issue 184 - June 1988
The Last Emperor
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
One of the most extraordinary things about The Last Emperor is that it has has not been made several times already. The bizarre life of Pu Yi is a pearl of a plot - crowned emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three; deposed and expelled from the Forbidden City; lured into collaborating with the Japanese during World War Two; re-educated in a revolutionary Maoist jail and released to begin a new life as a simple Beijing gardener.
But don't imagine you will come away with a broad grasp of modern Chinese history. In spite of its epic length (and budget) this film is the final word in claustrophobia. We see China only through the eyes of Pu Yi; primarily as the pampered child-Emperor, suffocating in the Forbidden City, insulated from all but fleeting, stolen glimpses of life outside the walls Privilege stunts his social and emotional development and imperial power nips in the bud any empathy the 'Lord of 10,000 years' might have had for his fellow creatures. Pu Yi is incapable of growing up. His palace (and childhood empire) is a prison which he carries around with him even after his expulsion from it. Too egocentric to feel patriotic even as war looms he naively collaborates with the Japanese simply because they tell him they will make him Emperor again.
This is what makes his 'reeducation' in a Maoist prison seem implausible - and flaws this otherwise excellent film. The prison governor gets the measure of Pu Yi when he notes, with frustration, how the former Emperor switches from admitting no responsibility for the Japanese invasion of China to admitting full responsibility for it. It is of course just the flip-side of the same megalomaniac coin. But what follows on from there is a clash between the theme of the film and the psychological credibility of its central character.
Director Bernardo Bertolucci has said that The Last Emperor is unlike his other films because it goes 'from darkness to light'. If that is so its a weak light Pu Yi might have become a gentle gardener but there is little to show that he has grown into a man with any kind of social or political conscience. (Indeed, China specialists argue that the emperor's reformation was simply the pragmatic response of a self-centred survivor.) All the same, the film remains a powerful and intriguing experience.
Gone with the Twilight
by Don Mattera
There are thousands of books about South Africa but none of them is quite like this one. This is the first part of Don Mattera's autobiography, covering the eventful and violent childhood of a 'coloured' boy who became a gangster leader long before he was first touched by the politics and the poetry which have been the guiding forces of his life. 'I was spared to tell this story,' he says,' but I carry many marks on my body - knife and gunshot wounds - reminders of a time when the only heroes we loved and worshipped, feared or emulated were killers whose only classroom was the street and whose only code of conduct and survival was violence'.
What changed Mattera, giving political direction and meaning to his rebelliousness, was the demolition of Sophiatown in the late 1950s. A multi-racial area of Johannesburg, teeming with both squalor and vitality, Sophiatown is very important to black South African culture. It has a mythical resonance now, perhaps because it symbolizes a sense of community that existed before apartheid was declared in 1948. And there is no better way to get a sense of the place than through this colourful series of snapshots from a remarkably vivid life.
Punishing the Poor
by Eva Mysliwiec
Punishing the Poor, the story of the aid boycott of Kampuchea, deserves to be widely read and acted upon. 'It as if the Kampuchean people are being punished for the Vietnamese presence in their country,' writes author Eva Mysliwiec.
Well over a million Khmers were killed and injured by US bombing in a secret war in the early 1970s. By 1975 Pol Pot's the Khmer Rouge had killed between one and two million people. Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese kicked out Pol Pot and set up a new regime with Heng Samrin as President. But today Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia) is strangled by big power politics. Neither the West nor China recognise the Heng Samrin Government. And the United Nations (UN) still recognises a Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition, based in Thailand, as the rightful Government of the country. The US and the UK also back the exiled coalition, though Australia, Eire and France abstained in recent UN votes.
The result is that the UN can only supply emergency relief to the war-torn, poverty-stricken nation. Says Mysliwiec: 'The UN can drill a new well at a village school but it cannot repair a damaged well in the same village'. This is because desperately-needed long-term development aid has been banned by the West.
In Kampuchea today one child in seven dies in the first year of life and only one per cent of the 7.6 million people has access to clean water. A country that in the 1960s exported rice now has the same levels of malnutrition as Bangladesh.
'Most Kampucheans find it incomprehensible that the UN supports a coalition that the Khmer Rouge dominates,' writes Mysliwiec. 'They fear that if the Vietnamese army withdraws, the Khmer Rouge will seize power again in Phnom Penh,' she says. Free elections hold no attraction for Kampucheans unless the threat of the Khmer Rouge is removed, she argues.
Mysliwiec's informative and well-illustrated report is published in 10 countries and five languages. It calls for the Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried for genocide, for refugees to be pulled back from the border and for a political settlement.
Women and Environment in the Third World
by Irene Dankelman and Joan Davidson
'If there must be a war, let the weapons be your healing hands, the hands of the world's women in defence of the environment. Let your call to battle be a song for the earth.' That is the message of this necessary if rather dry book which argues that rural women are paying the penalty for development projects which wreck the environment.
Women are thrown off their land when it is turned over to cash crops. They trudge miles and miles to collect firewood because tree-planting schemes fail to take their needs into account. Yet they hold the answers to many questions about how best to manage the earth's resources since they have been doing just that for centuries.
The book is more for reference than for bedtime reading but it provides a useful global overview. It documents women's attempts to get together conservation projects of their own: building wells, protecting trees, growing food. But these projects are few and far between and governments and development agencies need to start believing in them.
by Spy vs Spy
The vocals of Michael Weiley and Craig Bloxom give Aussie band Spy Vs Spy a sound similar to that of The Angels or perhaps Cold Chisel: street music for an industrial landscape; the grit and sweat of urban living in a land of translucent promises. Modified ever so slightly by marketability, of course.
Whether it is the strident bass and rhythm of Back on the track and Relax, or the searing guitar of The Golden Mile, Spy Vs Spy are an undeniably fresh force, despite the strong 1970s musical overtones. They also ask radical questions, as in the anti-nuclear Free the Future, the anti-racist Mingle 'n' Mix, and Test of Time, which addresses the nature of work and its alienation: Is a cal-loused skin growing soft/ Do we just clock on and just clock off! Have we been and gone?
But the greatest challenge is that thrown down to militaristic patriotism in Soldiers: Send the soldiers home! put down the guns! melt them down! send the solders home! Collective voices could stop the fighting! We're only weak but the weak will be mighty. Spy Vs Spy may not strike a massive chord in the market but their message strikes a welcome note for Australia's bicentenary.
If This Is A Man / The Truce
... being the book that showed one man's journey from Auschwitz back to life
'They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all he evil of our time with one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. If the drowned have no story and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable.'
In 1943 Primo Levi, a young Jewish chemist from Turin, helped to form a partisan band which he and his comrades hoped would eventually be affiliated with the Resistance movement. But at the end of the year he was captured by the Fascist militia and deported to a detention camp at Fossoli. He stayed there a few weeks. On 24 February 1944, it was announced that all the Jews in the camp would be leaving the following day for an unknown destination. Along with 650 other Jewish 'pieces' he was sent to the gigantic death-machine of Auschwitz, whose name was 'without significance for us at that time' but where 24,000 people could be gassed on a single day.
The children, old men and most of the women who had been crammed into the 12 goods wagons on the train were 'swallowed by the night'; of the remaining 125 who entered the concentration camps, only three made the return journey to Italy after Liberation. Primo Levi was one of them. He escaped because as a chemist he was useful to the Nazis and because in 1945, when the Germans fled from Auschwitz taking all the healthy prisoners with them, Levi was ill with scarlet fever.
Some years after his return home, when he no longer walked with his eyes to the ground searching for food and no longer woke night after night from dreams of terror, Levi wrote about his 20 months spent in hell. If This Is A Man describes the grotesque horrors of Auschwitz, where the souls of men and women were demolished before their actual death; The Truce tells of Levi's slow journey back to the world of the living, carrying with him the awful privilege of his knowledge. But, paradoxically, what finally emerges from his sombre and eloquent witnessing is the sense of humanity's fragile but enduring worth, fought for and maintained against impossible odds. Levi speaks with the calm and sober tones of the witness - not the irate tones of those who seek revenge nor the anguished voice of the victim. He speaks from his first-hand experience, but with the urgency of an unspeakable history.
Much has been written about the Holocaust, reminding us, lest we should ever forget, of the possibility of unbearable human evil. Levi's unflinching account, however, not only takes the reader back to that unbelievable past; it brings the past into our present. He sees what he and hundreds of thousands of his people suffered as a monstrous manifestation of servitude and spiritual shipwreck, not as an isolated and unrepeatable event. This does not mean that he 'understands' what happened to him: as he says, to understand would be to contain and almost to justify. There is no rationale in the Nazi hatred: but if understanding is impossible, knowing is impressive, because as he writes in his postscript, 'conscience can be secluded and obscured again - even our conscience'.
Levi's books contain a wisdom rather than a 'moral'. But in their nightmarish revelations there is an implicit warning to us today: that we must regard all charismatic leaders and all prophets with caution; that we must not delegate, ever, our judgement and our will; that we must be content with 'more modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts'.
Levi also demonstrates the heroic possibility of the ordinary person to remain human. In If This Is A Man he tells the story of Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker who brought him the remainder of his rations each day. Levi believes 'that it is because of Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror, a remote possibility. Thanks to Lorenzo I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.' The courage displayed by Levi's writing is not transcendent, religious, or innate; it is deliberate and willed and miraculously ordinary. His sober, unrecriminatory tone is not a reflection of forgiving goodness but a self-enforced position - precisely because he is not a Fascist, he chooses not to cultivate hatred or violence but to take up discussion and reason as the tools of progress.
If This Is A Man and The Truce are written without a trace of bitterness or self-pity. They are works of fine literature and grave compassion that have been built out of unimaginable brutality, out of the blood, bones and horror of the Holocaust. They remind us how foul the offspring of power can be, and how willing servitude can allow monstrosity to tiptoe into the heart of 'civilization' - but also remind us of the value of the human spirit and the abundance of life.
If This Is A Man/The Truce by Primo Levi