An excellent year for books, with an impressive number getting our highest five-star rating. In fiction John le Carré’s gripping The Constant Gardener (Hodder & Stoughton, reviewed in NI 332) combined a love story with a searing polemic against the incestuous embrace of state and corporate power. Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk (Bloomsbury, NI 335), set in India, was a magnificent paean to family life, friction and mess notwithstanding, while Stevie Davies’ The Element of Water (Women’s Press, NI 336) explored issues of knowledge, guilt and complicity within the stifling confines of a British forces boarding school in post-Second World War Germany.
Inspirational words came from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and Mexican Zapatista leader Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Galeano’s sparkling Upside Down (Metropolitan Books, NI 336) was a good-humoured look at a world stood on its head, whilst Marcos’ Our Word is our Weapon (Seven Stories/Serpent’s Tail, NI 335) told the story of an insurrection of hope that has gone global.
The illicit union of corporations and politics underlined two very different non-fiction titles – George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (Macmillan, NI 332) and Karl Maier’s This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis (Public Affairs/Penguin, NI 333). Ludo De Witte’s The Assassination of Lumumba (Verso, NI 339) was a work of historical restoration that sparked an official enquiry in Belgium. Finally, two works that knitted numerous themes together brilliantly – John E Wills’ 1688: A Global History (Granta, NI 334) and Dennis Altman’s Global Sex (University of Chicago Press, NI 339).
A few days after 11 September, Diamanda Galás played London’s Royal Festival Hall. A New York-based performer whose work has often addressed the aids holocaust, she didn’t say anything. She simply added ‘Dark End of the Street’ to her set. No other words were necessary. Galás didn’t have an album out in 2001, although Laurie Anderson did. Ignore her 2001 studio album: if you haven’t heard her earlier work, then the two-CD compilation Talk Normal (Warner Archives/Rhino, reviewed in NI 334) is essential listening. ‘O Superman’ has never been more necessary. Groupov’s extraordinary Rwanda 94 (Carbon 7, NI 336) was bleak, but astonishing: Belgian-based musicians gathering to mark the Rwandan genocides. It was art torn from a terrible darkness, and all the more potent for it. On a happier note, Sheila Chandra goes from strength to strength: This Sentence is True (The Previous Sentence is False) (Shakti, NI 338) is experimental music with a popular edge and the capacity to leave the listener breathless. But Salt Rain, a collection of karnatic-inflected blues songs from Susheela Raman (Narada World, NI 340) gets the vote for 2001’s best album. Using India’s ancient ragas in such a way may seem a tall order, but Raman’s vocal delicacy and flights of improvisation make this an album to return to time and again.
There’s an air of mystery about Vespertine that – as anyone who’s followed Björk Gudmanssdottir’s extraordinarily precocious career will tell you – is anything but accidental. Maybe it’s to do with the instrumentation that Iceland’s most famous daughter has chosen: ethereal musical boxes, harps and celestes feature strongly. Certainly, it’s to do with the subject matter: 12 of Björk’s most intensely intimate songs yet. These are love songs that do what poetry should actually do – that is, make language strange.
But dislocation has never sounded so sweet. Vespertine may not have the obvious big-sound hits of earlier albums like Debut or even Homogenic, but this is no lack. Vespertine’s dozen move at their own odd pace, taking their creator ever forward to new territories. It’s this explorer’s heart that makes Björk such a consistently rewarding musician. The collaborative impulse is as strong as ever, with harpist Zeena Parkins, orchestrator Vince Mendoza and quondam beat-masters Matmos excelling. Björk’s voice stretches in a 180-degree arc for ‘Aurora’; on ‘Undo’ it’s fragmented, yearning towards a unity. ‘Pagan Poetry’ sees her on full throttle and it’s a stunning exposition of the elemental drama that her best work conjures up. It’s a point where the lie of the land and the state of the heart merge. With its impassioned refrain ‘I love him, I love him’, it’s a tidal wave of a song.
Vespertine is fascinating, rewarding in its infinite detail. Björk defines an area of song where the experimental flows into the mainstream; where the organic acoustics meet the inorganic manipulations of her studio tools. New territories mapped as never before.
Not many CDs have personal endorsements from the Dalai Lama himself, so Mantra Mix – a double CD compilation intended to raise funds for Tibetan refugees – has, before you rip open its wrappings, what ad executives call a unique selling point. So far so good. It’s all in a good cause and Mantra Mix’s existence is not that surprising: one only has to spend a little time around New York’s music business to realise how Tibet has really been taken to the collective bosom of musicians as a campaigning issue.
All of which makes Mantra Mix’s ropey old collection all the more surprising. So there’s Madonna’s ‘Shanti’ and Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’. Both good tracks, but slightly past their sell-by dates. Likewise Moby’s ‘Everloving’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’. Nothing wrong with any of them, but if Mantra Mix is the product of the good will of the music community, it’d be more gratifying if they could show it with some better or exclusive tracks. There’s one – one – unique track, and even then one’s heart sinks: I mean, how many more versions of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Games without Frontiers’ does the world need? (And what would the Dalai Lama, no great friend of gay rights, make of Shirley Bassey’s magnificently camp performance on the Propellerheads’ ‘History Repeating’? We may never know.)
The second, bonus CD offers, inter alia, a few words of inspiration from His Holiness, various links and a nicely thought-out meditative piece, ‘Compassion in Exile’, from Philip Glass. Charitable releases often forget that raising money is not an end in itself; there’s that small, and possibly unenlightened, factor that involves satisfying the punters to consider.
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth
Chinese economists are applying a concept that could revolutionize modern economic thought. When the massive 1998 floods, created not by particularly torrential rains but by intensive deforestation, devastated the Yangtze river basin, economists did some unusual calculations. A tree standing in this region, they concluded, was worth three times as much as a tree felled.
The story, told by Worldwatch’s Lester Brown, illustrates the kind of green economic thinking that he promotes with his new book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth.
As our view of the world changed when Copernicus proved that the sun did not orbit the Earth, Brown explains, we have to understand that the economy is but a subsystem of the natural world. Not the other way around. ‘Economic theory and economic indicators do not explain how the economy is destroying the earth’s natural systems. When observations no longer support theory, it is time to change the theory.’
His proposals have two simple basic principles: first, tax every activity to the level of damage it incurs. Asked about the dangers of quantifying nature (a necessary step to setting the level of a tax), he replies that: ‘Any value we can come up with will be better than zero, which is the value we presently put on nature.’ Brown’s second principle: redirect the vast public subsidies for environmentally destructive activities (over $700 billion a year) toward green industries.
With the pragmatic approach that characterizes Worldwatch, Brown stops short of criticizing growth per se. Instead, he says that a circular economy based on hydrogen and wind power, where nothing goes to waste, can prosper indefinitely. The claim might puzzle some more philosophical thinkers, but given the considerable influence that Brown has, one can only hope that his revolution will be given consideration by the world’s decision-makers.
The Blue Mountain
Israeli author Meir Shalev’s fourth novel is an ambitious epic that tackles grand themes by examining, with great care and sympathy, the small change and everyday events of seemingly small lives. The book is set in a socialist kibbutz in Palestine, established by a group of Ukrainian immigrants, and is narrated by Baruch, the grandson of Mirkin, one of the founders of the community. Drawing on a wealth of anecdote, family history, legend and downright rumour passed on to him by his grandfather, Baruch tells of the impoverished beginnings of the kibbutz, won by hard labour from a mosquito-infested swamp, and its growth and development over three generations. The characters of the villagers are quirkily individual while remaining wholly believable. There is Pinness, the staunchly rational schoolteacher, enigmatic Uncle Ephraim, who disappears along with his prize bull, and, central to everything, Mirkin, a man as gifted in horticulture as he is tortured in love. Baruch himself, orphaned and overweight, becomes the village undertaker and gets to bury most of the primary characters by the end of the book.
The Blue Mountain is a lyrical and wise portrait of a community struggling with its surroundings and with itself. It makes good use of folk history, humour and a dash of magical realism. Perhaps its political edge is less sharp than it could be, but its humanistic message that ordinary people, in all their glory and confusions, are worthy of respect and dignity, is one that we should surely heed.
Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America
Latin American histories have tended to treat the region as if it were moored off the Spanish or Portuguese coast. Born in Blood and Fire is a welcome change, looking beyond the obvious to explain the political, social and economic trends that have helped shape Latin America and endow its nations so richly.
Chasteen deals efficiently with class systems and complex racial diversity. He does not condescend when discussing regional struggles that have ebbed and flowed since the days when some Mayan cities were superstates and others formed NATO-like alliances to fend off rivals. Nor does he take the high ground when dealing with the errors of the post- and neo-colonial periods, nor with continuing social injustices.
The book is refreshing for the way it handles the search for new national identities, as well as the often-devious ways the US has treated its southern neighbours. It is also insightful in showing how the European ideas of liberalism and nationalism helped the indigenous peoples’ long struggle for political and, more recently, economic independence.
This is history made accessible through the lives of ordinary women and men: not only Simón Bolívar, who spread a revolutionary gospel of independence, Che Guevara and Canek, a Yucatec Maya who led a short but important revolt against Spanish rule in Mexico in 1761; but also Cortés, Malinche, Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Manuel Hidalgo.
This impressive book has much else to offer, including the role of popular music in raising political consciousness.
Adanggaman is a film betwixt and between. The story concerns intra-African violence during the 17th-century slave trade. Yet, although director M’Bala takes pains to specify the historical period, the film has the feeling of fable rather than history. Slavery is somewhat incidental to the coming of age of Ossei, played with a kind of irresolute verve by Ziable Honore Goore Bi. At the same time, the underlying critique of capitalism is unavoidable.
As the film begins, Ossei is trying to get out of the marriage being arranged for him by his authoritarian father. His own girlfriend is considered inappropriate because of her lowly social status. Ossei’s answer to this insoluble conflict between his desires and his filial obligation is to run away – but refuge remains elusive. That night, Ossei’s village is ransacked on the orders of the powerful slave trader, Adanggaman. Ossei’s mother and his neighbours are shackled and brought to Adanggaman under the lash of mercenaries; Ossei’s father is killed. In attempting to free his mother, Ossei is also captured. He is only able to escape slavery by going on the run again. Yet, like everything else, the idyllic life he creates with another runaway is destined to be destroyed.
A co-production between Côte d’Ivoire, France, Burkina Faso and Switzerland, Adanggaman is certainly aware of European eyes, even as it treats the intra-African aspects of the slave trade. Given the current demands for slavery reparations, it is invaluable to see an African perspective on this period of history. If it serves as anti-capitalist fable as well, so much the better.