The Years with Laura Díaz
‘We are more than calendars. We know that nothing has an absolute beginning or an absolute end,’ wrote Carlos Fuentes in his essay Mexican Tempi. His new novel, the long and richly complex The Years with Laura Díaz, is a dazzling affirmation of this philosophy and a magisterial summation of the 20th century from a Mexican perspective. At the book’s centre is the photographer Laura Díaz. Her story is told by her grandson who, as the novel begins, is in Detroit making a documentary on Diego Rivera’s famous Institute of Arts mural. Photographing the vast painting, he realizes that one of the faces in the picture is that of his great-grandmother, Laura Díaz. We then loop back to 1898 and the beginning of this woman’s life, and the sweeping narrative takes in both tumultuous historical events and small personal details. Laura escapes a life of domesticity in her native state of Veracruz, taking refuge in cosmopolitan Mexico City, befriending Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and moving among communists, anarchists and trade unionists.
Fuentes clearly sees Laura as ‘everywoman’ and, perhaps rather implausibly, she is active in most of her country’s major historical events. However, the characterization is so strong and the writing so charged that this is a forgivable fault.
At a time when we are told that history is over and varieties of managerialism are all that are available, it is good to welcome a novel that celebrates idealism and individual commitment, rooted in history and with an abiding faith in the ultimate strength of the people.
Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban
Autobiographies are often publicized with the claim that this person is ‘extraordinary’; that they showed great courage in a crisis or extreme fortitude in suffering. The assumption is that the ‘ordinary’ life, the everyday existence is inferior and unworthy of our perusal. What, then, are we to make of the diffident opening of the story of Maria de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, as she quietly begins to tell us of her life? ‘I am Reyita, a regular, ordinary person. A natural person, respectful, helpful, decent, affectionate and very independent.’ As Marx remarked, people make their own history, but they do so under circumstances not of their own choosing. Reyita, this ordinary person, can tell a tale that not only spans the 20th century but also encompasses both the domestic and the grandly public.
As a child, Reyita knew the dictator Batista and she lost a son in the Revolution but what grabs the attention in her account are the small details; the songs she sang, the traditional remedies her family relied on and above all her unwavering faith in a better future.
The book is based on extensive interviews with Reyita by her daughter Daisy Rubiera Castillo, and there is an erudite introduction by Elisabeth Dore who gives us the political and social background. Finally, though, what emerges from this consummate example of oral history is the serene, proud figure of Reyita who ends by saying, aged 94: ‘I feel good as new. Life is reborn every day and so am I.’
The Little Earth Book
This is a book that can make a difference. For people who care and want to do something to save the planet. It takes all the ideas and facts about society, the environment, energy, agriculture, equality and economics that you’ve vaguely thought or read about, and puts them together in a cohesive, connected, completely comprehensible form. And suddenly everything makes sense.
It’s delightfully brief, eminently readable and provides clarity on very complex issues. For example, when dealing with banks, it tells you that Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England, said in 1937: ‘The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing’. Which makes it ‘the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented’. Yet from this ‘nothing’, entire societies are willingly enslaved. In the US, 33 per cent of the average (two salaries) income goes to repay mortgages. In Japan there are generational mortgages which pass the debt on to their children. The whole thing is like the Emperor’s new clothes. Totally ridiculous, but everyone pretends it’s all right.
Reading about how cod became an endangered species or how GM companies manipulate governments makes you angry but engaged. And The Little Earth Book goes on to suggest ways in which the reader can personally get involved in fighting environmental degradation or making lifestyle changes which make a difference.
Belzberg’s impressive documentary, her first film, is both candid and sympathetic. Her intimate but unintrusive camera follows 5 of the 20,000 abandoned and runaway children living rough in Bucharest. The kids hustle from day to day for food, a warm sleeping place, water to drink and to wash their hands and faces, and to defend their patch in the subways at Piata Victoriei station. Belzberg has their confidence and at times it’s harrowing to watch. Mihai, a reflective 12-year-old, raging, rips his arms with glass. Willowy Macarena, 14, sniffing paint, face smeared silver, tries to explain her addiction: ‘It’s like paradise,’ she says, ‘you dream you eat.’
Mihai yearns to be with his mother and sister but won’t stay with a father who chains him by the neck and beats him. The mother of the two youngest children – Marian, eight, and Ana, ten – can’t feed them by herself but her new partner doesn’t want them and abuses them. Ana ran away and Marian followed her – they stick together.
Macarena and 16-year-old Cristina, the ‘family’ leader, are ex-inmates of the state orphanages of the Ceausescu era. They look and dress like boys – it’s a shock to discover they’re not. Cristina, who shaves her head, has a simple motto: ‘the fist is what matters’. She’s as tough as Macarena is vulnerable.
The credits tell us that Mihai and Marian are now in residential centres. The state, after years of utter neglect of these kids, is funding rehabilitation programmes and social workers. The younger kids, who somehow retain a puppy-like resilience and playfulness, could be rehabilitated. For them there may be hope. But probably not for Macarena. Alone on the streets, her mind gone, it seems too late.
Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin
Gino Strada, an Italian surgeon, knows war too well. He set up ‘Emergency’, the medical aid organization and its field hospitals in Cambodia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Jung follows his efforts, with Kate Rowlands, a Welsh nurse, to establish a hospital in Afghanistan.
It’s 1999 and, following the murder of a UN worker, all aid agencies have abandoned the country. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance are ‘fighting like rabid dogs, without coming to a conclusion’. The need is desperate: surgical facilities for the tens of thousands of civilians wounded by bullets, shells, shrapnel and landmines, are, when they exist, primitive and filthy. Rarely is anaesthetic available. It’s the ‘usual shit’, as Strada says.
Jung is sometimes shocking because it shows what modern weaponry does to the human body – Strada laconically appraises the sickening remains of a foot as a ‘mush’. But we also see that, for the survivor of a landmine explosion, the consequences and the anguish of disability, of being a liability to one’s family, are often worse. Yet Jung also shows that there can be hope, even in the most wretched circumstances. It’s a story of sanity and compassion in the midst of carnage.
There’s a great moment in the spring of 2000 when seven trucks carrying medical supplies arrive in the Panshir Valley. There are anaesthetics, equipment and supplies to construct a clean, well-lit operating theatre. A one-time police training centre becomes a hospital – and an alternative to war. The hospital bans weapons and employs the war-disabled. In one of the last scenes a brutally disfigured man, facing death, gives his visiting son an apple. It’s a gesture, against violence and alienation, of infinite tenderness, and says, simply, that we are capable of better things.
If listeners in recent years have castigated hip-hop’s dilution of its original politically charged message in favour of tales of the highlife and gangsters, then celebration is at hand. Stay Human, from the former Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy artist, is a fine album that stokes a righteous indignation with a powerfully soulful beat.
Franti, a poet whose lineage is perhaps closer to Gil Scott-Heron or the Lost Poets, uses all his imposing skills towards one aim: political activism in the service of humanity. Spearhead have never dodged social issues – their debut album, Home, addressed aids, poverty and racial politics – and with Stay Human they are not about to stop. The album’s 13 songs are cut around a radio station keeping watch over a fictional healer, Sister Fatima, who is about to be executed. Programme phone-ins intersperse such driving songs as ‘Oh My God’ and ‘Soulshine’; actor Woody Harrelson guests as the voice of the state governor.
But Franti is nothing if not far-ranging and his references – both musical and political – build into a compelling whole. Rap giant KRS-One is evoked on ‘Rock the Nation’, while Zap Mama’s Marie Daulene adds a honeyed colour to ‘Listener Supported’. Stay Human gives music a much-needed blast of activist passion – and, to be sure, politics with some great tunes.
This Side of Paradise
Recorded live at a series of coffee bars and other venues (including a home studio in the West Bank town of Ramallah) singer-songwriter Nigel Parry’s This Side of Paradise describes a hell-on-earth situation which, judging by current news from Palestine and Israel, gets worse by the week.
Parry, who spent some time teaching at Bir Zeit University, has first-hand experience of life during the intifida so it’s not surprising that This Side of Paradise is fuelled with a passion that’s aroused by the injustice of recent Palestinian history. The title track catalogues the painful smallness of lives disrupted and destroyed; the impossibility of leading anything like an ordinary existence. If some of the imagery can be at times heavy-handed or the rhyme-schemes a little obvious (Tel Aviv and relieve), any teeth-tingling is outweighed by the overall impact. The emotion of these economically instrumented songs may be firmly on the side of the Palestinians, but Parry is wise to concentrate on the human tragedy – ‘Elapse’, one of the strongest songs, concerns a student who was shot by Israeli troops – rather than the messy, political reality.
At best, Parry’s combination of acoustic guitars and drums works well in such well-aimed songs as ‘Forget’, a diatribe against Iraqi sanctions or the unforgettable image of tanks ringing Ramallah. Songs to leaven this, such as ‘Julia Roberts’ Smile’, sit strangely in a disc whose recommendation is its deftly managed intensity.
The leading Egyptian novelist talks with Ros Weston.
Ahdaf Soueif, author of Map of Love, a romantic novel set in colonial Egypt, cares deeply about the plight of the Palestinian people. Her novel stimulated me to explore my attitude to the current Middle East conflict and to Islam. I discovered my limited knowledge, readiness to judge and my inherent prejudice.
Umberto Eco speaks about the power of narrative: it can change minds by allowing us to reflect, consult the truth tables, assess taken-for-granted know-ledge. Ahdaf’s feel for Islamic history and culture, the context in which the story unfolds, helped me to understand the Middle East. This in sharp contrast to the history I learned at school and authoritative Western media grand narratives.
I asked Ahdaf Soueif whether she deliberately intended her fiction to change and open minds. ‘I didn’t start off aiming to change people’s attitudes. My initial impulse (in Map of Love) was to write a story of High Romance, a “Desert Romance”, not spoofing the genre but taking it on. I wanted to create my own Romantic Hero but I wanted the story to be “real”, a story that “could have happened”. The politics and history came in, took over, as they do, I believe, in life.’
She doesn’t mind if readers don’t take on the deeper issues, accepts they come to the narrative with multiple points of view. She offers an opportunity and feels rewarded when they write to say the novel made them re-think their position. ‘These letters are the most rewarding of all.’
Western perceptions about Palestine, intifadas, the occupation and Islam are shaped by media narratives, revised daily. Adhaf suggests these can recycle prejudice without challenging it, they are formulaic. ‘Palestinians do something violent for no apparent reason. Then Israel does something violent in retaliation or to ensure the safety of its people.’ She believes this is neither just nor good reporting: ‘A good journalist should always try to tell the whole story.’
She is adept at realist narrative too, used it to tell the story of her visit to Israel and Palestine for the British Guardian newspaper: ‘Every single word described something that had actually happened or I had actually felt. I used the techniques of the novel, as it were, with myself as the narrator-character because I believe that these find a short-cut to readers’ hearts. They respect the reader.’
Palestinians have made progress in telling their own stories but many remain to be told. ‘I think the Palestinians have made it happen by taking to the streets and facing tanks with stones. Israel has made it happen by its brutality and arrogance. What I find impressive is Jewish people speaking up for the rights of Palestinians. That is a very difficult position to be in but the only honourable one.’
Palestinian suffering is, she says, everywhere. ‘Every person has a story worth telling, true stories from occupied territories tend to be stories of suffering and courage. The more of them Western readers can know the better.’
But she remains concerned about the future, especially the danger of a fundamentalist response. ‘As global convulsions get stronger and Western capitalism spreads, reactions against this in certain parts of the world will take extreme forms, sometimes clothed in the robes of fundamental Islam. It’s hard to predict where all this will lead, it’s hard to predict a hopeful outcome.’
Hope is crucial for world peace, Palestine, Israel and their future. If realist and fictional narratives are able to help prevent further bloodshed, fear, escalation of war, prejudice and suffering, then let us tell those stories.
Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love is published by Bloomsbury;
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