To Be Good Again

Redemption is a complex thing.  We like to pretend it’s straightforward.  Do this, forgiveness, atonement, compensation can be made.  The greater the need, the larger the act required.

There are two things wrong with this.  The first is that we can know everything about what we have done (or not done) that requires an act of contrition.  The second is that contrition—forgiveness, atonement, compensation—is the same as redemption.

Khaled Hosseini shows how this is a mistake in his deceptively simple storytelling in The Kite Runner.  He understands that redemption is not about atoning for something you did wrong.  It is about changing what it is that allowed you to do something wrong in the first place.  It is about becoming.  One is redeemed by taking the responsibility—and the risk—for who one is and making that consistent with what one can and should be.

He also understands that part of the journey to that new state is learning the truth of our life.

Sometimes that may be simply impossible.  Things disappear, memories fade, people die.  The components that comprise our Self can be lost or overlooked, the connections broken or never made, and without a sufficiency of such information we may simply be unable to know what we need to do.  This fact has been central to tragedy since Sophocles, probably even before him, and has never become untrue.

In the absence of knowledge, choice is necessarily limited.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but sometimes it means we live with a sense of guilt difficult if not impossible to explain—usually because we did something for which atonement is necessary.  Where redemption comes in is when we know we must atone, but in order to do so we must become something else, someone else.

The elements of young Amir’s life in Kabul, son of a local hero, a wealthy man larger than life who has done much good for those around him, combine in a negative way to render him not the person his father wants him to be.  He senses it in so many ways, from the belief that he is at fault for killing his mother (in childbirth) to the disappointment he feels from his father because he is not athletic, to the jealousy he feels for the affection his father shows to Hassan, the son of their servant, who is also Amir’s best friend.  Amir cannot be wholly himself because there is a conflict between who he seems to be and what he wishes to be in his father’s eyes.

Here, then, is where Hosseini  displays the depth of our complications.  The faults Amir senses in himself react with the faults his father clearly sees in himself.  The only genuinely unconflicted person among them is Hassan, but even he is not wholly unalloyed.  There are layers upon layers, ethnic divisions, class divisions, history itself seems bent on distorting the clean emotions among them.  Amir comes to resent his friend, not for anything his friend has done, for Amir’s failure in his own mind to be what he should be for Hassan, and ends up driving Hassan and his father away, an event that breaks Amir’s father’s heart.  The need for redemption here is thwarted because the truth of the situation is not shared, not even admitted.

And then the Russians invade Afghanistan, forcing Amir and his father to flee, first to Pakistan and then to America, where they start over.

Here, in a new place, with new rules, Amir grabs a chance to leave all those uglinesses behind.  No one knows, no one sees, he can live up to altered expectations, take on a new life, be someone his father can respect. He falls in love, he marries, he begins a career as a writer.

During all this, his father passes away.  Baba dies proud of his son.  And yet it is not enough.

Then Afghanistan reaches out for him and brings him back for one more chance at a redemption Amir thought—hoped—was no longer necessary.

His father’s best friend calls him in 2001 and asks him to come to Pakistan to see him. There is a way to be good again.

That is the key to Hosseini’s understanding of redemption.  A way to be good again—but one which requires Amir to finally become who he had never been able to be before.  In order to fully achieve it, though, he must learn things he never knew, could not know, things kept from him which nevertheless contoured his life, forced him into certain channels, directed him, and stunted his potential.  He fights it, of course, but inevitably he sees that he simply can’t avoid becoming the person he always needed to become.

That is redemption.  Transformative.  Atonement and forgiveness, he suggests, are pointless if they are only rituals, acts that leave the essential person unchanged.  Redemption is in the change, in the new life, in recognition and response that remake us.

Detecting Sauvage

Savage DetectivesA couple of years ago I read Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  I still have the one for which he gained considerable fame posthumously, 2666, waiting for me to tackle.

I say “tackle” fully cognizant of its implications.  For a book like this, one should prepare.  Stockpile food and water, coffee (my god, yes, coffee!) and tell friends you’re going on a long trip and to maybe take care of your pets for you.  One should be prepared to leave one’s life by way of the page and cut what ties are possible, because it will be a journey.  This is not “light reading.”

November 2   I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.  I accepted, of course.  There was no initiation ceremony.  It was better that way.

So it begins.  Might as well say he had been invited to join Life.  It’s rare that anyone is “cordially invited” to do so, although there are many opportunities along the course of our living to join at a more engaged level.  Too many people pass these opportunities by, either because they do not recognize them or because they do and would rather not.

November 3   I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. 

Of course not.  He goes on to say he’s only 17.  How many of us ever know so early what life is?  But Bolaño sets out to show us.

He never explains it.  He simply takes us through a long journey, immersing us in the viscera of other lives who are all desperately trying to be real.  None of these people know what they’re doing, what they’re after, what they hope to get out of whatever it is they’ve gotten into.  But they go, and that’s the entire point of the several hundred pages of what amounts to a hero’s quest for the internally tangible.

Most of them fail.

They try to find it in art, doing radical experimental poetry, through sex, having affairs that, while not exactly forbidden, are at least not likely to be fulfilling, through violence, through alcohol, through fleeing their country, through poverty and work and opportunistic spiritual muggings.  They are purposeful while lacking a purpose, at least beyond short term stand-ins for purpose.  They hurt, get hurt, love, suffer, burn out, and none of them end up where they began, although there seems to be a return.

One character is named Ulises and this is not capricious.  If anything, Savage Detectives is a recapitulation of The Odyssey.  Years of travel to find home.  But, like Odysseus, they come back, some of them, to find home has left as well.  You get the sense that one or two of them finally understand that home is something you carry with you, not a geographic location, but it’s hard to tell because the mysteries they strive to uncover and reveal mutate in the hard light of day.  Just about the time you see them find something and say “That’s it!  That’s the thing!” it’s gone, slipping away with serpentine grace and telec perversity.

You come back from your own journey, having stayed true to the quest, and feel…reworked.  You’ve been through living and followed the clues to answers that have only the suggestion of questions.  For some, it might feel like a cheat.  In that regard, Savage Detectives is kin to novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sunlight Dialogues, and, yes, Ulysses.

But I suspect it really had more in common with Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Bolaño seems to have fractured the character of Larry in several pieces and sent them all on the same kind of quest, to find Meaning, only to have it all turn pointless on them.  Larry expresses the realization in himself that he had gone about it backwards when he admits that he thought Sophie would be his reward for having lived a good life.  (Sophie, sofia, wisdom, and in a way, Larry achieved it, but Bolaño has a darker view.)  It’s the living that’s the reward and we ignore that at our peril.

Of course, living can be a punishment as well, and it may be that you can’t have one without the other.

I still have 2666 there, waiting.  Daring me.  I have some vacation time coming…