Charlotte Grimshaw writes about the forces behind her new novel: “Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un. The posturing. The bizarre hairstyles, the violence and cruelty. The narcissism…”
May 2016, London
We were staying in a small flat with a roof terrace. I typed sitting outside at a picnic table.
I’d written pieces about Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, whose books I admired, and on novelists’ abandonment of plot in favour of “selfie fiction”. I’d been consulting a psychotherapist, and it had been a revelation. Was this the moment to launch into some autobiographical writing of my own?
But my mind kept turning to the time – “the Time.” That “President Trump” was even a possibility seemed to require a focus outwards, towards the disaster. Time to forget the self and embrace the representative. I’d had the sense anyway that the “cutting edge” of autobiographical fiction, taken to extremes (everything I do has meaning) could lead the writer into a place where the sun don’t shine. Paralysing solipsism.
There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth – Doris Lessing.
Wanting to write about “the Time”, I invented a family subtly ruled by narcissists, whose false narrative preserved the status quo. In this group, you were either an acolyte or you were fired. To live in this way meant that “you”, your true self, wasn’t permitted to exist.
My novel Mazarine, I realised, was all about fake news. About not being allowed to be “selfie”. About false narrative. Loss of the self. The fragmented self. Authoritarian rule.
The Time: war, exodus, terrorism, riots. Europe awash with refugees. We were sitting at an outside café table when an army truck drew up. Soldiers climbed out, conferring briefly. An American said into his phone, “Donna, don’t go. Not today.”
The day before, I’d bumped into a soldier, a tall youth with a tough, impassive face, his hair cut in the Hitler Youth style that reflected the Zeitgeist, the rise of far right groups, xenophobia. I recoiled, raising my hands (don’t shoot!) and he stepped back, making a slight gesture with his gun: after you.
He had words tattooed on his trigger finger, which I couldn’t read.
After the terror attacks, the government had declared a state of emergency, and in Paris all sensitive areas were guarded by the soldiers of Operation Sentinelle.
We were walking by the river when sirens started and police vehicles began to stream past. By the time we’d caught up, another violent protest against labour laws was underway. The riot police, being French, looked stylish in their gear, a fascist-chic ensemble of Robocop body armour, high boots, shields.
Away from the rioting, in Boulevard Voltaire, the Bataclan Theatre was boarded up, the pavement piled with tributes. Terrorists slaughtered 90 people here, during an Eagles of Death Metal concert. In the alley, where people had escaped from windows, bullets had gouged holes in the walls, each circled with chalk and numbered as forensic evidence.
That night, after drinking too much wine, we ended up in a nightclub where cigars were offered for 60 euros and the clientele were mostly Russian, and the smoking area was an indoor garden where even the walls and ceiling were covered with plastic plants and flowers. In the bar, a spotlight revealed a woman wearing a bikini made of white sequins and feathers. She began to dance, twirling and flipping the white fans in her hands. Her expression was rapt, mesmerised. The Russian men looked on, narrow-eyed.
Trump was playing everywhere, in airport lounges, in hotel lobbies. I took to predicting his win. I kept saying it, “President Trump. President Trump.” This was crazy talk, because Hillary could not lose.
An attic hotel room with a giant wheel in the ceiling, part of the mechanism by which goods were once cranked up the outside of the building from the canal.
In the hotel lobby, historic audio of Trump musing about his daughter’s “voluptuous” figure. “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her!”
Narrow cobbled streets, the smell of dope, the red light district, diminished since its pre-internet days, but still displaying real women on sale in lit windows. Behind the dusty glass, a girl in a bikini sat scratching her elbow and gazing at the dull canal. Raw skin, hugely augmented breasts, dead eyes.
Shops with racks of sex toys: dildos, whips, leather, masks. An faded old poster advertising DVDs: Bad Date, Babysitter, Anal Incest, Daddy.
I walked in the Dam Square, past the Krasnapolsky Hotel. A man was telling me about one of the people running in the US election. This person, the man told me, has a secret health problem. If anyone found out and wanted to kill this candidate, they could do so easily, without even getting close. If anyone found out and wanted to use blackmail, they could…
How did he know this, I asked? He told me. It was a plausible explanation. He asked, did I believe him? I said, sure, why not. Why not?
In the hotel I wrote it all down, then on second thoughts, deleted it.
On the train from Amsterdam to London via Belgium. Soldiers patrolling, army trucks in the square. In Brussels is the district of Molenbeek, where the Bataclan terror attackers came from: a Muslim enclave, a centre of jihadism, a “hotbed”.
There’s a golden Ferrari parked outside the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. In the lobby, Arab children hang out with a certain louche ease. They play on their phones and climb over the furniture and squabble.
Nearby is the Millennium Hotel where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned, his cup of tea laced with polonium. Anyone who’s read the accounts would surely avoid staying there. The Russian assassins tipped radioactive material down a sink, contaminating the plumbing. The hotel is right across the square from the US Embassy, in which there’s supposedly a CIA station. So was it a deliberate fuck you to poison him there?
That night, Trump on Hillary’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you’ll probably be rewarded mightily by our press!”
January 2017, Buenos Aires
The hotel in Buenos Aires has a large iron gate manned by staff, to keep out muggers and thieves. In the rubbish-strewn street outside there’s poverty, toughness. It’s a harsh city. Driving in on the highway, past the slums and shanty towns and ramshackle buildings, the sense of Europe’s orderliness left behind. The city rises out of the flat plain; the lack of hills is oddly claustrophobic.
Buenos Aires is often described as “vibrant”. It is, in a way, but there’s something cruel and melancholy in the air. Perhaps it’s the memory of authoritarian rule.
I am struck by the number, size and quality of the city’s bookshops. I don’t know whether to be depressed or heartened by the comparison with home. At least books are still valued somewhere.
In the Avenue Manuel Quintana, outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, a woman stumbled and fell. Immediately we were there, pulling her up. She looked at us with fear then relief as we picked up her shopping. I handed her the bag. “Don’t forget this,” I said.
A young Russian couple enter the hotel breakfast room. The woman is blonde and glamorous and wearing shorts that outrageously showcase her buttocks. As she and her companion murmur over the hot plates, all eyes are on her bare bum. The men stare, unsmiling, but the women, young and old, do a double take and laugh. I do too. I wonder about this. Do we women laugh because it’s comical, or out of some atavistic uneasiness?
In the hotel room, I read the Steele dossier on Buzzfeed. The kompromat on President Trump. When I get to the part about Trump asking prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow, I remember how, during a debate with Hillary Clinton, he made comments about her bathroom break. “It’s disgusting,” he said, grinning weirdly. Perhaps it was just the misogynistic dog-whistle. But it fits. Most men would be neutral on the subject. This is a guy who has a thing about peeing. It’s “disgusting” if Hillary does it. But a young woman…
Republican election pins: DON’T BE A PUSSY. TRUMP THAT BITCH. LIFE’S A BITCH, DON’T VOTE FOR ONE. KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS, LEFT WING. TRUMP: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS.
When Trump won, I told an elderly member of my family I thought misogyny had played a part. He denied it. “Hillary wasn’t charming,” he said. When I argued he got angry and told me, “Get fucked.”
January, Punta del Este, Uruguay
On the way to Uruguay, a storm blows up and there’s talk of a diversion to Montevideo. The tiny plane shudders its way down through the clouds, landing at Punta del Este.
The taxi driver says one of the Trump sons is in town, checking on construction. “Lots of rich people, British love it here, royal families, rich Russians.” He points out the many private jets parked up, among them a striking sleek black one.
Along the coastal strip: mansions, sand dunes, the vast expanse of the Rio de la Plata. The Trump Tower is being built on the waterfront, not far from a hotel that’s fallen into ruin, derelict.
In the lobby, young staff are watching footage of Trump on TV. When I ask, they reply with uninhibited contempt. “Jerk. That fuck. Asshole.”
May, New York
In glitzy Trump Tower, near the classy steak restaurant (plush booths, faux antiques) there’s gilded merchandise that celebrates the greatness of the man and his brand.
I select choice Trump deodorants for my sons, one called Empire, the other Success.
May, Washington DC
I read that the hotel in Georgetown was once a giant municipal incinerator. After that I can’t relax. A waiter talks about his family: “I came here as a kid. My daughter works crazy hours for the FBI. I have to look after her dogs.” He hates Trump.
On Memorial Day, fighter jets roar in formation over Miami; perhaps they’ll do a loop over Mar-a-Lago. The Commander-in-Chief loves a spectacle. That night on the teeming streets of South Beach, hardly anyone is white. We stroll among the glamorous, young African-American crowd, feeling middle-aged and benign, unbothered.
Outside a gay bar I watch a performer in makeup and a ball gown take up a mike and humiliate the only woman among the men at the tables. She starts out loving it, high-fiving. Gradually her smile fades as the jokes darken and he unleashes it on her: hate, contempt.
July, Dubai – London
On an Emirates flight, we hit a massive storm. It was night, most people were asleep and I talked to an English barrister. His wife worked for a London law firm whose clients were Russian oligarchs. They’d acted for Berezovsky in his lawsuit against Roman Abramovich before they’d had to pull out of the case. He explained why they’d pulled out, something to do with someone’s girlfriend, possibly Berezovsky’s – but the turbulence intensified, a series of lurching impacts, as though we were in a speed boat hitting high waves, and I couldn’t follow the thread. When I started to focus again he was saying that Berezovsky had lost the case and then killed himself.
“Or was Berezovsky murdered?” I said. “By another oligarch perhaps?”
“No, Putin doesn’t allow the oligarchs to kill each other. Only Putin can do that.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Have you read Wolf Hall? Putin’s like Henry VIII.”
He said that Putin had ordered the murder of Litvinenko, of course. It was funny, he said, at one stage Litvinenko’s assassins had travelled on a BA plane from Moscow to London and had left a trail of polonium on board that authorities found months after the murder.
CNN footage of weird, repressive, authoritarian men: Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un. The posturing. The bizarre hairstyles, the violence and cruelty. The narcissism.
I browse through an old paperback: People of the Lie by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. I skate over his Christianity, but he has an interesting idea. Writing about the My Lai massacre, he calls nationalism collective narcissism. He draws a line of narcissism, from lack of empathy in families (with hair-raising examples of covert parental cruelty) all the way to atrocity on a grand scale.
At Northwick Park NHS Hospital, I sat beside a friend who’d undergone a minor procedure. The nurse was rude and I grumbled, but my friend stopped me. “She’s been incredibly kind. She has 50 patients and she’s been on shift for 14 hours.” The hospital building was so ugly, squalid and run-down that I’d kept exclaiming in consternation.
From our Uber, driving home on the Westway, we took in the horrifying black ruin of the Grenfell Tower.
In the birthplace of democracy an anarchist group had rampaged through the shopping area in the night, smashing windows. Broken glass was strewn across pavements. I found footage: masked figures running, armed with sledgehammers and crowbars.
Iceland is richly green in the summer. Here you can walk in the rift between two tectonic plates, and find the site of the first parliament ever established.
Walking through Reykjavik, up into the residential streets, past the embassies, I succumbed to a coughing fit so serious I thought I would choke.
I stayed in my room for a day, writing Mazarine.
The whole year, I’d thought about the family I grew up in, trying to define my true self. Writing plot-driven fiction, I was reaching for the universal; I wanted to mirror “the Time”. A “global” experience: ruled by a narcissist, gas-lighted when we protested, bamboozled by false narrative and confused by fake news.
If “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” then fiction could trump real lies. All this time travelling, I was following the line of my story. The further away I went, I hoped, the closer I was getting to home.
Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $38) is available at Unity Books.
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