Tuesday 24 July 2007

Native Son by Richard Wright (2) (contains spoilers)

Read the first part of this review here

‘… If only ten or twenty Negroes had been put into slavery, we could call it injustice, but there were hundreds of thousands of them throughout the country. If this state of affairs had lasted for two or three years, we could say that it was unjust; but it lasted for more than two hundred years. Injustice that lasts for long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong. (…) Your Honor, injustice blots out one form of life, but another grows up in the its place with its own rights, needs and aspirations. What is happening here today is not injustice, but oppression, an attempt to throttle or stamp out a new form of life. And it is this form of life that has grown up here in our midst that puzzles us, that expresses itself, like a weed growing from under a stone, in terms we call crime. Unless we grasp this problem in the light of this new reality, we cannot do more than salve our feelings of guilt and rage with more murder when a man, living under such condition, commits and act with we call a crime…’

With these words, defence lawyer Boris A Max puts the entire American society in the dock in the closing pages of Native Son. In order to understand the flaws of the American War of Independence and its subsequent Civil War, we needn’t look further than Bigger Thomas, here characterising the uneducated black man, coming from the lowest rung on the American social and economic ladder. As his options comprise no more than menial jobs, Bigger’s life becomes a trap, which feeds him nothing but resentment and hate. He fears the whites, who determine his existence and this fear makes him see the white race as a collective that tells him where to live, where to work and what to do.

The setting of the novel, black and white colours with shades of grey thrown in and cloudy skies, eases the reader into the desperate plight the main character, Bigger Thomas, has. He is the focus of the novel and the embodiment of racism in the psyche of its black victims. Bigger and his compadres suffer from a popular assumption that whites are sophisticated whereas blacks are either subservient or savage. All throughout the novel and up until the dénouement Bigger’s thoughts change from shame (of his family’s abject poverty) to fear (of the whites who control his life)

Native Son is one of those novels that, although they focus on social and political issues, draw heavily from the work of other writers whose oeuvre might not be directly related to the issues raised in the novel in question. In this case it's that other great American writer, Edgar Allan Poe whose short-stories are the leverage that produce the effect in the novel . In Native Son, I saw clearly ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. The feeling of paranoia caused by the ‘vulture eye’ in ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ is on a par with Bigger’s mix of hate and fear towards Mary Dalton. The criminal modus operandi is the same. Both perpetrators smother their victims. They both stay in the same room where their dead victim is, as the police or investigator search the premises. They both panic in a moment of self-consciousness. Poe’s narrator begins to hear a faint noise that grows louder and louder. Bigger avoids replenishing the furnace. The atmosphere is the same, repressed, silent, grim and cold.

There’s an important lesson in Native Son and it’s mainly aimed at the liberal, white, middle class person. Mary Dalton, the victim and turning point in Bigger’s life, professes a benign type of racism, one whose own naïveté escapes its owner. Richard Wright, very deftly, criticises Mary’s attitude towards blacks, and specifically towards Bigger. Her youth and immaturity do not allow her to see beyond those rose-tinted spectacles she wears and therefore she fails to recognise Bigger’s signs of confusion and surprise when she approaches him in a such an open and friendly manner. Her assumption that Bigger will accept her friendship proves to be one of many fatal errors she and Jan, her boyfriend, make.

This is not to excuse Bigger. I wrote in the first part of my analysis of Native Son that as a father and husband, Bigger’s deeds tested my liberal credentials. They still do. But I feel now in a much better position to judge, and not too harshly, this human being who, rather than acting, was re-acting to the society that put him in that condition in the first place.

Copyright 2007

Thursday 19 July 2007

Immortality (contains spoilers)

I'm in Kundera's territory now. And I had to swim to get here. There I was, tormented by my recent reading of Richard Wright's book, The Native Son (more to follow) when I caught myself looking quite attentively at Mr Kundera's 1991 effort to explain the theory behind immortality. Or should I say, to ask us questions about it. Because that's what Messieur Kundera enjoys doing. I was the hopeful and confident reader sitting comfortably on my beach, when up in the distance there appeared this thoughtful piece of work. I knew that in order to reach that opposite coast, I would have to get wet, and reader, I am soaked.

Soaked but happy. Kundera starts the novel in the same fashion as he did in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and 'The Joke'. A casual observation becomes a philosophical dictum, in this case, the intrinsic relation between who we are as human beings and how we want to be seen and remembered as... icons, despots, poets? No, reader, dictum is actually the wrong word as Kundera does not so much impose his views on us as he asks us to re-consider the ancient question as to how we would like to be remembered. He already assumes that that is as much a human trait as sleeping or farting. For Kundera, the plot, as usual, is nothing but a means to get to an end. In this case, his end is to explore the nature of of human relationships, amongst ourselves, and with ourselves, and also with our selves. Very important the last one. No wonder the man got a degree in philosophy. But he doesn't preach, he teases. 'Immortality' is full of playful moments and it's always a joy to find a writer having fun whilst writing. You might think that sentence an oxymoron. 'I thought that writers always had fun when writing'. Well, no, the majority of writers want to write the perfect novel and when they finally realise (either after finishing writing it or handing it in to the publisher) that all they have is a simulacrum, and a poor simulacrum at that of their dream, they fall into despair.

Because the novel must be true to itself, and Milan Kundera understands this better than most people. Like a good sculptor who concentrates their efforts on first, to make and then erect a statue, the process is everything Kundera cares about. Immortality is divided in seven different stories and each one of them deals with this concept in various ways, but throughout them all the thread is the same, I want to be remembered.

There's repetition in Kundera's oeuvre, but he'd already made it clear in his masterpiece 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' (by the way in both Spanish and French, the title is 'The Unbearable Lightness of the Being' and I think this semantic difference is important) when he proclaims his famous 'Es muss sein'. Actually, it's not him, it's Beethoven, but let's not get picky, shall we? At times, I feel like asking him the question: 'Muss es sein?', only for his answer to surely be: 'Ja, es muss sein'. And it makes sense. Through his repetition of phrases and ideas, he shows the evolution and the interrelation of the situations he describes. But, then again, Kundera is like marmite, either you like him, or you don't. As a writer, he's a agressively intelligent and in countries like the UK, where self-effacement and self- deprecation are national sports, this seriously damages the relationship between reader and writer. This novel, Immortality, whose central theme seem to focus (I have not finished reading it yet) on both the individual's immortality and that of the novel, or art, broadly speaking, defies the very idea of collectivisation lauded so much in the first few decades of the 20th century. Also, historical figures, like Napoleon and Goethe, get given walk-on roles, not so much for what they achieved in their lifetime but for how they went about trying to achieve their immortal status, Napoleon by sticking his right hand through his coat, Goethe by rejecting and accepting later a former paramour. It's similar to the chapter in 'The Unbearable...' where Kundera equates divine powers with excrement. It's hilarious, but the laugh is inside, it's a knowing giggle. And it stays.

I'm in Kundera's territory and I'm enjoying every single minute of it.

Copyright 2007

Wednesday 11 July 2007

I've got a song in my head

I've got a song in my head and I can't stop. I've got a song in my head and I continue to bop. I've got a slender song in my head that can lift its body a third off the ground and look down onto me . I've got a song in my head that can flatten its neck sheltering me in the hood of its larynx. I've got a song in my head that slithers along, nestles in the crook of my arm and stays in, warm and uninvited. I've got a song in my head that is solitary and territorial; it prefers deep forests, but can also range in open areas. I've got a song in my head that, from the first time I heard it, has overpowered me from any angle, using its puny size to knock me off my balance.

It's a mad song, it is, my song. It talks about a phallus in pigtails and blood in my nose. It describes how my tissue is rotting/where the rats chew my bones. I love my song, because it is mine, you see. I know, I know, it was written by one David Bowie but I've appropriated it now, just like IT has got a hold on me. When I first got 'Space Oddity' years ago, it was the title track I was familiar with. But it was the second song, 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed' that got me hooked to the album. It starts with a simple acoustic arrangement and Bowie singing in a nonchalant manner Spy, spy, pretty girl/I see you see me through your window/Don't turn your nose up/Well, you can if you need to, you won't be the first or last/It must strain you to look down so far from your father's house/And I know what a louse like me in his house could do for you and suddenly... pandemonium.

The guitar grows muscled forelimbs with which to render the listener powerless, there's a harmonica that lets rip right into your soul, and doesn't let go until you lie on the floor, motionless, still, immobile, from having exhausted yourself through pure musical ecstasy.
I've got a song in my head, I've got a song in my head that makes me hop and bop, and I won't stop till I drop... I've got a song in my head...
Copyright 2007

Monday 9 July 2007

Meditations on London (Adagio)

'This ain't my London no more'.

The words pierced the air on the chilly, early January evening. They sank like two pieces of lead in my stomach. The melancholy behind them could not hide the anger J felt at seeing her birthplace transformed in a hipsters' paradise. We were standing on Bethnal Green Road, near the newly-opened Rich Mix and J was getting all teary and nostalgic. Also pretty worked up.

London's East End has always worn its pride on its chest. After all, this is the birthplace of the Cockney Rhyming Slang, the secret language developed by the East-End dockers 200 years ago and adopted later in the 1850s by the underworld to confuse the police and eavesdroppers. J was a cockney through-and-through and felt that she was part of a dying breed. With developers moving in and preparations for the Olympics well under way, she reckoned this part of London would be blitzed to oblivion in a few decades. According to what she related to me that evening the new regeneration programmes were doing away with the fabric that had held together all the different communities of the East End. The story of this forsaken part of the capital was one of immigration, innovation and can-do attitude. From the Italians in the 1840s to the Jews in the first part of the 20th century, the area had seen no shortage of immigrants. Nowadays it was the Muslims in the areas of Brick Lane, Mile End and Tower Hamlets that gave the East End a different hue and shade.

'This ain't my London no more' 
These words left me at the same crossroads on which I found myself when I came to live in the UK almost ten years ago. The immigrant's dilemma is one where they have no past in the future country they'll inhabit, nor present or future in the one they’ll leave behind. They are like shipwreck survivors, swimming, limbo-like, in the deep waters of involuntary amnesia and adaptability. Yet, this by no means guarantees that they will necessarily become new Robinson Crusoes, their desert islands occasionally being nothing more than mirages in the middle of the ocean.
 J's comments yielded no reply from me. What could I say? I didn’t know much about the current situation in the East End, or even in similar deprived areas where massive regeneration programmes have been implemented. Very often, with very little regard to what the local populace have to say about them.
 It's a delicate issue, identity and belonging, it always is. Once in their adopted land, an immigrant’s experience usually feels like travelling through a narrow passage to an unknown, but much broader world. A journey seen mostly through the prism of those around her/him. It takes a long time for the immigrant to put on their own glasses in order to see their new surroundings in their own way, unaided. It is then that comparisons are often made. Comparisons that are nothing but ways to compensate for lack of a previous life in the new country.
 To me, this manifested itself when talking about Thatcher and Blair (apparently, the latter was a political reincarnation of the former) or missing out on references to 'Coronation Street' or 'Eastenders'. The tendency in this instance is to look for parallels. And as J's words 'This ain't my London no more' reverberated in my head, my mind flew back to Havana and converted her phrase into 'That’s not my Havana no more'. No, it hasn't been for a long time. No hipster-driven gentrification there of which to speak. But the combination of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence I witnessed when I went back to the city of my birth recently left me feeling like J, pretty worked up. As another smoke ring came out of J’s mouth, I began to think that after all, there were two, not just one, people standing on Bethnal Green Road, feeling betrayed. We both looked at the newly-opened Rich Mix, its lights drawing two parallel lines on the pavement.
 © 2007

Thursday 5 July 2007

Music for Mind and Body

I have a confession to make. Up until 1996, the only Stevie Wonder I knew was the 'I Just Called to Say I Loved You' and 'Ebony and Ivory' guy. It's alright, you can stop laughing now. Because I knew the words to the former song I was suddenly flavour of the month, probably even of the year in my school (remember, this was Cuba in the 80s, foreign music took ages to get to us, if it ever did!) and this even got me brownie points amongst the members of the opposite sex. And when you're 13, every little helps. Anyway, it wasn't until I met my wife, Suzette Rocca, that the real work by this talented musician finally reached me. Innervisions, Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life were my introduction to the genius of Stevland Hardaway Judkins. But what was it that really attracted me about Stevie's music? Well, there're his skills at playing pretty much any instrument. There's also his knack at writing songs. Yet, what came out on top of all that for me was his musicianship, and I mean that in the broadest sense. Listening to a tune like Living for the City made me realise that you could be socially conscious whilst at the same time building up a tune of so many different components so as to totally overawe the audience. It's the togetherness and cohesion that do it for me. It's Sheila Wilkerson in Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing and Willie Weeks in He's Mistra Know-It-All. This is then replicated in Songs in the Key of Life where As has become at least to this Cuban the sweetest love song ever with the best instrumental solo you can listen to on this side of heaven. Shame that Mary J Blige and George Michael left it out in their cover version. And that's what I like about music from the 'good ol' days'. The bassline of 'The Ghetto' by Donny Hathaway wherepoun you could pretty much build another musical Empire State Building. Or Mongo Santamaría's 'AfroBlue' where, as the percussion subsides, the horns take over slowly, softly and rhythmically, always in crescendo until the song reaches a delirious apotheosis you can only dream about. And listen to.
So, to sum up, tonight I just wanted to honour one of the little wonders of the musical world, especially in moments like the ones we're living now when rampant commercialism ravages and loots what's left of talent in the music industry.
Copyright 2007

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Herz Schutzschild

Weil ich dich habe und nicht
weil ich dich denke,
weil die Nacht offene Augen hat,
weil die Nacht vorüber geht und ich Liebe sage,
weil du gekommen bist um dein Bild abzuholen
und besser bist, als alle deine Bilder,
weil du schön bist von den Füßen bis zur Seele,
weil du gut bist von der Seele zu mir,
weil du dich versteckst, süß in deinem Stolz,
klein und süß,Herz Schutzschild.

Weil du mein bist,
weil du nicht mein bist,
weil ich dich anschaue und sterbe
und schlechter sterbe,
wenn ich dich nicht anschaue, Geliebte,
wenn ich dich nicht anschaue.

Weil du existierst, wo auch immer,
aber besser existierst, wo ich dich liebe,
weil dein Mund Blut ist
und dir kalt ist,
muss ich dich lieben, Geliebte,
muss ich dich lieben.
Auch wenn diese Wunde wie zwei schmerzt,
auch wenn ich dich suche und nicht finde,
und auch wenn
die Nacht vorüber geht und ich dich habe
und nicht.

Mario Benedetti

And a saxo plays. And the prostitute looks at the sailor dumbfounded, bewildered and perplexed.

Weil Ich dich habe, und nicht.

Proximity and distance. Because I have you and I have you not. The dichotomy of Oliverio's life is depicted against a backdrop of poems by Mario Benedetti (the sailor reciting in German), Juan Gelman and Oliverio Girondo. The eternal search for the woman who flies and makes him fly are at the heart of what made El Lado Oscuro del Corazóna strong contender at the 1993 Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Film. The poetry lies, not just in the poems, but in the black and white photography, in the windy and melancholic afternoons of that Buenos Aires of cafés and bordellos, tango and Death. Oh, yes, Death. "¿Ya encontraste a la que vuela?" (Have you found the one who flies?), asks Death. Is she on duty or merely flirting with her victim?
weil ich dich anschaue und sterbe
und schlechter sterbe,
wenn ich dich nicht anschaue, Geliebte,
wenn ich dich nicht anschaue.
And have we not found ourselves in the same position when the power of love chokes us slowly and renders us powerless when we can't see the one we love. Oliverio wants Ana, misses Ana, loves Ana, even though he, at some point, will have to pull the lever, the inevitable lever. Or is it inevitable? One of the elements of El Lado Oscuro del Corazón that I could never bring myself to agree with was the fatalistic attitude about love. You found the one who made you fly, Oliverio, why exchange that for scars? The same scars you'll be showing Death in the final scene. Why? You're battered and bruised, Oliverio, but please, don't pull the lever. Take it from me, one who found the one who flies.
Copyright 2007

Tuesday 3 July 2007


"Si me dijeran pide un deseo,
preferiría un rabo de nube,
un torbellino en el suelo
y una gran ira que sube.
Un barredor de tristezas,
un aguacero en venganza
que cuando escampe parezca
nuestra esperanza."
Rabo de Nube
Silvio Rodriguez Dominguez
Rain, little leprechaun, that used to fall onto my head when I was rolling home on my way from school on a quiet night in years gone by. Incessant, continuous, calm and soothing rain. Or maybe in the early hours of the morning as I brazenly supped 'vino espumoso' on the bus. Rain, you hotwired me and used to take me everywhere you wanted me to go. Remember, back in the old days when the first rainfall in May signified good luck for the rest of the year? Not colds or catarrhs for you, we were made of sterner stuff back then. Rain, my favourite type was the simple one, made of small-town materials. Just a drizzle first, enough to keep you in, but you braved through it, you wanted to get to your mate's, you had a concert to go to. This rain didn't shower you, it bathed you. It spreadeagled across the sky inviting you to tilt your head up and allow it to hug you. You walked with that rain-gait so typical of yours, you know, skipping over puddles, holding the hem of your trousers, until you didn't care anymore. By now, it was pouring down and you let the rain overpower you, it was futile to resist. And then at night the same rain billowed through your dreams and from the cool night breeze to the gust of wind, you knew you were alive.
Copyright 2007

Monday 2 July 2007

Carnaval de Cuba

It had rained in the morning and I was expecting a washout in the afternoon. I was, in fact, psyching myself up to perform in a torrential downpour. Fortunately, that didn't happen. The only downpour came from the wonderful atmosphere of camaderie and goodwill present throughout the whole event. Linda Petty and Guillermo Davis, the brains behind the Carnival Comparsa, managed to gather some of the most outstanding and colourful performers around (including yours truly) to represent with a few master strokes the diversity of dance hues Cuban culture has. Inside the tent the hurly-burly of dancers coming and going brought back memories of my time as a performer with the Conjunto Folclórico de la Universidad de la Habana and I have to admit that the nostalgia got the better of me. It's been some time since I had the opportunity to share the stage with such a marvellous group of performers.

At around 5.15pm we started making our way around the park, stopping occasionally to show off our dance skills to the enthusiastic audience who had gathered at Southwark Park. As I was performing Oggun, my grin was seriously restricted, to my own chagrin, I must admit. There were loads of Cubans around and as we approached the stage more familiar faces could be seen doing the call and response so characteristic of Comparsas: "Ahora que vivo en Cuba libre, ahora que vivo en Cuba libre, a cantar la Internacional... And the people swirled and spun, and they drank and got drunk. You could be forgiven for thinking that you'd just strolled into a barrio in Centro Habana or Habana Vieja. I felt euphoric and I can safely say that the vibe was pretty much the same around me.

And yet...

And yet...

And... yet...

Outside the tent now and more down to what a Cuban Festival is and more importantly to the perception of Cuba in the UK. Why is it that Cuba is equalled only to 'salsa'? I'm not in disagreement with the notion that salsa, New York labelling aside, is a pure Cuban phenomenon. The main ingredients come from Cuban son and even the word 'salsa' was coined first by Ñico Saquito back when my Grandma was still chasing chickens in Güines as a knee-high grasshopper. But there's more to Cuba than just 'salsa'. A few years ago I visited the Barbican where there was a special celebration for the forty years of the Cuban revolution (Boy, El tiempo pasa y nos vamos poniendo viejos) and I was surprised to see Edesio Alejandro amongst the musicians on stage. Pleasantly surprised, I hasten to add. His music is the flipside of the coin of our cultural make-up as a nation, But you wouldn't know it from the acts that normally make it to the bill of so-called Cuban events. Nothing wrong with these acts, by the way. Cuban hip-hop has earned its place amongst the main performers of the genre and our dance music, call it son, guaracha or changüi, have been the main staples of our culture througout many decades. But we also have brilliant singer-songwriters, Silvio Rodríguez, Santiaguito Feliú and Gerardo Alfonso to name but a few. We boast some of the better pianists in the Americas, Chucho Valdés and Frank Fernández come to mind and we have good pop bands that have made inroads into genres that were considered no-go areas before or that were not considered at all, Afro-pop anyone? Síntesis and Mezcla are good examples of this. So, in the same way that Glastonbury has its chill-out tent and its dance tent, I would like someone to come up with a tent for Liuba María Hevia or Sara González.

Now, now, I know I'm dreaming and I'm just waiting for someone to snap me awake. At the end of the day, it comes to money and whilst financial matters don't get resolved, we will continue to 'bop till we drop' to the sound of our sensuous and energetic Cuban salsa. And you know what? Give it to me like that any day, I'll take it!

Special thanks to Robert Dickinson who very kindly donated the photo that accompanies this post and thanks to Linda and Guillermo who very kindly asked me to take part in the event.

Copyright 2007

Sunday 1 July 2007

Native Son by Richard Wright (1)

It’s been a long time since a book has scarred me as much as Native Son. Last time this happened it was James Baldwin’s Another Country the culprit. With its myriad characters and black and white setting, literally, NS has created a dichotomy in my brain. On the one hand I can understand the main character’s psyche. I can even sympathise with him most of the time. Bigger is a product of white American society and its flaws. Bigger is what the US could have prevented from happening when the Civil War wrapped up. But then, race has always been a powerful tool in the hands of the ruling elite and nowhere is this more obvious than in the opening passages of NS. Sometimes I even find parallels between Bigger’s ordeal and that of the main character of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, another major work of literature that I’ve gone back to over and over. The problem is that Bigger is the flipside of Ralph Ellison’s coin and it’s not due just to his sheer size, but also to his overwhelming presence through the first 100 pages of the novel.

On the other hand, I’m a father and I happen to have a daughter. And spoilers aside, it’s difficult to sympathise with Bigger once he commits his heinous crime. Because heinous it is, albeit accidental. It’s this dichotomy that places my liberal heart on the line of fire. I’m forced to feel for a criminal whom the society surrounding him has left no other way for him to express his frustration.

The book is written in the third person singular, however, I keep feeling like I am in the first person singular. And this is the first time this has happened, which attests to the good writing Richard Wright shows.

To sum up, I’m bruised and battered by the novel, and yet, I’ll soldier on, like the occasional literary masochist I can be, hoping that in the remaining 100-odd pages I can find the manna that Bigger deserves. Even if at heart I disagree with his deeds completely.
Read the second part of this review here.
Copyright 2007


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