During the 1940s, French writer Jean Genet penned a series of novels that led his readers through the European underworld of thieves, sex workers and pimps. The writer gives an intimate rendition, as this is the world he inhabited throughout much of his life. In the 30s, he roamed the continent, living as a beggar, thief and hustler. In and out of prison, it was in a cell that he composed his first work.
But while the mainstream society of the time often scorned this realm, Genet shone light upon it, portraying the grace and charm of its protagonists.
In The Thief’s Journal, Genet lives in squalid conditions amongst the beggars of Barcelona’s Barrio Chino. They often sleep six to a bed without any sheets. He recalls that one day Salvador, a companion, says he will now beg for both of them. So as it snows on early winter morns, Salvador steps out into the market place to ask housewives for food. And Jean imagines that as his man does so, his breath is scented with violets.
Divine is a seductive trans woman living in a loft in Montmartre. The central figure in Our Lady of the Flowers, she’s a sex worker who bumps into a drunken pimp, Darling Daintyfoot, late at night on the Parisian streets and romance follows. Although Darling’s a nasty figure, who enjoys selling out acquaintances to the cops, we’re taken by the intimacy that develops between the two.
So today, almost a century on, how could we take Genet’s unique ability to convey beauty, where others cannot perceive it, and illuminate the shadowy regions of the twenty first century?
Well, perhaps we could consider a United States drone hovering above a village in northern Pakistan suspected of harbouring terrorists. There’s nothing elegant in this. It’s just one of the realities of modern warfare that technology has made possible since the time Genet wrote his novels. And it’s devastation that is wrought, as one of the estimated 23,144 bombs the superpower dropped last year careens into the lives of the civilians below.
It’s not hard to believe that as the smoke produced from at least one of these aerial attacks clears, luminosity compels the movements of a man targeted by the White House and, despite the list of atrocities to his name, he fights for the lives of those around him. He revives a small girl, lying beneath the wreckage of her home. And as she comes to, amongst her horror and her pain, she’s keenly aware of the compassion streaming forth from this man, who many thought possessed none.
Or shall we find this beauty on the stretch of ghats – steps leading down to the water – that lie along the banks of the Ganges River in the city of Varanasi. Today, the Ganges is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. As it trails its way down from the Himalayas to find itself in the Bay of Bengal, 300 million litres of human waste flood into it every day. Yet, this is India’s most sacred waterway and Hindus believe bathing in its waters brings purification.
At the far end of Varanasi, you find Assi ghat: one of the more peaceful parts of this hectic city. And just upstream there’s a huge drainpipe that used to be the Assi River. Here the waste of the city pours forth into the Ganges. Yet if you take an early morning stroll down to this ancient meeting of the rivers, you’ll find dozens of devotees washing in the hallowed brown waters. Women in multi-coloured saris of saffron, ochre and indigo, clean their cascading charcoal hair. Men dip beneath the surface reciting devotional mantras through beaming lips. While children jump to and fro on the steps, laughing amid the lapping tide.
This joyous spectacle is played out over and over the length of the city. And in a lucky moment, you just might catch the fin of one of the sadly endangered freshwater dolphins as it dives beneath the river.
And then there’s the photo of the young Palestinian girl brandishing an AK-47 that’s been doing the rounds on the Internet. She stands amongst adult militants in the city of Gaza wearing their garb. Her gestures are strong and defiant, those usually made by a much older person. She was born into a conflict that dates back generations, with no choice but to be a part of it. And the odds are stacked firmly against the side she is on.
Yet despite her aggressive stance, the innocence of her youth shines through. She’s still the charming daughter of her mother. And although she’s carrying a device that gives her the potential to take lives, she doesn’t possess the experience that can foster the will to kill.
Indeed, Jean Genet may have felt some affinity with this image, as he lived in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan in the early 70s. In his last work Prisoner of Love – published posthumously – he gives an account of this time, as well as the occasions he spent with the Black Panthers in the States. And once again, you find he approaches these militant subjects with delicate grace.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and writer, with a passion for travel and a focus on drug law reform, Indigenous issues, gender and asylum seekers.