issue 202 - December 1989
The Temple of my Familiar
by Alice Walker
For millions of readers in dozens of countries, Alice Walker's The Color Purple was an inspiring book. Its droll humour, painful depictions of the sufferings and violations of black women, its unpredictability and powerfully moving final optimism were the cornerstones of a novel in which broad politics, individual emotions and literary audacity combined. A new word entered our vocabulary: Alice Walker called her idiosyncratic brand of radical humanism 'womanism' ('Womanist is to feminist what lavender is to purple').
What a falling off there is in The Temple of my Familiar, Alice Walker's long, earnest and sentimental romance of the last 500,000 years has none of the zest or anger of her earlier writing. Black and feminist politics are replaced by the mushy spirituality of Californian New Ageism. The badly constructed novel is narrated by several characters and dominated by the garrulous Miss Lissie, who can remember all her previous lives. Through them the history of oppression can be traced: she was a slave, raped and mutilated; she lived in a harem, pleasuring an old man; she was burnt as a witch. She can also recall incarnations which are loopy versions of Utopia: she was a pygmy, playing merrily with apes; a lion, lolling in eternal sunlight. And she was Adam, fleeing into exile because his skin was white. Alice Walker does not treat her subject with irony, sell-mockery, political awareness, magic or myth: her flat-footed literalness takes the breath away.
Moreover, The Temple of my Familiar is sloppily written ('something hot and passionate was opening in him, and it wasn't in his trousers, it was in his chest' is one of the more startling phrases) and sags with platitudes. 'Loving someone means never having to be embarrassed,' says one character, echoing Eric Segal's corny phrase. 'Artists have the responsibility for uniting the world' says another, with offensive elitism.
Alice Walker's admirers will be bitterly disappointed by this mish-mash of romance and religion, utopianism and grumpiness. Purple has turned to sludge.
by Anuradha Vittachi
This is the book of a major British TV series on the plight of children worldwide - timed to coincide with the adoption of the vital United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. But it functions superbly as a book in its own right.
We should state our interest up front: Anuradha Vittachi, long-time subscribers will remember, was an NI co-editor for many years. She edited special issues on Babyfoods, Children's Rights and Adolescence, and the knowledge and passion she has put into these subjects over the last decade show through on every page of Stolen Childhood.
We get to know through it children from every continent whose poignant life histories are evidence of a wider problem. There is one-year-old Princess, from the Philippines, for instance, whose own story and perilous future has to be told by tracing her teenage mother's path from a poverty-stricken village to the American base of Subic Bay where she was made pregnant and abandoned. There is Martina, a Swedish child with Down's Syndrome, whose unique human qualities confounded doctors who advised her parents that she was an idiot for whom there was no hope. And there are the four sons of Mary Nti and John Oppong, whose daily well-being is threatened by the knock-on effects of Ghana s crippling debt repayments.
But beyond the stories and examples is as comprehensive a picture of the social and political forces affecting children's lives as you could wish for - and beyond the analysis an earnest wish to understand that sets the book apart. It is lucidly and colourfully written, with an intelligent use of photos.
In the unlikely event that you have ever wondered what a 150-page NI Keynote might read like (some of you, of course, may well consider that a reasonable approximation to hell), this comes pretty close.
by Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman's meteoric rise to megastardom via the Free Mandela concert was truly heartening. Not because she is a black woman - popular music is one of the few public arenas in the world not understocked with black women. Nor because she is such a passionately political animal. But rather because she is so prodigiously and yet unpretentiously talented. For once quality - stark, unadorned, even retiring - was being rewarded.
That view of her ability is not likely to be disturbed in the long term by an undeniably disappointing second album. The second record was always going to be difficult - almost any way she jumped was going to be wrong. But the fault here is the most basic one - she has simply not come up with enough good songs.
The voice is still strong and resonant, the antenna for injustice just as attuned. But the melodic hooks aren't there and the whole slides by almost unnoticed, unmemorably pale.
There are exceptions: notably Subcity's dispatch from the poverty front line and This Time, the most cautious of love songs. But their musical vitality only serves to emphasize the pallidness of the rest.
She will come again. Best to pass through this crossroads and wait for the riches further down the road.
Fight For Us
directed by Lino Brocka
The movie world is becoming a richer, more diverse place as films from developing countries achieve more notice. But most of them can still only be seen in festivals. Toronto's most recent Festival of Festivals showcased offerings from Brazil, Algeria and Hong Kong, for example.
One of its most dramatic entries came from the Philippines - Lino Brocka's Fight For Us (Ora Pro Nobis). An angry film, rooted in the broken promises of the Aquino era, this will probably never play in downtown Manila. The main character, former priest and ex-political prisoner Jimmy Cordero (played by Philip Salvador), sets out to investigate reports of human-rights abuses by anti-communist citizens committees. He gradually discovers that the complicity between the army and groups of vigilantes that existed in the days of the Marcos dictatorship is still very much intact.
Brocka is the best-known Filipino director, with 12 features under his belt. He smuggled this one out of the country and it is not a film for the fainthearted Yet ironically his approach to film-making is very Hollywood, which helps account for his popularity in a country saturated with US culture.
This lacks the shades of grey typical of the European political cinema - but perhaps with good reason, since the events described are all too real. Screenwriter Jose Lacaba based his story on actual events documented in a 1988 Amnesty International report. And Brocka captures the interplay between public outrage and private fears as characters are forced into ever-tighter corners by a wave of officially sanctioned violence.
Fight For Us shows the real story behind the simple-minded black-versus-white, Marcos-versus-Aquino scenario that passes for journalistic coverage of the Philippines.
OF THE YEAR
Moving towards Home
by June Jordan
The best essays from 25 years of passionate writing and activism: snapshots from the most political of lives by a woman unafraid of being confessional. June Jordan writes superbly about everything from vernacular Black English to Palestine, bisexuality to teaching. There is fire and wisdom here in plenty.
OF THE YEAR
by Elvis Costello
If this is not Elvis Costello's best album in a 13-year career then it comes very close indeed. He is one of the most intelligent people ever to have embraced the popular song and has retained all his biting edge - as the staggeringly bitter attack on Margaret Thatcher contained here proves. The wordplay is streamlined, the music has a new consistency and Spike is essential.
OF THE YEAR
Do the Right Thing
directed by Spike Lee.
Location: Sal's pizzeria, an Italian outpost in black Brooklyn. On the hottest day of the year, a cross-section of characters are tracked through the hours leading up to a race riot. Spike Lee looks at inner-city race and class issues with grace, subtlety and humour. It's a triumph - and we are proud to honour a film that was so bitterly panned by Time magazine.
The Time Machine
.being one of the first works of political science fiction
When I was ten I started at a new school. The day before I bought two books: Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and HG Wells's The Time Machine. On my first day they were both, to my utter bewilderment, summarily confiscated by the priests who ran the school. All books, I learned, had to be stamped 'Approved' by the prefect of discipline. Approved books were stirring 'boys' yarns' in the school library and were naturally unadulterated rubbish.
The reverend father was quite willing to pass the Verne but then caught sight of the name HG Wells. 'What is a boy like you doing with this stuff? You won't understand it - and didn't you know Wells was an Enemy of the Church?'
After many appeals I got it back weeks later, reluctantly stamped. Yet I think that even at ten I realized that there was a profound difference between Verne's romance and the Wells story. Verne's heroes, like Captain Nemo or Robor, are individualists, possibly influenced by French anarchist thought, with a contempt for society.
Wells also established his reputation with tales of scientific prophecy, and his first, The Time Machine of 1895, is first and foremost a good sci-fi thriller. But Wells's special achievement was to use this framework of scientific romance to make serious statements about society and its future. When the Time Traveller explains his as yet untested contraption, an editor offers 'a shilling a line for a verbatim note of The Future', while a young man speculates 'Just think! One might invest all one's money, leave it to accumulate at interest, and hurry on ahead!' 'To discover a society,' answers the Time Traveller, 'erected on a strictly communistic basis.'
Sure enough, the world he discovers in the year 802701 is peopled by a gentle, pleasure-seeking people, the Eloi. War, violence and hardship seem to have vanished along with private property and overt sexual specialization. Gradually, though, he realizes that this carefree existence really depends on the toils of a secretive, subterranean species of workers, the Morlocks. These Morlocks tend the machines on which the Eloi's easeful existence is founded but they inspire terror and are never mentioned. The widening, the Traveller afterwards suggests, of the present merely social difference between capitalist and labourer had evidently continued. 'Even now . does not an East-End worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?'
But unlike Marx, Wells cannot see an inevitable revolution by the Morlocks. Instead he develops from Darwin the idea that they might instead represent the development of a completely separate species, literally forced underground, which has adapted to and accepted its degraded existence - but has in the process exacted a horrible tribute from its ostensible rulers.
This is where Wells drives home a message which speaks very much to the concerns of year 1989. For the Eloi's ancestors have conquered hardship and danger by conquering nature. No animals remain in their world, nor insects nor weeds. But below this garden-world vast tunnels are full of humming machines - whose maintenance has at least preserved their minders' mental resourcefulness. Nature, or evolution, has revenged itself by enfeebling the Eloi so that they have become a sort of free-range flock for nocturnally marauding Morlocks, defenceless against being devoured by the proletariat.
It is difficult now to realize the enormous impression Wells's vast output made on European minds earlier this century but Orwell, whom he greatly influenced, has testified to his liberating effect. His imaginative awareness of new thinking about science and society and his internationalism compared very favourably with the fustiness and obscurantism of his contemporaries. And from the start, in The Time Machine, Wells announced himself as a prophet of possibilities. In succeeding works he drew away from its pessimism, encouraging a faith in science and technology (in association with socialism) which Orwell infuriated him by deriding. Yet Wells himself bitterly abandoned his faith in the last year of his life, after Hiroshima had demonstrated science's power to end war - and all human life with it.
But The Time Machine is a sober, vivid fable about the darker side of 'evolution'. Like Darwin and Marx, whose theories he projects into the future, Wells is quietly drawing certain conclusions from present evidence, not allowing ethical or spiritual preconceptions to hinder him. Certainly he has no belief in any divine intervention. As he presses on ever deeper into the future, the Time Traveller witnesses no Day of Judgment - but no socialist millennium or triumph of technology either.
And when I had read it, I think I began to understand why the priest had panicked, and that I myself had stumbled on a new discovery: the power of - and fear of - ideas and the imagination.
The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895)