contemporary challenges



Considerations on some current narratives

China Miéville – political activist, academic and author of science fiction novels – wrote in 2004 the short story “It's the season” (“This is the season”), originally published in Socialist Review, in the Portuguese translation “Um conto de Natal”,[I] a political dystopia set in central London on Christmas Day. The story's narrator walks through the streets, in agony and perplexity when faced with large demonstrations in the city that day, just when he had just won, somewhat by chance, a "cool little prize" that gave him the right to participate in a legalized Christmas party, promoted by the main parent company of the celebrations, NatividadeCo.

And, to top it off, the famous multinational toy store Hamleys on Regent Street. “Most extraordinary thing,” he exclaims. And if everything doesn't go exactly as he had imagined, the "plot" of the story, which revolves around itself, ends with a (let's say) moving and redeeming "Christmas miracle" that, in the end, allows the narrator the welcome opportunity of a “surprising revelation” about himself (“I realized how different I felt now than that morning”).

The fact is that Christmas festivities, with the invaluable contribution of the public power police apparatus, are privatized: from “reindeer and snowmen” to the right to use colored paper, sing Christmas carols, assemble and place presents under the Christmas tree. Christmas, eating pudding and slices of turkey, giving a celebratory greeting by raising your eyebrows "without saying anything illegal." Even if illegality runs rampant in the bus drivers' tricks and the authorities take off their cones, circumventing the so-called legal prohibitions. So, for someone (like the narrator) who doesn't have financial conditions, he doesn't want “a poor man's Christmas” with his daughter (“if you can't have everything, what's the point?”) or take advantage of companies that sell Second-hand products replacing the “privatized classics” (“I will never forget the failure of the public's reaction to JingleMas' Christmas Gecko”), the celebration at Hamleys promises a lot.

The story’s spatial references are recognizable – the streets of London, the toy store – as are the varied political positions of the groups the narrator encounters in the noisy crowd of a demonstration that claims, in principle, something of a general nature. : the freedom to celebrate Christmas without private interference. One of the banners, “Muslims for Christmas”, goes so far as to suggest its worldwide reach. But what does the story really show about a non-event, when indignation explodes in the streets, but only the verbiage is what is supposed to be a fight?

Certainly the reader of this brief summary already knows that he is facing a satirical and farcical narrative. The short story could be combined with the novel The City & The City, from 2009, by the same China Miéville, which mixes science fiction and detective fiction, as in them the formally mediated fictional imagination reveals an inauspicious social and political relationship between a present and a future of indeterminate dates.

As is known, the topic of literary genres has historically accompanied the ideals of modern improvements and cultural progress, carrying hegemonies and class prejudices in each time and place. In these narratives by China Miéville, however, focused on the critical examination of contemporary matter (itself “a kind of fiction”),[ii] the choice of genre as material has another aspect, as a mediation between subjects (experience and matter) and historical contents (themes and literary forms), to use the Adornian notion of material as part of the subject. In the case that interests us here, the subject of the short story has epic potential – the taking over of public space by demonstrations by political groups in central London, where claims of all kinds pop up, but it is not by chance that it is treated as a farce, without lose that potential. This is because, despite bordering on caricature, the subject evokes precisely its opposite, that is, what the situation is not. Is the horizon here that of a “not-yet-possible”, a category with which Miéville works in his essays on science fiction? [iii]

The narrator could be considered the only character in the short story, as long as one takes into account that, in its construction, there is no interest in the constitution of a subjectivity nor in relationships that would reveal the contradictions of a historical process – in this narrative, a splendid anomie of divergences without actual conflicts. In other words, a bewilderment whose outcome – this one – is deliberately caricatured. The narrator constructed by the authorial strategy as a resource that gives form to the material, quickly introduced, by himself, as naive with his ex-wife, naive in relation to his daughter, assiduous on social networks, excited about the Christmas celebration, is in charge of commenting and describe the scenes he saw and the situations he experienced, always stunned by what was happening. It is not a question of establishing a moral judgment, but of configuring an experience of generalized disagreements, relying on the narrator's own willingness to lead his little life within the legality and with the ironic reparation of a “Christmas miracle” at the end.

It is also possible to say that both the reader alluded to in the text itself and the reader who, outside of it, fulfills his role in a comfortable armchair are, both, an objective presupposition of the matter. The reader is summoned by the narrator as part of what is exposed and implied in some way (which is up to him to decide) in his progress. What is most evident, the narrative builds the reader (by the yes and by the no) to the extent of the narrator, who seems to either not know with whom he is dealing, or to believe that there is no one who does not share the same situation with him (and the same mode), thus oscillating between allusive and direct tone. “Call me childish, but I love all this nonsense, the snow, the trees, the decorations, the turkey. I love gifts. I love Christmas carols and cheesy music. I just love Christmas.” Or else: “Don't get me wrong. I don't have shares in NatividadeCo, and I don't have the conditions to pay for a user license for one day, so I couldn't have a legal party”. And in a direct tone (“You know how this kind of thing is”), he addresses someone who can well recognize what it means to win a “nice little prize”, to participate in a Christmas party at Hamleys, to juggle the risks of illegalities, being always under threat of the heavy fines imposed on those who infringe crimes typified as “Grave Subarboreal Gifting”. Even if the inspectors, who “are not so bad”, sometimes turn a “blind eye”.

It seems (or is it) impossible to elaborate a productive paraphrase that is entirely detached from the narrator's lines. How to comment them without reproducing them? How to reproduce and comment on them? If so, the critical estrangement that the story provokes in the reader is embedded, as a challenge, in the very form of a narrative in which the ideas (including those of the narrator) pile up next to each other and behave in a state of merchandise, taking to the drain the links – debts or criticisms – with the social process that shapes and confirms them. [iv] Miéville bets that all this can instigate, in the reader, an elaboration of the experience and a “reflective scrutiny” on the ruinous constructions of the present (objective and subjective) as a problem: that of his busy inertia. [v] Resuming some passages of the tale will give a more vivid picture of how an already frozen imagination is undone.

Exchanging garlic for bugs when seeing his daughter's excitement on the internet ("as far as I could follow"), very curious about the present she will give him, happy for the winning ticket and for staying within the permitted legality, the narrator runs through the streets of London dreading missing the party (“I suddenly realized we were going to be late. That was a shock”). Arriving on Oxford Street, he is impressed by the crowd (“all with that secret expression of happiness. I couldn't help but smile, too”) until he realizes that they are rising up against the “legal” control of the Christmas celebrations. Squeezed in the crowd, he is alarmed by a fantasy (“I could tell just by looking that he [the one in costume] didn’t have a license”), he is startled by the singing of “illegal songs” by the “radical Christmas people” that he had not heard for a long time (“ Are you crazy?”), runs in a panic after his daughter (“Things were getting too Bolshevik. It was turning into a Christmas riot”), walks indicating that the weight of time is concentrated on the limits of his own anxiety (“It took centuries to open path, anxious, through manifestation"). But he recognizes: “not that they [the protesters] didn't have good intentions, but that wasn't the way to get things done. The police were going to be there at any moment (…) Even so, it had to be admitted that his creativity was admirable”. People broke the windows, but – and he admires the gesture – to replace the products for sale with those that were prohibited.

Not understanding the profusion of posters (“Where did all those flags come from?”), nor the slogans (“they floated over my head like the wreckage of a ship”), he lists them. “For peace, socialism and Christmas”; “hands off our holiday season”; ''privatize this''; “Christmas Labor Friends”. the “Institute of Living Marxist Ideas. Why We Are Not Marching” reevaluates the left-right opposition (“We see with disdain the pathetic attempts of the old Left to revive this Christian ceremony”), calls for openness to “dynamic forces to reinvigorate society”, proposes a cycle of conferences against the boredom of strikes and states that “fox hunting is our basic little black dress” (“The text seemed to me without foot or head. I threw it away”). The narrator also passes Christians carrying crosses; by “poorly dressed people” handing out pamphlets and a photo of Marx with a Santa Claus hat, singing “and badly” an “I dream of a red Christmas”; by the “radical feminist Christmas girls” sNOwMEN (“I recognized it from the news”); by the representative of “Santa's Little Helpers” summoning those measuring up to 1.55m to break-break; by the Red & White Blocs already rehearsing the break (“Damned 'strategy' of fucking tension. Bunch of anarchist adventurers”, says the daughter; “half of them are police agents (…) The one who wants more violence is the police”, says a boy ) and against which the Nativity Squadron tries to hit with its “sticks on shields adorned with garlands”. A “combat helicopter” threatens to arrest anyone who violates the Natal Code law, and so on. Along the way, there were the Hamleys and the party, with “horrified faces at the windows” (“I should be up there, I thought. With you”).

At one point he hears a man in white singing (“I had never seen anyone so beautiful. He sang a single note, with a purity that was not of this world”), joined by companions from the “Radical Cantor Party of the Gay Men,” all praising the birth of the Savior (“There was a relentless authority in these incredible figures who had appeared out of nowhere, these tall, handsome, and so young men”). The police put down their batons, smiling and crying, remove their headphones and get rid of the “frantic screams” of their chiefs (“I could hear the screams”). Someone from the Party speaks to those already calm Red&White blocks about the exact time of the confrontation and, confessing pride in “fighting for the People's Christmas!”, the Party invests together with the crowd against the police, who flee – a sarcastic irony of the authorial strategy. A “Christmas miracle”, says the daughter, who has always been aware of the movement and beside her friend with the “Muslims for Christmas” poster, a very particular retribution to all “these people” for their help against the privatization of Eid (Muslim celebration of Christmas). end of the Ramadan fast).

"I was gaping, my head going from one to the other, like an imbecile watching a tennis match." At Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s house does display a Christmas Tree protected by the Army, and the narrator approvingly observes that, for this reason, “people made a point of ensuring that the boos were good-natured”, but already daring yelling at them “this is what Christmas is all about”! Deeming the party lost, he and his daughter sing along with a group of “red bandanas” (“It's been a while since I asked/But my Santa Claus isn't coming/ He's certainly dead/ And the Internationale/It's all that people have”). At the end of it all, the dazzle with oneself confirms the general cacophony of that misfit political energy that spins in falsehood (a negative epic totality, in a short story?). “I thought about everything that had happened that day. Everything I had been through and seen and integrated. I realized how different I felt now than I had that morning. It was a surprising reaction ”, he confesses, before hesitating, happy again, about what his daughter's gift would be – after all, a tie. "You guessed? Shit".

The reader of the short story might well think about the conditions of possibility of the invention of a policy – ​​but which policy exactly? – in the contemporary world.[vi] Did that come to it? And what could come of it? It is not too much to say that "A Christmas Carol" rekindles interest in the ways in which fictional narratives have been able (or not) to respond to the trap armed with the dissociation between the public sphere and reflection and the objective horror of the supposed civilized normality in which we're all in it.[vii]

In the aforementioned essay, China Miéville points out that the modalities of the fantastic, not always well understood by “a certain elitism of the left” (also unwell with the unpredictable paths of dreams), are a “good resource to help thinking” or are, even , “necessary ways to think about the world” (to which he adds: “and to transform it”), highlighting the “attitude of the text itself towards the type of estrangement being performed”. What do these narratives say, what do they make you think?

Contrary to this tale, and which for that very reason can also make one think, a good example is the recent historical novel by Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen, Everyone knows your mother is a witch (2021), the subject of an article by Ryan Ruby, “Back to present” (2021).[viii] In an interview, the writer affirms her desire to escape the pandemic present, her country and the century itself, confirming the indirect references in the novel to her disgust with the figure of Trump and support for the struggles of the movement Me too. The past of the historical novel is the 1615th century, between 1620 and XNUMX, when the mother of the astronomer, astrologer and scientist Johannes Kepler was accused of witchcraft in the German city of Leonberg; the future is heralded by science fiction Somnium, included at the end of the novel, written by Kepler himself and published in 1634, understood by Galchen as a “prophecy” (in somnium life on the moon, narrated by a demon summoned by the character's witch mother, an apprentice scientist, has absurd temperatures and is populated by strange figures).

Everyone knows your mother is a witch highlights the condition of Mrs. Kepler as a woman, widow, elderly, peasant, illiterate, in addition to being stigmatized and excluded from the community in which she lived. And thus justifies the option of privileging a certain dramatic convention in order to give the character the role of “the truest witness”. The postmodern trend strategy that transplants identity issues from the present to the past is one of the formal traits that result in low density of issues proposed by the narrative. Ryan Ruby identifies there the central paradox of the contemporary historical novel (at least in English-speaking culture, he supposes): the “moral imperative” to give voice to the socially marginalized (let them “speak of, for and for themselves”) and acute skepticism towards the language's ability to represent them, in an impasse that would explain the upward trend in memoir prose and self-fiction. Another issue would be the way science fiction is present in the historical novel. According to Ryan Ruby, a choice “to travel back in time” as “comfortable nostalgia and longing for what we lost with progress” (loss found in the present time). That is: “Galden allowed readers to escape into a world in which, despite all its disadvantages, people could say they believed in and hoped for the future. The problem, of course, is that what the future produces is us.”

In the end, somnium it is sold at the fair in Frankfurt by the widow of Johannes Kepler alongside a manuscript that recounts his mother's accusation and trial, by his main interlocutor in the novel. Although the manuscript deals with a “terrible and dramatic gift”, it does not attract any buying interest from its contemporaries. The episode therefore reaffirms the terms of a melancholic and complaining evaluation of the authorial voice in relation to the present time and, if it is possible to say so, the comfort of a “nostalgic present” even implies an absence of the present as an object of reflection. At the limit, a withdrawal, despite the author's feminist militancy and her political position? One ouktops as a refusal to unearth the objective horror of the present? [ix]

The question remains: how to treat the present, go back to the past or imagine the future in every corner of the world, how to respond to the progress of the general catastrophe “imminent or consummated” of technological war, domination of spaces, power of economic interests, terror and barbarism under the cloak of legality? For Franco Moretti, the new configuration of power “in the invasion of new spheres of life or even in their creation, as in the parallel universe of finance”, inaugurated in the “heroic age” of 1830, exposed to the light, with the barricades of 1848, the antagonistic society of social class hatred, with results in the very configuration of literary realism. [X] In a comparison by Perry Anderson between War and peace (written between 1863 and 1867) and Khadji-Murat (supposedly written between 1896 and 1904) by Tolstoy, the construction of a political space in a “tragic collision of non-synchronic worlds” in Khadi-Murat would have resulted in a “narrative as modern as the carnage of Chechnya today”.[xi] It is that while the “historical” realism of War and peace, despite its literary qualities, is based on a melodramatic, caricatured and ideological construction of historical figures, which is seen in Khadji-Murat [xii] is “impassive and laconic tension, already close to Babel or Hemingway”, in a prose that captures the “contrast between the worlds of Russian imperialism, spiraling from military camps on the border to headquarters in Tiflis, until reaching the emperor himself in Petersburg, and – on the other side – the clan and religious resistance of the Chechens and Avars, with its own internal divisions”.

Trying to account for that allusion – “a narrative as modern as the carnage of Chechnya today” – implying a representation of conflicts with a strong sense of history, it makes us think once again about the possible configuration of experience in current narratives. What Tolstoy's novel leaves implicit for the reader of today are perhaps precisely the knots of a long seam in time: the events of the 1850s, the bloody process of Russian colonial annexation of more than two centuries, the exploitation of wells and oil refineries in the Caspian Sea basin in 1876, the post-Cold War reconfiguration of geopolitical strategic interests, NATO's proposal for global military solidarity in 2001 (reinforcing the war machine of our horizon). I remember that Perry Anderson's text is from 2004.

“It's just that, so to speak, a historical time that is in fact outdated returns to the active restructuring the contemporary field with such vigor as to contradict the most deeply rooted convictions about history as a continuum intelligible in its cumulative process. Would it then be a case of going out in search of the constellation that our own time would be forming with a historical knot not untied in other times of a long wave in the annals of social domination? provocatively asks Paulo Arantes in 2011.[xiii] With the words of the reader of “Um conto de Natal”, written in 2004, to start a conversation about the “season” that we are given to live (“Tis the Season” is its original title). What do we do and what do we think about (or not) as we immerse ourselves in it, body and soul, strangely confident or integrated, frustrated, nostalgic or critical, less or more awkwardly perplexed?

*Salete de Almeida Cara is a senior professor in the area of ​​Comparative Studies of Literatures in the Portuguese Language (FFLCH-USP). She is the author, among other books, of Marx, Zola and Realist Prose (Editorial Studio).


[I] The short story was translated by Fábio Fernandez for the “Ilustríssima” section of the Folha de São Paulo in 2014 and republished by Boitempo Editorial in 2018.

[ii] The expression is by Terry Eagleton, in a text about mimesis, by Erich Auerbach. “Postmodernism takes off when we come to realize that reality itself is now a kind of fiction, a matter of image, virtual wealth, fabricated personalities, media-driven events, political spetaculars and the spin-doctors as artists. Instead of art reflecting life, life has aligned itself with art.” Cf.Pork Chops and Pineapples", In London Review of Books, volume 25, number 20, October 2003,

[iii] China Miéville states that both the best fantasies “as a genre”, and the “fantasy that permeates the apparently non-fantastic culture” are related, in their own way, to the “'absurdity' of capitalist modernity” and to the forms of the “peculiar nature of reality”. of modern social and subjectivity”, and that in the fictional construction of a “real” as “an internally coherent but effectively impossible totality – for the narrative in question, true”, “the not-yet-possible is embedded in everyday life and makes the mundane and the real fruitful with fantastic potential” (without the reference to everyday life being mandatory in science fiction). Cf. “Editorial Introduction”, in Historical Materialism Magazine, dossier Marxism and Fantasy, v. 10. n. 4, 2002, translated in shortened version by Kim Doria (“Marxism and Fantasy”) in Left Bank Magazine number 23, Boitempo Editorial.

[iv] “Under capitalism, everyday social relations – the 'ghostly form' – are the dreams, the ideas (or the 'worms'), of the narratives that reign.” Cf. China Miéville, “Marxism and fantasy”, ob.cit., p. 109.

[v] When dealing with the relationship between Kafka and the reader, Günther Anders observes: “if for the reader, however, it is not clear from where and to what degree of attachment he is requested – whether he must be entertained, informed, impelled to dream, frightened, morally edified or scandalized – it disturbs him deeply.” Cf. Gunther Anders, Kafka: Pro and Con, São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1969, p. 13. See Theodor Adorno, “The Narrator's Position in the Contemporary Novel”, in Literature Notes I, Jorge de Almeida translation. São Paulo: Duas Cidades/Editora 34, 2003, p. 61- 63.

[vi] A good indication of reading is the book by Kristin Ross, L"imaginaire de la Commune, translated from English by Étienne Dobenesque, Paris: La Fabrique Éditions, 2015. And by Paulo Arantes, 2014 essay, “After June peace will be total”, in The new time of the world, ob. cit., pp 353-460.

[vii] “The liberal reinvention of the state of siege as a constitutional figure of the irruption of the sovereign power of exception is rigorously contemporary with the no less coercive process of converting the workforce into a commodity”. (…) The intrinsic maladjustment of the value relation converted it into a prison: again, the material basis of the entire security edifice of the control society. (…) But beware: the escape from this expanded prison is not insurgency in the classic mold, but the paroxysm of social convulsion due to the lack of a vanishing point. Hence the leaden sky of the state of siege that weighs on the planet”. Cf. Paulo Arantes, “Times of exception”, in The new time of the world: Boitempo Editorial, 2014, pp. 318-321.

[viii] See New Left Review Blog (Sidecar), July 06, 2021.

[ix] Fredric Jameson recalls, in a 1982 text, that the crisis of the classic historical novel, in the mid-nineteenth century, is contemporary with the emergence of science fiction by Jules Verne and HG Wells, which “records a certain nascent perception of the future precisely in that space in which a perception of the past was once inscribed”. The crisis point would already be given in the historical novel (1936-1937), as Lukács understood the very historicity of the genre in a Walter Scott situated between the backwardness of Scottish society and progressive capitalist temporality – “historicism in its peculiarly modern sense” in the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries. In Jameson’s reading, “in its (post)contemporary form, this replacement of the historical by the nostalgic, this volatilization of what was once a past national at the time of the emergence of nation-states and of nationalism itself, it certainly goes hand in hand with the disappearance of historicity in today's consumer society, with its rapid media exhaustion of yesterday's events and yesterday's stars (Who was Hitler, anyway? ? Who was Kennedy? Who, ultimately, was Nixon?) Cf. Fredric Jameson Archeologies of the future. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2021, pp. 441-444.

[X] See Franco Moretti, The bourgeois (between history and literature), translated by Alexandre Morales. São Paulo: Três Estrelas, 2013, p. 95.

[xi] Cf. “Pathways of a literary form”, translation by Milton Ohata, in New Studies Magazine Cebrap, number 77. 2007, cit., pp. 209-211. Perry Anderson's text was a lecture given in 2004, in response to Fredric Jameson's intervention at a symposium at the University of California, and its publication in 2011 ("From Progress to Catastrophe", in New Left Review of Books) is mentioned by Ryan Ruby to return to the question about the meaning of the diffusion of the historical novel in postmodernism.

[xii] About Tolstoy's lifelong work (he was an artillery officer in the war from 1851 to 1853), always judging his narrative as unfinished, and going from the initial project of telling the story in the form of a novel to the narrative form that would be classified as a “short novel” or “novel”, cf. Boris Schnaiderman, preface to Khadji-Murát. São Paulo: Editora Cultrix, 1986.

[xiii] Cf. Paulo Arantes, “Fire alarm in the French ghetto: an introduction to the age of emergency”, in ”The new time of the world, ob. cit., p. 252, 254, 255.

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