Hell and Gaza in The Country of Last Things

Sometimes coincidences collide violently.  Words tear and buckle before the momentum of events

The words of Anna in Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things and our inability to see past politics to the humanity of others.

Collisions, though, are the product of context; force, motion, weight, attention.  Two objects crash into each other when, in another environment with other conditions, perhaps they would have hurtled by each other without incident.  One thing changes and the rest changes with it.

I connected Auster's words – "Nothing breaks here more readily than a heart" – to dozens of Palestinians killed and thousands wounded by the Israeli military at the nation's border with the Gaza Strip because Auster constructed perfectly the conditions that made such a connection inevitable.

Auster's character, Anna, utters those words as she moves through the wastes of "the city" and wrestles with its interminable waves of agony, indignity, and despair.  The depth of the suffering is unimaginable.  Except when it's not.

When asked about his inspiration for the "apocalyptic yet strangely familiar urban environment" he built in the book, Auster replies quite simply:  "It was inspired by New York City."  Auster conceived of the city two decades before the book was written while observing New York City collapsing into default and disrepair.  As the idea became more solid, he pulled from the wider world:  garbage collection rackets in Cairo, human slaughterhouses in Leningrad.  He continues:

"I didn't name [the city] because it was inspired by several different places.  I wanted to create the impression that it could have been anywhere.  Crumbling New York City from the late sixties– the Warsaw Ghetto from World War II, somewhere in South America from any moment in the twentieth century.  Third world, first world, second world.  It comprises elements from so many different cities, I wouldn't have known what language to use if I'd chosen to give it a name.  Americans read this book and think it's fantasy, but you know, for people in these less fortunate places, it's not.  There are fantastical elements but it's about the real world."

The city is a product of Auster's imagination but built from solid things.  It's almost impossible for me not to think of Gaza when reading about his "dystopia."  Auster's purpose, though, is not merely to portray poverty, but also to plumb how deeply desperation changes those convulsing in its grip.

People live in such despair.  People with children and with families.  Love and hate.  Soft and hard.  Right and wrong.  Complete people, complex and imperfect, but never separate from their world.

Anna's assertion that "nothing breaks here more readily than a heart," does not stand alone.  She makes the observation while gently dismissing the notion that a lack of pity or compassion could explain the city's brutality.  Anna doesn't hold sympathy up to the light like something shiny.  She merely notes its inadequacy:

"It was a different story every time, and yet the story was finally the same.  The strings of bad luck, the miscalculations, the growing weight of circumstances.  Our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies, and no matter how diverse they might be in their details, they all share an essential randomness in their design."

But Anna sees the desperation as desperation.  She helps others when she's able.  She recognizes her own brief slides toward violence or immorality. 

Auster describes over and over people doing unthinkable things.  Leaping from buildings, running themselves to death, stealing, raping, destroying, killing.  From the abhorrent to the petty, from the desperate to the incomprehensible.  He describes countless people who deteriorate; normal people driven to barbarity or nihilism by want.  In the end, however, his story follows Anna and her encounters with people who nurture their compassion and sense of connection to others in the most challenging of circumstances.

Sympathy is incomplete; only a component of humanity and humanity doesn't break.  It deteriorates slowly, imperceptibly, little by little until it leaves behind something hollow where there was once something full.  Seeing whole people, feeling for the points of commonality, understanding in the uncomfortable times, holding friends accountable, protecting the humanity even of enemies.  Nothing breaks here more readily than a heart but sympathy is half a virtue.  It requires an equal and opposite sympathy, the inconvenient compassion, to fill the gap.  Being human and affording that humanity to others is the whole.