11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 37

Mascot of the dispossessed

David Caute


Picador, £12.95, pp.3 75,

In this his last work, Jean Genet de- scribes his pilgrimages to the dispossessed: a pederast at sombre play among the Panthers and the Palestinians. Genet was Wandering about Jordan, Lebanon and Syria under fedayeen patronage and pro- tection from 1970 until his expulsion from Jordan late in 1972. This was the time of King Hussein's armed showdown with the Palestinians. Though mesmerised by the grace and self-assurance of young male Bedouin dancers, Genet decided to hate not only the little Sandhurst king but also the Bedouin and Circassians who served him. The saving grace of the Palestinians in his eyes is to be stateless. For two years he had loved the fedayeen 'more than any- thing or anyone else'. By the time the American Panthers adopted him as a mascot of alienation, Genet's plays, The Blacks and The Screens, were widely mis-performed as revolution- ary statements and were doing good busi- ness for Grove Press. But Genet's corro- sive rationality invariably lurks behind the *arm odours of the anarchist outcast Whom Sartre had called saint, actor and martyr. Genet cannot help salting infatua- tion with lucidity. Viewed in retrospect, the Panthers emerge as young savages whose Marxism Was 'about as close to Marx as Dubuffet is to Cranach'. The Panther movement, he noted, 'grew weak, with the harsh weak- ness then in fashion; shooting cops and being shot by them.' It also grew weak `through its rainbow fringe, its fund-raising Methods ... its empty theatricality theatricality tout court! — and its rapidly exhausted symbolism'. Coming from the author of The Balcony and The Maids, a rebuke for 'exhausted symbolism' is damn- ing. But Genet wrote these memoirs short- ly before his death in 1986, when the lustre of global terrorism had dimmed and the virile young Panthers and fedayeen were either dead or disillusioned.

Genet's passions are spliced with the authentic writer's detachment.

How far away I was from the Palestinians ... out there among the fedayeen, I was always on the other side of the boundary. I knew I was safe, not because of a Celtic physique or a layer of goose fat, but because of even shinier and stronger armour; I didn't belong to, never really identified with, their nation or their movement.

(`Shinier' seems careless — passages in this book suffer from editorial timidity in the face of silenced genius.)

He was gloomy, too, about his adoption by Palestinians and Panthers as a mascot rebel. What did they see in him if not 'a natural sham'? And what was he to him- self, except the 'dreamer inside a dream ... just one more factor of unreality inside both movements'. One remembers that Genet's path crossed with Norman Mail- er's in Chicago parks controlled by Yippies and pigs during the conflagrational Demo- cratic Convention of 1968. In Miami and the Streets of Chicago, Mailer recalled that Genet, 'large as Mickey Rooney, angelic in appearance,' glanced at him 'with the hauteur it takes French intellectuals at least two decades to acquire'. But Mailer's parallel detachment from the spirited re- volts he embraced never quite reached Genet's final insight: 'just one more factor of unreality ...'.

'I remember like an owl. Memories come back in "bursts of images" ... Writ- ing this book, I see my own image far, far away, dwarf size, and more and more difficult to recognise with age.' The author merges into his own horizon. And he

admitted that Prisoner of Love 'flows too jerkily'. Genet's prose, unlike his drama, has always embraced an anarchic formless- ness. It fires, flares, ebbs, meanders, fires again. Like Caine's, it is not a prose in need of a word processor. But the lack of narrative control displayed throughout Prisoner of Love (in French Un Captif Amoureux) is saddening (like the bathetic title itself.) Palestinians and Panthers weave in and out of his rambling memoir, but the real cultural gap dividing them is obscured by their common denominators — oppression and the erotic affection of a French writer during his years of morbidly unproductive hibernation. He describes a brothel in Amman for the Arabs who were stony broke. Evidently this was a duller place than the upmarket bordello for Chief Justices with spanking tastes depicted in The Balcony. `No sodomy or cocksucking here, only quick reciprocal fucking lying down or standing up. . . only married, patriotic, Swiss mountain love.'

In that final flourish resides, of course, a familiar perversity: the culminating insult must be deflected away from the shanty town and against white Protestants prospering among distant snows. Genet loves his hated scapegoats, particularly if trained in British military academies, like King Hussein and T. E. Lawrence, whom Genet spots blowing up railway lines while making promises that Britain did not keep. But Genet has no sense of Lawrence's love affair with Arabia and the smouldering of a romantic agony akin to his own within the English officer class.

Lawrence, too, may have admired 'dow- ny moustaches like smears of ash', but whatever his Turkish captors did to him was nothing to the torture inflicted on Genet by reports of Israeli commandos, gaily disguised as kissing hippies, killing three PLO leaders he knew personally, before ripping off their wigs and slipping out of Beirut by boat. Genet's transvestite passions are familiar from The Maids and The Balcony, as well as the journals of prison life. But now come Divine and Darling in the service of a cause he respects but detests — and thick fedayeen body- guards fall for it, assuming that the Israelis are 'just shameless, giggling Arab pansies.' Genet concludes that such murder is in debt to the Beaux-Arts and 'deserves a medal or two'. The legend of this event obsesses him into a dead-end diversion on what it might be like to be Jewish. In 1984 he went back to Beirut, after the Israeli invasion and the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila; he found the city sad and unrecognisable. In Chatila camp he spoke to Palestinian women who felt ashamed of having bits of Israeli ammunition inside them. 'They were afraid they might give birth to monsters ...'. The same image may fit this, his last testament.