New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 257

new internationalist
issue 257 - July 1994

Reviews

STAR RATING Music

Freedom
by Yothu Yindi
(Mushroom Records TVP 93390)

Yothu Yindi Yothu Yindi is an Australian phenomenon. Led by singer and guitarist Mandawuy Yunupingti, the Yothus are part Yolungus (aboriginals) and part Balandas (non-aboriginals). Since its formation eight years ago the 10-piece band has cut an independent swathe through Australia’s predominantly rock-orientated output. Playing traditional music rocked-up for a diverse audience, the content celebrates aboriginal culture while simultaneously containing a powerful political voice. The song Mabo, for example, begins with the words ‘Terra nullus’ – the Latin for ‘empty land’ – referring to the European colonialists’ false view of the Australian territory as devoid of human habitation.

This album is filled with accounts of aboriginal dreams, customs and tribal wisdom. The modern world – with its land-rights campaigns – is also ever-present and the sense of the interconnectedness of human and natural existence flows through the music. If the didgeridoo pulses can be likened to a quickening heart-beat Freedom becomes an account of a life-force which refuses to be denied.

The combination of different musical genres is deftly handled. Timeless Land, for example, layers modern and traditional instrumentation with the words of an ancient Rirratjingu song from north-east Arnhem. Linguistically too this album is a mixture of Yongu Matha dialects – translated on the sleeve – and English.

Freedom is an album you can dance to, the didgeridoo players honking away with the virtuosity of a Keith Richards displaced downunder. That Yothu Yindi has managed such success without diluting its message or being consigned to a musical ghetto is an admirable achievement which deserves a close listening.

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Film

Go Fish
directed by Rose Troche

Go Fish American director Rose Troche and writer Guinevere Turner make an auspicious debut with their summery and light lesbian romance Go Fish. Made on the lowest of budgets the film stands out for its innovative and imaginative approach. The grainy black and white photography, the punchy editing and rapping dialogue give it a distinct breezy style. Certainly Go Fish is a fresh film in all senses as it follows young Max (played in perky fashion by Turner), an aspiring writer whose mind wanders in a wonderfully picaresque fashion, in her search for love one summer. What does a girl do when she hasn’t had a date for ten months? Her flatmate Kia, a college lecturer, decides to try and set her up with Ely, one of her ex-students. An awkward date follows in which nothing seems to go particularly swimmingly for Max and Ely. But their friends know otherwise: the secret of love, like comedy, is in the timing.

Aesthetics apart, one of the most welcome features of Go Fish is that it is a lesbian story that moves on from the ‘coming out’ theme of films such as Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts. Troche and Turner’s film is rooted in a community of lesbian women who are already assured of their sexuality – they are very much out and about. But while their lesbianism is taken as given, Go Fish does not avoid taking on board questions about lesbian history and identity. Such matters are deftly dealt with in the film’s many asides. ‘Girl talk’ is key to Go Fish and the women rap about everything from whether it is politically correct to sleep with a man or not through to the latest in the rather small number of lesbian movies. Go Fish is a happy addition to that number – it is a film that deals in exuberant style with gay culture while being a wistful love story that will keep everyone smiling through the summer.

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Books

From Heaven to Earth:
images and experiences of development in China

by Elisabeth Croll
(Routledge ISBN 0-415-10187-5)

Bitter Winds Bitter Winds: a memoir of my years in China’s Gulag
by Harry Wu and Carolyn Wakeman
(John Wiley ISBN 0471 55645-9)

These two books make good reading as a pair, for one casts light on the other. Elisabeth Croll’s From Heaven to Earth draws on her trips to China over the past few years to monitor projects in areas from which Western visitors are generally banned. Part of the book is a detailed totting up of the resources and income of different villages. But of greater interest to the general reader are her introduction on collective dreams and concluding chapters on the status of sons and daughters under a notional one-child policy, now largely disregarded in the countryside. Outsiders and visitors to China are perplexed by what Croll calls ‘the rhetoric of heaven... which denied existing deprivation, hierarchies and individual interests separate from those of the collective’. Croll’s thought-provoking introduction uses personal anecdote, contemporary literature and her detailed knowledge of the culture to explain that reforms are a great deal more complex than a return to capitalism, or as the Chinese put it: ‘We have finally come back from Heaven to Earth’. This brilliant introductory essay goes a long way towards unlocking what for many Westerners has been most puzzling about China.

Some chapters make dismaying reading as Croll shows just how undervalued daughters are. Female infanticide has meant that in some areas the ratio of female to male infants dropped as low as one in five.

But this book is a great deal more optimistic than Harry Wu’s gruelling account of his 19 years as a political prisoner in Bitter Winds. Croll’s explanations of how ‘official-speak’ serves a collective dream helps make sense of Harry Wu’s account of how his fellow students and comrades boxed him in, piling up the (unspecified) charges and labelling him a rightist. This book and the video footage Wu risked his life to take on an undercover return to China form an important part of the evidence of China’s human rights record. Wu argues that taking political prisoners has become vital to China’s economic growth: ‘Politically [labour reform camps] suppress dissidents to reinforce the system of dictatorship, while economically they exploit prisoners to earn foreign exchange for the Chinese communist regime’.

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Tu Galala: social change in the Pacific
edited by David Robie
(Pluto Press/ Australia ISBN 0 949138 85 1)

The Pacific region is often far from what its name implies. Behind the postcard image of golden sunsets and uncrowded tropical beaches is the reality of increasing economic injustices, rising militarization, the threat and practice of nuclear testing and the seemingly endless struggle for independence. ‘Tu Galala’ is a Fijian phrase meaning self-determination or freedom. It is an apt title for a book so clearly dedicated to the struggle for authentic development and the pursuit of the Pacific people’s rights – be they in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Fiji or the Philippines.

The accounts of injustice recorded in this book are disturbing. But the discomfort is more than offset by heartening accounts of the strength of resistance and the steps which need to be taken for a fairer future. Throughout the region the stories have a familiar echo. Development aid continues to reinforce economic reliance on neighbouring regional powers, further eroding self-reliance.

The strong pro-Pacific theme which unites this book provides no detached academic analysis. The accounts are earthy, dynamic and hands-on and Tu Galala achieves its aim of demystifying the Pacific. Many of the contributors are activists. The publication of the book has been partly funded from compensation paid by the French Government after the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in July 1985.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
The Trial
... being the novel in which bureaucracy is resisted.

[image, unknown] Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess is by common consent one of the most perplexing pieces of fiction ever produced. No reader is likely to have any problem in giving an account of its plot. But very few readers have been able to say with any confidence what the novel is actually about.

‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,’ is the book’s famous opening sentence. The sure sense of true and false and right and wrong with which K initially reacts to his arrest proves in the course of the story to be a bewildering illusion. His attempts to discover the crime with which he is charged are utterly fruitless; he is unable to pin down details of the trial such as where and when it will take place and the rights that he will be able to exercise in the process. His crusade to expose the corruption he observes at the heart of the judicial system only serves to incriminate him further.

As the complexity of his situation becomes increasingly labyrinthine his own condition becomes more and more paranoiac and the novel comes to an end when two ‘gentlemen’ call to execute him, without any of the book’s multiple enigmas having been solved.

Kafka’s sense of the book as somewhat comic – he reportedly laughed out loud as he read the manuscript to friends – does not seem to have been shared by most of the readers who have tried to make sense of it. A common interpretation is the religious one which sees the book as an anti-Pilgrim’s Progress: an allegory of a godless modern world in which the search for meaning and truth proves bleak and hopeless.

A more recent philosophical trend which does recapture the sense of the book as a huge joke has been to see in it a send-up of precisely these kinds of reading so that readers of Kafka’s novel find themselves asking the same unanswerable questions as Joseph K does of his circumstances: by what kind of logic are these events regulated? why is virtually all of the dialogue puzzling? what relation does this perverse incident have to that mystifying one? why do characters who should know nothing know so much and characters who should know much know so little? how is the wonderful fable of the guard and the countryman, told to K by the priest in the cathedral, to be decoded? why doesn’t anyone give straight answers to straight questions? A lot of fun can be had playing with such ideas: The Trial is thus called ‘The Trial’ not least because it puts readers through a trial of their own abilities to make sense of the seemingly straightforward. And so the book ends up being about itself.

Such self-regarding fictions are not the usual fare of readers in search of ideological nourishment. But the power of The Trial is that it combines a general air of mystery and fantasy – most obvious in the strange sexual attraction to the beleaguered K of several women – with curiously resonant everyday situations. Anyone who has ever tried to claim a welfare benefit, striven to correct a bank’s computer error, been involved in less than utterly straightforward legal proceedings, found themselves stranded in an international airport, or attempted to exercise a right of reply in the media, might find certain scenarios in The Trial extremely prescient. What the book is satirizing is not so much the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe (liberal readers like it because they think that this is its central theme and tend mistakenly to assume that the Prague of the early century was such a society) but of impermeable bureaucratism anywhere.

The most insistent thing about the book is K’s refusal to cease his struggle against forces whose impersonality make them impossible to understand. Contrast the drab demise of Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984 which really is a satire on totalitarianism. On the final page K, expecting at any moment to be butchered by the two ‘gentlemen’, sees a figure in a distant window with both arms stretched out and raises his own hands in response. It’s a remarkable instance of human solidarity in the most anonymous of circumstances and in the face of death. It is, of course, in practice a pointless reflex, but that he is murdered at precisely the moment he expresses an urgent will to live confirms K as a bearer of a very subversive kind of hope. He has to be disposed of precisely because he has refused the temptations of despair.

The Trial is far too rich and sophisticated a work to be reduced to the simple terms of a fable. If there is a politics implicit in its ending, however, we could do worse than to propose that it symbolically teaches that there is great value in resistance and little in submission – even when the odds are stacked against us and refusal to ‘go with the flow’ seems perverse. ‘Logic is doubtless unshakeable,’ the narrator tells us, describing K’s last gesture, ‘but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living’.

Macdonald Daly

The Trial by Franz Kafka (Penguin).

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