§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: March 2010

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano. Translator: Cedric Belfrage

I read this book out of curiosity—and interest in Latin America. I was advised that it was just rant or left-wing rant, but decided to see for myself.  I came away with this as the main idea: “in Latin America, free enterprise is incompatible with civil liberties” as Galeano says in his commentary on the book in an afterward. The book catalogues the exploitation of  “the people” —usually the indigenous people—by South American oligarchies and by their European and North American affiliates.
It’s certainly been a controversial book. First published in 1971 and often condemned and frequently banned in Latin America, I doubt it’s been on the radar in North American very long. The current edition was published in 1997 with a foreward by Isabel Allende. It’s been in the news recently when President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gave a copy to Obama and then when commentators speculated on whether or not he would read it. Actually, I hope he did. (,8599,1892801,00.html)

My first impression was that Galeano’s detractors were right, the book was just rant. Galeano is a journalist and he knows how to use words to move readers.  My impression was that every sentence in the first chapter had emotionally-loaded words. If his ideas hadn’t piqued my curiosity I might have put it down. Ensuing chapters might come to emotionally-loaded conclusions, but the presentation of evidence was impressive. I can’t endorse the ideas completely because I don’t know enough to evaluate everything he says, but I was impressed.

Galeano’s thesis is that the first the European conquerors (Spain and Portugal), later European business interests—mainly the British—and finally the US (government and business) have promised developmental assistance but delivered subservience largely by economic means—by keeping production costs low using raw materials and cheap labor from Latin American and then selling products for large profits, even selling them back to Latin American countries at the same time as they prevent them from producing their own products. In what seemed to me a telling comparison he contrasts conquistadors arriving in Latin American with the expectation of taking riches home to Europe  with settlers in New England fleeing Europe and determined to grow their food and make the products they need for themselves—and to stay, not seek treasure to bring home. In what turned out to be an advantage for North America, there was no gold or silver, not even promising farms land so the British, in comparison to the Iberians, tended to ignore the colonies rather than plunder them.

In this idea, Galeano reminds me of Fareed Zakaria’s thesis in The Future of Freedom where he explains that wealth in the form of natural resources is actually a deterrent to democracy because it leads to a ruling class that appropriates the resources and uses them to develop the country (or to line their own pockets) rather the depending on the population to supply funds for the government in the form of taxes. Elections don’t mean much if the people doing the electing have no power. And clearly immigration to America took a far different path in the North than in the South. The result was the development of a growing middle class of local producers in North America--something that didn't happen in most Latin American countries which developed local oligarchies who themselves continued to be exploited by powerful patrons. 

Galeano’s text is colorful and impressive, even for someone like me for whom the names and historical events are not familiar. He’s a master of the powerful and memorable phrases than sum up (probably somewhat simplistically but I ended up thinking often right nonetheless) the problem. “Underdevelopment in South America is a result of development elsewhere”, “ a Volkswagen Republic is much like a banana republic”,  “nationalization doesn’t necessarily redistribute wealth”. Over and over again he talks about the wealth concentrated among an oligarchy and the widespread poverty at the bottom that has characterized many Latin American countries for centuries,  making it clear over and over again that “the outposts pay the price for the wealth of the centers”. The centers were usually the ports that grew up to serve the Europeans and later North Americans who needed to ship the gold, the silver, the meat, the rubber, the bananas or whatever.

It’s easy for a US citizen to agree with all the details about exploitation by Europeans, harder to deal with exploitation by North Americans. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner  (20070 confirms US involvement in supporting the oligarchies that support the US companies.  It struck me reading about the maneuverings of American companies that, whether needing bananas or rubber or petroleum, they were operating not all that differently from how we’re discovering they operate at home and it’s abundantly clear at this point that the US is moving toward something like the Latin American republics with wealth increasingly concentrated among the few while the middle class which enabled the US to be different from its Latin American neighbors is dwindling. Power in the US is increasingly in the hands of corporations—often multi-nationals with loyalties primarily to their own interests which may or may not be the people of the United States. But perhaps I push this too far.


I have to note that Galeano, as many other Latin Americans, deplores the fact that the US has even co-opted the name “America”. (I had a hard time avoiding it in this review.)


Bottom line: This is a highly emotional book, but the logic and the evidence is quite definitely not lacking. I tend to compare him to Michael Moore, who goes after public attention with emotionally charged rhetoric, but backs it up with facts and details that prove the need for drawing attention to the issue. I cannot evaluate the detail and no doubt Galeano exaggerates and rants but it’s still a compelling book that’s worth the attention of a thinking person.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Maps of places I've been -- sort of fun

visited 37 states (74%)
Create your own visited map of The United States

visited 24 states (10.6%)
Create your own visited map of The World

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Children's Book by AS Byatt

Some background:
I've been a Byatt fan since I started reading her about 1990--I heard about Possession when it won the Booker I think and am always fascinated by novels that attempt to reconstruct the past from documents and bits and pieces picked up in research. But even in Britain it was still only in hardcover so I bought a few paperbacks of earlier novels on a trip to London: The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life and The Game. Read them in quick succession and was hooked.

Last spring I was in London and one of the first things I read in the newspaper was about the publication of a new Byatt novel. Off to the Waterstone's near the University of London for a copy. Later found a signed copy in Hatchard's on Picadilly and bought that too. I'm not an autograph collector, but for me Byatt is special.

My review:
I admire Byatt's ability to pick a period (in this case the end of the Victorian period and the run up to WWI), to pick a theme or collection of related themes (in this case liberal social thinking--Fabians, feminists, advocates of free love, a whole range of social reformers) who sought to extend the Victorian theme of a world getting better and better to human interactions and worked for personal freedoms and personal development) and to pick a place (in this case Kent--earlier Byatt books have focused on York where she grew up or London) and then to concoct characters and story lines that completely subsume all the ideas and the research that in so many novels these days stick out like sore appendages, into her story.

Her title rings many bells. First, the main character, Olive Wellwood, writes children's stories. A case can be made that children's stories (a la Peter Pan and Kim and The Railway Children) was Britain's main contribution to literature in this period. Olive also writes an individual story book for each of her seven children, adding to the stories often as she has her tea in bed everyone morning. For her it becomes a kind of mothering, one that works differently (and not all successfully with each child.) It's an age in which childhood comes to be seen as a separate, formative, stage of life that merits adult attention--and initially at least, Olive and her husband Humphrey in their big house in the woods, Todfright, with her sister Violet as organizer and child minder, seem to have created an ideal childhood for Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Florian, Robin and Harry.

The novel abounds with children: in addition to the Wellwood children there are Julian and Florence, the children of Prosper Cain, an administrator at the V&A in London who's an advisor to Olive when she needs historical background for her stories; Charles and Griselda, the children of Humphrey's banker brother Basil and his rich German wife Katharina; Geraint, Imogen and Pomona, the children of neighbor and genius potter, Benedict Fludd and his wife Seraphita (really Sarah-Jane) who'd been a model for pre-Raphaelites painters; Philip Warren, a dirty runaway whom Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain find breaking into the museum to sketch beautiful things, and whom Olive, herself an escapee from the North where her father was a coal miner, takes home to "do something for". Eventually we have Philip's sister Elsie too who makes her way from the potteries where their mother died from lead poisoning as she worked painting dishes. Philip begins to work with Fludd (who needs an apprentice and organizer and who recognizes Phillip's talent) and Elsie becomes housekeeper at Dungeness where Seraphita is disorganized and mentally absent most of the time, managing only to clothe her daughters in loose flowing but dirty and badly made dresses, while totally neglecting her less artistic but more practical son.

The Humphrey Wellwoods host a Midsummer party every year to which all these children and their parents come as do as all the artists and do-gooders and liberal thinkers for miles around--and this was a back-to-the-land movement so many many had moved, like the Wellwoods, to the countryside in Kent. It's a costume party with some acting of Shakespeare's play. Idyllic, at least on the surface.

A subplot of the novel involves a family of German puppeteers from Munich--and their children--who, with Katharina Wellwood, give some insight into artists and liberal thinkers in Germany.

The basic canvas of the book is this Midsummer party of 1895 with its huge cast of characters, many of whom are children supposedly being raised in freedom and love with encouragement to discover their passions in life. In reality, the canvas is more complex and far darker than it appears and these children will become part of the great children's crusade which was World War I, lurking in the background to snap up their youth and their innocence and ending the Victorian certainty of a world ever improving.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Interesting book, partly historical, partly about the author's trip to the Amazon--all in search of the lost city of Z (or El Dorado or at least evidence that a well-developed civilization which once existed in the Amazon). The central focus of the book is Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who, after many expeditions into the Amazon where he proved his ability to survive in the jungle and to deal gently and effectively with Indians he met, put together an expedition in the 1920ies consisting of only himself, his 21-year old son and his son's friend. They vanished and were not heard of again--not all that unusual for Amazon expeditions, but everyone who knew anything about Fawcett didn't expect that. Many lives were lost in the ensuing years in a search for the Fawcett party. An artifact or two would show up but stories about their graves and which Indians killed them usually proved mistaken. The author decided to go too and his well-equipped contemporary trip is chronicled alongside that of Fawcett and other Amazon explorers like American Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice. Fawcett's entire history as explorer is woven in as well.
I read with fascination Charles C Mann's 1491 about civilization in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and this book plays right into those ideas, though it's more an adventure tale than an idea book. A quick read and worth the time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The intrusion of the real-life author into a novel is a mark of post-modernism designed force the reader to step back and look at the novel as a fiction (something created by humans rather than inherent in the natural world) and one way writers have been doing that for 50 years has been to intrude themselves into the novel.(Of course this intrusion of the writer was also rebellion against H James' insistence that the fabric of the fiction be inviolable, allowing none of the "dear reader" stuff of preceding fictions.) Sort of like Hitchcock makes tidbit appearances in his films, a face in the crowd, a man on the bus, etc. It reminds us that this world we're been participating in is not real, that the story and its focus is "made up" by one person. (I always saw Hitchcock as egotistical in his obsession to appear in his film, but all creators have big egos--otherwise how could they sustain their work which is done absolutely alone with bare-minimum tools and depends entirely on their own ability to "make up stuff"?)

In this novel it's like Pamuk, in using himself as character (you must think of the Pamuk in the novel as a character as well of course) creates sort of an after-the-fact frame for his tale. And indeed, the minute we recognize Pamuk is telling the tale, its significance broadens and we see clearly that this is not just a tale of one man's obsession with a woman but a sociological study of a man who's love puts him on the outside to observe the society he is (or was) a part of. A society changing as it grows in wealth and experience of the outside world. As Fusun is the focus of Kemal's museum, so Kemal is the focus of Pamuk's.

Of course, when we run into the Pamuk family early in the story and when Orhan attends the engagement party we must be expecting something like this. That was a little more blatant than Hitchcock waiting for a bus in whatever film that was.

I thought it was a bit arbitrary to kill off Kemal, but it makes it much easier to turn his story into an archeological/sociological one.

I'm curious too how this story became a meditation on museums, what they're for and how they come about. We go from an admittedly nutty man who saves the salt shakers from the table where he eats with his beloved to challenging the notion of what a museum is, what it means to society and how it's used. (There I see some commonality with Byatt's The Children's Book where there's a minor but significant focus on the V&A and how it developed, what role it was intended to fill, etc.)