Amer­i­can War by Omar El Akkad

This de­but set in a fu­ture US rav­aged by global warm­ing ex­plores the mak­ing of a ter­ror­ist

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Laura Miller

Anovel, like a per­son, doesn’t have to have a pur­pose. This is one rea­son hu­man­ism re­gards art as sa­cred: it ex­ists for its own sake. Other value sys­tems, reli­gious or po­lit­i­cal, might in­sist that art serve a the­o­log­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal cause, but the novel – in its ori­gins a bour­geois en­ter­prise – makes a poor mis­sion­ary or sol­dier. The uni­forms fit badly and it keeps flunk­ing ba­sic train­ing.

The mis­sion of Omar El Akkad’s first novel, Amer­i­can War, is ad­mirable: to en­cour­age western read­ers, es­pe­cially Amer­i­cans, to put them­selves in the shoes of the world’s rad­i­calised dis­placed peo­ple. Set in the late 21st cen­tury, the novel imag­ines an Amer­ica wrecked by war and the flood­ing brought on by cli­mate change. Its hero­ine, Sarat Ch­est­nutt, grows up in a shack by the Mis­sis­sippi, in a Louisiana eaten away by the ris­ing Gulf of Mex­ico. A hand­ful of south­ern states, re­fus­ing to abide by fed­eral laws pro­hibit­ing the use of fos­sil fu­els, have at­tempted to se­cede from the union, set­ting off a sec­ond civil war. Sarat’s fa­ther is killed in a sui­cide bomb­ing and Sarat, her mother and two sib­lings end up in a refugee camp near a con­tested bor­der. Vi­o­lence and reprisals leave Sarat bereft and venge­ful. A suave groomer pro­vides her with train­ing and weapons, and a ter­ror­ist is born.

El Akkad, a Cana­dian jour­nal­ist born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, has said that his in­ten­tion with Amer­i­can War is not to make the reader ad­mire Sarat. Rather, “in this in­cred­i­bly po­larised world we live in”, he hopes that by the time the reader gets to the end of his novel, “you un­der­stand how she got to the place where she is”. This could have been done oth­er­wise, with, say, a novel set in con­tem­po­rary Iraq or Afghanistan. The mi­lieu, the his­tory, the cul­ture might have been un­fa­mil­iar to many western read­ers, but the rev­e­la­tion of the fa­mil­iar in the strange is one of the forms of alchemy we seek in fic­tion.

In­stead, El Akkad sets Amer­i­can War not just in Amer­ica, but in the Amer­i­can south. The news from Char­lottesville tes­ti­fied to the truth of Faulkner’s maxim: in the south, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The same back­ward-look­ing frame of mind that makes it so hard for the south to shake off the dead weight of racism and cul­tural re­sent­ment also lends south­ern cul­ture the na­tion’s most pro­nounced re­gional flavour. Amer­i­cans joke about the abil­ity of many south­ern­ers to rat­tle off the names of their an­ces­tors go­ing back half a dozen gen­er­a­tions. The south has its own lit­er­a­ture and, dis­turbingly, of­ten its own ver­sion of his­tory. The de­feated side in a civil war loses the abil­ity to con­trol its fu­ture, and this of­ten leads to an ac­cen­tu­ated in­vest­ment in the past.

But the south of Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Lead­belly, Elvis Pres­ley and Mar­garet Mitchell has been erased in El Akkad’s Amer­ica. A mere 75 years in the fu­ture, as he imag­ines it, there will still be a Demo­cratic and a Repub­li­can party, but no one will care much or talk about race any more. Sarat has “fuzzy” hair, but her fa­ther’s skin was a “caramel” shade and he keeps a statue of the Vir­gin of Guadalupe in the con­verted ship­ping con­tainer where the fam­ily lives at the novel’s be­gin­ning. The Ch­est­nutts don’t claim any eth­nic­ity at all. Per­haps El Akkad en­vi­sions an Amer­ica where the old races have so in­ter­min­gled they can’t be dis­tin­guished, but in his ver­sion of the fu­ture, no one even seems to re­mem­ber that race was once a cor­ner­stone of Amer­i­can iden­tity, a divi­sion and a her­itage that tore the na­tion apart again and again.

El Akkad’s south­ern­ers don’t talk like south­ern­ers, don’t be­have like south­ern­ers, don’t seem to have any real roots in the land they fight for. (The idea that peo­ple would be will­ing to kill and die for the right to burn petroleum, while some­what redo­lent of the long­stand­ing south­ern re­sent­ment of fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion, is laugh­able.) It’s hard to view this novel as the story of how an Amer­i­can would re­spond to the con­di­tions that cre­ate ter­ror­ists in other na­tions be­cause Sarat and her fam­ily don’t seem es­pe­cially Amer­i­can. They have the generic, be­nighted qual­ity of fig­ures who ap­pear briefly in news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about hu­man rights crises in ob­scure, “wartorn” na­tions, de­tached from their home­land and its cus­toms and all the frag­ile dig­nity those things carry. Sarat’s iden­tity is en­tirely shaped by the war and what she loses to it.

Late in the book, when Sarat has been al­most com­pletely hard­ened, she of­fers up what amounts to the novel’s the­sis: “The mis­ery of war rep­re­sents the world’s only truly uni­ver­sal lan­guage.” In peace­time, the peo­ples of the globe may seem di­verse, but when war strips them of “the empty su­per­sti­tions to which they clung so dearly”, they are “kin. The uni­ver­sal slo­gan of war, she’d learned, was sim­ple: if it had been you, you’d have done no dif­fer­ent.” The point is ar­guable. What peo­ple do in ex­tremis, and what they suf­fer, is not all that they are, and plenty of com­bat­ants and vic­tims cling all the more fiercely to the faiths and iden­ti­ties they owned be­fore war wrecked their lives, find­ing them even more mean­ing­ful af­ter­wards. But Sarat can’t be stripped of any of those things be­cause she never re­ally has them to be­gin with. She is a con­trivance, ex­ist­ing only to serve the mes­sage of Amer­i­can War. War may in­evitably de­hu­man­ise the peo­ple caught up in it, but a novel, how­ever well in­ten­tioned, ought not to fol­low its ex­am­ple.

The book’s mis­sion is ad­mirable: to en­cour­age western read­ers to em­pathise with the dis­placed

352pp, Pi­cador, £14.99

To or­der Amer­i­can War for £12.74 go to book­shop. the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £1.99.

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