Carmine Starnino talks to Dimitri Nasrallah about his new book
WELCOME TO THE second installment of The Pitch, a new biweekly series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Carmine Starnino talks to Canadian novelist Dimitri Nasrallah, who opens up about his new project, Bleed Dynasty.
What's the new book about?
Bleed Dynasty is about the Bleed family in their final days as despotic rulers of a small, resource-rich (and fictional) country. A botched election and popular revolt has brought down the three-generation dynasty, and the novel zooms in on the troubled father-son relationship that’s played a part in the family's downfall. Structurally, the book is a hall of mirrors. Contradictory news stories swirl around the Bleed’s opulent and secretive lives, delivered by competing newspapers and blogs that have a stake in the unfolding political rupture. The story happens over twelve days, and the web of skewed perspectives and competing interests shapes the presentation of events.
History is chock-a-block with tyrants, so there’s no lack of research material for you. But was there anything—or anyone—that triggered the book?
Bleed Dynasty tackles themes that have emerged from the Arab Spring, numerous revolutions in Eastern Europe, and flashpoints across Africa, Central and South America, and beyond. But I didn’t want to draw too strong a line to any one example, so as not to compromise the novel by having the reader fall into a game of drawing parallels. I wanted to draw attention to how similar the patterns are across these situations once you pull away from the details and focus on the trajectory.
Your first two novels, Blackbodying (2005) and Niko (2011), are about the human cost of civil war. It’s as though you’re now telling the story from the other side—the political forces that cause that upheaval.
I wanted to move forward with my writing and explore different characters but I also wanted to maintain continuity with the themes I had explored previously. I had been dealing with individuals made powerless by the choices of someone powerful. This time, I wanted to imagine the temperament of the persona who could trigger that dynamic of powerlessness, the kind of person for whom triggering that sort of powerlessness for so many others wouldn’t even be a consideration in their decision-making. I also wanted to humanize that ego so the reader might sympathize and feel awkward for doing so. I wanted to play with the ethics of character presentation. In a sense, we want to see such dictators in a black and white way, but it is a writer’s job to imagine such portraits of power in more complicated, tragically flawed terms.
The structure sounds interesting. How did you come up with it?
Like many people, I had grown obsessed with following the Internet-fueled minutiae of media stories as they developed over the course of days and weeks. What details remained the same, what changed? I was also intrigued by how different media presented stories in different lights, as if to reflect their own politics and interests. This is especially true when the same story is covered from one region to the next. And beyond that, the story of what really happened on a personal level for the instigators is never really revealed. So I wanted to capture the different vantage points all at once—the intimate and the political—and have that contrast be the story.
A PREVIEW OF BLEED DYNASTY:
I'M WORRIED. I tried my best not to show it tonight at the state dinner, I worked the Bleed ballroom in my usual flourish, glad-handing ambassadors, air-signing autographs on the foreheads of diplomats’ children for easy laughs, arguing the seasonal prospects of our national Greco-Roman wrestling team with longtime military confidants, waxing the egos of our American guests, all of them reticent senior managers of our sapphire mines, with polite questions about the stunt-work in Hollywood action movies. I even sat in for an impromptu karaoke with the house orchestra for an Avalonian version of “Moon River”, but worry, worry was hanging in the air tonight like the smoke of so many cigars.
It’s not like I don’t enjoy these functions. At 82 years old, I find that formality has become a tedious function of open spaces, intended for the eavesdroppers who line the walls of these endless political showcases like horseflies hovering over a donkey’s shit. I haven’t been Avalon’s president for five years now, even though you couldn’t convince many of the guests in that room otherwise. There’s still a consensus out there that if you want to get something done in this country, you forgo Alfonso and head straight for Mustafa. I’m sure you’ve seen me in action over the years. The men in my inner circle still call me Mighty, a holdover from my Greco-Roman wrestling days, my three Olympic games, the medallions, the trophies. Women prefer to call me Taffy, for my caramel heart.
As I was saying, it’s not as if I don’t enjoy these ballroom scenes, especially the Bleed ballroom, my ballroom, from layout to vantage points to acoustics to surveillance. Have you ever waltzed across its marbled mosaic expanse with the exiled princess of Iran in your arms, as strobe lights ricochet off the sapphire-encrusted columns like the jackhammering machine-gunfire of our elite guard units during a state of emergency? I’m guessing not. She’ll melt in your arms, as a million flashes of blue light laser across her startled eyes.
But that wasn’t the mood in the room tonight. With tomorrow’s election on everyone’s mind, I couldn’t help but sense some tension. I did my best to brush it away.The Bleeds have yet to lose an election in the fifty years since my father, Blanco Bleed, first signed the Declaration of Sovereignty with the British in 1962. That’s six for my father, eight for me, and one for my boy, and no one here is ready to give all that up on Fonzie’s second try. Alfonso hates it when I call him that. But a father can’t help old habits sometimes.
Still, people seemed overly concerned tonight. Say I was debating the judo skills of my two favourite actors, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, with Jeremy Lenz of SaphCo International, one of the many American sapphire miners in the room. Now Lenz is one of the polite ones. He’d nod for a time, drop a classic line or two from Bloodsport, and then when the moment presented itself, he’d change course and ask, in a secretive whisper, “Your Excellency,” because I’m cordial but not generous with our sapphire mining consortium, “my bosses in Texas would like assurances if President Alfonso Bleed loses. Will the transition be seamless for us? We’ve invested so much here that...”
CARMINE STARNINO is Partisan's Senior Contributing Editor, Poetry Editor for Véhicule Press, and Non-Fiction Editor for Porcupine's Quill.
DIMITRI NASRALLAH is the Fiction Editor for Véhicule Press. His latest novel is Niko (2011).