. In Conradian cadences, Anyuru explores annihilation and bare life, an all-too-pandemic reality in which endurance cancels out duration, where a capacity to suffer erases boundaries between past, present, and future as it also erases kinship. P feels “that no one will help him, that no one exists, that there were never brothers, only bodies, alone, wandering across the fields, beating each other, trampling each other.”
Hell on earth is the end of time in the sense of history. The flashbacks knitting together the story are, in this instance, not markers of different times but notches reminding that all times are the same time: an eternal, ungrieved Now. The reader might scan for at least one flashback to contain at least a hidden code for flight, escape, redemption, but the memories are nothing more than inert signposts to dusty death heavy with foreknowledge of the future. Scathingly juxtaposed with the slogan from Mao Tse Tung’s little red book equally popular in postcolonial Africa as reading and as toilet paper — ‘The world is progressing, the future is bright, and no one can change this general trend of history’ — is P’s experience of Europe as refuge and, when European politics eject him, of entering his second abjection: “He had become history, ran out of history, and run back into life.” The half-life of paranoia, the nothingness of dispossession has rarely been so well worded: “He remembers how he was woken one night in Athens when Amin’s plane was on its way to bring the cadets home from Uganda. It’s as though every big thing that happened in his life happened through some sort of trance, in the unreal, shimmering landscape of just waking.” And such paralysis is cinched in P’s son’s interior monologue and citation of Walter Benjamin’s famous passage on the ‘Angel of History,’ written in a not too distant ur-fascist past: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. . . . The angel would like to stay, to awaken the dead. . . . But a storm is blowing from Paradise. . . . This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned.” As unforgettable as this passage by a near-survivor of the Holocaust is, it is matched by Anyuru’s Gogol-like dry-eyed anguish: “He [P] obeyed, and just as he had when he heard the news of the coup in Uganda six months ago, he had the sense that what was happening was already a memory, that it had happened a long time ago and now he was just reliving it.”
Histories and geographies of unredeemed, ungrieved loss are what is left when the future has become the past, when history and causality no longer make sense. T.S. Eliot wrote after the first “Great War”: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” When the future has already become the past, what happens to the present? Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, these are questioning lenses to look back upon where we have come from, where we are going, and how we get there, if we do. Johannes Ahuryu’s novel takes pains to gesture at the crisis of the survival of not just refugees and postcolonial migrants, but for the anthropocene.
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Nandini Bhattacharya has been writing fiction — mainly short stories and novels — for several years. She has received residencies and fellowships at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Southampton Summer Writers’ Conference, The Voices of Our Nation Arts Writing Workshop, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop in Paris, and the Vermont Studio Center (July 2019).