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Terrorism and Art: Simon Cleary’s Closer to Stone

September 28, 2012
Ahaggar Mountains Algeria Closer to Stone

The Ahaggar Mountains in Southern Algeria feature in Closer to Stone (Creative Commons Licence, via Photo Pin)

Simon Cleary, Closer to Stone, 2012

Closer to Stone is a brave book. Bas, a young sculptor, is absorbed in his art but otherwise shallow and ignorant of other cultures. His father sends him to North Africa to find Bas’s disappeared older brother, and there Bas can find little connection with a society that appears so alien. Such a story requires a sensitive writer who can avoid the perils of Orientalism, the representation of non-European cultures as “other” and inferior.

But there’s more. The novel pivots around an act of Islamist terrorism and shows how the horror at such an act can be projected onto all Muslims – a theme that demands a skilled writer to avoid appearing to justify blaming a group for the actions of a few of its members.

Does Closer to Stone succeed in its treatment of these themes? Yes, say many reviewers. For example, Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers calls it “a stunning novel … a significant, thoughtful and thought-provoking book”. No, says Dean Biron in the Australian Book Review (April 2012, paywalled): “Closer to Stone, like so many literary journeys made by First World writers into developing world settings, seems so caught up with accounting for the ‘otherness’ of the environment that it comes across more as an outsider’s authoritative critique than as an exploration. The indigenous people … are presented as otherworldly, chiefly understood by those characteristics that conflict with the occidental. Those who do not come across as benign and uncomprehending are instead alien and potentially malevolent, such as the male Muslim fundamentalists whom Bas repeatedly refers to as ‘the beards.’”

Like Biron, I found the young Bas of the story an unsympathetic character. But there is another Bas, the older man who is narrating the story of his younger self, exposing his past ignorance and selfishness. There is a double viewpoint, similar to that used in many memoirs. Sometimes the older Bas reflects directly on his younger self. For example, he says that it never occurred to him to learn Arabic while he was in Africa: “The truth, it seems to me now, was that learning Arabic would have meant trying to understand them. But French was neutral ground.”

But mostly the older narrator’s viewpoint is implied by including episodes and characters that provide context and reflection. Bas may find North Africa and its people ‘otherworldly’, but set against this are his fleeting connections (chess with rebel fighters or playing with refugee children) and the character of Sophe, for whom people are simply people. In the last part of the book, set in America, he works with a master-carver who provides a counterweight to Bas’s obsession.

Thus, while Bas’s reaction to North Africa is negative and orientalist, the book is not. And while the novel portrays how a person traumatised by terrorism may take on extremist and simplistic views, this portrayal itself is nuanced. I didn’t much like the young Bas, but the almost unconscious presence of the older narrator humanised him for me.

The novel investigates the nature of fundamentalism, showing how it can manifest in very different settings, and the nature of art, leading us through the process by which Bas creates his sculptures, and suggests parallels between the two domains. Bas is troubled by a paradox: “What does it mean to change the natural beauty of the stone by sculpting it? What is it you have to kill in order to give existence to something else?”

While the story is well-told, I’m not convinced that Cleary has successfully integrated the art themes into the narrative. I half-agree with Dean Biron, who says: “Bas’s calling as a sculptor seems tacked on, almost an afterthought.”  Nevertheless the question implied by Bas’s paradox – does the fundamentalist have the same heart as the artist? – almost unifies the novel, and there are other insights about art, especially about the role it may play in recovery and redemption.

I found Closer to Stone engrossing, unnerving and provocative. It demonstrates the power of fiction to take us deeply into difficult issues which we would otherwise find too threatening to investigate. Highly recommended.

Closer to Stone is the Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year (Queensland Literary Awards September 2012)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2012 2:54 pm

    Hi Bryce, thanks for the mention:)
    I think Dean Biron missed the point a bit: Closer to Stone is about a transformative journey, metaphorical as well as physical. As you say, Young Bas isn’t a redneck, he’s just a bloke, blundering around trying to do his best, Older and wiser Bas tries to make sense of his victimhood, which – given the circumstances – entitled him to view the Other as he did IMO. The idea that Cleary’s tentative exploration of this difficult moral territory is an ‘authoritative critique’ is nonsense, IMO.

    • Bryce permalink*
      September 28, 2012 6:38 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Yes, the older Bas is trying to make sense of what happened to him and to understand the young Bas’s reactions. I’m uneasy about the word “entitled” – we can’t blame him or deny his experience, but I see his reactions to North Africa and the terrorist act as understandable rather than an entitlement. Also see the following comment from Dean Biron.

  2. September 28, 2012 4:04 pm

    Dear Bryce,

    A friend mentioned your critique to me in somewhat disgruntled terms (as friends are apt to do!) but I just wanted to mention that I find what you’ve said to be very reasonable and very stimulating. I wouldn’t want to argue in favour of my review – one’s writing should stand on its own two feet, I believe – though I stick by my take on the book, while blanching somewhat at the previous comment which takes things quite out of context … regardless, Closer to Stone is certainly a worthy novel and obviously a lot of people think it more than worthy, though I do continue to wish that the gut-wrenching, Ian McEwan-ish shock plot twist wasn’t quite so ubiquitous in modern-day fiction.

    I’ll certain be keeping an eye on The Echidna and the Fox in future.

    Kind Regards
    Dean Biron

  3. Bryce permalink*
    September 28, 2012 6:57 pm

    Thank you, Dean. Reading your review in ABR helped me clarify my own reactions to the novel. Now you’ve prompted me to think about “shock plot twists” and why some work better than others. I think Cleary’s twist is better integrated into the narrative than some of McEwan’s. Is there a role for such shocks in a novel about terrorism? Kind regards, Bryce

  4. October 1, 2012 11:31 am

    I guess as far as there being “a role” for something in a novel then I’d argue that pretty well anything goes: it’s up to the author, and readers will make up there own minds as to whether it worked or not. The Iris Murdoch book I referred to in my review itself has one or two fairly confronting twists, but the primary motive certainly isn’t to shock the audience member out of his or her comfort zone or something (the film The Sixth Sense seems like another touchstone for that kind of recently-ubiquitous narrative ploy). Indeed, I was interested to see how a couple of the panel members on the ABC’s Book Club show recently clearly just did not get the philosophical subtlety of Murdoch’s style in The Sea the Sea. In the end, it’s a personal choice as to why I take her’s as a great book – I’m also thinking of Randolph Stow’s To the Islands as another truly memorable character study along somewhat similar lines – and Cleary’s as merely an okay one … still, tackling the whole terrorism/Islamism thing is a tough job for any novelist and in that regard he should be applauded.


  5. October 1, 2012 11:32 am

    Or better still, they will make up “their” own minds!

    • Bryce permalink*
      October 1, 2012 4:49 pm

      I agree – Cleary is not (yet?) a master of character creation, although I think he’s a little more than merely okay. I will remember Closer to Stone more for the treatment of the fundamentalism and terrorism themes than for its characters. But as you imply, the books that really stay in our memories are those with strongly portrayed and many-layered characters, especially if they are wicked people with whom you can’t help empathising, such as the refined, thoughtful and engaging terrorist of David Malouf’s Child’s Play.

      I’ve been avoiding The Sea The Sea because of its length, but your advocacy could be changing my mind.

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