The Twitter person @Arturo_Ulises (interesting name) who splits his time between between Tlön, Uqbar, and Brooklyn (interesting choice of domiciles) twitterated a link to a Radio Ambulante story about a run-in between the infamous Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and a well-known salsa musician. It’s a wonderful story, and so I’ve done a quick and very loose translation. Here it is:
Musicians always have peculiar stories. For example it is said that the Puerto Rican salsa musician Héctor Lavoe had an altercation with the Colombian narcotraficante Pablo Escobar during a musical performance at a party organized by Escobar.
According to the story, Escobar wanted the musicians to keep playing the same song, the hit, El cantate, again and again. The musicians refused, were locked in a room, and only managed to escape barefooted and without their instruments through the Colombian jungle. Finally arriving at a highway, they were able to hail a taxi for their hotel. But based on how the musicians looked, the taxi driver worried they wouldn’t be able to pay him. Lavoe assured him that he was indeed the famous Héctor Lavoe. The taxi driver asked suspiciously: “To confirm that you are who you say you are, you’re going to have to sing El cantate for me if you want me to take you to your hotel.”
“Listen dude,” Lavoe responded, “it’s because of crap like this that we have this problem. Somebody wanted me to repeat this song ten times, threatening me with a pistol. I was a little drunk and said to the orchestra no more songs. Pack up your instruments.”
What I really like about this story is the formal repetition of the demand to sing the song, as though the musician (representing all artists one might suggest) is hounded by a fate that specifically arises out of his artistry.
But also the story says a great deal about power, and especially about the peculiar power music exercises over us. It’s like one of those tales from antiquity about a despot (Dionysius of Syracuse, anyone?) that teaches the futility of the dictator’s way of life. Here is Pablo Escobar, who at the time was one of the most powerful, wealthy, and feared criminals in the world, powerless before art. Just like all of us, who when we like a certain song, a certain melody (or Vinteuil’s Sonata, for that matter) want to hear it again and again, so too the great Pablo Escobar. Most of us however do not pull out pistols to hear the song repeated, no matter how much we might want to. But perhaps that is just our timidity.
Original text from Radio Ambulante is found here.
This story apparently was first told by the journalist and writer Juan José Hoyos in the pages of the newspaper El Colombiano de Medellín.
Various elements of the economic system in the United States become metaphors for other elements. Sports, for example, which may be the case par excellence, acts as a metaphor for Wall Street, for big business, for the relationship of capital to labor.
In some cases, quite strikingly, the displaced factor in the metaphorization, rather than simply commenting on the primary term of the metaphor actually replaces it. In the process the secondary term becomes the reality it is supposedly only elucidating.
Thus for example the unions representing players become the site of the spectacle (using Debord’s terminology) of the drama of workers’ rights, even though the players are oftentimes almost as rich as the owners and members of the same privileged class. In general what were once dramas among social classes become dramas among celebrities.
The displacement works on multiple levels. The cheating scandal involving signal stealing and the New England Patriots in 2007 mirrored Wall Street market manipulation in the pre-crash era, while the relatively minor punishment meted out to the Patriot organization (even though the cheating may have helped determine the outcome of three Super Bowls) echoed the lack of effective legal sanctions for wrongdoing in the banking sector.
The various steroid scandals in baseball, cycling, and other sports similarly reinforce how the metaphor both works and further replaces the primary term (indeed in many cases the sports element of the metaphor might just as well be the primary term). The proof of this divergence is in the emotional resonance that can be seen in the debate over steroid use, which has been fierce, prolonged, and heartfelt. Here the nature of the distraction the spectacle provides can be clearly seen: as long as the debate is about steroids, it will be a debate about the behavior of celebrities and never about the deceit and chicanery of powerful actors in the US system of wealth, of which it is an instance.
Another example: the concern for the health of football players who suffer concussions at an unconscionable rate. Righteous indignation is quite the correct response, yet a terrible kind of embarrassment greets revelations of other forms of workplace injury, for what value could these low wage workers have in purely economic terms next to these wealthy young men? Clearly the stakes are so much lower for minimum wage earners and naturally, so is our concern.
To further extend the analysis, consider the following: within the media and among male sports viewers, whether avid or occasional, the only possible forum for positive commentary about unions and their activities resides in the sports world and involves exclusively those unions representing the wealthy class of professional athletes. Professional athletes are thus for all intents and purposes the only remaining “workers” in the US economic system. Their labor struggles dramatize (and at the same instant deflect) what is no longer allowed to be given conscious expression: the actual problems of average persons in the labor force.
This paradox leads to odd confusions. Sports writers have for example been uncertain about how to respond to the ongoing Alex Rodriguez steroid debacle currently playing out in a theater more near to you than you might imagine. Side with baseball and you have sold your soul to big business. Side with Rodriguez and you’ve just drenched yourself with sleaze. Some have even tried to make the sadly narcissistic, coddled, and deeply confused Rodriguez into a working class hero. Not hardly.
In the US it’s clear enough that the primary mechanisms for the production of spectacle are to be found in sports and entertainment. Both gain their power as metaphor, and yet that very power guarantees that the analogy evaporates in the process of being formed, so that sports (whose entire interest is generated through its relationship to the life outside it) is no longer a metaphor. It quite simply becomes the totality of the real.
The reason the Baz Luhrmann version of The Great Gatsby does not quite work, despite being almost certainly the best Gatsby adaptation yet, is that the movie must tell Gatsby’s story without Fitzgerald’s language. Luhrmann seems to have recognized this point and tried to get around it by actually ladling large chunks of Fitzgerald’s text onto the screen. But there’s really no avoiding the problem. The novel, The Great Gatsby, is propelled along, floats upon, and attains its peculiar hold on the culture, our culture, nearly a century after its publication, through the power of its language.
A reader insensitive to the writing will be unmoved. A movie director, telling Gatsby’s story with the language cut away, will be left with a gaudy, giddy melodrama, one that will fall apart, I suggest, at the precise moment the current Gatsby does: in the car accident scene. At this moment the superstructure of movie plot, in the novel balanced magically on the flow mesmerizing words, collapses. The scene is lurid, improbable, overwrought, and turgid—and not in a good way.
Is there anything to be done to rescue the scene? Only one strategy would effect the necessary shock: play it as grand opera, with the culminating aria sung by the maddened husband. Fitzgerald didn’t have to worry: his prose supplied the operatic underpinning. But take away the writing and The Great Gatsby skirts becoming regional dinner theater of the bombastic variety. You almost feel sorry for the movie director, faced with modulating such impossible changes in register.
Handling shifts in mood and tone is the job of nuance, and nuance is the business of Fitzgerald’s prose. To make the movie work—and certainly it often does, sometimes quite spectacularly—the director uses the full arsenal of dramatic confrontation, kinetic celebration, a screen drenched in color, even car chase scenes. But subtlety gets left out. It’s an odd thing. The momentum that a movie requires means that the novel’s momentum, carefully modulated in the prose, is laid bare, revealed in all its brutal, unwieldy energy.
What doesn’t make it onto the screen is worth noting. In the following scene from Chapter 7, as essential and revelatory as any in the novel, Nick is speaking to Gatsby about Daisy:
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of—-” I hesitated.“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. … high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….
Yet it’s no surprise that Luhrmann leaves the scene on the cutting room floor. The insight contained therein, the next closest thing to a direct authorial intrusion, has power on the page and none on the screen.
A stable system is one that can be changed only at the margins. If we were to consider movie adaptations of The Great Gatsby as a system under constant pressure to be improved, then Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation establishes a stable system.
The new version is not the greatest possible Great Gatsby, nor is it really a great movie at all. But it’s a very good one. And other Gatsby movies, no matter how successful, will likely improve on it only at ‘the margins’—and run into the same problems.
Plato did not trust the poets because they used language to tell stories that if examined closely fell to pieces. But without that trick of language, and without our willing submission to the sly craftiness of storytellers, we would miss out not only on the bad dishonest stories but the honest and necessary ones as well, whatever their flaws. Perhaps this is why novels will continue to matter and especially the ones that can’t quite be made into films.
Though, on the other hand, perhaps we have reached a point where the only trickery we are willing to submit to is the still more factitious brand found in movie special effects.
The probability that Efrain Rios Montt, the former general and dictator of Guatemala, will face genocide charges later this year means that I was a kind of witness to the crime. My part in the dictator’s story, though almost infinitesimally insignificant, begins in the fall of 1982 with my arrival in Guatemala City on a DC-7 flight from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I was traveling in that strange minister-without-portfolio state of the freelance journalist—and bearing with me just incidentally the opening stages of a case of amoebic dysentery.
The general had been in power for approximately six months and already had ordered the military operation, modeled on the rural pacification program in Vietnam, that would lead to the burning of villages in the Central Highlands, and the forced transfer of thousands of their Mayan Indian inhabitants into so-called ‘model’ communities. The goal was to cut off leftist fighters from the population. This was to be the final act in a two-decades long civil war between the Guatemalan military and los guerrilleros.
We now know that during the general’s 14-month reign, the brutality of that civil war went out of all bounds. We know this due to many reports by human rights groups and historians who have studied the conflict, and in some cases findings by the American Court of Human Rights, a juridical arm of the Organization of American States.
But at the time, as is often the case, exactly what was happening in Guatemala was somewhat less certain. A miasma surrounded everything, exacerbated in my own inglorious case by the amoebic dysentery. I established myself in a downtown hotel, favored by Peace Corps workers, found a doctor, and kept down what food I could. Making my way to and for through the large central open-air courtyard of my hotel into the streets, I began to take stock of my surroundings.
By the standard of other Central American cities I had visited, Guatemala’s capital projected a tone of quiet order and efficiency, but much of that calm seemed to involve the cops seemingly on every street corner who were forever picking their teeth with one hand while holding Uzis in the other. Something about those cops was deeply menacing: as though they were continuously observing moments of post-prandial satisfaction after lunch on a few citizens.
After my recovery, this marked contrast between calm and order and the possibility of chaotic violence the cops seemed to represent became more pronounced. When an opposition political figure sent a car to pick me up at my hotel for our interview, the driver perched a .45 caliber semiautomatic under his thigh as we drove back to the politician’s residence—yet we made our way over well-maintained streets with working traffic signals and smoothly flowing traffic. Later at a dinner party in a comfortable private home, the guests spoke of the horrors of the regime that the current dictator replaced: how walking by the Interior Ministry at night it was possible to hear the screams of torture victims. “Yes,” said one of the people at the table. “Things had degenerated. The interior minister and customs minister were both keeping private armies. Thugs for hire. Fighting over the contraband trade.” Someone else added that this was happening as a string of almost daily bombings lit up Guatemala City. Dessert was served: a lovely flan.
The bombings in the city, along with an endless string of assassinations, were mostly over under the new regime, but this only intensified the very real gulf between what was happening in the capital and the countryside beyond. Perhaps due to those improved conditions, those in the city were more inclined to mock the dictator as a kind of comic buffoon, though admittedly a dangerous one. Groups representing Indians in the highlands, where the military operations were taking place, entertained no such illusions: the pictures they sketched were of absolute horror and unrestrained violence.
But even those advocates in a sense may have underestimated the dictator, perhaps because neither they nor anyone else in the country seemed to believe the Rios Montt was operating on his own power. Several theories had currency: the general was the pawn of the Guatemalan ruling class; or of the U.S. Or based on his conversion to an evangelical form of Christianity (he had actually spent time as an acolyte at a Christian commune in California, and the church’s headquarters in Guatemala occupied the better part of a city block) he was taking orders from church leaders. Having just spent time in Honduras at a Baptist camp in the hinterlands where boys were being trained to fight against the Communist government of Nicaragua in what gave every sign of being a CIA operation, I found this less farfetched than might be supposed.
Eventually I traveled outside the city, where I realized that whatever menace I felt in the streets of the capital was dwarfed compared to the atmosphere beyond its borders. My first trip (described in a blog post here) was to a refugee camp in the mountains. A burned-out church and other dwellings on a hilltop suggested that a village had once been located there. In a little crease in the land below, Indians were living in white tents with the Red Cross symbol stenciled on their sides. Army officers said the guerrillas had burned the village, but this seemed unlikely. More probable—and the evidence about the army’s actions in the campaign that have come to light since would seem to support the point—the army had burned the village; that is, burned these people’s homes, and was now housing them in the tents until they could be relocated to one of the model villages.
In other words, I was looking at a prison camp.
And yet what did I have to go on? Here was the visual field: brilliant green mountains, women in skirts, ablaze in fabulous luminescence, washing clothes in a stream winding past the former village—tourists would have paid handsome dollars for this view of ‘native life.’ Standing there I saw what journalists often see in similar situations: the scars of violence written on the land, scattered ash and char, whose symbology suggests a narrative but provides no proof, even taken in the non-legal sense.
Genocide thus obscures itself, is structured as an intensely local inner privacy: it seemed in Guatemala always to be elsewhere, on the other side of town, or in the countryside beyond the town, at any rate, somewhere, over there. Yet the feeling that I was seeing the aftermath of violence was inescapable. People made their way across the hills, to and fro from the tents, in the kind of silence that follows serious accidents.
With the sharpened optics that come with time—and multiple investigations revealing the precise nature of the violent regime against the Indians—I now understand that I was witnessing a chilling theatrical performance, a dumb show (for as in the city there really was an eerie absence of human noise—a baby’s crying in one of the tents stood out in contrast to the otherwise silent scene) whose full meaning, whose signals, quite precisely, were the threat of violence on the part of the army soldiers and the careful avoidance of becoming the target of that violence on the part of the Indians. A kind of dance then, the dance of the tarantula, in which the tarantula hovers, and its potential victims walk carefully to avoid its deadly bite.
As for the Indians themselves, on two trips outside the capital city, I found no one willing to speak to me. (One impediment might have been that many of the Indians spoke Mayan languages, but it’s likely that at least some of the men spoke Spanish as well.) This was emphasized when on my second trip outside the capital, we crested a high ridge on one of those strikingly manicured, though narrow, roads that were a hallmark of the Guatemala of that time to find a group of campesinos resting, or perhaps waiting for a bus to market. With no army present, I had thought I might find someone willing to speak with me. Instead, the group appeared almost to look through me, as though I were a troubling roadside spirit come to do some mischief and best ignored. I suspect their assessment, based on the available evidence and their own experience, was the most logical conclusion.
Eventually I secured an interview with the dictator himself. That morning, under low clouds of the same kind that in the mountains I had seen dip into the hollows and curl through the lush green of the countryside, I crossed a plaza filled with intricate topiary and entered a massive building that in my memory is somehow reminiscent of a de Chirico painting—the headquarters of the national defense forces—and there, along with other journalists, interviewed Rios Montt.
At the time, no one would have given the slightest credence to the wildly improbable idea that the General would someday face trial for the systematic murder of his people. The ruler was at the apex of his glory. Only a month later he would meet with President Ronald Reagan, whom he was to tell, in one of those chilling quips that a screenwriter could hardly invent, that his policy was not one of scorched earth, but of scorched communists. One can imagine the two of them chuckling over this bon mot. Reagan offered his wholehearted support.
Subalterns in neatly pressed army uniforms ushered us into an ample conference room, and directed us to sit on dark wooden chairs. The general entered along with several aides a few moments later and took a seat at a large table of the same dark wood. He was a man of medium build with neatly combed, pomaded, and perhaps dyed black hair. At the time of my interview, he was still a general, and thus exuded none of the politician’s warmth and neediness. (After his overthrow in a second coup, fourteen months after he seized power, he would serve several terms in the country’s legislature, in the kind of odd twist that only Guatemalan politics could produce, his claim that he had been a reformer widely believed.) On the other hand, the harshness and megalomania that one associates with the Latin American caudillos found in the fiction of writers like Ernesto Cardinal or Carolyn Forché was absent. Rios Montt was a drab and flavorless dictator, a technician frosted over with a patina of piety.
As for the interview itself, it was the usual formal dance: questions intended to lure, answers intended to dodge. The general defended his relocation campaign, insisted that the leftists were on the run, denied human rights violations. It was easy to see, in his presence, why the wits of Guatemala City were convinced he was being run by more powerful political forces. In retrospect, however, one can see how his low-key presentation suggested an underlying political skill and canniness that would serve him well during the political career that was to come. I asked one question, cannot remember about what. The interview was soon over, and we were ushered out, as we had been let in, and I was once again under a cloudy sky among the topiary.
I would leave Guatemala a few weeks later, bearing with me, like many other reporters in similar situations, a set of suspicions that could not quite be confirmed. The dictators of the world depend upon it. But there has now been a rip in the fabric of time: those quiet Mayan Indians in the camps we saw and perhaps along the roadways held their memories in secret for two decades, until democracy returned to Guatemala, and then they began to speak.
What we now know is that the relocation campaign employed scorched earth tactics, burning villages and relocating residents throughout the summer and fall of 1982. Those who resisted or were believed to be linked to the guerrilleros were massacred. The American Court of Human Rights has documented two such cases, though in all likelihood there were many more. One came in July of 1982, the other in December (about a month after I left the country, and very close to the date of Reagan’s meeting with Rios Montt). In both cases, several hundred Indians were rounded up and murdered. Rapes were also committed, according to the evidence. Thus it would not be astonishing, if on the day I interviewed him, the bland, unimpressive general issued directives, or debated the fine points of policy with advisers, involving military operations that would unleash violence upon defenseless populations.
If the general receives a fair trial in Guatemala, and his alleged criminal behavior is thoroughly aired without fear or favor, another important step will have been taken in holding political and military figures accountable for war crimes and genocide. If that day comes, there will be cause for great celebration. But amidst it a note of caution should be sounded. Rios Montt was never the caricature of a puppet ruler his enemies, and even some friends, made him out to be. He was a canny and skilled politician who used even his blandness to calculated effect.
But he almost certainly had enablers, and it would be most surprising, indeed, if some of them did not operate under the flag of the good old U.S.A. The question then ought to be asked: given the Reagan administration’s tight embrace of Rios Montt and his government, what officials from the State Department, the U.S. military, or the CIA advised the general, provided him with support, or gave tacit approval to his tactics?
As impressive as the trial of Rios Montt is, in showing that human rights violations can be pursued even against the odds, the story behind it in all likelihood leads on USAID-funded roads to the U.S. Will that story ever be told? Oddly, it is Guatemala, with its abysmal human rights record, that is pursuing the truth. That a similar moment might unfold in the Land of the Free seems ironically unlikely. After all, it’s only a little genocide in Guatemala. Nothing to get upset about—even if Americans were integrally involved in setting it in motion.
Even when he’s being praised, it would seem, the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace must suffer comparisons to his countryman V.S. Naipaul. On the back jacket copy of Lovelace’s latest novel, the fabulous Is Just a Movie, Junot Diaz writes that the novel “takes us on a wild loving absurdist journey to the heart of contemporary Trinidad, a Trinidad so ravishingly alive that the Naipauls of the world could never have imagined it or possessed the soul to write about it.” The temptation in a review of Lovelace to launch a gratuitous attack on Naipaul must feel almost irresistible. But it’s a bit unfair: Naipaul wrote at least one utterly exceptional novel—A House for Mr. Biswas. More amazing than the invidious comparison of the two writers is the recognition that two living Trinidadian novelist could have plumbed so deeply and brought to life so fully a Caribbean island only slightly larger than Rhode Island.
Yet here are two novels in essence examining the same patch of ground, that could not have presented more disparate pictures of a national culture. Nor could two writers have employed more widely differing tools: Naipaul writing in a style of high realism develops a classic story about a small man ground to pieces by—well, exactly by what is one of the large questions of the novel, but let’s simplify a bit and say the relentless conflict between his own large views of himself and the small way his society regards him. In keeping with the traditions of realism the novel intentionally avoids the overtly political, and indeed Naipaul has long insisted that true writers, and himself as an exemplar of the genus, see the world and write about it in a non-political way. (And one can certainly understand why Diaz would find this annoying, given that’s Naipaul’s novels, and especially the later ones, are steeped in the author’s sometimes-acknowledged and sometimes-not political views.)
Is Just a Movie operates, by contrast, on a wildly diverging set of registers: the novel veers from wild, bitter, funny satire to dithyrambs to nuanced character studies to direct political analysis—its politics freely tattooed on its sleeve—all delivered in a prose style that seems endlessly capable of matching invention to mood shift, as needed.
It’s no surprise, given the prejudice in the Anglo-American tradition against the introduction of ‘politics’ into a text (and granting this amounts most often to a pretense to the apolitical), that Naipaul’s novel has gained greater acceptance by many orders of magnitude. On the other hand, another way of looking at the difference between the two novels is to say that Naipaul’s book clearly petitions for acceptance by the guardians of high culture, while Lovelace’s book just as clearly pulls the noses of that perfumed and periwigged lot.
This ability to move among registers and shift techniques is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lovelace’s success in Is Just a Movie. Naipaul was always careful to keep the voice of Trinidadian English out of his own narration. Characters might speak it—with wonderful success in his short story, “B. Wordsworth,” for example—but not him. Lovelace has no such hesitation. His narrator, one Kangkala, otherwise sometimes known as King Kala, is a calypso singer, poet, and observer of the people in the fictional town of Cascadu, a village far from the capital (unlike Lovelace’s own home in Cascade, a suburb of Port of Spain, the capital), who employs the full range of dropped verbs and prepositions, subject-verb agreement switches, and compressions that form the grace notes of Caribbean English. Yet in the same sentence these locutions, which are often dismissively described as patois, are juxtaposed with flights of high rhetoric.
You probably suspect by now that these notes have been meant to compare Lovelace’s and Naipaul’s work. But that’s not what I planned at all. My real goal was to point out certain writerly achievements in Lovelace’s novel. As a matter of fact, they will all contrast with Naipaul’s work. But to continuously point this out will get us nowhere.
So here is a brief compendium of what I see as the moments of what we might call technical grandeur in Lovelace’s novel. They involve on the first level his skillful use of satire, community portraiture, stream of conscious narration, and subtle and nuanced character analysis; and on the second, his virtuoso demonstration of how to successfully weave together these disparate elements.
I can’t think of a contemporary novel that moves more successfully between really excoriating satire and what I guess I’ll call, for lack of a better word, earnestness. (The earnestness takes the form of something very close to realism or in some cases Lovelace’s take on magical realism—in his version he very assiduously develops highly improbable events, such as the moment late in the novel when Dorlene, an important love interest of the narrator, is found to be alive in her coffin as she is lowered into her grave, while never stumbling over the trip wire of introducing verifiable magic into the text.)
Lovelace delivers a master course in how to develop satire in the modern novel. Early on, it is broad, funny, and obvious, as when a number of characters audition for roles in a movie that an American production company is shooting on the island, thinking that this is their chance for stardom, only to discover that they’re being cast to play the role of natives who will be killed off after only a few moments on the screen. When one of the characters, Sonnyboy, a would-be revolutionary and all around badjohn, insists on dying a dramatic death, he throws a wrench in the filmmakers’ plans. But as the novel progresses, partly because the characters involved have become more fully developed, the satire becomes more complex and multi-layered. For example, later when Dorlene is resurrected from the dead the prime minister seizes on the supposed miracle as the basis for a new economic and tourism plan. But the cut of the satire is all the sharper because we have begun to see Dorlene as a woman trapped in a culture that has no place for her intelligence and ambition, and we’ve seen the tragic effects of her failed efforts to connect both romantically and in her community. (And there are claws to this satire too: one character V.S. Rooplal—an obvious reference to you know who—emigrates to Canada where he holds himself out to be a prophet and is later found out to be no more than “a petty magician and gambler.”)
There is a remarkable restless energy at the heart of Is Just a Movie that keeps it from standing still on any of the pinnacles it reaches. For example, the novel might just have come to rest glorying in the contrast between Dorlene’s characterization and the bitter political satire that follows the response to her resurrection. But elsewhere the text just as easily and fearlessly slips into a mode of pure political commentary. Embedded in the novel is a canny, thoughtful, and deeply felt analysis of Trinidad’s postcolonial political history that acknowledges the way the Black Power movement of the 1970s went awry, and how colonialism arrived wearing a new mask and bearing the bland name of globalization. More tellingly and to its vast credit, Is Just a Movie is almost certainly the only novel in 2012 that directly addresses the 1983 U.S. led invasion of Grenada. Lovelace has nothing to gain from this, but the unwillingness to forget may be among the novelist’s most important responsibilities, and the sections on Grenada form part of this novel’s greatness.
Yet as lacerating and powerful as the satire is, Lovelace’s purely descriptive powers are what held me in thrall in Is Just a Movie. The chapter titled “Franklin Batting,” for example, might just be among the most successful panegyrics about sport (in this case cricket) you will ever read. I’ll give an extended excerpt that gives a feel for what Lovelace can accomplish with his prose:
Through the whole village it would go, Franklin batting, and before she go out her door, Miss Dolly would pull out the firewood from the fireside and add some water to the pot she cooking so it would bubble slow while the wood glowed to ashes, Rabbit and Jerry would get up off the bench in front the rum shop, people buying in the grocery would hurry up with their message and even down Eight-mile it would reach, Kenny slowing down his taxi to shout out as he passing to the people bathing by the spring, ‘Hey, all you, Franklin batting! You hear what I saying: Franklin. Franklin batting. Franklin batting,’ and would drive maybe another five minutes, making the announcement, before he turn around and pick up those who ready and carry them back up to the cricket ground.
Other highlights: the aforementioned Dorlene’s courtships, another romance involving the town constable famous because he has never arrested a single person, a character named Claude who each year shows up at Carnival only to find no one willing to join his steel band, the family whose life is changed by the arrival of a piano meant for a neighbor up the hill, who simply tells them to just keep it.
Much more could be said—a really good novel has that power to inspire a cascade of praise. But I’ll leave it here. Is Just a Movie is an extraordinary novel that as far as I know has not made any of the standard lists of Best Books of 2012. So now I’ll add my own invidious note: Is Just a Movie outshines any number of novels on those lists. As one who is not given to pronouncements, I will make one now: this is one of the best novels of the year. It deserves a wider audience.
1. In a looped system stupidity becomes endemic. This is because stupidity grooves more deeply. Rumor, falsity, the manipulations of operatives bevel thoughtfulness into their own edges. Media are looped systems that ablate the drag of nuance.
2. The good idea is not the truth, which is the name given to the defoliated province colonized by the holders of the bad idea. The good idea has no flags, waves no banners, and pays no bribes.
3. The relationship between self-seeking and stupidity involves an almost perfect self identity. Ideas nurtured in the medium of self-seeking arrive with a warm sense of welcome, land like the arrival of the new vintage. These ideas are the true celebrities in culture. Because they charm us endlessly, we forgive even their bad behavior. We poster our brains with their nude photos.
4. The bad ideas, the old failed bad ideas, recycled, thus are the new deities of the culture. History, remembrance, obligation, all etherize before the dissolving chemistry of the bad idea. The recycled tendentious apothem is endlessly repackageable, and the rich and natural fecundity of the idea field is endlessly plowed under by its single blade. In the harrowed field the peasants are left to pick at the leavings. This is the ecology of the bad idea.
The dearth of translated works in the U.S. has been widely lamented, here, here, here, and hear. I’d like to join the chorus, and register my vote for two works of francophone literature that I believe merit translation, and for a third work, already translated, that deserves a wider audience.
The first of these novels is Léonora Miano’s Contours du jour qui vient (literally, Outlines of the Coming Day). Miano, who is from Cameroon, published the novel in 2006, invoking an imaginary African nation, in which the collapse of social institutions has led to a breakdown in the ability of parents to care for their children. The novel imagines the world that would result if the normal intergenerational transfer to the young were incapacitated.
The novel is easily read as political commentary on contemporary Africa, which certainly it is. But more powerfully, Contours suggests the fragility of the bonds that tie together the generations in an every-man-for-himself social system—a phenomenon that is far from confined to impoverished nations. For me the brilliance of the novel comes in its invocation of the viewpoint of children who have been born into a world in which the adults have lost the ability or the willingness to care for them.
The novel’s hero, Musango, is a young girl who has been driven from her home by her mother, who under the pressure of disintegrating social bonds and the brutalities of a war just ended has been ravaged psychologically. Musango moves through a society in which children have become a kind of coin of exchange, targets for sex traffickers, and exploiters of every stripe, including religious charlatans.
Contours is not a young adult novel, but as one who spends a considerable portion of his time helping sixteen-year-olds determine what literature might have to offer them, I’m certain that Miano’s novel would strike a chord among teen readers, who I believe would sense, despite the vast differences in their circumstances and those of the novel’s narrator, the vulnerability they too face in navigating a world in which adults are often embattled in Darwinian struggles and in which economies are organized to put children, and particularly adolescents, to use.
The second novel I believe deserves to be translated is Anna Moï’s Riz Noir. A Vietnamese francophone writer who grew up in the Saigon of the Vietnam War, Moï based her novel on the true story of two girls from her lycée who were arrested in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive and sent to the notorious Poulo Condor prison, on an island off the coast of Vietnam. This was the site of the famous tiger cages where individuals believed to have cooperated with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese were brutally tortured.
The novel opens on the first night of the sisters’ imprisonment, but shuttles back to the years of their adolescence prior to their arrests. The two schoolgirls are sometimes silly, frivolous, and unheeding, in the way of adolescents everywhere. Their involvement in supposedly traitorous activity feels almost haphazard. But the scenes of torture in the prison act as devastating counterpoint to the insouciance of their earlier life (including an incident involving a form of waterboarding). Moï manages the technically difficult feat of balancing these two contrasting settings with great skill.
Historically accurate, the novel recounts the visit of current U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, then a congressional aide, with a delegation of U.S. members of Congress to the notorious prison. The pictures he took ran in Life magazine in 1970, and added to domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. This novel would be an exceptional addition to the syllabus of any course on the history of the Vietnam War, delivering a view of wartime Vietnam that U.S. readers are seldom, if ever, exposed to.
The last novel I want to mention has already been translated into English. Sony Labou Tansi’s La Vie et demi (English title: Life and a Half) was first published in 1979. The work was offered in translation last year by Indiana University Press.
Tansi was a Congolese novelist and playright who died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 47. (I became aware of him a number of years ago in a class taught by the great Guadeloupian novelist Maryse Condé. I remain grateful to her for guiding me to works like Tansi’s.) As in Miano’s novel, Tansi’s book takes place in a mythical African republic where a dictator, the Providential Guide, exercises absolute power. The novel opens as this dictator humiliates and then murders a man named Martial. But Martial announces, “I don’t want to die this death.” And as it happens he doesn’t: against the counterpoint of increasing rage of the dictator Martial is shot, garroted, strangled, knifed, and yet simply doesn’t die.
Even after he has been reduced to a few ragged and torn bits of flesh, Martial continues to haunt the dictator for the rest of the narrative. At this point the real hero emerges: Martial’s daughter, Chaidana. A 15-year-old, she soon becomes a serious thorn in the side of the dictatorship.
Life and a Half is wildly inventive, and written in a dense, propulsive French that must have been a real chore to translate. Unfortunately, the translation by Indiana University press currently lists on Amazon at the price of $55—not the kind of bargain that leads to bestsellerdom. Tansi’s work, somewhat sadly, finds itself in the odd position of being out of print in many cases, while meanwhile multiple volumes of criticism are churned out examining his importance and influence. Those studies seem largely in agreement that Tansi is among the most influential novelists of his generation in Africa. The continent’s most celebrated current satirist, Alain Mabanckou, is among those who agree.
Three novels. Each worthy of the attention of American readers. I advance the perhaps somewhat naïve view that if these three novels were to reach a wider American audience, the national life would be enriched, and our home here on this far continent would become a marginally better place.
That’s all I’m saying.
In the old days for anyone who cared to think about talk radio or talk radio show hosts there was an axiom: in order to maintain their audience talk show hosts deliberately escalated their provocations, until finally the day came when they crossed a line, were fired, and eventually migrated to some other market distant enough to provide cover.
Quaint old world. But don’t cry for the radio talk show host. In the new imperium of social media, there may be no hiding, but there’s also no provocation that represents a beyond which. Rush Limbaugh the case in point. It turns out that when he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a slut because she defended insurance-covered birth control last spring, he was just warming up.
His latest assault on reason can be read here: the comically insane suggestion that Al Qaeda “gave up” Osama Bin Laden to the U.S. in order to help guarantee President Obama’s reelection. It is so idiotic that it’s funny, but here’s the trouble with operating in world with no line too far. With his brain torqued by addiction, and positively sodden with constant immersions in narcissistic fantasias of power, Limbaugh lives in a world with no limits whatsoever. His small poison will endlessly infect the body politic, and his coalition built out of an audience of dead enders, many of whom appear to be defenders on the last redoubt of open racism the country has on offer, and backed by high-powered media companies and advertisers, guarantees a limitless future.
The only problem with this glowing scenario is that Limbaugh is now officially crazy. But it doesn’t matter. He will go on, and will even continue to have some small measure of influence—though an infinitely smaller amount than he’s given credit for. Tomorrow will come, and he will once again respond to the urgent need to jack the intensity level up one more notch, to heighten the provocation.
There used to be, or at least it’s possible to imagine, a time when talk show hosts, sad wayfarers moving endlessly from job to job, dodging the floating debris of their tattered reputations, possessed a weird nobility as they fought over the scraps in a bizarre corner of the American dream. But without checks, what we have now is simply the deterioration of a mentally ill person—in public, every afternoon, on Clear Channel radio stations.
Nothing could be more natural in the face of the unassimilable loss that is Aurora than the call for us to come together or the exhortations from our leaders that we are so much stronger than the violence wrought against us. Psychologically, these moments of communal affirmation may well be essential. They reduce suffering and trauma. They are welcome.
So what I’m emphatically not saying is that such appeals to our sense of community and our common bonds should be diminished or silenced. Yet a thought experiment might be worth trying. What would happen if in the wake of the next horrific shooting (it’s coming, by the way: these are now part of the structure of American life) the calls for community, for coming together, were left aside? What would happen if we were to experience the next brutality separately and alone? No appeals for communal outpouring of aid. No praise for our resilience. No calming words about how much stronger we are than the they of evil.
I’m not here to suggest what would happen—because in fact no one knows. That’s why it’s a thought experiment. Offered here is a purely speculative effort at imagining what might happen—no more than that.
Imagine then our thought experiment in action: a terrible shudder of violence has just unfolded, but in this case not followed by the usual declarations about our communal strength. Given no consolation, left to fall downward on and on in our separateness, alone with the jagged mechanism of our isolate thought, down into the dark cloud field that such violence actually opens in us, we might finally sink into a hostile landscape of pure individuality, recourseless, fearful, enraged, destructive—detached and bereft.
This possibility is what makes responsible leaders rush to speak up for community in the face of such tragedies. And it’s no joke. Alone we would be turned over to the demons. But here’s where the thought experiment comes in. What if, in this fading away of the communal, an illusory and even mythic sensation of our togetherness were torn away too? What if in this painful moment of truth we were actually able to see ourselves as we really are? In other words, what if we were to have a genuine experience of our every-man-for-himself society? Who knows where such a revelation would lead. The thought experiment doesn’t require that closure. But it does seem to open up the possibility of a terrifying experience of our reality.
Or another outcome, less apocalyptic this one, more optimistic: what if an experience of our isolation and pure individuation actually led to a deeper and more authentic hunger for genuine community—perhaps even (and here the optimism flies over the moon) to some recognition that community is more than a feeling. It requires structures. It must arise out of our way of life, instead of being a coping mechanism only pressed into service when someone has once again enacted the mass murder script on the American stage.
Some would perhaps follow this line of reasoning through another question: how is it that we live in a society in which isolated young men can purchase an arsenal of weaponry, ammunition, and perhaps explosives, with impunity, with no oversight? And the thought occurs: perhaps if we did not rush so quickly headlong into consolation, this question might be cleared of its categorical political baggage. Even some of those who rushed out to buy guns after the election of the nation’s first black president might just suffer a moment’s reconsideration, once the consolations and intensities of groupthink were denied them.
Or instead—left to brood alone about the meaning of such an attack—maybe we’d follow our thinking in erratic directions, into taboo territories. Consider for example the clear prohibition against asking what Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies had to do with the killings. With no one to shout us down (and maybe this is isolation’s unique value) we might, some of us at least, entertain thoughts about why it was the Batman saga that the killer chose as the setting of his mayhem.
This is not to advocate for the idea that the film goaded the killer into action. It’s to suggest that thinking about violence in our society and in the products that entertain us might be fruitful. Nolan himself issued a statement following the shootings. “The movie theater is my home and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” But what if Nolan’s film itself violates that ‘hopeful and innocent place’? Having not seen the new film, I obviously can’t comment on it—but I did see the 2008 movie that preceded it. One man’s reaction: I found it to be an appalling jumble of contradictions that finally cohered into an ugly justification—after buildings fell in clear reference to the 9/11 attacks—for vigilante violence and torture.
I realize many will disagree. They will cite (and praise) the film’s ambiguity, since after all, isn’t art supposed to enlarge our sense of the space of uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives—forgetting entirely that the work in question is a cartoon and is seen by many (most?) of its audience as such. Artists have always wanted to have it both ways: to titillate, console, and aggrandize the consumers of their work, while delivering suitably ‘progressive’ messages or critiques of social conditions. But Hollywood is more shameless in this than the other arts, and Nolan is doing nothing if not following a time-honored tradition. His Batman saga fits what must have been the film industry’s motto all along: Hollywood—we make vengeance palatable for America.
Entertaining such thoughts has value, not as a way to deliver a brief against Nolan and his movie but because it might lead us in the direction of actually undertaking to untangle the meaning of the violence that haunts our actual national life—from predator drones to prison rapes to the endless toll of mundane and undramatic murders that unfold daily, which action movies do not reflect so much as provide a comforting screen for (pun intended).
But please, don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m only suggesting a thought experiment. A what-could-happen-if scenario. I proposed a couple of outcomes—and perhaps not the most important ones. Remembering this: what matters in my view is the possibility of thinking about what’s happened in more idiosyncratic ways, without consolation, in isolation, adrift in arenas that would be taboo in groups. Who knows what such thinking might reveal about who we are and what we are becoming, if such unexpected lines of thought were pursued in the privacy of an un-ameliorated grief and fear, before we rushed to come together as a community and ‘move on’?
Given that this blog has assiduously avoided anything topical with the secret goal (more or less realized) of making itself invisible to search engines, what on earth might now possess me to add my words to the torrent on Romney’s great haircutting debacle? Only perhaps that I was shocked. As a headline scanner, I had first thought: well, so Romney teased a boy who was gay about his hair. What a jerk. Then I read the story. I suppose there are those who think attacking someone—leading the group in the attack—and cutting his hair is no more than a mild prank. But really holding someone down and taking scissors to him? “Like a pack of wild dogs,” as one participant remembers it. Did you do things like that in high school? I didn’t think so.
Others have pointed out that this incident was not entirely unique. They noted how Romney seems to have taken particular joy in guiding a teacher with poor eyesight into a glass door (Gail Collins in the Times), and still others conclude that his claim not to remember the haircutting attack is perhaps as bad as the event itself (Charles M. Blow, also in the Times, among others).
But I’d like to come at this story from a slightly different angle. Here’s what I propose: I’d like to recall an incident of bullying I observed as a child growing up in Texas at roughly the same time that Romney was attending prep school in Michigan. I’d then like to suggest that this incident was an example of a culture of bullying then present in Texas that seemed as normal and natural to its perpetrators and victims as it did to its audience—and bullying is primitive theater, let’s not forget that. I’d then further like to take a leap and suggest that the Texas I grew up in helped shape the personality of George W. Bush, the Republican figure Romney most resembles, despite their widely variant styles and personalities, and that Bush and Romney both share a propensity for playing the bully.
When Mitt Romney was in high school I was a student in a North Dallas junior high. Every day after lunch several hundred of us were turned loose to roam across a large asphalt playground behind the school gym. There was a boy named Robert Jacobson who played among us (name changed to protect, even after all these years). Robert suffered some unidentified disorder or incapacity—probably undiagnosed, given the times. He walked on his toes and did not connect appropriately with others. He just stood out. His nickname—and it was his only name on the playground—was Twinkletoes. During lunch kids would throw pennies, and Robert would chase them, running in an awkward stiff legged gait, high on his toes, his arms flung out, unbent at the elbows, after the pennies. Day after day. It was only years later that I realized the significance of the pennies: Robert was of course Jewish. And as everyone around me seemed to know, Jews will chase pennies.
So there you have it. A crude anti-Semitism. A vicious mocking game aimed at someone who was defenseless. I’ve pondered over the years how I didn’t understand the meaning of the pennies. I believe some part of me must have known. Yet I knew better than to know. Because another part of me, equally buried, understood only too well the threat of violence and retribution that lay behind the playground game, and recognized my lack of immunity. I was no hero. I witnessed but did nothing.
If you are now thinking that I’m making too much of this story about Robert Jacobson, that I’m reliving a childhood trauma that bears no connection to my stated purpose, I can only tell you that I could unwind many other tales of bullying, taunting, and brutality in those days. Nor is Robert’s story primarily about anti-Semitism—though that topic deserves its own discussion. Vicious as it was, hatred of Jews was only one spice in the toxic brew in which my age-mates and I were steeped in those days. Blacks—especially blacks, let’s remember that—Jews, gays, the retarded, the mentally ill, the politically dissident—all were fair game for hate and reprisal. (And no, of course, it was not only Texas, but it was Texas; and I could unwind another long list of stories about all the kinds of hate I witnessed, felt, learned of, and knew to be average facets of the world I lived in.)
George W. Bush grew up in this world too, in Midland, Texas, a few hundred miles west of the playground where Robert chased his pennies. And of course that doesn’t make him guilty of anything. But this was the same George Bush who built his career around the notion of his being shaped and formed by his Texas boyhood, his values and perceptions of life arising out of his Midland roots. And so when I say that George Bush was immersed in his boyhood in the same culture I was, I’m just saying what he’s saying. Except that I’m adding that I suspect that what he learned in his Texas youth, in addition to all those heroic qualities we heard about endlessly in his political campaigns, was the fondness for reprisal and dominance that are the core of bullying, its thrill of reaching through the boundaries of another’s selfhood and violating it with impunity, its assertion of ownership—of the Other, but also of the cultural landscape itself, territoriality being one of its key features.
Am I right? Was George Bush manufactured as a bully in his West Texas boyhood? No way to prove it. We know of his subsequent actions: how he laughingly mocked Karla Faye Tucker, the woman whose death sentence he refused to commute. We know about his ready resort to violence—and this readiness lies behind all bullying. Of his childhood, no certainty. But what I do know is the milieu in which he operated. I know that it was a common sport among West Texas boys in those days to run down (as in run over and kill) jackrabbits and wild dogs in their cars and trucks on the back roads and ranch lands. (I knew a man in East Texas who would cruise its black tops at night running over possums who had come out to sleep on warm asphalt—running them over at slow speed and then watching in the red glare of his taillights as they writhed.)
Nor am I claiming that George Bush went on those hunts after rabbits and wild dogs in West Texas, or that he was violent in the way that man in East Texas was. I take him at his word—and not in the smarmy way of members of his political party when they comment on Obama’s religious beliefs—when he speaks of compassionate conservatism. It was no false veneer. Liberals mistook him by assuming hypocrisy where something more complicated was going on.
No, I believe George W. Bush believed in his compassionate conservatism without reservation. But I also suspect his views were an elaborate psychic countermeasure against the brutality he grew up with, whose wrongness he must have sensed. For I feel certain, looking at what Bush became, and his fearful reaction after 9/11, his authorizing of torture and his swaggering across the international stage (his administration peopled with the kind of full-on bullies that the doubtful bully often surrounds himself with—the Cheneys and Boltons who would do the real dirty work), that this man’s moral outlook, as he grew up in a Texas whose politics were being shaped by the nascent John Birch Society, in a Texas where racism and anti-Semitism comprised an almost universal lingua franca, was formed through a series of reactions to the violence and bullying he saw around him—that toxic mix of fear and complicity, of signing up because not signing up meant a fall into oblivion, and demurral because some part of every person withdraws, at least at first.
Back to George Romney. So we now know that Romney was definitively an abuser in his childhood. The idea—repeated by that amiable bully Bill O’Reilly, whose whole career has been built on the pleasures viewers receive in seeing the defenseless attacked (c.f. his comments on New Orleans flood victims as they were literally scrambling to survive on rooftops)—is that what happens in childhood should stay in childhood. But of course what happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood. It creeps into the land beyond, only perhaps papered over with a civilizing veneer, or sluiced into a socially acceptable direction, unless a kind of conversion experience, built on deep awareness, intervenes. Romney has clearly not experienced such an intervention, about this or any of the other many episodes of bullying and teasing he engaged in. That is the true shame of his silence and denial in his response to the Washington Post story.
Romney is very different from Bush: a real man of business, whereas Bush was always closer to the greeter at the casino, the guy who was content to keep the touts happy and then get teary-eyed and sentimental when the big winners raked it in. Romney by contrast was far closer to the genuine article—in fact not so much a businessman as the financial world’s variant of the old-fashioned industrialist, an occupant of the highest rung of the food chain, who believes himself to be entitled to every bit of it.
Yet both of them are bullies in their own way, and this comes as no surprise. For in this new century, and for a variety of perhaps complicated but also obvious reasons (the electorate’s compensation for feelings of powerlessness, old-fashioned rage at the possibility of displacement and diminishment of privilege) can it really be possible to imagine the Grand Old Party, now transformed into something that would have made those Birchers in the ’60s proud, nominating anyone for president who is not a bully?