Entre Chien et Loup: On Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

Entre Chien et Loup: On Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

2004-01-07
Prisoner of Love
Jean Genet
Trans. Barbara Bray, New York Review of Books, 430 pp.

Tim Keane reviews Genet’s republished Prisoner of Love, a ‘mirror-memoir’ in which Genet sees Palestine from the inside in an attempt to see himself from the outside.

Writing for Genet meant living up to the spirit evoked by the old French expression about sundown: entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” - the familiar domestic given way to the rabid hunter. Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterful study Saint Genet testifies to this singular quality of Genet’s work, though Genet famously dismissed the landmark biography by saying it was about Sartre. In a similar vein, Genet’s final book, Un Captif amoureux, a fragmented memoir of his time among the Palestinians, must be said to be as much about its author as it is about its purported subjects. First published in France in 1986 and culled from manuscripts Genet was working on when he died, Prisoner of Love, in a translation by Barbara Bray, has been republished by New York Review of Books.

Hailed by Edward Said as a “grand and fearless” account of a struggle that even before the intifada of 1987 has seemed doomed, Prisoner of Love moves seamlessly between polemical deduction and poetic meditation. Genet’s narrative is more philosophical than psychological, flashing back in time from his first two-year “visit” to the West Bank in 1971, during King Hussein’s offensives against the Palestinians, and his second, shorter and more elegiac visit in 1984. Both periods are interrupted by stories from his various worldwide trips, including his forays among the Black Panthers in the US in the late 1960s.

Attempting to draw parallels between black Americans and The Palestinians as peoples lost to history, Genet clearly finds himself among kindred spirits, as at home among the dispossessed Palestinians as he is among the convicts, thieves, murderers, and prostitutes who populate his novels.

Indifferent to the assumptions of most Western observers of the Mideast, the memoir is a testament not of patronizing reportage but actual experience. Fatalistic and amoral, Genet reviles in contradictory impulses and odd conclusions. Compared to the force of history, he describes the PLO as “a little breeze, friendly, almost gentle.” Gentle? Kalashnikov-bearing fedayeen and suicide bombers? Guerilla encampments in the deserts outside Amman? Nighttime raids into Syria and Jordan? Yet for a book about paramilitary organizations, the memoir is far less violent than his novels, perhaps because the Jean Genet of Prisoner of Love is more interested in the complexities of atmosphere and motive; a gentleness pervades the text; the guerilla campaigns remain more of a background specter than an immediate spectacle, a “distant gunfire under the stars” as Genet’s lyricism erupts on every page:

The only noises I heard for over a year were gunfire and the hum of a plane or helicopter: it wasn’t until after the battle of Aljoun, when I heard them again, that I realized the hens had never stopped clucking or the cows lowing. (166)

Genet’s early novels were volcanic attempts to transform prose into raw experience. Prisoner of Love finds the enfant terrible to be more reflective and even wistful, inviting his readers to come close, to bear witness to his own reclamation of these various moments and periods in his life, what he calls these “souvenirs.” At times we peer over his shoulder as he writes.

The book, though, is also fuelled by back-glancing anger. He rails against the British Empire’s betrayals of the Arab world and seethes with hatred of Israel and the indifferent Arab regimes of Jordan and Egypt. Yet he portrays his Palestinian hosts with a disinterested, probing intimacy that renders issues of historical myth and national lineage moot. Indeed, the fedayeen often turn out to be more clear-eyed and cynical and circumspect than Genet. And narratives from without clash with narratives created within. The Palestinians who wish for Israel’s destruction as they battle the Bedouin troops of Jordan in 1971 operate in an ideological no-man’s land somewhere between Das Kapital and The Koran, “with God always bumping into the domed forehead of Marx, who denied him” (105). Genet’s Palestinians, wary of Islamic fundamentalism, resent the wealthy Palestinian aristocratic families who, secured by claims of descent from the prophet, sustain the viability of the movement. Conversely, familiar historical players whom Genet meets are humanized by his novelist’s eye for detail. His closest confidantes, the otherwise anonymous characters named Hamza and Mubarak, are eroticized as icons.

And it is Genet the working novelist and not the raging polemcist who describes his first meeting with Yasser Arafat:

I was very surprised when I met him. From in front he looked as I expected, but when he turned his head to answer me and showed his left profile I saw a different man. The right profile was grim and harsh, the left very mild, with an almost feminine smile underlined by his nervous habit of tossing back his black and white keffiyeh. Its fringes and bobbles would fall over his shoulders, sometimes over his eyes, like the hair of an angry youth. (141)

Which is not to say Genet eschews Arafat’s ideology. He applauds the radicals for resisting the pressures that the language of the world imposes on them. “The Palestinians, by challenging the contempt implied in the words terrorism and terrorist, and by their indifference to the fact of being cast as the devil, showed both courage and bravery” (190). Though the reader must judge for himself or herself regarding the Palestinian means and ends, Genet’s writing is undeniably credible because he mostly lets his subjects speak for themselves. And they speak passionately, with a frankness one cannot help but respect. Answering the charge of terrorism, his friend Mubarak declares, “As far as terrorism is concerned, we’re nothing compared to the Americans,” and, “If the whole world’s a kingdom of terror we know who to thank” (14).

Readers might be surprised by the prevailing defeatism Genet detects even among the movement’s martyrs. Twenty years later, his conclusions find their parallels in today’s headlines. “You have to understand that the people you call terrorists know without needing to be told that they, their persons and their ideas, will only be brief flashes against a world wrapped up in its own smartness” (134).

Reliant on Francophone guides, Genet manages to forge meaningful connections with almost inexplicable ease, and even religious debates provide an inspiring cultural dissonance. Barely clinging to his grip on his professed atheism, Genet frequently resorts to patterns of pagan imagery and grotesque wartime anecdotes that resonate like fables. He informs us that the Palestinian operative Abu Omar was once Henry Kissinger’s pupil at Stanford University. He describes the nightmares of a Jordanian missionary nun who has been forbidden from praying. In Karachi, Genet has an epiphany when he sees the “seamless robe of Christ” in a street vendor’s unfurling sari. In one of the book’s most vivid episodes, in lush homoerotic prose that recalls the foggy seaport of Brest in Querelle, Genet describes Israeli assassins infiltrating PLO headquarters disguised as gay hippies.

After dark two English speaking hippies with fair curly hair appeared with their arms round one another’s necks, laughing and exchanging kisses. They staggered up to the two guards on duty at the foot of Kamal Udwan’s stairs. The guards shouted insults at the two shocking queers, who promptly showed the excellence of their training by whipping out revolvers, rushing up the stairs and killing Kamal. (183)

Presence and re-presentation, appearance and disappearance, these are the parameters of Genet’s morality. He describes suicide bombing as an aesthetic choice. “Would Hamlet have felt the delicious fascination of suicide if he hadn’t an audience, and lines to speak?” (63). So it’s not surprising when he compares the decision of suicide bombers to “cross over,” with the joy felt by the transsexual who has opted for a sex-change operation. And he sets this metaphor to the soundtrack of Mozart’s Requiem:

Once the decision is made he is filled with joy at the thought of his new sex… Thanks to joy in death or in the new, despite bereavement, and in contrast to ordinary life, all moralities had broken down. What prevailed was the joy of the transsexual, of the Requiem, of the kamikaze. Of the hero. (61)

Less poetically, Genet’s Palestinian comrades locate their raison d’etre on intellectual grounds rather than aesthetic ones. Excoriating Israel, the United States, and the U.N., Mubarak confesses that he and his people, “Can’t exist through our intelligence. We can only exist by getting under people’s skin” (63). Approvingly, Genet frequently cites Arafat’s 1974 speech before the UN, positing the future of the Palestinians in blunt metaphysical terms:

Europe and the rest of the world talk about us, photograph us, and so enable us to exist. But if the photographers stop coming, and radio and television and newspapers stop talking about us, Europe and the rest of the world will think, ‘The Palestinian Revolution is over. America and Israel have settled the matter between them.’ (261-262)

Existence precedes essence. Yet essence is often all we live by. One of Genet’s recurring concerns is that existence hinges on the impossibility of a movement (or of a writer or of a self) preventing its own eclipse:

The word [eclipse] also summons up the old image - Chinese, Indian, Arab, Iranian, Japanese - of a dragon swallowing the sun, which is eclipsed by the moon. In French the reflexive verb s’eclipser, literally, to eclipse oneself, hovers between the usual meaning, to slip away, escape, and the figurative connotation, to disappear because of the brightness of another. Even obsession will never fix this word - it’s always giving people the slip. (376)

The Black Panthers eclipse themselves: Genet presents them as they were: not a viable political movement but an imposing visual presence, a potent, stylistic challenge to White America. He speaks on their behalf, reading in their regalia a semiotics of sexual aggression: “The laughing Panthers wore a dense furry sex on their heads” (252). Certain tropes about blackness are more convincing than others. He compares American blacks in 1968 to typeface on an otherwise vacuous blank page of white America. However he later bemoans The Black Panthers for their “invisibility” and political impotency. Since Prisoner of Love is also a drama about finding the right metaphors for his deep-felt empathies, Genet explains the black typeface imagery more compellingly later in the book:

The black words on the American white page are sometimes crossed out or erased. The best disappear, but it’s they that make the poem… The abundance of White is what the writing is set down on, and it forms the margin too. But the poem is written by the absent blacks who wrote the poem - the dead, if you like - the nameless absent blacks who wrote the poem, of which the meaning escapes me but not the reality. (251)

White America may be blank. But for Genet’s Palestinians on the West Bank, Israel is a remote, Stygian, demonic place, and he believes Israel’s mastery of the language of war and the “poetry” of propaganda is far more sophisticated and “seductive” to the wider world than the Palestinian movement. Through descriptions of military ineptitude, demoralized ennui, foiled sorties, and political dirges, what gradually becomes clear is that Genet, battling cancer as he wrote the book in 1985, finds metaphors and analogies for his own existence, what he calls “a mirror-memoir”; as a gesture of syncretistic autobiography and negative capability, Prisoner of Love redefines the purpose of memoir. When he revisits a refugee camp in Baqa in 1984, he senses the revolution has capitulated. Without condescension, the prose conveys defeat in place (and in face) while the reflexive lyricism of the prose conveys the Palestinians’ heartbreak as Genet’s own:

Instead of a broom there was a vacuum cleaner in the room. The blades of the fan turned, but it didn’t amuse the kids. The Coca-Cola came cold from a refrigerator that was both visible and audible. But life here wasn’t lived in comfort. It was lived in resigned acceptance of comfort. Everything I looked at was clean but poor, with the sort of ascetic elegance that comes from the sure and felicitous arrangement of a few cheap bits of furniture bought perhaps at the hardware store. In the right place, a white plastic bucket can be a work of art. Allow me a platitude: the room smiled but sadly, like a Palestinian face (396).

His face, literally, in others, and theirs in his. Genet confesses his own history as an orphan and ward of the state and hopes for empathy from his Palestinian friend: “All the cracks disappeared from the knuckles, and the skin was left smooth and black without any trace of mauve. Had he been moved by the words ‘orphanage’ and ‘public assistance’?” (234). Blurring the lines that should show where the Palestinians end and he begins, the poet merges with his subjects in a feat of empathy and self-recognition few Western travel writers have ever achieved. Borders and frontiers pose an existential challenge, not a cultural one:

A border is where human personality expresses itself most fully, whether in harmony or in contradiction with itself. If I’d had to be someone other than myself - a difficult choice - I’d have been a native of Alsace-Lorraine. It’s quite different from being German or French. Whatever they may say, anyone approaching a frontier stops being a Jacobin and becomes a Machiavelli. It might be a good thing to extend border areas indefinitely - without of course, destroying the centres, since it’s they that make the borders possible. (170)

This porous quality of human borders fascinates. At age sixty, he feels resurrected by his recollections and reenactments of time among the young Palestinians. “The cadaver” of himself that he tells us was “no doubt killed by the Catholic Church” is visibly revitalized by the youthful intensity and eroticism of the virile fedayeen. And this is not merely an older man’s fading embers of lust. Identity, guided by desire, is a constant process: fictions and political movements.

Doubling and role play, synonymous with writing, are the truest forms of mimesis. So closely does Genet identify himself with the young Palestinian Hamza that he forges an emotional bond to Hamza’s mother which nearly redeems Genet’s lifelong sense of depravation. In a scene almost certainly meant as homage to A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, he describes himself sleeping in the bed of Hamza who is off fighting outside the town of Irbid:

The door opened, light from the starry sky came into the room, and behind it I could see a tall shadow. I half closed my eyes, pretending I was asleep, but through my lashes I could see everything. The mother had just come in… She was carrying a tray, which she put down on the little blue table with yellow and black flowers… The starry sky was gone, I could open my eyes. On the tray were a cup of Turkish coffee and a glass of water. I drank them, shut my eyes and waited… I’d taken the son’s place… For one night and for the duration of one simple but oft-repeated act, a man older than she was herself became the mother’s son… It was in my own personal and portable darkness that the door of my room opened and closed… I fell asleep. (193)

If we are to believe Genet - and Prisoner of Love is nothing if not convincing - his identification with the Palestinian cause inspires the fedayeen into acting out truer versions of themselves: his prose should convince readers to do likewise. For his deeply felt presence among reader, subject, and medium alike has a reciprocal effect on Genet himself, writing books not simply to record or dramatize, but as a means of intensifying being. Here at the end of his life Genet writes like an aesthetic sage advising a political cause even as he lays out his own spiritual legacy to literature:

When a man invents an image he wants to propagate, that he may even want to substitute for himself, he starts by experimenting, making mistakes, sketching out freaks and other non-viable monsters that he has to tear up unless they disintegrate of their own accords. But the operative image is the one that’s left after the person dies… Socrates, Christ, Saladin, Saint-Just and so on. They succeeded in projecting an image around themselves and into the future. (302)

During one of his many projections into the future, Genet re-imagines his own life had his mother been Jewish. Though tainted by bigotry, his capacity for such imaginings are awesome in their creative intricacy and effortless ease. And in an era in which stock quotes share headlines with news of yet another Mideast atrocity, Prisoner of Love might be one of the most prescient memoirs:

The present is always grim, and the future is supposed to be worse. The past and that which is absent are wonderful. But we live in the present and into the world lived in the present the Palestinian revolution brought a sweetness that seemed to belong to the past, to that which is far and perhaps also to that which is absent. For the adjectives that describe it are these: quixotic, fragile, brave, heroic, romantic, serious, wily, smart. In Europe people only talk in figures. In Le Monde on 31 October 1985 there are three pages of financial news. The fedayeen didn’t even count their dead. (358)

Genet clings to his nihilism not because he rejects God so much as he finds the world more interesting without Him. Challenged repeatedly by the Palestinians to profess his religion, he answers:

I didn’t believe in God. The idea of chance, a random combination of facts - a trick, even, of events, stars and beings owing their existence to themselves - such an idea seemed to me more pleasing and amusing than the idea of One God. The weight of religion crushes; chance rings lightness and laughter. (363)

Rather than demoralizing him, the hopelessness of the Palestinians along the West Bank rejuvenates his faith that the world, like life, is here only to abandon us; in response we must be because we can never have. As he writes, his own death grows in him:

Writing this book I see my own image far, far away, dwarf size, and more and more difficult to recognize with age… I see the horizon speeding toward me, the line into which I shall merge, behind which I shall vanish, from which I shall never return. (134)

Angry dissolution, blissful annihilation, style as substance: hallmarks of an artist whose restless instigations show a self discovering its many selves in the extreme predicaments of the century’s outcasts. If history is a nightmare, Genet was one modernist whose career carried him deeper into its spell, from Funeral Rites through the explosive, racially charged plays and films of the 1960s. Few writers of the late 20th century dared to live out the existential program: a postmodern hero canonized by both Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida, now with the republication of Prisoner of Love, Genet should be valued as an eyewitness to a people whose future looks even more perilous than it did when he made his final, haunting visit to Hamza’s family in 1984.

The book’s refusal to disavow Palestinian violence is sure to outrage the parties invested in the ongoing occupations in Gaza and the West Bank, not to mention those dedicated to the “peace process.” Genet would welcome their indignation. And anyway, he would probably prefer that Prisoner of Love be read like the Palestinian situation itself, a tragic narrative within the world’s greater failure, “just one more unreality inside both movements.” Readers can be grateful for the megalomaniac force of his prose and the curious depth of his vision, which frees us to be, alongside Genet, “the dreamer inside the dream” (173).