The NI Star rating system. Books

The Song of the Dodo
by David Quammen
(Pimlico, ISBN 0-7126-7333-4)

The Song of the Dodo Here’s a conundrum. You’re a busy person, your time is limited. Why on earth should you read a 700-page tome on the obscure and complex science of island bio-geography which has at its heart a discussion of species-area relationships and boils down to the equation S=cAz ? Well, look at it another way. As an NI reader, you are naturally concerned about the destruction of the rainforests and the remorseless advance of extinctions. Perhaps, like me, you are bewildered by the conservation jargon – ‘ecosystem decay’, ‘faunal collapse’ or the dreadful euphemism, ‘relaxation to equilibrium’ – and are disheartened by the grim statistics of disappearance. Read David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo and you will find bewilderment and resignation are replaced by understanding, astonishment and even a tentative but informed hope for our ravaged planet. If that sounds like the usual heavy trudge towards necessary knowledge, be assured that there is frivolity and jocund digression aplenty. Pygmy elephants, giant tortoises and the activities of the truly gross Komodo Dragon pepper the narrative. Quammen tells no lies when he announces on the opening page, ‘Island bio-geography, I’m happy to report, is full of cheap thrills.’

Clearly and patiently, Quammen assembles the pieces that fit together to make sense of island ecologies. He delves entertainingly into the enmeshed histories of Darwin and the intrepid and underrated Alfred Russell Wallace. Quammen does the fieldwork – he’s chased by Komodo Dragons, sizzles on Baja California and is mugged in Rio – and he brings the story up to date with the groundbreaking work of Edward O Wilson and Robert MacArthur. The bottom line is a stark but inescapable conclusion: Island species have a high risk of extinction and the smaller and more remote the island, the greater the risk. In Quammen’s telling phrase, ‘Islands are where species go to die.’

So why is this important? Surely islands are special cases; like the poor Dodo, interesting, perhaps sad, but of no universal relevance? Unfortunately not – island bio-geography is not solely applicable to a strict dictionary definition of islands. An island can be a mountain-top, an isolated patch of woodland or, to invert the picture, a lake.

What we are doing when we carve up the forests or encroach on the wilderness and chop the environment into smaller and smaller chunks, has devastating effects. Quammen draws the analogy with a valuable Persian rug; cut it into small pieces and you don’t get lots of little rugs, you get worthless, unravelling fragments. Island bio-geography is a vital key to understanding this and, crucially, what we can do to ameliorate the effects of our actions.

Quammen deserves the highest praise for his achievement in this book. Having set himself the staggeringly ambitious task of guiding the reader through a perplexing, technical and deeply depressing subject, he does it with wit, grace and good humour and leaves the reader enlightened, chastened but ultimately hopeful. The Song of the Dodo is a resounding and triumphant success. I urge you to read this humane and wise book.

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Alternative World
by Nares Craig
(Housmans Bookshop, ISBN 0-85283-251-6)

Breaking the Silence
by Amnesty International
(Amnesty International UK, ISBN 1-873328-12-5)

Alternative World When it comes to ambitious tasks, Nares Craig could not be faulted for timidity. In Alternative World he casts his net extremely wide, with mixed results.

His encyclopaedic grasp of the world’s ills and injustices provides a useful, fact-packed reference. But the cumulative effect is somewhat brain-numbing. It’s a relief, then, to come to the second half of the book which lays out his utopian vision of how things ought to be. Craig is prepared to stick out his neck and the sections on money and politicians – and how we should abolish both – are thought-provoking. But as with so many utopian visions this one does not escape Orwellian overtones. References to ‘councils of representatives’ who will decide on everything ranging from the price of beans to what goes into newspapers, don’t help. And holding up China’s agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s as a model of how to deal with hunger is hardly convincing in the light of more recent information on how Mao’s policies actually caused famine. Another quibble is the sexist language used throughout – the author does not seem to accept ‘human’ as a more equal alternative to ‘man’, and this book is peppered with sweeping comments on the plight of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’.

Overall, though, there’s plenty of good information packed into these 250 pages and Craig’s heart is clearly in the right place. He can be quite sharply pointed too in his use of juxtaposition. An entry on ‘golden handshakes’, for example, is followed by one on the trade in ‘body parts’. The former tells us how Ralph Halpern, boss of the British clothes company Burtons received $3.5 million as a retirement gift. The latter informs us of a village near Madras where poor people are being offered around $1000 to sell one of their kidneys, $2000 for a cornea.

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Breaking the Silence Being ‘alternative’ can be dangerous in many parts of the world – and if that difference has to do with sexual orientation, chances are it will be shrouded in silence. In Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran, homosexuality is still punished by execution. It remains illegal in 80 countries, four US states and the Australian state of Tasmania. In most former British colonies it carries sentences of 14 years, and you get 20 years in Malaysia. In many parts of the world it is not mentioned in law as such but is punished under ‘indecency’ or ‘scandal’ laws. Even in the 76 countries where it is legal, lesbians, gay men, transsexuals and transvestites remain particularly vulnerable to attack, extra-judicial killings, death-squad activities and torture in prison. Deeply entrenched social and religious taboos often ensure that perpetrators get lightly punished, or not at all, or may even win approval for their actions.

The picture may seem gloomy – but it is actually a lot better than it was in 1989 when the NI did an issue on Gay Rights. At that time Amnesty International did not openly recognize or support people imprisoned on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Now all that has changed. Breaking the Silence clearly states: ‘Amnesty International believes that sexual orientation is a fundamental dimension of human identity and as such should be treated as a basic human right.’ What’s more the organization has for several years now been actively working to identify, expose and combat human-rights abuses which specifically target individuals because of their sexual orientation.

This book is an excellent, informative contribution, full of examples and case histories. With it Amnesty shows that it has truly abandoned the half-hearted dithering that plagues so many NGOs and charities when it comes to this issue, and is prepared to add its own strong voice to the call for justice and equality. The human stories Breaking the Silence tells – some heartening, some harrowing – help put people and personalities to the facts.

There’s a long way to go before lesbians, gays, transvestites and transsexuals can enjoy the same human rights and protection as heterosexuals. Anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation as well as race and gender are still few and far between; South Africa was the first country in the world to include it in its constitution in May 1996. But with this book Amnesty is displaying the courage to push things forward. It is also providing a set of practical and far-reaching recommendations to governments that politicians and law-makers around the world would do well to read and heed.

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Star Rise
by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook
(Virgin/Real World)

Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Undergound
presented by Talvin Singh

Star Rise People tend to remember the first time they heard the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Whether he was singing qawwals – the mystical Sufi songs that the Pakistani singer was so famous for – or working on collaborative projects with the likes of Peter Gabriel or Michael Brook, there was a purity and possession about Khan’s voice that stopped people in their tracks. It was a high voice, which soared beyond the mix of beats that anchored the qawwals’ music. The shock of Khan’s premature death in August at the age of 49 has been palpable, not least because Khan gives a real focus to the issue of how innovative links between Eastern and Western popular music have become.

Two records whose releases are more or less contemporary with Khan’s death are perfect illustrations of this: indeed, they are as much about what has gone before as what was yet to come. Star Rise’s nine songs are remixes of tracks from Khan and Brook’s two previous collaborative albums, Mustt Musst and Night Song. Some of Star Rise’s remixers appear on Anokha, another compilation album. Selected and recorded by Talvin Singh, the young British tabla prodigy is a linking presence between the two albums. But beyond this the bands on both these records are musicians who are engaged in making creative links between the Asian heritage of their parents with the melting pot that characterize Western club music. The kind of experiments that Anokha and Star Rise both exemplify would have happened without the presence of someone like Khan – but they are all the richer for it. In the 1980s bhangra or Indo-pop was taking on the production styles and values of Madonna, while Khan’s music came from a disciplined musical heritage which reached out for new modes of expression.

Although Khan himself had good reason to give the dance industry a miss – his hits were bootlegged all over India – Star Rise shows how involved he was in such expression. State of Bengal’s rendition of ‘Shadow’ or Aki Nawaz’s version of the languorous vocal lines of ‘Longing’ do little to detract from the original versions: rather they provide special aural filters with which to hear their nuances and elements. Music is no exception to fashion and some of the drum ‘n bass beats or wafting synthetic landscapes of Anokha will mark the album for the time in which it was made. That’s no bad thing. As Khan’s work consistently shows, innovation does not mean loss or an erasure of the past; it is rather a way of keeping inertia at bay.

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Reviewers: Peter Whittaker, Louise Gray, Vanessa Baird
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Miguel Littin
...being the uncompromising Chilean film-maker
who risked his neck to tell the truth.

Madrid. I was 13. Like most people of that age, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I liked the movies and I loved documentaries, but film-making seemed like another world. Then something happened, the significance of which I was only to realize many years later.

There was a Chilean girl in my class. We became good friends. She had left Chile, lived in Mexico for some time and now she was in Spain. One day I went to her house and saw a photograph of a man with a beard, a strong-looking man with dark hair and black eyes. Next to him was Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer whose One Hundred Years of Solitude we were reading for the literature class. There were film cans and books everywhere and other photos of the same man next to a camera. It was her father, Miguel Littin. He was not in the house because he was ‘travelling’.

Years later, I came to know the work of Miguel Littin. His first feature film The Jackal of Nahueltoro (El Chacal de Nahueltoro) was an extraordinary account based on real events that took place in Chile at the beginning of the 1960s. An illiterate fieldworker lives with a woman and her six children. After a day of drinking, in which they are thrown out of their house by the landowner, he kills the woman and the six children. He is arrested, charged with murder and while the trial is under way he is fed and educated. He learns to read and write and becomes a ‘citizen’. He declares himself ‘a Chilean and a Catholic’. Once thus transformed, he is taken to sign his own death warrant and is executed. Littin’s images of marginal life in rural Chile, his critique of the quasi-feudal Latifundio, the hypocrisy of class-biased justice, constitute a powerful mix of documentary and melodrama. As a result of this film he became one of the key names in the new Chilean cinema. The Jackal of Nahueltoro not only revealed his ability as a film-maker but also the politics that would drive his work.

In The Jackal of Nahueltoro, Litten explores the story of an illiterate fieldworker.

An active militant of the Left, Littin was given the post of director of Chile-Films when Allende’s Popular Unity came to power. He made The Promised Land (La Tierra Prometida) his second feature film. But in 1973, Pinochet’s coup sent him into exile and, like a sad metaphor, The Promised Land left with him. A time of terror began in Chile. Littin continued to make films in exile – first in Mexico, where my classmate had lived, and later in Spain.

In 1986 Chile’s General Act (Acta General de Chile) was premiered. The film is a four-hour-long documentary about Chilean life under Pinochet. Littin had gone clandestinely into Chile to film the reality of the country under the dictator. He changed his physical appearance and with a false passport entered a country that had him listed as an ‘enemy of the Government’.

If found, Littin would probably have been killed or imprisoned, but his need to expose the cruelty of Pinochet’s regime made the risk worth taking. The images were of a Chile that hadn’t been seen before. From that moment on, film-making for me took on another dimension; it was no longer the commercial or creative enterprise others had claimed it to be. For some, like Littin, it was a need that went beyond any personal gain and answered to a wider, deeper sense of social responsibility.

To coincide with the international premiere of the film, Garcia Marquez published his book Miguel Littin Clandestine in Chile in which he narrates, almost like a personal diary, the emotions and difficulties the director experienced. It was then that I realized that when I visited his house, as a 13-year-old, Littin was not ‘travelling’, he was filming, clandestinely, in Chile. I never met him, and at a time when I could have I didn’t because he was filming in circumstances that would inspire me more than any other film-maker’s work has ever done.

Miguel Littin’s work – totalling four documentaries and eight feature films – has always been uncompromising. The ‘art’ of cinema is also the ‘politics’ of cinema and, instead of disguising this truth, he shouts it loud through his powerful and brave vision. Littin once said ‘Nobody is the product of individual effort but, rather, we are the sons and daughters of a time and a history, conscious or unconscious instruments of the people.’ For me these words best convey the man and the force that drives his work.

Catalina Ribalta

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New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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