issue 158 - April 1986
Out of Africa
directed by Sydney Pollack
The 'Third World' comes to the big screen. But as usual more as atmosphere than substance. Meryl Streep and Robert Redford play the great love scenes with lingering Kenyan sunsets as backdrop. The film is based on autobiographical writing by the Danish gentlewoman Karen Blixen, who settled in Kenya before the First World War.
According to director Sydney Pollack, 'The challenge was to make it a love story, not a travelogue - to make Africa a character in the story. While Africa may be a character, it is a very passive one - serving the same purpose as the back-lot at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood used to serve. Africans (remember them? They actually live there) hardly enter the picture at all, except as Blixen's devoted servants. The acting is credible, the scenery and camera work magnificent. But the whole thing drags on interminably and you emerge with the sense that Hollywood has misused both a sense of history and a sense of place.
directed by Akira Kurosawa
A searing, beautiful but bleak anti-war film by the legendary 75-year old Japanese director Akira Kurosawa The film is set in ancient Japan where local feudal warlords engage in senseless and ceaseless forays against each other.
What is strongest in Ran (the world means 'chaos' in Japanese) is neither the story nor the characters. The themes are as old as literature and the characters rigidly stylised. The acting is precise, logical and ordered - more like Bach than Spielberg. What works magic is the cinematography. There is a lyrical, surreal quality to the carnage as contending armies sweep through the sometimes lush, sometimes barren, Japanese landscape.
What emerges is a tableau of horror that points to the vanity of petty human squabbles, the enduring idiocy of our rulers and the pointless stupidity of war. Like his mentor Shakespeare, Kurosawa's ultimate vision of human life is tragic. 'Man is born crying,' the Great Warlord's Fool tells him. 'When he's cried enough, he dies.'
Old rotten hat
by Robert Wyatt
It's fitting that the first record reviewed in the new-look NI should be one which so unashamedly shares the magazine's ideals.
Robert Wyatt's last album was so determinedly internationalist drawing resistance songs from all over the globe, that it ultimately seemed fragmented. Here the politics is even more hard-hitting and intelligent but the songs are all self-composed and the better for it - this is probably his best work to date. There's nothing to touch his Shipbuilding, though, since that was arguably the decade's most moving political song, this is hardly surprising. But wrapped around songs about East Timor, class, the American Indian and imperialism, Wyatt's fragile, extraordinary voice has never been so consistently haunting.
by Ruben Blades y Seis del Solar
Of all the forms of Latin American music that travel north or east, salsa seems one of the least engaging to the unattuned ear.
But the non-latin listener has to try to set aside the cheap Hollywood images of South America which are conjured up as soon as the maracas start to shake. And it can be a bit of a struggle to listen bevond them.
In the case of Ruben Blades' music, however, the effort is worthwhile. The traditionally trite lyrics give way to a spare poetry of violent city life. And even the relentless rinky-tink rhythm is broken and remoulded into something more refreshing.
No concessions are made on language. And this may demand too much of the non-Spanish speaker. Though carefully translated into English on the sleeve, his lyrics do need to be listened to (or read) if the music is to hold its power.
The Bone People
by Keri Hulme
(Spiral - NZ Hodder and Stoughton - UK)
Refused by New Zealand publishers and then published by a feminist collective on what looked like toilet paper, dealing with Maori culture and even peppered with the Maori language, written by a woman who smokes a pipe and refers to herself as a 'whitebaiter' as much as a writer - how come The Bone People won the UK's Booker Prize? It is not only verbosely audacious in a way that would usually make the Booker judges cower, Keri Hulme's novel is also ragged, patchy, messy: torn apart by the collision of Maori myth with sordid daily excesses and by purple prose splintering against bawdy colloquialism. It is monstrous, clumsy - and I loved every word of it.
Hulme explores connections between love, dependence and violence. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child-batterer, an androgynous artist and a mute, abused boy, she finds it an appalling and brutal place - but the only one we have and made into our curious home through tentative and equivocal collective love.
Everyone should read it. You may hate it but you will not come away unmoved.
Fire from the mountain
by Omar Cabezas
(Crown -US; Cape - UK)
Omar Cabezas will drag you out of your armchair in 1985 and back into the Nicaragua of the mid-1970s. The mountains of the title are in the rugged north-east of the country and the fire burns in the belly of a fervent Sandinista.
This is a striking, often shocking, story. Cabezas was a student leader in the university town of Leon and his transformation from activist organiser into hardened guerilla fighter is a gruelling but fascinating tale.
It is the detail which grips the attention. The incessant rain, the lack of sex, the scavenging for food, all of these dominate the foreground. And while the grander story of insurrection and political awakening eventually takes over, there are often more pressing issues like how many leaves you should use to wipe your backside (lots).
The achievement of this book is that it seems to have been written without the benefit of hindsight. We all know that the Sandinistas won (the first round, at least). But at this stage all is uncertainty. Danger still hangs in the air. And characters who are now celebrities receive little more prominence than schoolboys destined to die before the end of the next chapter.
Armchair revolutionaries, start here.
One of Many
i used to be a Chinese Social Worker
but now i'm just a Chinese, one of the many living here in Britain.
We go about our business on the fringes trying to make ourselves thin enough
to slide past your malice.
Or thick enough
to absorb your hatred
Or transparent enough
to go unnoticed.
Some of us are deeply wounded,
our bodies litter the landscape. We did not make it past your malice.
Our eyes betrayed us, and the spikes stuck
From Gifts from my grandmother by Meiling Jin (Sheba)
Haiti: Family Business
by Rod Prince
(Latin America Bureau)
Haiti, the only nation in the American continent on the UN's list of Least Developed Countries, is the world's largest producer of baseballs. The Caribbean state also exports coffee, sugar-cane cutters to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, and blood, for which hungry Haitians are paid three dollars a litre.
Rod Prince's disturbingly fascinating report of corruption and poverty in Haiti was written before the recent military takeover, which ended almost three decades of misrule by the Duvalier family. But it remains a useful insight into the deep-seated poverty of the tiny state.
Haiti's new rulers could hardly be as corrupt or repressive as those dictators. But the underdevelopment which means one child in three never reaches its fifth birthday and 80 per cent of people are illiterate is likely to remain in what was once the most lucrative of French colonies.
.being the book that brought revolution into romance
Emily Brontë wrote the first poem I ever chose to learn by heart and the first novel to take me beyond the bookless chasm between Enid Blyton and the real world. I carried a torch for her throughout my teens, cultivated by a Heathcliffian air to cloak my shyness, and only exorcised the ghost by studying it closely, working out what it 'meant' and why it was so powerful.
I soon discovered that Wuthering Heights is not a love story, despite the habitual linking of Heathcliff and Cathy with Romeo and Juliet and the other great literary lovers. Nor is Heathcliff the Gothic monster that tradition has made him out to be, Dracula minus only the teeth. Indeed the novel is not any single thing - you can take it as a fairy story or as a socio-political allegory.
On one level, for instance, it is a lesson that 'truth' belongs to no one, that all views are only subjective - the portrait of Heathcliff as monster is offered us primarily by the pampered Isabella, whose words are themselves filtered through the obvious bias of down-to-earth Nelly Dean, whose story is in turn retold by the narrator of the whole, the fop Lockwood. The truths (and Emily Brontë's own bias) emerge through the cracks between the narratives, almost subliminally.
But why should this concern anyone reading now, interested in the world today and not just in Victorian literary tradition? I'd say it's because the book has a political dimension that is rarely recognised - the social injustice this amazingly prescient woman dealt with in the 1840s is unfortunately still with us.
Heathcliff is a foundling from the streets of Liverpool, brought into a prosperous family. The child is protected until his benefactor's death but is then humiliated and treated as a slave. He learns the bitter lesson that in this world it is power and money which mean everything - not least when his soulmate Cathy rejects him for the security of marriage to a weak local squire. His life thereafter becomes a quest for wealth and position - not just for their own sake, nor even in the hope of winning back Cathy, but because he sees it is the only way he will gain respect from the world as a person. And, for all its ruthlessness, his campaign bruises only those people who have used their social and economic power against him - the Lintons and Hindley Earnshaw. At other times he does all he can to keep his passions in check.
With his Gypsy-like dark skin (so conveniently ignored on the screen), Heathcliff physically represents every black person dismissed by society yet providing, through their labour, the foundations of Britain's wealth, from its factories to its country houses. But he also represents another great outsider, the nascent working class, its awakening signalled at the time by the demands of the Chartist Movement. And Heathcliff's seizure of social and economic power provides an extraordinary fictional parallel to the thought of Marx, who was simultaneously at work in London on his revolutionary theories.
This must sound far-fetched, and is certainly a world away from the star-crossed lovers beloved of Hollywood. And I'm by no means claiming that this reclusive daughter of an obscure Yorkshire parson had independently reached the same political conclusions as Marx. But her insight was such that her story of two family houses on the moors could encompass such grand themes as these in microcosm.
And that's why seeing Heathcliff and Cathy as lovers doesn't help. They are never 'real' people, and their love has no sex, no affection, or romance in it - it is instead a mythic, raging belonging. They are rather symbols of great movements in the human spirit. Firmly in the Romantic tradition of Blake and Shelley, they show Emily Brontë's belief that human potential is infinite, even transcending death through their sheer passion for life.
This makes a nonsense of Emily Brontë's equation in the public mind with Jane Austen - or even her sister Charlotte - as authors of polite drawing-room romances. As an object lesson in the way art can be wilfully misrepresented, it rivals the regular sight of conservative pillars of the Establishment singing Blake's clarion call to revolution, Jerusalem.
Wuthering Heights, then is a revolutionary novel in more ways than one. And maybe it did more than show me a world of literature beyond the Famous Five. Maybe it helped kick my politics into gear.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)