New Internationalist

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Issue 277

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Books

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an intimate self portrait
Introduction by Carlos Fuentes
(Bloomsbury ISBN 0-7475-2247-2)

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an intimate self portrait. Hailed a precursor to such taboo-breaking feminist artists as Jo Spence, Frida Kahlo probably attracts more attention today than her husband and compatriot Diego Rivera. Kahlo’s painted, intimate Diary adds not only to our understanding of the art of this powerful, damaged woman but also provides glimpses of her quirky humour and fantastic imagination. The diary itself covers the last ten years of her life from 1944 to 1954 and is a vigorous melange of paintings, drawing, doodles, ink blots, streams of consciousness and entries written in different colour pencils.

In 1925, at the age of 18, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident which left her with a broken pelvis, spine, and other severe injuries. While convalescing she began painting. The physical damage was permanent and although she was able to walk again she had to have over 20 operations and was in pain for most of her life. For Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who has written an inspired introduction to this Diary, Kahlo is a symbol of Mexico, the vivid, bloody, ruptured, fruitful land. While Diego Rivera, in his great murals, concentrated on the complex cavalcade of Mexican history, Kahlo’s subject was her own body, her internal reality. They are two sides of the same Mexican coin, says Fuentes. ‘As the people are cleft in twain by poverty, revolution, memory and hope, so she, the individual, the irreplaceable, the unrepeatable woman called Frida Kahlo is broken, torn inside her own body much as Mexico is torn outside.’

Kahlo would probably have agreed. An ardent communist revolutionary, she lied about her year of birth so that it would coincide with the year of the Mexican Revolution. Like her surrealist contemporaries she tapped her unconscious; the imagery that bubbled up time and again was absolutely Mexican. But towards the end of her life she felt uneasy about the subject matter of her painting and expressed a wish to ‘transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement’. Judging by the embarrassing adulation of Stalin that creeps into the Diary at this stage it is perhaps fortunate that she did not.

By taking herself as a starting point and going outwards from there Kahlo ‘gave birth’ to herself as an artist. Her power is emotional rather than intellectual and her enormous love for Diego Rivera (they divorced briefly when he had an affair with her sister) is as strange, unique and awe-inspiring as her art.

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VB

 

Music

Cuba Classics: Afro Cuban
by Merceditas Valdés
(TUMI CD050)

Right On Time!
by Roberto Pla
(TUMI CD 051)

Cuba classics: Afro Cuban In most major cities of the world you can find some salsa, rumba and maybe some mambo to listen to. However, despite the wealth of material, there has been a certain reluctance to look back into Latin Music’s roots. This is being vigorously addressed by Britain’s Tumi label. A small independent company, it has championed all manifestations of Latin Music ever since it brought the Bolivian folk group Rumillajta to the UK in 1984. Its latest coup is a worldwide distribution deal with Cuba’s state record company, EGREM. Cuba’s musical roots lie mainly in a history that knits African influences to the sounds of the Spanish colonizers, and no better introduction to these origins could be served than by Merciditas Valdés. A singer whose career began in the 1940s, Valdés was once described a ‘living ethnographic monument’ – high praise, even though it makes her seem a little dusty. Not a bit of it. The collection of 14 traditional songs to the orishas – the Yoruba gods – sparkle with extraordinary energies. This is Latin music as it’s rarely heard: Valdés uses minimal instrumentation throughout the album. Attention is focused on drum-carried rhythms and interwoven voices, above which her single vocal dominates. These are praise-songs to gods, certainly, but there’s also a real intimacy, a sense of the supernatural’s relevance to everyday life. Valdés cajoles, rejoices, converses. But unlike most religious music, which has its format ensured, Valdés adapts the template to create something that is changeable, alive. It is a testament to the ability of her country’s Afro-Cuban population to adapt and survive.

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On a completely different note, the Latin Ensemble led by Colombia’s master percussionist, Roberto Pla, has contributed to musical life not only in Latin America but in the US and the UK, where it could at times be found with such unlikely partners as Joe Strummer and Motorhead. Right on Time is Pla’s long-awaited album which contains much of the repertoire: salsa, cumbia, Latin jazz. It’s precise, highly-charged stuff, containing a sense of colour and drama that makes it quite simply an asset to any record collection – to say nothing of a party soundtrack. Pure, unadulterated fun.

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LG

For more information contact Tumi Music,
8-9 New Bond St. Place, Bath, Avon BA1 1BH, England.
Tel: (01225) 480470, Fax: (01225) 331360.

 

Film

Nothing Personal
directed by Thadeus O’Sullivan

Adapted from Daniel Mornin’s novel All Our Fault, Nothing Personal is set in Belfast at the time of the IRA cease-fire in 1975 when ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were at their most intense. The film follows a trio of edgy young Protestant Loyalist Paramilitaries who find that due to the negotiation of a cease-fire by their superiors, they are suddenly left without a war to fight. On the other side of the thin line which demarcates the two battered territories is Liam, a Catholic who daringly traverses the dangerous divide. When at the beginning of the film an IRA bomb goes off in a Protestant pub, he is there to help pull the victims from the rubble. Over the course of the next 24 hours a sequence of events further entangles the men from the two sides and inevitably another tragedy ensues.

While rooted in the particular problems of Northern Ireland, director Thadeus O’Sullivan’s tense and intelligent drama could be set in most countries split by warring factions, since it examines how a loose cannon from either side can jeopardize the delicate peace process. Making its British debut at the London Film Festival the day after the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister, it had a particular, dreadful resonance. But rather than going for the news-making headlines, the film at-tempts to examine the personal motivations of those who fight. It also examines the personal consequences. As such it draws some despairing conclusions – inevitably it is the innocent bystanders on both sides who suffer most in the end. Nothing Personal reeks of the bloody stalemate in which such turmoil always seems to end.

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LF

Reviews by Lizzie Francke, Louise Gray and Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
The 'Revolutionary Trilogy'
...being the novels of a brave and tireless political agitator who
developed a unique writing style to smuggle out his work.

‘What is terrible when you seek the truth is that you find it. You find it and you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés.’ So wrote Victor Serge, novelist, poet, historian and political agitator in his autobiography Memoires of a Revolutionary. By the time of his penurious death in Mexico in 1947, Serge had experienced every variety of disillusionment and betrayal. Despite this, his convictions remained unsoured and his hope for the future burned undimmed. He had written in his poem Be Hard of his belief that ‘in time flesh will wear out chains/ In time the mind will make chains soap’. His example of a life lived to the hilt is a chastening but uplifting example to our diminished, passion-starved times.

The man who took the pseudonym Victor Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchic in Brussels, Belgium in 1890. His parents were exiled Russian revolutionaries and his childhood was a typical emigré mix of idealism and poverty. Serge never went to school and learned to read in his father’s library of revolutionary books. Active from an early age in the left-wing movements of Europe, his refusal to inform on a group of comrades practising ‘expropriation’ (robbery) led to a five-year jail term from 1912 to 1917. This experience he transmuted into Men in Prison, the first novel in his ‘Revolutionary Trilogy’. On his release, he travelled to Barcelona – a city gripped by anarchist and syndicalist fervour. His experiences of the streetfighting here, followed by his deportation to civil-war-torn Russia, were to form the basis of the second and third novels of his trilogy, Birth of our Power and Conquered City. Taken together these books form a unique and compelling record of some of the most calamitous years of our century. Serge always felt that it was the responsibility of the writer to speak on behalf of all those who have no voice and his books are crammed with the authentic lives of ordinary people. Although often told in the first person, his novels are much more than fictionalized autobiography and much of their power lies in his ability to build the broad picture from a mosaic of small scenes, each centring on a different individual or group. In this way he avoided the sterile tableaux of heroic workers so loved of proletarian hack writers.

Men in Prison

Serge’s independence was always going to lead him into conflict with Stalin and in 1926 he was expelled from the Communist Party and deprived of all work. His writing during the following years was done in freestanding fragments, sent abroad secretly and published as they were, incomplete and unrevised. This led to Serge developing a unique writing style: both episodic and fast-paced, it perfectly suited the urgency of his message.

Serge was arrested in 1933 and sent to Orianberg, the Central Asian work camp. He would surely have perished there but for a campaign waged on his behalf by André Gide and other Western intellectuals. Serge was released in 1936 and expelled from the Soviet Union. His books and manuscripts were confiscated and two are rumoured still to be languishing in the vaults of the Kremlin. Fleeing Nazi agents, Serge only just escaped to Marseilles, bound for exile in Mexico. Beset by loneliness and poverty, he wrote the Trilogy of Resistance which dealt with the Stalinist purges and the beginnings of World War Two,

If Victor Serge had been no more than an exceptionally clearheaded and brave opponent of Stalinist totalitarianism, he might have rated a mention in the footnotes of history. That he also managed to produce powerful and elegiac fiction makes him one of the pivotal figures of our century. His writing on the Gulag prefigures – and often surpasses – that of Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. His polemical work on the Spanish Civil War or the Soviet Show Trials resembles that of Orwell in its willingness to follow arguments to logical and moral conclusions. Anyone wishing to evaluate the ideological bankruptcies of our times and to attempt to build new foundations from the rubble of idealism would do well to seek out this admirable and fascinating man. Serge always spoke of hope amid despair – even when at his lowest ebb: ‘I have undergone a little over ten years of various forms of captivity, agitated in seven countries and written twenty books. I own nothing. On several occasions, a press with vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth. Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to inspire a certain dizziness. And to think that it is not over yet... I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before…’

Peter Whittaker

Men In Prison, Birth of Our Power and Conquered City (the ‘Revolutionary Trilogy’) were published by Writers and Readers, London. Other of Victor Serge’s books, including The Case of Comrade Tulayev are available through AK Distribution, Edinburgh.

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