1688: A Global History
The title says it all, really. John E Wills has hit upon a refreshingly different approach to historical writing. Where conventional histories tend to plot a linear course, focusing on limited areas and long timeframes, Wills takes one year and treats it to a world-spanning overview. In this way, he can consider the effects of simultaneity, synchronicity and even pure serendipitous happenstance.
The author makes a convincing case for choosing 1688, a year which encompasses the Glorious Revolution in England, the journeys around Japan of the famous poet Bashô, immortalized in his celebrated travel sketches, and the death of the Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, better known as the notorious pirate Henry Morgan. In tracing the international trade in spice, silver and slaves, Wills vividly brings to life the rise of the great trading companies and evokes an age poised between absolutism and theocracy and the first glimmerings of modernity and human rights.
1688: A Global History is a sparkling mosaic of a book, full of exquisite pen-pictures, including life at the court of the King of Siam, a pilgrimage to Mecca with the Hajjis, and the rational inquiries of Locke and Leibniz. Moving from Versailles and Peter the Great’s Russia to the buccaneer Dampier in Australia and Confucian scholars in Qing Dynasty China, it ends on a moving and tragic note with Henry Purcell’s bittersweet anthem ‘O Well is Thee’. This is a triumphant and splendidly entertaining interweaving of the voices clamouring to be heard during our planet’s journey once round our sun in the year we call 1688.
The Death of Vishnu
Beneath the garish and unpromising Bollywood poster on the cover of this novel is a debut of real ambition and accomplishment. Manil Suri, a Mumbai-born mathematics professor, has taken the rather stale device of viewing an apartment block as a microcosm of humanity and, breathing new life into the form, has produced a tragi-comic gem.
In the stairwell of a rundown apartment block in Mumbai (Bombay), a man lies dying. His name is Shiva and for 11 years he has lived on the stairs and been the unofficial odd-job person for the inhabitants, performing his sketchy duties with drunken ineptitude. Now he is visited by feverish visions of the prostitute Padmina, the love of his life, as the building’s residents pass and swirl about his immobile body.
Suri’s depiction of the apartment block as a bubbling cauldron of resentment, pettiness and suspicion is both acute and touching. We see the vituperative bickering of the Asrani and Pathak families, the religious mania of the Muslim Mr Jalal, and the plans of his son Salim to elope with Kavita, the daughter of the Hindu Asranis. The undercurrents of tension erupt when a transcendent Shiva ascends the steps of the building and rumours begin that he is a reincarnation of the god Shiva.
Moving easily from farce and humour to pathos and social comment, The Death of Vishnu is a compelling portrait of human folly and prejudice which, nevertheless, succeeds in leaving the reader with a profoundly humane and life-affirming message.
Selling the Work Ethic
Long, hard work gives little social benefit and only meagre financial reward to the majority of the world’s workers. Yet we struggle to find alternative ways of structuring our lives or challenging these dictated values.
Science and technology specialist Sharon Beder outlines both the origin and practice of the ‘culture of work’ in which the wealthy are respected and inequality is justified. She shows that those who benefit most from them have promoted these values through social and corporate propaganda.
This is a well-researched and challenging book that deserves close attention. Compelling and insightful in most of the areas it deals with, it could, however, be stronger on the so-called Protestant Work Ethic – a concept first coined by Max Weber, who argued that early Protestants wanted work to absorb all available time. They taught that work wasn’t for self-benefit but for the whole community and those in need. Material success was never taught to be the reward for godly living.
But early secularizers such as Benjamin Franklin corrupted the ‘work for the community’ view into ‘work for self-accumulation’. Industrialism was delighted to harvest this embryonic shift towards consumerism. Not surprisingly the distorted ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ arose among the upwardly mobile but outwardly religious middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Beder could have produced a more thorough critique had she explained more fully how work is both perceived and pursued differently in cultures with non-European histories. Overall, however, the book issues a strong challenge to the entrenched and corrupted views of work which damage the way we fill our lives.
Those Who Remain Will Always Remember
More than 300,000 non-indigenous Australians marched across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge last year to kick-start the nation’s ‘Sorry’ day. Similar marches took place in each capital city. Adding further embarrassment to Australia’s conservative Federal Government, rock band Midnight Oil had their unambiguous ‘Sorry’ message emblazoned across their clothes during their televised closing act at the Sydney Olympics.
Saying sorry: a precursor to reconciliation. Slowly, slowly, some things change. Indigenous voices are beginning to be sought. This inspiring anthology of Aboriginal writing typifies the passion of such voices.
Featuring short stories, poems, myths, legends, essays, political and ceremonial writings, it shows the diversity of Nyoongah – or ‘Aboriginal’ – concerns. Kinship, suffering and survival are dominant themes. Even though the various life narratives have their own rhythms, they are often fragmentary. Yet in all cases they refreshingly read Aboriginal ‘history’ in a non-Anglo-Celtic way.
Subjects range from blackbirding in Broome to nuclear testing in central Australia. The writers deal with the country’s harsh assimilationist programmes, referring to times when Aboriginal people had to carry dog licences as identification.
The anthology is a compelling tribute to the strength and identity of indigenous Australians. Together these writers present a powerful testimony to the importance of the past in the construction of a better future. They also take us by the hand to allow us to see that mourning must inevitably precede healing.
Released on the eve of Laurie Anderson’s first studio album for over eight years, Talk Normal, a two-CD anthology, is a timely reminder of just how much the New York-based artist has achieved. Over a period of some 25 years Anderson’s work has been courageously explicit in its themes. In her first major stage show United States (and its subsequent 1982 album, Big Science) Anderson’s themes were of technology and alienation. Her innovative use of the new electronic instruments – many of which she customized herself – underlined gender and power concerns. Later songs took up issues relating to censorship, AIDS and the Gulf War. Her sing-song delivery, simultaneously folksy and distant, conveyed mixed emotions. It was impossible not to feel both desolate and excited.
Anderson’s direct (and deceptive) simplicity is her strong point and the wonderful clarity of the earlier recordings here still stun. While, sadly, Talk Normal does not proffer any unreleased material, it is a succinct compendium across her seven albums. ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’ sets the tone: a minimal, pulsing beat, a synthed voice, audio and visual references that place her within a strand of performance art that she made uniquely her own. Even after 20 years, ‘Big Science’ or ‘Born, Never Asked’ sound innovative. More than any other performance artist, Anderson is the voice of America’s conscience. Long may she speak.
Dolly Parton’s Little Sparrow is significant not just because she’s a great singer – it’s hard to deny the heart-seeking quality of that quavering vibrato – but because the album confronts a singular problem head-on. Where does an artist, much of whose career has revolved around the construction of a narrative of ‘rootsiness’, go after nearly 40 years at the top of a sophisticated musical tree? In this case, it’s back to basics. Little Sparrow is an acoustic album, accomplished with an aching brevity. There’s nothing forced about its understated title track or the beautiful ‘A Tender Lie’ and Parton’s band – mandolins, fiddles and some fine harmony vocals from Alison Krauss – exhibit the right balance of swing and sensitivity.
Parton does not address the big themes of life – this album dwells on the personal and specific. ‘Down from Dover’ is a no-frills, no-judgment song about a young mother, unwed and abandoned, that unfolds with a brutal simplicity. Her bluegrass version of Cole Porter’s ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ is fun, a piece of froth. But the real stuff, like her arrangement of the traditional ‘In the Sweet By and By’, provides moments to cherish.
Stuttgart, 1989: an African asylum seeker, Frederic Otomo, resisting arrest, stabs two police officers to death. Three others who are attacked survive – Otomo is shot dead. A week later, at the funeral of the officers, the people of Stuttgart line the streets in homage. Only two people attend Otomo’s funeral and little is known about him. Otomo, Schlaich’s engrossing second feature, offers a possible explanation of the killings, dramatizing unsentimentally and with terrible inevitability the events of that fatal morning.
Throughout Otomo’s 20 years in Germany the Government’s asylum rules have barred any employment. His life has little purpose. For the film’s opening ten minutes, as we track Otomo across the city, he speaks to no-one – until a transport official harasses and tries to arrest him. Otomo headbutts him, escapes – and is a wanted man, facing prison and deportation.
Isaach de Bankolé plays Otomo with great dignity and stoicism, close to the limits of his endurance. It’s a bitter irony that only desperation breaks through his separation and brings him into contact with local people. People show him small kindnesses, even compassion. A café proprietor lies to the police. A woman he asks for money – played by Eva Mattes, veteran of many Fassbinder films – takes him to her mother’s flat. It’s the only time, he says, that he’s been inside a German home. Even the police patrol officer leading the search is a very decent, humane man. Face to face Otomo is, for the most part, treated as a human being. It’s the system that denies him – as a black African refugee.
Otomo is a subtle, haunting film. It may leave you with an abiding sadness but it shows clearly how politics can impact – tragically – on everyday life.