This issue of Granta is about time and about ghosts – the ghosts of our past selves, the shadows of past injuries, the ghosts of history, the ghosts in the machine.
We begin with André Aciman, who recalls a moment of desire on a crowded bus in Rome which, for all its brevity and possible lack of intention or even consciousness, was to shape an important part of his imaginary life.
We also have Amos Oz in conversation with Shira Hadad, his Israeli editor. He describes the confinement of the kibbutz that he joined aged sixteen. There were long negotiations with the kibbutz authorities about the ethics of allocating some of his hours of work duties to writing rather than to the collective labour of kibbutz life – picking fruit and milking the cows and so on. What right did Oz have to pursue creativity and individualism? What duty did he owe to the collective?
Bernard Cooper writes about sleep eating for this issue, a rare side-effect of Ambien. At a time when his partner was enduring the toxicity of an early Aids treatment, Cooper, in a twilight state of waking unconsciousness, stuffed himself with food. This is a delicate and measured piece – hunger is a known side effect of the sleeping pill, and yet Cooper’s desperate hunger also reads like hunger for life, a reaction to the tragic decline of his lover and partner.
Anne Carson’s short story, ‘Ardor (Aghast)’, sets the themes that dominate so much of contemporary discourse – sexual transgression and public scrutiny and interrogation – in the context of an academic conference in Switzerland. There has been a previous erotic encounter between a teenage boy and a female academic. The boy had become associated with other dangerous acts, probably terror-related. ‘You found his murderous puberty attractive,’ the interrogator says. ‘Do you rekindle now a former ardor?’ ‘Ardor’ is a word, the academic protests, that she would never use, like, she adds, the word ‘aghast’. Carson’s text, tersely poetic and controlled, gives little away, but something, we sense, has been lost in translation between cultures and between eras. Clean trains figure, and good muesli in bowls, but perhaps passion has been lost, captured in those very words, no longer in use? ‘On leaving you will close both doors’, the story ends. ‘Thank you.’
We are also publishing an excerpt of Vasily Grossman’s forthcoming Stalingrad, a newly translated novel, in this issue. It’s not quite a prequel to Life and Fate, but rather a companion piece, returning to the same characters – and some new ones – fighting the same war and displaying the same ambiguity or ardour (that word again) about the Soviet system.
Grossman, whose mother was murdered by the Nazis, reaches a chilling understanding of the Nazi mind in this extract, conveying how easy it must have been to fall into the ready-made ideology of Nazism, to wage war and genocide, to loot and murder, and yet still be concerned with matters of ordinary life. Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the banality of evil, has become controversial, but here it is: ordinary Germans lending themselves to the malevolent machinery of Nazi Germany.
Finally, we are publishing three short chapters from Turkish writer Ahmet Altan’s prison diary. Altan was imprisoned in the wake of the crackdown following the attempted Turkish coup in 2016. He was charged with disseminating coded messages to Gülen supporters in a TV show – an accusation manifestly absurd, but of course he is not alone. Turkey’s democracy turns out to have been more fragile than we imagined in the heady days of EU accession talks. Thousands of people are now in prison, charged with fantastical conspiracies. The EU accession track requires that countries build the institutions and incorporate the rights of democracy, including free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, religious freedom and respect for minority rights. At a time when Europe is struggling to defend democracy within its own borders, those talks and requirements feel almost forgotten.