Laugh­ter in the face of life’s catas­tro­phes

Chris Cleave can af­ford to talk up to his read­ers, not down, be­cause he re­spects their in­tel­lect, he tells Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT’S hard to see how Chris Cleave does it. One minute you’re read­ing some­thing gut- wrench­ingly aw­ful, writ­ten in so com­pelling a nar­ra­tive style that you can’t even skip the tough bits, and the next you’re laugh­ing out loud. You al­most want to flick back some pages and apol­o­gise to the char­ac­ters for your lev­ity.

‘‘ I’m writ­ing fic­tion for smart peo­ple, frankly, so I can write up, rather than down,’’ Cleave ex­plains. ‘‘ I know my read­ers are as smart as I am and there­fore I can get away with be­ing funny about things that are se­ri­ous.’’

Cleave’s first book, In­cen­di­ary , was end­lessly sur­pris­ing. Writ­ten as an open let­ter to Osama bin Laden by a down- to- earth work­ing- class woman who has lost her hus­band and four- yearold son in the ter­ror­ist bomb­ing of a Lon­don foot­ball sta­dium, it teases out moral am­bi­gu­i­ties, leav­ing many un­re­solved for those smart read­ers to pon­der.

Cleave gives no pat an­swers. But the power of his prose leaves im­ages in the mind as clear as if they had ap­peared on a screen. Words linger: such as the ‘‘ boy- sized hole’’ the mother feels in the world. Whole pas­sages do, too, such as the pro­tag­o­nist’s des­per­ate flight to­wards the in­ferno in search of her fam­ily. And ridicu­lously funny scenes such as an episode of adul­ter­ous sex in which the de­scrip­tion of the deed is smoothly en­meshed in foot­ball com­men­tary.

‘‘ I choose peo­ple in quite dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions and just try to say, ‘ What would it be like if this hap­pened to you? What would it be like if this thing which was very ab­stract sud­denly be­came very per­sonal?’ ’’ Cleave says.

He is speak­ing by tele­phone while on hol­i­day in the south of France — his wife is French and a chef — be­fore vis­it­ing the Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val later this month. His sec­ond novel, The Other Hand, has just been pub­lished here.

While the first book seemed like an un­stop­pable emo­tional re­sponse to the real world, this one is more pro­gram­matic, a con­sid­ered man­i­festo on the enor­mous in­ter­na­tional prob­lem of asy­lum- seek­ing. The act on which the ti­tle, and the moral ar­chi­tec­ture of the novel, turns is de­scribed in the same page- turn­ing way. But the point of view is split be­tween a mid­dle- class English­woman and the African woman who brings all the ab­stract op- ed the­o­ris­ing into her world in the flesh. The ethics and ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the char­ac­ters’ ac­tions — who rises to the oc­ca­sion and who doesn’t, who is brave and who is not, how those im­bal­ances cor­rode or strengthen re­la­tion­ships — un­fold slowly.

Th­ese are clearly top­ics of great mo­ment to Cleave and, in con­ver­sa­tion just as in his writ­ing, he shifts them from the ab­stract to the con­crete. ‘‘ The world knows too much about what is go­ing on to claim ig­no­rance,’’ he says.

‘‘ The worst thing about the de­ten­tion cen­tres — and the con­di­tions are ap­palling — is that th­ese peo­ple have fled from ab­so­lute trauma, and what we do is lock them up in some­thing pretty much like a con­cen­tra­tion camp and then we de­port them back to the place they have fled.

‘‘ And th­ese de­ten­tion camps are run for profit by pri­vate com­pa­nies, which con­tract back to the state, and the de­por­ta­tions are an im­mensely prof­itable busi­ness. Se­cu­rity firms which, in­ci­den­tally, also run se­cu­rity con­tract­ing for the state in Iraq . . .’’

The dif­fi­cult moral di­men­sion of asy­lum­seek­ing is the ele­phant in the room, he says, and one we don’t re­ally ad­dress. ‘‘ I’m try­ing to write about that ele­phant in the room in an en­ter­tain­ing way that will make peo­ple want to read about it.’’

Cleave spent the ear­li­est years of his life in Africa, which may ex­plain his in­ter­est in its peo­ple and the con­fi­dence with which he writes African voices.

‘‘ Would you be­lieve me when I say we moved there for eco­nomic rea­sons?’’ he asks wryly. ‘‘ The ’ 70s in the UK were re­ally hard. There was a three- day week be­cause they couldn’t pro­duce enough elec­tric­ity to run the fac­to­ries, there was a gen­eral strike and every­one was re­ally poor. My fam­ily cer­tainly were.’’

His fa­ther took a job in a brew­ery in Cameroon and Cleave looks back on that time as a kind of lost Eden. ‘‘ I have in­cred­i­bly happy mem­o­ries, mix­ing with the lo­cal kids, play­ing in the streets; there were never any cars where we were and we could just charge around,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was al­ways mu­sic play­ing. It was very warm, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally warm.’’

At seven, he was trans­planted from a French­s­peak­ing school in a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety to a rough English- speak­ing state school in Thatcher’s Bri­tain, which he calls ‘‘ a very cold and bru­tal en­vi­ron­ment’’, where he be­came the weird kid. The rup­ture af­fected his world view.

‘‘ I look back on it now and re­alise it was pretty im­por­tant to the way I see my own iden­tity. I’m still on the out­side of things — not in a bad way, I’m a re­ally happy per­son — but I def­i­nitely don’t feel that I be­long.’’

His sur­vival shtick was to make peo­ple laugh: he con­cocted sto­ries and wrote comic strips. But maths was his strong point aca­dem­i­cally and he was al­ready at Ox­ford study­ing chem­istry when he had the epiphany that made him aban­don sci­ence for lit­er­a­ture.

He en­coun­tered the books of Primo Levi, and not just the ob­vi­ous con­tact point for him, the chemist’s bravura med­i­ta­tion, The Pe­ri­odic Ta­ble ; Cleave de­voured Levi’s en­tire Holo­caust­driven oeu­vre and — though it al­most seems an act of lese- ma­jeste, so revered is Levi — he found his metier.

‘‘ I wanted to make some­thing beau­ti­ful that would un­lock the pat­tern in hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ he says. ‘‘ I could see th­ese hu­man sto­ries re­ally math­e­mat­i­cally, the pat­terns that are in­side the hu­man heart and then map them­selves on to the greater so­ci­ety, th­ese big sit­u­a­tions that are ex­press­ible in terms of very or­di­nary hu­man lives.’’

There were no happy end­ings for Levi and Cleave doesn’t man­u­fac­ture them for his smart read­ers. The fi­nal pages of The Other Hand will dis­may those who ex­pect Hol­ly­wood end­ings, but it wasn’t planned.

‘‘ I tried six dif­fer­ent ways to give it a happy end­ing,’’ Cleave says. ‘‘ You re­ally do like your char­ac­ters af­ter spending that long with them and you re­ally want to give them a happy end­ing. And I do be­lieve in happy end­ings; I write about peo­ple be­cause I haven’t given up on them.’’

The ex­haus­tive re­search he puts into his books, how­ever, leaves him with few il­lu­sions.

‘‘ If you look at im­mi­gra­tion and if you look at refugees, you’re looking at the ab­so­lute best and the ab­so­lute worst of hu­man­ity. You’re looking at the hor­ror that seems to lurk in­side us. It’s

amaz­ing how peo­ple are just three days away from bes­tial be­hav­iour.’’

He men­tions be­hav­iour he wit­nessed on a ferry that was al­most cap­sized by a wave, the way peo­ple stam­peded over each other to get to the safer side.

‘‘ It took five sec­onds for that ve­neer civil­i­sa­tion to come away,’’ he says.

‘‘ But you get two kinds of peo­ple ex­posed there. You also get peo­ple who will go the ex­tra mile for each other, and you never know ’ til the hour strikes which one you’ll be. I’m re­ally

of in­ter­ested in that . . . I’ve no idea what I would be. I’ve never been tested.’’

Cleave has shown at least a lit­tle lit­er­ary brav­ery. In both books, for in­stance, he writes in women’s voices; and in the sec­ond one, in a black woman’s voice.

Asked about ap­pro­pri­a­tion, he is un­fazed and un­re­pen­tant. They were tech­ni­cal de­ci­sions. In­cen­di­ary ’ s strong fe­male lead was a de­vice for not writ­ing about him­self, he says: it gave him dis­tance. He sees his job as be­ing to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of hu­man re­sponses, to be em­pa­thetic but non- judg­men­tal. In the sec­ond book, the choice was born out of ne­ces­sity.

‘‘ When I was re­search­ing the refugees’ sto­ries, it’s amaz­ing how many of them started, ‘ The men came and they . . .’ It’s in­cred­i­ble how of­ten th­ese peo­ple would be lit­er­ally cook­ing their af­ter­noon meal in the vil­lage and the next thing that hap­pens is a blood­bath. And of­ten all of the men are ei­ther mas­sa­cred or con­scripted to join var­i­ous militias. So the sur­viv­ing non­com­bat­ants are of­ten women.’’

So the African in The Other Hand had to be a woman, and mak­ing her con­tact in Eng­land a woman al­lowed Cleave to ex­plore the moral re­la­tion­ship without po­ten­tial sex­ual over­tones. He hasn’t played false notes in craft­ing their point of view: though even in the act of scan­ning for it, one re­alises the spe­cial plead­ing in­volved.

Cleave has writ­ten about the English­woman’s moral en­gage­ment from the point of view of a hu­man be­ing; the mother’s grief from the point of view of a par­ent. He has two small boys and says that hav­ing them changed ev­ery­thing: his view of him­self, of the world and his pur­pose in writ­ing.

‘‘ I feel about the world more ten­derly than I did be­fore be­cause when it was only me, and then it was me and my wife, we’re big enough and ugly enough to look af­ter our­selves. Chil­dren are not.

‘‘ It changed me as a writer. I don’t think I wrote any­thing good be­fore I had kids, and I don’t think I’ve writ­ten any­thing bad since I’ve had kids.

‘‘ It’s meant I’m not the cen­tre of my own life any more. I tell it as I see it be­cause that’s how I want my chil­dren to read it. The read­ers I have in mind are my own chil­dren in a few years’ time. I want to tell them: ‘ This is what the world was like when you were grow­ing up.’ It re­ally keeps you hon­est; there is no one I would rather un­earth the truth for than my kids.’’

The Other Hand is pub­lished by Scep­tre. Chris Cleave will be a guest of the Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val later this month.

Pic­ture: Corbis

No pat an­swers: Chris Cleave ad­dresses the moral is­sues sur­round­ing the treat­ment of asy­lum- seek­ers in his new book

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