My friend since school days, Michael Sheriden, has been a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of my scribblings for many years. He has recently written this piece as a response to / review of ‘A Sane Asylum’. It is so interesting [and flattering] that I thought to share it.
Book Review GJM Sheridan 17/07/2017
A Sane Asylum
The following is not, perhaps, so much a review of A Sane Asylum as an informal response.
I enjoyed this novel and I think it is important.
I enjoyed its pace, its intelligence, the engaging accuracy of its well-researched and lively descriptions and characterisations, the skilful and happy melding of the personal and the epochal, its utter lack of heroic sentimentality, its bleak realism, its interest in the human and in human-heartedness.
Its importance, for me, resides in the revelation of the political realities of a region far removed from, but not irrelevant to, the Anglo-centricity of little England.
Its impact has been educational, in that it provokes questions and reveals lacunae, resolutely refusing the soft option of a stated resolution. It is a call to an emotionally mature and informed engagement with a history to which we can offer a small, but hopefully effective, contribution.
But this is to anticipate.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic First Gulf War the author G. J. Martin undertook an odyssey to Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the most dangerous places on earth.
This catastrophe arose as the disastrous effect of at least one notable previous betrayal, that of the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916, which so outraged Colonel T.E.Lawrence that he resigned his commission.
The Arab world was arbitrarily divided up between two colonial powers, Britain and France, with consequences which have redounded to the present day, and which A Sane Asylum exemplifies and anticipates.
The novel is an imaginative reconstruction of that odyssey through the narrative of an investigative journalist, Joe Addison.
He has a four-fold purpose to his odyssey, personal validation, journalistic investigation, a desire to assist a burgeoning democracy, and a response to a request to find a missing person.
Addison is not cast in the heroic mould.
He is well characterised as something of a minor failure in his own eyes. He carries with him the baggage of personal and professional, banal, but hurtful, failures and guilt.
He has a quick intelligence. He is an acute observer. He is quick to see the possibility of an informative similarity or a comparison, and as quick to leave allusion on the coffee table. This is an annoying dispositional weakness, exacerbated perhaps by the physical and psychological stress he finds himself under, and which he does not try to mask in his writing up of his exploits.
To be specific; it is not clear what he thinks is gained by a references to Bentham, Foucault, and the tale of the picaro in Lazarillo de Tormes.
Such is Addison.
His quest is set against the backdrop of a callous world, not confined to the Middle East, of systemic dissimulation, deceit, despotism, danger, anxiety chronic and acute, suspicion, cruelty, ubiquitous surveillance, unknowability and undecidability.
In energetic and economical prose the novel begins with Addison looking through a window, darkly perceiving a reality, the truth of which is soon vouchsafed to him. It is an account of a home-grown exploitative and fraudulent betrayal of vulnerable and aged refugees by a Christian charity, the YMCA.
The quest, initially said to be journalistic in intention, soon comes to centre upon what began as an accession to a minor request to find out about, and perhaps find, a missing and notable person, one Dr.Qadir, who is intimately engaged in the shifting realities of the Middle East.
The narrative moves us skilfully away from these shores into a nightmare of political, historical, societal and cultural dystopia, and no little personal danger to Addison himself, returning at last to Blighty to recount a final bureaucratic and legalistic disappointment.
The title itself is revealed as aspirational and provocative.
Where is the sanity and where the asylum?
And here is where I find the novel most stimulatingly provocative.
Questions, in no particular order, cascade in the problematic of outcomes.
Will Amnesty International, whose very rationale is to furnish health and protection, a sane asylum perhaps, be able to prevent the undoing of Addison’s and Qadir’s attempts to reunite the latter’s family and allow him to continue his work for the newly democratic Kurdistan in safety, in Europe?
Why is the lawyer acting for Qadir a part-timer?
Who would speak for Qadir and his like if there were none to offer to work gratis?
What procedures and structures are in place?
What is the process of appeal?
What will happen to Qadir?
Do we believe any assurances we might be given?
Has Addison achieved anything personally, politically, professionally?
Is there hope for democracy in Kurdistan?
Is democracy possible in Kurdistan?
Historically, how has democracy arisen out of dystopia?
Is democracy always the answer?
Is democracy the answer here?
How long does democracy take?
What types of democracy are there, what type is ours?
How democratic is it?
What is the situation now in Kurdistan?
And elsewhere in the Middle East?
Is there to be a convincing resolution of anything, at any level, ever?
Would an explicit resolution be more convincing, more arresting, than a marking of the Sisyphean taking up again of hope, now, in the teeth of the seeming ineluctability of banal failure?
As intimated above, to its credit the novel refuses to allow us the shallow comfort of a received resolution.
It does not pander to us, nor patronise us.
It presents facts within perspectives and leaves discourse and dialogue open to enquiring adult minds.
It does not absolve us from the responsibility bound up in our humanity.
It will nudge us towards it.
Outrage is an uncomfortable and good thing.
That is, if we have a sense of responsibility, and any humanity at all.
Many have not.
And to have brought us to this place is, I think, a real achievement.