Readers of Galeano’s ‘Windows’ column for this magazine will already have some idea of his unique outlook, deftly translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried. In this latest book the inveterate beachcomber of history creates for us a complete vision of quite breathtaking insight and beauty.
The premise is simple. Where Alice imagined a land of inverted logic, Galeano describes the wonderland of an order imposed by standing humanity on its head – recognizable once more only when stood on its feet. So: ‘From the point of view of the Indians of the Caribbean islands, Christopher Columbus, with his plumed cap and red velvet cape, was the biggest parrot they had ever seen... From the point of view of the natives, it’s the tourists who are picturesque.’
Fear, criminality, impunity, discarded fragments of the truth, are recognized for what they are and reassembled as traces of life from another planet – the one we somehow seem to know yet long to inhabit.
Every now and then a new book is given to us like a rare and very precious gem. What makes this one of them is not just the pure stream of perception that runs right through it, but the blessed good humour of it all, the sparkling hilarity of life. When Galeano looks ‘beyond the abominations of today to divine another possible world’, he gives us not portentous beatitudes but a few gentle hints – ‘earnestness shall no longer be a virtue, and no-one shall be taken seriously who can’t make fun of himself’ – under the title ‘The Right to Rave’.
Real magic, not magic realism. Surely, his is the surviving genius of its time and place.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants all of us the right to leave a country – but not to enter one. So where do we go? What sounds elevated in theory turns out, in practice, to be deeply cynical.
As Teresa Hayter reminds us, immigration controls hadn’t even been thought of until a couple of centuries ago. A goodly proportion of humanity is always on the move, controls or no controls – it’s one of our defining characteristics. Every single society we’ve ever had was created by it. Without immigration most countries – especially rich ones – would simply cease to function. ‘Undocumented aliens’ alone provide an estimated 18 per cent of the construction labour force in Los Angeles, 70 per cent of workers at peak fruit-harvest time in Washington State, 15 per cent of the total US farm workforce.
One by one, Teresa Hayter demolishes each malevolent myth that is routinely peddled as a justification for immigration controls. Even the notion that they protect us from chaos – and the rich from the poor – turns out to be hogwash. Indeed, for this very reason, the abolition of immigration controls is sometimes advocated by free-market libertarians.
The argument here is rather different. When you have been active – as Teresa Hayter has for many years – in support of asylum seekers who are labelled ‘bogus’, stripped of all rights and detained indefinitely without charge or trial in prisons disguised as ‘detention centres’ like Campsfield in Britain, there’s no escaping the essential racism of it all. It is quite impossible to justify such ‘controls’ without conspiring to create non-people and appealing, however surreptitiously, to a racist view of the world.
‘By far the most important reason for opposing immigration controls,’ she writes, ‘is that they impose harsh suffering and injustice on those who attempt to migrate... Immigration controls should be abandoned.’ Amen to that.
The Element of Water
Stevie Davies is no stranger to combining compelling story telling with moral complexity, so it comes as no surprise that her latest novel is set in Germany immediately after the Second World War.
Set on Lake Plön, a final retreat of the crumbling Third Reich, The Element of Water daringly explores issues of knowledge, guilt, complicity in horror.
The story splits into two time zones. First, the final days of the war after Hitler’s death. Then, 13 years later, when the Lake Plön naval barracks have been turned into a British Forces boarding school where German ex-naval intelligence officer, Michael Quantz (also at Plön in its earlier incarnation) and his son Wolfie now teach music.
Onto the scene arrives, fresh from Wales, a new teacher, Isolde – a young naturalized British woman who does not know her own long-lost father was a high-ranking SS thug. Without in any way excusing the evils of Nazism, this book has a somewhat unusual way into the issues. Isolde is shocked at the level of sadism and degradation at the English boarding school. But her protests are too weak to prevent tragedy. While her fellow English teachers ooze moral superiority over ‘Gerry’, Isolde sees nationalism and anti-semitism flourishing both inside and outside the school walls. It makes one wonder: what form of Anglo-Saxonism might have emerged from a Nazi victory?
The Element of Water has a lyrical, brooding quality and an atmosphere as airless as totalitarianism itself. But there are moments of transcending tenderness too, especially in the love that develops between Isolde and Wolfie. And Davies’ depiction of the fraught, painfully moving relationship between father and son has a tremendous psychological acuity. This is a soulful, nuanced book; full of shades of grey, with no easy answers, punctuated by the odd, welcome flash of wry humour.
In The Blue House
The Blue House – the Casa Azul – at Coyocán in Mexico was Leon Trotsky’s final sanctuary from Stalin’s terror. Here he was befriended by the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and here, in August 1940, he died at the hands of the assassin Ramón Mercader. In a fascinating first novel, Meaghan Delahunt has written a fragmented, kaleidoscopic account of these last years of exile of the architect of world revolution.
Rather than write a straightforward and linear narrative, Delahunt has chosen the riskier strategy of attempting to reflect these turbulent times through the disputatious voices of the individual participants. We eavesdrop on the dialogue of the deaf that Stalin and Trotsky conducted throughout their lives and we hear the contrasting voices of their wives; Natalia, stoical in exile with her beloved Trotsky and Nadezhda Aliluyeva, increasingly disturbed at her husband’s murderous megalomania. The bodyguard who failed to protect Trotsky has his say, as does Mercader, the treacherous killer. The host of other voices, each jostling to convey their own interpretation of history, include Stalin’s police chief, Lavrenti Beria, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Bolshevik workers and doctors and, pulling the whole thing together, the passionate voice of Frida Kahlo.
Such a tumult of argument and opinions requires careful handling if it is not to descend into a cacophonous jumble. On the whole, Meaghan Delahunt manages splendidly to mesh her splintered narrative into a coherent and convincing portrait of a desperate time of revolution and war, hope and betrayal. She deserves high praise for a bold and striking debut.
A scurry of pert, upbeat percussion and a joyous cry of ‘Africa!’ announce that, after a lengthy split, Mozambique’s defining group are back. And, after the liquid dance music of their famous album, Mama Mosambiki, this is a welcome return to form.
You could suspect, listening to the densely woven rhythms in which tufo, masepua and morro patterns dance around, that Yellela (This is It) is a fun-time album. Well, it is that – but much more besides. Issufo Manuel, Omar Issa and Gimo Remane also have weighty themes at hand. Songs such as the opener, ‘Ohawha’ (Suffering), and ‘Othiawene’ (My Faraway Love) are self-explanatory, but the tones of singer Zena Bacar transport them to another place. Known as her country’s ‘golden voice’, Bacar sets a high standard whose range of emotion would be hard to parallel. Jazzy percussion music is underpinned by some subtle work on guitar, sax and keyboard – all solid foundations for singers Manuel and Bacar. ‘Masikini’ (Poverty) has lilting vocal harmonies that could come from a vintage Simon and Garfunkel song. But Yellela has its strongest charge in its combination of music and social comment. Its feelgood quality is apparent, but don’t miss their quiet, laconic meditations on women’s rights or the plight of their continent.
‘All these pictures from Angola, Ethiopia and Somalia’ are the closing lines of ‘Africa’, the last song on Eyuphuro’s Yellela (see above), and one wonders why they didn’t add Rwanda to the list. The problem is an age-old one, though: how can you represent the unrepresentable? The answer is with difficulty. And, one might also add, dignity. This is something that Groupov, the Belgium-based collection of European and Rwandan musicians and actors manage to do with Rwanda 94. Conceived as ‘an attempt at symbolic reparation to the dead, for use by the living’, this double CD comes out of a music theatre event that takes as its theme the most recent genocide in Rwanda when Hutus turned on Tutsis with appalling ferocity. It’s hard even to mention that the ‘94’ in the title is a reference to the fact that earlier tribal killings existed: it may even suggest that future ones will also happen unless sense and humanity prevail.
This is an extraordinary record: its music is of a fearful beauty and the theatrical text, often using quotations from victims and lists of the dead, is reproduced in a well-presented book of over 250 pages.
With composer Garrett List leading the work, his collaboration with singer Jean-Marie Muyango is simple, elegant and unfailingly direct. Rwandan drums echo through the work and as a prelude, a chamber orchestra suggests the European responsibility for current Rwanda. Jazz, classical quartets (much influenced by Philip Glass’s structural clarity) and some stunning chorus work move the piece along. Sung or read in French and Rwandan languages (a full English translation is provided), Rwanda 94 flows with a terrible purity. At one point a raucous boogie-woogie section is broken with the cry ‘Hutu, Tutsi – et toi’. Rwanda 94 is a work in progress, although listening to this one hopes that another chapter need never be added. This is essential listening.
Before Night Falls
While mythologizing their own revolution, Americans have an ambivalent relationship to those of other nations. So it is with trepidation that one goes to see an American version of the life of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who grew up in the Revolution and then emigrated to the US in the 1980s to avoid homophobic persecution. As it happens, artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel (of Basquiat fame) doesn’t take a clear line on the Cuban Revolution, opting instead for a focus on Arenas’s struggles as an artist.
Born in 1943, Arenas came from dire poverty. At 15 he joined the Revolution and then moved to Havana to pursue his love of writing while working in the National Library. Following from Arenas’s memoir, Schnabel depicts the artistic community in Havana, its cross-overs with the nascent gay community and the persecution of both by the revolutionary government.
For a few years Arenas was able to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba for publication in France. But in the 1970s he was prosecuted on trumped-up charges of paedophilia and incarcerated. Taking advantage of a government attempt to purge the population of gays and criminals, Arenas acquired an exit visa in the early 1980s and headed to New York to taste sexual freedom.
Arenas’s final decade is condensed into a few symbolic images. The first euphoric image of New York has Arenas riding through the city in the back of a convertible with a carload of friends revelling in the falling snow. But this taste of freedom is short-lived. New York isn’t exactly paradise for immigrants. He becomes sick with an HIV-related illness almost as soon as he arrives and then is callously sent home from hospital because he doesn’t have health insurance; the final cynical irony comes when he finds his end at the bottom of a plastic I Love NY bag. As Arenas puts it, the difference between the capitalist and communist systems is that in the capitalist system you can scream.
Zoë Druick takes a look at
In the cinema, realism is both an aesthetic and a political idea. And like all such contested ideas its meaning is somewhat slippery. Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the documentary movement of the 1930s, Italy and India’s post-war neo-realist schools, 1950s working-class films from England, the international efforts of cinéma vérité in the 1960s, today’s Dogme 95 films from Denmark and the neo-neorealism of Iranian cinema: all these march under the banner of realism. What this diverse array of film-making ideas and practices also shares is an antagonism for American politics and an aesthetic rejection of Hollywood.
The latest realist school, from Iran, has dominated the world of the film festival and cinémathèque throughout the 1990s. Abbas Kiarostami’s existentialist exploration A Taste of Cherry (1996) topped many critics’ 10-best lists of the decade and often was accompanied by up to five other Iranian films. Iran is a country of approximately 60 million, many of whose films are made under the auspices of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. It is also a nation whose Ministry of Culture doubles as the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Given these conditions, it is perhaps surprising that Iranian films are so highly regarded in the West. In part this success has to do with the high estimation granted to films that provide alternatives to Hollywood. The allegorical feel of many of the films also leaves ample room for interpretation about what the films are saying about Iran and the rest of the world.
Iran has always had a healthy film industry but since its Islamic revolution in 1979 culture has become a much-vaunted part of state policy. Iran has strict regulations on foreign film imports and has boosted state support for both production and consumption of the arts. Interestingly, the films that are celebrated at Cannes are not always the same as those that draw the crowds at home. The international hit, A Taste of Cherry, for example, was watched by only about 75,000 people in Iran. Similarly, Jafar Panahi’s newest film, The Circle (2000), currently distributed in 32 countries, was removed from Tehran’s annual Fajr Film Festival last year and is currently banned from domestic release because of its depiction of police corruption and prostitution.
In The Circle, Panahi has made what some consider to be the most explicitly feminist critique of the Islamic state so far. Using a circular structure of overlapping stories, the film follows a day in the life of three women recently released from prison. Although we are never told their crimes, we are given a clear picture of the repressed nature of women’s lives as they are subject to male authority for everything from buying a bus ticket to having an abortion. When even a cigarette is an all-but-forbidden pleasure, it wouldn’t be that hard to transgress the rules. The film begins with a family’s panic and disappointment at the birth of a baby girl and ends with the fugitive women back in prison. Ironically, the jail cell is no more repressive than the rest of society (the hospital, the street, the home). In fact, in the dim jail cell, the women are actually afforded some freedom from the prying eyes that control their behaviour the rest of the time.
Panahi is one of several high-profile Iranian directors working in close conjunction with one another. He began his film career as the assistant to Iran’s biggest director, Abbas Kiarostami, who also wrote the script for his award-winning debut, The White Balloon (1995).
Do Iranian films support the Iranian revolution or subvert it? Does the enthusiastic global reception by cinephiles and critics come as a response to the films, or to what is seen as a critical commentary on the politics of the Iranian state? What’s clear is that a certain combination of state funding and state censorship has combined to produce a school of film-making that explores the contemporary situation of life in Iran. At the same time, it also challenges viewers to think about both how the world and the cinema might be different.