Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The sleep of reason

Three years ago I rewrote Frankenstein as an interactive novel. Establishing a timeline was my first task; Mary Shelley didn’t tell us anything about the historical background to the story but I like to know that kind of detail even if it ends up in the part of the iceberg the reader doesn’t see. We know that Walton’s framing narrative is dated sometime in the eighteenth century, but presumably a reader in 1818 would feel the narrative lacking in impact if it all took place back in the days of Newton, Voltaire and Bach. So it seemed reasonable to opt for the 1790s, and I sketched out dates placing Victor Frankenstein’s story alongside the events of the French Revolution.

That was a gift. That great hopeful experiment of the Revolution, the epiphany of the Age of Reason, degenerating into unreason and terror, then into a backlash of conservatism and fear. How perfect a backdrop for what Victor is trying to achieve. You don’t need to know that the monster is murdering William Frankenstein just as Danton and Desmoulins are being guillotined, or that he is born just days after the start of the decimal calendar, but I found it added a little frisson to my imagination as I wrote.

If I were updating the Frankenstein story to the present day, I’d have a still better metaphor in the legacy of French colonial policy. Victor brings a man into being in the midst of our society only to leave him outcast, disadvantaged, alienated. The creature – in my interactive version it’s possible for Victor to name him Adom, but the story always works better if he isn’t granted even that much – attempts to learn from his neighbours, who profess high ideals, but when he puts their liberalism to the test they reject him just like everybody else he’s approached. And so he turns to killing as the only way to exercise any agency in the world.

Justifiably or not, many French citizens of Algerian origin apparently feel much the same way towards the republic as the monster to his creator. Crammed into banlieues, they get to watch the glittering life of Paris always at arm’s length, like the monster in his hovel adjoining the De Laceys’ home. They do not necessarily feel thankful for living in one of the richest and fairest civilizations in history.

Am I saying, “Muslims are monsters"? Of course not, but thank you for giving me the opportunity, so necessary in these dumbed-down days, of correcting that. The term monster is used with some irony and ambiguity in the novel (in my version, anyway; who is the monster?) and in any case all labels are fluid. The lesson of the story is that you can soon turn others into Others if you treat them as such. Salman Rushdie recently pointed this out on Bill Maher’s Real Time show. Radical elements may whip up their followers to become matyrs, because the martyrs of one side in a struggle are the monsters of the other – and it’s that cycle of blood, fear and reprisal that fuels the maelstrom of unreason that some would like to see us sucked into.

Nor, when I evoke North African immigrant communities in France as a metaphor that could apply to a modern version of Frankenstein, do I trivialize the political situation that led to tragedies like the Charlie Hebdo murders. Transplanting a political idea into fictional form doesn’t trivialize it; it universalizes it. Social mobility even in modern Western societies is such that it can take many generations to break out of poverty. If the downtrodden class tends to be of a recognizable racial type, the injustices that invariably descend upon the poor will begin to look like prejudice. It could be Algerians in France, black people in the southern USA, Dalits in India. Simply legislating the caste/class boundaries away doesn’t solve the problem, as you will still have many generations who are left on the outside looking in. But if I tell the story of, say, an impoverished aborigine in 1960s Australia, then I am telling only that story, and there’s a risk that the reader’s existing preconceptions will turn it into simply a confirmation of what they already believe. Politicians do that every day. It’s up to writers to do something more. We need to challenge beliefs, unsettle people, shake them up, change them.

Literature’s strength is in provoking questions, not providing you with ready-made answers. If you read Frankenstein with the events of Paris, Syria, Ferguson, and Pakistan in your mind, you may see that Mary Shelley’s two-hundred-year-old story still resonates powerfully today. Which side you come out on – if indeed you think it helps anybody to pick a side – is entirely up to you.

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