issue 236 - October 1992
The Power of One
directed by John G Avildsen
Christopher Columbus - The Discovery
directed by John Glen
Critics during the 1980s made a point of complaining that the decade's mainstream political films missed the mark. Costa Gavra's films weren't acute enough. The Emerald Forest romanticized the rainforest. Cry Freedom failed to get to grips with the wider problems of apartheid. But you have to think that such nit-picking is thoroughly misplaced when you set work like the above against two new Hollywood films of quite staggering inanity.
The Power of One is South Africa through the eyes of the director of The Karate Kid and Rocky V. It is indeed a boxing movie of sorts in which a blue-eyed white boy socks apartheid on the jaw. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Bryce Courtenay, it is the story of PK, an English boy isolated in an Afrikaner world in the 1930s. The impossibly winsome PK gets over a spate of bedwetting by facing an elephant from the spirit world; learns to defy bigger Afrikaner boys drunk on Hitlers rise in Europe; and ends up hanging around a camp for aliens under the tutelage of a kindly old German musician. There he learns to use his fists in the cause of justice and to teach a congregation of Zulu people how to sing in harmony.
The latter scene - a clean-cut young white kid acting as choir-master to massed Africans - is the most embarrassing in the film but there are other deeply uncomfortable moments. The love plot between PK and the blushing pigtailed daughter of a nationalist politician; the gloating scene in which Avildsen shows us a leering camp guard humiliate a black man as if mainstream US audiences wouldn't otherwise quite grasp the subject; and the ludicrous scenes of PK learning his African politics by gazing deep into mighty waterfalls. It's presumably intended as a sort of Child's Guide to the Iniquities of Apartheid but any clued-up kid will see through it in a shot.
The title supposedly alludes to the power of one people, but in practice it means the power of one kid with blue eyes and a sensible haircut. It's an insulting variation on the Great Man theory of history which gets a considerably sillier airing in the first of the forthcoming spate of Columbus films. You'd have thought someone would have told producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (the purses behind the Superman series) that Columbus wasn't universally recognized as a good guy these days. Here, as played by Georges Corraface, CC is a globe-trotting, swaggering James Bond in thigh boots (director John Glen is a veteran of the Bond series), who's first seen merrily beating hell out of some dastardly Turks and never looks back.
Brando sulks and blubbers as an improbably mild Torquemada, Tom Selleck sports a ludicrous wig as King Ferdinand, and Rachel Ward plays Queen Isabella with an accent that suggests she'd already been to the Americas and back before CC even thought of the idea. When the ships finally touch shore, the sailors are greeted by the sort of busty maidens not seen since the heyday of National Geographic.
The idea that native Americans might have been exploited is given a cursory airing but even then their maltreatment is effectively attributed to one bad apple among the invading party - which allows CC to ascend to glory in a final shot of triumphalist vulgarity.
Carry On Columbus is forthcoming. Even it will be in danger of improving on this one.
The Third Revolution
by Paul Harrison
This book is so encyclopaedic in its scope that it could easily have been subtitled 'The World, the Universe and Everything'. If you want to know the number of butterfly species that are unique to Madagascar or exactly how many tons of excreta the average American dumps in her lifetime, you need look no further. The sheer quantity of information Harrison has marshalled to make his case is quite staggering. This plenitude, coupled with his elegant and eloquent writing style, produce a rather dizzying amalgam: as though Shakespeare had turned his hand to the British Government's Social Trends. We are not used to having our statistics served with such aplomb.
Indeed, Shakespeare's own weak-willed Hamlet is used as a symbol throughout to convey the dangers of our own species' procrastination. Of course we have read all this stuff before, albeit more ploddingly: ozone holes, vanishing lemurs, red algae; time running out, time for action, a planet in trust for our children...
Where Harrison's book differs is in putting all the evidence in historical perspective; he quotes Plato and Hu-tzu, for example, bewailing deforestation and flooding over two millennia ago. Its other major strength is his systematic interrogation of the evidence in search of the theoretical Holy Grail of a sustainable world. He is quite mischievous in his overturning of development's sacred cows, taking an almost malicious delight in arguing against both Left and Right, Malthusian and cornucopian' alike.
All this cow-toppling is refreshing and discomforting by turns - depending on which cows are being toppled. The only missing actors on his global stage seem to be the multinational corporations: those amoral colossi who bestride our world and laugh down at our little democratic processes.
That apart, if you want a book that tells you all you need to know about environment and development - passionately, provocatively, persuasively - this is the one for you.
Revolution in Motion
Ritual Beating System
by Bahia Black
Olodum are the Brazilian percussion group that appeared on Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints LP. Two new records feature them in a rather more prominent role: one a compilation of tracks from four of their records; the other an adventurous New York-based project. Taking their name from the Yoruba word for God, Olodum are a 15-strong bloco afro (carnival group) from Salvador, where they also run a cultural organization involving theatre, dance and cultural debate. Black identity is their central theme both within Brazil and in terms of links between Africa and the Americas - their songs address universal apartheid, for example, their cultural affinities with Madagascar, and the struggles of the ghetto district where they are based.
The 14-track compilation features the group's thunderous martial rhythms - not that far from the Drummers of Burundi - leavened with call-and-response vocals and interventions from the piquant soprano sax of Bira Reis. The fire is formidable, the only problem being that the insistency of the rhythmic attack can be a little wearing.
As part of Bahia Black, on the other hand, Olodum fit into a complex, incongruous and more seductive structure. The project is helmed by New York's Bill Laswell, a producer equally at home with African artists and American jazz avantgardists - not to mention heavy metal. Laswell's pet concept is 'collision music' which involves bringing together musicians from wildly divergent but complementary spheres and seeing what comes out. Thus Bahia Black teams Olodum with eloquent young Brazilian balladist Carlinhos Brown and US jazz notables Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Henry Threadgill.
It's an inspired set, mixing the musicians in permutations ranging from melodic gentleness to finely honed urban funk. There are great solo showcases in here but it's a genuinely democratic project with no personalities grandstanding it - something you could never have said about Rhythm of the Saints.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
When I complete this review, I will send it to the NI using a recently issued first-class British commemorative stamp. The stamp carries the image of a seaborne caravel and the caption 'Landfall in the Americas 1492: Christopher Columbus'. But there is a profile of Queen Elizabeth H in golden silhouette too and, also in gold, a logo bearing the acronym 'CEPT' and the word 'EUROPA'. The logo belongs to the 'Central European Post and Telecoms', one of many continent-wide ventures which has sprung up in 1992, the year of supposed 'European Unity' in a single economic market.
This seemingly simple stamp is actually a rather complex text. It asserts British sovereignty and European unity (as the British Conservative Party has been trying to do for a considerable time) and exploits an historical coincidence which facilitates notions of European supremacy and the importance of monarchy (Columbus being a cosmopolitan European sponsored by Spanish monarchs). It is thus an example in miniature of the current Columbus mania noted by a recent issue of the NI (226). Alejo Carpentier's The Harp and the Shadow is one of the minority of recent texts which has challenged rather than intensified this mania.
Carpentier's novel is in three sections. The first takes place in the Vatican in 1864 on the day Pope Pius IX signs a document which he hopes will be the first step towards making Columbus a saint. Pius's motives for initiating the procedure are shown to be political rather than religious, part of the Church's constant scheming to shore up its power in Latin America. The myth of Columbus as 'discoverer' of a 'new world', he recognizes, can become a metaphor which will foster the illusion of a colossus astride the continents: the Church itself. The myth is dependent, of course, on limited knowledge of Columbus's life. But the problem is that his canonization is unlikely unless more is known about him. This section of the novel closes with Pius imagining the excitement of being the friar who had heard Columbus's final confession.
The second part of the novel consequently presents us with Columbus, speaking in his own voice, on his deathbed in 1506. What we overhear is all that he eventually decides not to tell his confessor, the reality rather than the myth. Thus we learn that he is, by and large, a con artist, a lecher, a racist and a murderer. He is a self-intoxicated dreamer, an indifferent navigator and a vicious slave trader. Like Pius IX, his pretensions to power are covered in a gloss of religion, part of the book's achievement being to show how such political strategies have continued long after Columbus. Ultimately, however, the narration of the story at the end point of Columbus's life reveals the most startling thing about him: that he was an amazing failure whose small achievements occurred by accident rather than design.
The novel's third section takes place as the tercentenary of Columbus's first voyage approaches. Pius is dead and there is little enthusiasm for the Columbus cause. Columbus's ghost itself haunts the Vatican in deluded expectation of his success. He witnesses the devil's advocate, a blatant demagogue, exposing him as the institutor of slavery in the Americas and (comically seen as an equivalent misdemeanour) the father of a bastard. His chances of sainthood demolished, we witness Columbus's shadow vanishing into the air of St Peter's Square. The verbal richness and satirical bite of this novel ought to be recommended every bit as much as the manner in which it retells a familiar narrative. Carpentier's style is often described as 'baroque' but The Harp and the Shadow, at 160 pages, is composed with a careful economy which isn't suggested by that word. The reader gets the impression that Carpentier, who died shortly after completing the book, knew all that there was to know about Columbus, and knew it backwards. But his erudition is far from showy and is often most evident in seemingly throwaway sentences. Treating such a vile chapter of world history with humour was both difficult and risky, but Carpentier pulled it off, perhaps because he himself had a sure footing in both continents too, having divided his life mainly between Cuba and Paris.
But The Harp and the Shadow was not written to lay the Columbus myth to rest. First published in Spanish more than a decade before the quincentenary, it rather alerts us to the resurrection of that myth which people in Britain can now witness in the simple act of posting a letter. As ever, it is not a simple celebration of discovery that is at issue. In Europe, the coincidence of the Columbus quincentenary and the single market is being deliberately exploited to renew faith in Europe as the cradle of world civilization and the natural leader of global culture. In North America it is being used to stress the unity of the United States and Europe, on which the 'new world order' is supposedly based. Common to all such mythologizing is a scandalous disregard for known historical fact. The Harp and the Shadow is not a history book. Yet, written as it is from a completely different cultural and ideological position, it convincingly abjures the legend we are elsewhere being persuaded to believe.
The Harp and the Shadow by Alejo Carpentier (first published in Spanish 1979; English version published by Andre Deutsch, 1992).