issue 233 - July 1992
The Trade Trap
by Belinda Coote (Oxfam)
Here at last is an exception to the rule that books about business are for rookie billionaires. One that bridges the gap between hypnotic globaloney and the more radical possibilities of daily life is a rarity indeed.
Belinda Coote's 'tour de force' (for once not an example of publishers' hype) is all the more impressive when one considers the exquisite anguish of the months that must have been spent on the finer points of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) or Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS). You get some idea what it must have been like when the book has to begin with a glossary.
But you reach the end feeling that if she can do it, so can you - that is, take the trouble to make sense of the infernal machine that's rampaging out of control across the globe and leaving vast areas of devastation around every glittering token of riches that it lets drop.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan historian much vaunted recently by the NI, likens the multinational high priests of free trade' to drug barons: they never take the poison they peddle. Coote shows, among many other things, how the collapse of the tin trade drove thousands of Bolivians into the hands of the narcotraficantes, the drug barons. But she doesn't stop there. She goes on to show what can be done and to some extent is being done by Oxfam to put things right.
Since this is Oxfam, with the charity-law regulators peering over its shoulder, you might sometimes think that it's not the machine but the opposition that's being ever so slightly tamed. But you can still see the machine for what it is. You wise up.
by Paul Vallely (Fount)
As always, it's the people who bring home the message. You can read any amount about the legacy of colonialism and the injustice of economics - and Paul Vallely does all of that very well - but what really connects with you are the glimpses into the lives of individual people. And here, drawn from Vallely's year in Brazil, Eritrea and the Philippines with UK charity Christian Aid, are an abundance of such glimpses.
Like the Brazilian landowner who disarmingly admits: 'Yes, I set fire to people's houses. Yes, I pull them down... Yes, I take armed men with me to do it.'b Like the woman who is reputedly 142 years old and whose people were driven off their ancestral lands by just such violent land grabbers. She is the only person left who speaks the Pataxó language, and her people are feverishly trying to learn it from her before she dies. They translate her words to Vallely, who waits with bated breath for her ancient wisdom - and she asks him to buy her some yellow sandals that will go with her best dress.
The story of the Pataxó's return to their own lands is just one of many in this excellent book which demonstrate the life-and-death importance of land to people in the Third World - a preoccupation far removed from our own experience in the West. But the Pataxó story also demonstrates that a key way we in the West can help is by supporting small groups of people when they organize to claim their rights. We can t do that through government aid programmes, still less through World Bank loans and restructuring packages. But voluntary aid agencies like Christian Aid are increasingly prepared to listen, learn and put their name to struggles like that of the Pataxó which are 'politically difficult'. Through them we can make a difference.
Pieces of Africa
by The Kronos Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch)
Generally credited with making bows and resin the hippest accessories this side of Lycra leggings - well before violinist Nigel Kennedy got in on the act - America's Kronos Quartet have spent the last decade proving there's more to the string-quartet repertoire than Brahms and Liszt, and more to their own repertoire than trendy Hendrix covers. Their selections may have seemed wilfully eccentric in the past but on Pieces of Africa they confirm their adventurousness with a set of eight pieces commissioned from African composers.
It's a timely concept, and a departure from the way that Western musicians usually deal with African music. It's usually taken as read that African composition is inseparable from performance, with the result that African musicians have most often pitched against their Western counterparts in blowing sessions or at worst as local colour, a smattering of percussion or kora in the background. Outside the more adventurous shores of modern jazz, Pieces of Africa is perhaps the first Western record to let African composition take the foreground, and it's an exciting set.
The showstopper here is Waterwheel, by Sudanese composer and tar player Hamza el Din - hypnotically dramatic with its tense, throbbing pizzicatos. The lyrical drama of Ghanaian Obo Addy's Ekitundu Ekisooka is outstanding and there's an extended version of the sternly elegant White Man Sleeps, by Kevin Volans, a South African who translates motifs from Malian, Zimbabwean and other musics into the idioms of minimalism.
The most unexpected work is Mai Nozipo by Dumisani Maraire from Zimbabwe. A brisk, upbeat piece, this has improbable echoes of English medievalism and American pastoral of the Aaron Copeland variety. For a long time world-music watchers have been amazed by the interchange of influences, often most unexpected - as when Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure turned out to be a big John Lee Hooker fan.
You can play the same sort of guessing games here. But the Kronos Quartet have made one of the most serious attempts yet to get inside the skin of African music - it's more than a soberminded homage. With interesting sleeve notes from the composers, this adds up to not just pieces but a fairly substantial slab of Africa.
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Jean-Jacques Annaud - the workaday director who made The Bear and Quest For Fire - was hardly the obvious person to adapt Marguerite Duras's delicate bestseller. Annaud - a gloss merchant who started out directing commercials and seems never to have stopped - has turned her intense, obliquely confessional novel into a chunk of expensive exotica that peddles a myth of the steamy, sexy Orient not too far removed from Emmanuelle.
A 15-year-old French girl (the waif-like Jane March) lives in 1920s Indochina with her family of downtrodden, neurotic colonial stragglers. On a ferry to Saigon she meets a rich, elegant Chinese man (Tony Leung), recently returned from Europe, and is swept off her feet by him in his vintage car for a whirlwind life of intense, obsessive, soft-focus sex.
The film has gone down in France - as it surely will elsewhere - as a steamy succès de scandale, although erotically it's pretty tame. The only scene where Annaud discovers a new variant on the love-making is when he shoots the writhing couple from a practically floor-level camera, suggesting he has learnt some tricks from China's Zhang Yimou, whose depiction of illicit passion in Ju Dou is infinitely more torrid in its very restraint.
The Lover fails not only as a love story, but as an attempt to capture the intimate, elliptical tones of Duras's narrative. The novel is not an explicit statement about French colonialism but certainly arises out of a central part of the author's colonial experience - that of being vulnerable and culturally isolated in the very place where you assume superiority. Here, Duras's sketchy Indochina of the imagination becomes a sumptuous splash of meticulously constructed local colour and 'authentic' picture-postcard effects, all just as background for the heroine's romantic traumas.
Only one visit to the house of the unnamed Lover's father suggests that the Chinese and Vietnamese in this movie qualify as characters in their own right. Annaud seems as incapable of engaging in their world as the girl's family and thus delivers a thoroughly pedestrian piece of spicy tourism, all the more irritating for its inept dramatic execution.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Back in the 1970s, like most of my school-mates, I spent one evening a week glued to the television. The standard diet of soap operas and documentaries was for one night a week replaced by a series that seemed to combine the best of both - Alex Haley's televised novel Roots.
This was a series reaching a large proportion of the TV audience across the world - and reaching an audience who, by and large, had never given much thought to slavery or to how Western wealth was founded on the rape of Africa.
Alex Haley died last year. He leaves a double legacy - the influential Autobiography of Malcolm X; and the more popular Roots, which sold two million copies within six months of its publication in 1976 and won two major awards.
The popular appeal of Roots derives from the personal history at its heart. Some time in the eighteenth century, an ancestor of Haley's was taken from his African homeland and brought to slavery in the US. This was forgotten by history - but not forgotten by the African himself, Kunta Kinte, who told his only child, Kizzy. She told her son, George; and so on, through seven generations of Afro-Americans, to Alex Haley.
The clues were meagre enough. Each generation learnt that Kinte was captured near his village while chopping wood to make a drum. They heard that their African ancestor called a guitar 'ko', and the nearby river 'Kamby Bolongo'.
Little else survived, largely because a little literacy was a dangerous thing for a slave: Kinte's daughter Kizzy was sold never to see her parents again - as a direct result of her literacy. The obstacles in the way of any slave recording family history were huge; and, as another slave observes to Kizzy, at a time of frenzied slave dealing she was lucky to have known her parents at all. In Haley's family history, each generation learns those few details as a matter of pride in the displaced family and its roots.
In the 1960s, working on those few scattered clues, Haley became convinced that he had achieved the near impossible task of locating his ancestor's actual village in Africa - Juffure in The Gambia. He was stunned to find the same details of Kinte's capture encapsulated in folk memory. Without the 'crutch of print', he says, African griots - tellers of oral history - could recite that single eighteenth-century event of Kinte's capture: 'the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from his village to chop wood... and he was never seen again...'
After 12 years' researching and writing, Haley produced a book whose first 32 chapters cover the civilization from which Kunta Kinte came: the manners, rituals, society, Muslim religion and Arabic writing that both sustained him in captivity and made his treatment as an ignorant 'nigger' in a strange pork-eating country all the harder to bear.
But this is above all a human story, in which the scattered facts passed down over the centuries come alive in the writer's imagination. On the long, painful and squalid journey across the Atlantic, Kunta Kinte and his fellow captives lie packed in their own filth; diseases spread like wildfire along the cramped decks; captured Africans attack the slavers or fling themselves into the sea. Later Haley finds the cold figures in the slavetraders' records: the ship loaded with 140 slaves arrived with 98 'negroes'. The loss of 42 Africans en route, or around one third, was average for slaving voyages.
As the book focuses on one generation after another, there are some shocks. The life of Kunta Kinte - as a child in Africa; as a young man who escapes his white 'massa' but is recaptured by slavehunters who threaten to chop off his penis and cut away half his foot; as an older 'married' man - is told in loving detail. Then his daughter Kizzy is sold away, and the narrative follows her; the reader never hears again of Kunta Kinte, and the story echoes Kizzy's shock and loss.
What of the white 'massas'? As Haley emphasizes, some of them are relatively liberal; certainly other slaves were treated worse. But their casual cruelty shows when they buy or sell slaves as freely as though they were cats or dogs; and in the drunken Tom Lea, who rapes Kizzy, declares he wants her to bear more 'niggers', and finally tries to cheat his half-caste son out of his freedom.
'Work a thousan' years for a white man you still any nigger!' exclaims one elderly slave bitterly after the 'massa' he has served loyally for three decades waves a shotgun at him. And when Haley's family finally do win freedom, they face the racism of whites determined to cast them into economic enslavement.
Roots is a great read, and all the more shocking for being founded on truth - the truth of Haley's own family, as well of all the other descendants of the rape of Africa over the centuries. If its carefully-researched pages relay the spirit of oppression as well as the few facts now available, then it is all the better for being the hybrid Haley called 'faction'.
Roots by Alex Haley.