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Saturday, June 13, 2020

WITHERING LOWS: OPERATIVES OF THE STATE

WITHERING LOWS: OPERATIVES OF THE STATE

[the case of Fiona Hill, PhD (Harvard)]


A Guardian article on Fiona Hill notes her concerns about people left behind due to de-industrialisation, in the UK, Russia and the USA:

And in all three countries, the ties of family obligations and social networks kept people rooted in place without prospects, and educational opportunities to change your destiny have withered away.

These same people then vote for populist like Johnson, Putin and Trump because

“Populism provides a narrative for people who have lost their identities that were tied to meaningful work,” she said. “When people lose that then they’re looking for something. There’s a feeling they’ve been robbed and deprived of a golden age, and they want that back and populist politics feeds upon that, and provides scapegoats for losing it.”

So, because ‘liberal democracies’ did not deliver the goods for working people, they turned to populists who screw them even more.

This is a sad narrative trotted out over and over again by high ranking academics who deplore the current affairs of state while being intimately associated with them. Fiona Hill, as a former adviser to Trump, and now back at the Brookings Institution, the foremost conservative think-tank (sic) of the U.S., is a case in point. Coming from a northern England working class background in County Durham, she ‘escaped’ a withering town called Bishop Auckland1, to ultimately end up in Washington DC as a highly acclaimed operative of the state. The Guardian attributes her rise to fame and glory to ‘karma and luck’, which is yet another favoured narrative for those who have prospered against all the odds. The other heart-warming story of pulling yourself out of the mire by the bootstraps, is less favoured these days (unless you are another celebrity operator called Dominic Cummings, BTW also from Durham) because it is fake, i.e. billions of people work extremely hard but never get anywhere, withering away instead, as of no fault of their own. Being an adviser to Trump must be one of the laziest jobs known to mankind, and yet with pay checks and perks that make the eyes water of well-to-do faculty of ivy-league universities in the U.S.

No doubt, Fiona Hill’s relatives and acquaintances left behind in withering Bishop Auckland are extremely proud of her achievements and rise in social and economic status. She is still one of us, they may say. But is she really? By her own admission she was accused of a betrayal of sorts:

Given everything that Hill knew and understood about the threats to democracy from populism and Putin’s Russia, some of her friends and colleagues were astonished when she went to work for Trump in the early months of the administration, with one accusing her of “aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise”.

Her feeble excuse, it seems was that 

… she felt obliged to do what she could to address the dangerous volatility of the relationship between two nuclear-armed state.

Sounds a bit like working for Hitler’s regime with the excuse to wanting to mitigate the danger of war and genocide, which was a ruse employed by many of the Mitläufer so as to escape prosecution. 

Not that I am suggesting that Fiona Hill is in the same league but what is so serrating in her case, is the stupendous denial of having anything to do with the ‘withering’ masses of people and yet being able to analyse the causes of it, and doing so from a highly privileged position of academic super power. If the current protest movements in the US were to succeed, everyone working or having worked for Trump should be indicted on the grounds of having condemned millions of people living in the US (and quite likely elsewhere in the world) to poverty, racial degradation and all that is implied in the term ‘withering’. 

If this wasn’t so serious, one might call it hilarious when Fiona Hill is mistaken as a note-taking secretary by Trump, as if to confirm her perceived lack of criminal association. Given the vast machinery of state, some of the flunkeys that hover around the bright light of Trump (and Putin, Johnson and the like) like moths, do get their wings burnt, and then they have to retreat to their respective think-tanks. As Hill notes herself, these Machiavellian machinations have nothing to do with policy advice (how to avoid a nuclear war with Russia, for example) but with advisers sticking knives into each other’s backsides so as to get closer to the people in the room who make policy decisions on a whim. So, let us briefly look at her implied assertion that she is a genuine policy expert on all things Russia, i.e. why people like Trump should really listen to her. Having studied Russian and politics at St. Andrews and later at Harvard (see ‘karma and luck’) she was seemingly destined to advance to the higher ranks of the Brookings Institute by virtue of her publications on Russia. The first notable title from 2003 The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold is so revealing that one does not have to read a single line of the treatise: bad communists! A sentiment surely sufficient to endear oneself to arch-capitalists on Capitol Hill. A second one from 2004 I read in more detail (as one can download it for free), i.e. Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia's Revival. To me it reads like pure policy trash, citing endless World Bank statistics and the like, introducing her topic with the meaningless but ever so dramatic phrase of ‘Russia is back on the global strategic and economic map.’ I mean, was Russia ever NOT on the map? Does Fiona Hill decide who is and who is NOT on the map? Is the ‘map’ some sort of objective artefact that needs no context? Colourful academics with a flair of colourful writing styles get away with murder but are applauded by their peers (in higher positions) as having an ideological baseline that somehow validates all the details that follow. As a conclusion Hill offers us this pill of wisdom:

Fuelled by oil and gas, Russia may yet follow the same path after the end of the Cold War. It could become the dominant power in its immediate neighbourhood by virtue of its economic growth and new soft power resource potential – not by virtue of the old hard power that led it to invade, conquer, and colonize territory in the past. Russian dominance of Eurasia in this manner would be much more palatable, even for the traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West who eventually became comfortable with the economic dominance by Germany and Japan of their immediate neighbourhoods.

This type of geopolitical trash talk is utterly divorced from the concerns of the vast majority of the people on this earth, appealing only to a small class of neo-feudal princelings who like to be told of their divine powers to rule the earth for the benefit of ‘their’ people and mostly for themselves. I mean, who are the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ that Hill is writing about? Today, are they the neo-fascists who deem the so called ‘antifa’ as terrorists? Are they the ‘hawks’ who deem anarchists as ‘ugly’? People who tear down racist statues are told by Johnson that

To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

When after the collapse of the Soviet Union the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ encouraged the new states to tear down statues of Stalin, Lenin, etc. and rename places named after them, nobody of the Western liberal power elites blinked an eyelid. When a progressive intellectual like Noam Chomsky called for various U.S. presidents to be tried for war crimes, the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ (e.g. Nixon) put him on a list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated. Sure, Nixon went too far but it looks as if Trump and his contemporaries (Johnson and Putin, in Hill’s estimation) are going further without impunity, what with Hill’s ambiguous statements during the impeachment trial having no impact whatsoever. I am not advocating that Fiona Hill work in the coalmines, like her father did, but I wish she would reconsider her status and at least join an autonomous zone in Seattle, writing pamphlets to call for the ‘defunding’ of all police and armed forces in the U.S., Russian and the U.K., if not the rest of the world. This would not only mitigate the dangers of all wars (civil and uncivil) but eliminate them. A project that might even appeal to the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ as they are always intent on ‘eliminating’ something and someone. In the absence of such action we will only experience more ‘withering’  - lately enhanced by a virus that decimates the working classes more than twice the rate of the upper classes, so why care? 


1               As another BTW, writing this from Auckland, NZ, one may note that this city is named after a miserable British colonialist who waged various disastrous wars in India and Afghanistan. Time to revert to the Maori name of Tāmaki Makaurau. 



Hill, Fiona; Gaddy, Clifford G. (2003). The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Hill, Fiona (September 2004). Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia's Revival (PDF). London: Foreign Policy Centre.






Friday, May 1, 2020

ZEITGEIST

LIFE TAKES TIME – TIME TAKES LIFE

That’s obvious, you may say
But all depends on who and where you are
If you live day by day
If you come from afar

Some die young, some die old
Some are never born
Like the seed when it’s too cold
 Like love forlorn

Shakespeare and all the other minor bards intone
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st
Like a rolling stone, a complete unknown
It’s only your copyright you ow’st

Time has time and can wait forever
Warped in space and in your eyes
You say never say never
But it’s time that flies

There is no rhyme and reason
Break free from the rhyme
But not from the reason
That in theory rhymes with time

The rich have time to waste
The poor have no money to buy it
Life is so unfair
Time is indifferent
I’ve lost the rhythm
Gone atonal, lost in languages
Die Zeit jagt die Liebe weg und die Liebe jagt die Zeit weg
The title in German with love
La petite mort
The French objective of literature (Barthes)
Ahakoa, he aroha iti, he pounamu tonu
In Māori a little love is precious too

TIME OUT

Saturday, March 28, 2020

IT IS TIME


IT IS TIME 

A German media psychologist recommends in Der Spiegel that ‘it is time to understand more and to be afraid less’. Well, I think in the current pandemic situation, the more you understand what is going on, the more frightened you should get. On 19 February, a soccer match in Bergamo between an Italian and Spanish club attracted over 40,000 fans, causing the viral bomb to explode in northern Italy. On 11 March, Atlético Madrid played Liverpool. The IOC postponed the Olympic Games (now an elitist spectacle managed by sporting brands) in Tokyo just the other day. In New Zealand and Australia, they kept going with professional rugby and soccer until a few days ago. Corporate sport with its mega business empires was, and still is, willing to sacrifice the lives of many to make another easy buck. Obviously it is not only sports empires that are to blame for the pandemic outbreak but the whole corporate sector. The industrial empires with their mega factories in China did not want to see a slow-down in production in Wuhan, nor did a subservient Chinese Government want to curb the phenomenal economic growth in GDP – until it was too late. While China and other Asian manufacturing countries then threw everything they had at the epidemic, the capitalist West (mainly the UK, EU and US) looked on with simulated shock and horror, in the mistaken belief that this was a regional outbreak, like Ebola or SARS before – until it was too late. Even so, the belated responses are to save the economies, not the people. A Texan governor even declared that the elderly are willing to die to save the economy. Religious and fascist nutcases trot out the (God given) survival of the fittest scenarios.

Trillions of dollars are thrown at the business empires to keep them afloat, the terrible theory being that if they sink, everyone will sink with them. The daily propaganda warns of a deep recession, making millions of workers unemployed but keeping the corporations afloat – for what? Wartime metaphors are employed to prepare the populace for a wartime economy: the labour force will be requisitioned to build the weapons that will defeat the pandemic. Frontline medical personnel are already praised like wartime heroes, sacrificing their lives for the country’s economy. Big Pharma is frantic with finding the cure: another perverted Der Spiegel article asked researchers if they would become millionaires if they discovered the magic bullet that will defeat the evil virus. If there were an equally perverse conspiracy theory to be promoted, it would be to suggest that big Pharma let the virus loose in the first place, like the mad fire fighters who light fires to become heroes. Amidst all of this confusion it is not surprising that actual misunderstandings proliferate, like the one published about a Mexican state governor, Miguel Barbosa:

Officials say three-quarters of Mexico’s 475 confirmed cases are related to international travel, including several people who reportedly caught the virus on skiing trips to Italy or the US.

“Most of them are wealthy people,” Barbosa said. “If you are rich you are at risk. If you are poor you are not. The poor, we’re immune.”

If only! It may well be the case that the jet-set rich spread the virus across the globe but it will be the poor, as usual, who will suffer most. It may also be the case that the rich will swing into action once they realize that they will die too, as happened in NZ’s history when European induced diseases decimated the indigenous Maori without much concern, until it transpired that such diseases made their way back to the well-to-do European populations. Preventative action was taken and the ‘Maori race’ was saved from extinction, not as a humanitarian gesture but due to the self-serving interests of the upper-class settlers, for once ordering the government of the day to divert taxation funds towards public health. 

In the current corporate state par excellence, the USA, the situation is still at the point of vast taxation funds being spent on ‘supporting business’ rather than public health, subscribing to bizarre economic theories, as described in a Guardian article, entitled ‘The economy v our lives? It's a false choice – and a deeply stupid one’ by Siva Vaidhyanathan. President Trump and his cronies just want the workers to ‘get back to work’, describing the lock-down cure worse than the disease. That the rich get preferential treatment when it comes to Corona virus testing, is no surprise. Trump is testing negative while Prince Charles (the UK as the mirror image of the USA) is testing positive. In NZ, you – as a commoner -  are only tested if you fulfill the criteria that indicate a strong possibility you already have the virus, and it takes two to three days to get the results. Given that people with the virus can be asymptomatic, one would have thought that testing should be a fast and large-scale exercise, as indeed is done in more enlightened countries like China, South Korea and Taiwan. Here in the West, in private hospitals, patients with private health insurance receive preferential therapies, with no shortage of ventilators and other equipment considered necessary but in very short supply in the public health sector. 

Again, here in NZ, frontline staff in public hospitals receive daily instructions as to when and WHEN NOT to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), with great emphasis on the latter. While the PM, Jacinda Adern, tries her best to scare everyone to death with her metaphor that we should all act as IF we had the virus, the frontline ED staff are told by management that PPEs are only to be worn if there is a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 in the hospital, and even then only in the area where such patients are held in isolation. Currently, rumours are being circulated whereby PPEs are ‘stolen’ from public hospitals, so as to encourage hospital managers to ‘securely’ lock away such equipment, making it very difficult for frontline staff to request even basic equipment like face masks and hand sanitizers. Mental Health nurses are excluded from such procedures altogether, even though it is clear that mental health (MH) clients are often the most vulnerable, unable to be triaged for physical symptoms by asking them silly questions such as ‘have you been overseas recently, or in casual contact with someone who has or is suspected of having COVID-19’ when they have no concept about either. Obviously MH staff in such situations should wear PPE because there is no way to establish – other than testing – whether or not a client has the virus. 

Daily media updates from Government and Health officials are couched in Orwellian newspeak, accentuating the positive, denying the negative, saying as much as ‘the good news is that we know that cases will increase before they will decrease’. Welcome to the Brave New World, as predicted long time ago by Aldous Huxley. Daily news conferences held by the NZ Director General of Health, together with inane questions from corporate journalists, are all designed to minimize an escalating situation, asking people to follow the rules of social distancing but still denying frontline staff to wear PPEs. Millions of PPEs are, apparently held in ‘secure’ storage facilities, presumably to be issued when ‘necessary’, as defined by medical bureaucrats and self-serving medical consultants in high places.

In the US as in NZ (and the like), workers are being ‘laid off’ or ‘furloughed’ without compensation even though income protection is supposed to be available. In NZ, Burger King is being accused of sacking workers without explanation, making excuses like management are still trying to ‘sort out’ the Government wage subsidy package. A Government Finance Minister blithely said that cases of ‘double-dipping’ (i.e. business owners getting the wage subsidy but not passing it on to their workers) would be investigated (and no doubt will be given a warning with the proverbial slap of a wet parking ticket). Banks are praised for offering struggling home owners ‘mortgage holidays’ when the fine print says that such mortgage repayments are deferred, i.e. adding to the length of the term with the effect of increased interest rates. In the US, at the time of writing, over 3 million workers have already filed for unemployment benefits, a degrading bureaucratic process reminiscent of the American soup kitchens during the Great Depression.

In the end, this sorry saga will have cost the corporate sectors few of their vast profits, cushioned by taxpayer handouts (and some may even profit from the misery) but it will cost the workers everything, if not their lives. There is speculation, that when the pandemic ends, a new way of life has to be found, a much more just and equitable global society to be established, a socialist transformation no less. Let us hope, that this time, it is the time.







Sunday, February 23, 2020

JOJO RABBIT & CAGING SKIES

JOJO RABBIT & CAGING SKIES

Taika Waititi & Christine Leunens

Review & Review

Having seen the movie version first and read the book afterwards, one may, in theory, ask if the book was adapted from the movie, and if there were an Oscar for such a category, would the book be a winner? No doubt there are other movies that have been adapted from obscure novels, the latter and their writers remaining fodder only for the credits that roll at the end, when the moviegoers have long vacated their seats. Here we are not so sure. True, the movie hit the entertainment headlines first, without much mention of the book or writer; only when winning the Oscar in the category of best movie adaptation, the journalists and gossip columnists turned their gaze upon the origins of this crazy tale, and lo and behold, there was a story to tell as well: an already famous Kiwi film maker shows off his muse at various after-Oscar parties, even though in his thank-you speech at the Oscars he only mumbled about his mother and indigenous artists. So, what on earth is going on here?

Having read a negative review of Jojo Rabbit in the Guardian as ‘unfunny’, I was under the impression that this might be some sort of failed Chaplinesque treatment of Hitler and Co. – in the event Taika Waititi as Hitler does employ the famous Chaplin sidekick, to mind very well done but more of that later). At the same time it was reported that at the Toronto Film Festival, the movie was a crowd pleaser, and now to top it all off, the Oscar. Not that in my view this Hollywood award carries any artistic significance – almost the opposite – but acting as the last straw to motivate me to go and see it myself, not being a great movie buff at all (the last movie I had watched was Godard’s The Image Book, as per invitation from my daughter who is a video and film editor with exceedingly good taste in such matters).

The screening on a Friday afternoon in an Auckland city movie theatre was a surreal experience, what with only few people in the audience – having expected a full house considering the sensation of a Kiwi film winning an Oscar. With me and my wife having whole rows to ourselves, we baulked at the opening scenes. Why is this silly Hitler/Taika Waititi prancing around as an imaginary friend for Jojo? Not terribly funny, except after a while it dawns on us that this not supposed to be a comedy – this is a tragedy, a thought experiment: would a Viennese mother who is in the resistance let her boy join the Hitler Youth as some sort of contrivance to protect her own and her son’s life? When Jojo finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl/woman in the attic, his Nazi indoctrination is met with the realization that, slowly but slowly, the increasingly unfunny Hitler needs to be kicked in the groin and out of the window and be told to ‘fuck off’. Seeing his mother hanging on the gallows and seeing his neighborhood being destroyed in a cinematographic orgy of street fighting, the end is indeed near: the Americans roll in and liberate Vienna. Elsa is free at last: a kind of Hollywood happy ending: Jojo shaking off Nazi indoctrination and Elsa saved from the holocaust. 

An unlikely story? Perhaps, but the acting was superb and the final rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes in the German version together with a Rilke quote plucked at the heartstrings with raw emotion, making it a very modern movie. 

However, the thought experiment, on reflection, is more than unlikely (as Chomsky says about conspiracy theories: nothing is impossible but many things are unlikely). The more likely scenarios are that children follow their parents’ footsteps: the communist parents will educate their children to become good communists; the fascist parents will per force turn their children into the monsters they are. The best literary treatment of the latter is Der Vater eines Mörders by Alfred Andersch, making the point that Heinrich Himmler’s father as an authoritarian headmaster spawned a monster in his own image. One of the most moving treatments of the former is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, describing the devastation on the child when his father and mother are sentenced to death for being communist spies. Sure, there are propaganda stories, true or false, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution where students accused their parents and teachers of crimes against the state, and on the other side there are any number of aristocratic tales of patricide, matricide and general mayhem amongst family members, young and old. 

That a boy (aged 11) becomes a rabid Nazi while his mother (and possibly his father, although this is not made clear in the movie) is in the O5-Austrian resistance is a very unlikely scenario but of course not an impossible one. It’s just that an unlikely tale has less attraction for me. I much prefer social realism, even when a bit of magic realism is thrown in, a la Gabriel García Márquez or as in Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. As such, I did not mind the Waititi’s Hitler as an imaginary friend of Jojo’s, serving as a reminder that children sometimes do in fact have imaginary friends, espeacially when cut off from a dominant social circle: Jojo as the (later disfigured) coward (not killing the rabbit) certainly needs a father figure that reassures him. In reality, what would have been more likely is, that as a child of resistance fighters, he would have cultivated an imaginary friend more in the shape of a Spartacus, Lenin, Wiesenthal or Rilke. Even if his parents (here mother) had hidden from him the Jewish girl in the attic, he would have had an immediate empathy and love for her when discovered. There would be no strange (if not bizarre) drama of a Nazi boy having to be converted to a normal but still very troubled young man.

In making this last statement I am already jumping to the book version. Having seen the movie first and having read the book after the event, there is the inevitable question if there are any notable differences in the storyline. Well, there are, major ones. Obviously the titles are different. Why Jojo Rabbit? A clever linguistic device catching the popular imagination, as opposed to the overly intellectual book title Caging Skies. Taika Waititi (who has Jewish ancestry from his mother’s side, describing himself as a Polynesian Jew) must have been fascinated by Leunens’ thought experiment of a Nazi boy whose parents are in the resistance and harbor a Jewish girl, and what happens next. 

In the book, Johannes, the boy (note that in German the ‘J’ is pronounced as the ‘y’ in ‘yes’) lives in a big house with his older sister, father and mother and grandmother. His sister dies of diabetes before she turns 12. He remembers his sister playing with another girl – the girl who turns out to be Elsa, hidden in their house after the Nazis begin to round up Jews to kill them. After the Anschluss … Leunens employs quite a few German words, presumably to sound more authentic, a contrivance that at the end of the book comes to grief, as it is explained that the whole account is a sort of confessional written by Johannes – so where does the 99% of English come from? As a native speaker of German I am pedantic enough to note, that given the effort to be authentic, Leunens and her editors should have picked up the annoying typo of Fraülein where the Umlaut should be ä … so, after the Anschluss in 1938, Johannes (now 11 years old) gets to experience the new Nazi curriculum at school and promptly falls for it. His parents, and even his grandmother who seems neither for or against the Nazi regime, are taken aback. Johannes argues with his father, saying he is wrong about Hitler. Johannes soaks up the insane Nazi propaganda about the Jews. 

As a critique at this point, one has to ask if a newly perverted education system, extolling the merits of National Socialism and the Führer, can in fact indoctrinate an eleven-year-old boy whose family are diametrically opposed to these insane ideas. I think it would be more likely that such a boy would join his parents, and eventually also join the resistance. After all he loves his mother in particular, so how could this radical disjoint happen? But never mind, this is the basic premise of the story. 

In the meantime Johannes joins the Jungvolk and does a bit of book burning, and after three years joins the Hitlerjugend. By then it was compulsory for all boys of the Reich of that age to join but it should be noted that even within the Hitlerjugend itself resistance cells were also formed, with Hans Scholl of the Weisse Rose a famous example. Johannes of course becomes an even more rabid Nazi, doing what is necessary, including wringing the necks of ducks and ducklings – compare this to the movie where Jojo cannot kill the rabbit, hence ever after shamed as Jojo Rabbit). By 1943 Johannes becomes a ‘flak helper’ defending Vienna against the allied bombers. Johannes gets hit and wakes up in the hospital to see his hand blown off and his face disfigured. He sort of recovers at home where his father and mother do strange things, like creeping up to the attic. His father now comes home less and less and his mother becomes more and more a nervous wreck. Only his grandmother, by now old and sick, keeps Johannes entertained with her tales of woe. Finally he finds Elsa hidden in the attic, ‘a Jew in a cage’ (the discovery remains a secret between him and Elsa). His Nazi duty is to kill her but he is ‘sickly fascinated’ and so the secret, upended conversion therapy starts, realizing that this grown-up Elsa was the little girl that played with his sister. Falling in love with her meant that as long as she was his prisoner, she would have no choice but to accept him as her savior (developing a Stockholm syndrome that is never mentioned in the book). If the war were lost, it would mean she could walk out. It must not happen. This obsession then carries the narrative to a long drawn-out conclusion. 

Much later he finally tells his mother that he had found Elsa who had now been hidden under some floorboards, due to the attic being in danger of collapsing from the bombing of the neighborhood. His father, he learns, has been taken to a labor camp. His mother had told Elsa that ‘they’ are winning the war, hence she should be free in the near future. Johannes tells her the opposite: his mother is telling lies. All the while, the Nazis had become ever more insane and public hangings of ‘traitors’ became a sight to see. When Johannes looks at one of the gallows he sees his mother hanging there. 

Here we interrupt with a substantial critique of both book and movie (where the same scene is played out). As I mentioned before, the literary treatment of such a horrific event has been accomplished in The Book of Daniel, when the boy learns that both his mother and father were executed by the state, accused of being communist traitors. Both Leunens and Waititi fail to comprehend such an enormity by reducing it to a short paragraph and movie clip.

Perversely, Johannes now has Elsa all to himself (his grandmother becomes a bit player and eventually dies as well). In 1945, when Elsa hears the happy shouting outside, Johann tells her ‘we won the war’. In the movie he then takes her outside and she slaps him for having been told a cruel joke: yes, actually ‘they’ won the war, Vienna is liberated, there is an American Army Jeep with a big American flag driving down the street, and Elsa is free and that’s the sort of happy end for her – and should be for Jojo.

In the book we are now only half-way through. What will happen now? To cut the story short, Johannes keeps her prisoner for the next four years up to 1949, keeping up the lie that ‘we won the war’ and that he is protecting her from being seized, to be sent to the gas chambers. She is not allowed to go outside or even look through the windows. With only the two of them in the house now, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe, that while Johannes is out of the house for hours and hours, she would not try to escape. She only needed to look out of the windows to see what was happening in the streets below – unless one invokes the Stockholm syndrome that is never mentioned but is palpable in the endless narrative spiral to the bitter end. They love and hate each other, have emergency sex, and generally obsess – mainly Johannes – about domestic issues, like what a newly acquired cat does in their new apartment (having sold the family home). The beginning of the end is a bizarre scene whereby Elsa sits naked in a chair in the middle of the room while the neighbors come in to sweep up the water that was left running, seeping down to their flats. Johannes introduces Elsa as his deranged wife but nobody really bats an eyelid. Following on, by page 295 (out of 311 pages) Elsa is gone, nowhere to be found. 

Johannes, in his pathetic grief comes up with a clever authorial device: he will write an account of all that happened and maybe she will one day read it and come back to him. This, Leunens compares to sowing a seed that will grow into a tree which she describes at the very beginning of the book, a tree made up of lies, alive and well in a barren landscape. A great novel idea if I ever heard one!

So how and why did Waititi come up with this idea of a Hitler as an imaginary film prop for Jojo? And why did he not follow through with the original story line? In the first instance one can argue that it is a good cinematic device, letting a ghostly Hitler loose on the screen, for in the book Johannes pays homage to a real Hitler, telling his mother: “…if I had to die for Adolf Hitler I would be more than happy to.” Such personality cults have a hollow ring to it, even though in our times there seems to be resurgence of Hitler-types holding the populations in suspense. Maybe this is what Leunens and Waititi really want to warn us about. Beware of the crazy man getting inside your head! As such the movie has a very modern feel to it, and while the backdrops are that of a period piece, the dialogues, especially amongst the boys, are as slick and smart as any of contemporary exchanges.

In fact, I am inclined to think that 11-year olds should watch this movie, so that they get an inkling of where their violent video games might lead to. If as a parent you allow your children to be indoctrinated as a sort of immoral insurance policy – or as a genuine attempt to protect your children from suffering the same fate as a dissident in a totalitarian state – you will come to regret the tragic consequences. Maybe this is also the reason why Waititi stops the film at the point of ultimate release for Elsa, for what exactly is the point of a narrative that delves further into a total mental health breakdown, which involves the further victimization of a Jewish woman? 

Why did Leunens made such an effort to research wartime Vienna, so as to arrive at an authentic sounding documentary style but then lapse into an unbelievable story about Johannes keeping Elsa prisoner for more than four years after the war? A psychological melodrama without historical context? Sure, there are a few attempted snippets of the real world, as when Johannes contemplates to escape with Elsa to lands unknown, citing a travel-agency catalogue, listing ‘Rururu, Apataki, Takapoto, Makemo … Barbados, Grenada’. Leunens may be a widely travelled author but I (as an expert on Polynesia) seriously doubt she has any idea about the French-Polynesian islands she cites, as opposed to the well-known Caribbean’s. Surely, in post-war Vienna you would not find a travel agency that sells quick getaways to Rururu!. Research that smacks of a Google-search is to be avoided at all costs!

However, apart from these niggles, I will conclude that both the movie and the novel are genuine works of art. See it and read it! Not sure what the effect would be if you read first and see second, apart from being the natural order.




Saturday, January 25, 2020

A review of TOWARDS ANOTHER SUMMER by Janet Frame

A review of TOWARDS ANOTHER SUMMER by Janet Frame

I read Owls Do Cry when in Dunedin as a student at Otago University in the early 1980s. Having migrated to NZ from Germany in the 1970s, I was not familiar with NZ literature, having eclectic tastes (what might be called leftwing world literature). I had studied psychology at Munich University with a vague ambition to become a psychiatrist but abandoned my studies, partly because the study programme at the time was heavily focussed on American behaviourism (see Chomsky’s critique of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour for example), whilst I had romantic ideas about Reich, Freud, Jung, Foucault, and the likes of Fritz Perls, Timothy Leary, R.D Laing and Ivan Illich. One of my earliest jobs, in the mid 1970s, in NZ, was as a trainee psychiatric nurse at Carrington Hospital in Auckland, a ‘lunatic asylum’ very much in the shape of Seacliffe, north of Dunedin, and made infamous my Janet Frame. At Carrington I had witnessed ECT, and as part of my ‘training’ at the nursing school I had proposed to do an audit of ECT at Carrington. Nobody suspected that my aim was to show that ECT didn’t work – and that it was a barbaric treatment – hence I was given permission to check all past and present patient files for ECT. Indeed the audit showed that ECT was mainly a punitive treatment but of course, as a mere trainee nurse, my audit no impact whatsoever, and anyway I left shortly after for another overseas adventure. When having returned to NZ with wife and daughter in tow, I thought I would continue my university studies I had started in Germany, i.e. I enrolled in a pre-med course at Otago University (my wife as a nurse being the breadwinner). With this background, it was only fitting that I stumbled on Owls Do Cry. It was also fitting that the book blew me away, what with a literary style that was unique, as much as the story itself was something so quintessentially ‘New Zealand’ – something, I think, only an immigrant (or migratory bird, as Janet Frame would have it) like myself can appreciate. Then, whilst Janet Frame became a major literary figure, not only in NZ but across the world, I lost interest, as I tried to read some of her later works which did not resonate with me. Now then, in 2020, I looked at my bookshelves and saw Towards Another Summer and out of curiosity started to read it. There are quite a few books in my shelves that I started to read but did not finish due to lack of interest aroused, so to my surprise this ‘previously unpublished novel’ (i.e. in her life-time) kept me turning the pages. Here the juxtaposition of an incredibly advanced language against the simplest of story lines is as unique as in Owls Do Cry. We are told of an author (a Janet Frame thinly disguised) visiting a journalist and his family for a weekend. We are in England, she in London and the journalist up in the wintery and icy north. We are told that she is scared and panicky at the prospect of visiting an acquaintance because she is socially phobic and endlessly worried about her lack of conversational skills, which as a reasonably famous writer she would expect of herself to have in abundance. To remove herself from a chattering, human society altogether, she adopts the personae of a migratory bird, invoking the famous (in NZ) poem by fellow Dunedinite Charles Brasch – Distance looks our way; the godwits vanish towards another summer and none knows where he will lie down at night (Janet Frame would have to laugh her head off if she were alive today, given that on Twitter people ‘tweet’ like brainless birds). In those days, however, the godwits seem to have had a particular attraction for NZ writers, given the long-time obsession of New Zealand anglophiles, who must do their OE to London first of all, and then perhaps further to the other members of the five eyes. This crazy idea of travelling halfway around the world, just to end up in a place that is just like the place you came from – the curse of British colonialism – might be softened by the idea of a migratory bird like the godwit, not to find a place the same as NZ but a place where there is summer when in NZ there is winter. The joke is of course that for humans, England and New Zealand share only winter (London only has one day of summer). As such our author, calling herself Grace, is ensconced in miserable London weather, with the prospect of even getting colder when travelling north to visit the journalist family. So, naturally Grace yearns for the New Zealand summer (Towards Another Summer). This she does not by invoking actual summer weather in New Zealand but by reminiscing about her childhood that was spent in Otago and Southland. There is an absolute truth in one’s upbringing determining one’s adult life, and Janet Frame, like no other author I know of, lays this bare, not in retrospect but from the point of view of the child she adopts so very well. She does not dwell on the tragedies we know happened in her childhood, because a child sees the world in a different light, where things happen because they happen, where the adults (her mother and father, mainly) concoct rhyme and reason that pass the children by. Children have their own explanations of the world around them. They know the world is full of contradictions. For example, the railway-employed father tells Grace not to go into the railway magazine, lest children get hurt by the machines stored there. Magazine – what a word! Out of bounds. Danger. Magazine, magazine, magazine. Grace knows, now and then, that one cannot trust words, especially when spoken. So, why does mother read a magazine? In fact, early on in the novel a man ‘from the magazine’ comes to her London flat to interview her, which is another cause for a panic attack, because she knows that she will not be able to say anything expected of her as a famous writer. All she can say is that she has nothing much to say. There are endless triggers for Grace to switch to being a child. Moving, moving. Always moving from one place to another, due to her father’s railway jobs. From the relative isolation of the countryside to the town of Oamaru (by world standards just a very small town but by Grace’s still very limited world-view, a place where their house is surrounded by other houses, streets with houses, and people and children everywhere. A bit like London. Grace, the child, and more so as the adult, is super sensitive towards verbal warfare amongst married couples (father-mother), picking up the slightest disagreement, fearing that they will ‘kill’ each other. Grace over-analyses every utterance, unearthing the subtlest of verbal swipes, investing words with immense potential to deceive, to attack, to subvert, to hurt – or to be devoid of all meaning. She is irritated by British English, like when her hosts say ‘bye-bye’ which in good old NZ is the speech of children, yet ‘spoken with such seriousness by grown men and women’ in England. When she gets back to her miserable flat in London, she can only think of her ‘inability to compose one beautiful dignified sentence’ and her ‘once-weekly visit to the psychiatrist’.

Did Janet Frame suffer from a personality disorder? Was she socially phobic? Was she wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic at Seacliffe? Why does she chastise herself in her writing? Why is she so insecure about her written words when everyone around her admires her for them? To fathom a complex personality like Janet Frame, if only in her writing, must be the dream-come-true of every psychoanalyst – Freud would have had his come-uppance, for Janet – the archetypal woman - was anything but hysterical. Quite the opposite in fact: extremely introvert, shy, self-doubting and yet extremely capable of telling stories, poetically, infused with a basic humanity, telling like it is. Is there any pretence? Does she know that her style of writing has a winning formula and thus pushes it to the limits? Whilst I do not believe in any souls, I nevertheless find the idiom useful: Janet bares her soul without mercy to herself. Or is it navel-gazing, bordering on narcissism? No, she is not in love with herself. She does yearn for this elusive love though, the love she glimpses in her hosts as much as between her mother and father. In this novel she proclaims quite proudly that she had several ‘affaires’ but, alas, they came to nothing permanent. Some of her male friends and advisors, such as John Money, were highly-strung, controversial personalities themselves, and those that were gay, like Frank Sargeson, had that particular nous that treats women like Janet as poetic siblings, providing the encouragement that was missing from straight quarters. Grace/Janet’s own siblings loom large in her reminiscences, coming from a large family where children look after themselves when the parents are otherwise occupied. When confronted with Philip and Anne’s (the journalist couple she is visiting) children, she is both panicked and reassured when the little girl recognises her as an adult one can trust. Children’s judgements are final. One of a child’s tragedies is to realise – as an adult – that one’s parents were in fact role models disowned, or at least treated badly by literary and intellectual circles. Janet’s parents were unpretentious poets, writers and singers at the kitchen table, bohemians to such a degree that straight society in the shape of social welfare officers bemoaned their ‘untidy’ living habits. Grace has in her ears the anti-war song that her father always sang about the war. Here mother’s axiom was ‘kind words and a happy home’ – how sweet is that! While her parents remained poor and unrecognised for their verbal skills, Janet reaps all the rewards afterwards. How fair is that? Janet must feel guilty to the extent that in her writing she sets the record right. She honours her parents for their poetic language they imparted, if not for their lives that at times went off the rails – so to speak – because poverty breeds grime and crime. Her own diffidence may be as such a veil she throws over her natural ability she inherited from a long line of Scottish peasant poets, not speak of Dunedin poetic nobility like Robbie Burns. In the end, however, Janet Frame remains an enigma, hard to put down when she tells her story.