This post is part of the Books Well-Loved series, in which I share quotes, impressions and insights from the books that have touched me.
Book and author: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli
Where I read it: I wish I could tell you. On a terrace somewhere, accompanied by papas bravas; in bed, to chase away the nightmares.
Soundtrack: Both the book and my thoughts about it flow better to the sound of this.
Favorite phrase: “…but for her, the value of the picture was that it returned her purpose — to find small glimmers of humanity.”
“There is a very real chance we will spend the rest of our lives in prison,” I said to her.
“Well, then we will have plenty of time for you to teach me Spanish,” she joked with a nonchalance that made me hate her and promptly love her.
We were both out of our depth. Conflict, development, social change, photography, documentation, storytelling, journalism — these words and their variants were fluently part of our professional lexicon. They were also on the ‘dirty word’ list, only to be uttered in whispers and among trusted ones in a community that lived under repression. Forced disappearances, detentions, interrogations, shadows on the wall walking in parallel to your own step… that was the governing lexicon. It was like learning how to swim again, as an uncoordinated twenty-something who knows she could drown with weights on her feet.
She had brought The Lotus Eaters with her. I am embarrassed to tell you with which book I had armed myself in preparation for this project [but I will say, I did load 17 other books into my Kindle because “should we indeed end up in political prison, we’ll need something to read for the rest of our lives.” Do not ask why in my imagination prison guards would indulge a Kindle and free speech.] In the afternoons, when both our heartbeats neared normal again, we would share a portion of spicy baked potatoes. She is one of those women who can unironically pull off a straw hat. She’d sit across from me in it, with Tatjana Soli’s words, occasionally reading them outloud to me. One of her favorite passages:
In terms of the present moment, they were despicable to the soldiers, the victims, to even themselves. In the face of real tragedy, they were unreal, vultures; they were all about getting product. […] The moment ended, about to be lost, but the one who captured it on film gave both subject and photographer a kind of disposable immortality.
The Lotus Eaters is a novel about the lives of photojournalists covering the Vietnam war, packed with insight on photography and the perils of documentation, life and work in conflict zones, and the tug of war between chauvinism and feminism in those settings. There is a pinch of love — there has to be. These novels would be lodged in our esophagus without the love. We would never wash them down. When I put the tinsel of the love story aside, The Lotus Eaters became uncomfortable. I felt like I was reading about the darker corners of conflict work, storytelling, and photography. The novel lost the comfortable veneer of fiction and tangoed with my life.
The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking, even among the most sympathetic: “I got an incredible shot of a dead woman/soldier/child. A real tearjerker.” Afterward, film shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other.
How do we document cruelty? Are we still performing a service by capturing this moment in time and resharing it with those who were not there to bear witness or are we giving in to voyeurism and losing our own humanity? Why, why, why do we put ourselves in the line of fire like that? Do we still feel anything after some time? This is what Helen, the protagonist, had to offer in an early chapter:
She would continue till the end, though she had lost faith in the power of pictures, because that work had been an end in itself, untethered to results or outcomes.
Helen may as well have been articulating my nightmare. I am tied to my work and service in conflict and post-conflict zones by love and conviction. When either wears off, I would like to move on to a new type of service that grips my imagination. But do we ever know that it is time to go? Or do we slowly become jaded, cynical and detached, going through the motions of the old service that no longer feels right?
Where does the question of a calling come in? What feeds the conviction? In the novel, Helen returns to the US briefly between two stints of covering the Vietnam war. She experiences the reverse culture shock and disorientation that are so familiar by now that these sentiments themselves feel like home. Every time I leave a conflict zone, wrap myself in a blanket filled with memories, and guzzle a chai latte, I say “Mmm… I think I could do this for a while, you know.” Elijah is usually there to ask: “Could you though? Really?” Sure enough, two weeks of chai lattes and blankets later, my heart is ready to return to the service that it calls home. For Helen in the Lotus Eaters, home meant a lot of baking. This is a conversation that was triggered by her return:
“So, why aren’t you working at a newspaper? Or covering another war? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
“I just went there as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do, if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?” After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed. He stopped and took a sip. “I don’t know. If I was that good at something, I know it’d be hard to stop. Baking… shit.”
The Lotus Eaters came into my life when it could enlighten and haunt, and the novel did both of those. It is Soli’s debut book and reading about her painstakingly long process of research and immersion made me appreciate her approach to writing as a craft. This is another book well-loved by its author — and loved by me, but not because it made me smile, swoon or nod; rather, because in that thoroughly unsubtle way that books have with these things, it made me gasp.