Another Country by James Baldwin

Another Country tells the stories of individuals entangled in an artist circle, striving to love and be loved amid the searing climate of racial and sexual complexities. Set in New York in the 1950s, with the civil rights movements all the while simmering under the surface, Baldwin recounts stories of another country, in its multifaceted dimensions of Eric’s return to the US from France, the alienating experiences of African Americans, and perhaps another world, a utopia, which is impossible to realise. These individuals, who by and large are successful and recognised in their respective fields, are all riddled with the core human affliction: what it means to know and accept oneself. In their ultimate pursuits for happiness and acceptance of self, each character’s disillusionment acts as a painful reminder of the reality of what it means to live in a society which denies one of self-fulfilment.

The search for love is central to all characters, and yet no one seems to be able to obtain it fully or for very long. Baldwin provides us principally with three different instances of love in homosexual, interracial, and extramatrial relationships. Ida and Vivaldo’s relationship, as well as Rufus and Leona’s serve as a microcosm for the interracial relationships, exemplifying the struggles for love amidst the racial tensions, whilst Eric’s ouvert bisexuality, set in opposition with Rufus and Vivaldo’s masked attraction to both sexes, grapples with sexual orientation. Baldwin crucially incorporates another layer to this complex journey of attaining mature love with the unhappy marriage of Cass and Richard. The fact that they are white, heterosexual Americans reveals how it is not intrinsically the interracial/ homosexual relationships themselves that impede the characters’ happiness, but that even in a conventional, ‘acceptable’ relationship, dissatisfaction chisels away at the individuals’ sense of self-worth. By the end of the novel we are left with an acute mourning for love which could not flourish in a society that places so many restrictions upon it.

It is not only through love that a lack of self-fulfilment is unbosomed, but this vague, overlooming abstraction of the American Dream which lingers heavily above the characters serves as a lens through which Baldwin explores how blacks, gays and, immigrants fit into its schema. It is fundamentally through the characters’ attempts to obtain it, Baldwin exposes its bathethic nature: it is not attainable for all, but rather the inherent hierarchical structure of society dictates the abiding conditions for inclusion.

In a Cambridge University debate (1965), Baldwin criticised the deformity of American society stating that “It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. And until that moment, until the moment comes when we the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors are both white and black, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.” It is precisely with this underlying sentiment of defiance, anger, and sorrow saturating the narrative that Baldwin refuses to bear the American dream into fruition, as long as all but one of his characters are denied participation. It is because America cannot accept a large minority of its population that Baldwin shows how it fails to accept itself. The intentionally uncomfortable ambience that Baldwin creates, stitched with indignation and suffering, is so firmly tightened around us that when we abruptly reach the end of the book, we find that even the joyful and happy moments were plagued with a lurking sense of destruction.

The description of Rufus and Leona’s first sexual encounter has a sorrel flavour, with the violent undertones tarnishing their consummation, and even when violence is absent in Ida and Vivaldo’s first encounter, the two are just as distant and  lonely. Immediately after they first make love, the narrator ominously declares how Ida’s face will be more mysterious than a stranger’s: “Strangers’ faces hold no secrets because the imagination does not invest them with any. But the face of a lover is an unknown precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself.” The bond between the lovers therefore quickly manifests into something beyond sexual desire, into the desire to truly know the other, a desire which as we come to realise, can never be satisfied.  Even Yves, perhaps the only real symbol of hope as an outsider of this ruined inner circle and a wishful newcomer to US, is tainted by the same brush, as he realises: His seat-mate…had been very friendly during the journey and had even asked Yves to come and see him, if he ever came to Montana; but now Yves realised that he had not been given any address, and that he knew only the man’s first name, which was Peter. And it was only too clear that he could not ask for any information now. Nearly everyone on the plane knew– for he had been very high-spirited and talkative –that he was French, and coming to the States for the first time…This had all seemed perfectly all right while they were in the middle of the air. But now, on the ground, and in the light, hard and American soil, of sober second thought, it all seemed rather suspect…He watched them fill the aisles, and he moved backward from them, into his familiar loneliness and contempt. ‘Good luck,’ said his seat-mate quickly, and took his place in the line; he would probably have said the same words, as quickly, and in the same tone of voice, to a friend about to be carried off to prison.”

If you’re reading Baldwin for the first time, I would recommend Another Country as one to start with, as this book unites his two distinct selves. It is in this book that Baldwin brings together the seemingly religious, underbelly world of Go Tell It on the Mountain, with the venal dimension of Giovanni’s Room through both novels’ preoccupation with flesh and morality. 

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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