Prisoner of Love
by Jean Genet, translated by Barbara Bray, Introduction by Edmund White
Wesleyan University Press, 375 pp., $24.95
Max Weber once said of a minor German poet, irregular, drifting, and a friend of his, who had gotten himself involved in some of the scruffier aspects of popular revolt, that God had led him into politics in a fit of malice. Literary figures, especially romantical ones, who involve themselves directly in the dirty-hands world of collective violence (as opposed to the much larger number who harangue meetings, disgorge newspaper articles, get up petitions, or display themselves in demonstrations) do not as a rule come off very well. The sort of person given to staging extravagant parabolical dramas or writing out involute private imaginings is usually at a bit of a loss among artisans of more practical fantasies; or, often enough, their victim. The danger of taking oneself too seriously or one’s comrades in arms not seriously enough, confusing words with bullets or aestheticizing blood, is all too real.
Jean Genet, for our times perhaps the very epitome of the unnormalizable artist, vagrant, thief, prisoner, prostitute, homosexual, symbological playwright, autistical novelist, and possessor of a prose style his translator calls anarchic, subversive, bizarre, and metaphysical, would seem an excellent candidate for such disasters when thrown among two of the angriest political movements of the Sixties and Seventies—the Palestinian resistance in Jordan and Lebanon and the Black Panther uprising in the United States. If he is in addition, as Genet was when he wrote this episodic account of what he calls his “five years…lived in a sort of an invisible sentry-box from which I could see and speak to everyone while I myself was a fragment broken off from the rest of the world,” old, dying, and emotionally played out, both fictional truth and factual accuracy appear to be in serious risk of dissolving into blur and grandiloquence. Ex ante, the thing looks dubious.
Ex post, it is, disconcertingly, a surprising success: the record of a shape-shifter at loose among fabulists. Although the text, constructed a decade and a half after the experiences it reports, is frequently difficult to follow, both because of his easy way with chronology (Genet does not seem to think that one thing flows from another, cause after cause, but that everything jostles together in a space of memory) and because the narrative sometimes wanders into the merest of free association (especially toward the end when, abjuring pain-killing drugs so as to keep his mind unclouded, his powers may have at last been weakening), his tale has a logic and direction that grows out of a strange, almost hallucinatory, sort of hyper-precision:
None of the fedayeen ever let go of his gun. If it wasn’t slung over his shoulder he held it horizontal on his knees or vertical between them, not suspecting this attitude was in itself either an erotic or a mortal threat, or both. Never… did I see a fedayee without his gun, except when he was asleep. Whether he was cooking, shaking out his blankets or reading his letters, the …