Mar '03 [Home]
Voice of Conscience: Two Novels by Moris Farhi
There are novels of artifice, and then there are novels of conscience, the only ones worth reading. I don't usually review works of fiction, but a writer friend recommended I read Journey through the Wilderness; intrigued by Farhi's lyrical use of language, I then continued on with Children of the Rainbow. Both books are highly demanding of the reader: they are gut-wrenching in their depictions of political brutality and oppression. And they have characters that engage in long philosophical dialogues, often dropped for a few pages, or chapters, then continued with greater intensity as the plot develops. Apparently, for Farhi, the unexamined life is not only not worth living, but unthinkable for any of his characters. But this is a virtue within his work. We can read his books the same way we read Dostoevski—for the pleasure of seeing a moral dilemma named, then confronted.
Journey through the Wilderness is set in Latin America. For most of the characters, redemption is achieved by suffering. Whatever plans they once had for their lives are shot to hell, and change becomes inevitable. Here is an exchange between the two lovers in the book, Daniel and Beatriz.
'When life is sweet, it is beautifully sweet. I want to run off with it and hide.'
Love, in this novel, is not just about being in love. The worthiest love is union with the Divine. And the purest expression of human hunger for the divine becomes the figure of Manku Yupanqui, a mythical deity sacred to the downtrodden peasants, a being who will bring justice for his people. Sacrifices are required, and they are made. By the end of the novel, Yupanqui has changed the lives of all the major characters, including Daniel, Beatriz, Teresa, and even the evil military dictator Fuego.
Fuego's conversion to Manku Yupanqui, the most startling, is expressed in crisp and poetic imagery. Dying, he "smelled of marigolds."  "Fuego was naked. The poultices covering his wounds made him look like an ancient tomb, honoured only by fallen leaves."  And as he dies, the transformation of his physical body goes even farther: "The hoarse voice was also mellifluous. Its softness reflected the softness of the body. Probably because of the way he was reclining against the Intihuatana's column, legs parted, that rapist's cock shrunken to a thin cartilage and looking more like the vaginal divide, Fuego had the appearance of a woman. Perhaps that was what he had become. Transfigured into God." 
In Children of the Rainbow, spiritual transformation is again of primary importance. For Branko, a man living his life as an assimilated European, the knowledge that he's of Gypsy ancestry drives him into a world of danger. Here Farhi shows how human beings create the image of the Stranger, the Other: hunted, feared, and often killed, and haunting the imaginations of white Europe for all the wrong reasons.
Branko gazed at the tourists and spectators lining the streets. Gadje — all of them. Even the most weathered ones had pallor beneath their skins. Staring, caught between sympathy and antipathy, as if the Gypsies were freaks. But behind the ambivalence, there was lust. From white men for Gypsy women — sometimes for Gypsy men. And from white women for Gypsy men. A hunger that could not be appeased, because it had detached itself from the soul. A hunger Branko still remembered from his time in the gadje world. 
This depiction of racism, set at a festival in Provence, will have particular relevance for an American audience — so many Black and Asian writers have had similar insights about the white man's lust. It adds to the book's power that Farhi brings in the genocide of Gypsies at Auschwitz, the casual multiplied killings of Gypsies in so-called "modern" European nations, and the inability of Gypsies to find decent jobs or adequate housing in those countries.
If there are hardships, there are also joys for these characters. The beauty and wisdom of songs, ritual, and stories sustain Branko's loved ones within the book. A "Gypsy Bible" is discovered. The texts borrow from traditions all over the world, and are set in a different font. This is postmodern, and it works as a running commentary on the real action in the book, with dreamlike encounters, and a running compendium of symbols, archetypes, and vivid imagery. Here is one excerpt:
— the second time vut-oza approached me in the highlands in the guise of fravashi the guardian angel and pushed me off the mountain but the spider nymph who always watches over saviours arrested my fall I confronted vut-oza by exposing my feet and the eater of souls promptly fled he dares not show his feet which are that of a hen
Finding the Gypsy Bible itself is an heroic task worthy of the ancient Greeks, an epic journey for Branko. This is where Farhi's language positively sings. The tones are somber, they strike at us, even shock us, but in speaking of genocide, they seem grimly appropriate. Branko's final descent to find the bible takes him through darkness, and a hail "not composed of solid ash, but of slashed wombs and perforated testicles, of scorched vaginas and mutilated penises."  The lost, the murdered, all the forgotten victims in the world guard this Holy Book. And regarding this level of ash-mud, "Its chunks have encased the Scriptures like fossils, within their translucent resin."  In Farhi's work, the body itself is always holy. Transgressions against the body, extreme violence, lead souls inevitably to seek out God.
If there is a flaw in Farhi's writing, it is a love of excess — a tendency to get melodramatic at times, in descriptive passages or lines of dialogue. In Children of the Rainbow, a character called Lumnia tends to address Branko as "my Rom," as in "Yes, my Rom," "Come here, my Rom," or, glaringly, the clinker of "You doubt too much, my Rom."  A more natural tone may have worked better. However, this is a minor quibble.
When I was growing up in the 1950's and early '60's, I encountered novels that were called "blockbusters" — Leon Uris's Mila 18 comes to mind, and Exodus; also, a novel called The Last of the Just, and one with the wonderful title of Like a River of Lions. They imprinted on my mind the fact that writers could have, as a theme, the destiny of an entire people; and at the core of that destiny, a struggle for justice.
But those popular novels have come and gone. Farhi is a much better writer. Moris Farhi is, in fact, a world class writer. He has a profound understanding of history, and writes with heart and passion. In both Journey through the Wilderness and Children of the Rainbow, oppressed people unite, take action and, despite great odds, maintain courage and vision. They manage to frustrate their tormentors, and survive. In these troubled times, Farhi's is a message worth reading again and again.
[Originally from Turkey, Moris Farhi studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In addition to his writing for film and television, an earlier novel, The Last of Days, brought him acclaim. Farhi is a human rights activist and has chaired the Writers in Prison committee of PEN International. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.—Eds.]
(In 2002, Sharon Olinka went back and forth to New Orleans to research a novel set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. She recently organized a reading of anti-war poetry, bringing together San Francisco and New York poets at the Bowery Poetry Club. Her poetry appeared in the recent anthology from Random House, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. Other publications include Long Shot, Poetry Wales, Luna, ONTHEBUS. Two of the poems from her collection about the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, "Sophia's Room" and "Winged Lions" which appeared in a special section of the Sep '02 issue of Big City Lit, are scheduled for reprint in Jewish Quarterly, a journal published in the U.K.)