Within these stories lies the strongest rebuttal to postcolonial Western guilt over the totality of suffering, which found its most terrible expression in Kafka, who has a strong presence in Finch’s novel. Human beings can, in fact, forge identities from absolutely any experience; whether joyous or wretched, wondrous or mundane, we will make these stories our home. The person who has suffered more than you does not have any less of a story, or a self.
But selves are as easy to unbuild as stories are to untell. The tragedy for Finch’s exiles is not their suffering, but the myth of the “fresh start.” The architecture of their selves was already erected in their resistance to tyranny, witnessing of violence, and flight from oppression. As long as they are safe and free, they will yearn for their true home “every second of every day of every year,” as Finch writes. (Note: This passage was in the review copy, but not in the final version of the book.)
Whereas the enigmatic AA remains in the reader’s blind spot throughout the novel, we get quite familiar with the consciousness of Julian Snowman, who greatly distrusts the new fellow. Snowman, the founder and chair of the House of Journalists, is the novel’s moral fulcrum. The reader can sense Finch’s disapproval of this character, but also his pity, even admiration. An apprehensive, pragmatic man, Snowman has taken up the impossible task of reconciling the humanistic ideals of his institution with the capitalistic ethos of the society in which it resides. He needs to benefit financially from the institution’s benevolence in order for the institution (and by extension its benevolence) to survive. Predictably, calamity ensues. The majority of the plot entails Snowman’s transition from the worrisome, punctilious bureaucrat to the paranoid, liberal authoritarian who says things like: “It is not a question of stopping discussion. It is a question of questioning the value of discussion.” He bans the use of the word “disappearance” after a fellow disappears, suspects AA’s involvement in some vague conspiracy to destroy the house, and finally gets drunk on power—plus literally drunk—and does and says things he will deeply regret.
At some point it becomes clear that Snowman has confused the ideals of his institution with the institution itself: “The project [. . .] was more important than any one individual. He never forgot this central truth; that was his great strength.” The irony here, which Snowman never seems to recognize, is that if a “project” founded on liberty violates the liberty of just one individual in order to protect itself, it has betrayed its principle and is no longer worth protecting.
Summarizing his arc in this way makes Snowman sound like a caricature, which isn’t fair. Snowman (note the name) has molded himself into a caricature, into the familiar satire of the delusive figurehead because he believes it is the only archetype that can keep humanitarian institutions financially solvent in Western society. And as far as I can tell, he’s right. So is he a fool or a hero? At the novel’s conclusion one is pretty certain of which, but for a while it seems like he’s both.