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Welcome to the House of Journalists. Who are you and what is your story?
These are the questions that confront newcomers to the House of Journalists, the internationally renowned refuge for writers in exile at the center of this haunting Orwellian novel. Home to a select group of fellows, the House is located in a fashionable London terrace. But just how stable is this hallowed institution? Julian Snowman, the obsessive founder and chair, sees the threat of dissolution at every ...
Welcome to the House of Journalists. Who are you and what is your story?
These are the questions that confront newcomers to the House of Journalists, the internationally renowned refuge for writers in exile at the center of this haunting Orwellian novel. Home to a select group of fellows, the House is located in a fashionable London terrace. But just how stable is this hallowed institution? Julian Snowman, the obsessive founder and chair, sees the threat of dissolution at every turn. Perhaps this explains why petty rules and restrictions abide: men live in one wing, women in the other; smoking is restricted to the central courtyard; tea is optional, but everyone attends.
As the fellows strive to remake their lives, they are urged to share their tales. Epic and intimate by turns, these stories—of courage, tragedy, and shame—become a mesmerizing chorus of voices in search of home. Among the fellows are Mustapha, who yearns for the family he tore himself from when he resisted a coup; Agnes, a photojournalist implicated in a brutal civil war; Sonny, a slight figure with don’t-mess-with-me hair, who describes a harrowing escape across continents; Edson, who perilously confides his story to his writing mentor; and Mr. Stan, who draws on the noxious cigarettes of his home island, despite having been tortured there.
Only one man manages to guard his past: the mysterious new fellow AA, whose secrecy ratchets up Julian’s paranoia. Julian suspects that AA is conspiring with a celebrated visiting writer to bring down the House. In fact, AA is planning something else entirely.
A world as beguiling as it is disturbing, Tim Finch’s The House of Journalists is a novel of heartbreak, humanity, and wit, and announces the arrival of a striking new voice in fiction.
“Tim Finch’s strong debut demonstrates how skillfully the raw materials of politics, human rights, journalistic ethics, and social responsibility can be alchemized into art.” —Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer
“Tim Finch’s probing and provocative debut sparkles with ironic intelligence and a true compassion that refuses to embrace the official version of anyone’s suffering. Brilliantly wary of false language and borrowed stories, this novel was written to last, and I believe it will.” —John Burnham Schwartz, author of Northwest Corner
“To the dark side of triumphant globalization Tim Finch brings an intriguing and unnerving perspective. I thought of Kafka more than once.” —Norman Rush, author of Mating
THE SENSE OF BANISHMENT
Exile is like some herb which gives its distinct bitter flavour to many different forms of writing. Graham Greene.
To experience exile a man doesn’t necessarily have to leave his country. The sense of banishment can be felt on one’s own hearthstone. Graham Greene again.
Graham Greene is one of the best-known writers in this country where you are unknown as a writer.
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF JOURNALISTS
We assemble for the welcome ceremony in the library and Julian, our founder and Chair, leads you in. A small party of other visitors—friends and donors—follow. The mood among the fellowship is relaxed and informal. We are laughing and chatting. Then Julian claps his hands and calls for silence. Up to that point, Mr. Stan, our Father of Chapel, has been sitting quietly, unnoticed, in his corner. Now, as he is introduced by Julian, everyone turns towards him. He insists on standing on ceremony, despite the great strain this puts on his tiny, twisted body. The minute or two it takes him to get to his feet is almost beyond endurance. Then, having hauled himself into his crutches, he grinds his confounded bones into the centre of the room. His voice is a crushed peppercorn whisper.
“Welcome to the House of Journalists. We are pleased to receive you into our House and our fellowship. The fellows are most glad to greet you as our brother in exile. This is a place of sanctuary for all those who have used the power of the word to expose tyranny throughout the world.”
We know nothing of your condition or destiny but we see straightaway that you have a writer’s eye. There is that glint in it. You would not be a writer if you did not see stories under every stone, never mind this roof. But what an introduction! You have no sooner arrived than you are greeted by Mr. Stan, a piece of work beyond imagination. This special place has thrown open its doors to you, as it did for us. Welcome to the House of Journalists.
MR. STAN WAS NEVER TO UNCURL AND ASSUME A PROPER SHAPE
At first, not even Mother noticed: Little Stan was her scrunched-up bundle, squinting and bubbling; he was the apple of all the aunties; a late gift from a lamented God as she pushed hard at forty. For a few weeks the neat single-story breeze block house, with its roof of corrugated tin and its dusty, bare-earth garden, marked out with whitewashed stones, knew true heartbreaking happiness. The one photograph Mother kept on the mantelshelf through all their suffering was of Little Stan as a newborn in her arms.
As time went on, however, it became clear that her tiny miracle was never to uncurl and assume a proper shape. They tried callipers and corsets and leg irons; his baby-bird body was subjected to every form of correction and humiliation. Still he was all stunted hump and stoop and stump and spindle. And his humpty head had, it seemed, cracked open and bled a port wine map of Africa from crown to temple. At most, at best, a tuft or two of baby elephant hair sprouted in clumps on the mottled eggshell.
But Little Stan did have the most beautiful hands. When the other children threw stones at him out on his sticks in the street, Mother ran out to shield and protect those hands—so slender, articulated, and exquisitely veined. The baby sobs, the head bumps and body bruises, were taken in her stride. She waved them away. Her one concern was for his precious hands.
Mother put them to the piano at an early age—but Little Stan’s soup-spoon ears couldn’t pick up the music. He read the scores studiously; played them by the book. But there was no feel, no touch. The sound was mechanical: like a piano roll. His true instrument turned out to be the typewriter. His first one was bought for him as a toy and he took to it instantly. The journalist in him found his voice in its clatter and ring. He was never able to write as well in longhand; and this stopped him performing to his ability in the stifling stillness, the dust-mite-dancing, the sunlight-shafting of the high-windowed grammar school exam rooms. That ruled out the university—his mother’s dream; and led him instead to his home from home—the newsroom.
“Thank you, Mr. Stanislaus,” Julian says, as our much-respected Father is helped back into his customised chair, wheezing and triumphant. Julian—a very popular writer and broadcaster in this country—turns to you, the new fellow. “As you may know, Mr. Stanislaus was the editor of the main newspaper in his homeland, a small island in the Indian Ocean. A hero of the independence struggle, he became a fearless critic of the repressive regime of President…”
* * *
You nod, apparently attentive to Julian’s words. But we can see that your eyes are drawn to Mr. Stan’s hands, now cushioned on their protective armrests.
* * *
You will be imagining the tiny, pink, pearl-nailed fingers that his mother cherished; and the thumb he used to suck in his sleep; and the little knuckles that he pressed into his cheeks as he sobbed in the corner.
* * *
There are so many ways to cause pain—and to break the spirit. They used hammers.
* * *
Mother was called in to witness her gibbering, shiver-shuddering son as the prison doctor tended to the bloody mush stumps. “Oh, Stanley, your precious hands!” These guys—the interrogators, the torturers: call them what you will—are butchers certainly, but they usually have some intelligence. On this occasion it was spot-on. “What have they done to them!” Mother was dead from the shock within a week; Mr. Stan’s resistance, so spirited until then, was broken.
* * *
“The House of Journalists,” Julian says, turning his attention to the friends and donors, but not neglecting you, our new fellow, “was built in the eighteenth century as a fashionable London town house, but over the centuries it has housed Russian Jews, Irish immigrant families, Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis, Bangladeshis, and, more recently, Somali asylum-seekers. Speculators did have plans to redevelop it as luxury flats, but we were able to block that. It is modelled on the Maison des Journalistes in Paris. Some of our leading writers and broadcasters went on a fact-finding mission; a committee was formed and funds were raised to buy the building. We got a Heritage Grant for the conversion, and we have won a number of architectural awards. As well as providing a residence for thirty exiled journalists and writers, we have a newsroom, conference facilities, and this magnificent library. One way or another, this building has been a place of refuge for new arrivals for more than two hundred years. Now this state-of-the-art centre provides a more fitting welcome for those seeking protection and—I like to think—stands out as a symbol of our commitment to uphold this country’s noble tradition of providing sanctuary.
“As I say,” Julian goes on. “At any one time we have some thirty journalists and writers in residence. Only a very few are long-term residents; for the others this is a halfway house. The fellows all have prima facie claims for asylum, but have not been given formal status. They are assigned to us from arrival camps and clearing centres or sometimes straight from ports of entry. If they get status—and most do—they move on. Assistance is provided to find housing in the community and jobs—in the profession, if possible. Among our funders is the government.” He stops for a moment and surveys the room. “We have criticisms of government policy, of course, but that does not stop us working in fruitful partnership with ministers and officials. As well as assisting individual exiled journalists and writers, we are helping through the project to advance public understanding of the complex issue of asylum. Our fellows are encouraged to write, to broadcast, and to make films about their experiences. We hold lots of workshops, study groups, and seminars.”
* * *
This is the signal for assigned fellows and volunteers to invite the friends and donors to see more of the House of Journalists. There is much good work and profitable industry to show off. We all have our tasks.
Julian turns his attention to you.
“So, let me introduce you personally to Mr. Stanislaus,” Julian says, all smiles. “Mr. Stanislaus, this is our new fellow, AA.”
You step forward. “Please, don’t get up, Mr. Stanislaus,” you say.
“You are welcome, AA,” he says to you. “I trust you will fit in well here.” His tone is warm.
Julian continues: “Mr. Stanislaus, as well as being our Father of Chapel, is our longest-serving fellow, a stalwart of our Committee, and a true symbol of this special place.”
There is a pause. Mr. Stan is offering you his hand.
* * *
Mr. Stan cannot use a pen, or a knife or a fork or a spoon. The only thing he has learnt to hold is one of the bidi cigarettes that are bought for him at the Asian corner shop on the High Road. He cannot light it. You will do that for him out in the Central Courtyard where we all stand, and Mr. Stan alone sits, smoking in the white breath of this cold foreign city. Mr. Stan sucks deep on the hot, noxious luxury of the home island and spits wet flakes of tobacco from his lips. He is ecstatic at the lung-burning pleasure of each infernal drag.
* * *
If you were to try to uncurl Mr. Stan’s crablike hand—go on, bend it back as far as it will go—you will see that the inside of the shell is blackened by smoke. Now let his hand go. You have caused Mr. Stan real pain, you must understand that.
Mr. Stan shows no hurt. His hand remains outstretched.
* * *
Crablike is not quite right, is it? A better description might be knotted tree root—suggesting, as it does, a certain gnarled damp fleshiness. At their zenith, when, fired by ideals betrayed, they were hammering out those blistering editorials, Mr. Stan’s hands were hard long-boned configurations. Mother hated to see them being hurled at the machine. This was not what she had dreamt for them. And now look: all her dreams shattered. Yes, look! Hideously reconfigured by those hammers, those claw hammers, all sense of elegant extremity is lost.
* * *
Finally, you take the proffered hand. We watch to see how you will handle it. (Forgive us, but as we pick up the language we cannot resist the odd pun.) In the end, you choose to encage the repellent flesh club, studded with half-fossilised fingers and thumbs, nails, and knuckles, as lightly as possible between your two hands, in a gesture that conveys a sense of touching warmth, while allowing you to avoid any real contact. You may feel that you have failed the first test of true fellowship. We notice that you keep your eyes downcast for a moment.
But when you look up you will see that Mr. Stan is nodding his head appreciatively. You have, as it happens, shown the restraint and civility due to these formalities. Mother would have approved. You have gone some way to reassure Mr. Stan. And if Mr. Stan is reassured, then Julian is reassured. A new fellow is always a cause for joy—but also some anxiety. You have been assigned to the House of Journalists by the authorities, but you are not carrying papers. Like many fellows you have arrived armed only with your story. Julian will be interested to hear it. We all will.
THE FIRST FEW PAGES OF A NOVEL
You will doubtless compare your arrival at the House of Journalists—as we did before you—with the first few pages of a novel. We are all writers after all, so it is only natural that we should make this comparison. There is the same sense of displacement; the same sense of being plunged into proceedings, while still standing apart. You are a stranger in a strange land. The old clichés. It will take some time for you to adapt to these unfamiliar surroundings and to get to know the people. It can be difficult to understand the peculiarities of the language and to distinguish between the different voices. It is natural to feel disorientated and anxious—but exhilarated too. You—like us—are here because of the irrepressible power of great stories, great characters—great truths. Whatever came before (there will be time enough for that), it was somehow written (more playing with words) that you should end up at the House of Journalists. What will unfold over the coming pages, none of us knows. And therein lies the strange beauty of this shared experience.
EVERY NEW FELLOW EXCITES SOME INTEREST
The Central Courtyard is where we gather to talk—and to smoke. Smoking is banned inside the House of Journalists, as in all public places in this country. PROHIBITED BY LAW, say the signs. We respect the laws of this country of course, but for us there are no private places—and most of us smoke. We are journalists and writers after all. We have all spent time in prison. We have all had many long hours to kill.
They have put an ashtray out here for us now—a small defeat for Julian and the Committee. But, as if to say that his vision for this place will prevail in all circumstances, Julian commissioned a leading young sculptor to design an ashtray in keeping with the grey flagstone courtyard with the modernist fountain at its centre. Thus it is that we stub out our stinking butts in a stainless steel, semi-spherical bowl filled with fine grey sand, sitting atop a fluted plinth. The irony is not lost on us. We are fastidious about disposing of our fag ends in the elegant receptacle provided. But we carry on smoking all the same.
The House of Journalists puts on courses to help us to give up smoking and classes which promote “healthy living.” But we are journalists and writers. We have been in prison and we have been tortured. We have spent days hiding out in cellars or warehouses or travelling in the back of containers. We have breathed foul air and eaten stinking food and been deprived of sleep for nights on end. Our health, in all sorts of ways, is precarious.
Have a look at our teeth. Mossy tombstones that move around in the soft earth of our gums. It is a bit late for “healthy living,” we all think with a laugh—that is something that goes with home and family and the expectation of a long and happy life. Still, there are small pleasures to be had in any life—and one of ours is the induction of a new fellow. It is always a talking point.
You need not look so anxious, AA. Every new fellow excites interest and speculation. Come and join us. You are a smoker, that’s good. There is great fellowship in that. Julian will not like it, but Julian doesn’t rule the place! Oh, it might seem that way sometimes. You know what these institutions are like: they always have their petty rules and restrictions, their tin-pot tyrants and traitors—and their pipsqueak rebellions. But we have all survived a lot worse, have we not?
By the way, feel free to smoke in silence. Not everyone wants to open up the moment they arrive. Keep your peace. We all feel that the House of Journalists sometimes makes too many demands on us. Yes, we have our stories to tell. But we have our secrets to keep too. Both have their power. Do not give too much away, AA. Hold back. Deploy your story to maximum advantage. That is our advice to you.
You have been assigned to Room 15, we notice. Is there any significance in that? you might ask. None at all. It happened to be vacant, just as Room 22 is vacant now. You might have been assigned to Room 22 if it had been vacant then. But it was occupied, as it will be again very shortly. You see what we are saying? Fellows move on. New fellows arrive. You have arrived. You will move on. All new fellows are made to feel welcome at the House of Journalists, but you should be under no illusions about the place. This is not where it all comes right. Don’t make that mistake. The exile has to learn that he belongs nowhere, that the journey never ends. This is both our great misfortune and our great liberation.
We should leave you now. You will want to rest. But remember, we are always here. You have already met your neighbour in Room 14, as he is one of the smokers. But what about your neighbour in Room 16?
I AM MUSTAPHA
I am not a smoker. It is one of the things that sets me apart from the other fellows—though I would not want to suggest that this is something I set out to do. I value the fellowship of this place. But I find solace of a different kind in solitude. The House of Journalists respects that in its own way.
We all understand how precious this place is to the good people who first established it. They have built something here; they are proud of it; and in their minds it should be reverenced for the good work it does. But this mind-set makes them somewhat unyielding towards anyone who would in any way undermine or even make light of their mission.
Few seek to, it must be said. But whatever Julian and the Committee contend, the establishment of the House of Journalists was as much a political act as a humanitarian one—and a political act will never command consensus, let alone unanimity. Indeed, as Julian must know, the generous attention that such a project attracts excites its own brand of resentment; a resentment that tends to fester by dint of the inhibition people feel in voicing criticisms which tell against the general praise. Beneath the most splendid palaces run sewers more stinking than the open gutters, as the well-known saying goes. Well-known in my home country, that is.
I am reminded of a piece I wrote for a briefly fashionable periodical in my home country. “There are those who will oppose, or at least question, an action because it is a step too far,” I wrote, “while others will regard it as a gesture so insultingly small that it would have been better to do nothing. Some will say action of this sort was required, but not this particular action, which, sadly, is so misjudged that it amounts to a step in the wrong direction. Others will oppose the action, and with a peculiar bitterness, not because they think it wrong, but because they would have taken it themselves had they not been pre-empted in this hasty way. (There is no enemy like an enemy who opposes you for doing what they would have liked to do themselves.) Finally, there are those who, having supported an action from the start, feel they have not received the credit due to them, or that you have received undue credit (the same thing, more or less), and whose support diminishes to such an extent that in the end they are opposing you, if not the action, with all their power.”
It is writing that captures well I think the political tenor of the time. Ours was the only democracy in the region, and we were rightly proud of that fact. But our democratic institutions were in the hands of the wealthy elite, which ruled largely in its own interest, if benignly by the standards of our monarchical or one-party neighbours. Coalitions were put together, broken up, and reassembled so as to give the impression of change, but the same old men stayed in power and the same old politics went on. Venerable senators, with skin like tobacco leaves, wearing elegant suits, double-cuffed white shirts, and hugely knotted silk ties, wandered the corridors of Senate House on the Corniche, stopping to chat with deep-tanned young deputies, in suits of a slightly racier cut, sunglasses riding the waves of their swept-back glossy hair. Conversations had this sort of tone: “A good deal is on the table, and you should be using your talents to persuade your faction of its merits. Your late father would be disappointed to see you playing your hand so ineptly, I must say. But my love to your dear mama—we hope to see her at the yacht club on Saturday. Antoine will be back from Paris…”
Many of those who imagined themselves like me to be part of the “radical opposition” were from the same elite and we too played the game—attacking the corruption and ineptitude of ministers, and demanding change, without really expecting or wanting any great upheaval. We were liberals, not revolutionaries.
It was in this spirit that we toyed with the new prime minister, an oil engineer from the north, a hardworking outsider who had manoeuvred himself into the inner circles and clambered to the top by making himself indispensable to a succession of superiors, the last our weak, lazy, and infirm president. His was a surprising appointment; progressive in its way; indicative of a certain openness. He was an intelligent man and was a far more competent administrator than the country was used to. But he was treacherous towards colleagues, hectoring with juniors, dismissive of long-standing conventions and established civilities, intellectually unsophisticated, and culturally uncouth.
At first he exhibited a brittle tolerance for our raillery. It did him no harm with his cabal and his constituency to be carped at by the likes of us. We wrote as much. It was clear that he had no natural sympathy with the perquisites of a liberal democracy even though he had been confirmed in his post by a popular vote. We wrote as much. For him to take offence at our barbs and charges, to rant that they were an affront to the people who had elected him, to allege that we were at the core of what was so rotten in our system, to parade before the people as the one true democrat: all of this was risible and we wrote as much. Our friends and relatives in government circles were now warning us that we were threatening the country’s stability with our attacks; that the prime minister was more powerful and dangerous than we imagined; that the game was up. But the game was all we knew.
Then one bright morning I went out onto our balcony and saw the tanks surrounding the president’s palace. “I didn’t know we had so many tanks,” I remember I said to my wife. She didn’t think it was funny. She feared for me. She was right to. I spent that night standing up in a packed cell in the headquarters of the security police.
* * *
Everyone in the House of Journalists has, in his own way, seen the tanks, made light of the moment, and then found himself in a police cell. For most there was a sense of destiny in it. It was a culmination.
I, by contrast, waited in that cell for the door to open and the light to flood back in. I had made a small name for myself in those circles I have talked about; and I had played a minor part in attacking the growing authoritarian tendency of the new prime minister and his faction. But I never imagined there was any real danger in it. In the months running up to “the clampdown” there had been an increasing number of instances of journalists and activists being arrested and even beaten up. But such abuses were not unknown under previous governments. Were the “human rights violations” of the new administration that we railed against really any worse than those we had been pointing out for years? We remained confident that those picked up would soon be released and patched up, as they always had been in the past. To talk of outright tyranny, as we did with some relish, was overdone, surely?
I would certainly have dismissed the notion that I was risking my life or even my freedom to uphold democracy and the rule of law. Such a claim would have seemed to me showy, vulgar: a pose. And I was not alone in thinking this way among my class of countrymen. We were all infected by the same fatal insouciance.
The executions began at dawn.
There was no resistance from our side. All the fight in us was mere words. The prime minister knew that. It could have been a bloodless coup. All the blood was for show—like the tanks. So vulgar, we thought. The prime minister’s class of countrymen sensed our distaste and slaughtered more of us, spurred on by our insufferable fastidiousness. Soft, effete, spineless—they spat it out, and we just stood there. Some of us—more and more during the day—they took out and shot; others of us, including me, just waited … into a second day … into a third. It was a humbling experience: I was not such an important person.
Stay that way, a snivel spirit whispered in my ear: make yourself small; crawl under a stone, like a bug; crawl out only when it is safe. In the years to come, the years in the camp, I lived this way: low to the ground. It was the only way to survive. But in those first days, I was still possessed of a stronger, self-important spirit which urged me to stand tall. When they come for you, it said—as surely they will, as surely they must—you will face torture and death with pride and defiance. Yes, pride and defiance in the face of torture and death. You can face it. Yes, I could. Then. But only because I still didn’t quite believe it would happen; I still thought they would open the door and the light would flood back in …
Then the thud of a gunshot from the execution yard overhead or the unmanned pleadings of another hero being dragged by his heels along the concrete corridor would knock the knees from under me.
Believe it now?
Back, buglike, under the stone, scuttle.
Then, on the fourth morning, they released me. There was no flooding in of light; the door had slammed shut on any possibility of that. They took me for a broken man—and they were half right. It should have been a snivel-spirit victory: home, family, head-down safety, a keep-out-of-trouble future; a second chance, clouded only by the luxury of survivor guilt. Most men, in most of the world, for most of history, crave nothing more. But the new authorities had dismissed me from their sight so quickly that such a victory was not quite enough for me. My will to resist, my pride in doing so, had not quite been broken. It was a tiny miscalculation on their part; a grotesque folly on mine. My wife, my children, my mother, pleaded with me to please, please, think of your safety, think of ours … (The echo of it haunts me still.) Please, please, think of yourself, think of us …
But I would not listen.
I wrote the article: “an unchained howl of outrage and anguish”; “a devastating philippic against oppression everywhere”; “the last word on lost freedoms”—I use some of the descriptions which have been attached to it since—and yet, in truth, above all, this is how at the ultimate reckoning it will be judged: a mere bauble to flatter myself. It was published in a newspaper that was closed down within days. That article, eight hundred words closely typed on flimsy paper, would be much revered in this place. If a copy existed they would frame it behind glass and display it on the wall. But in my torn-apart country, in those tumultuous days, my article was contemptuously ignored by the people, who despised my class—a self-serving bunch that had led the country to this disaster—and who were intent only on their own safety. I was rearrested, at their leisure, by the security police. I was waiting for them and they kept me waiting. (It was a form of torture.) I really was no danger to them and could be left to swing slowly in the susurrus of indifference I had stirred up. They broke me in those few days. Thereafter I lived to the law, the one law that reads: there is no heroism; there is only survival. The snivel-spirit law.
The House of Journalists, Julian and his Committee, does not welcome such talk. I understand that and I speak only for myself. Others must tell it as it was for them.
YES, I AM MUSTAPHA
I should introduce myself. I am Mustapha. (In the same way you are AA?) It is not my real name. I am reluctant to give my real name for fear of reprisals at home. My wife and children are still there: lost to me, safe from me. To imagine that I am protecting them is perhaps a vain and selfish comfort? It is a comfort all the same.
But I “must ’ave a name”? I looked at the immigration official, a young lad with laughing eyes, in terror. My fear shook him. I think he was new to this line of work. “Okay, don’t worry about it.” He didn’t want to scare me. “Really. It just means I ’ave to be your mum and dad.” I didn’t understand what he meant, of course. “Gotta fill in the form, ’aven’t I? So I’m writin’ down ’ere—Mustapha. Get it? No, course you don’t. No worries, mate. You.” He pointed to me. “Mustapha.” He pointed to the word on the form. “Mustapha. Must ’ave a name.” He laughed to himself—a rather hopeless, empty, not-much-of-a-job-not-much-of-a-life sort of laugh. “And me, I’m Barry.” He shook my hand. “Nice to meet yer, Mustapha.”
I know that some of the staff and volunteer supporters at the House of Journalists regard this name as demeaning. They have suggested that I change it. But I try always to remember that the small men of any system, the petty officers, face their own pressures and difficulties. They take it out on us in different ways. Most choose indifference; some, mockery; a few, cruelty. (The godly and the righteous are the worst of all.) But there are also the ones with a twinkle of humanity. They are usually the jokers, the drinkers. True, they can turn nasty in a flicker; but if they can win a smile out of you, there is some kind of bond. “Smile, it may never ’appen,” they say—or would do if they spoke like Barry. And you think: that is a terrible thing to say; it is their job to make it happen. But then you think: at the moment of saying it, they mean it. It is a way of showing some common humanity, no less, no more. They do their job, they don’t dwell on it; they couldn’t do their job if they did. “You’d have to be a sadist,” as they say, though it is true too that there are sadists among them. The godly and righteous: the worst of all.
I am taking myself back in my mind to the gulags out on the ice-bound plains, the freezing interrogation huts, the wind-beaten execution lots. My own country has become the worst place on earth for me (and that is the saddest thing a man can say). But I am dreaming now, as I dreamt then, of how it was, in the past, of my wife and children, of our apartment in the city and our house along the coast, of lunches and picnics and long evenings around the fire or out under the stars, evenings full of talk and music and poetry, of father and mother, of my brothers and sisters, of riding out across my grandfather’s estate to swim in the lakes or driving up to ski in the mountains, of friends at my private school and at university and at the newspaper and at the publishing firm. I am dreaming, as I dreamt then, of the people I love, of the places I hold dear, of cherished times, prosperous, peaceful, privileged, carefree, only to wake up drenched in a fright sweat as icy as the driving sleet that freezes our bones as we labour to build the new military airstrip. I am on my pallet bed, trying to clutch some warmth from a mealy blanket. I am here in the House of Journalists. I am warm, but I will never feel warm. I am safe, but I will never feel safe. I have escaped, but I can never escape.
So when I arrived in this country and a petty officer, making light, chose to extend his hand, I chose to hang on to the humanity in his small gesture. I chose not to take my new name as a joke at my expense. I am Mustapha. I am a “play on words.”
* * *
The language classes at the House of Journalists take account of the fact that we are all writers or broadcasters, that we are all “wordsmiths.” Peculiar local idioms will interest and amuse us, they think. One we learn early is “windbag.” There is always a lot of laughter, perhaps because the construction immediately suggests to us flatulence, farting, guffing—there are so many words for it. “Yes, yes, there is something of that,” our teacher, a young writer called Esther, agrees. “A windbag may be said to be full of ‘hot air,’ to be ‘gassing on,’ but also to have ‘verbal diarrhoea’ or to be—if you’ll excuse me—‘full of shit.’ And ‘windbags’ are often ‘old farts’ as well.” She has lost most of us by this stage, but she does not need to give us an example of a windbag. We can all think of one.
Copyright © 2013 by Tim Finch