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