Moris Farhi has enjoyed success as a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter, his previous novels, Children of the Rainbow, Young Turk, and Journey Through the Wilderness published to critical acclaim. As a member of PEN, he has also chaired the Writers in Prison programme for both English and International PEN, his most notable work in relation to Turkey, the land of his birth. On Monday 13 May he was in conversation with Maureen Freely, a celebrated novelist in her own right; the subject Farhi’s latest novel, A Designated Man.
In his new book, Farhi draws on the traditions and structures of fable to explore themes of gender, desire and violence, in a powerfully resonant narrative which asks searching questions about contemporary culture and values. A Designated Man is set on Skender, a Baltic island whose violent history is loosely modelled on Albanian history. Having formerly enjoyed enlightened Ottoman rule, its laws are now dominated by the Kanun – a vengeful 16th century honour code, enforced by the island’s warlords, which demands blood for the smallest infringement, and frequently results in obliterating family feuds. There is a terrible, all-consuming fatalism to the code: when a feud has exhausted a family’s menfolk, a woman may be ‘designated’ in their place – binding her breasts, and forsaking her children until the family’s honour is regained, or the family line exhausted. The novel’s hero is Osip, an army doctor, who, like Odysseus, returns to his homeland seeking refuge from war, only to be drawn into the island’s bitter internal strife once more.
Despite the novel’s bleak social panorama, there are glimmers of hope to be found on Skender: primarily in the tender relationships formed between characters, relationships in which sexual desire plays a central role. ‘The human instinct is to live together and to embrace each other’, Farhi urges, despite the attempts of the power hungry to divide communities and turn them against each other: indeed even contemporary conflicts such as Israel-Palestine, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka have yielded acts of extraordinary compassion, as well as cruelty.
Indeed, despite the novel’s setting in the dreamtime of fable, Farhi is quick to stress the extent to which his narrative is informed by historical and contemporary sources. Many of the speeches given by the island’s warlords are inspired by ideas and sentiments that have been iterated down the centuries: ‘history knows about blood; history is blood’, Farhi asserts, and has been driven all too often by a terrible glorification of violence, honour and strength. Farhi suggests that the warlords who administer the Kanun might find contemporary parallels in religious and nationalist organisations which condone the violence of modern times: times in which extremists acquire power through their willingness to resort to terrible means to achieve their ends.
Though Farhi’s own hopefulness is highly circumscribed – as he himself admits, ‘my inclination is to have hope, but that’s hope against hope in some sense’ – his new novel is profoundly informed by a lust for life: a lust which is realised in both abstract and intimately human terms within the novel. Farhi’s message is, fundamentally, ‘the importance of worshipping life as opposed to worshipping death’, a powerfully humane and regenerative philosophy which is valiantly opposed to the ‘atavistic delirium’ or ‘testosterone madness’ which characterises modern culture.
The ‘designated women’ of Skender form a disturbing parallel to the ‘armoured women’ Farhi identifies in modern life – women who have abandoned feminine qualities such as sensitivity to suffering and pain, and have taken on the ‘armour’ of male attributes to achieve social and political power. For Farhi, it is one of the tragedies of modern life that the act of love has been so degraded, and that the balance of the sexes has been so fundamentally disturbed; he fears that the ‘essential feminine’ has in some sense been lost or obscured in the present moment, overshadowed by an inflated masculine culture. Farhi dedicates his novel ‘to womanhood, the only blessing that can save the world from its army of people’; in the novel’s starved emotional terrain, redemption is to be found in the embrace of women, and in the tenderness of sexual relations.
As the evening progresses, the conversation moves on from the novel to broader questions of artistic freedom. It is, Farhi asserts, ‘an act of faith to believe that writers can change the world, and can show that there is a life above the dust and blood of the world’. The freedom of expression is ‘the mother of all freedoms’, without which we risk descent into the nightmare world of Orwell’s 1984, yet it is a freedom which is threatened with increasing sophistication and subtlety by oppressive regimes around the world. When Farhi first started working with the Writers in Prison programme, he recalls, the situation was clear: writers were in prison, and supporters could send them books and letters, whose arrival was a measure of success. In recent years, however, states such as Turkey have resorted to more insidious means to threaten freedom of expression: through enforcing exile or issuing legal proceedings – measures whose effect is to transform the writer from freedom fighter to pariah. Maureen Freely was quick to agree that ‘the game has got subtler and much nastier’, citing the manipulation of foreign media, and the exploitation of the prejudices and ignorance of observers abroad. Farhi asserts that there is even a degree of collusion in this from fellow writers themselves: ‘a Judas element’ which discourages journalists from covering stories of censorship and persecution, leaving the sufferers voiceless, forced to rely on underground networks to publicise their plight. The internet has done much to help writers denied expression through mainstream channels, and recent years have witnessed a flourishing of blogs and online communities which reveal the extent of popular activism, in contrast to western media coverage. This is also, of course, where organisations like PEN come into their own – supporting writers during periods of oppression in order to pave the way for literary and artistic renaissance when restrictions are relaxed. Protecting freedom of expression is vitally important work, to which both Freely and Farhi have contributed to extensively through their own writing and their work for PEN; it is a freedom to which the information age offers challenges and possibilities in equal part, and promises to be a fascinating area in years to come.
Report by Lettie Ransley
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/iconsmorisfarhi/