When Memory Dies by A Sivanandan(Arcadia Books, ISBN 1-9000850-01-X) an epic account of Sri Lanka's slide into terror comes out tops. Interweaving the personal and political, this novel spans three generations of a Sri Lankan family and pits the tenacity of the spirit against the brutalization of life. Sivanadan 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.
The Fabulous Sinkhole and other Stories by Jesus Salvador Treviño (Arte Publica Press, University of Houston, ISBN 55 885 129 1) also rates high among the year's fiction. A first-rate collection of stories, it's set in an Hispanic barrio of the fictional Texan town of Arroya Grande. The author moves from high comedy to righteous anger and stitches these disparate tales together with a novelistic skill of the highest order.
Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, set in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is a sparkling and outstanding first novel but this Booker Prize winner has had media coverage enough.
On the non-fiction shelf, Catherine Caulfield's Masters of Illusion: the World Bank and the Poverty of Nations (Macmillan ISBN 0-333-66262-8) achieves the hitherto impossible task of prising open the clam-shell of the World Bank and revealing the bogey within. Caulfield shows with facts rather than rhetoric how highly educated staff of the Bank have backed one disastrous project after another, constantly ignoring local realities and shunning the poor they are supposed to help. In quite a different vein Songs at the River's Edge: Stories from a Bangladeshi Village by Katy Gardner (Pluto Press ISBN 074531094X) is a beautifully and simply written account of the author's 15-month stay in the Bangladeshi village of Talukpur. The accent is on the personal rather than the anthropological. Gardner neither patronizes nor glamourizes the villagers but repays their trust by conveying their lives and experiences with dignity and respect.
Finally in Slow Reckoning /The Divided Planet Tom Athanasiou puts the case that ecological sense and social justice have no alternative but to go hand in hand more articulately and convincingly than ever. (Britain: Secker and Warburg ISBN 0 436-202 82-4; North America: Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-056359)
Choosing just one or two records each month for NI means that many magnificent albums don't quite make it. Nick Cave and the Bad Seed's The Boatman's Call (Mute) and Patti Smith's Peace and Noise (Arista) are two such examples, although both records echo with a mature humanity and consummate artistry. But there have been some real gems among the 20 or so records reviewed in 1997's NI: Lee Scratch Perry's maverick reggae of Arkology(Island); Mary Coughlan's pure Irish voice of After the Fall (Big Cat); and the haunting sounds of Panta Rhei and Coope, Boyes and Simpson's Passchendaele Suite(No Masters Co-op). Yet of the 20 it's Cesaria Evora's Cabo Verde (BMG) which exercises the loudest siren call. A 66-year-old grandmother with a penchant for cigs and whisky, Evora sings the Cape Verde blues. For all their, at times jaunty, sadness, Evora's songs offer a transcendence in their telling and, in so doing, a lingering effect.
By far and away the most intriguing film of the year was Square Circle directed by Amol Palekar. A highly unusual blend of avant garde politics and Bollywood-style packaging, it deals with the developing relationship between a male transvestite folk singer and a young kidnap victim he persuades to cross-dress for her own safety. It's a brave, wryly funny offering, with insightful things to say about male privilege and women's lack of power.
Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo was one of those rare items ; a thought-provoking, mainstream feature film dealing with a serious international issue. Based on the true story of an English journalist's rescue of a young girl from a frontline orphanage, it skilfully brings alive the mundane realities of a city under siege as well as incorporating news footage of the actual horrors. It raises more questions than it could ever answer about the critical (and cynical) inefficacy of the so-called 'international community' and the role of the media. The tension between the vulture-like exploitation of carnage, the need to get the message across as dramatically as possible, and the more human urge to intervene, is nowhere so painfully exposed.
Finally, it's still hard to believe that Secrets and Lies, directed by Mike Leigh, went unawarded at this year's Academy Awards, while nine oscars went to The English Patient. The story of a young black woman's discovery of her birth mother is at once tragic, pathetic and comic. The extraordinary sensitivity of Leigh's film, its nuanced understanding of issues of race and class, and its palpable realism, take it to the heights of the social realist genre. And the acting is so good it's invisible.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
by Jon Lee Anderson
(Bantam Books ISBN 0 553 40664 7)
When, on 9 October, 1967, the Bolivian military captured and killed the 39-year-old guerrilla leader, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, he was already a world-famous figure. The attempts to cover up his murder his hands were amputated and he was secretly buried only added martyrdom to the myths and legends gathering around his name. In the 30 years since his death, Che Guevara has become one of the icons of the century; Cuban children chant 'We will be like Che!' and his image emblazons everything from bedsit posters to beer bottles.
Most Guevara biographies have either been partisan hagiographies or hatchet-jobs by his enemies. Now, finally, we have in Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life an account which is probably as complete and balanced as we have any right to expect. Anderson is a non-communist who has nevertheless been given unprecedented access by Guevara's family and crucially the Cuban Communist Party. His meticulous research produced a breakthrough in 1995 when he interviewed Bolivian General Mario Vargas Salinas, who graphically recounted Che's last hours and revealed that he was buried in a mass grave near a provincial airstrip.
How did Ernesto Guevara, the son of middle-class Argentinian parents, come to such an end and why does he remain such a potent symbol for change? Anderson patiently weaves the threads of a restless, driven life, convincingly arguing that Guevara was, throughout, the impetuous shaper of his own destiny, incapable of waiting on events and circumstances. He epitomized both the radical politics and the 'live fast, die young'
philosophy of the 1960s; a veritable James Dean of the Left. The bare facts are wellknown: Che trained as a doctor and was an early enthusiast for Pan-Americanism. His politics were radicalized during Argentina's Peron years and, in Mexico in 1955, he involved himself with Fidel Castro's Cuban insurrectionists. In the struggle against the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Guevara became Castro's most trusted aide and the rebel army's military commander. After the success of the revolution, Che was ill-suited to the role of bureaucrat and throughout the 1960s he embarked on a series of guerrilla campaigns in Argentina, the Congo and, finally and fatally, Bolivia.
Anderson's book is a finely-wrought and compelling account of the life and death of one of the most fascinating individuals of our era. It will stand as the definitive biography of Che Guevara for years to come. The style is unfussy, gaps are acknowledged and the plethora of self-serving versions rigorously audited. Much fascinating detail is added to the record and the description of the evolution of Castro's compatriots from a tiny band of adventurers to a victorious army is particularly fine. The book ends by examining Che's legacy; an uneasy amalgam of honourable idealism and flawed practice. For groups such as Mexico's Zapatistas or the Tupac Amaru movement in Peru, Che stands as exemplar and inspiration. In a final twist, Anderson considers the spectacular re-emergence of Laurent Kabila, the Congolese rebel Guevara had aided 30 years previously; a vivid reminder that, as Anderson says, many of Che's battles still await their final denouement. Truly, Che vive!
Entertainment **** PW
Fire Under the Snow: Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner
by Palden Gyatso (Written by Tsering Shakya with a Foreword by the Dalai Lama) (Harvill Press ISBN 1 86046-116-6)
Fire Under The Snow is the story of a rather different approach to resistance than that pursued by Che Guevara. While Che was the archetypal 'angry young man', Palden Gyatso is an extraordinarily un-angry old man. But his form of resistance has required as much if not more courage and tenacity.
In 1992 Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan and a Buddhist monk, was released after 33 years in Chinese prisons on the understanding that he would return to a quiet monastic life. Instead he escaped across the Himalayas through Nepal to India carrying with him a bag containing instruments of torture used by the Chinese.
He presented this bag to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who encouraged him to write an account of his life and the time he spent in captivity. Fire Under the Snow is the result, a humbling and extraordinary account of one man's struggle to survive in the face of unimaginable brutality.
Palden was 28 years old when he was arrested and imprisoned in 1959 for his part in a non-violent demonstration against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. He, like so many others still in prison, suffered routine torture for years. Palden lost 20 teeth and was left partially deaf as a result of torture by electric batons capable of administering shocks of up to 70,000 volts. If this doesn't kill it simply tears strips of flesh from the body.
Though harrowing, this book is lucid and inspiring. Palden's lack of anger or bitterness and the very fact of his survival leaves the reader marvelling at the spirit of the man and sharing in his hope for the future of Tibet. 'It cannot be right,' he insists, 'that a country the size of Western Europe is simply allowed to vanish and its people be persecuted forever. Truth will prevail. Truth always prevails.'
Entertainment *** EG
by Panta Rhei and Simpson, Boyes and Coope(No Masters Co-op, NMCD10CD)
As the First World War fades almost entirely from living memory, comes this timely and moving album. Passchendaele Suite began life as a series of site specific concerts performed at the annual Passchendaele Peace concerts by Flanders-based band Panta Rhei and an English trio of folk musicians, Lester Simpson, Jim Boyes and Barry Coope.
Those of us not present at the huge Tyne Cot Cemetery, where countless soldiers lie, can only imagine the scene as the Suite's music, both mournful and angry, floated over the battlefield. This is folk music, old, new, developing, rearranged; shaped for generations and sung to a lost generation. Music seldom performs so savage an indictment against destruction.
The handsomely produced sleeve-notes which accompany the Brussels-recorded album make the point that Passchendaele was not just a European affair. Soldiers from across the world were drawn into the carnage. This is reflected in the music, which shows how folk culture survives upheaval and displacement. There's a wonderfully haunting bagpipe lament 'The Land of the Long White Cloud' which is Scottish by way of New Zealand, with a title provided courtesy of the Maoris. There's also a Scottish dance with a German title, and a beautifully restrained largo in which Panta Rhei's cello sets the sonorous tone.
But being mournful just isn't enough, as an instrumental like 'The Bloody Fields of Flanders' shows. Starting with a funereal pipe and drum, it's haunting enough and, when the strings come in there's a sense of a formal almost baroque setting. The surprise occurs minutes later when the melody switches into a defiant, martial mood, the snare drum fairly rattling in its advance. The piece captures the awful ambivalence of war: the tension between the populist rush to enlist amid tales of derring-do and the ghastly reality. To paraphrase a Bolshevik line, a bayonet is just a weapon with a person at each end.
Does the Passchendaele Suite succeed? Certainly, if its mission is to honour the generation destroyed by the incompetence of
governments and generals. Indeed, it draws parallels of a kind. The album accesses a passion on this count, not least in its closing moments as 'The New Jerusalem' casts a withering glare across the bleaker landscapes of modern England. But just one niggle remains: that for all the protest against war, this is an album which remembers only the Allies. Its translations are in English, French and Flemish. It would be apposite to remember that at Passchendaele, just like Ypres and the Somme, there were also a lot of Germans who didn't want to be there.
The Death Sentence
directed by Prakhash Jha
This film is a rare thing: a mainstream Hindi language movie firmly on the side of women's empowerment. It's also an intelligent, unstrident call to arms against patriarchal excess of all kinds, its anger targeting political corruption, religious dogmatism, caste injustice and neo-feudalism. What emerges is a deft mix between commercial and art house sensibilities; a pacey, action-packed thriller boasting a social conscience and striking visuals to match.
Director Prakash Jha's bid for accessibility includes casting the hugely popular screen goddess Maduhri Dixit, and by throwing in a few song and dance sequences he pushes the boat out further. The result is ample testimony to the way a radical message can be turned into a popular, multi-layered entertainment.
Set in the present-day northern state of Bihar, it centres on a village emerging from feudalism, and prey as a result to variously corrupt forces. It opens on a scene of startling, violent beauty as a pregnant young woman and her mother are chased by a mob of armed villagers across a vast blood-orange landscape. Though nothing else in the film quite matches the scene's lyrical intensity, it underlies the way women's traditional suffering often intensifies during periods of social upheaval. With several interesting things to say besides, about internecine social and caste relations, the film maintains a complex and
The main focus, however, is on an impoverished family of landowners. While the ruthless elder brother attempts to escape penury by scheming to take over as boss of the local monastery, his naive younger brother falls in with a coterie of corrupt business people. In both cases it is their wives who bear the initial brunt of their actions. The older woman Chandravati (Shabhana Azmi), deeply humiliated by her husband's decision to abandon her
he cites her childlessness as a motive seems destined to endure a lifetime of self-
sacrifice. By contrast, the town-educated bride Ketki (Maduhri Dixit), is dismayed by her once placid husband's turn to violence, and is soon counselling other women against an unquestioning acceptance of their status.
She succeeds as the film's moral conscience. Her final acts of resistance an echo of the classic film Mother India are surprisingly assertive. As indeed are Chandravati's, whose quieter, perhaps even more trans-
gressive personal protest, is all the more courageous for coming after years of conformity, and for self-consciously breaking with caste rules. The pair become targets of scurrilous rumours as a mass male backlash rises against them. But even though the village's women have learned the value of collective action and the strength of holding those in power publicly accountable, the script never lets its audience lose sight of the fact that any struggle for liberation must necessarily be a bitter and hard fought one.
The Death Sentence is a powerful and deeply committed attempt to change the social order, and while certainly not devoid of flaws, it's all the more subversive perhaps for choosing to wrap its message in a sumptuous,
deceptively familiar coating.
Distributor: Prakash Jha Productions
UK Tel: (+44) 1923 821737; Fax: (+44) 1923 835385
India Tel: (+91) 22 626 8427; Fax: (+91) 22 836 77 27
Reviewers: Peter Whittaker, Eamonn Gearon, Louise Gray; Esi Eshun
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird