American War by Omar El Akkad
This debut set in a future US ravaged by global warming explores the making of a terrorist
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
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