(This a follow-up to my review of The City of Words)
I’ve come to realize that major part of why I liked The City of Words so much has to do with the author’s background. Alberto Manguel was born in Argentina, but immigrated to Canada in 1982 and thus speaks from the immigrant experience. Like me, he has navigated his fractured identity through literature and writing. I’m not sure how many immigrants actually deal with identity this way; it’s one of those things that might make Manguel’s work appealing to me, but probably outside the experience of others.
Reading through various reviews of the book over the past week has been, well, disappointing. A few have criticized Manguel’s “multiculturalist agenda”, and say his views on the power of stories to understand the other is absurd. This seems, to me, a fundamental misunderstanding of The City of Words. To paint Manguel as yet another ideologue runs counter to the very message Manguel tries to send, that it’s precisely this sort of labelling that literature has the power to prevent. However, if we’re to continue on this track, we might start here:
For Brown and Sarkozy, assimilation or exclusion are the only methods to ensure the survival of a society’s identity. A social policy of open identity, in a society that accepts the measure of its own evolution, is in their eyes to dangerous because the society might be transformed out of all recognition. From their perspective, Uruk will only be Uruk if Enkidu is not allowed to live as Enkidu within its walls. For them, the other must either renounce his own identity or remain forever alien to us; in fact the other (as other) must not be allowed to be part of us, since union with the other is supposed to have terrible consequences. (49)
This is the passage that sets some critics off, I’m sure. The above is also a succinct description of how it feels to be an immigrant in societies that have no interest in accepting a fractured immigrant identity. As an immigrant, you are always branded as outsider no matter the level of assimilation into the dominant culture; the feeling of an untethered identity always stays with you. The resolution of self/other in The Epic of Gilgamesh holds no meaning for Brown and Sarkozy, but it does have meaning for immigrants and those open to cross-cultural exchange. *
Manguel only echoes the thoughts of Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a philosopher of the third century BC employed at the Library of Alexandria, of whom Strabo wrote:
[Eratosthenes] rejects the principle of a twofold division of the human race between Greeks and Barbarians, and disapproves of the advice given to Alexander, that he treat all Greeks as friends and all Barbarians as enemies. It is better, he writes, to employ as a division criteria the qualities of virtue and dishonesty. Many Greeks are dishonest and many Barbarians enjoy a refined civilisation… (The Geography, Book I, ch. 4, par. 9)
It’s a bit depressing to think that an ancient librarian had more insight into humanity than many in our supposedly “globalized” world.
I’ve already written a bit about my own immigrant identity, and in more detail than I’ll cover here. Central is the feeling of “absent culture”, and trying to ground myself into a universal mythic framework in which I created my own “cultural roots”/”deep past” separate from those I felt rejected from. I didn’t go into how I fled from that identity when I was younger precisely because of the societal pressures Manguel mentioned above—something that emerges from fear of the other. At first, it was terrifying to think that I could not escape the immigrant identity. Eventually, I embraced it as something unique and worth exploring, to the point where it’s become a defining feature of the sorts of stories I choose to write.
The City of Words reinforces that value of the immigrant identity. I don’t think this was Manguel’s main intention, but it explains why I found the book more affecting than others have.
*A favourite target of critics is Manguel’s “over-analysis” of Gilgamesh. On the contrary, I’ve read Gilgamesh and think it’s a dense and multi-layered story that deals with fundamental questions of humanity in a way few other national epics have. It deserves this sort of serious analysis. (Personally, I think it’s a far richer text than Beowulf, for which everything that could possibly said has already been said and repeated several times over.)