The Humanitarian by N Caraway

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The Humanitarian by N Caraway

Review by Paul Xylinides

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A Remarkable Work That Speaks Directly to Our Despair

How do the powers that be bring aid to displaced and starving people spread over a vast continent? The answer is in ways that don’t meet their true needs because these have long been either erased by or made irrelevant to the imperial incursions, power grabs, and internecine intrigues that go hand in hand with the delivery of the aid itself. The immediate merit of N. Caraway’s The Humanitarian is that it doesn’t dwell upon the depredations that are in play and that any informed reader will bring to the book. The horrors that continue on the African continent are well known and provide for much of our daily news consumption. As of his last writing, one of the locales remains a United Nations no-go zone.

Instead, it is the internal monologue of the existentially conflicted aid worker who is allowed one final field operation that conveys the lasting damage to the human spirit, damage that is so fundamental as to make Richards despair before the impossibility of establishing anything for those who are suffering commensurate with what they have lost:

“We’re pretty good at keeping them all alive nowadays, but we’re keeping them alive so that they can live in shanty towns. … [T]he model can only deliver its promise by turning people into numbers …”

However much he is “driven by the need to find what lay at the heart of [his] world of suffering, in order to justify … the planes, the tents, the food, the missions and the money,” when he does find it in all of its simplicity and beauty it is little more than a pathetic and limited vision of a lost and irretrievable world:

“We reached the dancers and stood and watched for awhile. There was nothing here but energy and sweat and the rhythmic clapping. It had no beginning or end, no shape other than the endlessly repeated upward thrusting into the night sky.”

His appointed task, however, has never been to understand and preserve what gives meaning to the lives of these people. He is to number them and to evaluate their nutritional needs so that they can be moved from place to place where they will receive their consigned air-drops of aid. The imperatives of the bureaucrats and those of the ones who do the exterminating of the people and the ravaging of the lands issue from a similar disconnection although their interests will merge and intermingle as each pursues its ends in the same territory.

His disillusionment and despair find Caraway’s protagonist in the position of being a cipher himself. His very awareness of how limited and marginal in effect is the aid that can be delivered makes it impossible for him to enter into the lives of those he is trying to help. Whatever his internal struggles and the operations he undertakes, he can find no correspondence within himself to what the people before him are undergoing and he forever remains outside their world that he can only view as lost and beyond recovery.

“I simply felt sad and aware that I was not going to help the woman or her people. I would never even know how far she had come from and how long it had taken her to get to the bare patch of ground under the mango trees.”

It is noteworthy that the writing of The Humanitarian is sufficiently absorbing that the reader can wait until some three-quarters into the story for a real rise in narrative tension that culminates in a final and heightened crescendo of existential drama and exposed interests. Up until this point, a gradual acclimatization has unfolded such that one feels very much the experience of Caraway’s protagonist who despite a lengthy career in the field is unable to identify with the eviscerated world that he had chosen for his life’s work. Unable to step outside protected and managed zones, he records its needs as stipulated by the bureaucracy that is far removed and busy with fitting the dispossessed to its plan rather than its plan to them.

That the story unfolds through means of Richards’s internal monologue effectively allows for correspondences between the state of being of the protagonist and of the world he confronts. It is the small epiphanies of life – themselves impoverished – that remain to give what meaning they can and to lead him on:

“[D]oves cooed in the trees of the compound, their call a liquid bubbling that tailed off like a coin vibrating to a stop on a wooden table top.”

“[T]he only way to resist this dark suction into the abyss is to get up abruptly and confront the world of tangible objects.”

“I had come in order to go for a walk in the bush, to be part of that other place, to feel the sun and gaze at the shimmering landscape, to smell the smoke of the fire and hear the frogs in the night and the drums at dawn and the high treble voices of the boys singing at the start of their school day in the schools without books. I had come because there was nowhere else I could go and I was as restless as I was tired.”

For all the goods that the aid worker can supply, it is an isolated missionary priest’s spiritual values that find a respondent chord in the impoverished people. Although he has little materially to offer, they reach out to him as one of their own and as one above them. Try as he might, Richards, the humanitarian worker, is unable to experience the transcendence that ordinary and respectful, everyday existence in itself can bring:

“Here in the misery and helplessness of this small, forgotten community the priest had found the need he could respond to, the answer to the question he had borne, the beloved for his love. But for me there was just dirt and sweat.”

The sweep of the tragedy that human action estranged from compassion and empathy can engender, however, is complete:

“Nothing was very permanent out here in the range lands and the toic, not even the hold a man might have on reality or perhaps even on things more precious still.”

This remarkable work by N. Caraway speaks directly to our times in its despair for what has been lost. Too often has humanity gone where its values are unable to survive. All of us bear responsibility as long as we refuse to withhold support for what our representatives choose to do or we turn away when we can further inform ourselves and so have a voice when the time comes to express ourselves.

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PERCY IN PARADISE by Ray Staszko

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Percy in Paradise by Ray Staszko

Review by Paul Xylinides

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An Eloquent and Subversive Crie de Coeur

If anyone has ever encountered the ecstatic look in the eyes of some street people, Percy in Paradise goes a long way to explaining it. Unbeknownst to many in society, there are those who choose this “down-and-out” life because they simply cannot stomach the alternative. And yet there is an inescapable irony to these paradisal states as Percy, the protagonist in Ray Staszko’s eloquently subversive novel, shows aplenty. His ability to commune directly with the creatures of the natural world transports him and yet he cannot ignore the death-dealing imperatives of their existence:

“Everything was always killing everything else, and although he felt compelled to do so, sometimes Percy wondered if spending so much time and energy in this so-called “natural” world was really any better than being caught up in the depressing realities of the human world.”

Percy lives on the streets with the sole purpose of giving aid and succour to whatever man or beast may be in need of it. While unremittingly contemptuous of society, he governs his life in response to its victims and to those of Creation itself as these appear to him. Although he finds great relief and reward in his capacity to commune with and, eventually, participate in the lives of the birds and animals that so mesmerize him, he remains clear-eyed as to their existential conditions and scornful of any Creator who would be responsible for this kill-or-be-killed system.

Disgruntled and at times embittered by his dealings with the world, Percy has trouble crediting the positively substantial states of being that are his as he focuses all of himself on appreciating and preserving life itself.

“[T]hree emotions … were an appropriate response to any good hard look at reality … fear, anger, and sadness … sadness was [his] nirvana, the state up to which he tried to climb and in which he tried to remain as long as possible.”

Percy in Paradise is a cri de coeur. Staszko’s hero is not after anything otherworldly in terms of reward. His sole recompense lies in the alleviation of the needs about him. It is nothing less than charming that his good deeds have so profound an influence upon the realization of his fullest spiritual and empathic powers while, all along, his philosophy not only recognizes its limits but also strongly suggests its potential:

“[T]he best one could do was always good enough.”

Percy doesn’t ask more of anyone than what they can deliver but most of society often does not. Communing intimately with the natural world including the long-suffering females of the human species, he generously donates all to relieve the suffering of others leaving for himself no more than what he requires for his own basic survival.

As for any metaphysical solace that looks to be coming his way, the only bliss Percy is willing to trust begins right here on the earthly plane. His is an equal opportunity saintliness that only now later in his life seeks to withdraw from granting his apparently highly skilled and sensitive sexual attention to the ill-used females he encounters, some of them returning gratefully to him for more of his particular brand of therapy. He is able to deduce and portray to himself the most detailed characteristics of anatomy in the most ordinary of ladies – an original means for character presentation that adds yet another facet to his persona. One persistent female devotee whom he convinces to protect herself with a lanyard during her prescribed sexual manoeuvres finally launches herself off her apartment balcony in order to pleasure herself to more extreme effect.

The path that he has chosen for himself has made him either receptive to or a candidate for the appearance of Jesus in his daily life. To put it another way, Jesus sees him as a sufficiently worthwhile human being to merit some visits although with the purpose of soliciting Percy’s further help in His own as yet not fully realized goals for the Christian enterprise. The down-to-earth and credibly uncertain Jesus, when He finally makes His appearance, fits seamlessly into the hazards and hardships of Percy’s circumstance and neatly accords with his irreverent voice. The comeuppance that Percy delivers to Him is one of the great and triumphant ironies in the story.

Percy in Paradise is a work that deserves to be regarded as a classic of its kind. Over time, Romance has fallen into much disrepute devolving as it has into a specific writing genre for the love-challenged, but Staszko’s novel belongs there in the traditional Shakespearean sense of the term, for it contains all of its elements as found in the Bard’s final works wherein a combination of comedy and tragedy ultimately arrives at a literary claim of transcendence.

Percy never says it but it would be impossible for him not to conclude that if his liberation from this mortal coil is real then the same is possible for the rest of creation whose cruelty and suffering so sadden him. In the end he is freed to bring other than material aid. His character’s great achievement is that he convinces the reader of the very real truth that man’s transcendent capacities flow from the everyday choices he makes and the awareness he maintains in his daily doings.

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