‘Underground Europe Calling’ – A Book Review

For about a decade between the mid-1930s and 40s the early Labour party in the United Kingdom was heavily influenced by a little publisher called the “Left Book Club”. This membership ‘club’, which reached about 60,000 at its peak, published a monthly book on issues that concerned Britain’s socialists, for sale only to members; as well as a newsletter which became one of the main voices of the early Labour party. This effort was funded and supported by Victor Gollancz; although there were allegations of Soviet support for the magazine and book club.

I found this particular book, “Underground Europe Calling” – written by Oscar Pollak (who sometimes went by Oscar Paul), an Austrian refugee to the UK – while reading an article on the use of subterranean imagery in the building of mystique surrounding persecuted groups. The book is a treatise on the inevitability of European socialist revolution. Like all good socialists, Pollak differentiates his views from those advanced by Stalin – although he does suffer the same delusions as most socialists in espousing the narrative that the problem was the man, not the system. Pollak’s assertion was that Europe was ripe for revolution, that this revolution required no demonization of the Germans along national/ethnic lines because European revolution had to be led also from within Germany as the greatest example of anti-fascism and the greatest industrial nation in Europe (a lot of ‘workers’, who are needed for a good revolution), and the need of all Europeans to come to terms with the certainty of a European ‘international’ socialism which would emerge naturally from the ruins of the Third Reich (EU, anybody?).

This book was in one way un-remarkable in that Pollak fell into every trap laid out by those who would use central planning to seize power. For example, the false idea that socialism is more democratic, the utopian vision that economies can be planned, the demonization of capitalism as ‘greedy’, the irrational fear of nationalism – as if who we are comes only from our ideas and status and solidarity and not the valley’s and hillocks where we rest our ideas of home. The belief that Stalin was an aberration of socialism, not its most emblematic archetype. Etc. It was however enlightening reading all this from the perspective of 70 years in between, complete with the entire rise and fall of global communism and a cold war. I wonder what Pollak would have said about today’s European Union; I think he would be pleased, appeals to the regulated nanny-state in condescending supervision of we the unpredictable brutes were present all through the book. And it did help me understand the currents that caused the EU to be; and the ‘left’s’ apoplectic response to #Brexit. They, as well as Pollak, would say the EU did not go far enough.

Lastly, it is noteworthy that as of 2015 the Left Book Club has been reborn; featuring works by authors such as – wait for it – Hugo Chavez lover ‘Red Ken’. Which answers my question ‘what would Pollak have said about the mess the communists made, and continue to make, of our world?’ He would have said ‘they didn’t do it right’. Sigh.

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“The Stranger” – A Book Review

“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” Says Albert Camus of his own first novel ‘The Stranger”. This is his first foray into what we call ‘existentialism’ and what he called ‘the absurd’. “The world is neither (completely) rational, nor quite irrational either.”

The Stranger is a simple story, took me about 3 hours to read, and written in what some call the “American Style,” shorty choppy sentences and characters that introduce themselves not in paragraphs of floury flowing prose but by their actions. Sort of like Hemingway. I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway – and my own writing doesn’t really follow this ‘style’ very well. For this reason I didn’t find “The Stranger” particularly compelling or interesting, or well written.

It is the simple story of an ‘absurd’ man. Somebody who doesn’t really care. Could he get married? Sure. Could he not? It didn’t really matter. He didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral – he’d put her in a home because he could not afford to keep her – he worked at a job which he did not like, from which he did not seek any promotion – he killed a man on the beach because he’d been agitated by the sun. A no-man. A man who neither loved nor hated; who certainly did not want to die but seemed to never quite be alive.

Camus owes the success of his first novel to Jean Paul Sartre in his pre-release article “An Explication of The Stranger”. “The absurd, to be sure, resides neither in man nor in the world, if you consider each separately. But since man’s dominant characteristic is “being-in-the-world,” the absurd is, in the end, an inseparable part of the human condition.” According to Sartre “Since God does not exist and man dies, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible.”

I am not a fan of existentialism or ‘absurdism’; or the entire post-modern French flirtation with amorality. To believe in nothing; in neither the rational, nor the irrational. In neither right nor wrong. In neither before nor after – only the eternal now. Well that doesn’t really satisfy my thirst for meaning. I actually have an easier time with the rationalist, or on the other extreme the zealot – at least their beliefs are consistent and their actions compatible with them.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the world around us; for this reason its important to know the source of the ideas and read them firsthand. Knowledge never returns barren.

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“The Old Gringo” – A Book Review

“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Porfirio Diaz

Anybody who knows Mexico has heard of this perhaps apocryphal quote. It is said that every Mexican, when they wake up in the morning have one thought on their minds; the gringos took our land. Manifest Destiny we called it, from sea to shining sea. It is part of history now; and our turbulent history with our neighbor from the south has never quite steadied.

I am from Arizona, part of the territory that Mexico lost over the course of the years. You can feel the Spanish influence everywhere, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’ shining white, just south of Tucson; the names of the roads and the mountains. The food. If America is a melting pot, Arizona has been marinated in the smells and tastes of Mexico; tabasco and jalapenos, tequila and Corona. We forget that long before the English arrived, the Spanish were already building churches and missions. Now my desert it is part of America’s story, as am I. And though I have wandered near and far, though I have suffered on foreign soil and sought opportunity far away my blood always burns with desert heat, my imagination is seized by the crisp mornings churning with unlikely life, and my yearning is always only for the brilliant explosion of quiet evenings caressed by the warm desert winds.

Carlos Fuentes captures all this well; I found myself smelling my desert through someone else’s nose, experiencing the heat and the cactus which we all know unites us from the southwest north and south of the border as we share together the immensity of the Sonoran Desert. He captures the mistrust between the two cultures; the struggle for opportunity and property and belonging in this harshest of places. He is not kind to the ‘gringos’, but then again I did not expect him to be. He is not particularly kind to Mexico either; he is a revolutionary at heart, most people I’ve met from Latin America have mis-conceived notions of ‘social justice’ running through their veins, product of the tremendous injustices of a society that has never moved very much beyond the feudalism of old – and Fuentes captures this frustration from the perspective of Tomas Arroyo, a general in Pancho Villa’s army – and does so brilliantly.

The story involves an odd competition between General Arroyo and an old gringo Civil War veteran soldier who had come to Mexico hoping to die, and to die by Villa’s hand; a wizened sufferer who could not imagine passing away in bed – seeing little honor in that. They lock horns over an American woman, Harriet Winslow; which for the old man is paternal and for the Mexican general is about possession, but also about inferiority and inadequacy.

I have two criticisms of the story. First is my impression that sometimes Fuentes goes over the top – as do many Latin American authors, from Vargas Llosa to Garcia Marquez and on – too graphic a prose sometimes takes away from the beauty of a well-crafted story. The second is about the ending. All good writers know the importance of delivering a “knockout” at the end of the novel. To leave the story ringing in the consciousness of the reader. “The Old Gringo” instead fizzled out in a nonsensical monologue by Harriet Winslow which was hard to follow; it almost felt like Fuentes got tired and bored with himself and his story. Whatever it was, it didn’t work.

Nevertheless, for those who want an insight into the complicated US/Mexico relationship from a master, and a beautiful story to boot, “The Old Gringo” is a good place to start.

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In Venezuela the Revolution is Over – They Won

I’ve never written an epitaph before – turns out they are hard. How do you condense a lifetime of longing, of striving and dreaming, loving and yearning – a lifetime of wonder – into a few black words on a page? Celebrating a remarkable life but without glossing over the rough patches, the imperfections that make us all human, that gave the journey meaning and purpose?

And what if it’s a suicide? How do we write about that?

What if that epitaph is trying to tell the story of a nation? Thirty million souls; two hundred years of life. Weddings held by the rich in elite country clubs, Champaign and pastries – or the poor atop the flat roofs of their orange-brick ramshackle homes, beer and a sancocho soup overlooking the valley, the sweltering valley wherein they cradle their ideas of future? Stadiums full of baseball fans fighting for their team, passions burning bright over things that matter because they don’t matter at all; rooting on the “Vito Tinto”, a soccer team named after the color of their jerseys, carrying each loss with dignity and hope. Beaches on the high holidays, beer and boom boxes; the three Virgin Mary’s watching protectively over the people lest they fall to misfortune; the sacred waters of the Orinoco bringing magic and mystery. Braving the haunted path of the paramo in the Andes, wary of La Llorona lest her haunting cry drive you mad. Music – joropo and Polo Margariteno, salsa and merengue. Opportunity, not found through marches and voting but in an energetic youth looking to tomorrow. Then it was thrown away, needlessly and gaining nothing in return. How do I write about that?

I wrote a while back about a suicide – slow motion and stupid in all is venality, in all its vanity. A viral piece, harnessing the frustration of a world that can only watch and wait and wonder what the final act of stupidity would be that will bring down the edifice of what used to be a republic.

Venezuela

Tomorrow Venezuela will finally succumb to her self-inflicted wounds. Tomorrow she will die. She will be mourned, by those of us who have loved her – who have known her, before the folly set in. “How did this happen?” many will write, and are already asking “What happens next?” Futile questions – because what happens next is nothing. For the unwilling inhabitants of Venezuela, nothing will ever happen again. The same speeches; the same propaganda; the same food lines; the same medicine shortages; the people growing thinner and shorter generation by generation while the rulers become corpulent and obese. The same faces aging ungracefully, the hideous masters of ceremony becoming old and foul, presiding eternally over festivities that have never been festive – not for the people. A zombie apocalypse of red and rage and carnage that has burned itself out but that nevertheless keeps going. Not purpose or momentum, only persistence.

The revolution is over – and they won, those who built with expert precision an edifice of hate and stupidity could not have lost. Because what we have, freedom and prosperity and love is a delicate flower that is easily squashed under ancient prejudices and humanity’s legendary tolerance for injustice. A single tender fir tree does not withstand an avalanche, no matter how courageous she is. Oh, to be sure they won’t tell you that the revolution is over – those who used the mayhem to seize power. They need it – and they will keep up the pantomime; they will pretend that there is still something they are fighting for, and against. But they know it’s over – as do the enslaved – as do we all.

So here’s my epitaph, such as it is. I don’t know if I will write more about Venezuela – I don’t think there will be much more to say. All has been said so many times that I would risk becoming a bore, endlessly describing as I would be again and again the rotting of a corpse; its smells and sounds as a gruesome chronicle of death – who wants to read about that?

As I write this, I’m sitting in a bar in Jamaica (thoughts forthcoming); and what has struck me most about this island is the story of slavery; how it is infused into every fiber of peoples’ consciousness; not with bitterness but instead as a lesson, of a treasure hard won and cherished deeply – safeguarded in their music and their joi de vivre; in their island sounds and smells. While I listen to the songs of freedom from the band, on the other side of the small water a formerly free nation is dying, enslaved by the wicked, killed by those who refused to care for her, until it was too late.

Someday maybe I’ll sit in a bar in Caracas and think about the day Venezuela’s freedom died; and how she was reborn. That day, alas, seems tonight like a long ways away, far on the other side of a dark, painful, sad – and boring – channel.

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The Repentance of the Djinn

The djinni was seated high on the summit of an eerie windswept peak of the Adrar des Ifoghas massif, deep in the Sahara. She was thoughtful, she was lonely, and she was angry. Sila they called her, the humans did, because she was beautiful; dark flowing hair, piercing eyes. To them she was ageless – although she did in fact age; the djinn are also born, grow old, marry, have children and die. Much slower than the humans who are so frail, but nevertheless time too bears down on them, sometimes mercilessly, relentlessly, placing layer after layer of adversity one atop the other in the longs lives of the djinn.

2017 bloghop

They had been created at the beginning of time, one of the three sentient beings made by God to mirror his own trinity. While God was the Father, the Son and also the Holy Spirit, His creation also was three. One created of pure light that were called angels, one of clay from the ground that was humanity and the final, the djinn, of smokeless fire. Three, the number of perfection; ice, water and steam; past, present and future; birth, life and death.

Sila was angry because she had been deceived, then humiliated, and finally she had been scorned. She hated being alone; but poor choices are the devil’s companions. She smiled; the devil, Iblis, Shaytan. She was angry at him more than any other.

“If only I had not listened to that serpent,” she said, and then laughed at herself. The serpent, most people do not know that the djinn are shapeshifters. Like fire, which can slip through keyholes and overcome whole forests, the djinn are not bound by clay like the humans with whom they commune. Clunky, ugly, cumbersome, clumsy things – those. “You will bow down to man,” God had told Iblis. Really? Us, prostrated before those strange creatures? “What prohibits you from giving obeisance to that which I created with my own two hands?” Um, how about pride, self-respect – even decency.

“If anything, we are superior to these insipid humans,” Sila was addressing God out loud, not that she thought He was listening. It had been millennia since God had considered the djinn. “We, who are beautiful. Who burn clean and bright, who have power of our own – it is they who should have been subservient. Alas, wise one, you made a mistake.” Not receiving a response, not that she expected one, she began to walk down the hill toward the cave where she had lived the last millennium. The wind had picked up, heat ruffling her auburn hair as it rose from the desiccated valley below.

“Then we were cast down,” she continued her mumbling to nobody in particular. “Declared in rebellion. Denied the pleasures of heaven – imprisoned upon this miserable planet to commune with the humans we refused to venerate. They wonder why we seek out the lost lands where we may stay alone? Abandoned villages; towns that died, inhabited only by us – though the humans call us ‘ghosts’. What a farcical notion. The vast desert expanses, where we commune seldom; and when we do only with the Arabs. We even entered their religion, more so than the Hebrews; than the Christ followers.” She continued on her descent. The hill was steep and craggy, sand and dust and heat. She almost slipped, catching herself on her palm, scratching it deeply on a rock. The dark purple blood of the djinn spilled onto the ground, hissing and bubbling. “Drat,” she said, finally entering the darkness of her cave. Her home. On the walls were some of the precious items she had protected over the millennia, reminders of her sojourn on this cursed planet. A book from the House of Wisdom that she enjoyed, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry from when they worshipped the djinn without dissembling, with enthusiasm even. A brass snake once held high to end a plague; an apple with one bite out of it. More. Odds and ends really, on a shelf beside the bed, the washbasin – as if fire needed cleaning.

“Hello there,” a voice from out of the dark, and she spun.

“Oh, it’s you.”

“Yes, it’s me.”

“What are you doing here?” Sila asked.

“Where else would I be?”

“Oh Iblis, what do you want? I have no time for your games.”

“Why? What are you doing?” He looked around. “You don’t seem particularly busy.”

“How would you know? In fact,” She said before he could respond, “I was just reminiscing about the old days. You know, when you got us thrown out of heaven?”

“Me?” he said, feigning innocence.

“Yes, you. ‘Come with us’ you said. ‘God will recant, He will ask us back to live with Him’.” She spat.

“Well, who would have thought He would be satisfied with only angels,” he said, mouthing the word as if in great disgust. “A boring lot those, no personality. No wit, no joi de vivre. ‘Praise ye’ here and ‘Glory’ there, I assumed even He would become bored.”

“Ya, ‘oops’.” Sila had sat down on her bed. “Stuck here, living in caves eating bats when we should be communing with the heavenly beings, traveling the stars.”

“Touché. But wasn’t my revenge glorious?” Iblis said, looking over at the apple on the shelf. “We, bow down to them? Let me show you the mettle from which they are made,” and he let out an evil chuckle. “Not too bright, these humans. And not too adept at philosophy, are they? Throwing away their perfection…? Only took a few simple arguments – and that was for the girl. The man? Dumb as rocks; withdraw sex – all that it took. Perfection, for a twenty second burst… Ya, make us the deferential ones… At any rate, since you like to throw blame around, whose fault was it that we are stuck here? Hmm?” Iblis asked.

“You are really going to blame me?” Sila said. “After all you’ve done? One bad idea after another?”

“You want to talk about ideas. Who decided to procreate with these revolting terrestrial creatures? Riddle me that?”

“Didn’t He say we should worship them? Well, I led my ladies to worship. Temples, harems, goddesses; I filled ancient Greece with our presence, our glory.” She said proudly. “We did not slither away to hang from trees looking to trick unsuspecting humans. He wanted veneration? We gave Him a whole new religion…”

“You gave Him,” Iblis said. “A bunch of freaks. Half man, half horse. One eyed monsters. Multi-headed beasts. Shrill singing creatures; weird fish-women – at least the better half of woman on that fright. Giants. He was so angry He even cancelled our congress. My only chance off this wretched orb. A decent meal; an angelic massage; news from the outer planets. Now we’re stuck here for good; claustrophobic, that’s what earth is for me, and you thought they were easy to fool four thousand years ago…? When they were at least closer to the beginning, entropy and all that. You should see these idiots today. Isn’t even a challenge anymore; there are even those who come looking for me because they know who I am. As if they want to pick a fight with Him; as if that’s a fight that anybody in their right mind would pick. Foolish – arrogant; full of themselves and empty as a plastic bag that they throw on the side of the road because they forget they are stuck here too.”

“Iblis,” Sila said, exasperated. “I am becoming weary. What are you doing here?”

“Me?” Iblis said. “Oh, right. Not much. Just making trouble,” he said, standing to bid farewell to Sila. She stood, curtsying slightly as he exited the cave. As he was about to take flight, the djinn can travel in the blink of an eye to anywhere; alas, due to the fall, ‘anywhere’ is restricted to the suffocating and messy planet they were stuck on, he turned, “There is perhaps one thing.” “Just name it,” Sila said “if it will get you out of here.” “Since you were the reason we were expelled, I thought, maybe, well it’s just an idea, a thought really. A Hail Mary, no pun intended. But what if you were to, I don’t know – apologize?”

They all knew how the fall had happened; commiserating as they did each year at Kaf Adjnoun, the djinns’ dark tower in the Fezzan. Reciting the old poems, teaching the stories to their young, repeating the legends and commiserating about what could have been, what had been actually. But they did not know, and thus never talked about the future. What was there to say? There had been no solution offered – when God had thrown them from paradise. No second chance. No restitution allowed. Could this really be a way? Might it be in fact that simple? Is it possible that, after so much time, after such tribulations as the djinn had endured, all that God wanted was – an act of contrition? Slowly the old djinni bent down, taking to her knees as she had seen so many humans do, for so long in so many lost corners of the world. “Dear God…” and she began to pray.


***This is a variation of an old magical creation story in Arabia.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Nearly 20 blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (28th – 30th July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

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Darkness at Noon – A Book Review

“The Party denied the free will of the individual – and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives – and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil – and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced – and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.” P208

We all are the imperfect vessels of ideas that have come before; works of art and literature that the masters perfected long before we were born, who we dare to impersonate in the attempts to add value to that which is already complete. I learned about “Darkness at Noon” after doing some research into Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451”. While “Fahrenheit” is a dystopian, cartoonish impression of a future totalitarian America, “Darkness” is a fictionalized account of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Therein lies its power. Though the account is fiction, it could have happened; it did happen actually, millions of times. Because it is about the execution of one who was a party leader who rebelled against Stalin’s random brutality and was killed for it. But not before he was asked for a final surrender to a revolution that had given him nothing and taken everything. A revolution that did not think its role was, in fact, to make lives better. Its role was to upend the system; to prepare the way for something that would come after. Something, of course, that never came after – that can never come after, because brutality, blood and self-denial are not adequate conditioners to the soil from which a civilization might grow.

This novel is extremely well-written, conveying the inner struggle of a Party leader who worked for revolution; who believed in the denial of self, in the idea that the ‘ends justifies the means’, in what Rubashov – the protagonist – says many times in the novel, repeated by his torturer to him at the end, “…For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That was our law…” The idea that the ‘right’ will triumph and the ‘wrong’ will be punished, the insecurity that forced Rubashov to admit that Stalin might be right and that he might be wrong and that only history would prove who was, ‘absolving’ them – as it were. Ideas which in the end forced Rubashov to deny his own beliefs and experiences and in the twilight of his life, after his torturers had exacted their revenge, made him publicly sacrifice his mind to the party a final time, into eternity.

On a personal note, for me who has worked so hard to advance the idea of human freedom, I am always astonished by man’s ability to endure suffering; and other men’s impetus to compel it.

“Don’t listen. I will tell you in time when they are coming… What would you do if you were pardoned? Rubashov thought it over. Then he tapped: ‘Study astronomy’.”

To all the would-be commies out there, I beseech you. Read this book, and then study astronomy.

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Our Republic of Second Chances

This morning I met an old gang banger in the play area at the mall. Teeth capped, tattoos decorating his neck, plaid shirt buttoned at the top over low pants and a scar down his arm that looked like it might have been a knife wound. Seated on the benches, he would occasionally get up to gently wipe his daughter’s nose or to re-assemble his son’s Transformer robot. There was a certain gentleness about him as he cared for his children that often comes from somebody who has experienced and perhaps even perpetrated great evil and lived, to look back upon that part of his life certainly not with nostalgia but perhaps with a sense of remorse salted with acceptance.

Redemption.

America is a land of redemption; a Republic of Second Chances, isn’t it? It’s what makes us such a remarkable land. I have traveled the world over, as I’m sure you’ve ascertained, and what always strikes me is the existential and final nature of decisions, of situations in the lost corners of the world where you only ever get one opportunity – if you get one at all. One injection of money; maybe from a charity or a government program. One opportunity to study; one good harvest – maybe one loan, although not even that for most. One child might live – that’s why you have so many. If you are elected to public office, one chance to steal, often the only way to build a cushion between yourself and desolation for you and your loved ones. This fact breeds desperation and makes the societies more predatory; more corrupt. Harder. Less forgiving.

Not so in America. Somehow here our sense of humanity is perhaps healthier. A respect for the law that brings us to accept those who have transgressed and atoned for it. An understanding of the failings of human nature; risks rewarded sometimes with great wealth but most often with heartache; and a system to catch those who stumble. It comes from our faith too, channeled through our churches to overflow out into society – that spirit of forgiveness and renewal: rebirth.

I watched the old banger’s son play with mine; a lovely little boy who might go to the same schools as mine and who has every chance to grow up to be a what he wishes, and I’m proud of America’s egalitarianism; where we historically have not had elites or nobles or castes. Where your little boy might play at the mall with the grandson of a president or the child of a repentant gang banger. People ask what makes America great? Among other things, this does.

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