Louis Carmain holds an MA in literary studies from Laval University in Montreal.
It just so happened that I learned Francois Hollande had declared the Paris attacks an “act of war” shortly after I finished reading the acerbic scene in Louis Carmain’s novel Guano in which, struck with a fit of the post-imperial blues, a handful of Spanish ships unleash a vindictive bombardment of the Peruvian city of Callao. It was a moment of bizarre congruence—Hollande, responding to the deadliest attack on French soil since the Second World War, promised to wage a “merciless” war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Carmain’s Spaniards, goaded by an attack on a Spanish landowner in Peru, find themselves embroiled in the embarrassing Chincha Islands War, raining death on civilians to defend their national honour.
Rubble and smoke, smoke and rubble. Callao, 1866; Ar Raqqah, 2015. Cities—places constructed around the human need to connect—deconstructed by the fallout of connections turned poisonous. As I scrolled through my twitter feed in the days that followed the attacks, watching the predictable think pieces and hot-takes pop up and disappear, I was, like many others, struck by the speed at which outpourings of grief were rebutted by self-righteous diatribes about the selectiveness of Western sympathy. Surely the 43 killed in Beirut should have gotten a hashtag? What of the 30 killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Where was the lightshow solidarity for them?
Without discounting the role Eurocentrism and white supremacy play in the selective way in which the English language media cover such events, it is worth noting that the strong feelings triggered by the attacks are a function of imagination. Millions of tourists visit Paris every year, and billions more have encountered the city through film, television or art. It is simply easier for a certain kind of North American to imagine that it could have been them listening to the Eagles of Death Metal at the Bataclan than to step into the shoes of a Beirut shopkeeper or a market vendor in Yola.
Because we live in a society that has been shaped by humanistic, universal ideals that posit the (at least theoretical) equality of all humans, regardless of race, creed, religion, or nation, it is natural to chalk the unequal treatment given to Paris and Beirut up to a straightforward instance of hypocrisy.
André Forget on Literature and Empathy
But as Richard Rorty points out in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, giving an undifferentiated shit about the world is impossible, however admirable the universal ideal may be. Humans tend to organize the world around them into concentric circles of sympathy, putting their greatest energy and concern into the groups and people with whom they feel closest kinship. To care about people in the furthest circles, those who we have never met and who we don’t see ourselves as being substantially connected to, requires a great deal of imagination. It requires us to move toward mysticism (as John Donne and Jelaluddin Rumi do in their poetry), or imbue the economic materialism of globalization with the weight of moral relation, as for example happens in the film Babel. In short, it requires an artistic turn.
Guano was released by Coach House in 2015.
I did not, before picking up Carmain’s novel, know anything about the Chincha Islands War, the Chincha Islands, Isabelle II of Spain, or the Peruvian War of Independence, and nor did I much care to. But Guano (recently translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins) changed all that. Its account of this disastrous 19th century attempt by Spain to reassert power over Peru and Chile, narrated in exquisite, irreverent prose, focuses on Simon Cristiano Claro, a hapless sailor aboard one of the Spanish vessels who falls in love with Montse, a Spanish-born Peruvian with an interest in the burgeoning field of psychology. A story of love and the absurd posturing of international relations, it makes a minor scuffle off the west coast of South America a case study in inertia, hubris, and human folly.
In 140 pages, Carmain, a Québécois writer I had never heard of three months ago, made me care deeply about a conflict fought 150 years ago in another hemisphere by people who did not speak my language or share my beliefs and skin tone. That’s what literature does: it makes us feel the humanity of those we might not otherwise think about. It makes us give a shit when we might not otherwise be inclined to do so.
The Difference Between Art and Propaganda
It is also why literature is dangerous: literature can convince us that it is more important to care about some people than others and lead us to believe that some experiences of suffering matter more. Propaganda is literature that is partisan in its caring and manipulates our outrage and sense of injustice to serve an agenda. All those horrifying images of ISIS’ victims in Paris and Beirut are presented in such a way as to make us feel as though there is no option but to drop every bomb we have on Ar Raqqah, civilians be damned—they discourage us from asking any questions about whether or not Hollande’s merciless war will actually make anyone safer, and make us fear that every refugee is secretly a saboteur.
If there is a distinction to be made between art and propaganda, then it lies in the artist’s refusal to accept that the good can always be divided from the bad. In this sense, Carmain is certainly an artist. A master ironist, he does not deal in monsters; his characters, both heroes and villains, may be absurd, convinced of their own seriousness and importance, but none of them are diabolical. Their humanity is terrifying enough. Carmain’s sympathy for them is real, but it does not negate their flaws.
Louis Carmain is from Québec City. He holds an MA in Literary Studies from Laval University. Guano, his first novel, received the prestigious Prix des Collégiens.