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The US and UK covers of John Keene's Counternarratives | Courtesy of New Directions Publishing and Fitzcarraldo Editons, respectively
The US and UK covers of John Keene's Counternarratives | Courtesy of New Directions Publishing and Fitzcarraldo Editons, respectively
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John Keene's 'Counternarratives' Is a Remarkable New Take on Historical Fiction

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 12 October 2016
Counternarratives mixes distant, history-book fiction with first-person storytelling, ranging from 17th-century Brazil to interwar America, and focuses on a variety of oppressed subjects, from slaves to deposed despots. In scope alone, it is a remarkable work, yet it would be a mistake to focus solely on that point. Unique in bearing, epic in depth and artistry, this is a book worthy of the most uncomfortable praise. Let’s hope I don’t overdo it.
John Keene, taken by Nina Subin | Courtesy of New Directions Publishing
John Keene, taken by Nina Subin | Courtesy of New Directions Publishing

For a collection of short stories and novellas, Counternarratives offers a reading experience surprisingly close to that of the novel. Forget the typical stagger of the form – where one tale surprises you with depression while another limps happily along — there is depth here, and a continuity, that links these stories together far beyond their common binding. Black history, often little more than a subtext in the shadow of the Western narrative, is the work’s true focus, by whose strength it is made whole (that is, along perhaps with the odd recurring character… of which I’ve only found one, miserably.)

To try to summarize the work in even a couple archetypes seems an injustice, but since there would be no point in writing this if I didn’t, I hope the reader will forgive the effort. If finding common ground in period or focus appears near-impossible (despite the ever-present common theme), it is perhaps with narrative style that one may have more luck. Two striking stories, for example, dealing with such disparate subjects as a runaway slave in 18th-century America and successive generations of Portuguese colonials in Brazil, are written in factual, almost journalistic style. This is reminiscent of the very best kind of history books, similar to, and as engrossing as, say, Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades. Their titles betray that particular style far better than any quote: ‘An outtake from the ideological origins of the American Revolution’, and ‘On Brazil, or dénouement: the Londônias-Figueiras.’ Only a dedicated academic would venture those.

By contrast, other stories make use of more common literary forms. The gripping tale of the destruction of a 17th-century monastery in Brazil — mysterious and replete with satanic undertones — is recounted in a letter from one of its former slaves. Meanwhile, the allegorical ‘Aeronauts,’ about a black Northerner who enlists in the Union Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War, makes for straight modernist first-person, complete with lyrical ending. It is also within these styles that Keene makes use of more recognizable characters, such as Edgar Degas, Langston Hughes, as well as Jim, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They are all featured in a number of shorter period pieces.

***

The writing, then, isn’t as experimental as some of the lazier critics would have you believe… and in any case that’s hardly its point. Only ‘Our Lady of the Sorrows,’ which recounts the travails of a Haitian slave (and moves from third person to personal diary as the girl learns to write), or the use of broken language and side-by-side narratives in other stories, could be hazarded as avant-garde. And even then, experimental language is hardly as central to Counternarratives as it is to poetic works in the vein of Ulysses, or even to the naive monotony of a novella like Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia.

No, it is rather its polyphonic depth — of a kind not too dissimilar from the works of Svetlana Alexievich — that makes John Keene’s book special. 13 stories and a myriad of characters help give a compelling ‘counter’ view of history — a take on events seldom heard so effectively. Sure, there is beauty of language, too, when Keene feels like it (“…to the banks of a vaster, still not fully charted island, its outlines an ochre shimmer in the morning light, etching themselves on his memory like auguries”, he writes in ‘Mannahatta’, the book’s magnificent, ethereal opening), but it is the numerous voices, varying from intricate to clear and direct, that give Counternarratives a richness comparable to that of an epic. In that regard it is a book like history itself — dense, dark, mysterious, many-faced; at times gorgeous, at others ironic — as meticulous in detail as it is grand in scale. A rewarding read, in short.


COUNTERNARRATIVES
by John Keene
New Directions Publishing / Fitzcarraldo Editions
400pp. $16.95 / £12.99