Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and international leftism

A few months ago my wife and I were saddened to hear of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Well, not saddened so much at his death--he had lived a long and eventful life, presumably satisfying to him, so I didn't feel that bad for him or for his family.  But Garcia Marquez's death did bring forth a lot of nostalgia for us.

Firstly for me personally.  You see, Garcia Marquez had played a major role in shaping my adult life, which has transpired mainly in Spanish-speaking countries.  I visited a friend in Spain in early 2005, having never myself been to that or really any Spanish-speaking country in my life, beyond a 2-week trip to Mexico with my parents when I was a little kid.  My friend loaned me 100 years of solitude in English, and I devoured it.  By the end of that year, I was living in Spain, learning the Spanish that, unbeknownst to me, would be the first language of my future wife and children.

That first year in Spain, I tried to ensconce myself in Spanish culture, reading short books in Spanish by greats like Lorca, going to bullfights and classic taverns and medieval Castillian cities.  I learned a lot about Spain, and was even able to mimic the country's idiosyncratic accent to the point that I could talk to Spaniards without their realizing that I wasn't one of them.  (I have never been able to do this in Colombia, whose light, smooth natural accent leaves very exposed and obvious my own anglophone sounds).

Cien Anos de Soledad was one of the first long books I tackled in the original Spanish, barely a year after having read it in English and having started to learn Spanish myself.  This book opened up the Spanish language for me in all its expressive possibilities, beyond the more basic, coarser day-to-day needs of going to the supermarket or wooing girls at a bar.  I'd had no idea of the range of commonplace practical questions or the far-out existential ones that this writer in a bizarre corner of the jungle tropics had been playing with and exploring, years before I'd even been born.  I was amazed that the most modern, sophisticated, astute treatment of the human condition, the messy ties of family and tradition and change and conflict that define our species, was being written by someone from the Third World, from a place that was supposed to be backward and unthinking.  In years to come I was to be repeatedly surprised by the critical analysis and thinking, by the complex reality itself, found in Colombia, which never ceases to turn on its head everything I think I know about culture, economic development, wealth, and poverty.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I had known nothing about Colombia before this book, but after reading Cien Anos in the original Spanish, I began to know viscerally a country and a culture that, again unbeknownst to me at the time, would become my home years later.  Now in retrospect, I even fancy that, upon reading Garcia Marquez, I began to see that I would never feel entirely at home in Spain, where I'd avidly lived and imbibed the culture.  On the other hand, it now seems to me that I then began to sense that something about Colombia, about this country I'd never even thought of visiting, spoke to me, my values, who I was, certainly more than the exotic, fascinating, but ultimately alien culture of Spain, and even in some aspects more than the US where I'd grown up.

Okay, so most of the above paragraphs are probably bullshit musings heavily tinged now in memory by what was to come later in my life.  But what can't be denied is that I had a copy of Cien Anos de Soledad the first time I really talked to my future wife.  I'd lived in Spain for a year plus, and was now studying the first year of a masters program in sustainable agricultural development.  Some of my classmates had set up a group dinner of a chilly autumn night, and we were to meet outside of a certain subway stop.  I had brought along my book to read in case I got there early and had to wait for the others, but as it so happened I got there in the middle of the pack, and among those already waiting was my future wife.  We started talking, something we'd never really done before in class.  Her hands were cold, and I loaned her my bulky, warm mittens.  Remembering she was from Colombia, I also showed her my book.

Now Garcia Marquez is really big in Colombia.  It's not like in other countries where I've been, where everyone knows the name of one or two internationally famous authors from their country, but few have read them, since they're all too busy watching soap operas or soccer or something.  In Colombia people really read Garcia Marquez (they watch soap operas and soccer too, but they read a lot).  I have seen peasant women hired to cook lunch for some local event, and in their off time they bust out a novel of his, often as not Cien Anos de Soledad.  Of his many Colombian fans, my wife and her family are particularly avid readers.  Their bookshelves house most of his works, and at least three generations have read him.

So my future wife and I talked about Garcia Marquez, and Colombia, and the war there.  I mainly asked her a lot of questions, since I'd never understood how there could at once be this brutal war waging in a country, and at the same time middle class people living relatively uneventful, average lives in the cities, making pop music, etc.  She was my first in-person key to knowing and beginning to understand Colombia.  Garcia Marquez was my literary key, and since then he has been a constant companion, almost a third partner, in my wife's and my relationship, marriage, and exploration of Colombia and the world.

That is why we're nostalgic about his death.

Right around the passing of the great Colombian master of letters, I was reading a book that is outside his better-known fictional oeuvre.  It is called Viaje por los paises socialistas, or Journey through the Socialist countries, and consists in compiled long-form journalism stories Garcia Marquez wrote during a trip through Eastern Europe in 1957, more than ten years before Cien Anos rocketed him to fame.  I have not found any English translation of this book, and frankly the only Spanish version I know of is the tiny, worn paperback volume that somehow found its way from my father-in-law's bookshelf in rural Colombia to mine in suburban Northern Virginia.

The book is fascinating, an open-eyed account of life behind the Iron Curtain when it was still closed off to much of the world.  Garcia Marquez has been a leftist for most of his life, as far as I know, but his reporting is clear-eyed and frank as he describes both the comforts and deprivations in the different countries he toured.  He describes dour East Germany as the saddest place and saddest people he's seen, Czechoslovakia as a prosperous, elegant, progressive place to rival Western Europe, Poland as a seething, politically-alert people trying to forge their own model of Socialism.  He tours siege-mentality Budapest barely a year after the Soviet bombardment, and explores the backwards, warm-hearted, suffering peasant character of the Soviets.  It is more nuanced than any account I've ever read about daily life and regular people in the Eastern Bloc--frankly, I haven't seen too many such accounts, and those that I have seen have been strongly colored by one political sympathy or another in the Cold War environment of my youth (and dare I say that continues to the present?).

Come to think of it, recently a whole lot of my reading and other cultural consumption has focused on Cold War-era leftism.  I finally watched on Netflix the "miniseries" (really three two-hour movies) of Carlos the Jackal.  It was entertaining, and it seemed to capture well the feel of a whole era--the 1970s and 1980s of the late Cold War, which of course no one knew was soon to end.  The protagonists are semi-independent international leftist terrorists, taking on the Palestinian cause but using funding from both wealthy Middle Easterners and hardline Communist dictatorships like the USSR and East Germany.  I think the movie depicted well the transition from the Cold-War-era Communism-capitalism dispute to Islamic militancy in the post-Cold War era, as I'd mused it might in a blog post I wrote when the film first came out but before I'd seen it.  Insofar as a biopic and a historical portrait, the movie was very well-done.  The character development was thin though, as one might expect in an action film.  Mainly there's a lot of lofty political rhetoric and unbelievable dialogue, interspersed with lots of free love and hot sex.  1970s Paris is full of horny Latina and Latino Leftist expatriates screwing, drinking, playing guitar, and discoursing.  It must have been pretty fun.  As the film progresses, Carlos becomes more arbitrary politically and strategically, keeps philandering whenever he can, and just seems sort of ridiculous and pompous as he continues to posture as the champion of the oppressed amid his own excesses.  Maybe that was the filmmaker's intent.

I also watched Steven Soderbergh's Che again, at least the first part where he's doing the Sierra Maestra campaign in Cuba.  Like "Carlos", it's an entertaining film, but there really isn't much character development.  There's lots of military strategy, logistics, and action, and it seems to follow pretty closely what actually happened in the guerrilla campaign.  It is interesting to see the guerrilleros set up their camps and really organize a whole community infrastructure of schools, radio, clinics, etc.  But throughout, the character of Che is circumspect, almost inhuman.  He either doesn't speak, preferring instead to observe and analyze, or he is spouting noble discourses about oppression.  I guess in a military campaign there isn't much room for real deep character exploration.  There is adversity, camaraderie, duty.  But not much idle conversation or seeing someone's way of being in normal, mundane contexts.  Still though, I feel that Soderbergh could have delved deeper into Jon Lee Anderson's definitive biography of Guevara (Anderson was an adviser for the film, I believe), and fleshed out his character a bit more.  As it stands, Soderbergh's Che Guevara is just a very noble wooden statue, with no complexity or internal contradictions or inconsistencies.

I also saw the movie Black Sunday.  It's a silly premise, wherein a returned Vietnam POW that feels he's been mistreated by the military and by his loved ones is convinced by an international Leftist Salome to carry out a sinister plot.  Namely, they will hijack the Goodyear Blimp to fly over the Super Bowl and send out a lethal rain of dart shrapnel.  But the film is entertaining, and it again captures a certain aspect of that 1970s international Leftist terror movement, the interface of a multi-ethnic group of people (from Japan and Western Europe, mainly), funded in part by the Communist Bloc, and working for the cause of the Black September Palestinian movement.

I've mentioned a number of times on this blog my now-year-long project of reading John LeCarre's entire opus (I'm through 12 of 23 novels he's written).  Most of them thus far have also dealt with the Cold War, from the more formal end of the British and US official spy agencies working against the East German, Czech, or Soviet agencies.  But the Little Drummer Girl departs a bit from this mold, and is more in line with the other, stateless 1970s Leftism I've been discussing in this post.  The novel follows an ultra-clandestine arm of the Israeli intelligence service that is hunting down a lone operator Palestinian terrorist that targets Western European Jewry in surprise bomb attacks.  They hire a left-leaning British stage actress to infiltrate the bomber's small organization and bring them to him.

You can imagine all the conflicts of good and bad, oppressed and oppressor, that arise among the protagonists of the novel.  There are Israeli-born Jews, old Holocaust survivors, refugee Palestinians, and this British girl who uses her acting talents to undermine a cause she believes in.  Her "runners", the Israeli agents that are masterminding the plot to get to the lead bomber, are weary of war and manipulation and amorality, but they feel a duty to protect their country from people who are clearly doing bad things.  However, these bad people are also vulnerably human once they're captured, drugged, and imprisoned.  In this sense the novel explores many of the same themes as Spielberg's film "Munich" (which I also watched recently), but much more richly and deeply.

As with the films I've cited above, but again in a much more nuanced and expert manner, the Little Drummer Girl also captures the romance and intrigue of the international Leftist terrorist lifestyle--breathless conspiring with comrades of many different nations, paramilitary training in remote desert camps, free movement through some of the most dangerous places on earth, and exhilarating direct contact with some of the most dangerous people.  And free love too--lots of fucking and sucking to fight against the oppressive bonds of middle-class mores.

But there is also a coldness, a triumph of anomy and misanthropy as noble anger bleeds over into blind, generalized hatred, and the use of violence for justifiable ends sometimes becomes a base lust for force and power over others.  The Leftists in these stories (especially in the case of Carlos the Jackal) are at times collaborating with oppressive, morally bankrupt states or agencies (like the Stasi or the KGB) that don't even enjoy the support of their own citizens, all in the name of promoting freedom and fighting oppression.

What I've seen of the international Leftist cause of the 1970s and 1980s (chiefly adopting the banner of Palestinian rights) didn't seem to have much overlap with insurgent movements in Latin America or Africa.  I don't know if this is just a decision of the works that I've seen and read to focus on a different area of the world, or if perhaps the international Leftists operating mainly in Europe and the Middle East were really of a different thread from the rural guerrilla movements in the Third World.  I'd like to know more about that, about the links or lack thereof between international Leftists in the Old World, Communist governments, and Third World insurgents.

On a more intellectually serious note, I've also been reading an old book from my father's college days, called Socialist Thought:  A Documentary History.  As its title implies, it is a compilation of selections from original documents showing the development of socialist thought from the French liberals to British planned communities, through to Marx and beyond.  I really don't know much about socialism or Marxism, or at least I haven't read many original documents.  So this is fascinating reading for me, if a bit heavy and slow.

It is in an entirely different league from a silly piece of tripe called Comrades!  A History of World Communism by Robert Service.  I tried reading this book a few years ago (for some reason they had an original English version in the Colombian public library system), and I couldn't get much beyond the third chapter or so.  The events depicted were factually correct, and in that sense Comrades is a decent way to get to know what happened when in the history of Communism (though there are probably better books that do just this).  But the author's interpretations of each event are totally off the wall.  Instead of offering coherent historical explanations or possibilities of why a given situation led to a certain action, he is more like a Fox News anchor or a tabloid writer.  From Marx to Lenin to Trotsky (which is about as far as I got), Service paints them as ridiculous and incoherent, and accordingly homes in on their personal foibles.  Who beat his kids, who had a mistress, etc.  His disdain for the historical figures he writes about rings throughout the book.  Apparently Service has made an entire career of writing sensational and absurb depictions of the major figures in Communist thought.  I can't imagine writing anything, much less hundreds of pages, about people whom I thought were so trivial and stupid.  I would still like to take another stab at reading the book, if only to learn more about the factual events and because I don't like leaving things unfinished.  But it certainly is a far cry from reading original texts or incisive, illuminating historical interpretation.

I will close by bringing the Cold War a little closer to home (though in light of recent events in Ukraine and the US response to them, maybe it's close enough to home already).  A few months ago my family and I went to the Smithsonian air and space museum.  I had realized at some point that we were providing young Sam, and to a lesser extent Paulo, with a solid foundation in the humanities, with art, music, and lots of literature, but that we were less strong in the natural sciences.  I of course have been showing him the different types of trees, and so now he is able to identify maples, red oaks, black walnuts, catalpas, sycamores and magnolias, and he picks raspberries, mulberries, and serviceberries with reckless abandon.  I am very proud of this, and I've striven to combine a more primitive recognition and understanding of the natural world with a real foundation in biology and ecology.  So that's good.  But in the "hard" sciences and engineering, which for a 3-year-old consists in learning about planes and stuff, Caro and I have not been so diligent.  In part it's because we're more interested in the natural world and the primitive life than in the engineered, modern world, but in my case it might be an overcompensation.  My formal education is in the hard sciences, so I've always made a more conscious effort not to forget about learning history, literature, the humanities, etc.  Ironically, my father's formal education was in literature and law, so I think he was more deliberate about exposing me to engineering and physics and chemistry and astronomy.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, for one reason or another, I hadn't been exposing Sam as much to airplanes and space travel and the like.  I began to remedy this by taking out lots of books on planes and outer space, and he got to really like the idea of rockets and planets.  In fall of 2013, we would spot the moon and Venus in the dark sky, which he liked a lot, but as Venus has shifted to morning-star status for 2014 and the day is still light anyway when I pick him up from school, we haven't been able to keep up with that.

So in maybe March or April of this year, we all went to the Air and Space Museum.  It was a bit underwhelming.  First off, many of the exhibits haven't been updated much since the 70s or 80s (indicative perhaps of our underfunding space programs since then?), so they aren't that interactive for kids, and often look downright dingy.  Secondly, we hadn't prepared well beforehand, planning out what exhibits might be most interesting for the boys.  But what most struck me was the war focus of the museum.  I guess I expected many of the planes to be military planes, since aviation has long been driven by military concerns.  But I (stupidly) hadn't anticipated the fact that many of the spacecraft, especially the rockets that Sam most wanted to see, were Cold War military apparatus.  Sam would get excited to see a rocket, and I would read that it was a Soviet intercontinental delivery system for nuclear warheads.  I didn't want to go into detail describing to him what the Cold War was--can you imagine talking to a three-year-old about that?  "Well, there was this country that doesn't exist anymore, and we didn't like them, so we created missiles to kill them, but we couldn't use them, because then all of humanity would blow up."  So we walked away rather disappointed and unfulfilled at that, one of our first forays into downtown Washington DC since we'd moved to the area.  I was appalled to see that one of the nation's most popular family museums was basically a paean to mechanized aerial megadeath.  And appalled at myself for not having foreseen that before our visit.

But I didn't want to give up on getting Sam excited about outer space.  So I did a lot of research on the Smithsonian's online museum sites, and figured out what exhibits would most appeal to our son.  I even found a free planetarium show offered every Sunday morning where Big Bird, Elmo, and a character from the Chinese version of Sesame Street show kids the stars.  We tried to go on bike as a family one Sunday, but didn't get there in time for the show, so we opted instead for the Natural History Museum.  But a few weeks later, I spirited Sammy off, sans family, and we took the Metro to the Space museum, arriving in good time for the show.  He loved to see Big Bird, and was particularly impressed by Elmo's trip to the moon, where we learned that kites can't fly without air and soccer balls can go really far if you kick them.  The takeaway message of the show was that, whether we're in China or the US, we all see the same stars (of course, the half-plus of the world's populace that lives below the Tropic of Cancer actually doesn't see the same stars as you'd see in New York or Beijing, but that's okay).

After the planetarium show we looked at different exhibits, learned about Jupiter and Mars, saw the space suits that Apollo and Shuttle astronauts wore, and even revisited the planes and ballistic missiles of our last trip.  Sam now has a clear distinction between "good" rockets for doing research and helping people (though his idea of helping people sort of conflates the rockets with a rescue helicopter we once read about that picks people up who are stranded at sea), and "bad" rockets and planes for shooting people.  From the upper balcony of the museum, you can even see the three separate warheads on the tip of a Soviet rocket, so I could tangibly explain to him what such a thing does to a city.  Following a prior discussion, he knows that it's not good to shoot people--we should only shoot animals, and that only if we're going to eat them.  Sam has now fixated on the idea of shooting an animal and eating it, which is cool with me.

I am trying to learn more about the philosophies and events that drove the Cold War and its aftermath today.  But for my three-year-old I am happy for now if the limit of his understanding is that good rockets help people, bad rockets kill people, and the only time it's okay to kill is if it's an animal you're going to eat.  Hell, if the adults in the world just got this much, we'd probably all be much better off.

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