A Pakistani horror film released in 2007, Zibahkhana, featured Muslim zombies. For over a decade now, zombie culture has fed well on our cultural anxieties, paranoia and fantasies, taking new forms and shapes. Zombies occupy a curious place in our imagination. They are different from their ‘un-dead’ counterparts, for example, the vampires who possess individuality and seductive powers. Zombies show up in hordes, driven by an insatiable hunger for flesh. This is also important: flesh, not blood. Vampires move with superhuman speed, defying gravity, external to the world we know and understand, but their manoeuvres are precise, their judgment meticulously planned. Zombies are slow, and dumb. What is striking about them is not that they have superhuman control over us, but that they have no control over themselves.
Zombies lack agency; they are a product of a world that has rapidly descended into the abyss of disorder and chaos, before anyone can find the time to reflect, to think, to work on a cure. They represent a slow-motion horror. This is why they provide an apt metaphor for the world of Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel, a world frighteningly similar to the one we inhabit today.
However, The Making of the Zombie Wars, is a very funny book. It is a farcical story about global catastrophes (trust a Bosnian to find that balance). After all, this is the man who once wrote: “My country’s main exports are stolen cars and sadness.”
At the heart of the story is Joshua Levin, a 33-year-old Jewish-American who teaches English to a group of displaced refugees, drinks too much coffee, tries to quote the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Spinoza, working him into his numerous unfinished screenplays as “DJ Spinoza”. Levin’s complete disregard for context or original meaning forms the dystopic, postmodern head-space that breeds ideas such as this one: “Script Idea #12: DJ Spinoza is a misﬁt no one understands: not his schoolmates, not his friends, not his teachers. His one dream is to DJ at his prom night … . After his radical DJ-ing results in a disastrous party at the place of the girl (Rise) he aims to hook up with, he ends up castigated. What will it take to make everyone dance and Rise fall for him? Title: Spinning Out of Control.”
These ideas, including an ongoing screenplay about Zombie Wars interspersed with events from Joshua’s own life, spin out of control due to the cartoonish logistics of an unlikely affair with a beautiful Bosnian student. The humorous interplay between fantasy and reality becomes the dramatic device that ‘turns’ the story from farce into a tragedy.
Joshua lives in a bubble of his own privilege. As the country descends into the abyss of the war in Iraq, Joshua plods along on a life of no consequence. He is in a relationship with a girl who is too good for him, according to his own family. Yet he embarks on an affair with his student Ana, and then despairs as her unpleasant and passionately carnivorous husband sets out to teach Joshua a lesson.
Everything unravels. Joshua is sucked into a different world; a world alien to him, the world of immigrants. This is a world that frightens him and what ensues is a process of his radicalisation. He gives up quoting Spinoza (“the original secular Jew”), replacing him with biblical stories, full of sound and fury. As soon as his moral pragmatism is tested, he quickly drops his liberal beliefs and turns into a neo-conservative delusion: a less silver-tongued Christopher Hitchens of sorts.
The French philosopher Foucault once noted that we relegate madness (a way of being that we don’t fully understand) to a world external to us, assuming a superior position to those whom we consider ‘mad’. Joshua gets embroiled in a similar process. His sense of self-preservation anchors him in fantasies about who he thinks he is supposed to be, and how ungrateful immigrants are supposed to behave.
The reader is only privy to Joshua’s perspective, never getting an intimate insight into other characters. They appear progressively smaller, simplified and improbable as the story moves along. First-time readers of Hemon’s work would not be blamed for thinking that his are lazy stereotypes, lacking depth. In the act of balancing comedy and tragedy, Hemon struggles to create a sensation for deliberate laziness.
However, as the story progresses, Joshua morphs into a monstrous figure and Hemon starts to tear down the proverbial fourth wall. The reader begins to realise that the entire story is setup in the image of a zombie virus taking effect, turning dead clichés into un-dead metaphors. Take for example the linguistic spin applied to a familiar quote: “History: the first time a joke, the second a badly translated joke.”
The ontological question of the ‘living dead’ or the ‘un-dead’ plays an interesting role in this novel. What truly scares us about the other? Is it what they lose as part of their humanity, disturbing our sense of reality by appearing in forms that are alien to us, or is it the familiar forms they manage to retain, those things that seem familiar to us, spark feelings of empathy in us, and make us vulnerable to emotional pain.
When Joshua is confronted by Ana’s husband, Esko, the whole ordeal is translated by their mutual friend, Bega, another refugee from Bosnia. Understandably, Joshua is confused, betrayed and enraged by this strange apparition, as Bega casually translates — actually, transliterates — threats against him as though “he did it every day of his life, as if he had never drunk with or seen Joshua”.
“We were in war together,” Bega tries to explain to Joshua, pointing at Esko and himself. “We survived together in hell.” Joshua feels emasculated, and embarks on a testosterone-fuelled drug binge with his Desert Storm veteran landlord Stagger, a sword-wielding, shell-shocked maniac who internalises a messianic bravado agog with the escalating fervour of the war on terror in the background.
The humorous tension culminates in a poignant statement when Joshua’s grotesque and violent fantasies exchange places with real catastrophes. Despite testing readers unfamiliar with Hemon’s work, the book proves to be a rewarding roller-coaster ride through the contemporary cultural landscape of identity politics and war-idealisation. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read — a compliment that normally would be too generic for an honest reviewer to use, but once again, trust Hemon to give it a fresh meaning.
The reviewer is a freelance journalist, and a graduate sociology researcher at Humboldt University, Berlin.
The Making of the Zombie Wars
By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2016