Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar
by A.M. Bakalar
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
If the artist is a trickster, then Polish British writer A. M. Bakalar’s debut novel Madame Mephisto (2012) shows great mastery – albeit never in an entirely gratuitous or wanton way. A.M. Bakalar belongs to a generation of writers that have embraced the triumphalist illusions of the global capitalist market, only to better subvert it in covert, subtler ways. In so doing, these writers have chosen to bypass and reject the grand narratives of modernity, about the worker’s revolution, about women’s liberation, for what they really were – yet another (dis)illusion. This may be explained by the fact that writers such as Bakalar are new players to the game, coming from so-called emerging economies and eager to partake in the trafficking of world literatures across cultures. At the same time, they depart from certain postmodern currents dominant around the 1980s-90s, for which the art of simulacrum had become an end in itself. As an illustration, a certain type of manufactured magic comes to mind. In the words of Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet: “In a continent [Latin America] that was once ultra-politicized, young, apolitical writers like myself are now writing without an overt agenda, about their own experiences.” Fuguet defines this literature to be quite “unlike the ethereal world of Garcia Marquez’s imaginary Macondo” in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and closer to what he dubs McOndo, “a world of McDonald’s, Macintoshes and condos.”
Born and raised in Poland, the London-based narrator in Bakalar’s Madame Mephisto does not have any illusions whatsoever towards her homeland’s Communist past under Soviet rule: “Under the banners of the Polish United Workers’ Party to the victory of socialism! The Polish-Soviet friendship! Bollocks.” (4) Neither was she ever deceived by the significance of Poland joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, seen as yet another case of (western) imperialism: “Western Europe realised that the countries of the former Soviet bloc would soon become goldmines of opportunity. McDonald’s had just opened its doors and we all queued for hours to taste the West.” (5-6) All the same, Magda consciously tricks herself into believing in the fables of free-market ideology as a means to an end: leave Poland, its corruption, its ultra-nationalism and religious extremism, which for women means being treated as second-class citizens forced (for those who can afford it) to abort abroad. As Magda’s twin sister Alicja observes: “All this talk about Muslim fundamentalism in the press and television but nobody says that right in the heart of Europe, Catholic fundamentalists are quietly gaining more and more power.” (75)
Magda’s ruthless journey into the English corporate world confronts the latter with another kind of fanaticism: market fundamentalism. Her career path, from being hired to being fired and hired again elsewhere, works as a cover up for the lies we hear and like to tell ourselves: that wage labourers choose freely (read: they have no choice but) to sign and terminate a job contract; that workers in the neoliberal age need to be flexible and mobile (read: dispensable and disposable), multi-tasked (read: made more easily redundant), performant (read: profitable), competitive yet able to work as a team (read: contemptuous of other colleagues and subservient to the hierarchy), and, especially for women, amenable and smiling (read: malleable and ready to be hurled abuse at). Magda does not hold any delusions of grandeur concerning the world of men, marriage or motherhood either. A self-proclaimed single and childless young woman with few attachments, she is neoliberalism’s embodiment of the monadic/nomadic Self, for whom love consists of “on-and-off relationships” (26), and the family, a burden with which to cut off ties, except around Christmas time. As she remarks in one of her many aphoristic moments: “All relations in life are temporary. Losing your job is a given. It is only a matter of time but it will happen eventually.” (57)
Here we find a parallel between sexuality, the family and the workplace to the extent that each of these three spheres have become increasingly deterritorialised, turned into mere performatives emptied out of their content. London itself is, in some unexpected ways, a most deterritorialised city, despite having once been at the centre of the British Empire, now home to economic migrants, financial traders, multinational corporates, luxury escort girls, casual lovers and cosmopolites of all kinds, here one day, gone the other. In Bakalar’s novel, sex often comes down to to a mere bodily function to be satisfied rather than the expression of love; and the family, to an arbitrary social construct rather than the undiluted transmission of blood. For its part, the workplace looks more like a mercenary world of white-collar sharks than (allegedly) benevolent patriarchs or captains of industries. However, by manipulating and outsmarting the artificial conventions that most people around her live by and impose upon others, Magda does not so much become an empty shell as a carapace, succeeding in staying true to herself in spite of all the subterfuges she must use and the elaborate camouflages she must adorn herself with.
Magda becomes a drug dealer, not so much out of necessity but by choice, or better still, by conviction. She sincerely and quite selflessly believes that the cannabis business she sets up between Poland and England and smuggles across the Schengen Area will do infinitely more good than, say, accepting a “cover job” for an insurance company, a global finance consultancy or a diamond dealer. Speaking of her clients – an actress, a top-end prostitute, a City trader, an undercover policeman, or even “an acclaimed British writer” (149) – she says: “You see, I am very proud to be part of their creative process.” (150) An artificial paradise, marijuana represents many different things for the latter. Yet, contrary to the other illusions listed earlier (the matrimonial market; having a “normal” job; remaining part of the family and cultural nucleus one was born into and must submit to), Magda achieved her cannabis dream enterprise – and an immensely lucrative one at that! – of her own volition. As Magda understands, selling cannabis is in theory no less ethical than the commodities she used to be associated with until dealing drugs became for her a full-time occupation. To take but one example, are financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman brothers not directly accountable, through speculation, for the soaring food prices in Africa, for the United States housing bubble, or for the Eurozone debt crisis, which have left millions of people in dire straits?
For Magda, the act of caring for plants is tied in with being the mother that she is not, while the seeds she grows, with a culture (from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’) she never really grew out of. Unlike other diasporic tales foregrounding the perspective of children to whose parents’ culture remains foreign, Magda knows her background all too well as she only hopes to disengage herself from it. Both perspectives, though, lay bare the fact that cultures, too, are products of our collective wills and creative imaginations. As such, they ought not to remain monocultural fortresses fixed in time and space but may instead thrive through cross-fertilising contact with other cultures, other places, despite the risks. As Magda learns at her own expense, “black spots on the roots” (174) may, when faced with the plague of entrenched racism, lead to the rot of half of her marijuana crop because of a “bad mix” between her Polish seeds and those belonging to her (unofficial) black South African boyfriend and business partner Jerome, met in London.
However, Magda is ready to pay the price of her attempts to rewrite from the margins her cultural heritage as a hybrid, always in a flux and deeply unstable. Here too, she appears to the reader as neoliberalism’s dream incarnate, someone so unreliable and untrustworthy as to be laid off easily when necessary. But she is also more than that. Her uprootedness, reflected in the novel by the destabilising juxtaposition of a first, second and third-person narratives, is however not rootless, taking stock in the metaphorical family she has planted for herself: “If my family shunned me and subjected me to forced exile from their lives, at least my illegitimate dealings did not disappoint me.” (200) One of the chief demons of German literary tradition, Mephisto alludes to the narrator’s repressed family phantoms, but also operates as a broader allegory for Poland’s many monsters within:
I blame everybody for what led to that; the school which, instead of sexual education, employed a priest who told us that life was the most precious gift from God and that sex was only about procreation; my mother who was too ashamed to talk to me about contraception; the gynaecologist who said I was too young to have sex so I did not need anything to protect myself. I blame this country, which failed me, installing backward religious teachings instead of helping me, terrorizing women and doctors into submission. (76)
To conclude, perhaps the greatest of tricks has to do with the author’s own life. First of all, Bakalar’s mastery of the English language makes us forget that the latter is not a “native” speaker. As Madga herself half-laments in the novel with a perceptible grain of complacency at being a maverick:
Here in my own country, I was stripped of my birthright, I was a cheat who left for an easier life. Every wrongly accented word, every sentence which sounded too English, was proof that I was not Polish enough, that I had forgotten who I was […] And in London, I was almost a native speaker, but not quite. (166)
In the acknowledgments section of the novel, we also learn how Bakalar wrote her debut novel on the sly while doing a PhD with a full-time job. Ultimately she confessed to “receiv[ing] nothing but support and encouragement”(219) from her colleagues and friends in academia. Magda, her main character, was never that lucky, but what saves her is a tremendous sense of humour and irony, which never falls into sarcasm or cynicism. As she retorts to her ever-pressing, worried mother’s queries about her being not married yet: “I am a human traffic accident; no children, no husband and over thirty.” (104) Besides constituting an original twist to the genre of migrant fiction, Madame Mephisto makes extensive use of the trick of laughter to lead us to believe that wit and free spiritism are not dead yet as potential antidotes against the moribund state of our contemporary world. For anyone looking for a way at pissing off their boss, or getting more than a glimpse at dirty, crunchy office politics, or for a refreshing take at marriage life, or simply to learn more about Polish culture and how to grow weed and make a hell of a lot of money from an authentic renegade – Madame Mephisto is the book.
Fuguet, Alberto. “I am not a magic realist!” Salon, 11 June 1997.
<http://www.salon.com/1997/06/11/magicalintro/> (Accessed 3 March 2015)
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained a PhD in postcolonial writing from Monash University. His doctoral thesis focuses on diasporic identities in Australian women’s fiction from Southeast Asia. Paul’s academic work appears in various literary journals, and he has been a regular contributor to Mascara.