The Ugly, a novel
By Alexander Boldizar
Brooklyn Arts Press
370 pages, $19.95
Like a boisterous Borges ignoring the delete key or an angry Celine forced to write in a language he hates, Alexander Boldizar plays with our minds by mixing fact with fiction in “The Ugly.” His hero, Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, shares elements of Boldizar’s life but goes completely off the rails at other times.
Both are displaced Slovakians although Boldizar and his family were displaced to Canada, not the “mountains of Siberia” where Muzhduk lives. Both got into Harvard Law by scoring well on tests though Boldizar benefitted from the Canadian school system and Muzhduk got no training unless you call throwing boulders education (“No Rocks Left Behind.”) Both took a year off from law school and went to sub Saharan Africa. Boldizar went with the Discovery Channel and Muzhduk went fourth class to save an idealistic classmate who was caught up in revolutions in Mali and Benin. Both Boldizar and Muzhduk are big, athletic men but not ugly judging from their many amorous adventures. They are made to feel ugly by their surroundings.
Last year one in every 122 humans was either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. 65.3 million people were displaced by the end of 2015.
Stalin moved Muzhduk’s people to Siberia so Russians could live in their homeland. Muzhduk hates the Communists who periodically try to tell them what to do but his real enemy is an American lawyer. He wants to make this desolate area a tourist destination for rich travelers in search of rare butterflies. Muzhduk fights back by becoming a lawyer himself so he can defeat them at their own game. He goes to Harvard and walks into a nest of vipers — the best and the brightest of Western Culture — would-be lawyers and their rapacious teachers. These snobbish, patronizing, manipulating people teach him what it’s really like to be displaced.
A subaltern is a person who has no voice in the society in which he lives. His true story will never be heard. When his or her story does catch the interest of someone in the dominant culture it is thoroughly filtered by a language that is prejudiced against it. Subalternity has only been discussed seriously since 1978 when Edward Said published his classic, “Orientalism.” It’s never discussed outside the classrooms and conferences dealing with Human Rights, Anthropology or Third World History, Literature or Art. Subaltern originally referred to low ranking military officers like Second Lieutenants. Post-Colonial Studies must be second only to Creative Writing on the list of least profitable college degrees. We need engineers, not people who reveal our blind spots to us.
Determined to write in his subaltern’s voice anyway, Boldizar charges headfirst into this silent arena. He succeeds by telling two narratives at once, one at Harvard and one in Mali, Africa, even though they happened consecutively in real time. The resulting cacophony is as close to the subaltern’s voice as we may ever get. The Harvard story is told in the third person and is as close to straight realistic writing as Boldizar, holding his nose, can stand to write. The African story is a wild, first person ride and it respects few of the norms of realism. Borrowing from every fabulist he knows he turns Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on its head. Kurtz’s “horror” has become Boldizar’s “Ugly.” No wonder he had a hard time getting this novel published.
When mainstream Western culture finds it necessary to understand what it feels like to be "displaced’ or a citizen of a Third World country it puts on glasses that preclude the possibility of objectivity. Negative stereotypes abound. The possibility of meaningful dialogue is lost. Boldizar uses those same glasses to stereotype our education system in its purest form — Harvard — which has shifted “from educating children — pulling out what’s special within each — to ensuring that they don't have a single creative thought.” It’s as if the “Harvard Lampoon” turned on itself.
His only friends at Harvard are also ''ugly" in the American sense — a black man who ends up quitting when it finally squashes his spirit and a female artist from Tennessee who also got a perfect score on her LSAT. Lacking the proper paperwork to register at Harvard he borrows hers because she has failed to show for the start of the semester. She’s in Africa painting sandscapes. Not a good career move.
Many post-colonial novels and short stories are so well written — in what must surely be an act of self-censorship — that the actual alienation a subaltern feels is lost on the reader. Boldizar does not let that happen. He hits the reader over the head with it like one of his boulders. The ugliness of being the only person like yourself in a given situation is never far away.
The second story — told clumsily in the first person — is set in Mali and Benin which were for centuries the center of the slave trade. These countries are now in constant turmoil. Muzhduk is trying to save the woman he met at Harvard who has gotten herself mixed up in the Tuareg revolution.
The West formed Mali out of three incompatible cultures, leaving its coastal city of Ouidah in a small country called Benin. Ouidah is where the worst slave traders worked. More slaves left from there than from any other city in Africa. To learn more about its gruesome history, watch Werner Herzog’s “Cobra Verde” (“Slave Coast”) starring Klaus Kinski or read “The Viceroy of Ouidah" by Bruce Chatwin.
Meanwhile back at Harvard a professor named Sclera loves to humiliate his students. Muzhduk takes him on and his attempt convinces the professor that he was right to make sure Muzhduk matriculated at Harvard.
Instead of being angry the professor goes to Muzhduk’s dorm room and explains why he arranged his admission to Harvard. Sclera needs a smart subaltern at Harvard: “It’s not the professors or books that are the problem,” he says. “It’s the students. Those admitted here are in such awe of actually being here that they offer no resistance at all. There is no tension, nothing to keep us [the professors] honest. Only someone immune to the Truth [like Muzhduk] can re-align it.”
Sclera wants Muzhduk to burn down the library, and reboot the dominant culture. “All institutions lose their function over time,” he says. “As empires rot, the names stay the same while the ground shifts until the reality of a thing stands in opposition to its name.” Kurtz has returned from the jungle and the horror is our institutions.
Instead of burning down the Harvard Law library Muzhduk and his girlfriend, Peggy, glue all the volumes together. This doesn't go down well with Sclera but he can’t do much about it because he is busy organizing the year end seminar.
In case the reader hasn’t understood that this book about subalterns, Boldizar states it clearly as several of the leading scholars at Harvard Law run a symposium on the biblical story of Abraham and Issac ostensibly because Caravaggio’s painting of the “The Sacrifice of Isaac” is on loan to the Harvard art museum. “The story shows how the Law prevents the Isaacs of the world — the proletarian, the feminine, the minor — from speaking against power.” Issac “is the subaltern who cannot speak.” And Abraham is the “arbitrary patriarchy that adjusts its laws at the whims of its powers.”
Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son also brings great advantages to his tribe. When a society is able to make hard decisions like sacrificing an individual for the good of the many, it creates the conditions for a culture to flourish. The Law is the essential tool in keeping the subaltern powerless. “The power of the master must be absolute.”
Muzhduk steals the Caravaggio painting and brings it to the meeting. The campus police arrive and he hides in his favorite tree but gives himself up when the authorities begin cutting it down. He argues his case well in front of the committee that wants to expel him. He is allowed to return after taking a year’s leave. That’s when his African adventure begins that we have already read most of the way through.
In Africa he saves Peggy from the warring factions and takes her back to his homeland. He tells his stories to his friends and family exactly the way he told them to us and they ask why he went from Harvard to Africa, a question the reader wants answered too. He explains that Harvard and the war torn world of Mali are in an intimate, though largely unknown, relationship with each other: the law of the chosen needs the chaos of the unchosen to reinvent itself.
Muzhduk kicks down the door of the unfinished hotel left behind by the American lawyer. He carries his bride across the threshold. A marriage forged in hell can now live in heaven. He can enjoy the simple life with Peggy and have the occasional pick up game of collegial boulder throwing, secure in the knowledge that at least one subaltern has spoken.
The author, Boldizar, on the other hand, still wanders the real world as a subaltern without a language or a culture to call his own.
William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a former teacher. He lives and writes in Florida.