Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review of 'The Black Jacobins' by C L R James

One of those book that I'm amazed that I hadn't already read - it's been around me for years and years, and somehow I'd begun to imagine that I'd read it. But I hadn't, though I had read a novelisation of the life of Henri Christophe, which covered some of the same material.

It's absolutely brilliant history, with a great understanding of the balance between individual heroes (and villains) and social forces. James also has a really good grasp of the limitations of the heroes too, especially Toussaint L'Overture, who is the central character of the Haitian revolution. The writing is beautiful - even the production of the book, with detailed numbered footnotes at the foot of each page (not in some unfindable section at the back) is a pleasure.

I must admit that there were some parts where I got a bit confused. Suddenly there seemed to be too many characters on stage, and I rather lost track of who was who - some character cards would have helped here, I think. And the twists and turns of the wars and battles, especially during the revolutionary period, are really confusing - the role of the British, and the Americans, is well set out but even so it's hard to follow.

But the narrative takes off again during the final round, when Napoleon sends a French army to reconquer the island and reimpose slavery. I must say that I hadn't appreciated what a nasty, reactionary, racist Bonaparte was. The atrocities committed by the planters and the French soldiers, often with the express intention of creating terror and despair in the revolting ex-slaves, were appalling. I know comparisons with the Nazis are always invidious, but I couldn't help thinking that German civilians didn't ever turn up to watch mass executions as a form of entertainment.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get round to it. I understand it was also turned into a play, which would be interesting to see.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review of Pepi Luci Bom

Almodovar's first film, and obviously intended to be shocking and obscene. It's a bit shapeless, with some scenes and characters that appear to have been spliced in without any connection to the main plot or the rest of the characters. The story is about three women, one (Pepi) youngish and sort of glamorous, one (Luci) middle-aged, petite bourgeois and repressed (her husband is a sleazy policeman), and one (Bom) a 15-year old singer in a punk band.

The middle-aged one is a sexual masochist and longs for her husband to beat and abuse her, but he treats her with respect 'like I'm his mother' - though he's happy to rape Pepi when he finds that she has marijuana plants in her apartment. The rape is treated very lightly in the film, as are the various degradation to which the other two women eventually come to subject Luci - of course, she wants to be degraded, so it's all right. Early on Bom pisses on Luci, and later she beats her. Eventually Luci is reconciled to her husband, after he subjects her to a savage beating when he finds that she's been living with the other two.

See what I mean?

It rather reminded me of Jubilee, though the S&M sex in that was much sexier. Olvido Gara as Bom even looks like a bit like Toyah Wilcox as Mad.

Watched via laptop, projector and informal distribution at Jane's front room in The Old Co-op on Horns Road, Stroud.

Review of 'In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History'

I've had this knocking around for years, but never quite got round to actually reading. But lately I've been thinking a lot about slavery and the anti-slavery movement - there are resonances with climate change, and also with Brexit (I've never quite got round to putting my thoughts down about that...must do so soon).

Well, not reading it wasn't such a bad idea. There's not all that much Marxian exploration. There is a lot of polemical stuff against opponents who are surely now dead, or defunct, or forgotten - student radicals who want to take over the universities (which Genovese defends as disinterested communities of scholars), Black separatists who wanted an autonomous region of four Black-ruled states in the USA, dogmatic CP-USA Marxists who weren't as good at Marxist history as their English counterparts, and people who had the wrong criticism of pro-Confederate southern historians.

Much of this can only be of interest to scholars of...historiography? The sectarian left? (He's rather soft on Maoism, and even has a jarringly nice thing to say about Stalin at one point: " Comrade Stalin, who remains dear to some of us for the genuine accomplishments that accompanied his crimes, clearly understood..." (p371). Perhaps this is ironic, though there isn't much humour anywhere else in the book.

He's really down on what Marx and Engels said about the US Civil War (which he insists on calling the War for Southern Independence), describing it as polemical and based on poor analysis. Yeah, maybe, but working out what he really thinks about slavery, or the Civil War, is really hard - unlike Marx, he doesn't seem to me to be unequivocally on the side of the North.

The book does end with a rather nice potted version of what Gramsci says and why it's important, reminding me that it's about time I had another look at that. Curiously he seems to express Gramsci's ideas rather better than Gramsci did himself...though it's spoilt a bit by the way that he doesn't really address the issue of class - he gets it that 'the working class' isn't a useful analytical or political term, but he offers only not very useful add-ins like 'ghetto dwellers' and 'the New Middle Class'. Oh well, can't blame him for that, who else does any better?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review of 'Ridley Walker' by Russell Hoban

Blimey this was a remarkable book - an indication is that I really hated it for the first 80 pages but persevered with it. I hated it because it's written in a weird dialect/orthography with idiosyncratic spelling and grammar, which makes it very hard to read - often you have to read the words out loud to work out what they are.

It's a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy, set in Kent thousands of years after some sort of catastrophe, and part of the point is trying to understand what memory of that event has remained in culture. The civilisation has retained puppet shows as a means of communication and transmission of ideas, and a garbled version of the story of St Eustace from a commentary on a wall painting.

It made me think a lot, about imminent catastrophe but also about how much of our culture, and our technological civilisation is both inter-dependent and cumulative. The eponymous hero at one point learns how many years have passed since the disaster (several thousand) and is struck by how little his civilisation seems to have advanced compared to the knowledge that the ancients had before. Is it because they are just stupider, that their brains don't work so well, as a result of the disaster? He isn't sure, but it seems to me that the people described - even though they have some metal-working skills - for the most part are living like palaeolithic people. They are just inventing settled agriculture, although they elsewhere the author says they are an Iron Age civilisation. On the other hand they seem to have remained literate and can even read such documents as they have (the St Eustace story) from before the disaster.

Well, not everything has to make sense. But I am very glad I did carry on, and almost want to read it again.