issue 213 - November 1990
The Handmaid's Tale
directed by Volker Schlondorff
Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood's bleak view of an anti-feminist future was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986. Now it has been made into a film by British scriptwriter Harold Pinter and German director Volker Schlondortf.
The Handmaid's Tale projects a not-too-distant future in the US where the evangelical right wing has come to power and the themes of fundamentalist protest have become the dictates of the state. An epidemic of infertility caused by widespread toxic contamination means that known 'breeders' are herded together and eventually selected for insemination by the powerful. The main character (played by Natasha Richardson) is dragooned into serving as breeding stock for a childless couple in the evangelical-state hierarchy. Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as the couple do a marvellous job portraying the 'family/hearth' ruthlessness of those in control.
The film suffers from a lack of the social detail that made Atwood's feminist novel so credible. The ideological points are still there but it's hard to believe that totalitarian regimentation could be so tight. The unravelling of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR has shown that it anything the notion of total control exercised by an all-knowing state has been badly overplayed by Cold Warriors.
Still, the film remains a compelling update of Orwell's 1984 - and with the breakdown of Stalinism the notion of the fundamentalist Right as the prime totalitarian threat has a thoroughly contemporary flavour.
The Handmaid's Tale is at its best in its frightening portrayal of gender politics and the depths to which people can sink when women are reduced to their biological functions.
Month of Pure Light
by Elizabeth Kemf
(The Women's Press UK)
This remarkable book shows that happy conjunction of the personal and the descriptive which marks the best travelogues. But it is a travelogue with a difference. Elizabeth Kemf's journeys are all in the service of documenting the devastating effects that US bombing and chemical defoliation had upon the people and the environment of Vietnam - and the attempts to mend the damage. And while there is a fair slice here of the usual details of travel, of botched arrangements and chance encounters, the personal story is also much more worth telling than usual.
Elizabeth Kemf is an American now living in Switzerland and working for the Worldwide Fund for Nature. She first went to Vietnam in 1985 at a time when the country was still much more closed to journalists than it is now, full of enthusiasm that she was finally fulfilling a long-time ambition. Her visa had already come through when she found out that she was pregnant with her first child. The Vietnamese were appalled at the idea of a woman undergoing a trip in such a condition and in the end their forebodings proved justified: Elizabeth lost her baby.
She was to return four times, each time learning more about the ecology and the people. Despite its poverty and its international isolation, Vietnam has been making a unique attempt to restore its tropical forest, one-fifth of which was lost in 20 years of war and its own mistakes. And as Kemf witnesses more and more of the damage and the recovery for herself, she becomes closer to the Vietnamese friends who help her with her project, most particularly to Vietnam's most eminent environmentalist, Vo Quy.
But her personal loss echoes through her researches to the end just as the tragedy suffered by the Vietnamese during the US War informs everything and everyone she meets. Recommended to anyone keen to delve beneath the stock images of this troubled but beautiful country.
The NI Food Book
by Troth Wells
(New Internationalist / Second Story Press)
Chewing your way around the world is one of the cheapest ways to travel. And with the NI Food Book as your guide you should be reasonably sure of a safe landing. This a collection of Third World recipes in a smart, rough and kitchen-friendly presentation which is combined with brief explanations of where the dishes come from - and a snappy history of food which you can ruminate on while waiting for your Indian banana fudge to set.
Classified by country and by course it's easy to find your way around - and ponder on which continent you should grace your culinary skills with next. Badenjan wya choban (Aubergine/egg-plant Casserole to you) from Syria is well worth a visit. Or Fish Stew from Brazil maybe or Cauliflower Salad from the Dominican Republic (which is a 'colonial kickabout' according to the recipe's preamble - but this is an NI book so you can expect the usual political opinions).
There are plenty of photographs which you can smear with olive oil or crushed garlic (according to taste) just to show you've been there. Interesting explanations too of some of the ingredients. Cloves are the dried flowerbud of an Indian evergreen, apparently. Though to be told that turmeric is a 'rhizome of the ginger family' may send you scurrying for the dictionary.
Always an edge of danger of course with a new recipe. You could never approach Chicken Ramatoulaye (from Mali) with 100 per cent confidence but it looks straightforward enough. And Date Halva is probably one of the safest Iraqi experiences currently on offer.
by the Kafala Brothers
Eyuphuro, from the Macua word meaning whirlwind, is an apt name for a band which whirls you away from the all-too-prevalent perception of Mozambique as a place of war, famine and refugees, to the image of a young and dynamic society.
Formed in 1980 and led by dual singer-songwriters Gimo Remane and Zena Bakar, the group has always made an effort to maintain the traditional rhythms of their home in Nampula province but also take inspiration from a cosmopolitan mix of Latin and Arab styles: the delicate lilting Portuguese-influenced guitar cuts across sliding Arabic rhythms.
Mama Mosambiki deals mainly with the social and cultural relations of men and women in modern Mozambique: it criticizes, for instance, the old traditions that leave a wife with nothing after a divorce and celebrates the resilience of women in the face of men's negative attitudes. This sympathetic focus on women is very refreshing. Eyuphuro's lyrics come from a Mozambican context and from the heart.
Although they have chosen to deal with personal dilemmas, the songs in Mama Mozambiki can also be seen as metaphors for what is happening in a nation struggling to overcome years of civil war fuelled by South African destabilization. The Samukhela, people who are always harking back to the good old pre-independence days and want to emigrate, are addressed in the first song: 'But Samukhela when you get there you'll think of home - the home of Africa.you'll miss your mother you'll miss your father'.
The Kafala Brothers' debut album Ngola (the king of the Ndongo people and the basis of Angola's name) is a good point of comparison. Angola and Mozambique share many similarities: from their days of suppression under Portuguese colonial rule to the problems of post-independence South African aggression. And, like Eyuphuro, the Kafala Brothers have a cosmopolitan influence, blending traditional and urban styles and reflecting Congolese, Zairean, Brazilian and Cuban rhythms in a combination of vocals, flute and guitar.
But in contrast to Mama Mosambiki's oblique approach, the Kafala Brothers have chosen in this album to sing directly about the cruelty and devastation of civil war in Angola. Their songs are sad and haunting tributes to their people's sufferings - 'the bitter taste of darkness' - making use of the hypnotic quality of traditional chants to moving effect. The overall result is a collection of beautiful and ironically harmonious expressions of pain which literally cry out for some of the vibrancy and hopeful energy of Mama Mosambiki.
.being the book that inspired alternative trading
Max Havelaar is today a top-selling brand of 'fair trade' coffee in Belgium and the Netherlands which guarantees that it is produced in the Third World under reasonable, non-exploitative conditions. But it was originally a best-selling nineteenth-century novel, a true story of corruption in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, in which only the names were changed.
Eduard Dowes Dekker, the author, was a civil servant in the Dutch colonial service. Like Stanley Adams of the multinational Hoffman La Roche and Clive Ponting, the British civil servant who leaked embarrassing details about the Falklands War, Dekker was a whistle-blower, He told the public back home what many people knew but preferred for whatever reason to keep hidden.
He resigned after reporting the colonial oppression to his superiors and his novel took the Netherlands by storm when it was published in 1860. Havelaar, like Dekker in real life, was posted to a new province where he found widespread corruption. His predecessor, who was probably poisoned by the local Regent, had built up a dossier to be used against the Regent.
But when Havelaar repoi'ted the corruption his superior backed the Regent and Havelaar felt obliged to resign. Nobody wanted to hear about the forced labour, the theft of buffaloes and land taxes and the depopulation of the province.
Dekker himself wrote under a pseudonym, 'Multatuli', which is Latin for 'I have endured much'. But his novel was clearly autobiographical. The book shook the Netherlands because it revealed all too clearly how Indonesian spices, coffee and sugar enriched Holland but impoverished the local peasants. Dekker's charges, even dressed up as a novel, 'sent a shiver through the country', to quote a Dutch parliamentarian of the time. Dekker was eventually backed by an official inquiry but he was never reinstated.
Dekker objected to the illegal use of forced labour by local rulers to supplement their incomes. Peasants were taken from their own fields to work for nothing for the benefit of their colonial masters, even if this led to famine. The Dutch, like other European nations, ruled their colonies through local princes who had Dutch civil servants as 'advisors'. Both princes and advisers colluded to steal the buffaloes the ants needed for ploughing and publicly caned or even murdered anyone who complained.
The novel's criticisms are very explicit. Havelaar complains to his superior, for instance: 'Your Excellency has sanctioned the system of abuse of authority, of robbery and murder, under which the humble Javanese groans... It has been heartrending to listen to complaints about maltreatment, exploitation, poverty, hunger... I am not at liberty to tell these poor people: "Go, and suffer still, for the Administration wishes you to be exploited".'
Max Havelaar speaks for himself in the novel though his letters and his sense of injustice, outrage and bitterness reflects the author's own feelings. But his story is carried back to Holland by Scarfman, so called because he is too poor to wear an overcoat. Scarfman, too, probably contained autobiographical elements, since Dekker himself travelled Europe in poverty after his return to Holland.
The naming of Scarfman after his own key characteristic is not the novel's only Dickensian element. There is also Droogstoppel, for instance (which roughly translates as 'dry as dust'), a hypocrite and bigot who trades coffee in Amsterdam and who prides himself on being 'a plain man'. 'All that moaning and groaning about buffaloes!' Droogstoppet says. 'What do they want buffaloes for, those niggers? I've never had a buffalo and I'm satisfied enough. Some people are always complaining.'
And then there is the Reverend Blatherer (Wawelaar in Dutch), who preaches about the 'heathen' in the East Indies. 'Out there live lost ones, stray sheep... who assert that it is enough to love wife and child and not to take from their neighbour what is not theirs.' Blatherer wants it made a condition of granting opium licences in Java that each opium den have a stock of Bibles.
Max Havelaar, which has been lucidly translated into English by Roy Edwards, resides firmly within the traditions of the nineteenth-century novel - it comes from an age when there seemed more time for digression and flowery language, though Dekker has a refreshingly direct style. At first sight something of a hotchpotch the novel is actually well planned, direct and at times deeply moving. It remains a damning insight into colonial oppression and an inspiration to those working for a fairer world.
And Eduard Dowes Dekker would have been more than pleased to find his brainchild remembered less as a dusty piece of literary history than as the inspiration for the idea of fair trade with the Third World.
Max Havelaar by Multatuli (Eduard Dowes Dekker), 1860, currently available in Penguin.