2013/12/16

Poor sailing for Spain

Fritz (Ricardo Olivera)
Why is Spain in such a mess?
  • Catalonia, with almost 1/6 of the population and the highest GDP in Spain, is threatening to secede;
  • Nationwide, unemployment is surpassed in the Eurozone only by Greece;
  • Social services including health, education, and aid to caregivers of dependent relatives are being slashed, generating enormous "tides" of protest almost every day;
  • Thousands of families are homeless due to evictions for nonpayment of mortgages while the banks are stuck with millions of empty new homes:
  • The bankers that set up those unpayable mortgages and drove their banks to ruin claim and usually get multimillion euro bonuses;
  • Corruption scandals among the political elite are multiplying, but few are punished and nobody ever resigns;
  • The government is not only refusing to investigate Franco era crimes (despite UN and World Court demands), it is also reviving Franco era repressive legislation;
  • The Catholic Church continues to use its state subsidies to return Spain to the middle ages.
And all this occurring just as Spain is supposedly celebrating, or at least commemorating, 35 years of what here is called democracy, since the approval in 1978 of the Constitution that was supposed to bring post-Franco Spain into the the modern world. And there, in that Constitution and the way it was hammered out, and how it has been interpreted in the years since, lie the keys to almost all of Spain's current dilemmas. With the added complication of something completely unforeseen in 1978: the loss of fiscal autonomy to the European Central Bank + associates (especially the Bundesbank), dictating deficit, tax and public spending rules that make it more difficult to solve any of those problems.

The most divisive issues in Spain were not really resolved in the 1978 Constitution, but simply covered over in deliberately ambiguous language to achieve the broadest consensus. These divisive issues were mainly:
  1. Representative government —If the people were to be sovereign, who were "the people" and how direct could be their participation in government? Powerful forces wanted to maintain the institutions set up by Franco, including the supremacy of the military hierarchy and of the recently restored monarchy. With so many rival political parties — including Franco's arch enemies, the Communist Party and newly reorganized and re-invigorated Socialist Party, plus all the new regional parties that were springing up, all facing the die-hard Franco-heirs in Alianza Popular — how could the government remain stable and avoid a resumption of civil war, perhaps by other means? The expedient decided upon was an electoral system skewing votes so that one or another party's electoral advantage would be multiplied to give it enough parliamentary seats that it could not easily be overturned.
  2. Territorial and ethnic divisions —Large regions remained attached to languages and traditions that had been suppressed by Franco, the largest being the Galicians (gallegos or galegos), the Basques and Catalan-speakers (including not only those of Catalonia but those speaking related dialects in Valencia and Baleares). Was Spain one nation, or a union of nations with distinct laws, though gathered under a federal state? The pseudo-solution was regional "autonomy," understood differently by the different parties and subject to future determination by the courts.
  3. Monarchy or Republic? The ad-hoc solution (after much fierce debate) was a sort of republican monarchy, where the king reigns but does not rule. This was a major symbolic concession by the Left, standard-bearer of the Spanish Republic, but considered acceptable because of the apparently peaceable and pro-democratic posture of Juan Carlos — who owed his investiture to Franco.
  4. Church and State: Franco had defined his government and the country as "National Catholic" meaning that, for him, Fascism and Catholicism were two faces of the same reality, and a "Concordat" with the Vatican assured state funding of the Church. The Left representatives wanted to cut that funding entirely. The compromise was that "all" creeds would be recognized, the country was declared officially laic (id est, with no official religion), but the state continued to exempt the Catholic Church from taxes (even on commercial property) and to pay the salaries of teachers of religion in the public schools and of priests in military.
The pseudo-democratic procedure cobbled together to solve the first of these issues has left most Spaniards feeling that they are not represented by any party — especially because although the parties make promises to compete for votes, they don't feel obliged to fulfill those promises once elected and exercise such discipline within their ranks that no dissidence is allowed.

The ambiguity on the second point allowed pressure from the centralizing, conservative Partido Popular, through its influence on the courts, to overturn a reform of Catalonia's governing statutes (involving the relative emphasis on the national language, castellano — what we call "Spanish" — and Catalan and other issues of self-determination), taken in Catalonia as unpardonable meddling (intromisión), especially since a very similar statute was approved in neighboring Valencia (which also speaks a variety of Catalan, but was governed by the conservatives whereas Catalonia had at the time a coalition leftist government).

The other problems listed above stem mainly from the rigidity and inconclusiveness on the territorial and democratic procedure issues. There are too many courts (Audiencia Nacional, Tribunal Supremo, Tribunal Constitutional all top-ranked in the justice system, and all the regional courts) with different criteria and stacked with judges placed there by political pressure or, in some notorious cases, removed when they take justice issues too seriously: Baltasar Garzón is the best known, but there have been others. This makes it very difficult to prosecute corruption cases against politicians who have their party's support. And has for similar reasons made it almost impossible to control the banks and financial markets — since the people supposed to do the controlling are part of the problem.

As for the Church — well, we'll save that for later. (Though I've already discussed the issue in earlier notes, for example Claiming the soul of Spain (2008/02/10).  If you're curious about other thoughts I've had on these themes, just click the link "Spain" below and the blog notes will pop up.

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2013/12/11

Hard-pressed | Harvard Gazette

Hard-pressed | Harvard Gazette
 
"Gripes about the dismal prospects of the Fourth Estate are probably as old as the printing press itself. News consumers are uninformed and ill served by journalists who focus on the superficial, too often delivering a narrow and inaccurate portrait of the nation’s public affairs, protesters typically declaim." 
So begins the Harvard Gazette article, recognizing that the critique Thomas Patterson offers in his new book Informing the News is not new and is thus not news to most of us, either. But it is worth thinking about in new ways, because we are in a new communications environment, utterly different from that known to Oscar Wilde or Walter Lippmann or even George Orwell, who maybe came closer (in 1984) to imagining our world of today.

Patterson's critique of superficial, ill-sourced reporting by reporters who don't know anything more about their subjects than what they have read hurriedly from other reporters is surely valid. What I doubt is the relevance of his proposed remedy, "knowledge-based reporting". More rigorous training of journalists won't protect us from those who (deliberately or blindly) mislead us, or from those who claim to know more than they do. There are well-informed and objective reporters, even now, along with the idiot or lazy scriveners and paid propagandists, but it takes practice and good critical judgment to know which reporters and which reports can be trusted.

Our only real protection is, as it always has been, knowledge-based reading. And with today's communications resources, including Google and Wikipedia and our ability to e-mail or Skype anyone we know who might be able to fill us in on something puzzling, the knowledge-base is more accessible. It's up to you and me, pal, to find out enough about what interests us to know whose version is most credible.

2013/11/26

Mockingbird

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The voice of the perky, inquisitive, acutely observant Scout Finch from age 6 to 9 captures the reader so strongly as to hold together a whole string of disparate episodes — originally conceived by the author as separate short stories. Mainly, we get to know various characters of a poor little Alabama town during the Depression, their peculiar rituals and class and racial prejudices, and their sometimes redeeming acts of generosity. In this, it is more like Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer, another child's-eye view of a southern small town told as a series of anecdotes, than like Twain's later and more tightly structured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Scout's most piquant observations of hypocrisy, neurosis, arrogance, or cowardice are of the white folks she knows best. But she also reports with fascination the courage and kindness of a few individuals, including especially her father Atticus Finch, a neighbor woman, Maudie, and the Finches' black maid Calpurnia. A particularly beautiful moment is Scout's visit with Calpurnia to her First Purchase AME Church, a revelation to this protected white girl of black devotion and dignity and a whole community close by but separate from the little white hamlet.

The book is best remembered for one episode that is expanded to extend over several chapters and which is a pleasing, though historically misleading fable: the trial of a black laborer accused of rape of a poor white woman, and his defense by Scout's father Atticus. Sadly, nothing like the judicial fairness of the Maycomb judge, the opportunity of the defendant to legal defense and serious cross-examination of the plaintiff ever happened or could happen in Alabama in the 1930s in a black-on-white rape case. What Harper Lee evidently had in mind when she wrote it was the famous Scottsboro Boys trial in 1933, where no such judicial niceties occurred. But there were defense attorneys — mostly northerners — who, a bit like Atticus Finch in the novel, made the effort, often at the risk of their own lives.

But it is the voice that saves this and all the stories in the book. You have to love this tomboy when she tells you in a hurt voice that, when she tried to hold her big brother back from some dangerous adventure, "Jem told me I was being a girl…" Or when she observes, back in her white church, "the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen."

On the Scottsboro boys, see the NYT November 21, 2013, article,  
Alabama Pardons 3 ‘Scottsboro Boys’ After 80 Years


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2013/11/24

The slowly creeping insight

Too Much HappinessToo Much Happiness by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is amazing is how much Munro can make out of so little, the lives of observant but unexceptional people, most of them in and around London, Ontario, in the 1990s or 2010s, who perhaps once in their lives have experienced an exceptional event. Within this restricted fictional territory, the author finds innumerable variations.

After the first few stories I was hoping for a change of scenery and skipped to the last, and title, story of the collection, "Too Much Happiness," and was surprised by something quite different. Here the protagonist is an entirely exceptional person and so far from contemporary Canada she probably could not even imagine the Ontario forests and suburbs. The Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) was the first woman to earn a doctorate in a European university at a time when women weren't admitted even to sudy in universities (summa cum laude, University of Göttingen, 1874). Kovalevskaya's extraordinary triumphs and disappointments, including difficult romance with another Russian intellectual exile, all really occurred. The fictional imagination is in making us feel as though we are she, living all these frustrations and sometimes wild hopes, until the fatal "too much happiness."

This is not the only wonderful story in the collection. Other favorites of mine included "Wood," which seems to understand a man's loneness — his need to be alone, but in a place where he feels himself as part of something greater — as clearly as Munro's other stories understand women's ways of relating to, and sometimes, avoiding one another. "Some Women" and "Child's Play" are especially about that complicated ballet. "Free Radicals" is another memorable story — or rather, two memorable stories, first of a woman's sudden and unexpected widowhood, and then of a startling irruption into her life that seems to reconfigure the meaning of everything. But even in this story, the conclusion is not an event but the protagonist's sudden understanding of events in a new way, even though she, or he, or we, may not be able to describe just what that new understanding is.

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2013/11/15

Hands, heads and revolution

http://www.vieuxmetiers.org/gravure/imajpg/relieur.jpg
As readers of the blog already know, I am at work on a novel about the Paris Commune of 1871. This is not intended as escape literature, to take our minds off present crises, but rather as its opposite: as a way to rethink and interpret conflicts that are occurring around us now. It is also an opportunity to examine how our daily routines — the ways we work and communicate —shape our political and other views.

In the course of research, I discovered that the two most revolutionary groups of workers in Paris were the bronze workers and bookbinders, the latter organized by Eugène Varlin and, for the many women in that trade, Nathalie Le Mel. What a man or woman does with the hands, and the context of one's daily work routines, must explain much about how that person sees the world. So this is what I'm trying to learn now.
http://www.alaintruong.com/archives/2008/12/15/11764701.html

I have some idea of how the bronze workers worked in that period, and hope to learn more. These men (and they were all men) molded not only chandeliers, kitchen basins and cookware, bathroom fixtures and (for the bourgeois) ornaments, statuary and pretty clocks like the one at left; they were also the men who fashioned the cannons that defended Paris.

But the bookbinders (both men and women) are especially interesting, both because of the extraordinary personality of Varlin and because, by the very nature of their work, they had contact with the written word. I want to know what it would be like for, say, a young apprentice bookbinder with an 11-hour workday in an atelier of 20 or 30 laborers when a big order came in. What was the order of work, from the time the printed sheets came in to the final ornamentation of the cover? And how difficult was it to operate presses and clamps, knife, guillotine, sewing frames, gluing, etc.? What impressions — of literature, politics or philosophy — might the apprentice retain from glimpses of the pages he was required to bind? Besides consulting library and museum sources in Paris and Madrid, I hope to learn from people living today who are actually doing that sort of work.

This was the first great urban revolt in a modern metropolis (Paris 1871 as opposed to pre-industrial 1789), the first city-wide socialist reform movement ever put into practice (public education and health, labor rights, democratic procedure), and a demonstration of the capacity of ordinary workers with ingenuity and good will to run a city of over a million inhabitants. A close examination of the work lives and home lives of those ordinary workers should help us understand this enormous phenomenon.

The Commune and its defenders were annihilated in street-by-street fighting during the “week of blood” (May 21-28, 1871), demonstrating the precariousness of revolt and the ruthlessness and duplicity of threatened regimes everywhere. But despite that, because of its accomplishments and its declared though unfulfilled programs during its brief life (just over two months), the Commune has continued to serve as a model for aspirations of social justice in  revolutionary movements ever since.

For newcomers to this blog, my previous novel, A Gift for the Sultan, was about a much earlier great urban crisis, in Constantinople just 51 years before its capture by the Ottomans. That book has now also been translated and published in Turkish as Bir cihan, iki sultan (“One world, two sultans”).  I now think of that novel as practice for this one, about the Paris Commune of 1871.

2013/11/13

Censor this? No, keep the press free

I just received a call to join a censorship campaign against Richard Cohen: Group Calls for the Washington Post to Fire Columnist Richard Cohen Over Remarks on Interracial Marriage

Outrage After Washington Post Columnist “Represses Gag Reflex” Discussing NYC Mayor de Blasio’s Interracial Marriage

Seems like some people get outraged awfully easily. Maybe they should just take a deep breath and learn to read. The sentences that caused the outrage I quote below.
  
Richard Cohen: Christie’s tea party problem - The Washington Post: "…People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all."

My response:

 (1) I don't see how de Blasio, Chirlane or anybody else could take offense; Cohen is not saying he gagged, but describing what he imagines (correctly, I fear) to be the reaction of "People with conventional [sic] views". Well, conventions are different in different places. Not the views of New Yorkers, obviously; they voted for him.
(2) And even if a columnist offends me, I'm not going to demand to shut him up, but rather to have an opportunity to reply. I'm with Voltaire on this principle.

2013/10/29

Waltzing to revolution

Eugène Varlin, chronique d'un espoir assassinéEugène Varlin, chronique d'un espoir assassiné by Michel Cordillot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clearly written, extensively documented intimate biography of one of the most impressive leaders of the Paris Commune. We learn not only of the very serious side of Varlin, a country boy eager to learn, who became a master bookbinder (very proud of his trade), organizer first of the bookbinders union then of other unions, and a leader of the International Workingmen's Association (the "First International"). He also learned to sing in choral groups and to dance, becoming a tall, handsome idol to thousands of the low-paid women brocheuses, assigned to the menial folding and assembling of "brochures" (paper-covered books) in the book binderies. In London at the farewell party of a meeting of the International, he preferred to waltz with Marx's daughters to spending the evening debating economics with their father. A firm and fierce feminist (opposed to his Proudhonnien comrades' view that a woman's place was in the home and she therefore should not hold union office), he worked with Nathalie Le Mel, already a leader of women bookbinders, in numerous projects. Reading his story helps us understand how such a momentous upheaval as the Paris Commune could occur and why at that moment, and also how and why it collapsed before the massacre of the "week of blood" by troops from the extremely conservative government in Versailles. It will also help answering the third question, how it has shaped revolutionary movements up to our day, as the song says: "She [the Commune] is not dead" (Elle n'est pas morte).

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2013/10/27

If War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-reading this book today, as so many people are doing, reminds us of how gloomy the world looked in 1949. And especially how gloomy it looked to Orwell, who had spent his entire life and lost his health in struggles for what he imagined as a more decent society — one where people care about and care for one another. The book is a biting satire of what he thought of as the muddle-headed reformism of the British Labour Party, heading toward a totally controlled society called "Ingsoc", Newspeak for "English Socialism", but the permanent anxiety-inducement, psychological manipulation through the distortion of language, and crude but effective torture were inspired more by Nazi Germany and, especially, Stalin's Soviet Union. The technology of surveillance by "Big Brother" seems laughably primitive today, in the face of Edward Snowden's revelations about the working of the NSA, but Orwell's vision of pseudo-friendships among individuals too frightened to really connect seems almost to foreshadow those on Facebook and Twitter.

Orwell's great strength was as a moral essayist, a writer with a very definite view of how things ought to be and a critique of all that fell short of that. And it is as a moral essay that this book continues to matter, not as an effort of belles lettres. It is not pleasing to read, the flow of the language is jarring, the characters unlovable and barely understandable as people — and that is surely just what Orwell intended. But those unlikeable characters all serve his two purposes: to point out the dangers of an all-controlling state and to remind us once again of how language can be corrupted in ways not to advance and express thought, but to impede it. And also perhaps to express one faint hope: Winston Smith, by resisting as long as he does, even though he finally succumbs, demonstrates that the system's control can never be absolutely complete.

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2013/10/19

A police thriller overwhelmed by real events

Le Cri du peupleLe Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an immensely agitated, minutely detailed, ridiculously plotted police thriller, full of exaggerated characters, improbable coincidence and lots and lots of blood and sex, set in Paris during the 1871 Commune.

An emotionally disturbed cop and ex chain-gang convict (Charles Bassoucissé, a.k.a. Horace Grondin) obsessively pursues his murder suspect, who is now the gallant army captain Antoine Tarpagnan, and who we know almost from the beginning is quite innocent — like Inspector Javert on the heels of Jean Valjean in Les misérables, but Grondin is even crazier than Javert. These and other invented characters — other cops, crooks, prostitutes and various low-lifes — come into contact with historical figures, including Louise Michel and Gustave Courbet (very briefly) and especially Jules Vallès, whose newspaper Le Cri du Peuple provided Vautrin his title.

It is fast moving. I kept flicking the pages on my Kindle to find out what these crazy characters were going to do next, and one of the sex scenes, though a cliché, is quite lovely (a whore with a heart of gold tutors a timid youth in his first encounter). But the reason I read this instead of some other police thriller was to find out more about the Paris Commune, a far more dramatic story and with far more extraordinary personalities than the cop, the gallant and lovesick army captain he believes murdered his protégée, the troupe of loveable carnival freaks or even the gang of murderers with their grotesque symbol of brotherhood — glass eyes to be left in the hands of their victims.

The gruesome slashings of the "Glass Eye" gang, presented in bloody detail, pale into insignificance beside the more extreme and massive violence of the "week of blood" (la semaine sanglante) when government troops from Versailles virtually annihilated the communards, women and children included. Vautrin makes that suffering extremely vivid, and the (real, historical) violence is so massive that the (fictional) pursuit of Tarpagnan by Grondin seems of small importance. Vautrin is especially good at conveying the smells, most of them awful — of people, mildew, exhausted horses, bombs and rotting corpses. But the writing is so overwrought — people don't merely "say" something, they "snort" it or "grunt" it or even "whinny" it (I'm translating from Vautrin's over-abundant use of underworld argot) — that you know the story must have been conceived as a comic book, which it has now become, with illustrations by Jacques Tardi.

In short: You can learn some things about the commune, especially the minuscule details of how people lived and ate and traveled through the city, and a sense of the fear and smells and rage during the massacres of that last week. What you won't get clear is what it was all about and what it means to us.

That wasn't what Vautrin set out to do, so I'm not objecting. But it looks as though if I want to read the kind of novel I have in mind, I'll just have to write it. It's underway now.

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2013/10/09

Transcending literary genres

My quote from André Maurois (yesterday — see below), on the "recipe" for historical fiction, provoked reaction from friends on LinkedIn which has led me to these reflections:

From the tone of his remark, Maurois classed "historical fiction" as popular entertainment, probably along with murder mysteries and most other genres. That is, as distinct from more serious literature, of the sort that challenges the readers emotionally or intellectually. I think that is fair for most of what is put on the shelves, or in the Amazon lists, in that category. Nothing wrong with that — it's perfectly fine, I suppose, to amuse yourself. But it also made me think again of Mario Vargas Llosa's and Julia Navarro's insistence that what they write is not "historical fiction" — a puzzling stance if by "historical fiction" you mean any fiction set in the past, but not puzzling if you take the term the way Maurois describes it.
 

We don't usually think of "Julius Caesar" or any of Shakespeare's other tragedies as "historical fiction" because, although they do everything that Maurois describes, they also do much more. War and Peace and Charterhouse of Parma also do more. They are much more complex character studies, and suggest more complex philosophical inquiries, than required for light entertainment. But (as I use the term) they spring from, and then transcend, the genre. I think fiction of any genre (historical fiction, murder mysteries like those of Borges, even erotica in the pen of "O" or Henry Miller) can rise beyond our usual expectations of the form. In fact, playing with the supposed rules of any of these genres is a good approach to creating surprising, complex fiction. I'm thinking once again of Don DeLillo's Libra, but there are many other examples.

2013/10/08

Recipe for a historical novel

From a review by André Maurois:
THE recipe for an appetizing historical novel is relatively simple: take an exciting event (or period of history); study carefully your background; create an imaginary character (or a group of characters); let them have a sentimental life, distinct from the central theme; then tell the well-known story as seen by your imaginary characters, and sprinkle with local color. The result should be a nourishing and palatable dish, for a winter evening or a long journey.

The Saturday Review, February 7, 1942. Review of novel about the comic-opera life and death of général Georges Boulanger, 1837-1891: BRAVE GENERAL. By Herbert Gorman. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. 1942. 625 pp. $3.

2013/09/28

A unique event, a common topic

A fellow author on LinkedIn has congratulated me on my choice of a unique event for my novel. Yes, of course he's right, the Paris Commune was unique, as the first (briefly) successful uprising in a modern, capitalist society. Urban revolt has been occurring almost since there have been cities, and there were immediate precedents in France: 1789, 1830, 1848. But the context had changed so much by the late 19th century (France was multi-continental imperial power, its major cities now included big industrial proletariats, communications had advanced enormously, and Paris itself had become "the capital of the 19th century" in Walter Benjamin's famous phrase), and running such a huge city had become so complex, that the communards had to invent everything as they went along.

What is not unique is my choice of subject matter. Like any powerful, dramatic event, the Commune has attracted scores of novelists and probably thousands of historians. I'm reading a recent novel now,  Le cri du peuple, by Jean Vautrin. It's a lot of fun, fast moving and thoroughly researched, but not like what I'm aiming to do. But I'll say more about that after I finish Vautrin's novel — it's slow going for me (despite the speed of the action), mainly because Vautrin inserts so much underworld argot that I'm clicking on the dictionary every couple of paragraphs. At least, I'm learning a lot of vocabulary. But it will be hard to work it into conversation, unless I want to insult my French friends.

Vautrin has collaborated with illustrator Jacques Tardi to produce this marvelous bande dessiné, for which the two authors studied (among many other sources) the collection at the Musée de Saint-Denis, where I also have spent emotion-filled hours. For a video on this collaboration (in French), see "Le Cri du peuple" de Tardi et Vautrin - Vidéo Ina.fr.

2013/09/27

Writing revolution

Gustave Courbet, pondering the art of revolution
As I've mentioned before, my next novel is about the Paris Commune of 1871. But not just about Paris or those 72 days of "people's power", but also about the possibilities, aspirations and contradictions in a revolutionary movement in a modern industrial capital and center of financial and military power. That is, it is also about us, today, whether in Cairo or New York or anywhere, and about the episode that has been a model for urban revolutions ever since.

So how's it going? I think I'm on track, but I'm not producing anything like 1,000 usable words of draft per day, which I think should be a reasonable quota. I hope to work up to that rhythm, though, once I work through my notes and tinkering with my outline. Meanwhile I'm still gathering more and more knowledge about Paris, French railroads, police, etc.

My novel starts with the lurch of my young protagonist, an apprentice bookbinder, from Lyon to Paris, by rail (his first trip anywhere), because he's decided to change his life — so I wanted to find out about the PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille or Méditerranée) line, tried but failed to get an 1870 timetable, did get an idea of how long it would take, am guessing about the fare (2 fr. 40 would be a day's wages for my guy) and the neighborhood where he would end up (3ême arrondissement, Gare de Lyon).

Why a bookbinder? Because that was one of the most politically engaged industries in the Commune. But why from Lyon? Because aside from Paris, Lyon was one of the most revolutionary cities in all France, especially in the silk industry, where women ovalistes had just formed the first feminine section of the International.

Another of my characters is a police official, and I've had to determine whether in the Sûreté (secret investigative police, staffed mainly by former criminals) or the Préfecture, and get some idea of how that was set up. For now, my character is a sous-préfet, meaning high-ranking but not at the top of the Préfecture. I already know (enough for my novel, probably) about the new police set-up under the Commune.

I'm delighted to be learning all this, but it doesn't make for rapid novel production. It does however enable me to understand the Commune in much greater complexity than we usually see.

To find out more about the Commune and to see some marvelous images, check out the blog of writer Yves Fey:

The Commune | YVES FEY

2013/09/19

Writers retreat (or advance)

At the beginning of this month I had the happy experience of participating in the Paris Writers Retreat created and led by Wendy Goldman Rohm. Held September 2-6 in a loft on the Place des Vosges, the "retreat" was more like a charge forward,  an energizing experience, propelling me (and I think all the participants) to work more wisely and enthusiastically on our respective projects.

The experience was valuable for several reasons, including: updated information about how the book business is operating currently, including a frank presentation via Skype by a guest speaker in Los Angeles on optioning books for TV or film production; tips and practical exercises on writing techniques, and recommendations of readings that may serve as models or as sources of ideas to stimulate our own creative imaginations. But beyond all that was something hard to get from on-line forums or self-help books: the synergy of face-to-face contact and interchange, with Wendy Rohm and with the 10 other participating writers.

Wendy is a very experienced freelance magazine writer, book author and agent (as you'll see if you check out her website), so there was a lot to learn from her. She was also closely attentive and constructively critical of the work as we produced it in workshop exercises. And it was also very helpful to engage with the other participants and they developed books completely unlike mine, suggesting other approaches and seeking solutions to some of the same problems of narrative structure, pacing, etc.

Online forums can be great — I have colleagues to share ideas with in LinkedIn and Goodreads, and some close friends and colleagues in our Thoth Books editorial collective. But the face-to-face exchange with an experienced professional, in real time and in a real place, is insurpassable.

2013/08/29

In Syria: Stupid power move | Common Dreams

Recently, I commented on Elmore Leonard's novel Ryan's Rules, which he later retitled as Swag. It's about the catastrophe a crook named Ryan brings onto himself by disobeying his own sensible rules, like, don't trust other crooks.

Crooks aren't the only ones who need to abide by sensible rules. One of the first rules for rulers should be: If you can't make it better, don't jump in. I think there's something like that in Clausewitz, or maybe Machiavelli, both of whom drew up sensible rules for rulers.

I agree with Jon Queally (link below): a U.S. attack on Syria is not going to make things there better, not for Syrian civilians of whatever politics hit by the cruise missiles, not for the fragmented "opposition" and certainly not for democracy, and not even for U.S. interests (economic, political or military) in the region.

But of course, if rulers acted sensibly, there would have been no World War I — to take just one example of blundering into disaster. Rulers act more often out of pride than pragmatism, pressure from their closest confidants rather than the larger interests of the states they rule, or (probably the case of George W. in Iraq) blind adherence to an ideological vision unchecked by evidence. There's probably a little bit of all three influences on the U.S. plan to attack Syria. So, disaster, here we come!

In Syria, Obama's Calculations Reveal Stupidity of US Imperialism | Common Dreams

Also, see this video of an interview of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies:  As Strikes on Syria Loom, U.S. Ignores Diplomatic Track | Common Dreams

2013/08/26

Elmore Leonard's Rules

In memory of the late great Elmore Leonard, this capsule note from long ago (I probably wrote it in 1985 or '86) on one of his minor works: 
 Swag Swag by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
(Originally titled Ryan's Rules.)

Used-car salesman Frank Ryan recruits cement mixer and chronic car thief Ernest Stickley, Jr. ("Stick") for a spree of armed robbery in Detroit's suburbs. But they break several of Ryan's 10 rules - "Never associate with people known to be in crime," etc. - when they team up with black hustler Sportree and his allies to rob J. L. Hudson's in Detroit; unplanned mayhem in Hudson's, double-cross by Sportree, undone by Stick and Ryan's death-defying double-double-cross and murder of Sportree. A clever white cop guided by an even cleverer fat black prosecutor catches them and the loot.

And another one:

Cuba LibreCuba Libre by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cowboy Ben Tyler in Cuba 1898 gets caught up in the independence war with cruel Spanish officers, less cruel Cuban officers in service to Spain, independence fighters both noble and treacherous, and a decadent American millionaire landowner; he wins the girl (Amelia, a tough, opportunistic American) and, after settling all scores with his Colt .44s, takes her to start a cattle ranch in Cuba libre. Ridiculous story, in which Cuba is merely a backdrop for the actions of American characters plucked from a US western, filled in with meticulous research on naval armaments and prison conditions of the time. (Written 1999/7/21)

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But for Leonard's rules, best of all, for all us writers is this list:
Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Wriitng

2013/08/13

Homicide and self-deception

LibraLibra by Don DeLillo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo, Libra is a chillingly realistic novel that re-imagines and reconstructs a famous magnicide. But the more mysterious circumstances of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the particular obsessions of Don DeLillo, make this a very different book from Vargas Llosa's telling of the killing of Rafael Trujillo.

According to DeLillo (through his stand-in character, Nicholas Branch), “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.” Many people with different motives were out to get Kennedy, from right-wing Aryan-nation types to non-ideological drifters desperate to leave a mark on history, ­ but (in this version) the most systematic pursuers were people who blamed him for the “loss” of Cuba and thought that his elimination would help them get that country back. These included embittered CIA cast-offs, mobsters, investors, and Cuban exile terrorists. You get the impression that even if they'd missed in Dallas, somebody was going to get JFK as long as he insisted on riding in an open car.

DeLillo is fascinated by the narratives we make up to explain ourselves and the world around us. Mostly he is fascinated by those with the weirdest and most complicated narratives, narratives that need frequent adjustment because they keep bumping into contradictory realities. Lee Oswald struggles to persuade himself that he is on to some secret understanding of the world, gained from laborious reading (because he's dyslexic). Jack Ruby has convinced himself that he must always be a defender of the Jews and works very hard to silence his own suspicions that he may be homosexual. The rogue ex-CIA men, outwardly very calm, have an absolutely loony interpretation of history and their role in it. The most sensible character is Marina, Oswald's Russian wife, who can't take seriously any of her husband's elaborate poses and just wants him to teach her English and help her and their baby daughters survive in what for her is a strange new world.

DeLillo has a very great novelistic strength that Vargas Llosa also exhibits (though more in the Peruvian novels than in Chivo): pitch-perfect dialogue. Ruby's scenes are the best. He is a club owner, big spender and always on the brink of bankruptcy. His conversations with himself, his strip-teasers, a mobster associate from whom he's seeking a loan, his feckless male roommate, and the cops he loves (he's always taking them big, cholesterol-laden sandwiches) are hilarious, fragmented, contradictory, and utterly believable. In fact, my one complaint about the book is that we have to wait too long for Ruby to appear. Here's a sample, from his meeting with Tony Astorina, chauffeur for the mobster:

"Jack, I come by here for old time."
"We used to swim on the Capri roof."
"I'm saying. I didn't come by for the coffee."
"Tony. I appreciate."
"I come by because we go back together."
"We got laid in adjoining rooms."
"Havana, madonn'."
--Etc. It's wonderful.

We can't know whether or to what extent DeLillo's reconstruction of the messy, haphazard but ultimately successful plot to kill President John F. Kennedy is accurate, but it certainly is plausible. And it does create a coherent narrative that DeLillo offers as a “refuge,” “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years.” (From the “Author's Note” at end of book.)

P.S.: I read the book and wrote this review years ago; what brought it back to mind is my reading of Balzac, whose panoramic view of the social world and his ear for quirky dialogue reminded me especially of DeLillo (and maybe Vargas Llosa). I hope to develop these reflections on the sociological view in fiction in a future essay.

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2013/08/01

Did Zeus Exist? - NYTimes.com

But of course he did! And still does, if anyone believes in him. Just like all the other gods. GARY GUTTING´s argument makes this absolutely clear. Thank you, Professor Gutting. And all of Olympus thanks you.

Did Zeus Exist? - NYTimes.com



Canadian literary adventure with Atwood & Gibson

For info on this literary cum outdoors opportunity, click on Atwood and Gibson in the wild.

A view of Labrador, from Adventure Canada
I'd love to see Newfoundland & Wild Labrador, and I'm sure it would be a pleasure to spend some time with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. Sorry I haven't the time or money just now. As the announcement informs us, 

Novelist and poet Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s best known, most prolific and most honoured authors. Among her numerous awards, she has won the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and twice the Governor General’s award. With Graeme Gibson, she is co-chair of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club.

Graeme Gibson co-founded the Writer’s Union of Canada and the Writer’s Trust. He's a former council member of the World Wildlife Foundation and the chair of the Pelee Island Observatory. He is the author of several novels, as well as the bestselling Bedside Book of Birds and Bedside Book of Beasts.

Guess I'll just stay at home and read Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman (sounds delicious), or maybe The Handmaid's Tale or Surfacing, all of which are staring at me from my bookshelves. I don't have anything by her partner Graeme Gibson, though. Wild Labrador will have to wait.

2013/07/24

A lost illusion, happily

I began reading Illusions perdues out of a sense of duty, as a required chore. My reasons: Balzac is too important not to know; several sources insist that this is his best novel; Karl Marx was a  fan; and finally, I wanted to know more about 19th-century Paris and to practice my French.

Getting through part I, Les deux poètes, was indeed a chore. It seemed to move very slowly, especially because of all the words I had to look up (I have Robert installed in my Kindle) but also because it takes many pages of description of a disagreeable illiterate printer, his antiquated printing machinery, and even his rickety house before we even meet the principal characters.

2013/07/18

Back to my novel in progress: Eugène Varlin

My new novel is about a crisis in a different city, in a different time. Not Constantinople in the 15th century, but Paris in the 19th, and very especially the Commune of 1871. And for this I had to read this book:


Pratique militante & écrits d'un ouvrier communardPratique militante & écrits d'un ouvrier communard by Eugène Varlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The life and writings of one of the true working-class heroes of the Paris Commune of 1871, Eugène Varlin, bookbinder, labor organizer, promoter of women's equality in work and in the movement, and ultimately batallion commander and combatant slain in the final days of the Week of Blood, the "Semaine Sanglante" that crushed the Commune. Paule Lejeune, author of many books on feminism and French history, has pulled together letters of Varlin and other texts putting his life in context.

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I admire Varlin enormously, and was delighted to find this modest little book put together very conscientiously by a woman who has worked for years for good causes and on the recovery of obscured revolutionary history. (Check out her list of oeuvres on this Wiki site: Paule Lejeune.)

Among the reasons for my admiration of Eugène Varlin are that he was a superb labor organizer and one of the few elected members of the Commune to keep his head amidst all the frantic rhetoric and chaotic orders and counter-orders after the Versaillais finally broke through the Commune's defenses. He was also a surprisingly articulate and clear, largely-self taught radical journalist and thinker, as the articles and letters assembled by Lejeune will make clear. And very practical: it was his idea, for which he recruited Nathalie Lemel and other workers, to set up the low-cost working-class restaurants known collectively as La Marmite, which became popular centers not only for simple, cheap nutrition but also for developing social relations among workers in different métiers and of both genders.

He could have escaped, in those last desperate hours, as did many others — shaving his beard would have been a good start for a disguise. But he was almost the last commander standing — he had been elected a battallion commandant — and would not desert the barricade. When all ammunition was exhausted, he was seized and slaughtered. He was 32.

Varlin was also a founding member of the Paris section of l'Association Internationale des Travailleurs (A.I.T.), what we know today as the First International.

2013/07/16

Bir Cihan İki Sultan — first reviews

I just discovered last night that the Turkish translation of my novel A Gift for the Sultan is now being offered on the websites of more than a dozen Turkish vendors, including this one:

Bir Cihan İki Sultan (Timur ve Yıldırım'ın Mücadelesi) - Işık Kitabevi

And more importantly, this big chain of culture and entertainment media: D&R

And best of all, the first reviews have appeared.

As far as I've been able to work out with my Turkish-English dictionary, the review at the kitaplarix.com site is pretty positive.  They seem surprised that a Westerner can be so objective — at least, I think that's what this says:
Harvard Üniversitesi'nde ders veren Fox, Yıldırım ve Timur'un ölümüne mücadelesini bir Batılıdan beklenmeyecek kadar başarılı ve objektif yazmıştır.
The Turkish in the brief comments on other websites is too colloquial for me to make out — I can't tell whether they love the book or think it's a menace.  But at least the comments show that people are aware of and reading it.

Readers of the English version have generally understood the novel to be a romance about a Byzantine princess and an Ottoman brigand; the Turks are presenting it as a political and military history of the clash between two giants of their history, Timur (or Tamerlane) and Bayezid I (Yıldırım Beyazıt). That's all fine (those stories indeed are part of the book), but I hope some readers in both languages will appreciate the broader story that frames the others: that of the struggle of a great city against an anti-urban force bent on destroying it.

In the end, as the book can only hint at in the last pages, the resolution will begin 51 years later with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans (A.D. 1453). The city will not just survive, but by its many subtle resources will transform the Ottomans into a cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic urban power, reaching from their capital in Constantinople to govern a tri-continental complex of subject cities (Northern Africa, Western Asia and Eastern Europe). Now that was one very powerful city. And still is, under its new name of Istanbul.

P.S.: One of my Turkish friends has given me a more accurate translation of the quote above:
"Fox, who is a lecturer at Harvard University, has written about Yildirim and Timur's to-the-death struggle in such a successful of objective manner that is beyond what we can expect of a Westerner." Or, ".... that could not have been expected from a Westerner."
I'm not and never have been a lecturer at Harvard University, but I studied there, so it's a pardonable error which may sort of locate me intellectually for a Turkish reader.

2013/07/12

Medicine & Citizenship in Venezuela | Dissertation Reviews

For those of us deeply attached to Venezuela, this University of Chicago, 2012 dissertation by Amy Ellen Cooper is especially fascinating. But it will also be important for anyone seeking to change the world, on the relationship of social context and social conditions (including especially citizen participation) to physical health.

Medicine and Citizenship in Venezuela | Dissertation Reviews

From the review by Ana Servigna (Tulane):
Health practices are generally related to healing bodies, but Cooper explains that in Venezuela, those practices have become a “political experience of citizenship” (p. 73).…

Participation in the healthcare system is not limited to doctors and patients; it also includes an extraordinary number of community health volunteers. Complementing her previous chapters, Cooper analyzes the volunteers’ experiences of providing healthcare for others. One important feature that she highlights is that most volunteers are women, a phenomenon found in many other studies as well; however in her sample, these women are not only active participants but also local leaders engaged in the solution of local problems.
oooo

One of many popular images of the miraculous doctor.
And much more. I suspect that the desire for such participation was always, down deep, what the  cult of "el Doctor Milagroso", José Gregorio Hernández,  has always represented. He was a real Venezuelan physician, d. 1919, to whom many Venezuelans attribute magical curing powers and is now in the process of beatification. Statuettes and images of him are seen all over the country, and a postage stamp with his portrait was issued on the centenary of his birth in 1864. Now citizens have other ways to work to change conditions for better health, in addition to, or instead of, seeking magical aid from the dead doctor.

2013/06/28

Backgrounder on Turkey

Turkey: What Everyone Needs to KnowTurkey: What Everyone Needs to Know by Andrew Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This concise, quick read will be a good starting point for anyone who needs to know about this surprising country. Finkel covers a breadth of topics and suggests linkages among them — language, regional disparities, ethnic history and conflicts, political history, current party and government structure, economic potential and weaknesses, religious tolerance and conflicts, and Turkey's complex and fluid geopolitical strategy. Not a word about the country's vibrant arts scene — theater, literature, film, painting, etc. — but on other aspects, clear and opinionated (he's a fierce defender of free speech, which is sometimes in danger).

Andrew Finkel is an American journalist with long experience in Turkey. He is also the husband of historian Caroline Finkel, author of the monumental history of the Ottoman empire, Osman's Dream, which I reviewed here earlier; she describes him (in her acknowledgements) as an "academic manqué" (he mentions having worked on a Ph.D. dissertation), and indeed he approaches journalism with a scholar's seriousness and the expectation that his readers will be able and happy to follow a sometimes subtle and sophisticated argument. He was fired from Turkey's big daily Today's Zaman in 2011, he believes for defending a critic of the paper's founder and backer, the controversial Islamic preacher and charter-school empresario (in the U.S.) Fethullah Gülen (look him up — Americans should know about him). Finkel now has a regular column in the International Herald Tribune, still reporting from Turkey.

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Neurons in harmony

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human ObsessionThis Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hard to believe, but this book is as good as its blurbs. Levitin is both a musician and a neuroscientist, who got into the science to understand better the music he was playing or engineering for rock bands. He knows far more music than I do, drawing on all genres to illustrate what it does, how it does it and why it matters. "Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem." (pp. 85-86) And, he argues (against Pinker and other skeptics), it is not a superfluous byproduct of evolution, but has been essential to our survival and most probably, as Darwin himself believed, is even older than language.

Just how do we remember songs, even when the pitch, rhythm and timbre are all altered? And just what are pitch, rhythm and timbre, and how do they affect our brains? And why do you like heavy metal (or whatever you like), while I … well, many other things? These are just some of the mysteries that scientists are beginning to solve.

And what must occur in the brain for a musician to achieve full physical skill (of voice, strings, horn, whatever) and sensibility? It takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, says Levitin, for the brain to achieve complete mastery of anything (auto mechanics, fiction writing, musical composition or performance, or anything else). "Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to a greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation." (p. 197) Talent — a genetic predisposition, that difference in learning time he mentions — is a big help, but it's not enough without practice.

Levitin's style is lively, his examples well chosen (even though I didn't recognize all the music he expected me to know), and his openness to examining contrary hypotheses makes him a credible guide. I especially appreciated his comments on performance and how a musician learns new pieces, by "chunking" — that is, learning whole groups or sequences of chords, melodies, etc. rather than all the individual notes a beginning piano player struggles to memorize. And best of all, the sheer emotion of listening and playing. That's what I want to hold on to as I get back to practicing. And I now have a clearer idea of the "schema" to listen for in classic jazz (I sort of knew, but never had it explained before) and how to appreciate the clever transformation Mahler achieves in his Fifth, or what and how Joni Mitchell accomplishes with her alternative guitar tunings.

So why four and not five stars? My very personal reaction: the first couple of chapters were too cute and anecdotal, an unnecessary (for me) warm-up for the truly informative, analytical stuff to come. But if you've never thought much about notes or scales or timbre, maybe you'll need that.

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2013/06/23

Back from the U.S. of A.

Susana and I got back home to Carboneras (Almería, Spain) yesterday after nearly a month in the USA (and a few days in Madrid), our first trip back there in nearly four years: Cambridge and Boston MA, for my college reunion; Galisteo and Santa Fe NM to see old friends; Arizona to hang out with my two sons (one in Prescott, the other in Flagstaff), and finally New York, for many personal and business reasons, including a meeting with the editor for our current book-in-progress, a history of architecture and urbanism in Latin America.

So this is just to explain why you hadn't seen anything from me over the past month — we were too busy traveling and had too infrequent and interrupted access to the Internet for me to sit down and write anything interesting. Now we're back in our seaside home and ready to get back to work on projects including:
  • first, that book I just mentioned (volume I, the pre-Columbian history, is written; the volume on 20th and 21st centuries is well advanced; we're saving for last what we expect to be the least challenging portion, on the long colonial period and the first post-independence century).
  • My new novel, still in early stage.
  • More commentary on current events. Next up, an article on Turkey and its protests.
This will keep us busy while everybody else is at the beach. Maybe we'll get to go down to the beach, too, from time to time. It's right outside my window, mighty tempting.

2013/05/17

27% of Spaniards are Out of Work. Yet in One Town Everyone Has a Job | Portside

27% of Spaniards are Out of Work. Yet in One Town Everyone Has a Job | Portside

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo
A friend just sent this, and I was glad to see it. As I told him,

Thanks. Yes, we know about Sánchez Gordillo. He's a colorful character and a major headache to his comrades in the Communist Party — not because of the way he runs that little town of Marinaleda, but because he has instigated peaceful "assaults" on supermarkets (dozens of activists load up their shopping carts with what are considered basic necessities and at check-out refuse to pay) and the repeated occupation of some unused government-owned land. The problem for the CP (which functions through a broader coalition called Izquierda Unida) is that it is now part of the government of Andalusia, in partnership with the Socialist Party, and therefore is responsible for upholding the law. Which doesn't permit "stealing" (they call it "liberation" of goods) or unauthorized occupation of land.

He's media-savvy, very careful to avoid violence (the supermarket raiders are supposed to be polite to the checkout girls, etc.). And he is an embarrassing example to those other politicians who are doing nothing effective to halt the hunger.

However, the Socialist-Izquierda Unida coalition in Andalucía has not really been as passive as Sánchez Gordillo would have us believe. Among the measures taken in opposition to the conservative central government (employment creation, subsidies), the Andalucía government — alone of all the 17 regional governments of Spain — has order the "temporary expropriation" of empty residential buildings held by the banks, to house those who have been evicted from their homes by those banks. The bank can avoid such temporary expropriation by making the property available for a manageable rent. In the case of expropriation (which can last a maximum of 3 years), the regional government will compensate the banks a tiny percentage of the assessed value.

For more on the painful problem of evictions, see my article written for Radikal Portal (published in Norwegian); here is my original, English-language version, Spain's many currents of protest. The Norwegian version is here.

2013/05/14

Caricature Map of Europe 1914 - StumbleUpon

Caricature Map of Europe 1914 - StumbleUpon

100 years ago. And today's map? Germany would be a fat, greedy banker, Spain a very thin gentlemen in shabby formal clothes with his hand out, Greece a flock of raging demons pursuing foreigners in a boneyard, Italy a grinning Berlusconi sitting on top of some very unhappy people whom Beppe is trying to tickle, France a mass of angry Lilliputians trying to tie down a struggling Marianne, Hungary… , Russia… , and on and on. Things are going nearly badly as they were 100 years ago, but the crisis we're on the brink of today is probably not world war. More like general collapse.  

2013/05/10

Lost in revolution

The Angels of ZimbabweThe Angels of Zimbabwe by Peter de Lissovoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Joe, a conspicuously tall young white American, hitchhikes into white-ruled Rhodesia in the early stages of the 1964-1979 "bush war" against supremacist Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front, his passion for liberty and his reckless crossing of color-lines gets him deeper into confusion and ultimately heartbreak. Hoping to help the black African liberation fighters create the free, black African nation they call Zimbabwe, Joe gets himself hired as a very junior journalist for the daily Clarion — whose editor tolerates his ironies because he's an amusing Yank — and using his position and the paper's resources, he gets to observe closely the routines of both blacks and whites in the small, rigidly segregated capital Salisbury (now Harare) — in the town center, the blacks-only bus station, the whites-only spaces but with black servants in stores and offices, the rundown black townships, police violence against black women protesters with their babies strapped to their backs, and a surprisingly multiracial garden party on a country estate. The portraits of ZANU youth activists, aspiring black journalist Shakespeare Forboni, his buddy the little auto mechanic Moses Chivera and the dour, bitter and determined revolutionary Frankie Mundie suggest the range of personality types struggling for a liberation that meant something different to each of them; among the whites, most memorable are the Clarion editor Mr. Wein, a cautious but canny "liberal," the absolutely apolitical but generally good guy sports journalist, and — most tellingly — an older, formerly influential settler who remembers pioneer days and still clings to the hope that whites like him can make a contribution in the future black republic. The ending is an undramatic fade-out with nothing resolved, either for Zimbabwe or for Joe personally, but in the meantime we have been presented a vivid panorama of that last white-racist holdout in Africa and its tensions in its last days, and some clear suggestions of the conflicts that would emerge in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

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2013/05/08

Spanias kreative protestb�lge | Radikal Portal

The Norwegian news and opinion website Radikal Portal has invited me to become a regular contributor. Here is my first article, on protest movements in Spain — translated into Norwegian.
 
Spanias kreative protestb�lge | Radikal Portal

Since it's just possible that you don't read Norwegian, here is my English original in Scribd: Spain's many currents of protest

There have been developments since I wrote that piece, the most important being the gutting of the citizens' legislative initiative by the Popular Party to pass a much weaker version. The main argument, however, still stands: that protests surging outside of the traditional channels of parties and trade unions are shaking the whole institutional system in Spain and may be harbingers of serious change.

My next article for this site will be on Venezuela.

2013/05/07

The Real Karl Marx by John Gray | The New York Review of Books

The Real Karl Marx by John Gray | The New York Review of Books

A thoughtful and informed review of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber, a study that puts Marx back in the epoch and amid the controversies in which he lived. According to Gray (the reviewer),
Marx understood the anarchic vitality of capitalism earlier and better than probably anyone else. But the vision of the future he imbibed from positivism, and shared with the other Victorian prophet he faces in Highgate Cemetery [Herbert Spencer], in which industrial societies stand on the brink of a scientific civilization in which the religions and conflicts of the past will fade way, is rationally groundless—




I wonder what the late Eric Hobsbawm would have thought of this book. In the essays collected in How to Change the World, he seems to have reached some of the same conclusions, but with a great difference: Hobsbawm was not very interested in an academic study of Marx and Marxism, but rather in "changing the world", trying to make it better — more equal, more fair, more liveable — which has been and continues to be the great project of those who have called themselves Marxists. Of course Marx alone cannot be taken as a guide for action in a world he never knew, our world of jet planes and Internet and a massive shift of political power away from Europe and toward the BRICS. But reading him can sure stimulate our thinking, the new thinking we need today.

2013/04/16

Bir Cihan İki Sultan

I'm pleased to announce that the Turkish language version of my novel A Gift for the Sultan is now available from Nokta Kitap publishers in Istanbul.  Just 11.20 Turkish liras (4.76 € or US$6.25).


kitapyurdu: kitap - Bir Cihan İki Sultan & Timur ve Yıldırım'ın Mücadelesi - Geoffrey Fox,Orhan Tuncay, 138186159
(Click on the "kitapyurdu.com" link to see the book, or if it doesn't pop up, type my name in the search box — "Arama" — at top left of the "kitapyurdu.com" page.)

For the original (English language) version, go to Amazon or (e-book only) Smashwords.  For a complimentary review copy, e-book, English (if you think you might review it), just let me know.