Passage of Tears by Abdourahman Waberi (trans. Nicole Ball and David Ball). Seagull Books, 248 pp. $21.00.
The project undertaken by Abdourahman Waberi’s Passage of Tears is an interesting and significant one. In a post-9/11, globalized landscape, former colonies—particularly those with oil—find themselves confronting a history that is becoming ever more complex and problematic. By invoking Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno in a tale of an African caught between modern North and modernizing South, Waberi leads us toward provocative conclusions about the incomplete project of modernity.
Translated from French by David and Nicole Ball, Passage of Tears opens with the first journal entry of its primary narrator, Djibril, who has returned home to Djibouti after a long residence in Montreal. Contracted by the American government to complete an intelligence investigation, Djibril keeps the journal in an effort to record his findings. As it unfolds, most of Djibril’s entries prove to be realizations about his home country, made by a man who has returned after a long absence.
The men of this ancient country have always been waiting for something: a storm, a messiah, or an earthquake. Luckily, there is the fog. A real pea-soup fog that settles in for the day.
The thickness of that fog stretches its way through the rest of the novel, at times obscuring the book’s plot. Waberi’s devices seem to court this obscurity, as he brings together several different narrators and types of narrative: the journal of Djibril (or “Djib” as he likes to be called) and his observations of Djibouti; another journal from an imprisoned Djiboutian—presumably Djib’s estranged brother, who somehow follows Djib’s movements; and finally excerpts from a text called “The Book of Ben,” diary-style passages written to the 20th-century thinker and writer, Walter Benjamin.
Djibouti is, as Djib explains, turning a profit from the bloody and messy turn of political events:
Welcome to the eye of the cyclone. The desert of silence. The paradise for nouveaux riches, made in Dubai. Ever since the American armed forces have taken up residence here, the little republic of Djibouti has benefited from a renewal of interest. France, its historical ally, is no longer threatening to leave it to its sad fate.
Once easily overlooked on maps and left out of textbooks, the small country now finds itself securing a place in conversation and, moreover, receiving remuneration for its location and natural resources. But years of seclusion from the modern world have left it and its people unprotected against inundation by the Western wealth.
Because of this shift and his own Westernization, Djib is unable to focus on much of an investigation outside of his memories, which he describes as playing back to him like a movie reel. The most potent ones are of his twin brother, with whom Djib has entirely fallen out of contact. These memories are diminished, however, because Djib’s descriptions of their relationship too obviously mirror the way they function as characters: Djib was born first, was always more interested in film and the future, while his brother always loved literature, the past. Likewise, Djib’s brother shows a firm dedication to Islam, mocking the modern sensibilities that continue to hamstring Djib’s ever-failing investigation. The eventual foiling of Djib by his brother feels somewhat stale and lacks strong integration with the rest of the book.
Passage of Tears also presents formal difficulties to a reader: poetically written, the book’s various narrative voices do not always come together in a way that feels particularly neat. The cryptic, prayer-filled recitations of Djib’s brother and his inexplicable awareness of Djibril, coupled with uncertainty over the nature of Djib’s intelligence work, make it difficult to become grounded in the text. More often than not a reader is left trying to find a point at which to peer out through the thickness and figure out where the story is going.
But for all its challenges, Passage of Tears makes itself worth the effort: the novel’s great strength is Djib’s relationship to Walter Benjamin, who acts as essentially another character. From the start Djib makes it clear that Benjamin is his favorite writer and thinker, introduced to him by his French-Canadian girlfriend following his move from Djibouti to Montreal. Benjamin, who lived as an exile in Paris during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation, spent his short adult life ruminating over the struggle to locate oneself in the strange fabric of a modernizing, quickly changing Europe. Most of Benjamin’s writings were unfinished, and, like Djib’s, they were mostly journals and footnotes, composed of observations of the city that became his home. Benjamin’s work investigated what was to him a foreign and burgeoning modern city; they contrast interestingly with Djib’s, which deal with the whirlwind of returning to his homeland, a place cross-sectioned and partitioned by those same civilizations that Benjamin lived within.
Early on, Waberi by way of Djib, rightfully inserts Benjamin’s passage on the “Angel of History,” one of his most beautiful and well-known points of theory:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, wake the dead and make whole what has been shattered. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This is what we call progress.
Djibouti the country is very much itself an angel of history, with Djib serving as its representation: “I, too, have adopted the angel of history and made it mine.” The book in this way deconstructs the idea of progress; it parallels the writings of Benjamin, who was thrown into the rush of modernity, with those of Djib, a man-made-modern sent back to his humble beginnings and unable to understand his place in the crossfire of international politics.
Significantly, Benjamin is not the only modern intellectual the novel makes use of. The intelligence organization to which Djibril has been contracted is called “Adorno Location Scouting.” The motto of Adorno Location Scouting is “mobility, discretion, efficiency,” which is ironic, because according to Djib,
it’s also the guiding principle of my investigation. I must admit I’m a lot less efficient here than in Denver, Los Angeles, Melbourne. It’s the fault of this country. I can’t manage to get a handle on these people. They’re too elusive. Too standoffish with me because they know they’re being watched. The fault of the past, which sometimes overcomes my will.
Here again modernity is unable to take the lead it has grown used to: its principles are employed but ultimately fail in this time and place. While permeability was possible in any number of First World locations, the Djiboutian fog is too thick to submit to traditional tactics. The country’s history has become too layered with outside influences, and Djib is now one of them. “Isn’t it possible to use the skill of my ancestors, who could decode the world of the night, to forge ahead in my investigation? Could I use Grandpa Assod’s premonitions as a GPS?” While Waberi’s language is again a bit too obvious, the point is that integration, even for a now former ex-patriot, is not a possibility.
If, as Benjamin states, being thrust backwards into the future is progress, then the plot of Passage of Tears reads as progress. Waberi’s book juxtaposes the ongoing, messy entanglement of the North and South, offering no possibility for a clean ending. Near the close of the novel, descending ever further into the “debris,” Djib references fog once again, claiming “the fog of the past has covered up the landscapes of my childhood.” Enshrouded, Djib no longer has a view of either the past or the present and thus knows not where to look, deeming both himself and his investigation a failure. Perhaps the book is posing this as the challenge we have come to face, not only an inability to understand where we’re going but also a refusal to let the past—particularly of the Middle East—come along. Waberi is, in other words, describing the death of the Angel of History. The question is what will rise in its wake.
Rebekkah Dilts is a writer and lover of language, poetry, film, and theory. She is currently interning for the San Francisco literary arts organization RADAR Productions and has provided editorial assistance for The Center for the Art of Translation. Her work can be found on RADAR’s blog as well as on her own, at sinclairproject.com.
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