Once, I heard a man say that terrorism is the last defence against cynicism.
Once, I read a poem by a man held captive in Lebanon:
Harsh and painful years
of darkness, damp, and dirt,
hatred and contempt received, returned.
Wasted, empty years? Not quite.
(from Terry Anderson's Den of Lions)
And now, in Man of Bone, a new novel by Alan Cumyn, I read: "I'm in hell. Hell is being shackled and hooded and handcuffed in a closet or basement or wherever this is and freezing at night and roasting in the day and smelling shit and piss from your own pants."
Cumyn's Bill Burridge is an Everyman-a customer in an Oklahoma public building; a reveller in an Atlanta park heading to an Olympic event; a pedestrian in Armagh. An average person at the wrong place at the wrong time. Burridge was on his way to a game of badminton and ended up in an inferno created by terrorists.
Terrorists may come in all shades, but they all stop at nothing to secure their strategic objectives. And then, one day, they either give up or die or become legal opposition. But what about the people caught up in the net, wounded by crossfire they had nothing to do with?
Pain. How do you describe pain? In short, breathless, staccato phrases. Terror. How do you convey terror? Degradation? The darkness of the hood, of your captors' souls, of the hopelessness? And the desire to die and a totally insane grasping at life in spite of everything? Cumyn tries by invoking all the antonyms: life, light, love, caring, retrospection, the ability to experience, to dream, to move about freely.
Cumyn's Everyman attempts to escape his captors in every way possible: fleeing, attempting suicide, remembering, hoping anything in order to remain human. He recalls his past and character-building experiences; he imagines living day-to-day with his wife and son; he revisits significant landscapes. And yet, despite Cumyn's efforts to keep his character going, Bill dies long before he is delivered from captivity.
According to Cumyn, torture, deprivation, and humiliation kill the spirit. With spirit gone, the will to endure is eroded: "there's no escape for me. I lived through the reaches of hell and will live through this, too, because I'm a slimy little shit, spineless and unredeemed".
I don't much care for the language of this passage. And unfortunately Cumyn is guilty of penning seve-ral phrases which undermine his otherwise commendable prose, with "maybe life is the orgasm" hitting the lowest note. This apparently is how Cumyn's character perceives himself. As a reader, though, I have to ask, why? Especially in the context of a work that frequently quotes survivors' tales. Especially that, given the blessed lack of an analogous personal experience, I must rely only on the words and the emotions they convey. And let's be explicit about the greatest merit of Cumyn's novel: it makes the whole process of the disintegration of the human spirit totally believable, the madness only too palpable, the preoccupation with inactivity in prison only too overwhelming. Is it done, then, in order to reveal once again the other side in bold relief-the side of impossible happiness, unattainable peace, and futile communion with those closest to you? Or is it done for purely literary reasons, in order to draw all the conclusions, to leave no room for hope, to end the narrative in the only logical way possible?
Because at the closing there are only two, and opposite, resolutions: one, chosen by Cumyn, is based on logic; the other demands a leap of faith.
As a reader, I would prefer Cumyn had wrestled free of the grasp of ineluctable logic and leapt into the realm of hope. Still, this is Cumyn's novel and the final choice is his entirely. And yet the feeling of uneasiness lingers. Is it because of suffering that Burridge's spirit is destroyed and he tries to kill himself? Or did Burridge have no spirit to begin with?
Perhaps this obliging embassy clerk, the tormented Man of Bone, is above all a Hollow Man. I am not judging him, but trying to understand him. And I conclude that the writer's motivation, the way in which he crosses all the t's and dots all the i's, becomes a leading question about the state of our spiritual life. But does it have to be? Can we not instead repeat after Terry Anderson, who survived seven years in captivity and still hopes that:
No years are empty in a life,
or wasted-that depends on
what is made of them, and after?
Roman Sabo is a Vancouver poet, essayist, and translator.