Review: Another Country, James Baldwin
Book Review by Jean Jacques Charles
Oral tradition has it that the author James Baldwin had privately confessed he did not want to bring his as yet unfinished novel, Another Country to yet “another country” to be completed, having already fled New York to Paris. Yet, this is exactly what he did when he appeared in Istanbul in 1961 at the doorstep of Engin Cezzar, an old friend and collaborator from his days at The Actors Studio (New York City), in the midst of a party Cezzar was throwing. James was depressed, broke and burnt out from a severe case of writer’s block from his desperate attempts to finish Another Country, a novel he had started working on in 1948 in Greenwich Village, New York City. His decade of laboring over it took him to Paris, then later to the South of France, and now that he was in Turkey, his work was brought to a standstill. The change of scenery and hospitality of his new circle of Turkish friends turned out to be medicine for James’ soul. In a sparsely furnished room overlooking the Bosphorus, he rewrote and completed his novel a year later in 1962.
Another Country is a tour de force driven by a concentrated fuel of adrenaline, frustrated angst and sexual anxiety amongst characters both colliding into each other and being propelled away, who feel adrift as artists, and alienated from each other but especially their own selves, in a world steeped in commercial materialism and caked with the bacteria of racism and homophobia. Characters are at grips with realizing their gradual loss of youth, optimism and innocence within an American society that relentlessly stigmatizes and segregates according to race, gender and sexual preference.
In a story that spans a year beginning with a boiling hot summer, Baldwin paints a terribly vivid landscape of New York City circa the late 1950s, from the uptown Black American enclave of Harlem to the increasingly bohemian yet still Italian neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and waterfront docks, there is music, dirt, liquor, ethnic violence in back alleys, domestic abuse in tenement hallways, all night parties on rooftop terraces and jazz sessions in stench smoked basements; but most of all there is sex, lots of it! Within this backdrop, a story unfolds in three parts to expose five passionate relationships and several delicate friendships on the precipice, trying to withstand societal pressures, racial conflict, irresolute sexuality, all while facing epiphanies that disrupt self-deception. White, black, inter-racial, heterosexual and homosexual relationships are all present in a poetic psychological study of the toll a racially repressive and sexually restrictive culture can have on especially vulnerable people.
The reader is a fly on the wall bearing witness to the oncoming train wreck to a loose circle of artistic friends. Rufus, a picture of Black Rage, is a jazz horn player walking on a knifes’ edge, lost of all hope in coping emotionally with the terrible things he has done (to his lover Leona, a White woman escaping a sordid past in the South through refuge in a dysfunctional union) and the terrible things done to him throughout his life. Vivaldo, an Italian-American with a fetish for Black women, yet who is more often the object of emotional abuse from his lover Ida, Rufus’ sister, a Black woman determined to climb out of the ghetto by any means necessary. Eric, a former lover of Rufus recently returned from self-exile in Paris, but now caught in an affair with Cass, a privileged, politically liberal married woman, in the throes of a midlife crisis and coming to terms as well with her feelings of fear and ambiguity towards Black people, racial injustice and the American dream of a middle class life.
Baldwin’s pacing is relentless as these and several other relationships and people physically unravel. They rebel against the severe social patterns that are destroying their ability to love, and struggle to keep from being crushed under the weight of alienation, which may be the fundamental theme of this work.
James Baldwin went into exile to complete Another Country, and the theme of exile and alienation asphyxiates each page. In several passages, people refer to others as “foreign countries”. Vivaldo thinks of Ida as “another country”, stupefied at his inability to understand her pain and at a loss when she lashes out at him. The act of sex itself, often graphically depicted in masterful prose, is used by Baldwin to gage characters’ loss or alienation. In Another Country, sex is political and sex is salvation. It is used to seek revenge against the white man (Rufus) or simply to communicate, to manipulate, deceive, seduce, reward and submit. And the reader is forced to unpack, along with the protagonists, the sexual roles forced upon Black and White alike as a result of social conditioning and societal expectations.
Baldwin’s writing here has a penetrating clarity of sight about not just what America is (not just white supremacy, but also crass, shallow materialism and hypocrisy), but also what it could be in a positive sense, because he actually believes white folks are as capable of love and human solidarity as anyone else. It takes courage to depict both the weakness and hatred and the humanity of a people at the same time. At a time like now, when the United States feels like it is coming unraveled by the day, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Baldwin’s words (combined with those of Dr. Martin Luther King) offer a last chance for redemption.
In Another Country, Baldwin’s characters have sudden traumatic epiphanies of having been living in a “foreign country” of their minds, in regards to their sexual identities or their complicit relationship to the racist infrastructure of American society. The reviewer will leave it up to the reader to decide if there is any hope left at the novels denouement, if any of the characters catch a glimpse of whether a love, which is free of political patterns of dominance or sub ordinance, racial or sexual baggage, is possible. But one can believe that Baldwin would have wanted it so.
Jean Charles is a Lawyer, Country Risk/Energy Analyst and Writer from Queens, New York. He has worked in Madagascar, Morocco, Egypt, and Scotland. He currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey.
You can buy In Another Country here.