BEIRUT

Culture

Global finance as sexy fodder for serious literary pursuits

Review

BEIRUT: What happens when a writer of highly intelligent literary fiction goes to spend a year working for a hedge fund in New York? Does he get a taste of the dark side? Drop his ambitions to craft austere, evocative novels as useless and financially unstable? Cash in his art for more bankable currency? If the writer is Viken Berberian, then the answer is no. To the contrary, Berberian turned his time at a hedge fund - among other experiences racked up over a four-year period of research, travel, writing and rewriting in New York, Paris and Marseilles - into a cogent, provocative and entertaining new novel, "Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets."

Berberian was born in Beirut to an Armenian family. He left Lebanon late in 1975, grew up in Los Angeles, studied for a time in New York and worked as a writer straddling the seemingly distant realms of art and finance. His father, however, remained in Beirut due to work obligations. He was killed in a politically motivated shooting in 1986.

Perhaps inevitably, Berberian's debut novel, "The Cyclist," delved into political violence in the Middle East. Published in 2002, it crawled into the head space of a suicide bomber who is bent on blowing up a seaside hotel in Beirut. Part of a shadowy London-based terrorist group, he is assigned the job of blasting the building not by car or truck laden with explosives but by posing as a serious cyclist and riding his bike straight into it with a bomb on his back.

For all the drama of the plot, "The Cyclist" folded a brash, stylish and pensive missive on food, love and longing in the Levant into a spare book of just 190 pages. It was neither autobiographical nor opportunistic - it was published after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but written before. It marked the arrival of a dazzling literary stylist.

The genius of the novel was the fact that Berberian never gave his readers enough information to place his characters - not their religious affiliations, political allegiances, national identities, nothing. Their motives couldn't be assumed or justified along biographical lines. They were both caught in and the cause of a nasty crucible of ideas and actions, where the vapors of political causes and belief systems had long been cooked away.

Berberian's follow-up leaves the specificities of Lebanon - of reconstruction-era Beirut and its perpetually suspect inner workings - and takes up the equally murky world of global finance in the so-called "age of terror." If you want to get to the heart of terrorism, it has been argued, chuck ideology and follow the money instead. The three central characters in Berberian's second novel - two of them deliberately, one of them unwittingly - take this so far they spin it around, orchestrating terrorist attacks and other man-made catastrophes to drive financial markets into free fall, and profit handsomely from their tumbling.

"Das Kapital" is, as the title would suggest, both an homage and a ruthlessly funny take-down of Karl Marx's exhaustive, unfinished analysis of the capitalist system. At the core of Berberian's treatise is a love triangle. On one side is Wayne, son of a bridge builder and a day trader with a hedge fund called Empiricus Kapital who bets against the market and adheres to a theory of deterministic disaster. On another side is the Corsican, son of a Situationist International member and a tree-hugger who, until recently, cut down trees for a living. On the final side is Alix, daughter of a train conductor and an architecture student in Marseilles who has a predilection for Sufi aphorisms and hopping around on the roofs of buildings. Wayne's ideology is naked self interest; the Corsican's is a love of nature he has directly corrupted with his labor; Alix's beliefs are a hazier, more humanist affair.

Unlike "The Cyclist," "Das Kapital" is awash in detail - the decor of Wayne's loft (a hollow set piece replete with an Ingo Maurer lamp and a "pliable plastic bookcase inspired more by itself than by the ideas that it held"), the Bloomberg news retrieval system perched on the desk in his office, the Rothko poster celebrating the Industrial Revolution on one wall, the reworked quotation from Marx emblazoned on another.

Yet Berberian continues the craft of obfuscation he began in "The Cyclist." He weights information by recycling it but leaves readers to calculate meaning. Wayne shorted shares in the paper company the Corsican worked for, essentially causing the Corsican to lose his job. The Corsican, in turn, shows up at Wayne's office and offers his services. Corisca was Napoleon's birthplace, and it boasted the world's only island company churning out corrugated cardboard - these facts, repeated, pulse with relevance.

Due to his Situationist upbringing, the Corsican's expertise isn't really trees at all but spectacles - the Tokyo Stock Exchange blown to bits, an explosion on a cruise liner in the Mediterranean basin at a time when several of the world's most powerful billionaires are on board, a man who rushes Gordon Brown on the steps of the Bank of England, gives him a bear hug and detonates a belly-strapped device - "a staggering operation [of] fatalistic splendor," a blast "followed by a warm gust of body parts and debris, confusion compressed, reality untangled, unraveled, reordered."

The hinge is Alix, who sleeps with both men and passes architectural drawings between them, seemingly unaware of their purpose. She is, in many respects, the most real, and least caricatured, of all. And she represents another wild card that can not be predicted or planned for, falling in love, which complicates things for both Wayne and the Corsican.

"Das Kapital" captures and tweaks financial lingo with hilarious panache. Wayne reduces a Sorbonne-educated philosophy student to tears with a simple problem-solver. A cab driver appears out of nowhere to comment on Marx, tragedy, money and time.

Some of the wordplay takes the text, meta-style, outside the plot to comment on the craft at hand. On meeting the Corsican, Wayne tells him: "Science is something we encourage here at Empiricus. We do not look for verifications but rather crucial tests. We are avid readers here. Everything we can get our hands on, except for literary fiction. It has no basis in mathematical reality. It is messy, imprecise, difficult to disprove. Are you with me?"

There are more than a few similarities between Empiricus Kapital and Empirica Capital, the hedge fund of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Originally from Amion, Taleb's family fell from wealth with the drastic devaluation of the Lebanese lira. In addition to being a specialist in financial mathematics and the finer points of stochastic volatility, Taleb is also an essayist, a philosopher of "randomness" and an "epistemologist of chance."

He has turned his theory of the black swan - the always-there potential of rare, high-impact and totally unexpected events - into a literary bestseller.

Taleb and Berberian came to the writing of books from opposite angles. But both suggest that the esoteric machinations of global finance offer up surprisingly sexy material for literary pursuits. Berberian's "Das Kapital" will thrill Che memorabilia-toting neophyte leftists and budding arch capitalists alike. And to its credit, once seduced, the novel won't let either of them off the hook easily.

Viken Berberian's "Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets" is out now from Simon & Schuster.

 

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