College of LAS « Illinois


Embracing Uncertainty

Philip Graham

Literature as a guide to an unknown future.

I'll always remember how I watched the television images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, back in November of 1989: with a surge of happiness that was also mixed with fatherly relief. My two-year-old son Nathaniel, I thought, would be able to grow up without the fear of nuclear disaster that had marked my own childhood and much of my adult life up until then.

That feeling survived, for the most part, until the morning of September 11th, 2001, when I watched, again through the universal window of a television screen, the stunning collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Here was another tumbling down, but one that I already knew would twist the world of my children in ways that couldn't be predicted.

Since that terrible morning, from a war in Afghanistan to color-coded terror alerts at home, from on-going disputes at home about balancing civil liberties with security to the rifts in our country's traditional alliances over questions about the war with Iraq, it seems this new century is potentially far more complicated, unstable, and frightening than the last.

Not that long ago another fall, that of Saddam Hussein's statue in a main square in Baghdad, filled our television screens and newspaper front pages. This fall was a ritual of victory, but one that also held within it any number of possible future paths: the threat of increasingly bitter Islamic rage across the world, the promise of something resembling a democratic state in Iraq, or an unforeseen event that's unthinkable even to our now currently wild imaginations.

These questions and worries were close to the surface of my mind when recently I read "Sheepskin," by Josip Novakovich, from his book Salvation and Other Disasters, a collection of short stories about the ethnic wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In Novakovich's story, a young Croatian man traveling by rail is about to doze off, lulled by the rhythms and vibrations of the train, when a man enters his compartment who he instantly recognizes as Milos, the Serb who tortured him years earlier. The unnamed narrator does nothing at first, though he has a concealed gun. Eventually he follows Milos off the train, and, when the time is right, he shoots and kills his former tormentor. Easily escaping, he takes another train and continues on his journey.

When he arrives at his town, he notices a man at a tram stop who looks exactly like the Milos he'd killed earlier in the day. Had he shot the wrong man? Unsettled, he continues walking home, and "In the streets I saw another Milos look-alike. Was I hallucinating? It was getting dark, true, but I looked at this third Milos keenly. They all had the same gait, same graying and trembling cowlick, same heavy black brow . . . How many men would I have to shoot to get the right one? It was absurd, and I was afraid I was going mad."

There's much more to Novakovich's story, but this moment is what sticks to me—the revelation that the narrator's desire for revenge colors everything he sees in the world. And this short story awakened in me the thought that 9/11 has brought us in its wake to a similar overriding emotion, that of fear, even paranoia.

Enemies of all sorts may indeed be hiding everywhere among us, or do we merely fear that they are?

Because I often find that one memorable book reminds me of another, I thought of the novel Broken April, by Ismail Kadare, an Albanian writer frequently short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Kadare's novel hauntingly charts the course of a blood feud between two families, a feud that is regulated by strict laws—who can shoot whom, and when, and under what circumstances, and what fines must be paid before another death can take place. This nearly unreal world, a system of revenge so ritualized that its participants cannot escape it, suddenly seems as disconcertingly familiar as the daily news reports from Iraq of the deaths of ambushed American soldiers.

So how do I help my now 16-year-old son make sense of the shifting territory of this new, unpredictable world we find ourselves in? Read Novakovich, I suggest, read Kadare—or any work of literature that refuses to settle for the easy answers and limitations of any comforting fundamentalism, whether political, religious, or philosophical. In these uncertain times it's perhaps even more of a necessity to confront and even embrace our uncertainties, to try to see clearly all the various versions of Milos that surround and inhabit us. The bracing questions asked by any serious work of fiction or poetry is a determined navigation into the unknown, and if there's anything we need to learn to navigate these days, it's the unknown inside us, the unknown in those around us, and whatever unknown awaits us tomorrow.

By Philip Graham
October 2003