Author: Stona Fitch
Type of Book: Fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: I don’t recall exactly but I think it was recommended on the LiveJournal community for disturbing books. I know I had it on my Amazon Wishlist for a while and ordered it one day when an affordable copy became available.
Availability: This book is out of print, but you can find used copies online from independent sellers:
Comments: When I first read this book, I thought it would be an excellent choice for my odd books discussion site. While the violence in this book is at times hard to read, ultimately this was not an odd book. This is not torture porn – it is literary fiction and very good fiction at that. The book is gripping and I read it very quickly. Still, as horrible as the violence was, it did not affect me deeply is because this sort of violence is pedestrian these days, unless it’s happening to you. Extremity of human degradation, the lengths some people are willing to go in order to achieve their ends, and the sense that perhaps those who live lives worthy of shame should be held to pay for their actions are not ideas that are particularly unique or shocking any more. We seem to be offended, at least culturally, when violence is committed against us or those like us, but there is no denying how inured we have become to the idea of retributive violence.
The plot of this book is deceptively simple: An American business man, Elliot Gast, is kidnapped in Belgium by extremists opposed to the European Union. Initially he is treated quite well in captivity, given books to read, plenty of food, and though he is bored and anxious, he is not in fear of his life. Then the black cables are snaked through the ceiling, recording every corner of the room where Gast is kept, recording him for audiences on the Internet. His captors then begin to deprive Gast of his senses, beginning, horribly enough, with his sense of taste. The attacks against him are paced out and one by one, basic things like touch, sound and smell are taken from him via acts of indifferent violence.
The key word for this book is indifference. Though the world around him is aware of his kidnapping, though Gast works every angle in his mind to try and escape his captors, his time in captivity is one of indifference. Not on his part, to be certain – Elliot Gast is filled with pain, terror, desperation and ultimately defiance, but his captors see him as little more than a pawn that can help or harm their cause. Gast initially feels a sort of connection with a doctor and a woman in the group, but even if they felt appalled at his treatment and how broadcasting it on the Internet makes them look, their response is not aimed at freeing Gast, but rather, battling those within their organization. Gast’s experiences at the hands of the terrorist group show that he means nothing to them even when they seemingly are on his side in terms of the abuse he suffers. Being the the clutches of his tormentors turns Gast into a thing. Deprived of most of the senses that allow a man to interact with the world, isolated from all normal human sympathy and concern, Gast is only human in terms of how he continues to perceive himself. To those who have captured him, he is no more than an important doll that bleeds.
The really senseless part of this book was not when Gast lost his senses one by one, not the seeming senselessness of the violence (because this violence did have sense behind it – all too often we confuse savagery with senselessness). The senselessness comes from knowing that all of us, with our habits, thoughts, emotions and quirks, can become that doll that Gast became in the eyes of anyone who considers us The Other and that, I think, is where the power in this book lies. We can become an example. Our suffering, while intense to us, can be depersonalized into a generic message of fear and through our pain and fear, we can become just one more horrific distraction in cyberspace. Maybe there is a message in such violence but chances are, people powerful enough to change the course of political events aren’t going to be the people watching as you forcibly lose your sense of smell.
Suffering in this book is senseless, in that is has little meaning aside from others imprinting their personal agenda on another man’s body.
Of course, Gast’s suffering has meaning to the people who inflict it. One of his torturers tells him:
“To truly change a man, you must take away what is important to him. You must take a rich man’s fortune. You must take a passionate man’s wife. You are a man of the senses, Elliot Gast. So we are eliminating them. By this method we can leave you thoroughly changed. Through your example, we can change thousands.”
This, of course, is not borne out by the events of the book. People are outraged that Gast is being held and tortured but no one is able to find him. No one is able to help him. And no one is changed by watching his suffering aside from the temporary shock one feels when watching atrocity. Written in 2001, this book had no way of knowing we would all one day be able to watch beheadings online as easily as we watch the latest silly cat videos that are part of the current informational memes. Elliot Gast was changed but the rest of the world marched on.
Perhaps the change in Gast is all that is necessary, in the context of the book. Immediately following the above quote, Gast recalls engaging in culinary atrocity. Tiny birds were force-fed buttered grains then drowned in alcohol. The tiny birds were then roasted and eaten, bones intact.
The waiters then draped each of us with a large linen napkin, explaining that these would capture the precious scent of the roasted birds.
“Or to hide your face from God,” our host joked. I looked closely at the tiny bird in my hand, roasted to a golden finish. Dipping the ortolan into a brandy butter reduction, I raised it and saw suddenly the darkened eye of the bird, no bigger than a tiny bead, glistening now with a tear of butter… Perhaps I was paying now for my various excesses…
I wonder if I am wrong, trying to seek a larger meaning behind the permanent damage done to Gast. Perhaps his personal epiphany, connecting the terrible things that happen to him with the suffering he was willing to inflict on tiny birds, on other peoples’ economic well-being, in order to engage in epicurean delight, is enough.
As I read this book, I was unsure if Gast was unreliable, or if I was missing a point because throughout the book, I seemed to understand things that Gast did not.
Although I regretted my role in this terrible game, I had to wonder what the response would be. What would it take to one-up Blackbeard? Ten online hostages? Live execution of innocents? Anything seemed horribly possible.
By the way, Blackbeard is the name Gast gives to his chief tormentor. Did Gast think the economic interests that were pushing the European Union would respond to this atrocity done him with anything other than words, possibly a trial of those who might end up arrested if it came to that? Did he genuinely think this sort of guerrilla violence would be answered, let alone countered? Why would a bank kidnap ten revolutionaries and torture them? Gast does not seem to understand that even though he has had his nostrils soldered, his tongue mutilated, that the terrorists still have little power. While in their hands, they seem like God to him, not the powerless entities they really are in the face of global banking and political systems.
However, Gast never loses site of himself even as he is made senseless. He refuses to cooperate in any manner, fighting as much as he can, refusing to do what his captors ask of him. In order to increase the theater of the torture, his captors want him to scream, to yell in pain, to fight overtly instead of rebel passively. At one point, Blackbeard tells Gast that his Internet pain show is making the terrorist group lots of money, 10% of which will be his if only he will cooperate and scream in pain. Gast, who is clueless in some respects, hopes it is true he will be permitted to leave if he does what is asked of him but doesn’t take such promises to heart. Instead, he hopes he can unmask Blackbeard in front of one of the cameras, revealing his face to the millions Blackbeard says are watching, making him a marked man. Instead of railing against his tormentors when he is left alone, he is resolute – all the ghouls who are watching will get is a man kicking a wall over and over and over. Moreover, it is hard to tell if Blackbeard is taunting Gast, asking him to participate in his own torture, or if Blackbeard genuinely thinks Gast is so craven he would think screaming in agony for a cut of the profits a good deal. In a book about senselessness, it is hard to know which character actually has any sense.
Throughout the book, Gast seems to have a connection with a woman he calls Nin (because her brown eyes remind him of Anaïs Nin, the erotic diarist), and though she seems to have a terrible time reconciling what her group is doing to Gast, Nin’s final actions are in a way the most senseless element in the book. But that is just a knee-jerk reaction. It is only senseless if one is accustomed to the idea that people who are kind always act uniformly and in ways that we can understand. Gast feels deceived, but only a Hollywood ending could have made this turn out any differently.
I wish for all in the world that I could quote the final paragraph in this book but to do so would give too much away and this complex book is one that should not be spoiled. The last line brings to mind Erasmus, whom it certainly comes from, but also Vonnegut, because Gast is changed and the world around him is not. Whether or not his suffering and permanent damage is worth the epiphany he experiences is not a question I am ready to answer. I suspect I will read this book again in a couple of years and see what I think then. If I do, I will also read again Waiting for the Barbarians by Coetzee and think hard about violence and the world. Increasingly I think the message of this book is that the world is there, but all that matters is your personal redemption. But who knows. In a few years I may think differently. This book is largely a character study, but it will make you contemplate violence, the world around you and how it is you could be the criminal in the eyes of another.