Terrorism and Art: Simon Cleary’s Closer to Stone
Simon Cleary, Closer to Stone, 2012
Closer to Stone is a brave book. Bas, a young sculptor, is absorbed in his art but otherwise shallow and ignorant of other cultures. His father sends him to North Africa to find Bas’s disappeared older brother, and there Bas can find little connection with a society that appears so alien. Such a story requires a sensitive writer who can avoid the perils of Orientalism, the representation of non-European cultures as “other” and inferior.
But there’s more. The novel pivots around an act of Islamist terrorism and shows how the horror at such an act can be projected onto all Muslims – a theme that demands a skilled writer to avoid appearing to justify blaming a group for the actions of a few of its members.
Does Closer to Stone succeed in its treatment of these themes? Yes, say many reviewers. For example, Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers calls it “a stunning novel … a significant, thoughtful and thought-provoking book”. No, says Dean Biron in the Australian Book Review (April 2012, paywalled): “Closer to Stone, like so many literary journeys made by First World writers into developing world settings, seems so caught up with accounting for the ‘otherness’ of the environment that it comes across more as an outsider’s authoritative critique than as an exploration. The indigenous people … are presented as otherworldly, chiefly understood by those characteristics that conflict with the occidental. Those who do not come across as benign and uncomprehending are instead alien and potentially malevolent, such as the male Muslim fundamentalists whom Bas repeatedly refers to as ‘the beards.’”
Like Biron, I found the young Bas of the story an unsympathetic character. But there is another Bas, the older man who is narrating the story of his younger self, exposing his past ignorance and selfishness. There is a double viewpoint, similar to that used in many memoirs. Sometimes the older Bas reflects directly on his younger self. For example, he says that it never occurred to him to learn Arabic while he was in Africa: “The truth, it seems to me now, was that learning Arabic would have meant trying to understand them. But French was neutral ground.”
But mostly the older narrator’s viewpoint is implied by including episodes and characters that provide context and reflection. Bas may find North Africa and its people ‘otherworldly’, but set against this are his fleeting connections (chess with rebel fighters or playing with refugee children) and the character of Sophe, for whom people are simply people. In the last part of the book, set in America, he works with a master-carver who provides a counterweight to Bas’s obsession.
Thus, while Bas’s reaction to North Africa is negative and orientalist, the book is not. And while the novel portrays how a person traumatised by terrorism may take on extremist and simplistic views, this portrayal itself is nuanced. I didn’t much like the young Bas, but the almost unconscious presence of the older narrator humanised him for me.
The novel investigates the nature of fundamentalism, showing how it can manifest in very different settings, and the nature of art, leading us through the process by which Bas creates his sculptures, and suggests parallels between the two domains. Bas is troubled by a paradox: “What does it mean to change the natural beauty of the stone by sculpting it? What is it you have to kill in order to give existence to something else?”
While the story is well-told, I’m not convinced that Cleary has successfully integrated the art themes into the narrative. I half-agree with Dean Biron, who says: “Bas’s calling as a sculptor seems tacked on, almost an afterthought.” Nevertheless the question implied by Bas’s paradox – does the fundamentalist have the same heart as the artist? – almost unifies the novel, and there are other insights about art, especially about the role it may play in recovery and redemption.
I found Closer to Stone engrossing, unnerving and provocative. It demonstrates the power of fiction to take us deeply into difficult issues which we would otherwise find too threatening to investigate. Highly recommended.
Closer to Stone is the Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year (Queensland Literary Awards September 2012)