Book Of A Lifetime: A Confederacy of Dunces, By John Kennedy Toole

Elif Shafak
Friday 30 March 2012 00:00

So I had left Istanbul with its colourful chaos and ended up in a place in America where the wind blew hot as a hair dryer, huge thorny cacti greeted newcomers and Spanish was the official language. What was I doing in Tucson, Arizona? Teaching, writing a new novel... The part of me that couldn't settle down, always a nomad, an outsider, East and West, and yet precisely because of that at home everywhere, that stubborn part was holding the reins. It was as if I had taken a plastic globe, given it a real good spin, and randomly put my finger on a spot.

Tucson was a liberal bubble in a Republican state, surrounded with a desert that released fragrances of wild herbs and howls of coyotes. There was in the air a sense of living at the end of the world. This is where I read, for the first time, 'A Confederacy of Dunces'. My second day in town I walked past the strangest bookstore: incense sticks, horoscope charms, Goddess symbols, and amid them all, gems of world literature. My eyes landed on a novel. Its title reminded me of Attar's 'The Conference of Birds', and of Simurgh, itinerant birds that didn't know what they were searching high and low was within him. I bought the book and a few incense sticks: anti-stress ocean breeze.

The place I rented resembled a child's drawing of a house. A courtyard with orange trees, large windows. I had no TV, no chairs, no table and sleeping on the floor instead of a bed came easier. I had no shelves, but I had books. Piles and piles of them. And a computer and a kettle. It was enough. My boyfriend, my friends, my mother sent worried messages from Istanbul, asking what the hell I was doing there. I had no answer.

'A Confederacy of Dunces' is a story of loneliness amid crowds, a comedy that hurts. At the centre is an anti-hero named Ignatius J Reilly. If Don Quixote had been thrust into the underbelly of modern New Orleans, this is exactly who he would have become. Hypochondriac, melancholic, a walking catastrophe, an unlikely philosopher in a world where few have patience for abstractions. With his clumsy ways, tweed trousers and inexcusable bluntness, he doesn't fit in, entering social contexts with his lumbering, elephantine fashion. The reader cannot decide whether to pity or admire him, but loves him all the same. As Walter Percy said, he is "in violent revolt against the entire modern age."

Sharp as it is the novel's humour does not rain from above, from an elitist distance. The author is with us, laughing at his follies as much as the world at large. The same author who, shortly after writing this novel, committed suicide at the age 31. John Kennedy Toole never saw his book published and was convinced he had no talent. More than a decade after the author's death the novel won first the hearts of its readers, then the Pulitzer prize. 'A Confederacy of Dunces' is a special book that I associate with coyotes and desert flowers blooming on the edge of the universe, between sanity and insanity, where we all proceed at a tipsy walk.

Elif Shafak's novel 'Honour' is published by Viking

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