The Fountain at the Center of the World|
by Robert Newman
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|A Review of: The Fountain at the Center of the World
by Jeff Bursey
A roman thse is "a novel written in the realistic mode (that
is, based on an aesthetic of verisimilitude and representation),
which signals itself to the reader as primarily didactic in intent,
seeking to demonstrate the validity of a political, philosophical,
or religious doctrine," as Susan Rubin Suleiman explains in
Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre.
In the main, Robert Newman's third novel fits this definition. The
Fountain at the Center of the World has generated favourable press
in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States for its critical
position on the immediate and long-term implications of globalization
and neoliberalism. A New York Times reviewer believes "it reads
like what you'd get if Tom Wolfe clambered into the head of Noam
Chomsky-it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot of earth. . ."
The same audience that enjoys Jon Stewart's interpretation of
politics on The Daily Show, and those who have been pepper-sprayed
by the RCMP for not staying well away from heads of state, will
welcome this sharp polemic. Among other things, it describes how
campaigns are devised on the corporate and grassroots levels, how
governments seem incidental to the running of a nation's affairs,
and how language has been corrupted by business and interest groups.
Generally, The Fountain At the Center of the World contains crisp
writing as well as the occasional, and not accidental, piece of
"Nuevo Leon can take the river out of la frontera, but can't
take la frontera out of the river. The river remembers what it did
last year: sent north and put to work in the gardens, kitchens, and
semi-conductor plants of the rich. It leaned its drunken head against
Friday-night urinals in pay-day bars blurry with zero-hour
contract-workers, and had nothing left to send back to the family
smallholding. The following spring Nahualhuas finds the river too
fucked up to hide its junk-food addiction, its substance abuse, its
sinister hoardings of trophy tampons and women's shoes as it crawls
along the ground like an old wasp, a groggy ditch mumbling to itself
and breeding jejen mosquitoes. No one blames the river if, when it
does at last come back, it goes on a bender and is discovered next
morning sitting mildly and peaceably in the ruined crops, a clumsy
swirl of its reach describing a broad, haphazard domain while
slurring the words All mine!"
This stream of anthropomorphism, metaphor, the demotic and breathless
magazine-speak (three hyphenated words in one sentence) courses
throughout the novel, and the fluid nature of the prose suits the
narrative as it moves from the business world to protest sessions
and pictures of village life. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a
lecturing tone when simple things are spelled out-as an example,
what NGO stands for-and, in certain conversations on democracy and
global concerns, Newman displays a tin ear: what is written comes
across more like the talking points of policy analysts than
conversation. Those mistakes are infrequent, but when they occur
the novel is robbed of momentum and pleasure.
Drawing on his varied labour experiences and involvement with groups
such as Indymedia and Earth First, Newman writes with familiarity
on activist movements and the consequences of NAFTA. The action
takes place in a Mexican village called Tonalacapan, in London,
and, for its culmination, on the streets of Seattle during the 1999
protests against the WTO meetings.
Mariano (Chano) Salgado and Evan Hatch are brothers who were separated
early in life, the latter raised by an English couple. He handles
public relations for corporations. Salgado's wife Marisa is killed,
prior to the novel's opening, by a bullet during a demonstration,
after which Salgado takes part in a shoot-out with Mexican authorities,
disappears, and is presumed dead. Their one child, Daniel, is adopted
by a couple who move to Costa Rica; after the mother dies the father
goes to the United States, leaving Daniel to be raised by his dead
wife's parents. When Salgado eventually returns to Tonalacapan no
one can tell him exactly where his son has gone or with whom. Daniel
knows little about his father, but decides to search for him, hoping
the scarce clues he has will help. What brings Hatch to Mexico is
more fatal: he is ill from a mysterious disease, which his English
doctors describe as a form of leukemia, and needs blood and marrow
donations. The only person he can turn to is Salgado.
Finding him may be difficult. A company called Ethylclad, which
owns and operates a toxic-waste plant in Tonalacapan, Salgado's
home, pumps "sixty thousand gallons of groundwater a day."
Protests by a citizens' group against this pollution have done no
good, and to add to the misery of the villagers, "the people
of Tamaulipas state had to pay Ethylclad ninety million dollars
compensation for the ten months' lost profits." Convinced by
a friend to put his experience with chemicals to work for a just
cause, Salgado blows up the pipeline, becoming an eco-terrorist (if
such fine distinctions still exist). He flees, but his name and
face are known to the police. A picture of him pops up on Hatch's
laptop when he is "on a branch line somewhere in England after
a flood." Hatch and Daniel arrive in Tonalacapan just after
Salgado disappears for the second time.
The brothers are not flat characters but they are not entirely
convincing. Narratively, too often Salgado sounds like a tract come
to life. His lack of faith in a positive outcome from the Seattle
demonstrations may be attributed to fatigue and the loss of both
his wife and son. "He was hoping to see this Protest of the
Century fail. Its failure would confirm a view of universal
hopelessness." Further, he knows that "whenever things
came to a head, capitalism could always coopt a movement's reformists
and isolate its radicals." There is little hope for positive
As one reviewer put it, "Newman's vast political knowledge and
the desire to share it can, at times, overwhelm his characters, and
detract from their humanity." This is correct. However, the
observation perhaps misses Newman's intention. In the Mexico of The
Fountain at the Center of the World characters are not products of
their environment so much as they are by-products. From conception
they are shaped by the local water supply, air quality, working
conditions, an assortment of toxic chemicals and value-neutral
nature. Hatch is ill because his mother was bitten by a beetle while
pregnant with him. The insect transmitted chagas disease, which the
mother died of after passing it on. A doctor tells Hatch: "Good
nutrition, a healthy environment, fresh air have all given you-or
gave you-a stronger immune system than most chagas victims."
Salgado tells his brother: "The point was to get you somewhere
nice where you could have a life. [The adoptive parents] wouldn't
have been told [of the disease]... And it may be they hoped that
in Europe you'd have the drugs to treat chagas, said Chano (knowing
all the while that there were no drugs for chagas because it was a
disease of the poor)."
Similarly, Salgado's life around dangerous chemicals has altered
his makeup, resulting in one small, odd benefit that emerges during
the Seattle demonstrations. "Alone among the fifty thousand
protesters [his] long years of marination in sodium metabisulfite
had rendered him immune to tear gas. Both the oleoresin-capsicum
of pepper spray and the orthochloro- benzalmalononitrile of tear
gas had been neutralized by the sodium metabisulfite."
Two of Salgado's friends, Oscar and Yolanda, have worked around
toxic chemicals, with the result that their only child, Oscar Jr.,
is born with Sturge-Weber syndrome, which they do not have the money
to treat. The boy's life is miserable and short. Industrial activity
shapes characters in ways that are even more insidious. While Yolanda
and Daniel have a long-distance conversation, she considers "all
the things she will have to do without to pay for this call,"
among them bus fare, electricity, coffee, washing powder and kerosene.
In a way, she is made up of gas, power and chemicals (Newman might
have non-free trade coffee in mind).
There is no escape from industrialization, not even for nature
"Like steel rolling off a press, a smooth sheet of water is
always pouring off the fountain's lowest ledge, before it joins the
broad pool of the fountain. The deep round still subdues these new,
tumbling, churning arrivals to the restrained mores of pond life.
The sheety roll, however, shucks a last foaming hem of white water
which bounces-with amazing consistency-tiny beads clear as Monterey
glass. To and fro the beads are thrown in an arc. Constant pops of
glass beads-hoopla-still emerge perfect and round, perfect and
round, to disappear into the frothing shuck before Yolanda-much as
she tries-can ever see them burst."
To describe the water fountain of Tonalacapan, one need only utilize
the language of industrial processes. "The fountain had enjoyed
a short burst of flourishing life after Chano and Ayo blew up
Ethylclad's groundwater pipelines. So much so, in fact, that its
full-bodied celebration had made everyone nervous." The fountain
is an indicator of the water system's health and the nervous system
of the villagers; it is has been tamed for so long that its increased
activity-a flaunting of public "mores"-causes unease.
The psychological shallowness of characters who possess a surprising
ability to find each other in strange cities, the transformation
of a fountain from a sign of nature to a marker of industrial
activity, as well as the notable omission of objects, values and
beliefs higher than the material world (the reader is told about
love, but it comes across as more of a gesture on Newman's part;
happiness is in the past or maybe in the dim future; religion and
art have no place; communal bonds don't last), indicate that Newman's
philosophical approach is deterministic. Salgado doesn't believe
in the activists who purposefully visited Seattle. Any notion of
progress or unified vision among them in their fight for a cleaner
environment is set against the more implacable, in some cases inert,
politicians, union leaders and policy makers. Madeleine Albright,
then-Secretary of State for the U.S., comes in for a particularly
withering description. Overlooking the protests from her hotel room,
breathing out hatred, she "swivels slightly on the stool to
find her face's strong angle, to remind herself of her power."
(That is not a casual use of the word "stool", nor is
it over-emphasized.) The head of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, is
dressed in a garment with an "elasticated hem" that
visually mirrors the earlier mention of the "elasticated leather
jackets" worn by Seattle's sheriffs. After hearing Sweeney's
speech, Salgado "realized this was exactly the sellout he'd
been expecting. . . . It was twenty years since he'd last heard a
union-boss speak and nothing had changed!" Third World delegates
to the WTO are shown to be as frustrated and powerless as Salgado.
Clearly, the narrative says to readers, it is useless to think that
these people can (or even want to) rescue the world from global
capitalism and environmental degradation, which may be one reason
why Patrick Lejtenyi in The Montreal Mirror considers the novel
"at times a bleak read."
Within this grim story is an energetic presentation of radical
ideology scraping against established ideology. A Salon reviewer
stated that "the anti-globalization movement" may have
found its Theodore Dreiser, but that comparison is misleading.
Newman is most like John Dos Passos in his middle period (the U.S.A.
trilogy). Instead of the objectivity' of Dos Passos's polemical
work, Newman offers a charged and slanted subjectivity which examines,
and exploits, in a shameless and brash fashion, the tedium and
mysteries behind the workings of the WTO, activist movements and
globalization. The Fountain at the Center of the World is most alive
where Newman concentrates on politics and agit-prop. The "fat
flies in the flammable river and... chemical froth in the irrigation
trenches" and the shaping of international policies fascinate
him and engage his talents more than character or plot development,
and his excitement and anger leap off the page. Though flawed,
Newman's third novel is serious, timely and important.