Category Archives: Reportage

Pyongyang

Guy Delisle is a Québécois animator, comic writer and artist. He is most famous for his graphic novels Shenzhen and Pyongyang, which illustrate his experiences managing animation teams in China and North Korea.

Guy Delisle came to my attention through the Just William blog, with this post here, I made a mistake about the order of Shenzhen and Pyongyang (2000 and 2003 respectively), and so started with Pyongyang thinking it was the first. It wasn’t, but it was excellent, and given it’s taken from real life getting them out of order doesn’t much matter (there’s no plot in real life, after all).

Pyongyang was originally written in French, and is translated by Helge Dascher. It’s a very natural translation, enough so that I didn’t actually realise for quite some time that this was a translated work.

Anyway, what’s it like and what’s it about? Very simply, it’s about Delisle’s experiences living and working for a period of a few months in Pyongyang, capital city of North Korea. As such, it’s a very rare insight into what life is like in that astonishingly isolated country. As you might expect, it’s not really a cheery read. North Korea comes across as being as terrible as you might imagine, a bizarre mix of poverty, empty spectacle and official deception.

Delisle has a very simple art style, uncluttered. He uses a range of grey shadings, but with a lot of variation in panel sizes – creating an effect where there are close-ups and long-shots and so a sense of movement in what might otherwise be a fairly static text. There’s a sly humour running through it, Delisle clearly at times became deeply frustrated with the constraints and absurdities of North Korean life, though he’s aware too of quite how much trouble a joke on his part might cause to the locals (perhaps not always aware enough though, I’m still not wholly sure it was wise or safe to lend one of his translators a copy of George Orwell’s 1984). I’ve attached three images below, the second is where Delisle slips out for a walk without his then translator to do some shopping one day.

North Korea itself is utterly surreal, on arrival Delisle is given a bunch of flowers, and is expected to leave them at the base of a huge statue of Kim Il-Sung (the statue visited under a pretext, as Delisle’s must appear a natural gesture). He stays in a vast and empty hotel, 50 storeys high, with all foreigners on the 15th floor – the only one that’s lit. There are two restaurants in the hotel, Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2 (number 3 being under renovation), every morning at 7am his maid wakes him to replenish the water in his mini-fridge regardless of any do not disturb sign he may hang on his door. There are ideas of how things are done, but distorted, lacking any sense of why they are done, reduced to empty form.

Pyongyang itself is curiously, disturbingly, sterile. No one loiters, no one chats, people go about their business and do not linger. At Delisle’s own work, a Korean technician sits alongside him pointing at the screen whenever he pauses a moment so as to let him know what to do next. She sings along to the radio in Korean, naturally she speaks no English, so she is not able to provide any actual help to him. Everything is controlled, all the radio stations are tuned to the same station and when he tampers with his to tune in to other frequencies he finds there are broadcasts he was unable to listen to but they all play exactly the same thing. At night the streets are unlit, his animation team practice every morning with wooden rifles, it is a phenomenally joyless country.

Delisle does try to get to know the local culture, he hears about the philosophy of the country’s two leaders, he visits national museums, at times he even manages to go out for walks on his own into the streets, but in a very real sense there is no living local culture. There is mass culture, state approved, state disseminated, with any sign of individuality or independent thought clearly very dangerous indeed – the re-education camps are always waiting. As Delisle says “at a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power.”

The indifference to humanity portrayed in this comic is extraordinary, the “volunteer” workers, the desperate poverty, the openly stated calculations of what percentage of the population need survive to allow society to continue (30%). For centuries people have dreamed of utopias, we must be thankful that most of us never have to experience them.

There is a question as to how appropriate this material is for a comic. Like many things, I think the answer to that lies in the execution. Here, Delisle shows us a city most of us will never visit, I learnt more from this comic than I have from anything else I’ve read or watched on the place, there’s an immediacy to this form that can make it a powerful tool for reportage of a sort that more conventional accounts can struggle with. It’s easily read, it’s often very funny, and it’s absolutely horrible because what it portrays is horrible. Delisle is not a journalist (unlike, say, Joe Sacco is in his comics about Gorazde and Palestine), but for all that he makes serious points and it doesn’t diminish their impact that he makes them in a comic.

Overall, I think this is a skilful portrait of a place that most of us know very little about, it’s well drawn and written and expertly translated. Having read it, I know more than I did, and I enjoyed learning it. That’s no small achievement, and I’m looking forward to reading his Shenzhen next.

As a final note, of all the things in this comic which I found ugly or depressing, perhaps the worst – among all the monumentalist architecture, cowed population, poverty and fear – comes when Delisle asks his translator why he has seen no handicapped people. He is told that there are none. The perfect society has no place for the infirm.

Pyongyang

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Delisle, Guy, Reportage

For ye have the poor always with you

But, according to Mike Davis, we need not have had them in the numbers and living in the unimaginable conditions of squalor and degredation that we have today.

Mike Davis is an American left-wing academic, Planet of Slums is his 2006 study of the immiseration of roughly a fifth of humanity (immiseration, a word I hadn’t encountered before this book and which I rather wish I hadn’t). Davis studies the growth of slums globally, the conditions within them, the dismal prospects for improvement and the sources of the consequential vast explosion in poverty and misery that has taken place over the past 30 years or so. He does so in a work that is packed with figures and footnotes, every charge and comment backed by reference to external sources (of which, more later), his overall thesis being both readable and persuasive, if utterly dispiriting.

There is a tendency, in discussing books of this sort, to simply summarise the argument and state whether or not one agrees with it, but not to address the book’s qualities as a literary effort. That’s a shame, because readability matters for non-fiction too, if we can’t get through the text, the argument (however persuasive) is lost. Fortunately, although Planet of Slums was for me an extremely difficult and slow read, that difficulty arose due to the density of information within it and the grinding misery it depicts, page after page. Davis’s style however is clear, his lapses into sociology-speak rare and his passion evident on the page. With a work which contains more statistics on the average page than most economics texts, that prose clarity and that sense of anger are vital, without those elements it would be wholly unreadable. Too dry and too dark.

Davis opens with an explanation of the staggering growth in slums over the past three decades or so, the increasing pace of urbanisation and how the rate of slum expansion is so rapid and so extensive that “in many cases rural people no longer have to migrate to the city: it migrates to them.” Vast conurbations connecting city to city in long strips of semi-urbanised countryside form megacities, but megacities characterised by marginalisation and poverty for the vast majority of their inhabitants.

Davis spends time explaining the sheer scale of the problem, backing his analysis with a series of statistics which are so terrible they are I think genuinely hard to grasp, not due to complexity but due to their implications. The sheer volume of humanity living today in horrific conditions without access to basic sanitation or any form of formal job market becomes incomprehensible from scale alone.

Davis moves on to explore the historic causes, particularly colonialism and its legacy, describing the practice in the developing world of maintaining colonial systems of segregation so as to ensure the national elite was kept physically isolated from the rural and urban poor. He cites deliberate examples of French and British colonial policy in which rights of sanitation and desirable habitation were restricted to certain power groups, restrictions which were then continued post independence.

More recently, government after government he shows as having taken a deliberately punitive approach to their own poor. He is particularly scathing on South Korea and China’s treatment of slum-dwellers in preparation for the Olympics. He speaks of urban beautification programs which largely consist of shuttling people out of sight, often forcibly relocating the poor to overcrowded settlements where they are out of the immediate gaze of the more prosperous world. For him, the ultimate effect is as something from the writings of Philip K. Dick, a world consisting of fortified enclaves and edge cities of poverty (distopian versions of the edge cities celebrated in Joel Garreau’s groundbreaking book on the topic).

Davis also explores how governments across the world demonise the poor, identifying slums as crime epicentres and carrying out brutal raids and clearances, the land frequently being sold to property developers thereafter. Indeed, he shows clear links between slum clearances and property development, often with government officials personally profiting from the crackdowns they announce in the name of public safety. It is as I said a passionate book, one that it is difficult to read at times without feeling tremendous anger, though my more common emotion was one of simple despair.

Davis addresses too how the poor frequently pay more for those few services they actually receive than we in the wealthier parts of the world do, slum rents for example are typically far higher per square foot than rents in the most desirable parts of the same country, often by significant multiples. Equally: “Water sales is a lucrative industry in poor cities, Nairobi, as usual, is an egregious example, where politically connected entrepeneurs resell municipal water (which costs very little to families wealthy enough to afford a tap) to the slums at exorbitant prices.”

Davis keeps his real fury however for the IMF and World Bank. His thesis, again painstakingly supported by references and statistics, is that IMF structural adjustment programs have wreaked extraordinary havoc on the developing world, leading to an explosion of poverty in the past 30 years almost without precedent in human history. He cites requirements for public sector layoffs and salary cuts which in many cases lead to whole segments of society being suddenly cast into abject poverty, while the social services the poor depend on are eliminated. He notes too the effect of requiring free markets for the poor, but not for ourselves, explaining “SAPs devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them sink or swim into global commodity markets dominated by heavily subsidised First World Agribusiness.” Here he speaks to matters I have some knowledge of, and I am persuaded by his argument that essentially it is unjust to expose the developing world to free market pressures which in the developed world almost every government protects its own public from. The fall in public sector and agricultural sector incomes that results is staggering, for without subsidies and without the ability to sell to the West in the face of import controls and our own agricultural subsidies the farmers of the developing world simply cannot make enough to survive. To make matters worse, SAPs often require a retooling of the economy to be export rather than subsistence driven, exports which are made into a global market which is far from free.

Davis has been criticised for failing to offer solutions. For me, that is shallow thinking, the existence of a problem does not mean there exists also a neat solution to it. Davis describes the world as it is for much of its population, a world of Hobbesian squalor and horror in which the burden falls increasingly on women who work ever harder to help undemployed families living in unimaginable conditions keep going another day. Davis writes from a clearly left wing perspective, helpfully a consistent one (I don’t really care about a writer’s politics, as long as they’re clear enough to be recognisable and taken into account). My impression was that he would regard violent resistance as probably the poor’s best option, and that he probably thinks we largely deserve it.

Not everything is flawless, in a couple of places I noticed citations went to newspaper articles and in one case an extraordinary claim was supported only by an interview in a regional newspaper, but in fairness the strength of his approach of providing citations for his arguments is that it allowed me to look at his source and decide that it didn’t persuade me in that instance. In a curious way, I found the book as a whole more persuasive because he gave me the tools to reject parts of it (small parts).

Still, the statistics are the meat of the book, the simple mathematics of the volume of human faeces generated in many cities each day cross-referenced to the vastly smaller disposal capacities of those cities, such that over time the poor come to literally live in shit that is being produced faster than it can be taken away. The lack of water, the unsafe housing, the settling of fringe regions which are innately prone to earthquakes, mudslides, natural disasters, the litany of human misery. The statistics bludgeon the reader, reminding me that the human condition of which so many authors write is essentially a luxury of that part of the planet which knows where its next meal is coming from.

Davis ends with a vision of the security implications, bleakly assessed by US military planners who have no requirement to pretend the optimism of their political masters. Their analysis is of a future in which wars are increasingly waged in feral urban environments where “Night after night, hornet-like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions.”

For the interested, there is a much more detailed writeup of Planet of Slums available at the LRB website here. It’s an excellent piece which delves into Davis’s analysis with more space than I have chosen to take here and which is extremely well written. I recommend it, and indeed anything else written by Jeremy Harding, unreservedly.

Planet of Slums

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Filed under Davis, Mike, Economics, Reportage

Saying true things on half a page

What I Saw, by Joseph Roth

What I saw is a collection of short pieces of journalism by Joseph Roth, translated and ably introduced by Michael Hofmann, and containing Roth’s experiences of Berlin between the years 1920 and 1933 – the years of the Weimar Republic. The pieces are typically between three and five pages long, often focussing on one location or experience and drawing from it a short but memorable series of observations. It is a form of journalism not uncommon in Continental Europe, but is I think rarer in the English speaking world.

Short pieces of this kind are known as feuilletons. Roth was a master of the form, although famous now for his work as an author (I have only read his Hotel Savoy, which I recommend without reservation), Roth was a lifelong journalist with a passionate belief in the importance of newspapers. The feuilleton is a short piece, but it is not a slight piece. It is intended to amuse, but also to provoke and to enlighten. For Roth, the feuilleton was serious journalism, for all the subjects might be comic or mundane. As Roth himself said:

I don’t write “witty columns.” I paint the portrait of an age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

Today probably the most famous writer of feuilletons is Umberto Eco, who has a fondness for the form (and a talent for them, his collection How to Travel with a Salmon is essentially a collection of feuilletons for example).

Roth moved to Berlin in 1920, then to Paris in 1925, but continued to spend time in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler took power. His feuilletons of this period, collected in this volume and arranged by subject matter rather than chronology, capture then the Germany of the Weimar years, a Germany that he knew was fragile and beset with difficulties but one where the horrors of the future were of course yet unknown.

The pleasures of this collection lie in Roth’s skill as a writer, and in his keen observational eye which brings to life matters as disparate as night shelters for the homeless, department stores, a cafe frequented by intellectuals, Jewish refugees from the East, photographs of the city’s dead at police headquarters and much more. Roth was catholic in his choices of subject matter, recording the city and the lives of those within it, this collection is a fascinating record of what it was like to live in the Berlin of those times.

In the course of his columns, Roth takes us through the full range of Berliner life, including here on a journey through its late night dives:

Kirsch the burglar and Tegeler Willy and Apache Fritz are sitting at a table together, while the policeman stands and watches. At the bottom of the well-like passage , Elli’s sitting on someone’s lap, because she’s got new stockings today. If you’ve got new stockings, you’ve got to show them off. Her little blonde ringlets are combed down into her face. They hang there a little stiffly, like starched ruffles. I really think she wants nothing more from the world than to have half a kümmel inside her, and the knowledge that there is another half to come. Let her have it, please. My friend buys her some bread and butter. Now I think she’s happy beyond dreams. New stockings, a kümmel and some bread and butter. It really is an angels’ palace.

And later, in the same article:

Max says to the man in the cap: ‘I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.’ The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: ‘I’m spoken for!’ Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh, no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.

Here Roth brings not only the feel of the dives to life, but also their inhabitants, their small dreams, their vulgarity but also their humanity. Roth is a compassionate writer, it is only the harbingers of the new regime for whom he has no sympathy. Here he describes a bidder at an auction, a man who nearly comes to blows with a rival over a wood carving and a copper vat:

The man is not buying out of sentiment. He is, rather, an exemplar of the new times, in a short fur coat, cigar jammed between metal teeth, all calm and calculating: a schemer, a man working his percentages, confident of victory. God knows what his hands will make of those pots and plates and carvings, how the horrid monsters will change in his storehouses. Twentieth-century man can turn ducats out of all sorts of trash.

What is interesting with Roth’s journalism, is that although it is often full of humour, of warmth and affection, it is not frivolous. Roth was, I understand, highly paid for his pieces, certainly he himself took them very seriously (as the quote I opened this piece shows). His intent is not merely to amuse, but also to show us what he sees around him, to let us see through his eyes. As such, the humanity of his gaze is itself a part of his journalism. For Roth, journalism is not necessarily about objectivity, it is about reportage, it is about sharing a personal understanding so that we might understand too.

Frequently, his pieces while on the surface merely descriptive, contain on closer review social comment. In one piece he describes a park, talking of its benches, trees, park wardens. He describes those who use the park, few in the morning as the locals are at work then – just a handful of unemployed men, later some teenage girls, and come three in the afternoon mothers with their small children who play in the sand. It is a piece of careful observation of the inconsequential, and then we come to the following passage:

Even in Schiller Park the leaves drop from the trees in a timely fashion, in the autumn, but they are not left to lie. In the Tiergarten, for instance, a melancholy walker can positively wade through foliage. This sets up a highly poetic rustling and fills the spirit with mournfullness and a sense of transience. But in Schiller Park, the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel.
Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.

Roth is still describing the park, the gathering of the leaves is one of the activities that occurs there, as is the children’s play or the habits of the park wardens. That said, Roth is also commenting on how poverty can destroy the sense of the aesthetic, how the appreciation of beauty can itself simply be another luxury. Roth is making an important point, in an article less than three pages long. That, in essence, is the point of a feuilleton. Similarly, in a piece on the Berlin pleasure industry in which Roth describes the various nightclubs of the city, he moves on to discuss the commercialisation of entertainment:

Yes, I had the sensation that somewhere there was some merciless force or organization — a commercial undertaking, of course — that implacably forced the whole population to nocturnal pleasures, as it were belabouring it with joys, while husbanding the raw material with extreme care, down to the very last scrap. Saxophonists who have lost their wind playing in the classy bars of the West End carry on playing to the middle class till they lose their hearing, and then they wind up in proletarian dives. Dancers start out reed thin, to slip slowly, in the fullness of time and their bodies, in accordance with a strict plan, down from the zones of prodigality to those where people keep count, to the third where people save their pennies, to the very lowest finally, where the expenditure of money is either an accident or a calamity.

Again, we move from the merely descriptive, to an analysis of wider forces, but we never leave behind how those forces impact on the lives of the people of Berlin.

Roth does not simply deal in the apparently trivial, he also engages with the Republic itself and with politics (though he treats politics with no more seriousness, nor any less, than he does the discussion of a railway junction). Roth writes pieces discussing how the city comes to a stop for the death of the president in 1925, or on the empty slogans of election campaigns. He satirises modernity, though too he celebrates it and sees something wonderful in human progress. This seems like an ambivalence, but rather I think he is a supporter of modernity when it is in service of human values, and suspicious of it when it seems to traduce those values.

The lives of our fathers’ generation were lived in such poor taste. But their children and grandchildren live in stupendously bracing conditions. Not even nature itself affords as much light and air as some of the new dwellings. For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you would have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries and music rooms. Water whooshes in thousands of pipes. They do Swedish exercises in vast aquariums. They relax after meals on white operating tables. And in the evening concealed fluorescent tubes light the room so evenly that it is no longer illuminated, it is a pool of luminosity.

And in another piece:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternisation between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one. There is exhilaration in skyscrapers as much as on mountaintops.

Roth then is a satirist, but he is also something of a poet. Above all these things, however, he is a journalist and it is as that I think he would most have wished to be remembered.

The final piece in the collection is very different to what has gone before. Written in 1933 and titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” it is a furious piece written in reaction to book burnings carried out by the newly elected Third Reich. Roth writes proudly that German writers of Jewish descent have been defeated, and with them the “banner of the European mind”. Proudly, because with defeat comes no possibilty of collaboration, proudly because what they stood for was the European ideal, the ideal of the intellectual and that the life of the mind has meaning. For Roth, the Nazis are profoundly anti-intellectual, and in expelling the Jews they expel the best of German culture for German intellectual life has been in large part the product of its Jews.

For Roth then, the coming of the Nazis is a defeat for civilisation itself, the German Jew is inseparable from German culture, and in their quest for a pure German nation the Nazis are destroying that which made Germany a country worth living in. His piece is filled with horrifically prescient imagery, poison gas is used repeatedly as a metaphor, and it contains a roll call of defeated authors, poets and playwrights “fallen on the intellect’s field of honour. All of them, in the eyes of the German murderer and arsonist, share a common fault: their Jewish blood and their European intellect.” For Roth, the Nazis were not simply attacking the Jews, they were attacking the very principles that underpin European culture itself. Roth sees no possibilty of coexistence, no means by which the intellectual and the Nazi can live together, their arrival means the death of all he stands for as a Jewish intellectual:

It is only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed….

Roth, more than most, understood that when you begin by burning books you end by burning people. The final essay in this collection is a passionate defence of the importance of the intellectual, of the European ideal, of the Jew as a central component of European civilisation.

Looking above, I have quoted Roth a great deal in this piece, it’s hard not to, he’s a gifted writer and eminently quotable. In keeping with that, I end with a final quote on the role of the Jew in Germany, from The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind:

Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!

What I Saw

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Filed under Berlin, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Personal canon, Reportage, Roth, Joseph

A to the K

AK47, The Story of the People’s Gun, is a work of social history and reportage by journalist Michael Hodges. It charts the rise of the AK 47 from it’s creation in the post WWII Soviet Union to its present status as – according to Hodge’s thesis – one of the most ubiquitous weapons on Earth and a global brand of near unparalleled power.

Structurally, the book takes the form of a short introduction followed by eight chapters, each of which details part of the gun’s history through the eyes of someone whose story helps illustrate that history. The chapters break down roughly as follows: 1: a visit to Izhevsk, where the gun was originally manufactured, with a detour to the London launch of Kalashnikov vodka; 2: a history of how the gun was developed and an interview with General Kalashnikov himself; 3: a discussion of its use in Vietnam and how for a while it came to be viewed as weapon of freedom fighters, even in much of the West; 4: a trip to Palestine and a discussion of how the West came to see the gun as an instrument of terror; 5: takes us to Africa and to the use of child soldiers; 6: talks of how the Kalashnikov came to be used as a marketing tool for recruiting Islamic terrorists in London and elsewhere; 7: shows its use in Iraq, both by insurgents and the police; and 8: shows how it came to be ubiquitous even in in New Orleans and in the inner cities of the USA.

At its best, Hodge’s work is both fascinating and thought provoking. He charts the progress of the gun from popular weapon of liberation to simultaneous joint symbol of global terrorism and (depending on your perspective) armed resistance and is alert to the issues of perspective which can lead to one person regarding the weapon as a symbol of fear and cruelty while another views it as a symbol of manliness and independence. He is excellent on the societal role of the gun and how that has evolved, and happily (for my interest at least) spends relatively little time on the technical aspects of the weapon.

Relatively little time, but not no time. Hodges explains that the AK47 owes its success to its extraordinary reliability and simplicity of manufacture (and, therefore, of repair). The gun operates where others do not, after being dragged through mud, clogged with sand, immersed in water and given minimal maintenance. It works where Western issued weapons fail, and this reliability makes it perfect for use in the developing world where repair facilities are few and conditions often harsh. The AK47 allows a minimally trained child to lay down withering volumes of automatic fire from a weapon which can have received treatment which would render the bulk of contemporary firearms wholly inoperable. It is in that sense, as well as in the social sense Hodges goes on to discuss, that it is the people’s gun.

The first half of this work is much weaker in my view than the second. The trip to Izhevsk I felt only mildly interesting, although the interview with the General was valuable in providing historical context. The chapter on Vietnam, with its account of how an incident in which a Viet Cong soldier fired his AK47 at a B52 became a propaganda story about how a B52 was downed by AK fire, is fascinating, but much of it is not really relevant to the overall story the book is telling. The chapter about Palestine, unfortunately, lost my interest to such a degree that I put the book aside and only came back to it two months later out of a vague desire to push through and see if it improved.

It did, the remaining chapters build in power and interest, and if like me you struggle somewhat with those earlier sections that struggle is rewarded and pushing through is justified.

The difficulty with the Palestine section is that Hodges chooses to explore the issues relating to that conflict through the story of a French photojournalist. Where Hodges writes about Palestine, he is both chilling and effective, the story of the French journalist however simply left me cold and I found it hard to care about a man who seemed not so much a participant in events as a sort of tourist taking photos as much for personal aesthetic reward as for distribution to the wider world.

This chapter does contain some sections with real power, as quoted below, but I had to force myself through it in order to reach the far better chapters that followed.

At the entrance to the cul-de-sac a teenager chewing pistachio nuts sat on a white plastic garden chair outside the local Fatah office. He was an extremely serious youth, and to emphasise it he placed an AK across his lap. Pierre greeted him solemnly every time he passed. The youth would nod back, but seldom smiled. He spent much of his time looking at the sky waiting for an Israeli missile attack.

[Later, after the office “was destroyed by a rocket that killed the young guard”.]

When Pierre got to the office there was no sign of the youth’s body, but the plastic chair was still outside alongside his AK. In the wrecked interior of the building he could only find a burnt toilet brush and some papers to indicate that it had ever contained people. Pierre photographed the wreckage and sold the picture to an American agency. In 2001 pictures of burning buildings still sold well.

Once the book hits the half way mark though, it begins to really hit its stride. Hodges explores how the gun has come to be used in Sub-Saharan Africa, describing how in Mozambique and Angola, anti-colonial guerillas used to name their sons Kalash in honour of it, and how Mozambique came on independence to feature a Kalashnikov on its national flag (at least two nations have Kalashnikov’s on their flag to my knowledge, one of those rather chillingly with a bayonet attached). He tells the story of Sudanese child soldiers, sent over minefields before regular troops on the basis they were more likely to get through (being lighter) and detailing one disastrous battle the aftermath of which involved children committing suicide with their AKs due to thirst and hunger. He talks of Bob Geldof’s shameful decision to ban African acts from Live8 and this section of the book manages to be both a successful work of reportage and yet to be angry with what it has to tell (but then, perhaps a degree of anger is necessary for this form of reportage).

From there, Hodges visits the Finsbury Park Mosque and speaks with young men who have gone to terrorist training camps in Pakistan. They describe how they are trained with AKs, but the gun’s use is as a symbol, a recruitment tool, when the only weapon these young men are ever likely to use is their own bodies with explosives strapped to them. For these young men, the AK is an emblem of resistance to the West, training with it and the mere holding of it are gestures rich with significance for them, it’s utility to those who control the camps being more as an icon than as an actual weapon. Hodges also here describes how Pakistan and Afghanistan came to be flooded with AKs, in part through Western foreign policy designed to that end, and how that has come back to haunt us in the form of largely inaccessible territories filled with terrorist training camps, heavily armed militias and ungovernable tribal factions.

Moving to Iraq, Hodges develops the theme of the AK as symbol, describing the Iraqi custom of firing AKs into the air at weddings and celebrations and the disastrous consequences that custom has had when combined with nervous US forces with little understanding of local practice. He talks of how Iraqi police saw off the butts of the rifles so they can hold them pistol style, a habit which is thought to make the wielder look cooler but which also makes the gun hopelessly inaccurate. He talks of the pitiable faith of the Iraqi insurgents in the weapon, who treating it as a form of modern Ghost Shirt will stand in open ground firing upon armoured cars which they cannot possibly damage and of the devastating response that tends to follow and the collateral damage that can ensue.

During that long Sadr city night I’d listened uncomfortably to the ping-ping-ping that an AK round makes when it hits a steel door, but I had never been in real danger. The Bradley I drove in had been near impregnable. Only fools would attack it with AK47s, yet as I watched the al-Mahdi army fighters had come out to attempt it with almost transcendental arrogance. Across Iraq the resistance in its many forms, the militias and even the police force didn’t just fire their AKs but wielded them in the air, as if the very iconic nature of the semi-automatic rifle had entered into the men themselves. The Americans had killed five, just as they had killed as many as twenty fighters on other nights, but as the young gunner told me when we got back to War-Eagle and he pulled himself wearily out of his hatch, ‘Doesn’t seem to matter how many I kill – they keep on coming back, night after night, firing AKs at us.’
I had seen the AK become more than a gun. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the AK47 operates as a symbol of resistance to the United States, although in Iraq the symbolism of the AK sometimes seems to be of superior importance to its mechanical abilities. The Viet Cong did not knowingly raise up their AK47s as a signifier of their fight, but Iraqi resistance fighters do so regularly. America’s occupation has become one of the most effective marketing campaigns that the Kalashnikov has ever benefitted from. As long as American forces stay, be it for five or ten years, each day enhances the gun’s image, each Bradley mission into the heart of Sadr city confirms its potency and the threat it poses to those who wield power in the world. In Iraq the Kalashnikov has finally become, to the long-lasting detriment of the country and misery of its inhabitants, the people’s gun.

Finally, Hodges goes to the US, to discuss how the AK became commonplace on the streets of American cities and how following Hurricane Katrina it was once again used as a weapon by dispossessed people who considered themselves as waging a war of resistance against an occupying power, in this case their own government.

Hodges’ story then is of how a gun became a symbol, and more than that how it became a brand. His argument is that the brand itself has power, beyond its mere use as a weapon, and that today it is one of the most potent brands the world possesses even though few think it that way. His case is largely persuasive, his reports from London, Africa, Iraq and the US solid works of reportage (and in that context I mean solid as a complement). Although I found the first half of the book wanting, I will look with interest at Michael Hodges’ future reports.

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Filed under History, Politics, Reportage

The Lord sends me every misery He can think of just to try my soul.

Tobacco Road, written by Erskine Caldwell in 1932, is a landmark work of American fiction. Often compared to Hemingway, Caldwell was most famous for his 1933 novel God’s Little Acre, but Tobacco Road had no small share of success in its own right. Saul Bellow apparently believed that Caldwell should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Tobacco Road is a novel that speaks of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a subject of interest to me, and it has a clarity and apparent simplicity of style that requires considerable skill on Caldwell’s part. It is, unquestionably in my mind, a very well written book.

So all that said, it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t like it.

Tobacco Road follows a poor farmer, Jeeter Lester, who lives on a ramshackle farm on land his family once owned but which is now held by an absentee landlord. Jeeter would farm the land with cotton, if he could borrow a mule and then get credit for seed cotton and guano with which to fertilise it. In the meantime he dreams of repairing his utterly broken down car and selling blackjack wood as firewood in the nearby town of Augusta. The only impediment to this is the fact that his car is a heap of unfixable junk, and blackjack wood doesn’t burn worth a damn.

Jeeter is married to Ada Lester, whose only goal is to get a fashionable dress to die in. He lives with his mother, Grandma Lester (who wears rags, and horse collars cut into squares as shoes), and his two remaining children who have not yet left home (the other fifteen are long gone), Dude Lester and Ellie May Lester. Dude is an ungrateful son, much like his father in many ways, lazy, aggressive, unhelpful and with a peculiar obsession with car horns. Ellie May is disfigured by a harelip that her father has always been too lazy to bother having fixed.

Other characters include Lov, a man who married Jeeter’s twelve year old daughter but can’t get her to sleep with him, and Bessie, an itinerant (and apparently wholly unqualified) female preacher who takes a shine to Dude.

It is not therefore a novel with a cast of thousands, rather it is a highly focussed work which examines a few incidents in Jeeter’s life and through those incidents and his relationships with these other characters sheds light on the lives of the rural poor of the 1930s American South.

We first encounter Jeeter as Lov arrives at the Lester home with a bag of turnips he has purchased with half a day’s pay. He is there to ask Jeeter’s advice on getting his new wife, twelve year old Pearl, to sleep with him. Jeeter and the other Lesters are intent on stealing turnips, as food is distinctly hard to come by. Lov is distracted by Ellie May, who pursues him so hard she traps him on the floor pulling him on top of her and shucking her dress up for him, all this in front of her entire family in the front yard.

Lov opened the sack, selected a large turnip, wiping it clean with his hands, and took three big bites out of it one after the other The Lester women stood in the yard and on the porch looking at Lov eat. Ellie May came from behind the chinaberry tree and sat down not far from Lov on a pine stump. Ada and the old grandmother were on the porch watching the turnip in Lov’s hand become smaller and smaller with each bite.

Later in that same section:

Ellie May was edging closer and closer to Lov. She was moving across the yard by raising her weight on her hands and feet and sliding herself over the hard white sand. She was smiling at Lov, and trying to make him take more notice of her, so she was going to him. Her harelip was spread open across her upper teeth, making her mouth appear as if she had no upper lip at all. Men usually would have nothing to do with Ellie May; but she was eighteen now, and she was beginning to discover that it should be possible for her to get a man despite her appearance.
‘Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to when he got the itch,’ Dude said to Jeeter. ‘Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May’s making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don’t it?’

Later, Sister Bessie arrives, she preaches but becomes enamoured of Dude and the two end up frottaging (frotteuring if you prefer) right there in front of the house. The Lester front yard is something of a hotbed of passion it seems.

Bessie marries the much younger Dude, tempting him to the union by buying a new car and offering to let him drive it. They take Jeeter to town to try and sell blackjack wood, with effects that would be comic if it were not for the sheer venality and stupidity of the characters and the unrelenting grimness of what befalls them. Indeed, in several places the novel veers close to comedy, quite intentionally I think, only to pull short of it by the sheer unpleasantness of its incident.

The characters are not intended to be sympathetic, Jeeter steals food from his friend, hides it from his family, and beats his ailing grandmother whenever she asks for some. He does this not in the manner of a thug or brute, but more in the manner of a mindless animal from a species lacking any sense of pack or herd instincts. The Lesters generally are like insects in human form, utterly devoid of empathy, fellow feeling, love or any hint of a sense of humour. They hunger, they lust, they fear, they act without any concept of consequence, they reminded me at times rather strongly of zombies in a Romero movie but without the pathos. Their conversation is highly repetitive, and generally (and again, clearly intentionally) is solipsistic, with characters sometimes engaging in essentially overlapping monologues in which each simply says what is concerning them while showing no evidence that they have heard what the other is saying.

Jeeter’s main desire is to be a farmer again, to sow crops and watch them grow. As dreams go, it is not a large one, but it is quite impossible to achieve. He has no mule with which to plow, he has no seed cotton to plant, he has no guano to fertilise with. All are essential. He cannot obtain credit, too many men are seeking it and he has no collateral, and the only lenders who will lend to a man such as him take so much in interest that he would end up making a loss:

The loan companies were the sharpest people he had ever had anything to do with. Once he had secured a two-hundred-dollar loan from one of them, but he swore it was the last time he would ever bind himself to such an agreement. To begin with, they came out to see him two or three times a week; some of them from the company’s office would come out to the farm and try to tell him how to plant the cotton and how much guano to put in to the acre. Then on the first day of every month they came back to collect interest on him. He could never pay it, and they added the interest to the principal, and charged him interest on that, too.
By the time he sold his cotton in the fall, there was only seven dollars coming to him. The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. When he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan.
When the final settlement was made, Jeeter found that he had paid out more than three hundred dollars, and was receiving seven dollars for his share. Seven dollars for a year’s labour did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and he had furnished the land and mule, too. He was even then still in debt, because he owed ten dollars for the hire of the mule he had used to raise the cotton. With Lov and Ada’s help, he discovered that he had actually lost three dollars. The man who had rented him the mule insisted on being paid, and Jeeter had given him the seven dollars, and he was still trying to get the other three to pay the balance.

The scene where Bessie buys a car is not dissimilar. There is a strong implication that she is overcharged, the car is not topped up with sufficient oil and Bessie is in no way equipped herself to understand that this might be a problem.

In part then, the novel is a work of social realism depicting the seemingly impersonal forces that brought ruin to poor farmers and by which the proceeds of the land went not to benefit those who worked it but instead rich men living in the towns and cities. The characters are routinely exploited, their opportunities limited, their ignorance used against them. Bessie’s experiences with the car are a microcosm of the larger struggle of Jeeter in his desire to be a farmer.

Jeeter’s problems are not wholly external, however. He is a man so lazy that he has a habit of going to sleep in the field when carrying out chores. He procrastinates to an extraordinary extent. He is unwilling to work in the cotton mills where he could make a decent wage, as that kind of work is alien to his self image. He is utterly improvident, devoid of any ability to consider the future other than in terms of empty dreams of borrowing a mule so that he can sow crops, if he can get credit for seed cotton and guano. Jeeter is not unusual in this, the characters in this novel are uniformly portrayed as essentially imbeciles, completely lacking in even the meagrest common sense. It was a portrait that I found ultimately unconvincing, for while I wholly believe that absolute poverty can strip people both of dignity and hope, I do not believe the poor are necessarily also stupid. At times, Caldwell is subtler, in his portrait for example of how local traditions can lead to farmers continuing practices which actually damage their livelihoods, and in that he persuades, it was in the total lack of any intelligence on the part of the named characters that he left me behind. Caldwell might well respond that he wrote as he found, the following is a quote from a reporter who toured with Caldwell’s Presbyterian minister father:

‘We were met by dull, stolid, stupid people, seemingly unaware of all their ills save hunger. Their clothes were rags in many cases. They seemed to possess no jot of pride of appearance. From babies to adults, nearly all were unkept and dirty.’

The difficulty is that what this describes is the loss of dignity that flows from poverty and hunger. The stupidity of the characters in this novel goes beyond that. The copy of the book I read has a cover photograph on it by the remarkable Walker Evans, and the great difference between Evans and Caldwell is that in his portraits Evans retained the truth that those he photographed were, ultimately, the same as we are.

As noted above, the Lesters are not merely stupid, they are also lacking in any recognisable form of human empathy. Jeeter can watch his daughter pull a man onto her in front of him and then later see her lie naked from the waist down in the dirt and think nothing of it. When his mother is run over, he leaves her lying in the dirt without a thought, later prodding her to see if she still lives and without noticing she has crawled several yards to the house begins to dig her grave when it is far from clear she’s actually dead. Poverty can cause people to do terrible things to each other, but the lack of emotion here did not convince me. Jeeter’s lack of sentiment became literally inhuman, not a convincing portrayal of the brutality of those reduced to their basest instincts but rather a description of sociopaths lacking the wit to pretend normality.

Other elements are more successful. Race is a theme in the book, with the Lesters and their associates regarding the black families who live near them with a mixture of fear, loathing and incomprehension. When Bessie and Duke first take the new car out for a drive, they become distracted when they see an unusually large turpentine still at the side of the road, and drive into the back of a two-horse wagon, damaging their car and killing the other driver. He is black, so they leave his body lying mangled in a ditch and later complain to Jeeter that the accident was the black driver’s fault. His life is of literally no consequence to them, and their indifference to it is both powerful and shocking (though this is diminished slightly as the book progresses and one realises that they are equally indifferent to the deaths of family members).

Equally, Caldwell excels at depicting the squalor of genuine poverty, the terrible conditions the characters are living in and the constant misery of hunger and in the scenes with Lov or between the grandmother and the family how it can overwhelm all normal human restraint. In an interview in 1985, Caldwell spoke of his experience in the South of this time as follows:

‘I got a good look at these conditions firsthand after I took a job as a driver for a country doctor,’ … ‘I saw people eating clay to fill their stomachs, and I entered tiny shacks with dirt floors that had as many as 15 people living inside.’

In part then, the book is fictionalised reportage, and this is why Caldwell portrays not only the external forces that prey upon these rural poor but also their own failings that contribute to their lot.

As the novel continues, the futility of Jeeter’s half-hearted attempts to improve his particular lot becomes increasingly apparent. The only real option available to him is the one he will not take, to go work in the cotton mills, and indeed Jeeter’s devotion to the land is his only real redeeming quality – his only genuinely human trait. The core tragedy of the novel is how little money he needs to achieve his dreams, and how far he is even from achieving that pittance. When Bessie and Duke take Jeeter to town, they cram the back of the car with wood (tearing the seats in the process), but none of it can be sold. Bessie rather randomly becomes a prostitute for the night, as best I can tell without pay, and they return home with the car increasingly battered and even its spare tire sold to pay for their food and lodgings. On the way back, Jeeter decides that if he cannot sell the blackjack wood he will at least prevent anyone using it for free, and so decides to burn it himself:

They waited for the blackjack to burn so they could leave for home. The leaves had burned to charred ashes, and the flame had gone out. The scrub oak would not catch on fire.
Jeeter scraped up a larger pile of leaves, set it on fire, and began tossing the sticks on it. The fire burned briskly for several minutes, and then went out under the weight of the green wood.
Jeeter stood looking at it, sadly. He did not know how to make it burn. Then Dude drew some gasoline from the tank and poured it on the pile. A great blaze sprang up ten or twelve feet into the air. Before long that too died down, leaving a pile of blackened sticks in the ditch.
‘Well, I reckon that’s all I can do to that damn-blasted blackjack,’ Jeeter said, getting into the car. ‘It looks like there ain’t no way to get rid of the durn wood. It won’t sell and it won’t burn. I reckon the devil got into it.’
They drove off in a swirl of yellow dust, and were soon nearing the tobacco road. Dude drove slowly through the deep white sand, blowing the horn all the way home.

Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, the book moves toward tragedy. Jeeter and Ada try to contact some of their children for help with money, but not one child who has left home has ever returned or even written, and the one they manage to contact tells them to go to hell. Jeeter cannot of course get a mule, or seed cotton, or guano, and he will not work in the mills. The car, with depressing predictability, is almost a wreck within a week of purchase. There is no light of hope at all. I will not detail the ending, but it is in keeping with the rest of the work. The difficulty with it, however, is that in order to get a suitably bleak ending Caldwell rather forces events in a way I found personally very unconvincing:

Jeeter and Ada normally got up with the sun, and it was that time now. Neither of them came to the windows now, however, nor did either of them open the door. They were both asleep.

Tragedy ensues due to their obliviousness. Tragedy which in my view Caldwell hasn’t earned, as he admits himself they do not normally oversleep, he merely decrees that on this occasion they do and this is of course the only occasion when it matters. To me, it was a crude device, in which the tragedy flowed not from the improvidence or misfortune of the characters but from an intrusive act of authorial fiat required in order to bring the novel to a suitable close. Caldwell’s generally naturalistic style failed him here in my view, and rather than evoking sympathy I felt simply that I was watching a writer manipulating the rather unconvincing characters he had created.

Worse yet, we get a speech by Lov in which the dialogue is essentially identical to that used by Jeeter, so much so that were you to excerpt Lov’s monologue and place it next to any of Jeeter’s several monologues the only way you would be able to tell that these are supposedly different people speaking is that Lov refers to Jeeter in the third person. Interchangeability of character is sometimes intentional, it is made very clear in the novel that Dude is really just a younger version of Jeeter (a fact made ironic by Dude’s contempt for Jeeter as a father and human being). I wasn’t persuaded though that the sudden interchangeability of Jeeter and Lov was intentional in that way, in any event if it was it didn’t work for me, reminding me rather that these characters were merely vehicles for an authorial argument.

And that takes me to my essential problem with this work. I disliked the pat ending which only occurs because the author suddenly declares the characters depart from their normal behaviour, I disliked Lov suddenly becoming some kind of were-Jeeter the moment he got a monologue to himself, but more than any of that by some way I disliked the sheer lack of persuasive humanity on the part of the characters. I have recently read two other novels featuring the abjectly poor, Animal’s People and Q & A. The first I liked, the second I didn’t, but both portrayed the poor as still essentially human, flawed yes but also gifted with humour and intelligence and feeling for those close to them. Caldwell’s characters have none of this, and the fact that nobody evidences even the intelligence one would expect from a developmentally challenged chicken, that they have no more empathy or concern for each other than would stick insects, this ultimately makes them unpersuasive as human beings and if these terrible things are happening to beings that don’t persuade as human ultimately why should we care?

Poverty is degrading, and can rob people of their humanity, but here there is no particular evidence of any humanity to be robbed. Steinbeck, in his novels of the Great Depression, sometimes erred in making his poor too virtuous, too put upon. Caldwell commits the opposite error, his poor are objects of pathos, ciphers in a desolate landscape, Steinbeck’s characters are sometimes too human and Caldwell’s not human enough.

The poor have little enough, to rob them of their humanity seems to me a step too far. For that reason, although this is in my view a very well written novel, it is not one I am likely to return to.

Since writing that final line above, I checked online for countervailing views, and found this excellent account on a local history site: http://chronicle.augusta.com/history/caldwell.html. The quotes above from Caldwell and from the reporter accompanying his father are both from this site, and I recommend it as a differing view to my own.

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Filed under Caldwell, Erskine, Reportage, Social Realism