So I’ve usually got at least two books going at any one time, and today I was reading these two. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is a new short story collection by Nathan Englander I’ve actually only read the first two stories of. “The Mirage” is an amazing novel by Mark Ruff I’m about a quarter of the way through.
Although these novels are two different genres, they touch on a lot of similar subject matter. Englander’s stories seem to be focused on modern Jewish identity. My favorite story so far, “Sister Hills,” is about the relationships between neighbors in the Middle East, where Zionists and Palestinians rub shoulders. It unpacks the whole concept of neighbors, of helping friends in need, and how it has been perverted in the Holy Land.
The Mirage also takes place in the Middle East, but it is not the same Middle East. It is a topsy-turvy world, where on 11/9 Christian fundamentalists crashed planes into two towers in the greatest metropolis on the planet: Baghdad, Iraq. The United Arab States, the UAS, invaded America in retaliation. England is a rogue state, intent on developing a nuclear bomb. Israel is appropriated German territory.
Although his incorrect spelling of Arab words betrays his lack of Middle Eastern credentials, Ruff has written in this book a fascinating reflection of who America is as a nation. The ease with which Ruff appropriates our “unique” culture–everything from democracy to judicial systems to CSI: Damascus and Law and Order: Halal–reveals the fragility of our world. The world Ruff has created feels real, and he has thought out detailed differences in cultural evolution to constantly remind the reader that this is not my world.
It’s amazing the power that this relatively simple reflection can have. Senator Osama bin Laden is a war hero in that world, but even reading his name makes me grind my teeth. I was a child on 9/11–Osama bin Laden haunted my nightmares.
Not only does Ruff reveal how fragile our world is, but he is not shy about unmasking some of the comfortable lies we like to tell about ourselves. For example, I like to think that America is a pretty advanced, secular nation. Thus, prefacing Miranda rights with “In the name of God, the all-knowing and compassionate” rubbed me wrong. But how different, really, is our legal system? We seek fairness within the framework of a Judeo-Christian morality; who’s to say that morality is superior to Islamic? That Islamic justice cannot be as fair as our justice?
Together, these books are teaching me about fragility. Englander is teaching me about the fragility of relationships. Ruff is teaching me about how fragile the world I take for granted is.