Let’s have a conversation, shall we? Let’s tread in the footsteps of American actor and producer John Cusack and renowned Indian author Arundhati Roy and have a bit of a talk. The subject of choice? Their book Things that can & cannot be said, a collection of essays, recorded conversations and quotes, spaciously set and generously upholstered with photos to make up a 120-page-booklet talking about humanity’s love for the imperial governments that are destroying it. Quite chirpy, really.
Unfortunately, reading it isn’t too chirpy a experience. And that’s not because it cleverly challenges your assumptions and belief systems, leaving you slightly offended, but reformed to believe in the right things. (Oh, I wished.) It’s because Things that can & cannot be said, in my opinion, isn’t a particularily good book.
Some friends of mine and I curate a little book club and sometimes share our conversations in the school newspaper, edited down to a readable length and syntax, so I’m truly familiar with having a audio recording of my own imperfect ramblings and the challenge of subtly turning them into something remotely publishable. I understand the fine balance between tweaking your own eloquence and keeping the oral, spontaneous quality of a genuine conversation. Because of that, I feel confident in saying that the dialogues printed do not accomplish that balance. Both Roy and Cusack are obviously very intellectual and articulate, but they more than border the pretentious here. If John Cusack truly walks through his daily life saying things like “It has to metastasize”, then I’ll have to apologetically declare that I can’t relate.
What Cusack and Roy are publishing, and don’t try to convince me otherwise, is popular non-fiction. In which case, they might have taken accessibility into account. As someone truly passionate about and involved with politics and political theory, I always try to imagine handing texts to a less interested friend and wonder whether they would ignite a flame in them. This truly wouldn’t. When describing the first snippets of conversation between whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg with whom they’ve flown to Moscow and Edward Snowden whom they are visiting there, Roy lovingly speaks of “some kind of arcane code language” – meaning the countless agencies, programme names and security clearances inside the US secret services and their cryptic abbreviations.
Very shortly afterwards (a given in a book of 120 sparsely printed pages), in sharing some recorded conversation however, this book does exactly the same.
“Before that, before ’60, only a handful of people, including some reconnaissance experts in RAND who worked with the U-2, knew there was a U-2.”
You still with me? Good for you.
To be clear, they talked for an entire day, of which they published ten pages of recollection – you sure that was the most important bit?
Most of the rest of the book is a stage for the confident intellectual Arundhati Roy. Selling her conversations with John Cusack as such is a stretch, as they never fundamentally disagree. Which makes them rather an exercise in spontaneous essay-speech-crossover-slamming for her, with Cusack only offering one-line-incentives or quotes that keep the conversation moving.
Roy’s political views thus being established to basically make up this book (which isn’t necessarily what it’s sold as, might I add), let’s talk about those to round up this little discussion. She can clearly write, as I already deemed when reading her gorgeous novel The God of Small Things, and her argumentation in this one is clear and interesting: we need to stop worshipping nations as god-like entities that are in their essence good and humanitarian, if often corrupted. She critizises trust in governments, the trust that makes citizens express disappointment, disillusionment when hearing of political scandals such as the mass surveillance revelations – what did you expect of such an imperial construct, she seems to shout.Roy talks about Lifestyle wars being fought to keep up the Western nation’s status of wealth and privilege, she dissects US foreign policy since before 9/11 and the developement of nuclear weapons; and she always falls back on civil disobedience as the most natural, the only way to cope with all that is wrong today. If that means violence, so be it.
She argues these points with the sparkling eloquence you’d expect, leading to exceptional quotes such as
“We can decide the most convenient place on which to airdrop history’s markers. History is really a study of the future, not the past.”
Most of the time, however, she remains juggling very specific references to Indian politics, unclear accusations against anything in power and no clean-cut solutions, as she herself acknowledges, but doesn’t venture to rectify.
So that’s my Spark Notes on what I believe this book wanted to say. What it was marketed to be, however, was the result of an impactful meeting with one of the most talked about whistleblowers of all time, Edward Snowden, and the state of states in our century. And what it ended up saying was probably close to so we stole away from this very fancy dinner to have a deep conversation about Imperialism, and didn’t we enjoy ourselves. Particularily because John wasn’t allowed to say anything.