Review: 1914 Goodbye to all That

1914, pushkin press, ali smith, ales steger,
1914


1914 - Goodbye To All That by Pushkin Press is a collection of essays by writers from across the world on what wars means to them, or how they have been affected by them. Many of the essays are stories of grandparents or great-grandparents who took part in the First World War or were alive when it happened. The writers come from diverse backgrounds and provide for a rich variety of experiences and a multi-dimensional approach to longing, sorrow, and silence of the unexpressed pain. There is Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Daniel Kehlmann, Aleš Šteger, Elif Shafak, NoViolet Bulawayo, Erwin Mortier, Xiaolu Guo, Colm Tóibín, and Jeanette Winterson. Lavinia Greenlaw, the editor: "I didn't want writers simply to return to the past but to formulate and reinvigorate questions we should never stop exploring. They wer asked to consider the loss of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it means to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations".

Ali Smith's Good Voice reminisces about the lost spoken voices and the various tones which disappeared into the nothing forever. She converses with her father about this "German linguist who went round the prisoner-of-war camps in the First World War with a recording device, a big horn-like thing like on gramophones, making shellac recording of all the British and Irish accents he could find". Except for the fact that her father's been dead for five years. Goodbye to some of that by Kamila Shamsie from Karachi draws on experiences of growing up in a politically charged Pakistan with each potentate baying for the blood of the other in a long saga of failed dictatorships. She visits Abbottabad as a child and remembers his uncle's library and the garden, vast to a four-year old. An interesting phrase she uses is "Partition of India and Pakistan". This is interesting because politically Pakistan came into existence on 14th-Aug, 1947 when it gained freedom from the British (and India!). Though the seeds of separations had started to germinate in mid-18th-century itself. She moves to London from Karachi but then realizes this meant "giving up the world from which my fiction derived".

Elif Shafak's poignant rendering of the sudden loss of language in modern Turkey. She writes, "In the 1900s an educated Turk would speak and read Ottoman Turkish, which was written with the Arabic script but retained a Turkish syntax with Persian elements. After the establishment of the modern Turkish nation state in 1923 a wholesale cultural transformation  was initiated. Since the alphabet was changed in 1925 from Arabic to Latin, today the average Turkish citizen cannot read anything that dates from before that year: the text on an Ottoman grave, the inscription on a dry fountain or a poem carved in marble...". And draws it deeper amidst the trenches of loss of Istanbulites: "It's odd that a city so ancient now has the memory of an infant". Bulawayo brings out the pain of being in a diaspora, often accused of second-hand feelings, removed and far away from one's country. She voices the protests of Owen Maseko, whose installations depict the "massacres, commonly known in Zimbabwe as Gukurahundi, affected the Ndebee regions of the country, home to Zimbabwe's second-largest ethnic group".

However, it has to be Erwin Mortier's The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing which reeks of the greatest personal loss to The Great War. That we are not born free, and the moment we are born we are assigned identities, and friends and enemies alike, is not lost on him: "As soon as we leave the womb we exchange the amniotic fluid that has surrounded us for nine months for a sea of stories in which we are submerged long before we are aware of it. And, just as we learn the hard way that it is not sensible to touch a hot stove or a frozen door handle, we gradually realize that silences occur in the stories in which are embedded that are equally untouchable. Memory too has its sore spots". His "head teacher had fought int he Resistance in the Second World War. Now he taught the grandchildren of collaborators to read and write...". Coolies by Xiaolu Guo remembers the contribution of 100,000 contracted coolies who were taken to France to dig trenches and were often killed or punished for objecting to inhuman working conditions.

Jeanette Winterson's Writing on the Wall is about the perpetual animosity between the elite and the poor, the art and the non-art, the human and the animal. "Marx's view was straightforward: Sociaism was needed to provide for man's animal needs (food and water, shelter, safety, heath, rest, a clean environment), so that man might have leisure to supply his human needs. What are our human needs? Love and friendship, family life, education, intellectual pursuit, sport, enquiry, curiosity, books, music, art in all its changing shapes and forms". But isn't art elitist? The hunger in the stomach doesn't yield to sensual paints, nor does the wound of a slaughter heal by soothing words. The hungry cannot remember, because they need to exist. The elite, not necessarily monetarily, remember because existing is passé.

All in all, 1914 is a collection of subtle remembrances of what was and what is, and possibly on what might be lest we forget.

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