Keep on Reading Fiction. 2023 in three fictional novels

6 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

Some years pass without being linked to any specific event or experience. Other years remain in memory as periods of personal growth or major historical change. For 2023, the latter applies. We will store 2023 as the year of the Hamas attack in southern Israel, the massive destruction of Gaza that followed, as the year of the advancing war between Russia and Ukraine, and that of the great victory of right-wing politics in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the European Union. These are epoch-making developments that have consequences for the lives and thinking of millions of individuals. And there is more: the climate crisis (nitrogen, pollution) that needs to be tackled, the migration ‘crisis’ that is claimed all over Europe and is getting out of hand in registration centre Ter Apel in the North of the Netherlands, and the reading crisis: the fact that 15-year old Dutch and Flemish schoolchildren can barely read complex texts (PISA scores 2023). Explanations are sought in teaching methods, increasing digitalisation and pupils’ decreasing attention span. In the digital age, the image (clip, meme) has definitely pushed the text aside.

War and crises around us tempt us to hide away in a safe place, in our comfortable homes and our own bubble. Pessimism lurks in a water-logged and rainy country. Optimism is much harder to obtain and requires action, effort and change. Optimism is what we can get from visual art, film, literature: narratives that are complex and thought-provoking. What are the literary texts that put 2023 in perspective? I would mention The Orphanage (2017) by Serhi Zhadan, Tremor (2023) by Teju Cole, and The End of Days (2012) by Jenny Erpenbeck. Three literary texts I wish students would read and discuss. How does literary complexity work, what is the thinking power of fiction? And how does literature counterbalance oversimplification in the complicated times we live in?

2023 in three novels

Serhi Zhadan’s The Orphanage is an alienating, cinematic text that brings us to the Donbas region. Protagonist Pasha is barely aware of political conflicts and has no idea who is fighting against whom on which side. All he realises is that life will never be ordinary again. A taxi ride turns out to be a journey through emptiness, silence, over broken roads and past military checkpoints: ‘Pasha understands that something is wrong, that something has happened, but pretends that everything is fine. Panicking is another thing’ (p.17). Zhadan creates a protagonist who must traverse the devastated area to pick up a young nephew from an orphanage. Pasha is down-to-earth and modest, striving to get to the war-damaged boy. The description of shattered buildings, traumatised people, dirt, bareness and violence is more impressive than the pictures that are presented almost daily on our screens of the eastern regions where Russians, Ukrainians, and separatists are taking each other’s lives. Pasha, the everyman, maintains himself as best he can. Finally, he brings his cousin home after a days-long trek, it is a stunningly simple and hopeful ending to an evocative novel. ‘At home it smells like fresh sheets’ is the closing line expressing a primal feeling. After all, everyone hopes for a home:

'The closer we get to the goods station, the more soldiers are on the streets. A whole column of heavy army equipment drives by in the direction of the city … The soldiers are focussed, serious. No one is shouting. No one is running around cursing. They are all preparing for the war, which continues. Each of them plans to stay alive, to return. Everyone wants to come home again, everyone loves coming home'. (p. 347)

Optimism is much harder to obtain and requires action, effort and change.

Zhadan wrote an imaginary novel that evokes a war zone, giving insight into Europe’s central conflict. The activity of reading involves transforming descriptions into imagination, empathy and criticism. The literary text makes the calibrated photographs and reports resonate and as such highlights the loneliness of devastated cities and villages: when people have fled, ruins remain.

Teju Cole’s novel Tremor (2023) is a stunning work that combines fiction and essay. Cole designs protagonist Tunde as an alter-ego of himself, who teaches photography at Harvard and marvels at how history still adopts an arrogant Western perspective, how art can offer a critique of it, and how music evokes bodily responses. The book portrays a marriage in which two partners live together and alone, and through this ‘ordinary’ story the author weaves profound reflections on culture in the global world. Poignant, especially in the contemporary context of the brutal Hamas attack, is the description of a white family massacred by Indians in 1703. Tunde realises that his compassion for the tragedy is directed:

'After nearly three decades in the US his sympathies have been tutored in certain directions. He learned that a “terrible tragedy” meant that the victims were white. Later and by bitter experience he came to understand that there is always more to tragedies than is narrated, that the narration is never neutral'. (p. 9)

Violence always comes from somewhere, but legends require clarity: who is the enemy, who the victim and who the hero. In a virtuoso narrative movement, Cole connects the complex colonial history to the embodiment of Bach’s cello suites, and then to the image of Micronesian navigator Pius Mau Piailug, finding his way on the ocean without using instruments. Connections between individual lives, artworks and ideas invite the reader to rethink ‘the hierarchy of fine and popular art, the centrality of Western aesthetic values, and the problematic representation of truth and history.’ (Fan 2023) ‘How is one to live in a way’, the protagonist asks, ‘that does not cannibalise the lives of others, that does not reduce them to mascots, objects of fascination, mere terms in the logic of a dominant culture?’ (p.78)

Fiction offers alternative narratives, helping us stand firm in a world in which major political conflicts are at stake, various crises declared, and a multitude of opinions shared.

The End of Days (2017) is the third novel that can be read as a frame of 2023. In this text a story is told that is turned into several other stories. Starting from the idea that a life could have turned out very differently because of one chance event, the narrator tries to describe and think through the same life in different variants. It is a ‘what if’ narrative: if a baby had not died of cot death, her father would not have emigrated to America and the mother would not have ended up in prostitution, converted to communism, become a writer in the German Democratic Republic. If the family had not moved to Vienna, it would have suffered less poverty and family ties would have remained closer. The point is that the horizon of a life always seems the same but also shifts, that present and past experiences are intertwined, that family ties are decisive but not eternal. The exodus of Jews by ship from Europe in the 1930s is reminiscent of what is experienced by migrants today,

'These people squat, lie on the ground, or sit on benches: people with bundles, bedding, and crates, with samowars, people without any baggage at all, children running about, crying babies, people who have lain down on the floor and gone to sleep, people with frail parents, people who understand not a word of English, people who don’t know whether the person who’s supposed to pick them up here is really coming, people who are filled with hope, with despair, people who are homesick, frightened …' (p. 44) 

Erpenbeck’s fascination with the themes of descent and displacement, which also play a prominent role in her other work, is here put into a down-to-earth perspective: the end is not the end but always sets something in motion. When one life passes, another continues.

Why reading is important

Why is reading important? How does it offer (possible) optimism? In reading these three novels, my answer is that literary texts attempt to think through social, ethical and political issues, without involving an exact representation of facts. Fiction in its creation of invented characters is abstraction, bringing close and distancing at the same time. Fiction offers alternative narratives, helping us stand firm in a world in which major political conflicts are at stake, various crises declared, and a multitude of opinions shared. By definition, when we read fiction, there is a dialogue that invites thought. This is also claimed by Timothy Bewes, who writes in Free Indirect, The Novel in a Postfictional Age (2022), that ‘the thought of the novel’ is independent of the artistic regime, in other words, thought is not defined by form (narrator position, characters, plot etc.) but by the ‘novel’s own capacity for thought’ (p. 8). The principle of fiction, Bewes argues, is that it is a critical thinking beyond the novel. He puts it also this way: thinking is ‘free indirect’ and not locatable in a self or an other, the content is not an object. Reading fiction is work, an ongoing practice of disconnection.

Perhaps in this day and age, connection is the problem. We are too tied to social media, technical devices, flows of news and information. Fiction helps us to be disconnected. Reading is the place to be alone, but at the same time also in the world.


PISA score: 

Bewes, Timothy (2022). Free Indirect, The Novel in a Postfictional Age. New York: Columbia University Press

Cole, Teju (2023). Tremor. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Erpenbeck, Jenny (2014) [2012]. The End of Days, Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. London: Portobello Books

Fan, Kit (2023) Tremor by Teju Cole, Art, history and violence, Guardian 20 October.

Zjadan, Serhi (2022 [2017]). Het internaat, Roman. Vertaald uit het Oekraiens door Tobias Wals en Roman Nesterenco. Amsterdam: De Geus. [Text translations OH]