Elizabeth Burns: Held

The vocabulary used in this collection is perhaps best characterised by what it excludes. There is very little non-standard or ‘new’ English here, very little dialect, vernacular, slang, other languages. The use of proper names is tightly controlled – a few places and people here and there; certainly almost no trace of current affairs, brands, popular culture. It goes without saying that no one talks like this – no one could get far in everyday life with such a restricted stock of words – but it is unusual to find even poetry like this today.

This is one reason why Burns’ poems seem so fragile and precious. It seems almost unbelieveable that they can hold off the teeming heteroglossia that surrounds them. It is certainly noticeable when a slightly low word like ‘shove’ appears (‘An eighteenth-century experiment’) or a slightly specialized one like ‘felucca’ (‘A homecoming’), while the rare specificity of ‘Silloth’, ‘Carstairs’, ‘Cold War’, and ‘Nazis’ draw you into geography and history. And for me these moments give an extra pleasure, not least because they gently remind you that the collection’s persistent themes (bereavement, creativity) always emerge from the evocation of a particular place and time even if the reader couldn’t pin them them on a map or a calendar.

But the most characteristic feature of Held – its signature, even – is its astounding ability to span centuries and continents in a few lines, as the observation of something so humble as a stone coffin, an excavated trench , a river approaching the sea, gives way to a glimpse of its distant past or possible future.

In ‘Transport’, for example, an image of barges laden with gunpowder pulled by horses takes us back to the crofters gathering the kelp ash used in its production and forwards to the sea voyage and explosions on the other side of the ocean. ‘History’ combines in one view – and a sublimely condensed apprehension of human and geological time-scales – the ruins of an abbey and a nuclear power station, ‘whose indestructible / waste is in the seabed where layers of sediment / became the quarried sandstone, heaved over salt marsh // to be turned into an abbey.’

The front cover of the book features a white porcelain moon jar in the British Museum (and the subject of one of the poems), but the material objects in these poems are not trapped in a display case; they are invested with labour, love, power and suffering. As the title suggests, it’s what’s inside them, the secret biographies they harbour, that counts.

Sometimes, it is true, the poems themselves seem a little too laboured and unconvincing. The metaphor of portrait and sitter in ‘Diptych’ feels overextended so that its point becomes unclear. The historical sweep of ‘Holy Water’ from mediaeval monks to nuclear subs packs in more descriptive and explanatory clauses than it needs, I think. And the collection closes with ‘This life’ – whose title I imagine unwittingly duplicates that of the cult TV series: it is the only time we find ourselves in an urban environment, and I wonder if it isn’t just its protagonist (a characteristic ‘you’) but the writer herself who feels uncomfortable there, as she slips into a series of glib, short, generalizing nouns before resting more sure-footedly on the sensuous particular: ‘… but this life with its city streets, // its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent, / the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.’

Rodney Saint-Éloi: Haïti, kenbe la!

book cover

Rodney Saint-Éloi

Haïti kenbe la!

Paris: Éditions Michel Lafon, 2010

 

 

 

 

Like Dany Laferrière’s Tout Bouge Autour De Moi, this is a first-hand account of Haiti’s earthquake by a Haitian-Canadian author who was in Port-au-Prince for the Etonnants Voyageurs book festival in January 2010.

Neither has yet been translated into English, but they should be. For many years now it has been customary to tag Haiti as ‘the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere’ in foreign news reports, and coverage of the earthquake often reinforced the tendency to treat the country and its people as victims who can do little to help themselves. Neither the sour commentaries of those who blame Haiti’s misfortunes on an endemic fatalism so often attributed to ‘voodoo’ nor the well-meaning efforts of the thousands of NGOs who provide aid ‘from above’ contribute much to the vital task of extending and strengthening democratic participation in a society dominated by a tiny rich elite; indeed, they have been accused of deliberately thwarting it.

Saint-Eloi does not confront this situation head-on. He is a poet and publisher (he runs Mémoire d’encrier in Montréal) not a grassroots activist, and although he returns frequently, he has not lived in Haiti for more than a decade. Accordingly, his perspective is that of a visitor. The narrative begins in media res as he drifts in and out of sleep on the tennis court of the Hotel Karibe where he and the other guests spend the night after being forced to evacuate when catastrophe struck the previous afternoon. In the course of the book, we meet a large cast of characters, including fellow writers (many of them, like his friend Dany, put up at the hotel by the festival) and members of his family, as he moves about the city observing scenes of devastation and the efforts to rescue the living and bury the dead.

Despite the sloganistic title (a popular Kreyòl expression meaning ‘Never Give Up!’), Haïti, kenbe la! is an episodic collection of low-key personal impressions and recollections. Children amuse themselves with water pistols; a woman’s naked body is found the arms of her illicit lover and her husband buries them together; a radio announcer reads out the names of survivors; a policeman who avoids injury because he is late for work; ways of concealing the smell of death; the sound of hymns, prayers; thieves ransacking a displacement camp; journalists taking photos of corpses. The city takes shape through the accumulation of telling details. And indeed Saint-Eloi compares his method of composition to the way his mother in New York synthesizes information from many different sources in order to construct the compelling story of the earthquake she tells him over the phone.

After a couple of nights, he moves out of the hotel and stays with friends in a house overlooking a makeshift camp. They ration their food, but allow themselves a bottle of wine now and again. Before the week is out, Saint-Eloi is offered a seat on a military aircraft flying to Montreal, alongside other Haitian-Canadians – but only those with a Canadian passport are permitted to leave.

He allows many voices to speak – often without comment, giving us a Haiti in which different faiths vie for attention, and a strongly patriotic sense of history coexists alongside a cynical dismissal of current leaders, where the overseas aid represents relief for some and suffering for others, and the possibilities offered by emigration forms the horizon of so many lives. Through the story-teller Grann Tida, Saint-Eloi suggests Haiti has long represented to outsiders either the appealing primitive or the threatening savage, but it has also answered back. ‘Touris pa pran pòtrè ‘m’ (‘Tourist, don’t take my picture’) she says, quoting Felix Morisseau-Leroy’s famous poem, while conceding that it is not likely to have much effect.

Yet if the tourist would read this book, perhaps another Haiti could come into focus, one that is not designed to answer the outsider’s hopes or fears. ‘Resilient’, perhaps, although Saint-Eloi bristles at such an abstract concept. This Haiti is essentially one in which people just get on with things. A Haiti that lives for the present. If you fall, you get up – an attitude illustrated by the new neighbours in the ‘village’ that sprung up near his temporary home in Delmas: Zaka and his friends, playing dominoes, slamming down the tiles, their everyday chat – music, carnival, women, the price of rice and corn – punctuated with bursts of laughter.

But the hero of the book is undoubtedly Franketienne (who in Rapjazz: Journal d’un paria has recently written his own, rather more poetic, tribute to the city). We first meet the writer and artist hard at work rebuilding his house in Port-au-Prince. Later, Saint-Eloi takes a call from him in Montreal. He jokes about the Nobel Prize everyone expects him to win and reads a passage from his new play which is soon to be produced in Paris.

Since his return, he has struggled to resume his old life, haunted by the fury of the goudougoudou. But he emerges from the conversation with renewed vigour. ‘Franketienne had just reminded me that hope is not a utopia,’ he writes. ‘Franketienne had just reminded me that hope was Haitian.’

Some other first-hand accounts of the earthquake are included in Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture And The Earthquake Of 2010, edited by Martin Munro.

José María Arguedas: The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below

book coverJosé María Arguedas

The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below

translated by Frances Horning Barraclough ; edited by Julio Ortega

Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000

 

I love this novel. Even on a first reading – when it is obvious that you’re going to miss so much – it is a hugely rewarding experience.

The author‘s death tends to overshadow the interpretation of the book – as a kind of extended suicide note – but I enjoyed it above all as a brilliant and complex contribution to the literature of place. There is a large cast of memorable characters here, but the main character is surely Chimbote itself. Their criss-crossing journeys across the city offer the reader the opportunity to view it from many different angles, and the result is a remarkably sophisticated exercise in social, economic and political geography. The uneven distribution of power and wealth is quite visible in the layout of the conurbation and its lines of communication. Trawler, brothel, factory, market, cemetery: these are not simply settings in the novel but locations whose capacity to shape the action that takes place there is of crucial significance.

On some level the novel, with its passing derogatory remarks about Cortazar, Carpentier, Fuentes and Garcia Marquez, is also a provocative challenge to the mainstream Latin American novel, which certainly looks hopelessly gentrified after reading this unsparing immersion in the lives characters that include an itinerant preacher, a popsicle vendor, a prostitute expecting a baby, a crooked businessman, an unscrupulous factory manager, a corrupt labour leader, a pig-raiser, a trawler captain, a Yankee priest and a former peace corps volunteer who has gone native. Only the editorial apparatus can indicate how Arguedas combined Spanish and Quechua in his text, often creating new words from both languages, but the translation gives a good impression of the range of sociolects as it switches expertly between standard and vernacular Englishes.

If the book takes its title from a Quechua myth and while the narrative duplicates its themes of ‘above’ and ‘below’ in its fascination with the complex encounter of the mountain-dwelling Indians who are drawn to work in the rapidly industrializing port on the coast, the relation between the two stories is not merely analogical. One of the foxes appears in the novel as a somewhat enigmatic character, and it may be that Foxes is a critical rewriting of the myth, answering it back, out-doing it perhaps. Whether a second reading will make this any clearer I don’t know, but it will certainly be just as compelling.

Pop Videos of the Future

What if field recordings became popular?  You know, like pop songs?

In a piece on a field recording posted in tribute to Ahmed Basiony, killed in the Cairo uprisings in January this year, Marc Weidenbaum asks a similar question.  The recording, made by John Kannenberg, is one of a series of museum recordings, all lasting exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds – a duration in tribute, of course, to John Cage.

Weidenbaum continues:

It’s no doubt something of a pipe dream among those of us who enjoy field recordings, but should the act of recording the sound of a place ever become nearly as popular and common as is taking photographs of places, it’s imaginable that 4’33” would become a if not the standard length of such an audio document, the same way that there are standardized dimensions for photos.

This may be true. And indeed I have made some 4’33” recordings of libraries, other places of relative silence, that might appeal to our inner Cage.

But if 4’33” is one standard (equivalent perhaps to an album), then one minute is another (the seven-inch single of the field recording world, we might say).  Think of the Quiet American’s One-Minute Vacations or Sound and Music’s Minute of Listening project (to which I have offered some contributions). Sixty seconds is also the (approximate) length of the sonic postcards that are emerging from the City Rings venture.

Whatever. But if these became hits, one thing they would need is a video.  What would a field recording pop video look like?

Well one thing they wouldn’t look like are those videos on YouTube that document people making field recordings (usually to create sound effects) or offer tutorials in using field recording equpment.

More promising is a Vimeo group that goes by the name of, um, Field Recording.  John Kannenberg himself has a A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum here, which displays a floor plan and indicates where in the building the different recordings were made as they play.  South Bank Skate consist of a sequence of still images taken of a skate park, while the soundtrack appears to be a continuous recording of people skateboarding there.

There are some films of musical performances which, while they make full use of the acoustic space (and one, Notturno, recorded in a working steel foundry, is actually dominated by the ambient sound) still offend the purist in me, who doesn’t want to call these field recordings.

But probably the most common approach found here is to present long takes from a static camera, positioned close to where the recordings were made.  Among my favourites is this clip of Zurich airport at night by Made for Full Screen:

I like this sequence too, animate structures #4 by John  Grzinich, exploring the aeolian effects of strong winds on the landscape and the built environment in the hills just north of San Francisco:

Also interesting is Transplant – 06/07/2010 by Keir Docherty, a close-up of foliage, with the movement of motor traffic on a busy road beyond, which dominates the soundtrack, part of a ‘series of short videos which capture simple moments of everyday life from a very particular perspective.’  The point being to demonstrate that while trees and plants are often introduced to conceal roads from the eye, they are much more effective at masking the visual rather than the aural, even though they do dampen the sound.

These are all fairly close to what I imagine a field recording pop video would look like. The long takes, the static camera, the relative absence of movement within the frame, all help to draw attention to the soundtrack, and yet allow a certain tension between sound and image, given that there will always be a mismatch between what you hear and what you can see (like noises originating off-screen, but also events on-screen that, perhaps unpredictably, cannot be heard). And it is a tension that doesn’t tend to exist with photographs which do not carry the same (if any) sonic expectations.

The makers of such films have sometimes found it useful to work to a set of rules. Made for Full Screen drew up guidelines for a Vimeo group called The Pictures Don’t Move:

1. No camera movement (zoom, pan, …)
2. No editing (cut, time manipulation, …)
3. No performance (acting, dancing, …)
4. Original sound (no music, …)
5. At least 30sec long!

Two years later with over 400 videos, the principles have clearly struck a chord. Despite frequent flagrant (and sometimes spammy) disregard for these rules, there are some great films here.  But after watching a few, my growing feeling was that they were visually too busy.  Or at least that their creators were more interested in what you see rather than what you hear.  Perhaps at some level they were trying too hard not to be boring.

That’s never been a problem for me. Long fascinated by constrained writing, I have been experimenting with a set of rules of my own. Unaware of The Pictures Don’t Move until a few weeks ago, mine are similar, but in effect add more conditions, namely (1) the films must be exactly one minute long, and (2) the source of most of the sounds must be off-camera (to insist on all would be one step too far, I think).

  1. One minute because, as I suggested, it is becoming one of the standard formats for field recordings, but also because producing a series of works of this length (which could be joined together to make a longer film made up of identically-sized segments) help to sharpen your awareness of this – often merely rhetorical (‘just give me a minute’) – unit of time that we take for granted. I suppose my gamble is that this rule can help produce something that makes a minute seem much more precious and longer-lasting than we often allow.
  2. I think a key to this stretching of time is to encourage the viewers to listen as intently as they watch, and to point the camera away from the source of the sound is one of the best ways of doing this. And there is no better way of slowing you down than imposing a rule that breaks the ingrained habits of almost everyone who makes and watches videos.

One video in the Field Recordings group that obeys this acousmatic principle is Geijitsu Mura Koen by Brown (also an active member of The Pictures Don’t Move group).  It is grotesquely long – almost two minutes – but repays repeated … I was going to say listening, but what we need is a word that combines listening and viewing (with more of the former than the latter).  Listiewing perhaps.

My own efforts have been focused on a project that is bound by even more limitations: Scottish Minutes. The plan is to produce sixty one-minute videos in accordance with these rules, but with the additional objective of covering a wide variety of locations in Scotland (rural, urban, maritime, etc) at different times of year and times of day. In the last eighteen months I’ve made five.  It may take some time.

It almost goes without saying that these rules favour those with fairly unsophisticated equipment.  They could be made quite easily using a smartphone. I tend to make things more complicated for myself. Used to making sound recordings, I normally use binaural microphones with a minidisc recorder for the audio, and a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Back home I transfer the recording onto computer, choose the segment I want and attach it to the matching segment of film (replacing the original audio taken by the camera).  Of course, since much of the sound is off camera, precise matching of sound and image is not usually required.

Here’s an example of a non-Scottish minute. A Short Film About Flying, made at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.  You will notice that not only are these videos done on the cheap, I don’t even bother to clean the camera lens properly.  How rock’n’roll is that?

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he ‘brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. “If there were no captions for these pictures, you’d think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany,” he informed one New York Times reporter’ (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which

he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, ‘Malcolm X, the Family Man.’ Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).

During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers ‘by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs’, apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 ‘featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels’ (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.

Here’s another picture of Malcolm holding a camera. And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable’s biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot’s remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but ‘behind the camera’. You can – if you’re lucky to get a good connection – stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a – very distinctive – verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes ‘portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).’

Looks like a good place to start.

Jackie and Bob

It seems incredible that I could have lived more than fifty years and not have heard ‘Oboe’ by Jackie Mittoo.

But, as I was compelled to stop doing the dishes and turn up the volume when this beguiling instrumental came on the radio this evening, it would appear to be indeed the case.

Something about it sounded familiar, though. That five-note motif (first heard at 0’25”) nagged me.  Where had I heard this before? Who had sampled it?

I scrubbed at a pan and put the kettle on. My son could tell from my manner that I was preoccupied.  He asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain. I told him it was nearly bedtime and went through to run his bath, scared that the song would end and I’d miss the announcement that would tell me what it was and the riff would simply evaporate.  For you can’t (yet) sing to Shazam.

And then it came to me. Wasn’t it used in ‘A Touch of Jazz’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince?

Actually, no. While he was splashing and singing the Octonauts theme at full belt in the bathroom, I played the 12″ and realized what I was thinking of was the better known ‘Westchester Lady’ by Bob James:

The motif (first heard at 0’09”) is similar but – played straight after the Jackie Mittoo – is much more distinct. And, of course, more samplable. You can see why it caught the attention of Jazzy Jeff (and several others).

Bob’s tune came out in 1973, Jackie’s three years later. I assume the quotation is deliberate. Roaming online just now I came across one comment that suggested that ‘Oboe’ is a cover of ‘Westchester Lady’, which is pushing it, and only true in the sense that John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ is a cover of that song from The Sound of Music.

Let’s face it, Bob James is pretty cheesy. This song, with its cringeworthy title, is a lifetime’s supply of Dairylea. That five-note series is the only thing going for it, unless jazz funk arrangements polished to a dazzling shine thrill you per se.

But embedded in the loose ensemble sound you hear on ‘Oboe’, Jackie Mittoo shows that riff has legs. Its meandering, improvisatory quality, together with those never-quite expected splashes and swells of keyboard and cuts in the rhythm, make it far too interesting to listen to in a lift or hotel lobby.

Its nine and a half minutes deserve your full attention.

He Looked Like a Tapir

I’ve been reading The Lost City of Z, David Grann’s attempt to discover the fate of the British explorer ‘Colonel’ Percy Fawcett who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925.

This is a well-written but, in many ways, very conventional, footsteps book, in which the author casts himself as an effete, impractical couch potato (‘I am not a traveller’) opposite Fawcett’s almost superhuman determination and physical prowess.

As the book tacks between the reconstruction of Fawcett’s consecutive explorations of Amazonia and Grann’s present-day trip, we also get a corresponding contrast between the untamed wilderness of the 1920s (where the most advanced technology available to explorers as they hacked their way through pathless forest were primitive radios) and the increasingly deforested Amazon that can be crossed in all-terrain vehicles and motor boats, where tiny villages are now substantial towns that even have modest skyscapers, and where locals learn about their ancestral traditions by watching government-funded documentaries in outdoor cinemas.

The contrast between Fawcett and Grann is reinforced by a sense of the political changes that have taken place between them, changes that make imperialist adventures less acceptable to us today. And even if Fawcett is praised for his relatively peaceful attitude towards the native Amazonians (he strongly disapproves of strong-arm tactics, even in self-defence, employed by other explorers), the book would give us enough evidence to condemn Fawcett in a hypothetical court set up to establish the guilt of travel writers for whom ‘other cultures’ are no more than a stage on which they act out their own fantasies, choreograph their own mythologies.

But Grann does not set out to judge Fawcett. Indeed, there is a strong sense of affinity between them, marked perhaps most obviously by the parallels between them as fathers who leave a wife and young child behind as they head off to the unknown. On the very first page of his book, Grann explains that he ‘left behind my wife and one-year-old son’, echoing Fawcett’s own decision to join an expedition in 1906, even as he thought of ‘his wife, Nina, who was pregnant again, and his son Jack’. Grann refers to Fawcett as being ‘as neglectful of his family and children as his parents had been of him’ and perhaps – as a metaphorical great grandchild – Grann’s own willingness to desert his nearest and dearest is merely a generational echo. After all, isn’t there always something a bit Oedipal about footsteps travel, a wish to out-do or supplant one’s forebears? (As there is, of course, about book reviews).

So Grann shows some reluctance to criticise Fawcett directly, although he does acknowledge that others have poured scorn on his apparently delusional obsession with a pre-Columbian El Dorado (or ‘City of Z’), whose ruins he is determined to discover, and his fascination with the occult. Certainly Grann makes no serious effort to consider how Fawcett’s mission must have seemed to the native Amazonians who – both in the reconstruction of Fawcett’s gung-ho expeditions and in Grann’s own, post-colonial, duplication of them – tend to be depicted as people who either help or hinder the quest, without much indication of what they themselves might have thought about it or why they responded to him the way they did.

But there are moments in the book where a ‘native point of view’ peeps out between the lines of the Indiana Jones narrative. In one village Grann meets an old woman who remembers

when the three outsiders [Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell] came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards. My mother said, ‘Look, the Christians are here!’ … We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they must be important because they slept in the school … I remember that they were tall, so tall. And one of them carried a funny pack. He looked like a tapir.

Just before Grann leaves she recalls other people coming from far away to look for them. ‘What is it that these white people did?’ she asked. ‘Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?’

The question is left unanswered.

Grann is told of the whereabouts of Fawcett’s remains, and he is invited to Canarana, a small frontier town to meet the chief of the Kalapalos in order to retrieve them. The Kalapalos ask him if he is a relative, possibly anxious that Grann has come to avenge Fawcett’s death – and in some ways they are nearer the mark that perhaps Grann would be willing to admit. But they also ask for $5000. Grann says he doesn’t have ‘that kind of money’.

One of the Kalapalos stepped toward me and said, ‘The spirits told me that you were coming and that you are rich.’ Another Kalapalo added, ‘I’ve seen pictures of your cities. You have too many cars. You should give us a car’.

The negotiations become heated and Grann feels intimidated. They break off and two hours later his guide Paolo reports he has secured a compromise. Grann will be taken into the Xingu National Park if he pays ‘for transportation and several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies’.

Cordiality breaks out and next day they depart in a more powerful vehicle. Their driver wishes them well: ‘I hope you find this Y you are looking for’. Presumably he means Z – although this apparent confusion unexpectedly recalls the carved letter Y’s reportedly left by Fawcett according to a rescue party led by George Dyott in 1927.

But the narrator does admit that his quest seems ‘trivial’ when he learns of plans to build a dam, which has created tension between different ‘tribes’ over the money offered to appease them.

Nevertheless the quest continues. As they head upriver to the place where the bones were discovered, Grann is told ‘there are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know’. And one of them, it would appear, is that the remains were not of Fawcett after all. But the Kalapalo do have an oral tradition that tells of three white men (one old, two young) who passed that way long ago, heading off to hostile territory and never coming back.

Grann never ascertains how the trio met their end. But in the closing pages he turns to consider Fawcett’s determination to prove the existence of an ancient Amazonian civilization. He plans his book, so it climaxes with his arrival in the Kuikoro settlement in the Xingu where the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger has spent the last thirteen years – ‘on and off’, and had ‘been adopted by the Kuikoro chief and had his own hut in the village.’

Of course Heckenburger knows of Fawcett and, it turns out, he has made a series of momentous discoveries that suggest that Fawcett’s hunch was actually correct. And Grann is shown the traces (a moat, shards of pottery, embankments) of what must once have been a substantial, economically-advanced society.

But this – in the final chapter, entitled, simply, ‘Z’ – is a rather disappointing finale. For, as he admits, Heckenberger is one of a number of archaeologists and anthropologists who have revised traditional scepticism regarding the pre-Columbian Amazon. There is in fact a body of published research that confirms that something like ‘Z’ did – in fact – really exist.

Grann hardly needed to go to South America at all. For what he discovers was available in his local library all along. By the end of the book I was thinking that the story of Heckenberger’s thirteen years actually sounded more interesting than Fawcett’s. He also has the advantage of being alive.

The Fire Last Time

Dany Laferrière has suggested – with a hint of provocation, no doubt – that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene’s The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.

William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.

Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government’s request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company’s representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.

Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: ‘If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?’ On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.

Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker’s arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.

Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando’s own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russellclaims that it was Brando’s favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that ‘fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement’. Or admired it as a ‘furious Vietnam allegory’, as Stephen Hunter has described it.

But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah’s novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2

And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.

But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it – successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.

What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover’s rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based – it is alleged – on a screenplay by Med Hondo.

But it is a book – C L R James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution – that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.

In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.

The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider – like the audience – unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.

In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.

In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.

On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won’t be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.

Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other’s habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) ‘England’ and ‘Africa’ before finding something they can both pronounce: ‘the world’. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.

Notes

  1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2010), p127.
  2. Nuruddin Farah, Sardines (London: Heinemann, 1982), p29.
  3. Scott Allen Nollen, Paul Robeson: Film Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2010), pp52-3.

Beware of Crocodiles

Epic journeys don’t necessarily involve epic distances. The journey at the heart of Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road is just one and three quarter miles.

Calum MacLeod lived on the island of Raasay in the Scottish Hebrides, where he worked as a crofter, lighthouse keeper, postman. But his village was nearly two miles from the end of the road.

Frustrated at the lack of commitment on the part of Inverness County Council, despite the repeated appeals from the community, he decided, around 1964, to extend the highway himself. Virtually single-handedly, over more than ten years, ‘with the aid of a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a road-making manual which cost him three shillings’, he widened the track which wound its way round the hillside, above the sea-cliffs, and in and out of deep glens, laying the foundations for a rough thoroughfare until that final moment when he could drive his Land Rover all the way to his door.

Finally, after another long wait, the road became what he called an Autobahn, when in 1982 the council belatedly made amends and surfaced it in tarmac.

If conventional travel books should be first-person narratives, then this is not a conventional travel book. After all, most journeys never make their way into print. And those that do often only find a readership through the offices of a historian or biographer, roles that Hutchinson plays well here.

He has plenty of material to draw on. As news of MacLeod’s astonishing project spread, it featured in guidebooks, radio and TV programmes, and art exhibitions. Capercaillie even wrote a song about it (you can hear it in the background of the video above). As be became something of a celebrity, McLeod talked to many outsiders. And as a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, he left a substantial record relating to his struggle.

Hutchinson could have turned the story into a novel. And maybe fictionalizing it would have given us a keener sense of the day-to-day experience of building the road, and brought us closer to the people it was designed to serve. But Hutchinson chooses to tell a wider-ranging account that takes us back to the Clearances of the 1820s. And makes of Calum a heroic figure who stands for all those who took a stand against the powers that be, which in the twentieth century helped to depopulate the Highlands and Islands as the rapacious landlords had done in the nineteenth.

As schools and post offices were allowed to close, and transport links failed to materialise, the road became a monument not to the past, but to a possible future, whose keynote is active regeneration rather than passive neglect, justified cynically by the dwindling numbers of residents caused largely by that neglect in the first place.

Hutchinson does not sentimentalize his protagonist. He does not spare us some of the less attractive strands to his ideology. MacLeod’s antipathy to the 1960s establishment is intensified by his hostility to the liberalisation of laws regarding homosexuality, abortion and capital punishment. He wrote a ballad about his achievements that talked of himself ‘working like a nigger’, a phrase that may give us pause, though Hutchinson passes over it without comment.

But the most unexpected passage in the book concerns a letter MacLeod wrote to the Stornoway Gazette in 1970. He refers to a history of Egypt on his desk and comments:

There is reference to allegations of transactions with crocodiles. I fully believe that were these reptiles common to our riverbanks, Socialists in their apathy to crime or evils would not ban this abomination, but would gladly seize the opportunity to licence and tax as harmless amusement.

In a surprisingly long footnote, Hutchinson explains that the book was probably a translation of Description de l’Egypte, the monumental Napoleonic survey that was originally published between 1809 and 1828. Apparently it included claims that ‘Egyptian fellahin had congress with crocodiles as part of divine worship’, claims later given credence by the explorer Richard Burton. But it was all nonsense.

According to a ‘modern veterinarian’ he does not identify, Hutchinson tells us that the activity observed must have been attempts to determine the sex of the reptile, an activity that involved adopting a position that was evidently open to misinterpretation.

It is clear from Calum’s Road that MacLeod travelled quite widely in Scotland; and he was certainly very well-read. But travel doesn’t always broaden the mind. And travel books – like the Description de l’Egypte – perhaps even less so.

But building a road with your bare hands. You can’t argue with that.

An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy

I am old enough to remember decimalisation, which finally took place in Britain forty years ago this week. As an eleven-year-old in his first year at secondary school, who had never been abroad, it was my first taste of that slightly queasy feeling you get when you have to think in two different currencies at once. I recall the frisson as p’s and d’s mingled promiscuously in my pocket, the conversion tables on the walls of post offices and newsagents, the impending obsolescence of the eleven and twelve times tables.

But above all I am reminded of an event some ten years later: now a student at Birmingham University whose routes across the city often took in one of the alternative bookshops that nurtured the subculture. These institutions, defined negatively in that they offered what mainstream bookshops did not – a good coverage of left-wing politics, imported fiction and poetry, alternative health and non-western religion – nevertheless came to feel as if they obeyed a single organic principle.

They flourished in university towns, but not exclusively. As a teenager, I regularly visited a tiny one in Blackburn, Lancashire on my way home from school, spending money from a paper round on treats like How to Grow Your Own Marijuana, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and the latest issues of Peace News.

Nowadays, that rapprochement is almost over, the trade fragmented between Buddhist Centres, herbalist emporia, welfare rights offices, with gentrified boutiques like the London Review Bookshop virtually the only places left for readers who think of themselves of independent mind. Where now can you walk in off the street and pick up a copy of Amilcar Cabral, Alexandra Kollontai or Ernest Mandel?

The nearest to my first flat in Birmingham was in Moseley, its volumes of Gramsci and Jung always faintly perfumed with jasmine and patchouli, although, with its squeaky wooden floors and gloomy mezzanine to the rear, retaining a studious air missing from its more activist-oriented twin situated on the curve of St Martins Circus Queensway in the city centre, filled with natural light that nurtured house plants and made hand-written cards curl around drawing pins on the noticeboard.

A mile away was the Communist Party bookshop, tucked away a block or two back from the busy A38, which pretty much stuck to printed material and felt a little more intimidating and austere in comparison, although it was already livened up with the snazzy covers of Martin Jacques’ Marxism Today and Robert Natkin’s colourful abstract paintings that adorned the cover of the first generation of Verso’s translations of French, German and Italian socialist intellectuals (most of whom are hardly spoken of today).

Not that these developments left much mark on Progressive Books and Asian Arts in Selly Oak. There were fans, incense, some fabrics and posters, but I was drawn to the shelves lined with the cream paperbacks of Peking’s Foreign Languages Press editions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and of course Mao himself, alongside the darker hues of the rather more durable hardbacks that offered their Selected or Collected Works. A ramble on the web just now tells me that the bookshop was run in the 1970s by Jagmothan Joshi, General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association, a fact of which I was completely unaware at the time. When I used to visit, the proprietor was a taciturn and somewhat intense man in his late twenties or early thirties, perhaps an eternal postgraduate, whose longish hair, cardigan and brown suede shoes made me think of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Not long after I discovered it, the shop was holding a closing-down sale, offering two-thirds off all stock. I chose The Poverty of Philosophy (60p, still pencilled on the now rather faded cover), Selected Letters of Marx and Engels (also 60p), Anti-Dühring (which seems to have disappeared from my collection) and a volume of Mao’s Selected Writings that included the Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan and On Contradiction (£2). Even at marked prices they represented excellent value for money at a time when – as a glance at the back covers of other books I bought around the same time reveals – a copy of Discipline and Punish would have set me back £2.95 and Althusser’s For Marx a stomach-clenching £4.25.

And for each one, Stockhausen diligently calculated the promised discount. And what I liked about this ritual was, when he took up the Penguin edition of Engels’ Selected Works and noticed that the price printed on the back cover – for it must have been on the shelf for more than a decade – was an uncorrected 7 shillings and sixpence, without missing a beat he rapidly executed the mental arithmetic and informed me, with a hint of a smile, that I owed him 12½p.

I don’t know if this sale made the slightest difference to his fortunes as he made his way in the world following the shop’s demise. But in honouring the agreement to reduce his prices to the point at which they became almost meaningless I think he made a tiny difference to mine.