Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas

Lawrence Weschler

The University of Chicago Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil, Kanan Makiya published a highly regarded study of Baathist Iraq, Republic of Fear. Later he wrote about totalitarianism in Iraqi architecture; his father Mohamed was one of Iraq's leading architects. In "Oedipus in Samara", Weschler examines Makiya's complex relationship with his father and the political involvements of Makiya and his wife, an Iranian physicist and activist. Over them looms the menace of Sadaam Hussein.

Jan Kavan's father was one of the victims of the 1952 Slansky show-trials in Czechoslovakia, and Kavan himself went into exile after the Prague Spring. Running an operation smuggling equipment and information into and out of Czechoslovakia, his prickly personality made for difficult, sometimes hostile relationships with other activists. And when he returned after the "Velvet Revolution", he was caught up in accusations that he had worked for the secret police, and had to fight to clear his name. Weschler's title here, "The Trials of Jan K.", is not unreasonable in its suggestion of Kafka's The Trial.

In "A Horrible Face, But One's Own", Weschler's subject is South African poet, writer, and painter Breyten Breytenbach. He gives a compelling account of Breytenbach's intriguing life — his family background (one brother was the most decorated soldier in the South African Defense Force), his move to Paris and marriage to a Vietnamese woman, and his abortive career as a secret agent, leading to his capture, trial, abject recantation, and lengthy imprisonment. But it is the way in which Breytenbach's love/hate relationship with South Africa centres his work that fascinates.

The three biographical sketches in Calamities of Exile provide dramatic insight into the recent history and politics of Iraq, Czechoslovakia, and South Africa. But they are also notable as studies of the damage done to individuals by the traumas of exile and the poisons of totalitarianism. Novelistic in their feel for the nooks and crannies of the human psyche, they demonstrate that the truth can indeed be indeed stranger — and more interesting — than fiction.

August 1998

External links:
- buy from or
- details at the University of Chicago Press
Related reviews:
- more biography
- books about politics
- books published by The University of Chicago Press
%T Calamities of Exile
%S Three Nonfiction Novellas
%A Weschler, Lawrence
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1998
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0226893936
%P xii,199pp