Dr Fanon prescribes freedom

<i>Frantz Fanon: a life</i> by David Macey (Granta, &pound;25, 640pp)
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The Independent Culture

Why is Frantz Fanon, who died in 1961, our contemporary? Why are new generations of readers attracted to his writing, especially Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth? Why has Fanon inspired contemporary film-makers such as Isaac Julien or visual artists like the Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen? Fanon is our contemporary because when he psychoanalysed the way the French coloniser looked at Arabs, he is also describing the way the police looked at Stephen Lawrence. In clear language, in words that can only have been written in the cool heat of rage, he showed us the internal theatre of racism, and how some of us have been staged in its psychodrama.

Why is Frantz Fanon, who died in 1961, our contemporary? Why are new generations of readers attracted to his writing, especially Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth? Why has Fanon inspired contemporary film-makers such as Isaac Julien or visual artists like the Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen? Fanon is our contemporary because when he psychoanalysed the way the French coloniser looked at Arabs, he is also describing the way the police looked at Stephen Lawrence. In clear language, in words that can only have been written in the cool heat of rage, he showed us the internal theatre of racism, and how some of us have been staged in its psychodrama.

These are not questions David Macey's plodding biography ever addresses, because he has positioned Fanon firmly in the past. The fact that Fanon's problems are still ours, and that his writing is relevant to anyone who has been described in language that doesn't fit them, does not seem to be of much interest to the acclaimed biographer of Lacan and Foucault.

In fact, Macey seems vaguely annoyed by the way Fanon is read now, and takes what could be an interesting pop at "post-colonial theorists", naming Homi Bhabha in particular. He asserts that "the recent crop of books and articles - and one film - on Fanon contains very little that is of relevance to a biographer, not least because they construct a Fanon who exists outside time and space and in a purely textual dimension."

So how does Macey, who admirably intends to "chip away the myths" that have grown up around "this all-purpose revolutionary icon", pull Fanon's turbulent life through time and space? He begins like most biographers do, with Fanon's childhood and education in the French colony of Martinique, concluding that Frantz "enjoyed the usual pleasures of sport and going to the cinema". The reader wakes up in time to learn that "There was nothing in his background to suggest that he would become a major icon of Third Worldism."

That's that, then. So when Fanon himself writes "I arrived in the world, anxious to extract meaning from things," we must assume this is of no use to the biographer. Two interesting facts, though: Malcolm X was born one month after Fanon in 1925, and the poet Aimé Cesaire was at school with Fanon.

Things get a little more exciting when we meet Fanon at 17, illegally escaping to Dominica to join the Free French army in 1942. Young Frantz pays for his passage by selling his father's clothing coupons, an act Macey describes in the language of social services as a "temporary return to delinquency". Later, Fanon joins the allied forces against Germany in North Africa and then Europe, where he experiences the racism of white French settlers in Algeria.

Here is a moment that could make the reader sweat, in the hands of a writer skilled enough to stage the confrontations that have a searing effect on their subject. As it is, Macey blandly points out how Fanon watched soldiers in Oran throw pieces of bread to starving Arab children, and realised he was "a black man in a white man's army."

We know from Fanon's writing that his experience of everyday life in the colonial situation was a "constellation of delirium", but we get no visceral sense of this from Macey. Fanon realised after the liberation of France that the blood of black soldiers had been shed for Europeans who avoided and insulted them. This bitter moment seems to me to be a gift to a biographer. What Macey does provide for the reader, though, is detailed research and context, especially the history of slavery in the French Caribbean.

By far the most interesting chapter is where Macey describes Fanon working as a young psychiatrist in the mental hospitals of French- occupied Algeria. Here, the biographer offers a riveting insight into the life of the working doctor who was going to become Stokely Carmichael's "patron saint", quoted by "every brother on a roof top". We get a real sense of Fanon the psychiatrist's early experiments, his attempt to study the cultural world in which his patients lived, the "knots of belief" that structured the communities they came from.

Macey is good, too, on Fanon's increasing identification and involvement with the Front de Libération National in Algeria, and on his writings that came out of that revolution. He points out that Fanon "had gone to Algeria to dry tears and Algeria transformed him into an advocate of violent revolution". Fanon had found his war and found his country. In the words of Aimé Cesaire, "He chose. He became Algerian. Lived, fought and died Algerian."

Of Fanon's books, it is Black Skin, White Masks that Macey seems to have has most difficulty writing about in a way that pulls Fanon into modernity. While he notes that "the Marxism of the early 1950s had nothing to say about the lived experience of the black man," he does not elucidate for contemporary readers Fanon's trangressive text, which interrogated the politics of the colonised psyche.

Instead, Macey seems bemused by "the opacity of the language" or "the constant shifts of register as Fanon moves from medical discourse to poetry and back again". Yet if he had walked shoulder to shoulder with his subject into modernity, perhaps stopping a while to let Fanon speak with James Baldwin or to argue with V S Naipaul, and then strolled out with him onto the streets of today, he would not bash the "post-colonial theorists" for being concerned with "identity politics". Nor would he suppose limply that Fanon's "discussion of racism is still valid". Nor would he conclude that Fanon's true legacy is his "anger and generosity of spirit".

It is suprising, then, that Macey's rather romantic, nostalgic afterword ends with Fanon pas mort, because Fanon is never alive on the page. It is not Macey's biography that is going to excite and incite new generations of readers.

For this, we will have to turn to a passage in Homi Bhabha's essay "Remembering Fanon: self, psyche and the colonial condition": "Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. It is such a memory of the history of race and racism, colonialism and the question of cultural identity, that Fanon reveals with greater profundity and poetry than any other writer."

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