February 4, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Matthew Olshan's novel Marshlands is poignant, powerful and adventurously told.
Giles Foden wrote of the book:
"If Kafka, Hemingway and Teju Cole happened to collaborate, the result might be something like Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands. This is an important book that splices a number of literary traditions and is told in a formally adventurous manner. But more important than all that, it gets you in the gut, line by line, page by page."
"Love Sick," Bob Dylan
Marshlands is a novel that moves backwards in time in the course of unraveling its mysteries. At the beginning of the story, Gus, the protagonist, is a disgraced and broken old man, recently released from a military prison in a heat-baked Middle Eastern country where has been serving a sentence for an undisclosed crime against the state. He roams the city of his childhood like a ghost, with nowhere to stay and nowhere to go. Dylan's "Love Sick," which opens with the lyric, "I'm walking through streets that are dead," perfectly captures Gus's longing for love, comfort, a homeland, and a name.
"Imidiwan Ma Tenam," Tinariwen
The marshes, where Gus served as a doctor during a military occupation, have since been drained, and a whole way of life destroyed, but as Gus wanders through a museum exhibit that recreates a native village in uncanny detail, he's reminded of the warmth and belonging he felt in the company of marshmen. Tinariwen is a band of Tuareg musicians whose roots are in the Sahara desert, not the marshes of Iraq, which inspired the setting of my novel, but their plaintive, percussive, repetitive music puts me mind of lost tribes. This particular song deals with the pain of leaving one's homeland. In the words of the last lyrics, "We live in ignorance/And it holds all the power."
"Let Me Touch You for a While," Alison Krauss
Gus is eventually taken under the wing of a stubborn but caring woman named Thali, an anthropologist who's an expert in the culture of the marshes. At first he think he's merely one of her "projects," just another old man in need of fixing up, but eventually he comes to see himself reflected in Thali, whose love for the marshes rivals his own. Thali helps restore Gus's confidence as a healer and ends up inviting him into her bed. "Let Me Touch You for a While" is tender and direct, as much about the art of healing as it is about the act of love.
"Parted Ways," Heartless Bastards
The second section of Marshlands takes place twenty-one years earlier, when Gus is a younger man, the administrator of a half-forgotten field hospital in a remote corner of the marshes. He's something of a lapsed doctor, a role he has set aside while he explores the reed-choked landscape and the culture of the tribes who call the place home. There's a strong tension between his natural affinity for the marsh people and his responsibilities as an officer of the occupying army. Something has happened to alienate him from his own people, but we don't yet know what it is. "Parted Ways" conveys a sense of being in a vast open space after an emotional rupture. There's euphoria in the music, but also deep, deep regret.
"Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor," Antonio Vivaldi
While on a hunting trip, Gus finds the corpse of a rice farmer. The corpse subsequently disappears, and the young man's mother appeals to Gus for help recovering it. Gus's investigation leads him to his regional headquarters, where he begins to suspect that his own forces may be committing atrocities. The key metaphor of this section is the labyrinth, with its narrow twisting pathways leading inevitably to a monster at its center. This piece by Vivaldi, set in a minor key and driven by a relentless rhythmic motor, feels like a man closing in on something horrible he knows with absolutely certainty to be true. Call it a nightmare of empire.
"I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye," Willie Nelson
At the end of this section, Gus is party to a revenge killing. He's not a violent man -- he's driven by moral outrage, triggered by a feeling of protectiveness for the marsh people he has come to love over the years. The victim is the region's commander, a man he once admired, even envied. "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye" is a song about the madness of killing the object of your desire.
"Empty Room," Arcade Fire
The final section of Marshlands takes place eleven years earlier, introducing us to Gus as a fresh-faced junior officer on shore leave in an exotic port town. His real ambition is to arrange a tour of the marshes, which are off-limits because of a covert war. Gus isn't exactly naive, but he's as close to innocent as we'll see him. "Empty Room" starts with a classical flourish -- a fleeting taste of colonial power -- before veering off into an anxious quest for identity. There's a sense of anticipation, that all questions will be answered.
"M'Bifo," Rokia Traore
At his hotel, Gus treats a girl for a hand wound who happens to be the daughter of a marsh potentate. Gus is invited into the marshes, where, with the blessing of his commanding officer, he sets up a free clinic. For a while, all of his dreams -- using his skills for the greater good; being accepted by the marshmen; leaving behind the taint of empire -- are realized. "M'Bifo" is a song of love and thanks, an ode to the possibilities of unity and tolerance.
"Iniagige," Salif Keita
Unfortunately, political exigencies cause Gus's Eden to crumble around him. Marshlands culminates in a brutal interrogation that perverts Gus's identity as a doctor. He is cut free -- by his own hand -- from the luxury of thinking of himself as a good man. The rest of his life will be about trying to repair the irreparable. "Iniagige" is a song of almost unbearable sweetness and sadness. A full two minutes of quiet string playing elapse before Salif Keita's haunting voice joins with a spectral descant, offering solace, and perhaps even release.
Matthew Olshan and Marshlands links:
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