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Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

This profoundly serious book is an oeuvre noir, ‘an ethical response to a range of contemporary atrocities and acts of inhumanity’ (Robert Hampson). The ‘Black Book’ has an authoritarian and punitive sense to it: if you do not fit in with the rules then your name will be entered in the ‘black book’. The power of the book was legendary and even Christopher Tietjens’s father in Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not held an implicit belief in the ‘great book’ in which a mark might be placed against your name, damning you for social elevation! But there is also the oeuvre au noir which forms part of the alchemical magic suggesting that a new world might be created from this current one. For that we might go to Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about Zeno. If this powerful new work by Robert Vas Dias is not despairing of humanity it is because, as the Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly puts it on the back cover:

‘…black dwells just before the light shines and hurts my eyes. Black invites me to rest from the uninvited and exhausting battery of illusions that fill my days. A book that is black narrates stories of night-time experiments in the telling of truth.’

The Forward that Vas Dias writes focuses on a register of ‘our outrage at the inhumanity of humanity’ and the book that he and Julia Farrer have composed ‘is analogous to the ways in which war poets, war artists and photographers, and journalists have always worked and exhibited’. The subtitle of the book is ‘An Assemblage of the Fragmentary’ and the poet and the artist played around with the idea of ‘an art of fragments, an art that recapitulates the way in which we receive information in fragmentary form in media reports that start as necessarily incomplete stories’. Julia Farrer’s images were drawn on a computer using a 3-D program, ‘fragmented and manipulated randomly’; Robert Vas Dias’s writing combines a ticker-tape of text which bears witness to the suffering of the body under regimes of torture with, above it, a series of statements:

‘let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar

of words I use to form my walls, to make my side

a better side, the other side is where the other side

resides, I’m on the right side and you are not, the

side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right

because I am right and you are wrong…’

Juxtaposed against these words are shorter lines in red and they include such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and ‘surgical precision’. The walls that are presented here have little to do with Robert Frost’s famous lines concerning ‘Mending Walls’ but have more in common with William Blake’s sharp proverb of Hell: ‘Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion.’ The epigraph to this book is a statement from Tagore: ‘where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’ and the fragmentary episodes threading a narrative throughout reveal ‘black sites’ where ‘anything went’.
This book demands to be read and its responses taken to heart:

‘for refugees it’s not about seeking a better life
it’s about having any life at all

I have a dream a world without borders
today more than ever’

Ian Brinton 8th December 2016

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