Into Madness and Night

Reviewed by Karen Charleson

At barely one hundred and fifty pages each, Edem Awumey’s Descent into Night and Martha Baillie’s If Clara are short novels. Their brevity, however, should not fool anyone into thinking that they lack big themes. Both novels deal with blindness and sight, redemption and healing, madness, and refugees. Perspectives behind the rationale for writing also anchor both novels. It is in those ways of looking at the creation of the written word that we see the contradictory nature of the two works.

In Descent into Night, Ito Baraka tells the story of futile protests and resistance to a brutal and oppressive state. He relates his struggles as a student protester, and his time spent tortured and brutalized in the prison camp where he comes to read for his blind friend, teacher, and cellmate Koli Lem. Baraka’s story continues with his eventual escape to his parents’ home, and finally his moving to Canada. Baraka is dying of cancer as he tells his story. He strives desperately in the little time he has left to write down what is basically a confession. His story is a way for him to flee “his painful body through words,” but more importantly it is a way for him to keep his promise and honour Koli Lem, whom he credits with pushing him to “keep moving towards salvation.”

While If Clara is told by four narrators—Clara, Daisy, Clara’s sister Julia, and Julia’s friend Maurice—it is Clara who is the main character. Mentally ill, she is urged by her psychiatrist to write a novel to develop her own coherence. Clara creates the story of a young Syrian refugee, Kamar, and her “descent into madness” upon arriving in Canada. Though Clara is obsessed with and afraid of eyes, her novel revolves around two Syrian folk tales, one of which involves an eye being pierced with a needle, and the other, eyes being plucked out. Unwilling and unable to act publicly as the novel’s author, Clara sends the manuscript to the temporarily disabled writer Daisy in the hope that she will arrange for editing and publishing under a pseudonym.

Clara pretends to be Julia in order to write, a process that she describes as having to “stick to the page, ink scratch on paper, dry as can be, pattern begetting pattern until the voices, crushed under the weight of the written, can do no more than whisper.” Daisy tells us that she is moved to tears by the magnificence of Kamar’s “crumbling of language.” Baraka talks about his writing as “a way to keep talking to someone.” He describes writing as “dead flesh that you stroke with your pen in order to get a sound, an echo, out of it.” The sometimes torturous efforts of the two writers appear similar. Clara talks about giving away, putting up for “adoption,” her character Kamar. She says “I could have aborted her, but I wanted her to live.” Clara says of Kamar that she “refused to go back where she’d come from. I had to continue writing for her sake.” Daisy describes Clara’s manuscript as a work of great creativity. Like the exhibits in Julia’s gallery, it is art created for art’s sake. In contrast, it is the redemptive worth of Baraka’s telling his story and the honouring of Koli Lem that are emphasized in Descent into Night. Clara gives no acknowledgement of the Syrian folk stories she freely uses. An author’s right to use fiction however she likes is claimed by Daisy. Baraka, on the other hand, frequently mentions Koli Lem and writers like Samuel Beckett and Bohumil Hrabal as a way to pay homage to those who have led him to where he is today.

The stories told in the two novels come from different physical, social, and mental environments. Baraka sweats and toils in poverty to reveal/confess the truth and trauma of what he knows, his own experience. Clara relates the story of Kamar out of a mind governed by mental illness. The most profound differences in the two stories, however, arise from perspective. Each novel looks at questions of why, how, and what their writers create. The answers from Descent into Night and If Clara prove illuminatingly different.

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