A Designated Man
By Moris Farhi
Telegram Books, March 2009, £12.99
In a lecture at Harvard in 1967, Jorge Luis Borges mourned the passing of the epic, a form he loved for its fusion of music and narration and its heroic breadth. In contrast to the myopic and introverted modern novel, it offered a ‘pattern for all men’ — something that we in the contemporary world hungered for just as much as the ancients.
In A Designated Man, set on the fictitious island of Skender, Moris Farhi gives us a darker, starker version of the same struggle we saw in his last novel, Young Turk; again, a multi-ethnic society is in distress. Though graced with fertile soil and a long, distinguished history, Skender is in the grip of what is known locally as the Law. First introduced several centuries earlier, and justified by a rigid concept of honour, it gives its men no choice but to surrender their lives to blood feuds.
The Law has been so successful that it now allows clans that have had all their male feudists wiped out to appoint women in their stead. Any woman who agrees must erase all trace of her femininity thereafter. Any one who resists the Law’s fundamentalist logic can expect a harsh response from Toma, the Law’s chief enforcer, who is responsible for the training and indoctrination of young feudists and also acts as agents for the faceless Gospodins, the mainland clan that has been slowly and quietly buying up the island, in the hope that Skender might one day become a Mediterranean equivalent of Diego Garcia, thereby making them a fortune.
It is a dystopia with many resonances for anyone familiar with the history and politics of the post-Ottoman world. There are the little people, and there are the faceless others who play them like puppets, rob them of their histories and identities, and benefit from their pointless slaughter. But there are also the rebels, and this is their only legacy.
The story comes to us in a sequence of voices. With one exception (the loathsome Toma) they are immensely compelling, displaying an extraordinary emotional range, so much so that to read the book is to hear an epic sung. The first to speak is Kokona, the retired school teacher who has devoted her life to resisting the Law. We meet her returning by ferry from the mainland (itself in ruins following forty years of People’s Wars); with her is the dwarf whose colossal feats have protected her from the feudists, and whom she calls Dev (which is Turkish for ‘giant’). Having noticed that a battle-scarred stranger sitting close by has no food, he invites the man to share their meal. It soon emerges that the man they dub Xenos (Greek for stranger) was once Kokona’s pupil. After his father, a reluctant feudist, was gunned down by his foes, Kokona sent the boy to the mainland so that he could escape the same fate. Instead he was drawn into the People’s Wars. He has come home in search of peace.
He has not even reached the water mill that is his birthright when he has his first brush with death. All who hear of this encounter are mystified by it, for the feudist Bostan is known for his accuracy. Like his dog Castor, he trusts no one. But like Castor, he seems suddenly unable to go on the attack. The enchantment seems to be mutual, but for a time, neither man trusts it. Bostan remains a fervent feudist, while Xenos (or Osip Gora, as we come to know him) seizes every opportunity to challenge the Law. He does so most effectively when he uses its lesser known articles to argue for its abolition.
But swirling underneath his fine words are the suppressed longings that will determine his fate. The voices telling the story make no secret of them. There is no need: all but one are ghosts. They speak to warn us against the Tomas and Gospodins of this world. Like Mario Vargas Llosa in The Feast of the Goat, they see the greatest danger not in the leaders themselves but in those who have swallowed their ideology whole.
But despite all the penalties, most islanders are unable to live as purely as their masters command. This is evident in their ever changing responses to Skender’s mixed approach to gender. In allowing for women to become designated men, they detach the islanders, both male and female, from their assigned biological selves. As some women go in mad pursuit of honour and glory, some men find themselves questioning that code as they move, almost without design, into lives of nurturing. But it is not an easy passage. Their hearts are in conflict with the social code that still, to some degree, defines them.
The heroes and heroines in this tale do not always make the right choices, and neither do they live happily ever after. What matters is that they refuse to bend to the language of hatred. The same holds true for the tellers of the tale. They draw us in through the music of their voices. They take us to the heart of each character and each scene, so that we, too, feel the danger and the pull of illicit desires. When they fall in love, so do we. Though they portray the island’s self-made gods as almost invincible, and rebellion as an almost always doomed exercise, their song becomes all the more beautiful in the face of tragedy.
Moris Farhi is a sophisticated writer, in conversation not just with the modern novel but also the twists and turns of Borgesian postmodernism. Rather than deconstruct the epic, he has invested it with new ideas and brought it back to life. He should be congratulated for his daring and commended for his great and heroic heart.