A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mahmud)

Here is the second entry in the occasional series I’m running on the blog called A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. (See here for the first, by my friend Pete whose title I appropriated for the series; and see here for my other occasional series on poems about food and drink.)

Today’s entry is by another old friend, the Bangladeshi writer, translator and all-around cool person, Mahmud Rahman. I’ve known Mahmud online since the mid-90s and have hung out with him a few times, in Colorado and in Minnesota, while he was on cross-country drives; and I’ve separately hosted him at my college where he gave a wonderful reading from his collection, Killing the Water (available from Penguin India). He has also translated Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice from Bengali, and is currently putting the finishing touches on his own novel. I have been waiting a long time to read this novel and am hoping it won’t be too much longer before I’ll have it in my hands. Those who know Mahmud know of his long history of driving across the United States—he’s mostly lived here since the early 1970s—and it’s no surprise then that he’s chosen to write about a road book, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away (helpfully out of print but available from libraries and Alibris).

(The purchase links above and below once again go mostly to Content, the excellent indie bookstore in our town or to Alibris; when neither has a copy of a title the link goes reluctantly to Amazon. Content is owned by friends but I have no financial relationship with them and make nothing from these links. They ship all over the country so please consider buying from them and supporting an indie bookstore. Indie bookstores need support at the best of times and even more so in these times that are so far from being the best of times.)

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year ~ Mahmud Rahman

Going Away, by Clancy Sigal

Let me tell you, a cross-country trip in your own car, at your own speed, is the cheapest psychoanalysis I know. – the narrator in Clancy Sigal’s Going Away

Imagine the world, and the corners you’ve been living in, turning upside down, and you’re tired, exhausted of battling year in and year out, but you still preserve some of your spirit, and you’re curious and disappointed about how people and the world have changed and you’re also going a bit mad, dreaming of escape. I can see people a few years from now, traveling across countries, trying to discover how the landscapes outside, and inside, have been changed by Covid-19. And books and films will certainly emerge from there.
         Imagine then that you’re in the mid-1950s, a young man in your thirties. Born of trade unionist parents, you became a radical unionist yourself, and you lived through more than a decade of huge convulsions: labor upheavals, World War II, the rise and fall of  communist and socialist movements, hopes undermined by revelations of great corruption and horrors. You’ve been working as a writer/agent in L.A, but you’ve had enough. So you borrow a new De Soto convertible – quite a fancy looking car – and head out on a road trip towards the northwest, then midwest, and shoot east to end up in New York.
         This is the story in Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, published in 1961. I finished reading it just as our lockdown began in March.

I buy more books than I read. Traveling, I browse bookshops and acquire books that intrigue me. That’s what I used to do. We now live at a time of no physical browsing. Other than my own shelves.
         The books I used to buy joined my overloaded bookshelves and if I didn’t read them right away, they sat and waited for rediscovery, years or decades later.
         Late last year I started a job that changed my commute from a half-hour drive to more than an hour on subway and bus. Taking books with me, I was devouring a novel a week. Most were short, but a few times I took on a long novel, one that had been waiting patiently in my collection.
         Thus my renewed encounter with this 500-page book.
         A stamp inside says I bought it in St Clair Shores, a Detroit suburb. An old email reminds me that I began reading this book in 1993. I had a brief exchange with a now departed friend who wrote, “I read three books of his in the 70’s which were interesting in and of themselves but particularly interesting due to the fact that he was Doris Lessing’s lover.” In fact, Sigal’s a character in The Golden Notebook as Saul Green.

The book is subtitled “A Report, A Memoir.” Indeed, it reads like a memoir though it would probably best be classified as autobiographical fiction. On his cross-country drive, the narrator meets old friends and comrades, talks to strangers, taking the pulse of a country that has dramatically changed from the pre-WWII visions of the movement activists of those times. It is election year and the choices are Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. On the radio, he tries to keep abreast of the news of the revolt in Hungary against the Soviet Union.
         In his conversations, he sees how former militants are adapting to 1950s stabilized capitalism, when unions are moving towards three-year contracts instead of yearly battles, when militants of yesterday are adapting to consumer society, and people face an election without much fire. As he meets people, argues with them, the narrator reveals he’s looking for a solution to his distress by escaping the country itself. The book ends with him leaving for England where the author would live for decades.
         I could relate to the novel’s arc because I’ve driven across the country several times, along some of the same routes. Though this is pre-Interstate era, the landscape and some of the towns and cities where he stops were familiar to me. I could also relate to conversations in the book because of familiarity with the history of the labor movement and the left. I don’t know how much of this will interest contemporary readers. There are many long meanders in this fat book and I doubt if such a meandering book by a new writer would be published today without major cuts. I myself enjoyed the meanders, though some of them required slogging through. And like many books written by male writers of that era, there’s a good dose of misogyny.
         There are other books like this where a narrator takes the pulse of a changing country, and explores the self, through travel. These are usually memoirs rather than fiction. Sigal’s novel is often compared to the better-known Kerouac book, with fans on either side. I rather liked Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory: An American Voyage where he takes a boat trip down the Mississippi in 1980, a critical election year that brought us Reagan. Others I’ve been meaning to read: Gary Younge’s Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States (2006) and Dilip D’Souza’s Roadrunner : An Indian Quest In America (2009). I’d be curious about other fictional explorations on this model.
         And what will the post Covid-19 times bring us? If we can imagine that far ahead.

Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator, originally from Bangladesh, now resident in California. He would drink more whiskey if he could be sure his sinuses will cooperate. And in these lockdown times, he would make more gumbo if he could find okra, or muri ghonto if he could bag some more fish heads. Find some of his writing at: www.mahmudrahman.com

One thought on “A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mahmud)

  1. This is great stuff: exploring explorations.

    It’s not fiction, but I enjoyed Robert Moor’s On Trails, an account of an attempt to discover the self through rambling, but also a consideration of the relation to other ramblers implied in the idea of a trail.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.