Mixed media: books

Peter Whittaker and Jo Lateu review the latest selection of non-fiction radical book releases.

A Massacre in Mexico by Anabel Hernández, translated by John Washington (Verso, ISBN 9781788731485)

On 26 September 2014, a group of male students set out in a convoy of buses bound for Mexico City. They were travelling from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College to attend a demonstration commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which Mexican police and military killed hundreds of unarmed protesters. En route, their convoy was repeatedly attacked, six people were killed, many injured and 43 disappeared, presumed murdered. As news of the killings spread, the government begacampaignof lies, obfuscation and ‘confessions’ obtained by torture in an attempt to divert blame from the true perpetrators: agents of the state, acting under orders of the then-ruling PRI party.

Campaigning journalist Anabel Hernández has painstakingly reconstructed the lead-up to that bloody night and its shameful aftermath, in which the authorities paraded barefaced lies as the ‘historic truth’. She draws on a vast array of sources, both government documents clandestinely obtained and eyewitness testimony, to present a minute-by-minute account of what really happened and build a forensic case which demolishes the official version put forward by state officials, police and prosecutors.

As Hernández says, the case of the Ayotzinapa students stands as an exemplar of the many instances of violence perpetrated by the Mexican ruling elite against its population. It is to be hoped that, with the very welcome election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as President, Mexico may finally be turning a page in its history and that, with the aid of indefatigable journalists such as Anabel Hernández, the culprits in the Ayotzinapa massacre and many more similar atrocities will be identified and brought to long-overdue justice.

★★★✩✩ PW


Talking to North Korea by Glyn Ford (Pluto Press, ISBN 9780745337852)

In this well-written account of the world’s only ‘communist theocracy’, Glyn Ford takes issue with the view that North Korea is a rogue state run by a mad leader. Drawing on extensive interaction with the North Korean leadership in his political and diplomatic roles, Ford makes the case that, beyond sabre-rattling, what Kim Jong Un craves most is legitimacy and an end to global isolation.

Ford is no apologist for the North Korean regime and he fully acknowledges its repression and brutality. He does, however, set the present impasse in its historical context, giving us an excellent overview, from feudal Korea to Japanese occupation (1910-45), the division of the country and the subsequent civil war that mushroomed into a clash of Cold War ideologies. Chapters on North Korea under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il explain how the principle of Juche or self-reliance became the bedrock of official planning. Bringing the story up to date, Ford contends that, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea is attempting to transform itself into a ‘developmental dictatorship’, following a model pioneered by Vietnam. Whether this is a feasible goal is questionable, especially in the face of US policy, which has lurched from ‘malign neglect’ under Obama to active belligerence under Trump. 

Talking to North Korea ends with a chapter on the recent Kim-Trump summit in Singapore, describing this rightly as more spectacle than substance. But Ford does advance some cautious optimism here, holding out the hope that the summit will provide a base on which to build more meaningful talks to end the nuclear standoff.

★★★★✩ PW


Russia Without Putin by Tony Wood (Verso, ISBN 9781788731249)

It was only after I had been reading Tony Wood’s analysis of money and power in post-Soviet Russia for some time that I realized that what I had taken for an abstract cover design was in fact an extremely soft-focus picture of Vladimir Putin. Herein lies the difficulty of the task Wood has set himself. In attempting to write about Putin’s Russia without foregrounding the man himself, he is cutting across the grain of received wisdom that the individual personifies the country to a remarkable degree, both domestically and on the international stage. Indeed, the blurb to the book undermines its own title, stating baldly: ‘It is impossible to think of Russia today without considering Vladimir Putin.’

Bravely battling his own marketing department, Wood advances a thesis that Putinism is less a return to Soviet authoritarianism and more a continuation of the free-market policies pursued by Boris Yeltsin and his neo-con advisers in the 1990s. In this argument, the reining in of the oligarchs post-Yeltsin brought the system of larceny back ‘in house’, replacing untrammelled kleptocracy with state-owned casino capitalism, the better to manage it for the benefit of the elite.

Tony Wood has not really given us the promised portrait of Russia without Putin and there is little detail here on what a post-Putin landscape might look like. He has, however, provided valuable insights into how the Russia that emerged from the fragmentation of the Soviet Union morphed into its present state, before Putin and under Putin. After Putin is a story yet to be written.

★★★✩✩ PW


Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, translated by Anna Halagar (Virago, ISBN 978-0-349-01054-0)

The struggles and concerns of the five young narrators in Crimson – identity, alcohol, belonging, friendship and sex – may be familiar to millennials across the Western world, but there is something reassuringly Nordic and noir about Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel.

Fia, Sara, Ivik, Inuk and Arnaq are twenty-somethings living in Nuuk, Greenland. It’s a place of limited opportunity and narrow-minded opinions, and the protagonists’ relationships with each other and with their city are driven by alcohol-fuelled experimentation and the desire to escape reality. It’s a girl-meets-girl story with a twist: there is a gender fluidity here that is cleverly echoed in the fact that Ivik is a common name for both girls and boys in Greenland. We are also encouraged to consider the universality of the story: ‘Inuk’, as well as being a name, simply means ‘(hu)man’, and Arnaq ‘woman’. The stark, cold Nordic landscape finds its parallel in the noir – depression, anger and frustration abound, but the uplifting ending prevents the narration slipping into despair.

Crimson is written in a direct, uncompromising, sometimes humorous style, complete with SMS chats and emojis and a healthy dose of profanities. In her introduction, the author says that she didn’t recognize herself in any of the books written in Greenlandic, and that this novel was an attempt to ‘show another side of Greenland to the world, and a different world to Greenland’.

Like me, you may never have read a novel by a Greenlandic author. This is a good, if unconventional, place to start.

★★★✩✩ JL