|‹‹ The Light of May||Ban These Referenda! ››|
How natural catastrophes wipe out historical memory
24 May 2008 - 14:00 - #sticky
This week brought to the fore the ugly politics of natural catastrophe.
It began with the corrupt Burmese government of nationalist generals holding their corrupt referendum. Of course they won, because many of the electors in the south of the country were, by that Saturday, dead. As we have said before, referenda are for demagogues and dictators, not for parliamentary democrats. With their little demagogic game done the generals declared the relief effort in the wake of Cyclone Nargis ended – and they appeared to turn their backs on the two million homeless in the Irrawaddy Delta. But the world outcry was such that not even evil generals could ignore it. Since then the pilots of a few western aeroplanes have got through to observe through their binoculars despair and death on a massive scale. The latest news I have is that the generals have issued a few dozen visas to the relief agencies.
In the meantime, tens of thousands were buried alive in an earthquake in the Sichuan province of China. Communist China doesn’t even bother about referenda. But it knows how to turn a natural catastrophe into propaganda material. The same army that was repressing Tibetan monks last month is now reportedly saving the people of Sichuan province. Yes, our international agencies and non-governmental organizations are cooperating with the ‘Chinese authorities’ to save lives. There is a nasty element of cynicism evident in this.
Oh, miserable mortals! Oh, wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, ‘All is well,’
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead…
When Voltaire wrote these lines after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 his chief thought was of the impotence of statesmen, philosophers, religious leaders and moralists to provide a word of comfort in the face of such monumental suffering, caused by no one. Yet, 250 years later we still cannot avoid the moralizing, the philosophizing, the politics of natural catastrophe. Every time there is one of these disasters some form of ugly propaganda inevitably seeps its way into the catalogue of despair, as though this were some sort of genetic, unavoidable element in the human condition.
The Chinese propagandists have proven themselves rather more subtle than the Burmese. But none of us should kid ourselves as to what is really going on there. One report in the press last week of spoke of a victim being pulled out of the Chinese rubble, still alive after five days. The poor fellow had to have a leg sawn off before the Chinese soldiers could pull him out. One shivers on imagining the scene. Once his leg was removed, the man reportedly cried out, ‘Thank heavens for the Red Army!’
Are we seriously expected to believe this? These guys were murdering Tibetans a month ago. Only two weeks ago there were demonstrations in the streets of London, in Paris, in San Francisco and even in India against China’s flagrant violation of human rights. How short memory is. Now we are all gearing up to cooperate with the ‘Chinese authorities’. ` Have you noticed how we never say ‘Chinese Communist authorities’? Yet, that is what they are, no? Is it the fear of being labeled by the PC intellectuals and journalists as ‘Cold War warriors’? There is something very coy about the way in which we speak of the ‘Chinese authorities’ as if they were some neutral branch of the World Health Organization – whereas we know damn well, in our dark hearts, that these guys constitute a really nasty political outfit.
Yes, memory is so short. These ‘Chinese authorities’ are reminiscent of those philanthropic ‘Soviet authorities’ – remember them? – who would turn up for the rescue whenever there was an earthquake down in the Caucasians or famine in the plains of the Ukraine. How those Caucasians and Ukrainians loved the Red Army! Yes, of course we are obliged to help the Chinese. But let’s not be so utterly craven as to pretend that the ‘authorities’ there mean good. They have just announced that an investigation into those responsible for construction in the area is now underway – and that all guilty of corruption and of faulty building will be ‘punished’. We Westerners need to reflect a moment on what Communist authorities mean by that. Let’s not wipe out historical memory entirely before we salute the ‘Chinese authorities’ in August. In particular we need to reflect on the disastrous, unhistorical decision to hold the Olympics in the Chinese Communist capital: these people are not benevolent. August 2008 would be a ripe time to commemorate the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936.
May is never the best time to get a job of work done in France: almost half the month is interrupted by public holidays. One of the craziest holidays at this time is 8 May, which was introduced when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was President to commemorate the end of the Second World War. I can’t imagine why anyone, especially the French, would want to commemorate the comic opera of the ’armistice of 1945’. Montgomery had signed the German surrender in his tent on Luneburg Heath, out in the Pomeranian flatlands, on Friday, 4 May. That brought most of the fighting in Europe to an end, and it placed the larger part of German forces directly under Montgomery’s command. All weekend the world press spoke of an unconditional German surrender. But in the maze and warrens of SHAEF headquarters back in Rheims surrender was regarded, by US military command, as a military secret. Eisenhower locked himself in his bedroom to read cowboy novels, the German delegation, flown in at his pleasure, were left in an ugly school house to negotiate with two pot-bellied junior American officers, Churchill had to postpone his victory speech in London for forty-eight hours, while the Russians prepared for another surrender performance in the remains of east Berlin. On what day did the war actually end? There is not a historian alive today who could answer that question. As David Walker, correspondent of the Daily Mirror, telegraphed his editor in London during that long weekend of 1945: ’Even in their defeat, the Germans can laugh at us in our confusion.’ Should one really celebrate such a joke?
Well, on this 8th of May I am glad to say that the new French president travelled up to Ouistreham to clear up another confusion. All Frenchmen are taught that the first of the Free French to arrive in France landed on the Normandy beaches at Courseulles on 14 June 1944 with le Grand Charles at their head. But, as a matter of fact, the French were there at the landing on 6 June. On that day 177 French marines, of the Kieffer Commando, landed with the British and participated in the takeover of the famous Pegasus Bridge. They had been trained in Scotland. Because they were under the British flag, the Kieffer Commando have, until this year, been ignored by the French. Nicolas Sarkozy made a suitably Churchillian speech at the site of their landing and shook hands with surviving veterans. Many a proud tear was shed. Whatever else you may think of this man Sarkozy is clearly today the most inspiring public speaker of the Western World. And an injustice has been put right.
My own 8th of May was rather more mundane. After several weeks of talking in public the time has come to assess where I go from here. Authors don’t usually enjoy the moment the publicity for their last book draws to a close – and I am no exception. There is the last splatter of their publishers’ guns, which have been firing plaster in all directions for a month or so. The publishers withdraw into silence, to refill their guns for the next batch of ’titles’. That, at any rate, is the way it seems from the author’s desk. Read any contemporary author’s blog, or those countless, unhappy articles that appear in professional journals like The Author.
To prepare myself psychologically I have been going through articles on the responsibility of authors to make their own publicity. The modern author has to turn himself into a brand. He has to fork out the funds to travel the high seas to places like Oslo – where apparently people still read books – and generally make a nuisance of himself to such a point that people may notice him. Britain now turns out one new book every half hour. Tick, tick, tick. There goes another author. Tick, tick, tick. If you, the author, don’t dance a jig, sing a song or scream some scandal you will sink within the next twenty-nine minutes. Tick, tick, tick.
On the 8th of May, as the sun began to droop on the horizon, I finished my gloomy reading and thought it best to go and do something more jolly. I remembered that a local blues band, Double Chess Color, was performing that evening at the Pizza à Gogo in the centre of Dreux. French bands, restaurants, museums and dance halls have such odd Franglais names these days. It is due to a major development in local life that nobody has yet noticed. It seems that with the decline of national cultures there has been a corresponding pick-up – at least in France – at the local level: English sounding names for some reason bring in the public. I believe this has something to do with Jack Lang, the trendy Socialist culture minister of the 1980s. At any rate, everywhere you go nowadays, whatever the village, the town, the collectivity, however isolated it may seem to be, you will find theatre, readings, music of every kind, being performed live. Every night of the week you can go into a little café or a restaurant in this area around Dreux – hardly the world’s greatest tourist trap – and listen to something of really outstanding quality. Performing artists are worse hit by this malaise in our national cultures than we authors are. I have made quite a few friends in the performing arts. They all tell me the same thing. Today there is absolutely no national outlet for them. You don’t even have a dominant culture in pop music any more: nobody makes it, nobody is famous. It is we consumers of Dreux’s pizzas and Valpolicelli who benefit most from this. And how!
I sat down at my solitary table and listened to ’Double Chess Color’ warm up to a slow rendering of ’Tutti-Frutti’ – some great harmonica effects. A bunch of Brits, heading for a week in the Dordogne, sat down to my left. There was a nice bit of string picking, Arlo Guthrie style. Carole, the owner of the restaurant, came in, smiling and pretty, and wearing her low-cut blue woollen cardigan with dark blue trousers; she shifted among the tables chanting in English, ’I’m all in blue, for the blues.’ Then she disappeared for a moment. She returned with a large tomato salad in her hands – and sat right bang next to me for her dinner: the political atmosphere in Western France changed in an instant.
’Double Chess Color’ beat out a ’Blue Suede Shoes’, the guitarist racing up and down the neck of his instrument in discordant sevenths. Carole told me about her Breton roots and her life in the restaurant business. It is people like her who create the life of a town like Dreux. I can remember, ten years ago, her Breton crêpe house on Rue de Parisis. She has always been popular, her restaurant always crowded. Then she moved to her larger pizza restaurant on the main market square and the quarter, which was so utterly dead, sprung alive. Carole will take on the mayor for his ridiculous parking restrictions, she’ll challenge local tradesmen if they are guilty of unfair practices, she will get all those under-employed performing artists to sing their hearts out before her grateful clients; she has a team of followers who sit at a large table in front of the stage, and the best journalists in town write glowing reviews about her hospitality. Maybe one day they will build a high statue to Carole in that central square – and they will paint it in blue. These are the heroes of our day.
A new Russian film has just opened on the Champs Elysées which, of course, I went to see after the Sunday morning service and lunch at Saint George’s. Igor Minaiev is a Russian Fellini. Far From Sunset Boulevard plunges one into a wicked fantasy world of the film studio in Stalin’s day – the sets are fantastic, the casts grand, the music exciting and there is plenty of sensuality and sex, but nothing, thank God, that is gratuitous. It is very reminiscent of the way Fellini portrayed the corrupt world of Mussolini. Constantin Dalmatov is a young film director ready to sell his soul to the devil – the Soviet regime—to put his films on screen. His ticket to success is Mansourev, a famous film director, obviously based on Eisenstein, who is Dalmatov’s paternal lover. The film begins when the two homosexuals return from a long voyage to the United States, which has given them an unhealthy taste of political freedom. In fact, Dalmatov’s new film project takes on the form of a Hollywood musical – hence the title – which is so obviously misplaced in Stalin’s Moscow. Mansourev, Dalmatov’s only true love, dies. From then on everything is turned into a lie – the script of Dalmatov’s film is a lie, the settings so obviously not Russian, his love affairs are dishonest, his eventual marriage to the leading girl a façade to his homosexuality. And the politics of filmmaking are revolting.
But creeping into the film is the feeling that the film itself is a lie, an anachronism. The actors look so terribly contemporary – they just don’t seem Stalinist. They are the children of Putin’s Russia, not Stalin’s Communist Pioneers. They are the rich, the famous, the successful of post-Communist Russia. That anachronism, played out in the atmosphere of a circus, is also very Fellini in style. Only here, the message is more macabre and troubling than anything Fellini put on screen. Dalmatov’s trip to America is an allegory on the introduction of liberal economics into the old Soviet Empire, the wealthy in Dalmatov’s false film are the nouveaux riches – with their portable telephones, their leather jackets, their tight pants – who strut and stare in Red Square today. The repressive regime is not Communism but a brazen greed that has taken a grip on contemporary Russian society pushing the poor, the oppressed, the scum of the earth even further down in the scale of human dignity than they were under Brezhnev’s regime.
Minaiev’s film is even more perverse than that. In portraying contemporary Russia in such vivid ‘Stalinist’ colours Minaiev holds up a mirror to the Western world and asks us, are you any better? He makes you search in the interior of your own black soul. It is particularly disquieting for us artists in today’s commercial world. We seek to convey an authentic message of beauty in our work – like Dalmatov in his film. We end up prostituting ourselves for the sake of the ‘brand’, the publicity we need to get known and to be able to live. Is there any way out of Dalmatov’s dilemma? I have described in Metrostop Otto Rank’s terrible answer: it is, ‘No.’
|‹‹ The Light of May||Ban These Referenda! ››|