Calamities of Exile by Lawrence Weschler

Start Your Free Trial

Download Calamities of Exile Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Calamities of Exile Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Exile was originally a form of punishment. The archetypal Babylonian exile was a punishment for Jewish uprisings. Among the ancient Greeks exile was a punishment for homicide (see, for example, Oedipus Rex). Among the ancient Romans, voluntary exile was an alternative to capital punishment. Around the eighteenth century, Europe began to exile its criminals to penal colonies in America, Australia, and Siberia. Throughout history, political exile has been a punishment for being on the wrong side.

In some ways, exile is a punishment worse than death: one lives on without the familiar surroundings that help define one’s existence—places, culture, often one’s language and family. In ancient Hebrew society, one was forced “beyond the pale” to live among howling beasts. In old Anglo-Saxon society, one became a wanderer racked by memories of the warm meadhall. For African captives who survived the Middle Passage, exile was part of the suffering associated with American slavery.

In the modern world exile remains a form of punishment, but the meaning of exile has vastly expanded. Most modern exiles are escapees from repressive regimes, as apparently were the Viennese grandparents of Lawrence Weschler, to whom he dedicates his book Calamities of Exile. The subject of his book is three such escapees, identified in his evocative section headings: “Oedipus in Samara: Kanan Makiya in and out of Iraq,” “The Trials of Jan K.: Jan Kavan in and out of Czechoslovakia,” and “A Horrible Face, But One’s Own: Breyten Breytenbach in and out of South Africa.”

The story of Kanan Makiya derives its title from the fact that his father, Mohamed Makiya, was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s favorite architect. In 1989 Kanan Makiya, living in the United States, published his book Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. The pseudonym obviously shielded the author and kept open the possibility that he could return home, but it was also a necessary protection for his family still in Iraq. Yet at the same time that the book attacked Saddam Hussein and his regime it also attacked the author’s prominent father for pandering to the regime. Maybe that was another reason for using the pseudonym.

Eventually the father also fled Iraq, the son revealed his pseudonym, and other details of their relationship with the Iraqi regime and each other came out. Their story introduces what Weschler, in the dedication to his grandparents, calls the “complicated” nature of exile. One of the themes running through Calamities of Exile is the complications that exile causes within families, as some members flee, others remain behind, and some even side with the oppressive regime. Another theme is the conflicted feelings of the exile. It seems that one can never quite free oneself from entanglements with the homeland, no matter how horrible it might be. Or maybe one does not want to.

In the case of Kanan Makiya’s father, it was not merely that doing business with a dictator was profitable. It was also a matter of pride, as strange as that sounds. Steeped in Islamic history, especially as it centered around Iraq and Baghdad, Mohamed Makiya was motivated by intense nationalistic and cultural pride. Thus, he jumped at the chance Saddam Hussein gave him to rebuild Baghdad to its former glory. To him it was insignificant that his visions of architectural splendor coincided with those of a dictator. As he stated, “I’m an architect. . . . I love to create, and these were the greatest opportunities of my creative life. . . . I was in the position to be doing all of it for my country.” His case illustrates how people’s frame of reference remains tied to their cultural roots: One first seeks honor in one’s own country. However, for Makiya as an architect and for the writer Breyten Breytenbach, the cultural ties were even more important as the prime source of their artistic inspiration and creativity.


(The entire section is 1,959 words.)