I began my journey through this year’s Orange Prize long-list with two novels centred on minority communities and anchored in the closely related conflicts of cultural integration, differentiation and exclusion: first Lorraine Adam’s Harbor, a portrait of illegal Algerian immigrants in the USA and then Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience about the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London. In many ways they’re very different novels – diametrically opposed in plot form, prose style, narrative momentum, even philosophy – and both are worthy by their own merits. Nevertheless, reading them in quick succession was something of a thematic revelation: they share a coincidence of tensions related to issues of cultural translation and belonging, of religious conviction and social norm, of free will and historical determinism. (Because I don’t want to clog the works I’m posting the Harbor half today and the Disobedience half tomorrow…)
Making no bones about it: Harbor is a traumatic and challenging novel. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lorraine Adams, it had its beginnings in an article – an anatomy of a terrorist investigation – undertaken while she was the Washington Post’s correspondent assigned to the FBI and Justice Department. It begins with Aziz Arkoun, a 24 year old refugee of the Algerian civil war, jumping into the icy waters of Boston Harbour after 52 days hiding in the hold of a natural gas tanker. His hands and neck scratched raw from contact with packing crate insulation (asbestos he thinks), his eyelids blistered, “some kind of wet coming from his ears” and his feet horrifically burned by steam from a vent, he somehow paddles to shore in search of a new life. We learn it is his third attempt and that his previous one had ended with being pistol-whipped into a three-week coma by a tanker captain. Making contact with his charismatic cousin Rafik he finds shelter in a one-bedroom apartment shared with five other Algerians (plus Rafik’s American girlfriend, Heather) and finds work as a dish-washer at a Mexican restaurant. Thus begins his American dream. Within a few months he is joined by his elder brother Mourad, who has successfully applied for a Green Card, and his childhood friend Ghazi. Slowly, however, he becomes aware of the existence of a mysterious storage locker, rented by Rafik and Kamal, another Algerian, which may or may not be connected with a terrorist cell and which forms the lynch-pin of subsequent narrative tension. Soon the FBI begin to take an interest in Aziz and his friends’ activities, mistaking their loose community affiliations for a tight-knit nationwide organisation, and all else dissolves into those topical questions, urgent and inevitable: How do you define and recognise a terrorist? Can you identify him by whom he kills and under what circumstances? Who is to blame? How are our coping strategies inadequate? How is the “other” unlike us? How much of our shared humanity is obliterated by our cultural differences?
These are heavy questions for a 300 page debut novel and Adams’ exploration of them makes for intense reading. Still, to borrow a cliché of book-reviewing, its the stuff that “post-9/11 novels” (and how I hate that phrase) are made of…or should be made of at least. While the novel’s main narrative is set in Boston in 1999, it is reflexively predicated on the suspicions rife in twenty-first century America, acknowledging the situation even as it challenges assumptions. Still, categorising it as “post 9/11” fiction seems somehow dismissive of its wider implications and puts it in generally disappointing company with Jay McInerney’s recent piece of vapid cultural egotism The Good Life or, dare I say it, with Ian McEwan’s worthy but self-conscious Saturday. Harbor is far more ambitious than either of these narratives and as multi-faceted as its title suggests. A harbour is a safe-haven, a place to shelter, repair and recuperate and Boston Harbour, where the action begins, is also deeply associated with the American struggle for freedom. But current rhetoric speaks of “harbouring” terrorists as an act of passive aggression and so to harbour is also to conceal, obscure and support that which is dangerous. By problematising the word Adams points up the hypocrisy in America’s foreign policy and re-writes our notions of the war on terror or “the new world order”. It seeks to remind us that this order of the world is decades old and older still, and infinitely complex in its causes and effects. It takes the word “terrorism”, which has become a watchword for Islamic aggression towards innocents and liberalises it: all people’s can experience terror. The line between victims and aggressors, between the blameless and the guilty, is a thin one.
At the same time it reviles easy liberal solutions or platitudes; it isn’t an apologia for anyone and seeks to convey the faults and deep ignorance on both sides of the cultural divide. The alienation and cultural estrangement, the difficulty of translation inherent in our conceptualisation of terrorism, is foregrounded: the FBI can’t find a translator who understands the dialect of Arabic that Aziz and his friends speak and they can’t fathom the historical context of the Algerian civil war. They make sweeping assumptions: “Algeria has a problem with these sickos” explains the FBI team leader, “I know that. They’ve got ties with Al Qaeda. Lots of Afghan vets were Algerian, went back home, viva Allah. Algeria. I understand Algeria.” When questioned further by her inadequate translator she retorts: “Jesus Mark, I’m an investigator, not a political science major.” But the Algerians find America equally alien. They struggle to interpret American body language or facial expressions, or to comprehend the sinister implications of their most innocent actions. Ignorance on both sides is the killer in Harbor but Adams appreciates that the ignorant individuals are not completely to blame. The difficulties of cultural translation are impossible, the historical situations intractable, understanding is partial and privileged, assumptions are deep-rooted and unquestioned. As Aziz points out “The CIA have no one in Algeria. If they did how would they tell who is who? I am Algerian and I cannot tell.” Further, Adams is fearless in delving into the murkiness of allegiances amongst America’s Algerian refugees, she admits the petty criminal behaviour, the buzz of dissatisfaction and their uncontrollable itinerancy. Even Aziz, whose retention of a kind of ragged innocence is beautifully rendered, is complicated by a series of flashbacks that reveal his own part in wartime atrocities. There are no outs for our anguish, no-one to scapegoat.
Still, there are lacuna in Harbor. It is not a novel about fundamentalism and it shies away from the religious causes of violence even as it interrogates the political and social ones. The narrative’s only overt Islamic extremist fails to appear in the flesh (although we hear his voice through telephone conversations) while the main characters of the novel including Aziz are generally ambivalent towards Islam. Nobody attends the mosque. This is probably a sensible decision on Adams’ part. By leaving the motivations of her auxiliary characters oblique she captures the sense of confusion, distaste and vague fear felt by the reader and by the novel’s central figures. Nevertheless, the absence is a notable one, detracting from the universality of Harbor’s themes. In this sense it is as more a novel about Algeria and Algerians than it is about terrorism in general. Still, in a recent interview Adams contextualised the novel within a long tradition of “terrorist” fiction, citing Henry James and Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” as forbears. And certainly, by denying the singularity of our current world predicament she recognizes Harbor as part of an even longer tradition of humanising the political and the abstract through fiction.
Finally, precise and disorientating Adam’s prose finds a balance between the objectivity of newspaper reporting and the empathy of character exploration. Without that balance Harbor could easily have degenerated into a temporarily relevant polemic; as it stands there is a widely applicable heart to it. It is not just a novel for Americans, or a cautionary tale, or a tirade against policies for dealing with immigrants or terrorism (although it is all of these things) it is an attempt to make sense of a highly sensitive problem world problem. In the same interview Adams characterised it as “a classical immigrant adventure”. It seems a strange phrase but proves applicable if we consider the book’s wider themes: how are we to communicate with each other meaningfully across such great divides? How are we to bypass our sense of alienation and difference peacefully? If, after engaging with such fundamentals so well, Harbor fails to make the Orange shortlist I’ll be more than a little enraged.
(To be continued...)