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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Head in Flames" by Lance Olsen

On November 2, 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri in daylight before hundreds people. After shooting van Gogh numerous times, Bouyeri slit his throat, then stuck a letter onto his dying body with a knife. The letter was from Saifu Deen al Muwahhied, a Muslim imam, and warned Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she would be next.

The immediate reason for the assassination was a movie, Submission Part 1, made by van Gogh and Hirsi Ali and shown on Dutch television. It was a direct attack on the way the religion of Islam causes women to be subjugated. The most provocative images were of women in see-through burkas who had verses from the Quran written on their bodies.

This is the historical occasion that Lance Olsen uses to inform his fine collage novel, Head in Flames (Chiasmus, 2009). In it, Olsen alternates perspective between three "characters": Theo van Gogh, Mohammed Bouyeri, and Vincent van Gogh, the 19th-century painter and the great granduncle of Theo van Gogh. During his lifetime, Vincent was extremely close to his brother, also named Theo van Gogh, who was the great grandfather of the murdered filmaker.

Olsen uses three fonts to highlight changes in perspective: Vincent van Gogh's perspective is in standard font, Theo's is in bold, and Bouyeri's is in a light font. Each narraticule, as Olsen refers to them, is only about a phrase to five sentences in length. The result is that we move quickly not only back and forth between perspectives, but between radically different cultural assumptions and historical periods.

Theo was, according to many, a good if not great filmmaker. He was also a smart ass, a slob, a lover of attention, and just plain nasty: "Ayaan had the impression, she told him later, that Theo was the sort of person who had the compulsive urge to goad and insult even his closest friends, preferably on TV" (34).

Bouyeri was also nasty to his friends. As he was growing up, he was fun-loving and secular. He drank, took drugs, and was good at cracking jokes. Then he found religion — "[Your] beard just unruly enough to frighten them" (28) — and "You began threatening chums you caught drinking alcohol in bars...shouting down acquaintances in cafés when they dared disagree with you."

Hirsi Ali comes across as a courageous, brilliant, and headstrong character, although we don't specifically hear her perspective. Through Theo Van Gogh, we learn of her horrible circumcision, her fleeing an arranged marriage, and so on. She later becomes a vocal critic of Islam, believing that it is the religion itself that dictates the poor treatment of women. She is deemed a "secular fundamentalist" by some, and not without good reason: would it be fair to condemn all of Christianity because of the many extreme and even, according to contemporary mores, immoral actions and laws the Bible celebrates?

Vincent van Gogh is sensitive to the breaking point. "I'm afraid I can't sleep on this pillow. It stinks of dreams" (42). He ends up becoming mentally ill and spending some time in institutions, then he shoots himself in the chest, and dies a few days later. Perhaps it's no coincidence that his brother Theo, who was extremely close to him, died six months later.

Theo van Gogh, Mohammed Bouyeri , Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Vincent van Gogh: these are the characters Olsen uses to create his novel. As with any literary collage, one of the chief questions concerns the relation of the finished literary work to the historical documents that it uses. What does the literature show us that history cannot?

I will get at this question in three ways: one is to discuss the phenomenology of reading Olsen's collage work; the second is to discuss what happens if we choose to read a single perspective for a few pages, while skipping the other two; finally, the third is to discuss how recontextualizing certain passages from history to literature creates a new effect with different insights.

Surprisingly, this book reads quickly. There is a tremendous momentum that builds from page one. Granted, it is a momentum full of bumps and bruises because of the shifts in perspective, but I think it is fair to say that most of us would be pulled through the novel with force.

This quotation begins with a description of snuff movies that Bouyeri was fond of:

"Quranic recitations soundtracking on the videos as the infidels' heads were sawn off.

The not completely unfamiliar young man nevertheless remaining undettered.

Hit me baby one more time.

Although you were always taken aback by how relatively little blood was involved in the cleansings you would have expected more" (47-8).

We move quickly from Bouyeri's description of religious snuff films to a Vincent quotation filled with double negatives, displaying the impossibility of speaking with precision and specificity. And Theo thinks of a Brittany Spears song. We end with a cold and practical thought on the part of Bouyeri.

If we move through this quickly, and I think we end up doing so, the perspectives begin to blur. The sexual metaphor, perhaps grounded in sado-masochism, "hit me baby," is juxtaposed with the description of a religious killing. The Western song about sex manages to be both explicit and entirely metaphorical. Any actual violence is dissolved into the slipperiness of language.

On the other hand, there is no room for slipperiness from the fundamentalist Muslim perspective. The Quran is the literal voice of Allah. It must be submitted to. Those who don't submit must be killed in order to cleanse the earth of the infidels. There is no nuance, ambivalence, ambiguity.

The fact that the Quran is interpreted differently by various sects of Muslims is not evidence to the fundamentalists that the text is less than stable, but evidence that there are evil people trying to corrupt the clear teachings of Allah. This is, I hasten to add, an extreme fundamentalist perspective that is probably not held by a lot of Muslims. However, Hirsi Ali is convinced that this intolerance goes to the very heart of Islam.

The addition of the Van Gogh quotation about the "undeterred young man" is fascinating because it contains both the determination that is celebrated by Bouyeri — "undeterred" — and the slipperiness inherent in the pop song. The litotes are the key: they show the inability of language to connect directly and unambiguously with experience.

As we move between these three perspectives in the course of the four narraticules, we get bumped between their notions of violence and love. However, the similarities are also interesting. Both the Western and the Muslim perspective celebrates violence. Both have an explicitness. Both are extremely bold. And in the midst of this we have the "mad" Vincent trying so hard to say exactly what he means, and feeling that he can never get there: "not completely unfamiliar."

Reading this passage quickly causes us to both bump against perspective and, interestingly, to blur them. This passage, as with the whole novel, needs to be read both quickly and slowly. For instance, we need to take the time to go back and read through the Bouyeri perspectives, so that we can see their development without the "blur." As this section of the book unfolds, we may be surprised to find out how angry his father is at him for becoming a fundamentalist. (All Muslims are not alike.)

We also begin to see the reasons for Bouyeri's anger. For one, the "possibilities" opened by Dutch society were too much for him. He felt uncomfortable with such limitlessness. Another issue was the supposedly "easy" Dutch girls who would not sleep with him. Muslims were for the most part stuck doing horribly demeaning jobs: "scour our fucking toilets you fucking muzzies" (62).While it is abundantly clear that some Muslim terrorists come from well-to-do circumstances, this section of the book does seem to correctly ground Bouyeri's discontent in these socio-economic areas.

Going back and reading a few narraticules by a single character and skipping those of the others helps to differentiate that character clearly. This does not happen during a quick read because the juxtapositions between the perspectives both separate and connect them. The connecting causes us to have a little difficulty clearly delineating the characters.

A final way to look at this book is to consider how Olsen chose his narraticules from all the possibilities inherent in the passages he concentrated on. I will look at four sources: Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, Vincent's letters, and the letter written by Saifu Deen al Muwahhied that was knifed into Theo's chest.

On page 22-23 Olsen divides one paragraph in the Buruma book that appears on pages 196 and 97 into three narraticules. They involve his visiting Bouyeri's father's village in the Rif mountains in Morrocco before his conversion to fundamentalism. The villagers were dirt poor.

But Bouyeri drove up in a Puegot. He then found that his Berber "was not really good enough" to converse. For this, Olsen uses the more dramatic word "decayed." Also, it turned out "most young men left [the village] to work in Europe." Olsen uses the verb "bolted," again with more dramatic effect. Finally, he is described as preferring "to hang out in Oujda...listening to Western pop music." Olsen takes this sentence pretty much verbatim.

Bouyeri is a young man living uncomfortably between two worlds, and belonging in neither.

Between these three narraticules are the voices of Vincent and Theo. Vincent discusses his still lifes and says contemptuously that the bourgeois want them for wallpaper. Theo notes, over the course of two narraticules, that "Self-righteousness, self-pity, self-hatred — the triumvirate engine of any good totalitarian religion."

What does Olsen's process of selection do? It shows us the profound alienation of Bouyeri by paralleling it with the alienation felt by both Theo and Vincent. Vincent feels that, to survive, he must appeal to the horrible taste and values of the bourgeoisie. His painting is not his; he is alienated from it. The alienation of Theo shows in his tone. His blustery, authortative, and nasty tone stems from someone who wants to stir up trouble, perhaps someone who needs to remind himself of his existence by seeing what trouble he can create. This results from psychic alienation from himself and the people around him.

Another interesting use of the sources has a lot of humor in it. When Hirsi Ali meets Theo, "I was at a party...and the doorbell rang: a loud, disheveled man rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug. He said, I'm Theo van Gogh, I voted for you, and flooded me with instructions on how to survive in politics He stayed and chatted for a bit, then he left, as abuptly as he had stormed in." Olsen changes this to a confidence that Ayaan chooses to share with Theo, rather than a simple description. He also adds that he had a "white smudge of cocaine sill visible upon his upper lip," which helps to illustrate his recklessness and his affection for drugs.

In general, Olsen seems to make Hirsi Ali and Theo closer than they seem to be in either Burumi or Hirsi Ali's telling of the story. He mostly has Theo showing some attraction to Hirsi Ali, who is definitely a beautiful woman, and not vice versa. Perhaps he did this to develop an aspect of Theo's character: he was a womanizer.

In Vincent's letters we have a magnificent foil to Theo, Hirsi Ali, and Bouyeri, all three of whom are extremely political. Vincent never utters a political statement throughout the book. Even his observation about the bourgeoisie that we saw earlier is an aesthetic critique, not a political one. In quotation after quotation Vincent seems so fully engaged in the particulars of life that it tears him apart.

"Dayspring: a complete melody in a single word' (154). Here we see Vincent bringing together imagery, poetic theory, and music theory into a magnificently short definition. "To hell with perpective. Let the cascading rooms begin" (169). Here again, Vincent is espousing an aesthetic theory, this one predicated on emphasizing perception, his personal sense of how the world is, over the more scholastic and formalist notion of perspective.

And how about this one, for pure poetry: "Five hundred meters above, daylight shying to a star in an otherwise joltingly black sky" (53).

Throughout this book Vincent is a tremendous foil to everyone else. He looks inward. The world is rich in layers and textures that no language, not even painting, can penetrate. He is not sure of himself, because he is so involved in his own perceptions, his reflections on them, and the glorious thickness of experience.

The others are perhaps too sure of themselves. Bouyeri kills for his simplistic beliefs. Theo is outrageous in his presentation of self and the certainty with which he expressed ideas. Hirsi Ali perhaps loses perspective, not considering that other religions, beside Islam, have commandments no morally upstanding contemporary person could abide by. She, too, is sure of herself.

The letter that is stabbed into Theo's body is directed toward Hirsi Ali. And part of it actually does critique her feelings toward Islam by quoting from some sacred Jewish sources laws that go against contemporary morality. However, the writer of the letter is as assured and determined as all the rest, again thinking that his small ideas, his parochial interpretation of Islam, are worth killing for.

Olsen quotes almost this whole letter verbatim. It is broken up by Hirsi Ali's description of her horrific circumcision and by Vincent's thoughts about his room at a mental institution and his paintings. It ends the description of the circumcision with: "and next he was done." Then the letter is quoted: "There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice" (93). A triple irony: he means to say she is unjust, but she has just described an horrific injustice done to her; the butcher who performed the circumcision and the grandmother who organized it are clearly the unjust ones; and finally the imam is damning himself — unjust is the knifing of a letter into a dying man.

Theo's ridiculous final words were: "Can't we talk about this?" (Hirsi Ali (xxi) and Olsen (126)). He died not understanding. The cultural and ideological fissures between the West and Islam often lead to tragedy, a tragedy beyond words.

What does Olsen's book do that history does not? It uses the foil of Vincent to pry open a perspective that can become lost amid all the doers and shakers and true believers. He is the artist — probing, curious, self-critical, sensitive, absorbed into life. Vincent is certainly not the hero of this book; his apolitical nature makes that impossible. But he does show us how art can inform politics by complicating things.

And that is the problem with Theo, Hirsi Ali, and Bouyeri. None of them see things as complicated as they are. Certainly, of the three the one most at fault is the murderer. But there is blame to go around. And it's not talking that we need. It is full engagement with experience, so that when we get around to talking we will bring to it the necessary nuance and appreciation for complexity.

This we must do. But it will not stave off all the tragedies.

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