Fleeing Babel

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Call Me Zebra

Alma Books, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 978184688447

reviewed by Liam Bishop

After reading Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, Call Me Zebra, I was reminded of a piece by the artist and sculptor Mel Chin. In ‘Circumfessional Hymenal Sea (Portrait of Jacques Derrida)’ an ivory tower, within which further towers appear to be enclosed, rests under a ‘sea’ of books. The perimeter is enclosed with hardbacks, and in the centre are reams of pages rolling and concertinaed into one another. According to Chin, the work originated from a dream based on Derrida’s claim that he had only ever read four books out of his entire library. It gestures at the mysterious ways our own personal library references itself as we read and creates infinite-seeming connections.

Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini (later known as ‘Zebra’) is taught to ‘love nothing but literature’ by her father. When her family is forced into exile, trekking through the mountains of Central Asia to eventually arrive in New York, her father continues to instil in her the commandments and axioms of a ‘literary scribe.’ And so when her father demands that she ‘Memorize! Regurgitate! Transmit!’ the literature she has been taught, it makes me wonder about the complex structures of our internal libraries that are perhaps like Mel Chin’s sculpture. There is, after all, no recourse to a real library when you’re living in exile, so her memory is all that she has, and soon, when both her mother and father have died, she is the last one left in the lineage to continue on this journey. Barcelona is the place she chooses to continue it. 

In this case, the references of the internal reader’s library are contending with Zebra’s references. Around about now we would reach for another book in our library to help aid our critique of the novel. Here, though, the narrator has arrived there before us. Borges is who we’re harking for and beaten to – specifically, his story ‘Pierre Menard, author of Quixote,’ in which we read about an author who doesn’t just want to translate Miguel de Cervantes epic for the modern day but to write the actual Quixote. Though it might be anathema to her father’s dictums, Zebra, on her ‘Grand Tour of Exile,’ reads Borges’s story alongside Kathy Acker’s retelling of Quixote and sees them both as ‘distorted duplicates of other texts, a giant literary womb in which the chivalric tales of times past are gestating, preparing to be born again.’ Being exiled and living in a land of conspicuous fiefdom – Catalonia – she is perhaps not concerned with originality. Instead it’s a question of its worth. What does all this inter-textuality serve? Where does the book and the act of reading fit, not into our contemporary technological society but the world itself, as a thing and a concept? The narrator of ‘Pierre Menard’ summarises Menard’s task as one of ‘infinite complexity, a task futile from the outset,’ and this sounds a lot like the mission Zebra has created for herself. Whether or not she’s cognisant of this futility is a different matter.

To read about Zebra reading and referencing a plethora of literature, you’d think, would be to throw us into another postmodern work of meta-fiction. It is something beyond that, though. Here is Zebra discussing what she believes a book is and should be:

‘It occurred to me that a book is only a good counsellor if it calls up the wounded zones of our consciousness – in other words, if the act of reading wounds us. I thought about how the word star is only one letter different from the word scar and this thought reinforced my conclusion that Baudelaire, that beloved Dandy, had not taken his rebellion against the bourgeoisie, those who cling to security at the expense of the vulnerable, far enough. No. Because in order for a book to be a good counsellor, I persevered, it must be negotiating a danger zone; there must be a transgression, a leap, a move beyond prohibition.’

Zebra’s refracted and displaced journey is, in some part, how she correlates experience, connects words and events, like any book; and so for a book to be a ‘good counsellor’ to her it must expose how it works, giving Zebra insight into herself as a reader of both that story and her own work. Like a therapist who listens to our accounts of our dreams, a book could help her turn what is meaningless and freely associated into something meaningful.

What that seems to create in this novel is not necessarily a self-conscious irony but something more like negation as it ‘creates’ itself as a piece of literature. When Zebra is roaming the streets of Barcelona, we don’t feel we’re really there. Places are referenced but don’t feel real, and it’s here we realise the extent to which these descriptions are filtered through Zebra. There are elements of Zebra’s environment that take on a dream-like significance. Ludovico Bembo, for instance – with whom Zebra has a passionate sexual, not to mention literary, affair – is described as follows:

‘Ludo was wearing a tweed jacket over his red wool cardigan even though it was summer, and he had a grey cashmere scarf tied around his neck. He was leaving but not before giving me one last admonishing look. He planted his umbrella onto the floor of the landing and leaned into it, that umbrella he had begun to carry with him everywhere, using it to point at things as if it were an extension of his arm...He stood in the shadowy landing, pipe tucked neatly into his breast pocket, copper curls perfectly conditioned.’

It’s a rather antiquated image, and something about it coalesces with Zebra’s descriptions of her father, with his ‘Nietzsche’ moustache, as well as her many references to surrealist painting throughout the book. After all, she is in Catalonia; this is Dalí’s home and where Picasso spent some of his formative years. It is as though Ludo is a figure in a Magritte painting, standing in, as Foucault put it, the a‘non-place’ that ‘emerges “in person” – in place of persons and where no one is present any longer.’ If we consider this alongside the novel’s effluence of literary references, it appears to achieve something similar to Magritte’s painting, creating a self-enclosed world that is perceptible to those who do not know the interior of the artist, who know a pipe as a pipe even when the artist doesn’t – a place where the reader cannot possibly understand how a scar might be a star but still read it as so.

This vacancy and negation might be what the narrator of ‘Pierre Menard’ is hinting at when he reports Menard’s belief that history is not what happened but what we ‘believe’ happened. This isn’t a particularly profound statement, but in the context of a story about a fictional writer and a fictional narrator writing about a writer of a real book, it begins to appear a lot more complex. It begins to look like the quandary of Zebra. For both Menard and Zebra, their attempts at rendering something visible, either by writing the actual Don Quixote or by launching a ‘pilgrimage of exile,’ which could mean so many different things, resemble that Derridean library or a painting by Magritte: the emergence of a non-place. 

Through Zebra's exile and the world she occupies, you begin to wonder: what is a place? What is substantial and real?  In this beguiling and quixotic novel then, as in our migratory and bordered world, it is perhaps the non-places that offer more salvation than the cities we have to call home.
Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds. He writes criticism, fiction and essays, and also interviews authors on the podcast he hosts, the Rippling Pages.