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Prisoner Of Love (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – 1 Jan 2003
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Jean Genet's last book is a little-known masterpiece from the writer celebrated by Le Matin as 'one of the greatest French prose poets of this century'. Starting in 1970, Genet - petty thief, prostitute, modernist master - spent two years in the Palestinian refugee camps. Always an outcast himself, Genet was drawn to this displaced people and their cause, an attraction that was to prove as complicated as it was deep. Prisoner of Love combines unflinching factual reportage with Genet's trade-mark playful literary style, revealing both his art and his humanity.
About the Author
Jean Genet (1910-1986) was born in Paris. Abandoned by his mother at seven months, he was raised in state institutions and charged with his first crime when he was ten. After spending many of his teenage years in a reformatory, Genet enrolled in the Foreign Legion, though he later deserted, turning to a life of thieving and pimping that resulted in repeated jail terms and, eventually, a sentence of life imprisonment. In prison Genet began to write―poems and prose that combined pornography and an open celebration of criminality with an extraordinary baroque, high literary style―and on the strength of this work found himself acclaimed by such literary luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, whose advocacy secured for him a presidential pardon in 1948. Between 1944 and 1948 Genet wrote four novels, Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, and Querelle, and the scandalizing memoir A Thief's Journal. Throughout the Fifties he devoted himself to theater, writing the boldly experimental and increasingly political plays The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens. After a silence of some twenty years, Genet began his last book, Prisoner of Love, in 1983. It was completed just before he died.
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It follows episodically. Interweaving Genet's prolonged visit to Palestine during the early 1970's with his return trip a decade later and also his involvement with the Black Panther's in the U.S.. I think the jumping to the Panther's is understandable for Genet but initially seems peculiar. However his writing on race in the States is precise and relevant. The book documents a personal search for an archetypal image he experienced during the conflict as well as a record of an almost forgotten period of the Palestinian resistance.
Genet shows through this book, I think conclusively, that the way to love people is not through adopting their cause as your own as many people do today. Rather it is by being with them in solidarity as yourself with integrity, and bearing witness to their struggle. Somehow he captures the nameless emotions of people in revolution in his record of everyday life lived in the presence of death. His love for and of the Palestinians includes being unflinchingly honest but never cruel or partisan.
As he wrote he was approaching his own inevitable death (he never saw the book published) and that lends an intensity. Maybe meant he felt able to finally write about his experiences with full depth of empathy and compassion? Ultimately this is a wise book that never states it's wisdom but shows it page by page. Genet's own revolutionary life found its complement in the Palestinian revolution. It is a profound love story.
I'll be honest: it has been a few years since I read The Prisoner of Love. I decided to write this review after I found that nobody had done so. It is my hope that, should you have decided not to purchase this fine book, that you might, out of curiosity, read this review and change your mind. In which case I would be honoured to have done what little I could in getting more people to read Jean Genet's masterpiece, The Prisoner of Love.
I am not going to go into details, partly because I am not literate enough to do justice to the book and also because I want you to read the book like I did: with very little knowledge beforehand and experience it as completely as you can. Therefore know that The Prisoner of Love recounts a period of Jean Genet's life that he spent in the Palestinian refugee camps in the early seventies. Know that it is a masterly account of the various threads that converged at that moment in history amongst those displaced people. At it's heart is a romanticism that is aching in its sincerity. Genet is a poet and it shows with every word in this book. It flows and evokes feelings without ever being manipulative. I bought this book because I had read a review extolling it's virtues. I started the first chapter thinking it would be a political book, that it might be a chore to read, I finished the first sentence and I was no longer thinking those things. I finished the book and I had that feeling - you know that feeling? The feeling that you have that you had a great time, a great experience and it was deeply personal, and it was over and you wished that it wasn't but that you knew had to end because nothing in this world can last forever, and there's regret and a deep sadness and you move on, grateful for the memories? Something like that, something more like that is how I felt at the end.
I cannot tell you enough good things about this book. I cannot make you read it. But if you do read it, then maybe, just maybe, you too might be The Prisoner of Love.
However, because these thoughts are not organized, you feel the book is not focused. It takes you from one place to another and from a specific time to another, but not smoothly. Another point is that the language of the book/or the Arabic translation of it is not that good. There are too many mistakes in the book, but still, this does not take away the beauty of it.
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When evaluating Prisoner of Love, it's important to remember that Genet is a writer. Throughout his work, Genet tells us how difficult it is to recount his experiences since he's not sure at times what he's seeing, and he must make his writing conform to the necessities of craft. And whatever writing craft decisions Jean made it is clear that the Palestinians "wrote" him as well; Jean was seldom in control of his experience. As I read, I realized that Genet is the ultimate refugee; he seeks to be with people who are like him. My conclusion is this: Palestine chose him.
Only Genet could have written this book. He is a bruised romantic searching for a resting place that will caress both his homeless intellect and his orphaned body: "A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a corn-flower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand--all the millions of emotions of which I'm made--they won't disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they'll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation" (361). As an orphan with prison experience, and disaffected from France, Genet was willing to try on other peoples' lives; I suspect that without the structure dictated by the craft of writing, and his talent coming to the attention of well-known writers, Genet would have disappeared into the French prison system.
Another conclusion I came to: Genet shows us the difference between terrorism and Arab nationalism. Is there any hope that the U.S., of which I am a native-born citizen, will ever figure out this difference?
Overwhelmingly, the single image I have of Prisoner of Love is that to read it is to travel the land that dwelled *in* Jean Genet, this traveler who was intelligent enough to let his emotions guide him. And only by reading can I share in living a life which speaks so eloquently of rebellion and blood, of life and death.
Genet was allowed with special permission to visit the massacre site at the camps at Sabra and Chantila,smelling the rotting flesh, "They happened I was affected by them. I talked about them. But while the act of writing came later, after a period of incubation,nevertheless in a moment like that or those when a single cell departs from its usual metabolism and the original link is created of a future,unsuspected cancer,or a piece of lace, so I decided to write this book."
Genet has an intense need for passion of any dimension,scouring the vigours of whatever parts of fragments of the lifeworld's complexity presents itself to him. I once thought of this book as a romantic means of portrayel a betrayel of a political situation,one, the only one that excited Genet.It means something that only encounterings lives in struggle,bent into a repressive state that Genet finds the only life worth encountering,sensing and feeling about. This book was completed in 1986 after suffering from throat cancer, he died on the night of 14-15th of April,1986,while correcting proofs.