by J.S. Porter
THE CITY OF WORDS
By Alberto Manguel
Anansi, 166 pages, $18.95
The clash of civilizations, good versus evil, them and us: These are the deceitful phrases of manufactured division. How do you counteract them with truthful words that resist labels and simplification? When there is genuine difference in cultures or persons, how do you learn to live comfortably with the difference? The answer Alberto Manguel seems to give in this year's Massey Lectures is that you swap stories. Stories are storehouses of diversity and difference, but they're also repositories of solidarity and understanding.
An extraordinarily gifted and wide-ranging reader, Manguel examines how stories narrow the divide between the self and the other, and help shape a collective identity of inclusion. Through stories, Manguel educates the imagination. While doing so, his City of Words builds on two previous Massey Lectures, Thomas King's The Truth About Stories and Robert Fulford's The Triumph of Narrative. All three works address the human passion and need for stories.
In the breadth of his cast, Manguel is certainly his predecessors' equal. He bleeds stories, is endlessly at work gathering, translating, connecting and transmitting them. He retells the stories of others as if he were their author, as if he had lived them. One misses, however, his personal narrative. Unlike King, who moves adroitly from comparative mythologies - native and European - to his own life experience, Manguel shies away from underpinning the universal with the personal.
What is nevertheless powerful in Manguel's story-stocked mind is a very real embodiment of a phrase associated with literary critic Lionel Trilling: "the moral obligation to be intelligent." Books, and storybooks specifically, arm Manguel against the human tendency to convert the other into one-dimensionality, or worse, a monster or a barbarian.
In mid-book, Manguel artfully retells a William Trevor short story which, it turns out, accurately predicted a dramatic turn in Irish history. In Attracta, an Irish schoolteacher loses her parents to sectarian violence. Despite the personal tragedy, and her reading of another comparably grisly article in the local newspaper, the teacher still makes the case to the children that forgiveness between Catholics and Protestants is possible. Monsters don't remain monsters forever.
Manguel regards literary language, and by extension story, as "ambiguous, open, complex, infinitely capable of enrichment," in contrast to the simplistic language of politics and advertising. He relishes the fact that "no literary text is utterly original, no literary text is completely unique, that it stems from previous texts, built on quotations and misquotations, on the vocabularies fashioned by others and transformed through imagination and use."
You can count on Manguel to introduce writers and stories with which you're unfamiliar. When I read him, I read with pad and pen by my side, eager to benefit from his "lifelong practice of haphazard readings." In The City of Words, he acquaints me with Alfred Döblin, an important Jewish-German novelist of the 20th century. Like Cassandra, the Greek priestess who sees the future but cannot convince anyone of her vision, Döblin, speaking in Berlin in 1948 after his U.S. exile, says to his audience, "You have to sit in the ruins for a long time and let them affect you, and feel the pain and the judgment." This statement, it seems to me, applies to any bully who has done great wrong to any victim.
Manguel retells the story of King Gilgamesh, more divine than human, and the wild man, Enkidu, more animal than human. The King, after a fierce wrestle with his enemy, finally embraces him as a brother, as Jacob once embraced his angel after calling forth a blessing. The barbarian is brought into the city and Uruk prospers as a result. The ancient tale seems to suggest that you can bloodthirstily kill the other, foolishly ostracize him or wisely embrace him. The Inuit film The Fast Runner, on the other hand, tells a story of how the other must be excluded for the health of the community.
In his account of Don Quixote, Manguel reminds readers of how "Arabic" the novel is and how Arabic Spain is. There is a real possibility that the first writing in Spain was in Arabic script, meaning that the Arabs had arrived in the country before Christianization and centuries before the spread of Islam. Later, when Arabs and Jews were expelled from Spain's "cleansed" society, "Spain could not (and has not) been able to divest itself of those cultures that gave it a large part of its vocabulary, place-names, architecture, philosophy, lyric poetry, music, medical knowledge and even the game of chess." How can you ban the other, Manguel seems to say, when the other is you?
In his final chapter, Manguel unspools the story of Jack London's unfinished novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., in which a social machine is so perfectly devised against "Barbarians" as to be unstoppable "except by the destruction of its maker." The inventor, Ivan Dragomiloff, establishes a secret society "that will, for a price, assassinate upon request." A cheekily enterprising young man forwards the name of the inventor to the bureau. Dragomiloff has no choice but to kill himself. Manguel connects the novel's socially efficient machine - the purpose of which is to rid society of undesirables - to our present political system that seems designed to deliver the greatest possible profit to a small minority, regardless of societal cost.
Throughout the book, Manguel restrains his didacticism. In the concluding chapter, he loosens it. He believes that stories promote a sense of the interpenetration of cultures and the interdependence of persons. They help us see the barbarian within, and make peace with the barbarian without.
J. S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality and the forthcoming Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things.
(Originally published The Globe and Mail, October 20, 2007)