Sunday, 25 November 2012

Amy Waldman: The Submission

Two years after 9/11, a jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of the attack. The jurors deliberate on the designs without knowing who the submitting architects are. Only when the decision is taken do they learn that the winner is an American Muslim.

What now ensues is an engrossing tale on how to remember, and understand, a national tragedy. At the centre of this absorbing thriller are Mohammad Khan, the memorial's designer, and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the bereaved on the jury, who initially backs Khan's Garden and finally turns on both design and designer

'Booklist' called The Submission "The Bonfire of the Vanities for our time" and I do share that feeling. Michiko Kakutani of the 'New York Times' however opines that Waldman's story "has more verisimilitude, more political resonance and way more heart than Mr Wolfe's own 1987 best-seller The Bonfire of the Vanities ...". Since I had loved Wolfe's novel (and do like pretty much everything by him), I wondered whether Kakutani might on principle be not very fond of him, and so I googled her and Wolfe and found that she is said to generally dislike him, and Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer ... authors that I myself like to read ...

The Submission is much more than a thriller; it is an enlightening tale about New York politics, art, religion, the life of illegal immigrants, differing perceptions and attitudes, and warring interest groups, a tale that tells us more about the social fabric of this extraordinary centre of ambition (and the modern world) than any number of social studies. We come across the successful politician who has a keen sense of what the majority wants to hear, the hungry journalist who is unaware of the problems that sensational journalism is causing, ruthless political activists who solely pursue their own interests, and and and ...

I especially love this book for phrases like these:
"The Garden was too beautiful, Ariana and the other artists kept saying of Claire's choice. They saw for a living, yet when it came to the Garden they wouldn't see what she saw."
"The mockery of pretension, Claire decided, could also be pretentious."
"She knew children lived between the poles of invention and imitation."

And, I warmed much to the clashes of opinions that were expressed so convincingly:
"Some things don't deserve to be understood. Apartheid didn't deserve to be understood, even if the whites who benefitted from it didn't see it that way."
"Back when the Carmelite nuns wanted to put a convent at Auschwitz, the pope decided to respect the sensitivities of Jews and move it. He wasn't saying the nuns had no right to be there; he wasn't saying they were in any way responsible for what happened to the Jews. He was saying: rights do not make right, that feelings matter, too."

To me, the question that lies at the heart of this book is this: Should (can) we look at a piece of art without considering the person who created it? There isn't really an answer, as Amy Waldman impressively demonstrates:
"Down the stairs back in time, until she came upon herself and Cal standing in front of Picasso's 'Weeping Woman' at the Tate in London. Claire could still visualize the portrait today – the blue in her hair, the red in her hat, that ghastly, skull-like area around the mouth – more clearly, in fact, than she could see the husband who had stood next to her.
'Kind of ruins it that Picasso was so horrible, doesn't it?' Clare had said. 'He probably made Dora Maar cry, then painted her crying.'
'So great art requires a morally pure artist?' Cal asked. 'You look at the creation, not the creator.'
'So you ignore that he tormented poor Dora'
'No, you judge the paintings as works of art, and Picasso as a man. There's no inconsistency in loving one and reviling the other. And thankfully the converse is true as well: you love me even though I made some pretty lousy art. Maybe arrogance is necessary for greatness.'
(...) Perhaps they were inseparable, as Cal had argued  – the arrogance firing the creation  – but she wanted the Garden pure again, free of associations, free of Khan. The Garden as she first had seen it. But she couldn't take it from him, because it was his as much as, more than, hers. He had created it. She bent her head to her hands and cried."

Amy Waldmann
The Submission
Windmill Books, London 2012

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