GAZA. Sadly, not fiction.

REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Atef-Abu Saif

israel-uav-butterfly
Israel-uav-butterfly

Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.

Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.

During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.

A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS), Nevada (NV), during exercise DESERT RESCUE XI. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). The exercise is a joint service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise hosted by the Naval Strike and Warfare Center, designed to simulate downed aircrews, enabling CSAR related missions to experiment with new techniques in realistic scenarios.
A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)

How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.

If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.

The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.

Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.

Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”.  Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.

Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity.  gazangameIt takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.

If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise.  Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.

Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)
The Difficult Lesson William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.

To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.

Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.

(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.

Xmas Sav(i)ours – book prezzies

Luckily, Auntie May brought a red paper cover to save the purple cloth from gravy stains. It clashes with the mustard coloured curtains just as badly, but now the glasses are filled everyone’s eyes are focussed elsewhere.  

XmasMeal

In the last post you were faced with your Christmas fellow guests and the solution for ensuring you had more than the most predictable bendable rectangle wrapped in red paper with green conifer design and tin gold curlable twine. Worse still, the ultimate insult: a book token. (“You couldn’t even be bothered to choose something for me!”) NOW FOR THE FUN GAME: Match the book to the beast. (You have to go back to the last post to review the guest list.)  Remember Auntie May has now joined the group. She has flapping jowls but a good heart and will open herself to a chunky read. The books are in random order so as not to help you too much and spoil the game. There are no winners and no wrong answers, only possibly outraged guests if you choose unwisely.

Shi Cheng:Short Stories from Urban China., edited by Liu Deng. Published by Comma Press

ShiCheng
I reviewed these stories in an earlier post. They are of high quality in the writing and in the translation. Let s/he who reads enjoy the irony.

SeaMonsters

                      Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

                           by Chet van Duzer

Good chance s/he hasn’t seen this one. The sea monsters depicted on medieval and Renaissance maps are analyzed here in beautiful illustrations. The insight into how European thought regarded them is well considered. A person of culture and with an enquiring mind should enjoy this present  

A La Mere De Famille: Artisanal recipes by Julian Merceron, Hardie Grant books. A really lovely present for a deserving person of discernment, this book is something special. From the moment you open the cover, outstanding designs delight your eyes.  Pages of gorgeous confections make you want to rush to that wonderful shop. 

ALaMeredeFamille

Schottenfreude, Ben Schott.

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For the wearisome pedant. Attractively presented, small enough to get on the tree. A lengthy German word for each condition/eccentricity. I especially liked the word for someone who extols their description of wine but knows nothing about it.  Potential swearing epithets to non-German speakers, the book provides tremendous up-your-nose fodder. As the family and friends expire, over-filled and -swilled after the Christmas dinner, you say ‘Well of course, in Germany there’s a word for that feeling – totally full, bloated, but sensing that just one more port will fill you with Christmas joy.

The Memory Palace: The book of lost interiors – Edward Hollis MemoryPalace Just the thing for an aesthete. The    fragments of five significant spaces painstakingly recreated to stimulate imagination, fictions and ultimately remembering.

                                            Ramadan Sky by Nichola Hunter published by Authonomy (HC)

RamadanSkycover_2  Jerk someone out of their Mills and Boon. Older competent foreign woman, younger handsome inconsequential man, dependent, trusting fiancee. Wow. Should it happen, even in Jakarta?

SCRAPS – ed. CALUM KERR

ScrapsBk
Anyone with a concentration problem? Flash fiction is the answer. Get these prize-winning ones so that the short bites are satisfying.

Me-Time Tales: Tea-breaks for mature women and curious men. Rosalind Minett

Tea breaks for mature women and curious menAll kinds of women unlocked. Dinner guests may be recognised.
                 Short stories with a dark edge. For the wry and cynical who can still cope with a smile.
 
The Creative License – Danny Gregory

Danny GregoryWho wouldn’t love the cover of a messy, interesting room? Inside there are lots of drawings, exercises, incitements to create and find the artistic muse within oneself. Look around, you know who feels like just such a person, who only needs to be freed, darling, if only people would tolerate just a little move from the predictable.

Memories of a Gnostic Dwarf   David Marsden

This is for the guy you need to lock himself in the study, preferably for the rest of Christmas. I’ve pictured the earlier version because the current one advertises too clearly that there are naughty bits inside. In fact this is a very good and interesting book indeed, but there is graphic detail of sexual matters and of violent acts even more.  If you are really fed up with Derek (or whoever) the early description of a noble arse is suitable for a post-prandial puke.

memoirs-of-a-gnostic-dwarf
All these books are available from or via Amazon UK. Independent bookshops often get a book in by the next day. “Not many people know that.”

Short Story in the shadows

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

A few days ago I went to browse in the large Waterstones of a town I was visiting. I had just reviewed some Chinese short stories (earlier post), I thought I might find another stimulating collection.  Huge shelves of fiction faced me, but not even one for short stories; worse, there were only seven different titles. At least this included the recent Munro, although this was on the counter rather than displayed on one of the tables where the rushed shopper might think ‘Yes, Munro’s latest, must have these stories.’   Amongst the thousands of titles for fiction, only 7 for short stories seemed amazing. There were more titles for knitting.

On Amazon, the original search for short stories brings up over 3,000 titles, but the number of literary and contemporary collections appears to be only in the hundreds. Even then, scanning through, I found children’s titles, single stories of 6 pages and erotica among these.

In my local library there is no separate section for short stories, and there are only five on its entire list. The city library has more, but there is no shelf-full. Short stories are placed besides poetry which, to my surprise, filled most of the shelf.

I prefer writing novels – so much more scope for developing a character and his/her fortunes. Nevertheless, I have written many short stories with difficulty. I greatly admire those writers who show a key moment in a character’s life, or address an emotional issue succinctly yet memorably.  I’ve reviewed two collections of short stories on this site, picked for their unusualness. I am sure I shall review more, but finding new collections is not made easy by either availability or by marketing.

It may be that in the U.S. and elsewhere, short stories sell better but in the U.K  genre fiction and celebrity memoirs dominate.  It seems odd that short fiction is not first choice when time demands are believed greater in the current economic climate.  We don’t write letters, we text in condensed format or tweet in 140 characters. Our TV dramas appear to assume a maximum of two minutes before the character and scene must be changed. It would be logical to expect short fiction to sell better than long.  Sales of misery memoirs, for instance, must take four times as long to read as a short story, if not to absorb. Even undemanding stories must have lost favour in that most magazines have largely dropped their short story features.

Why are short stories so sparsely treated? They seem very rarely taken on by U.K publishers unless written by an already very successful author, and that not often. They probably make little money for publishers, and this means they have failed to attract an audience.

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Is it possible that insufficient attention has been paid to the covers of such collections?

In the main, they tend to be in plain colours with only a contrasting stripe or emboldened fonts to arrest the gaze.  It doesn’t.  Short story collections have some sort of theme. If none is suggested by the author, such as revenge or love or fear, there is always the style, culture, time or the place in which or about which they are written. A good graphic designer or illustrator can surely encapsulate some image or design to attract the book browser? The only volume I have seen recently where this  has happened is Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill, and that is modest.

Children’s short stories still sell well. Parents would rather read something bite-sized than embark on a novel. Children are assumed to want something which doesn’t daunt by size – despite their love of huge Harry Potter novels . Note that children’s short stories have illustrations on the covers. Publishers must have concluded that plain covers would be far more off-putting for sales than size.  Are we adults so different?

I do love an eye-cataching cover. Therefore my own forthcoming volume of short stories (Me-Time Tales – tea-breaks for mature women and curious men)  is unashamedly bright with its theme of self-indulgence evident.


Me-Time_cover_13x20_subtitle

Chinese short stories

Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China- edited by +Liu Ding, +Yinghua Lu and +Ra Page

It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I had never expected that those would characterize the national psyche. I have never visited China so had little knowledge. What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.

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This collection gives a rare flavour of China. However, the Introduction is just as important. The story of the circumstances in which the collection came about is fascinating and itself gives some insight into Chinese life. As the Introduction explained, each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.

To do the book justice, each story really deserves to be reviewed individually, but I have compromised with my favourites.

Wittily, +Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. It is a very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ in which we learn something of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. +Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.

He does an equally good job on +Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.

+Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?

The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by +Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes, although hilarious, gives a flavour of everyday life and difficulties in +Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of +Jonathan Swift.

In +Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of +Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.

Altogether, it was the irony and irrepressible humour that gave me such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.

Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.

The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, from your local independent bookseller. I bought it from +Mr B’s Emporium in Bath:

  • Publisher: +Comma Press (30 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190558346X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583461