‘You couldn’t make it up’, people keep saying, watching news bulletins flash across screens. The political world seems to be turning into fiction, with unexpectedly dramatic and bewildering plots and subplots. By contrast, in this issue of Granta we try to disentangle theatre and politics, and remember that acts have consequences, and that those consequences, while not always predictable, are rarely surprising.
In ‘Days of Awe’, A.M. Homes considers questions of desire and authorial legitimacy with her trademark humour and insight ‒ her main protagonist has written a novel about the multi-generational effects of Holocaust trauma, and is attending a conference on genocide. The delicate question of who owns the story of the Shoah is woven into satire. Homes is so good on popular culture, ranging from conference questions to corporate sponsorship (sometimes getting happy should be simple reads the slogan on a chocolate bar wrapper advertising antidepressants). Gerda Hoff, an elderly Holocaust survivor, confronts the nameless novelist. ‘You want to know what I like?’ she says. ‘Chocolate ice cream. That’s something to live for. Your book, a shaynem dank dir im pupik. I lived it, I don’t have to read it.’
A shaynem dank dir im pupik: Yiddish for ‘many thanks to your belly button’, or: thanks for nothing.
Joshua Cohen’s surreal story ‘Mall Camp, Seasons 1 & 2’ shows a Syrian boy mapping his lost cultural logic onto the crumbling colour-coded edifice of his new world; a closed refugee camp located in an unfinished shopping mall in Greece. This too is a story about the aftermath of violence, but in this case the trauma is so recent that its discourse and even its language is as yet unformed.
In this issue we are publishing Malaysian-Chinese author Ho Sok Fong for the first time in English. Her short story is about teaching in the context of censorship and conservative Islamic forces. Staff at the school are let go for slight indiscretions or infringements of the rules and disappear quietly into other lives. The story has an eerie, almost dystopian, quality ‒ the acts are subtle; the consequences fundamental and inescapable.
We commissioned Russian author Sana Valiulina to write a memoir piece about her father, who was a Gulag prisoner. ‘Root and Branch’, written in dense and lyrical prose, translated by Polly Gannon, describes a tour of Perm, stopping to see sights including a derelict prison camp and museum. Valiulina’s father was captured by the Nazis in 1942, and transferred to a British POW camp after the war, from which he was deported to the Soviet Union. I have read many descriptions of the Gulag from the Soviet era, but this is a contemporary view, a landscape dotted with new churches and billboards of Christian messages, where the memory of the huge punitive machinery of the camps is discouraged or even repressed. What is left? Barbed wire and timber huts, gradually sinking into the Earth.
We also commissioned reporter Charles Glass and the eminent photographer Don McCullin to travel to Palmyra in Syria. In 2015 ISIS troops murdered Khaled Assa’ad, archaeologist and Palmyra’s head of antiquities, and ravaged the ruins. The question is the same: what is left now? Some of the ruins are still standing, but much has been destroyed. The most poignant description, perhaps, is of the silence in Tadmor, the town outside Palmyra. Before the war it had a population of some 70,000 people. Last autumn, barely a hundred people remained.
We have two reports from Britain in this issue. Jason Cowley, a former editor of Granta who now edits the New Statesman, returns to his home town of Harlow to investigate the death of Polish immigrant Arkadiusz Jozwik. On the night of 27 August 2016, a group of teenagers came across Jozwik and some friends who were eating pizza from a local takeaway. Insults were traded and Jozwik was punched, fell, and hit his head. He later died in hospital. It’s a simple and tragic story, but in the context of Brexit the narrative mutated until it was cited as evidence of English anti-European discrimination and hatred. Essex police were the first to suggest this: the death was a potential hate crime, they said. The Polish president wrote to religious leaders urging them to help prevent xenophobic attacks; the ambassador was taken on a tour of Harlow, and, astonishingly, Polish police officers were sent to patrol the area.
Our second report is from London. There are not many independent shops left on British high streets. Their disappearance is not a mystery – high business rates and rents, and competition from chains, have forced them out. The only shops exempt from punitive rates are charity shops, which is partly why they have become such a significant (and somewhat depressing) feature of our towns. Councils could create more subtle and dynamic policies that would make for more diversity on our high streets – as it is we are stuck with shops that are generic and dull, a race to the bottom in terms of town planning. David Flusfeder visits some of the most unique shops that remain in London, but his narrative is not just about the shops – it’s also about the people who own and run them. He notes their expertise; their ability to measure you up with a glance, see what you are made of. It’s a portrait of old London, fragments of which still persist, despite everything.
Finally, we are publishing a series of Edward Burtynsky’s extraordinary photographs of scarred landscapes. Various forms of development have spread like a disease on the skin of the Earth. ‘Burtynsky shows us suburbia pressed against wetlands, supertanker graveyards in Bangladesh and parking lots so big they challenge comprehension,’ Anthony Doerr writes in his introduction to the photoessay. ‘His best photographs are expressionistic, almost calligraphic, as though he’s displaying the hidden signatures our collective appetites have etched across the Earth. They are startling, frozen pictures, sometimes remote, sometimes intimate, sometimes both at the same time.’
‘Look at this, the pictures say. See this. This is happening. This is where you live.’