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The Rise of the Global Novelist

How to read fiction from around the world in an age of xenophobic populism.

When Cities of Salt, an Arabic novel by Abdelrahman Munif, was published in translation in 1988, John Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike remarked, “given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade—insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer.”

Updike was writing near the end of the Cold War, confident in his pronouncements about the novel, the West, and about border-challenging writers like Munif, whose father was Saudi, mother Iraqi, and who at different points of his life held Algerian, Yemeni, and Iraqi passports. Stripped of his Saudi nationality and having fallen afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Munif wrote Cities of Salt in France. Of the fact that the novel, with its critique of American oil corporations and Arab oligarchies, was banned in Saudi Arabia, Updike had only this to say: “The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

Columbia Global Reports, 135pp., $12.99

It is hard to recall a foreign novel being greeted with such hostility in an American mainstream publication in the decades that followed the end of the Cold War. Foreign writers might still be considered strange or different, and they might not be covered at all. But even the notoriously elitist, insular establishment of book reviewers in New York did not see their novels as completely out of place in a world rapidly being shaped by globalization. In an era of cheap air travel, digital communications, consumerism, worldwide urbanization, and the dominance of English—all overseen by the United States as the world’s single remaining imperial power—readers, editors, and critics found it easy to welcome works by Haruki Murakami or Orhan Pamuk and the snapshots of foreign life they reveal.

In fact, the literary critic Adam Kirsch argues in his new book, The Global Novel, these circumstances have given rise to an entirely new literary category. No longer located tightly within national boundaries, and often written by authors who move between cultures, the global novel takes fiction’s usual remit—the examination of human nature—and places it in new cosmopolitan settings. The scope and structures of these books may vary: “A global novel can be one that sees humanity on the level of the species,” Kirsch proposes, “so that its problems and prospects can only be dealt with on the scale of the whole planet; or it can start from the scale of a single neighborhood, showing how even the most constrained of lives are affected by worldwide movements.” Yet such narratives are unified in their concern for “contemporary global problems, including immigration, terrorism, environmental degradation, and sexual exploitation.”

The differences that aggravated Updike, the suspicion of things not sufficiently Western, serve as approaches from which Kirsch draws inspiration. In the midst of xenophobic populism—the age of Brexit and Donald Trump—Kirsch counters that the global novel bears out Goethe’s belief that “poetry is the universal possession of mankind.” And the fact that readers have come to appreciate it shows, for him, the currency of liberal values “like tolerance of difference, mutual understanding, and free exchange of ideas.”

The challenge of the global novelist is, as Kirsch sees it, in many ways a matter of style and technique: “How can a writer situated in one culture communicate its truth to readers in very different places?” he asks. For the answer, he turns to works by eight writers: Pamuk, Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mohsin Hamid, Margaret Atwood, Michel Houellebecq, and Elena Ferrante. “They span six languages”—Turkish, Japanese, Spanish, English, French, and Italian—and are, he writes, “generally agreed to be leading figures in the pantheon of world literature.”

More precisely, the quality that seems to draw Kirsch to several of these books is their resonance in the West. The first novel he considers at length is Pamuk’s Snow, the story of a poet named Ka, who has returned to Turkey after twelve years away and who travels to the provincial town of Kars to investigate, and write about, the phenomenon of “suicide girls.” These are young women who may or may not be religious martyrs. One of them had been involved in a school protest in which she refused to take off her head scarf, as demanded by the secular director of the school—who is later assassinated by an Islamic radical for suppressing religious belief. For Kirsch, this shows us how Snow dramatizes the conflict “between Turkey and Europe, Islam and the West,” thus placing Pamuk in the context of the West and its rhetoric about Islam after September 11.

It also turns Pamuk, in Kirsch’s view, into the very embodiment of a global writer. Modern Turkey is, in Kirsch’s account, a “traditionally Islamic” country that underwent “forced secularization” in the 1920s and began to see the resurgence of “political Islam” by the 1990s. Against this background, Pamuk is the maverick author in an authoritarian state, whose themes just happen to overlap “with Western concerns” about the conflict between Islam and secularism, between personal freedom and collective belief. On occasion, Kirsch acknowledges that there is a danger in reading Pamuk as an “ambassador” from Turkey to the rest of the world, especially since Pamuk himself disavows this role through his use of wordplay and metafictional elements in his novel. For instance, the protagonist’s name, Ka, the name of the town, Kars, and the word for snow, kar (which is the novel’s original Turkish title), deliberately echo one another—a point Kirsch makes much of:

In Turkish, then, kar forms a linguistic bridge between the protagonist, Ka, and the city, Kars: ka, kar, kars, a pun that suggests deep unity. But as Pamuk of course intended, this pun is untranslatable. In English, you can hear the similarity between Ka and Kars, but not the word for “snow” that unites them. This gesture could be characterized as defiant, for the way it builds untranslatability into a novel obsessed with cultural translation. But it could equally well appear resigned to the fact that … it is impossible to fully know a place, or a book, from outside.

In other words, there are cultural specifics that a reader in the West might well miss. Kirsch’s exploration of cultural specifics, however, does not extend much further than a consideration of stylistic issues. There is no examination of the way Pamuk has, in a number of his novels, been working through the conflicts of modernity in Turkey—a country that as an authoritarian state that quashes dissent while being a political ally of the United States, and whose long history includes Islam as a strand of modernity, does not fall neatly onto one side of a divide between “Islam and the West.”

A tendency to downplay the messy interaction between politics, capital, and culture, and to focus instead on literary qualities like irony and ambiguity, runs through many of Kirsch’s readings. The Chilean author Bolaño’s 2666 is, for instance, a massive novel about a mysterious German writer and a group of literary critics devoted to his work, and about the world as “a place of evil.” The haunting middle section of the novel describes an epidemic of murders of women in the fictional city of Santa Teresa on the Mexican border with the United States. This episode, Kirsch notes, is based on the actual murders of at least 370 women in Ciudad Juárez between 1993 and 2005. That readers care more about these deaths in fiction than when they appear in the news, Kirsch comments, “adds a terrible irony to Bolaño’s project.” Yet Kirsch himself is ultimately more concerned with Bolaño’s prose style than with human realities. For him, the section’s impact comes from “the way it eschews the style … that dominates 2666,” and is instead written in a straightforward manner, as if “reported or recited.”

The larger problem with this analysis comes from the fact that Bolaño’s novel is concerned with much more than just literary effects. Kirsch notes in passing that the factories of Santa Teresa are “a creation of the globalized economy, with all its moral contradictions.” By this he seems to mean that workers come there to make money, but that the crime-ridden factory towns actually threaten their safety. Yet there is no contradiction in Bolaño’s depiction of the factories: He portrays them as cesspits of global capitalism that prey upon women, who are driven to the ghastly city more by desperation and the devastation of rural economies in Latin America—also an effect of globalization—than by some Western notion of upward mobility.

This aspect of 2666 undercuts Kirsch’s conviction that mobility is a key feature of the global novel: In these books, Kirsch maintains, we see a happy movement of ideas, people, books, and capital that speaks of a more diverse world, “the portrait of an age when more and more people have the ability to cross borders in both directions.” There is a kind of willful blindness to such an assertion in an age of increasingly militarized borders and forced deportations, especially when other novels that Kirsch considers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, seriously undermine any such notion.

A Nigerian who comes to the United States for college, Americanah’s protagonist Ifemelu struggles through the terrain of intimacy and work before deciding to return to Lagos; her old boyfriend, meanwhile, tries to make it in Britain as an undocumented immigrant and is eventually deported. “The genre of the novel, Americanah reminds us,” Kirsch argues, “has always thrived by chronicling upwardly mobile people, and the means of that mobility is seldom pure—just look at Balzac, or Henry James.” It is odd to take a lesson of upward mobility from Americanah, when the two main characters both end the novel back where they started, painfully aware of the possibilities missed.

Rather than view the global novel through a Western lens, it is important to ask what allows certain books to be perceived as global in the first place. What are the mechanisms of selection and rejection, of publishing and publicity? How much does the emergence of an anglophone global elite, its tastes largely in accord with those of New York and London, have to do with this process?

The novelists Kirsch surveys found a Western readership because they were driven by a sense of urgency that had deepened over a long period. Most of them (Pamuk, Murakami, Bolaño, Adichie, Ferrante) had to write a number of books before one broke through, in great part because they addressed issues that had all but disappeared from the mainstream Western novel, including the complexities of race, imperialism, and migration; the liberating possibilities of feminism, anarchism, or Islamism; the overwhelming loneliness of our late-capitalist lives; as well as the damage that can be caused by upward mobility. Bolaño emerged as concerns about inequality and youthful radicalism bloomed into the Occupy movement, Adichie against the backdrop of what would become Black Lives Matter, and Ferrante during a moment of a rejuvenated feminism, which can be seen in the International Women’s Strike.

The only writers Kirsch discusses who do not really seem to fit this pattern are the French Houellebecq and the Canadian Atwood. Both Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island are dystopias; they imagine a future where humanity “has been not just extinguished by its own environmental recklessness, but also superseded by a genetically engineered race of quasi-human creatures,” Kirsch writes. While these narratives are global in their scope, Houellebecq and Atwood portray a trajectory of decline, a narrative of the fall of the West that most of Kirsch’s other global novelists do not share. In Adichie, in Pamuk, in Bolaño, the global novel instead focuses on those who have never been part of the rise of the West, and who have often suffered from its hegemony.

Still, the presence of Houellebecq and Atwood in Kirsch’s book raises the question of why he includes no American writers. Is that because “global” is ultimately defined by whatever the United States is not? In fact, an American writer like Rachel Kushner, with The Flamethrowers, has an excellent claim to having written a global novel. On the surface a bildungsroman about Reno, a young American trying to make it in the art world of New York in the 1970s, Kushner’s novel portrays far more than individual mobility. As Reno rides around on a motorcycle manufactured by her boyfriend Sandro’s family, The Flamethrowers reveals the evasion, exploitation, and complicity that their lifestyle is built on.

Kushner shows us the striking workers in the Italian factory that makes the motorcycles, and the slave-labor-like conditions in the Brazilian plantations that produce the rubber for the tires, and the possibility for solidarity between Reno, of working-class origin, and the Italian workers who loathe her boyfriend’s family. The European and American characters are defined in direct relation to the Third World, the bourgeois characters in relation to the working class, the men to the women—connections that seem, in their humanity and insight across cultures, to offer fertile ground for a global novelist. To consider The Flamethrowers alongside Snow or 2666 would challenge the notion that a novel is global only if it depicts people in faraway places who confirm the West’s faith in upward mobility—a faith that now seems rather quaint, even in the West itself.