When Memory Dies
by A Sivanandan
(Arcadia Books ISBN 1-900850-01-X)
The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science
by Marek Kohn
(Vintage ISBN 0-09-941001-X)
When Memory Dies, A Sivanandan’s epic account of Sri Lanka’s slide into terror, is quite the most extraordinary book I have encountered in recent years. Effortlessly interweaving the personal and the political, it spans three generations of a Sri Lankan family and is populated with a throng of characters drawn from most walks of life and thrown into the most challenging circumstances. Three successive sons – Sahadevan, Rajan and Vijay – keep the narrative focused, while other players weave in and out. Throughout there is a sureness of touch that encompasses all the contradictions of avowed belief and the reality of action.
I am no fan of sprawling sagas, but this novel won me over immediately because it embraces all of life, all its details and complications. Sivanandan’s characters are people first, capable both of heroism and pettiness, not symbols or political counters. They are intent on finding love, raising kids, earning a living, forging their selves, maintaining wholeness while their country disintegrates around them. It is this valuing of personal experience that illuminates the issues of colonial subjugation and racialized politics from within. The title refers to the perversion and loss of true memory through propaganda and terror, which deludes people into believing that the politics of oppression can lead to solutions.
A Sivanandan has long been a respected voice on race and class issues and the unflinching clarity with which he unfolds Sri Lanka’s grief is rousing. This is a novel of grand ideas and, importantly, of little ones, too. Heartbreaking and heart-warming by turns, it pits the tenacity of the spirit against the brutalization of life.
There are many today, both within and on the fringes of the scientific community, who are pleading for a reconstructed ‘racial science’ in which gene sequences rather than skulls are laid side by side to represent the types by which humanity is supposedly divided.
Marek Kohn’s The Race Gallery charts the revival of these disturbing doctrines. On the grounds that ridicule is not enough, he chooses not to concentrate upon the more outrageous of theories. This at least prepares the reader for a racism that mimics the paradigm forms and standards of science, and does so in order to claim respectability.
The sheer diversity of biological differences between individual humans makes nonsense of such simplistic divisions into biological groups. But so persistent is the widespread belief in the concept of race that when scientists talk of ‘gene pools’ and ‘distributions’, most people still translate this back into the language of ‘race’. Moreover, in recent years biological determinism, normally associated with the Right, has been enlisted to support such liberal causes as cultural diversity and the claims of the oppressed. For example, genetics has been used as a natural moral sanction for homosexuality, and as a supposed biological proof of the physiological superiority of ‘black men’ over ‘white men’.
This book takes the form of a series of overlapping portraits of racially influenced theories, a gallery of rehashed racisms. At one moment we are in Bosnia talking about humans as ‘genetically defective material’, the next we are back among the cave dwellers facing the long harsh winter of European glaciation. Given the amount of detail it handles, the book is under-structured, while the post-modern conclusion about embracing intellectual diversity, even in forms we deeply disagree with, is a bit too woolly and liberal for my tastes. But that aside The Race Gallery is a very readable and admirably sustained analysis of the new ‘racial science’ in many of its most important and most dangerous aspects.
The Charity of Night
by Bruce Cockburn
This is the Canadian singer-songwriter’s twenty-third album – and it’s ample proof of his deep-veined lyricism and particular talent for conjuring up vivid images. Since his fist album High Winds White Sky was released in 1971, Cockburn has used his albums to develop that poetic sensibility. His songs deal with the kind of material that songs have always explored relationships, hopes, fears. The difference is that he takes a side-on view of these issues and sees more than most. A few words present potent images. Take the almost shorthand introduction to the album’s title track: ‘Big City Europa/July of 64/It’s 5am/ Weather blowing bitter off the Baltic.’ A lengthy, word-driven song, dealing with memories of passions hot and cold – and in Cockburn’s laconic approach, there’s a real wealth of feelings, pictures, times. This is accomplished material, carefully polished and honed to its economical best.
Musically, Cockburn resists classification. His is a strong, gruff voice, which is capable of multiple shadings, from the full-bodied requirements of ‘Pacing the Cage’ or ‘Strange Waters’ to the slower, deeper paces of ‘Birmingham Shadows’ or ‘The Whole Night Sky’. His arrangements are simply made: guitars, keyboards, low-key drums. And he draws on a wide geographical frame of reference, his memories stretching across Iron Curtain-era Europe to the ‘hot volcanic hills’ of some unnamed place 21 years later. Cockburn accesses his introspective capabilities by using surface details as touchstones: often these jumping-off points are acutely realized. ‘The Mines of Mozambique’ is a case in point. Possibly the strongest song of the album, it describes the country’s slide into sterility, legacy of landmines and fertile growth of robbers and rogues. There’s a real sense of outrage too: ‘And in a bare workshop they’ll be moulding plastic/ into little prosthetic limbs/ For the children of this artist.’ It’s this kind of outrage, this kind of keenness of observation that helps to bring about change. They may be small changes in the greater scheme of things, but changes nonetheless.
directed by Ken Loach
‘In recent years the most important political developments and most hopeful political movements in the world have been in Latin America. They remind us of the possibilities of political change,’ says Ken Loach.
Not surprisingly, then, he has chosen a film that deals with 1980s Nicaragua as the suitable successor to his highly acclaimed Land and Freedom which focused on the Spanish Civil War.
The relationship between George, a Scottish bus driver, and Carla, a Nicaraguan refugee marks the beginning of a journey that will take them both to her country, a land torn by the war between the Sandinistas and the US-backed Contras.
The film is divided in two halves, the first taking place in Scotland, where George and Carla meet. This makes for an enjoyable and insightful look at human relations and the refugee’s condition in Britain. Loach is in a territory he knows and it shows. His talent for casting is also evident – choosing not stars but real, credible people whom the audience can believe in the part.
The second half of the film takes place in Nicaragua – and this is where the trouble begins. It becomes much like an action movie, the goodies and the baddies clearly defined. Interspersed are rather stiff and didactic dialogues in which the Sandinista protagonists ‘explain’ the situation in their country. One has the impression of a film made for a never-heard-of-Nicaragua audience that will not tolerate any complexity.
Loach responds to such criticism by saying: ‘The film is an account of the country at a certain historical point. Where is the propaganda? We show the schools that the Sandinistas built and the Contras destroyed and the hospitals the Sandinistas built and the Contras again destroyed. Does that make it a pamphlet?’
Still, this film falls somewhat short of Loach at his best.
In 1945 Moses Asch commissioned balladeer Woody Guthrie – who had already written on such themes as the Oklahoma Dust Bowl – to go to Boston and document the story of anarchists and trade unionists Sacco and Vanzetti. The songs were recorded in January 1947 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of their execution, and released as an album in 1960.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for robbery and murder of a paymaster and his guard at a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in April 1920. They were tried and found guilty. Their electrocution took place seven years later, in spite of the emergence of contradictory evidence, a retracted testimony, and new evidence pointing to other culprits. Half a century later – in 1977 – they were posthumously pardoned.
The two Italians had been armed when arrested, ostensibly because one was a night security guard and the other sometimes carried plenty of cash when peddling fish. They didn’t help their cause by giving false statements because they feared deportation. Many of their defenders have claimed that the men were the embodiment of pacifism. But more recent research reveals that they were part of an Italian anarchist movement which advocated violence and revolution. Nonetheless, the infamous trial exposed the underlying distrust of immigrants and power of racist attitudes in the United States: the Government was in the process of passing anti-immigration legislation, while the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was promoting xenophobia, ultimately culminating in lynchings and race riots.
In 1919, the year prior to the shoe factory killings, an ambitious Attorney General named A Mitchell Palmer had, with the help of an excitable young recruit named J Edgar Hoover, unleashed an hysterical ‘Red Scare’ aimed at all types of radicals. This led to mass arrests and the deportation to the Soviet Union of 556 people including anarchist Emma Goldmann and her lover. Judge Thayer, who presided over the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, had a fairly closed mind with regard to what he called ‘those anarchist bastards’, while the Prosecutor played to the prejudices of the jury. The affair became known as ‘the trial of the century’ and was to become a milestone in working-class history. Provoked by what seemed to be a deliberate miscarriage of justice, intellectuals and leftists viewed the two men as martyrs and adopted the event as a cause célèbre. Reverberations were felt around the world.
The very notion of recording a series of songs on such a theme, especially songs that documented a national disgrace, was way ahead of its time. The fact that this took place right after the Second World War, at a time when patriotic fervour was running high, made the event even more bold and remarkable. The 11 original tracks, which Guthrie himself referred to as ‘my most important project’, were recorded directly onto 78 rpm acetate discs which have now been digitally remastered and rearranged to tell the story chronologically. There are detailed songs about the arrest and trial, the political motivations of the prosecution, Judge Thayer’s self-righteous and blatant disregard for justice and human life, and the international uproar over the executions.
‘Vanzetti’s Letter’ – a song that is almost eight minutes long – is based on a letter written by the accused to the Governor asking for clemency. It’s a tour de force that was originally recorded on two 78s which have now been spliced together. The song ‘Old Judge Thayer’ is a dramatic account of the event which uses animals to represent humans – the animals concluding that the Judge is a threat to them as well. The last Guthrie song on the album: ‘Welcome to heaven’ focuses on the lack of understanding in a world where ‘If you are fat, they call you a glutton/ If you stay skinny, they call you a runt/ If you laugh, they’ll call you an idiot/ And if you cry, they will ask you to stop’. The album ends with a moving 1951 Pete Seeger recording of ‘Sacco’s letter to his Son’. There is also a 24-page booklet, including a lengthy and vitriolic letter from Guthrie to Judge Thayer which is published for the first time. The wordplay which Guthrie used to express his passionate sense of outrage is a reminder of the extent to which powerful ideas and style influenced the young Bob Dylan and others in the revitalized folk movement which was soon to follow.
Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti by Woody Guthrie is available on a new fiftieth anniversary re-issue on the Smithsonian Folkways label (SF CD 40060).