Sunday 24 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance

Spring is the most terpsichorean of seasons. The way flowers suddenly sprout from trees that were bare just a few days ago has the same magical quality of a grand jeté or one of Chango’s somersaults. This is the time of the year when daffodils crane their necks, like ballerinas, to peer upwards at the still let’s-play-hide-and-seek sun. Birds stage their own version of the X Factor and nature slowly awakens from its stupor. Like a dancer, nature stretches its cramped muscles, atrophied by what this year has been an endless cold snap.

Spring in my garden
Performers are show-offs. It’s one of the unwritten rules we all learn the minute we put on our leotards, tracksuit bottoms or shorts. We want to be seen, we want to be acknowledged and if praise is also given, then, it’s a hat-trick for us. Spring is the same. It boasts the smell of the first blossoms, the sensual, effervescent energy of animals leaping about after spending months in their winter lair and the melodic whistles of winged creatures. No wonder spring’s one of my favourite seasons together with autumn. But, whilst the latter’s beauty lies in its slow demise and the colours it uses to draw its death, the former conjures up life at the snap of its green fingers. The early morning chill is usually replaced by the welcoming warmth of the afternoon sun. And in the midst of this beautiful madness it’s not rare to come across butterflies challenging each other in a dance-off.

Yes, for one season only, nature becomes Terpsichore, choral song included.

This is “see you later” from me. As usual I will go into hibernation for a whole month. There won’t be much activity on my blog because I will be away from my computer almost totally. Thanks for your comments and support. I wish you all a happy Easter break!

© 2013

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 28th April at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

This one goes out to all the dreamers, the idealists… the “undocumented”. Undocumented. I always felt the DJ was talking to me when he played songs he knew would “connect” with a certain type of audience. Maybe there were teenagers of my same age all over Havana who felt he was addressing them, too. We were all in a way, undocumented. Not like the millions who, according to the news on the telly, lived invisibly and illegally in the US. No, my undocumented status owed more to the crepuscular zone that surrounded my teens like a magic mesh. Neither old enough to have a proper ID card nor too young to avoid being stopped by coppers constantly. Especially when wearing my hand-me-down skinny jeans tucked inside my military boots, my oversized shirt and my ‘fro.

However, having almost completed the first stage of my journey from childhood to adolescence, I sometimes felt in those years as if I had overstayed my visit to this strange land, this infant/child/teenager archipelago, long after my tourist visa had run out. As if I was a transgressor. An undocumented with few rights. Childhood was meant to have all the signs of happiness stamped across it (even if mine had patches of pain). But adolescence? At fourteen the back of my ears was still too wet for me to understand my surroundings. And the period between my fourteen and fifteen birthday was like a cloud that had me checking a metaphorical sky before venturing out into the world. I never knew which way the rain was going to come.

That evening the DJ played “O Que Será (À Flor da Pele)” by Chico Buarque. It was December and the Havana International Film Festival was in full swing. And at the Riviera cinema on 23rd Avenue Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (DonaFlor and her Two Husbands) had queues going all the way around the corner and reaching as far as Calixto García Hospital. Chico’s song was part of the movie’s soundtrack. I saw this as a good omen.

Are you sure you want to do this, mulato? Yes, I replied. You and I look similar, don’t we? No one will notice, I insisted. What if you get caught? I’ll lose my ID and possibly get a fine, too. It’s OK, I know how to do it. My tone grew more convincing. I’ve done it before, I lied and he knew I was lying. All right, then, but if you get caught, you’ll have to say you stole my ID. Oh, and enjoy Sonia Braga’s breasts! She spends half the film in the buff. A lascivious smile appeared on his face. That’s not the reason why I want to watch the film. I love Brazilian cinema. Yeah, right, he answered, and I love Sputnik magazine.

I blame the parents. Or my parents, rather, I said to myself as I turned from O St. onto 23rd Avenue. My folks should have given me an older brother so that I didn’t have to beg my best mate’s brother for his ID. I checked the document again. Does he really look like me? Do I look like anyone? Do I look my age? No, in school they still say I look younger than my years. Damn, what if I get caught? But you’re on this boat now, so, sail on, my boy, sail on!

At the Vita Nuova pizza parlour, on the corner of I St. and 23rd Avenue, I ran into El Plátano, camera slung on his shoulder. One of these days I’ll finally ask him how he got his nickname. What do bananas have to do with photography? He was standing almost in front of the queue by the takeaway window. We exchanged greetings. What are you up to? He asked me. I’m off to the Riviera cinema. Sonia Braga? The look in his eyes had a certain mocking “Tu quoque, Brute about it. I didn’t know you were sixteen. I felt like saying I wasn’t but instead changed the topic quickly. Where are you off to? Santiaguito’s playing at La Casa and I’m covering the concert. He tapped his camera. Santiaguito at La Casa de las Américas? If my risky enterprise fell through, I could swing by. What time’s the concert start? I asked him. At 8. It should wrap up by ten, then, I thought. And I wouldn’t break my ten o’ clock curfew. That’s if the coppers don’t get heavy with me and my false ID. It was El Plátano’s turn in the queue. You fancy some pizza? I knew El Plátano didn’t make much money and I’d heard stories about him begging for scraps sometimes. But the eighty cents in my pocket was the right change for the cinema. I accepted his invitation. I grabbed the pizza slice, shook his hand, shouted out a “See you later” and carried on to the Riviera. The picturehouse was on the next block. The queue was long. I could see other “undocumented” lining up. We all swapped guilty glances quickly and pretended not to see each other. On one of the glass doors I spotted the gigantic movie poster with Sonia Braga sandwiched in between two men. They were all facing away, their backs staring at us. To her left José Wilker totally naked with a leaf strategically placed to cover his butt. To Sonia’s right, Mauro Mendonça, who played Dr Teodoro, the husband she married when Wilker’s character (a handsome, erotic, gambling, philandering good-for-nothing) died suddenly. I went around the corner and walked a couple of blocks before joining the end of the queue. As the seconds became minutes and the minutes turned into an hour I began to fret. What if I get found out? What if one of my teachers happens to be on the same queue? Already the prospect of seeing Santiaguito at La Casa looked more appealing than getting into trouble with the cinema management or, even worse, the police. But the crepuscular zone that surrounded my teenage years had cast its magic mesh tighter and I couldn’t think properly.

It was finally my turn. I headed for the box office. I anticipated the questions. How old are you? Don’t you know that this film is rated 16 plus? I slotted my hand in through the small semi-circular hole that served as the only port of communication between punter and box office and tendered my money in. The small, serrated, rectangular piece of cardboard with the price, date and name of the cinema on it fell into my hands. I swivelled around and headed for one of the glass doors. Almost there! I felt relief. My ticket was torn into two at the entrance and I was given half of it. As I made my way towards the big double doors leading into the dark hall, I heard a voice behind me: “Excuse me, could I see your ID, please?” Paralysed with fear, I stood there motionless, spinning in what seemed to me to be slow motion. I saw his face. He was frowning. No uniform. Not a copper, then. Part of the cinema management, surely. He repeated the request. May I see you ID? I carefully took my mate’s brother’s identity card from my back pocket and handed it over. I tried not to shake. He studied the document carefully. He looked at me and looked back at the ID. You look older in this photo, he said. That’s because I shaved tonight, I replied without missing a beat. He smiled. OK, he said, you can go in. And enjoy Sonia Braga, she is a very good actress. His last words, including his lecherous grin, echoed in my head as I entered the dark room. I sat in the cinema’s penumbral auditorium and the DJ’s words came back to me: “This one goes out to all the dreamers, the idealists”. And the undocumented.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance”, to be published on Sunday 24th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 17 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I can still remember my mate coming up to me, pushing two earphones in my ears, standing back and pressing “Play”. All of a sudden Phil Collin’s Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) came out of the small box he was holding. I closed my eyes and swayed from side to side whilst rooted to the spot.

That was my first encounter with a Walkman. It was pure heaven.

This wasn’t the tail of the 70s but the mid-90s. The above scene didn’t take place in New York, London or Tokyo but on 5th Avenue, Miramar, Havana. And the  protagonists were not two western youngsters but two Cubans in their early 20s who were keen on Anglophone pop and rock. My friend (I’ll call him “Walkman friend”) was into the music of U2, Peter Gabriel (post Genesis) and INSX. I had just left my metal phase behind (well, partially) and had begun to delve into the world of jazz and the likes of Coltrane and Fitzgerald. Walkman friend and I had just read Henry Miller’s trilogy Nexus, Plexus and Sexus (I can’t remember now if that was the right order) and just become acquainted with the “beat” writers. We also used to go to the Rampa or Charles Chaplin cinémathèque to watch old films from Germany, France or the former socialist bloc. We were “arts brothers in arms”.

But the minuscule equipment he held in his hand that day was magic of a different type. Suddenly I had the realisation that I could take my favourite music with me wherever I went.

Walkmans (or is it Walkmen? Please, help!) were not a product you could just buy from any shop in Havana. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-introduction of capitalism in Cuba (which had never really left but let’s not go into that now) the first tourist shops carried very few technological gadgets.  Walkman friend let me have a listen on his personal stereo every now and then (the sound was exquisite. Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond never sounded better). Yet I longed for a Walkman of my own.

That moment arrived in ’96 when I was asked to work as an interpreter for a French guy who’d been invited by the Cuban Communist Youth League. He was interested in the work we did at the University of Havana’s Folkloric Ensemble and I was happy to help him out. We struck up a good friendship even if that meant I had to put up with his impromptu “Vive la Révolution/Vive Fidel” utterances every now and then (to which, by the way, I used to respond in silence: “Yes, long live Fidel and the revolution, but may they long live far away!”). Before returning to France, Monsieur F… left me his Walkman and a couple of educational French tapes. Very useful they were, indeed, especially as I was still studying the language. But what his present also did was open the way to a whole new listening experience.

The person responsible for this trip down memory lane is Paul Morley who, in a recent article for New Statesman, wrote about his first encounter with a Sony Walkman. Paul is a music journalist who started his career at the New Musical Express, or NME as it is better known. His occasional columns in The Guardian’s Friday Film and Music section have always been welcomed by yours truly.

Paul’s description of the first few times he went on the Tube with his “fabulously cool new Walkman” (a present from his girlfriend when she came back from Tokyo where she’d been working) resonated with me. I had a similar experience when I began to go to the gym wearing my earphones and playing music of my own choosing. M People and Annie Lennox (with and without Euryhtmics), amongst other artists, became my new companions in my regular workout.

Of course for each technological invention there’s a downside. One I was able to see straight away with Walkmans (or Walkmen, you see? I’m still struggling) was that they encouraged individualism. Before the advent of double earphones jack splitters, listening to a Walkman was a solitary activity. It was a way of building your own musical island and keeping bystanders guessing what the songs on your little device were. As Walkmans (I’ll settle on this term for now) muted into portable CD players, then into mp3 players, then into iPods and finally into ad hoc in-built parts of our mobile phones, we never let go of that individualistic streak. Even if nowadays we play music to the whole carriage when on the Tube or the overground.

Paul Morley’s essay is an extract from his book Earthbound, which is part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. In the article Paul tries to remember the first song he heard on his Walkman. On browsing his memory’s archives he revisits many of the great records of the era such as Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Lodger by David Bowie and Fear of Music by Talking Heads. He even has time to name-check Pink Floyd’s timeless Dark Side of the Moon. I still remember playing that tape on my Walkman and being blown away by the quality of the sound (The lunatic is in my head/the lunatic is in my head/You raise the blade, you make the change/You re-arrange me 'till I'm sane/You lock the door/And throw away the key/There's someone in my head but it's not me. Bonkers and yet so beautiful!). However, the first record Morley reckons he played on his Walkman was by one of the German groups that were derisively known as Krautrock. Maybe it was Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh or Can.

How about you, fellow blogger/reader? Did you also have a first-cassette-in-Walkman experience? If so, what was it?

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 20th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Killer Opening Songs (Settle Down by Kimbra)

Killer Opening Songs has a natural propensity towards artists who challenge themselves. Especially those who do it in the predictable world of pop music. Kimbra is one of those artists. Since K.O.S. first heard the New Zealand-born chanteuse on Radio Paradise, our Regular Musical Section with Homicidal Tendencies has been on a magical journey that’s taken it from jazz to funk, to Latin music. These are just some of the genres gently stroked by the up-and-coming star in her debut album, Vows.

Settle Down is the Killer Opening Song that unleashes Kimbra’s talent on to the world. “Unleash” is the right word in this context for creativity in the fickle world of pop is hard to come by these days. This is the reason why, when one comes across catchy tunes with meaningful lyrics, the effect is that of getting caught in the middle of a musical downpour with no previous warning. Settle Down is a magnificently-arranged funky parody of domestic bliss longing. You know Kimbra’s being facetious from the opening lines: I wanna settle down/I wanna settle down/Won't you settle down with me?/Settle down/We can settle at a table/A table for two/Won't you wine and dine with me?/Settle down. All the time

And all this against a groovy background of hand-clapping and zany vocals.

Vows continues in a similar quirky and unpredictable vein. Something in the Way You Are is a slow soul jam. Cameo Lover harks back to 60s girls groups. Old Flame could well have come of Wham’s songbook. Good Intent is a proper R’n’B Timbaland-lite melody. She even has time to re-work Nina Simone’s Plain Gold Ring, maybe the album’s weakest moment. Kudos, though, for her audacity.

Kimbra didn’t just materialise out of thin air even if that’s the impression with which the album and, especially the Killer Opening Song Settle Down, leaves you. She was the guest vocal on Belgian-Australian multi-instrumental musician Gotye’s Somebody I Used to Know, one of the most beautiful pop songs K.O.S. has heard in recent years.

Vows might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you like your music running along clear-cut lines, then, Kimbra’s not for you. If, however, you don’t mind stylistically disjointed records with a dash of electro-funk, a pinch of indie and a teaspoon of chill-out all mixed, re-mixed and simmering slowly in a smooth jazz marinade, then, this will probably be your must-buy CD of 2013. And it all begins with a Killer Opening Song.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on 17th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 10 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The current issue of New Humanist carries a very interesting interview with the philosopher John Gray. I am familiar with Gray’s work through his book reviews for The New Statesman and The Guardian. This time, though, the guns, or should I say, the mike was turned on him and the ensuing conversation was quite interesting. Especially when read and discussed on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand.

The interview was a tie-in for John’s latest book, The Silence of Animals, in which he explores man’s alleged slow self-annihilation. To Gray civilisation is a pretence which, when challenged by reality, falls away.

I confess to having felt somewhat uncomfortable at the beginning of the article. I’m a pragmatist with a 99.9% realistic view of the world. But that 0.01% left over counts for a lot. It counts for a romanticism and idealism that have kept me believing in my fellow humans for many years, atrocities notwithstanding. Gray’s initial comments were coloured by a pessimism which I’ve noticed is typical of certain Western authors. His notion that human beings will never be able to “progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts” is not an opinion I share. And yet, he does have a point in what he says. It’s just that the point is muddled up by so much negativity.

I agree with John that many of us, human beings, have for many years striven for a utopia-like state. This can be a collective, external experience brought about through a socioeconomic political system like communism or an internal one supported by performance-enhancing and recreational drugs. However, as Gray avers, there has been no utopian society and probably there never will be. Marx’s belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat as the solution to society’s woes and the neo-conservative vision of the free market as the answer to our straitened economic times are mere illusions.

This is a hard-to-swallow message because it goes against our idealism and idealism is a human trait. We need it to make sense of the world, especially in the face of adversity. John Gray’s response to this dilemma touches upon both meaning and why we, humans, need a reason to live. In his own words “One of the chief reasons human beings need meaning – which is different from knowledge – in a way that other animals don’t seem to is that humans are conscious of their own mortality. We have a sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have an idea of our mortality, then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a whole, and we want them to be a single coherent story.

To me this is the reason why children don’t have a clear concept of time and space. Mention to a little one that in a week you’ll take him or her to the zoo and they will ask you again ten minutes later. The “are we there yet?” question that children ask on road trips constantly will be familiar to most parents and John’s theory is the basis for it, in my opinion. Same with teenagers, for instance, who lack that sense of mortality Gray mentions in the passage above. Adolescents’ reckless and erratic behaviour can be traced back to this absence of a single and coherent story, more specifically, one that has not got the word “future” in it.

This situation, however, changes in one’s 20s. Well, in most of us, anyway. We couple up, we settle down, we get a job, we start planning for the future. Suddenly there’s a “meaning”. There’s also an awareness of death. For the first time, our personal history is not a random collection of moments and experiences but a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. We might even experiment with the order, and yet there’s still a clear structure.

What this whole unconscious/conscious affair offers us, human beings, is a vast and rich field of possibilities. Unlike animals which have no self-realisation of their trajectory towards death, we use those interim years on Earth to tell our stories. By this I don’t mean the sitting-around-a-campfire-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-tale type of scenario, welcomed as it is. I mean it in the way we interact with each other and leave our mark (more often than not consciously) on places and people. Hence language and our ability to communicate with one another not just at a primal level, but also at a sophisticated one. Whilst animals’ communication acts on elements such as self-preservation, basic needs and danger, humans can include the intellectual aspect.

The upshot is a world that can combine at any one time both the creation of nation states and marvellous architecture. Although John Gray’s interview looked gloomy at the outset, by the end of it I was smiling.

© 2013

Next Post “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 13th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

Winter is thankfully coming to an end and one of my two favourite seasons is about to start: spring. And spring to me means the power of the senses. Especially that of smell. I love the scents springs brings, whether it be the fragrance of new blossoms or the aroma of freshly-cut grass. Spring is that time of the year when we bring the garden furniture out (those with gardens, of course) to give it a good old scrub and varnish.

Hence my dish tonight is full of fragrance. I love, love, adore lamb meat. The rich flavour and tenderness of it is enough for me to write a thousand blogposts ad infinitum. I happened upon this recipe in the new cook section of the Saturday Guardian and knew instantly I had to cook it. I’ll probably wait until it’s a bit less cold and more springy but in the  meantime I shall leave you with the food and its corresponding music.

Fragrant lamb with prunes and almonds

2.5kg of lamb shanks, or 1.8kg of boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat
2 tbsp butter
2 medium onions, thickly sliced
Pinch of saffron threads
6 garlic cloves, chopped
A thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and slivered
1 small cinnamon stick
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp ground ginger
1-2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
150g golden raisins
300g pitted prunes
750ml chicken broth or water
300g chopped tomatoes
Salt and black pepper

For the garnish

1 tbsp butter
200g blanched whole almonds
Large pinch of salt
Small pinch of sugar

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper and then set aside.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the onions, sprinkle with a little salt and crumble the saffron on top. Sweat the onions gently for about 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Remove from the heat and stir in the garlic, fresh ginger, cinnamon stick, coriander and cumin seeds, powdered ginger and cayenne pepper. Add the raisins and half the prunes.

Put the lamb in a deep casserole and spread the onion mixture over the meat. Add the broth or water and tomatoes, and cover the pot with foil and a tight-fitting lid. Bake for about 2 hours or until the meat is tender.

Take the dish from the oven and remove the foil and lid. Add the rest of the prunes and submerge them in the liquid. Raise the heat to 200C/400F/gas mark 6 and return the lamb to the oven, uncovered, for about 15 minutes to let the meat brown a bit. Remove the pot from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes or so.

Skim off any fat from the surface of the tagine. Reduce the sauce if it seems thin. The tagine is ready to serve but will reheat perfectly, so you can make it today to serve the next day: the sauce will mature beautifully in the refrigerator overnight.

Just before you serve the tagine, heat the butter in a small frying pan over a medium heat and gently fry the almonds, stirring occasionally. When they turn golden, dry them on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt and sugar.

To serve, transfer the stew to a large platter and scatter the fried almonds over the lamb.

From Heart of the Artichoke by David Tanis (Artisan Books).

Musicwise, we’re starting really up high with a killer tune. No pun intended, by the way. Well, only just. You gotta love David Byrne and his Talking Heads. And Psycho Killer is one of those tunes that just gets better with time. Same with that lamb as you cook it for a couple of hours.

Did I mention before that we were going to start really high? Oh, well, let’s turn the temperature even higher. And turn the volume up, too. You know what they say about kitchen, the heat and the ability to stand it (smiles)? The Zep are always welcome here on my blog, especially this tune. It makes me ramble, or waffle, or waffle-ramble (smiles). Getting on a bit now, Jimmy and the boys, huh? But they can still rock the joint.

All right, all right. Let’s all calm down a bit now and take things slowly with our beautiful, lovely sista Jill Scott and He Loves Me. This is one of those tunes for which there’re no words, just feelings. Same as the tasty, tender meat of the lamb you’re cooking. Enjoy

And I’ll leave you tonight with another timeless melody, Downpresser Man, by the great Peter Tosh. I gotta have some reggae in my mix, even if it’s not of the sauce type. I hope you enjoyed the food and the music tonight.

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Music and Reflections”, to be published on Sunday 10th March at 10am (GMT)

Photo taken from The Guardian

Sunday 3 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In Chapter Two of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved,The Grey Zone”, the Italian author writes that human beings “tend to simplify history; but the pattern within which events are ordered is not always identifiable in a single unequivocal fashion, and it may therefore happen that different historians understand and construe history in ways that are incompatible with one another.” In short, we have built up a “us” vs “them” world, a dichotomy of “friend or enemy”.

This attitude chimes with a concept I thought it’d gone the way of the crusades many centuries ago. That of hell and eternal damnation. Well, according to a recent article in The Economist, Lucifer’s abode is still around and doesn’t show signs of kicking the metaphorical bucket just yet.

Apparently the billboards in the American South still shout out that “Hell is Real” and religions such as the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu have not let go of their own version of inferno yet. Furthermore fundamentalist Christians in the US terrify American teenagers with “Hell Houses” to warn them against drug-taking and other vices.

The above picture is very different to the Unterwelt that oversaw the dehumanisation process to which Levi and his fellow prisoners were subjected. No wonder many survivors blocked out memories of the Lagers. They were too painful to bear and too illogical to make sense of. How can you even put into words the Nazis’ tendency to scream at their victims in German, knowing fully well that they were not being understood? How can you explain the beatings, the hunger and the thirst? And had an explanation been provided at any point, wouldn’t it have validated unintentionally Die Endlösung, the final solution?

Whereas in Christian mythology, just to give an example, hell is still pretty much about fire, brimstone and lamentations, in the real world, Hades is circumstantial. For instances of this, see Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment for twenty-seven years for his political beliefs and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia with its famous “killing fields”. It would be simplistic to say that the millions who suffered at the hands of the Asian despot underwent a worse version of hell than the South African leader. Especially when the aim of both the apartheid-led government and the Khmer Rouge was to dehumanise the individual/collective.

In this sense Primo Levi’s book is a welcome attempt to bring nuance into a situation of extremes. We are aware of what happened between 1939 and 1945 in Europe. We have read the history books and memoirs whilst others have had the fortune of meeting survivors of the concentration camps. What we lack sometimes is the nitty-gritty of what went on day after day in Auschwitz and other Lagers. We have built up the “us” (condemnatory of Nazism, fascism and any other form of racism) vs the “them” (the far right or any other group with xenophobic and racist intentions). Yet, in between these two sides lay real men and women who didn’t have much of a chance to make the right decision; right decisions often being accompanied by a gunshot or a fatal beating.

In the aforementioned Chapter Two, The Grey Zone, Levi addresses these individuals’ dilemma. Dividing them into two blocs of victims and persecutors is a reduction ad absurdum, he seems to say. It is also self-defeating. The world (or hell, to continue with my theme today) into which these people were thrown was a shock. It was also hard to work out. I mentioned the linguistic component before. The other element was that the enemy was not obvious. Yes, the soldier kicking you with his boot was your enemy, but so was the campmate who tried to steal your bread. Under these circumstances the idea of hell as a place of despair or desolation for sinners is out of synch with what really happened in the Second World War. What was the sin of the millions of people sent to the concentration camps?

As a final reflection on how the religious idea of hell as punishment for offenders is nowadays at odds with the real underworld in which those in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq still live, I’ll quote again from Levi’s book:

“… the arrival in the Lager was indeed a shock because of the surprise it entailed. The world into which one was precipitated was terrible, yes, but also indecipherable: it did not conform to any model, the enemy was all around but also inside, the ‘we’ lost its limits, the contenders were not two, one could not discern a single frontier but rather many confused, perhaps innumerable frontiers, which stretched between each of us”.

Less Dante’s black-and-white solid ice Hell and more nuanced, greyish, human on human inferno. And as a consequence, more puzzling.

© 2013

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 6th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


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