Friday, May 22, 2015

My Log 475 May 22 2015: A wonderful film about Cuba’s Arts Schools, that succeeds in telling everything good and bad about revolution

English: School of Music near the Jaguey Tree,...
School of Music near the Jaguey Tree, uphill from the stream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
School of Plastic Arts, Ricardo Porro
School of Plastic Arts, Ricardo Porro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
School of Dramatic Arts, Roberto Gottardi
School of Dramatic Arts, Roberto Gottardi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
School of Ballet, Vittorio Garatti
School of Ballet, Vittorio Garatti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: View downhill towards stream and the ...
English: View downhill towards stream and the School of Ballet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: View towards entrance from the School...
View towards entrance from the School of Modern Dance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having made documentary films in my day, I know how difficult it is to express ideas and issues in any form that will not bore the audience to tears. Which is why I have such astonished admiration for a film recently broadcast on Al Jazeera called Cuba’s Unfinished Spaces made by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray.
Although the ostensible subject of this film is the saga of the construction of five Art Schools in Cuba in the early years of the revolution, the filmmakers have managed to make revolution, in the full meaning of that word, its real subject --- the delights, excitements, inspirations of revolution on the one hand, and the despairs and crushing disappointment that sets in as the revolution hardens, becomes bureaucratic, and the romance and excitement gradually  degenerates, as one of the architects in this film said, “into a rule.”
This film, in other words, is absolutely worthy of the revolution which inspired it, of the marvellous old men who, as youngsters, seized their chance and managed to create the Schools of  Modern Dance, Ballet, Music, Dramatic Arts, and Plastic Arts that have been recognized by authorities outside Cuba as precious examples of modern architecture, while within Cuba they have been neglected as trees and plants have overgrown them.
The story begins when Fidel and Che one day go to the immense layout of the local golf course, in the Country Club, a preserve of the rich before the revolution, and Fidel says how wonderful it would be to use this space for the use of students of the arts. The next act comes when Fidel, driving in Havana one evening, spots Selma Dias, a young woman described as “a real revolutionary and an architect”, stops the car, orders to get in, and drives her to the golf course  ---she can see nothing because it is already dark --- where he announces she is to be in charge of the creation on this land of Art Schools at which thousands of young Cubans will be educated. She accepts the charge, goes to an architect of her acquaintance Ricardo Porro, tells him of this revelation, and asks him to be the architect in charge. He is amazed, staggered, of course, he says, he will accept. But says Selma, there is a condition. The work has to be up and under construction in two months. Two months! says Ricardo. Impossible! That's the offer, says Selma, take it or leave it. I take it, says Ricardo.
Soon thereafter, Fidel gathered the architects of Cuba together and told them the era of big buildings, of luxury projects, is over. “We are building now for the people,” he said.  Porro said some architects left Cuba immediately, but he recruited  two Italians who had previously worked with him in Venezuela, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti . He was interested in the work that an elderly man called Gumensindo had been doing experimenting with ways to enclose space without using expensive materials, and he decided that this work, the placing together of bricks in such a way as to form vaults --- very similar to the way an Inuit igloo is constructed --- would be the basic method used in building the schools. Some people did not believe in the vaults, because the architects were men with very little experience, “but everything we did was daring,” one of them said. “We unleashed our dreams and visions.” The designs had no doors, temples or columns. “I thought of my school as an initiation ritual,” said one of them. “That is why it is full of indirect passages, mysterious and tortuous.” Porro said: “I tried to make the school of plastic arts as an image of this romantical moment of the revolution. I wanted to express in the School the atmosphere I felt in Cuba during the revolution. I thought of the Schools as if there were one million people in a piazza, and then they would each go in their own different direction.”
The construction started almost as soon as the first drawings were made, and before the Schools were finished, students were already at work. Everyone from Porro at the top down to the youngest student, was moved by the absolute  freedom they were given, and this was, perhaps, the source of their downfall. Porro kept urging his architects and workers --- at the maximum they would have 800 workers busy with the construction ---- not to waste time on minor things, because “perhaps one day it is all going to be stopped.”
He was a wise man. During the sixties the Soviet Union became Cuba’s main supporter, and the events of the Cold War became important and changed national priorities.  Soviet ideas begin to influence the leaders, and nothing in Soviet attitudes as translated to Cuba had to do with beauty, and those who were concerned to make these beautiful Art Schools began to come under criticism as being  bourgeois, intellectual, elitist. Pretty soon the workers made available were down to twenty-five, and, as Porro remarked he found himself in a situation like that described by Kafka. “One day you learn that you have been accused of something, then you have been judged, then you realize you are guilty, and nobody tells you of what.” Porro, who had been a friend of Castro’s when they were both students, and had in fact been arrested before the revolution, and had to leave the country, again had to leave for France, where he worked across Europe with distinction as an architect until his death in 2014 at the age of 89. The film-makers, who spent ten years putting this film together, were lucky to have interviewed him extensively before his death.
Eventually Che wrote an article in which he criticized the freedoms exercised in the Art Schools, which found themselves thereafter subject to military discipline, and were forced to expel gay students. In the end only Porro’s Plastic Arts and Modern Dance School ever got finished, and Garatti who had designed the Music and Ballet schools was forced out of the country in 1974.
Gradually, however, word spread around the world of the tragic neglect suffered by what so many regarded as the greatest architectural achievement of the Cuban revolution, and the film has a brief statement in which Castro declares that when someone showed him a drawing of one of the  Schools, “it was like falling in love with a young girl.” He declared that the work must be rehabilitated and completed, and said, “I was ignorant.” (Quite an admission for a man whose word was law.) So began the slow process of reconstruction and rehabilitation, which, according to the film has slowed since the resignation of Fidel.
The rehabilitation of this work at an international level was signalled by the publication in 2011 of a book by a Californian John Loomis called Revolution of Form: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools. Subsequently many exhibitions have toured showing photos of he work, and it has even been the subject of an opera. The World Monuments Fund placed the Art Schools on their watch List, and all this attention persuaded Cuba to recommend the project as a World Heritage site that has outstanding universal value to the world.
I believe this film about this extraordinary achievement is itself  wonderful in that it gives such a clear-headed, in some ways inspiring, and in other ways depressing, view of the meaning of revolution. Something a guy like me, who tends to sympathize with revolutions, is in dire need of.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

My Log 474 May 9 2015: Our leaders’ snubbing of Russian commemoration of Second World War victory is shaming

English: Captured German soldiers being lead t...
 Captured German soldiers being lead to prisoner camps in Stalingrad, 1943. In the background is the grain silo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: From left to right: Joseph Stalin, Fr...
From left to right: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
American and Soviet troops meet east of the El...
American and Soviet troops meet east of the Elbe River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
USSR Medal defense of Stalingrad Crop of Wikim...
USSR Medal defense of Stalingrad Crop of Wikimedia Commons picture: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have never been one to watch military parades, or to think with anything but hostility and dismay of the whole militaristic view of life. But there was something both poignant and shaming about the massive parade held today in the Russian capital, Moscow, in commemoration of the immense and costly Soviet effort in destroying the Nazi war machine.
Even I have known for many years that the Soviet victory over the invading Germans was achieved with at least 20 million deaths, a figure that has recently been upgraded to as much as 27 million, of which less than half were military, and the rest civilian deaths, suffered in such horrendous circumstances as the two-year siege of Leningrad and the immense battle in defence of Stalingrad. Though it is true that great  quantities of materiĆ©l helped the Soviet defence of their homeland, nevertheless, in human terms, there is no comparison between the price paid by the  Russians and that paid by their Western allies, notably the Americans and British. (I have often thought how different modern global history might have been had the Americans lost 25 million of their people in the sort of scorched earth war that the Russians had to endure).
The latest generally-agreed figures suggest that whereas more than 34 million Soviet citizens were mobilized in the effort to throw back the German divisions,  only 175,000 men were mobilized, of half of them American, in the D-day invasion of Europe in June 1944, which is usually celebrated in the West as the decisive event in ending the war. The total loss of life of Americans in the war is estimated to have been 420,000 --- not an inconsiderable number, it is true, but far short of the casualties suffered by the Russians.
The British are estimated to have lost a similar number, and the Germans  between an estimated seven and nine million people.
The immense fuss that has been made over this 70 year celebration of the Allied victory is motivated by the fact that this is the last such celebration at which survivors of the great World War II battles will be able to be present, and there was certainly something impressive in seeing the faces of these grizzled, ailing, but proud old Russians, whose memories of the war must have been of unforgettable experiences that they must hope should never be repeated anywhere.
That was the poignant element; but what was shaming to me was that the leaders of the Western powers refused the invitation to take part in this commemoration, because  President Obama of the United States had, in effect, organized a boycott of the event by putting heavy pressure on other Western leaders to absent themselves.
This is so mean-spirited that even I, unsympathetic as I am to the commemoration of battles won or lost, felt quite ashamed that our leaders could have bowed to such pressures by absenting themselves. In his speech, President Putin gave generous acknowledgement to the share of other nations --- even to many Germans themselves --- in defeating the Nazi doctrine and its armies ,and he made only an oblique reference to the change in his country’s relationship with the former Allies, by remarking on the “exceptionalism” which had motivated the Nazi power, and which he hoped would never again motivate any nation in foreign relations.
The fact is, in the West, American propaganda, by way of films especially, has been working on our populations to suggest that it was the Americans, almost alone, who won the war, something that most Americans seem to believe. It was certainly true that without American economic might the war would have been more difficult to win, but there can be little debate with the proposition that it was the Soviet army that broke the back of the Nazi war machine.
A recent article on the Information Clearing House site by Ezequeil Adamovsky, an Argentinian historian, who recalled how he had been influenced as a child by films depicting American heroism, gave some startling facts as to how American propaganda has shaped Western concepts of the Second World War. He writes about “the shift in historical memory “ in France, a country that was directly liberated largely by American military intervention:
In 1945, immediately after the end of the war, a poll was conducted among French people. One of the main questions was “Which country do you think played the most important role in the defeat of Germany?”  57% of the interviewees responded that it was the Soviet Union, 20% chose the US and 12% the UK. The same poll was conducted again in 1994. Interestingly enough, only 26% chose the Soviet Union this time, while 49% responded it was the US. The poll was repeated in 2004. By then the reversal was even more noticeable, with only 20% choosing the Soviet Union and 58% the US (the perception of the British role did not change much).
He adds something I find it impossible to disagree with:

Obama and several European heads of State have organized a boycott against Russia’s official parade of Victory Day, which will be held this May 9 in Moscow. The boycott, they say, comes because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This would perhaps be a valid reason, if it was not for the fact that no boycotts are in order when the US bombs other countries or forces changes of their governments, or when US allies –like Israel– occupy other nation’s lands by military force.
So let us profit from this opportunity to remember history beyond propaganda. If there was such a thing as a “Free world” in 1945, it was to a great extent thanks to the armies of a communist country and to the irregular forces of anti-fascist partisans in France, Italy and other nations, a good deal of which were also communists. Our grateful memory of those who died fighting fascism should include all of them.




Friday, May 8, 2015

My Log 473 May 6 2015: A grab-bag of books from a small library run on the honours system: at least three of seven have literary quality, and others are compulsive page-turners

The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Be...
The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Montparnasse Cemetary, Paris. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Robert Harris in Cologne on November ...
English: Robert Harris in Cologne on November 19th 2009 Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One thing that is kind of obvious, but is nevertheless repeatedly capable of  surprising me, is to discover how many books there are. Literally, there are millions and millions of them, and each time one goes into a well-stocked bookstore one is exposed to many thousands of these millions, enough to keep any reader busy for the rest of his life should he choose to read every book in the place.
There have been some characters in literature who have chosen to do just that: one thinks of a character in, La Nausee   Jean-Paul Sartre’s  novel (still regarded many years later as one of the essential texts of existentialism), who, on his route towards total abnegation, read every book in his local library in alphabetical order.
These thoughts have been brought on because recently I visited the small library put together by the Foreign Circle of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a library kept in a small room off the lobby of a big hotel, and operated strictly on the honour system. We choose books, as many as we wish, take them home, read them, and bring them back. The library works well and it seems to be slightly larger each time I visit it: in fact, books in other languages than English have become so numerous that they now occupy a second room.
What I have noticed from my reading prompted by this random selectivity is how often one comes across an excellent writer whom one has never heard of before, and yet has an impressive list of works to his or her name. I think that is how I first came across the British writer Robert Harris, whose novel Imperium constituted a biography of the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero, and was such an astonishing work of research with its detail about ancient Roman life as to take one’s breath away.
On this recent visit I came away with half a dozen books, of which at least three are serious works of literature. I will deal with them one by one:
Book No. 1: The English novelist, essayist and biographer Martin Booth,  was  a name unfamiliar to me, but  I quickly discovered he had had  a 35-year career as a writer ending with his death in 2004, during which he managed to produce almost 70 works ---  novels, plays, children’s stories, poems, biographies, you name it, he had the genre mastered.
The novel  I have just read, Islands of Silence, published in 2003 by Dewi Lewis Publishing of  Stockport, a town that is part of the Greater Manchester conurbation, has a somewhat mysterious subject in that it deals both with physical islands off the Scottish coast, and the island that is everyman (in defiance of John Donne, perhaps); but which also deals with varieties of silence that are the real subject of the book. The hero is an archaeologist, brought up under the rule of an unsympathetic, militaristic step-father, who, for reasons extending beyond his unhappy boyhood, including bitter experiences of war, prison, and work, eventually adopts a posture of absolute silence, refusing to speak for the greater part of his adult life.
The primary cause apparently was that, while investigating the archaeology of a remote Scottish island, he came across an ethereal young woman who, he found, had never learned to speak, but could communicate only in cries she had adopted from animals. He fell in love with this woman, or perhaps it would be closer to say in the idea of this woman, since the closest he ever came to her was to hold her hand briefly, and be kissed on the cheek by her. But it seems to have been the impossibility of communicating with her, allied to his dreadful experiences as a conscientious  objector in the Second World War, that reduced him to the silence that led to his being confined  in a mental institution, where he stayed, understanding everything around him but never reacting to anything said to him, for the rest of his life. A remarkable piece of writing, in fact which made me wonder why I had never heard Booth’s name before.
Book No. 2: I also picked up my second Robert Harris novel, again, like the first, Imperium,  an unusual, carefully researched and disturbing work.  This one, The Fear Index,  was first published in Britain in 2011, and purports to examine the importance of fear in human decisions and behaviour. My problem with the book is that its main character, Dr. Alexander Hoffman, is a cold fish, totally unsympathetic, although apparently with dazzling intellectual attainments which he had managed to parlay into a huge fortune. The many billions he controls  he has accumulated  through operating one of those immense hedge funds of precisely the sort that brought the global economy almost to its knees five years ago. The operation of these funds is explained by Harris as being achieved in long term  options, and at the same time taking short options to hedge themselves against the possible failure of their long options.  (This is double-dutch to me, and I am not sure I even understand it after it has been explained.  But what it seems to mean is that while placing a bet on something, an investor at the same time invests in the possibility of its failure, hedging against  his original bet, in other words).  In this way they build up immense funds, but it seems to be a sort of ponzi scheme in which an investor buys stocks or bonds and then on the basis of his ownership of them, he buys more, and more, and more, until the while thing, top heavy, collapses, and brings him down.
Harris posits that Dr. Hoffman, interrupted in his super-security home by an intruder who, in theory, could not possibly gain entry,  is hit over the head with a blunt object, an event which gives rise in him of something he has never previously had to deal with, the factor of fear. This is reinforced when he receives in the mail a rare first edition of a book by Dickens, the sort of thing he has made a practice of collecting. (One of the contradictions in this man is that, while collecting rare book editions, he has forbidden the use of paper in his vast business establishment: no one is allowed to do any work on paper.) On investigation as to who might have sent him this book, he discovers that he has apparently bought it himself, using one of his many bank accounts, and this is a second unsettling occurrence that sends him off on a chase that ends in tragedy, both for himself and the unfortunate people who have invested their money with him to manage. In a process minutely described by Harris, his business empire begins to unravel. (At one point Harris gives us a disturbing footnote to say that the financial process described in the following pages is an exact copy of what actually did happen on Wall street, during the global financial breakdown in 2010.)
However, for all its authenticity, Harris’s novel takes us to a denouement that I found pretty well unbelievable, although it makes for an exciting finish (confirming Harris’s mastery of the thriller genre), leaving us gasping in admiration of his  superb writing skills, and his even more impressive skills as a researcher of the subject he is writing about. Before getting into fiction --- he has already written seven or eight novels and other biographies and political-type books, for example, about Neil Kinnoch, the former Labour party leader, Hitler, and others ---- he was a backroom boy holding important  positions in the Labour party hierarchy under Tony Blair. I would recommend almost anything he writes.  
Book No. 3: The third writer I picked up at the library on my last visit who can make a serious claim to literary quality is William Boyd, who I had heard of, but never read until this, his seventeenth book Restless, published in 2006 by Bloomsbury, of London.  I found this a totally gripping tale that begins in a deceivingly humdrum way with the visit of young professional woman to her aging mother who lives in the country. As she is leaving,  her mother hands her a manuscript, headed, The Story of Eva Delectorskaya, and when asked who is Eva Delectorskaya, the mother says, “I am.”
 Thus the book is made up of alternating chapters as her mother’s surprising history as a Russian-born woman who was recruited in 1930s Berlin to become a British spy is unfolded in the successive chapters she hands to her daughter; followed by the daughter’s reaction to this hitherto unsuspected mother, who she had thought she knew. It is a gripping read, inevitably leading to the point where the mother involves her daughter in ending the story, something she was reluctant to do, but which she carried out as instructed.
The world of the spy --- it seems a lunatic way to live a life, always on the lookout for discovery or betrayal --- has interested me since I covered the case of Gordon Lonsdale, a Canadian businessman arrested in London in the 1960s, to the amazement and incredulity of his business partners, who thought it was all a monstrous snafu by the security services. Lonsdale, however, turned out to be a colonel in the KGB whose entire life had been devoted to training for his role as an undercover Soviet spy. A married couple, called the Krogers,  who were traced through him were equally innocent-seeming purveyors of rare books, living in Ruislip, a nondescript suburb of West London. On examination, they were found  to be Morris and Lona Cohen, whose names were found in the briefcase of Colonel Abel, when he was arrested in the streets of New York in 1957, and who had worked as couriers for the Rosenberg spy network until they disappeared following Col. Abel’s arrest.  (Incidentally, Col. Abel was found to be really Willie Fisher, born in 1903 in the United Kingdom of Russian parents, and taken back to Russia in 1921, eventually to join the Soviet secret services. He was sentenced to 45 years, but after four years was exchanged on a Berlin bridge for Gary Powers, the pilot of a U2 spy plane who was shot down and imprisoned by the Russians.)
William Boyd’s story is almost as exciting and mysterious as real-life spy stories usually turn out to be, and the two women characters he has created are both capable of retaining our interest until the end of the book. I am definitely going to read some more of Boyd’s sixteen other novels.
Books 4 and 5: A few years ago I enjoyed the detective novels of Robert B. Parker, whose gumshoe, Spenser, appears in 40 of the 60 books he wrote in a 37-year writing career that ended with his death in 2010 (of course, he was still in harness when he died, working on yet another novel).  Parker had a formula for success. He was a very witty writer, created an amusing, witty character in his tough guy Spenser, whose adventures sometimes seemed more like fairy tales than accounts of real life. Spenser was always accompanied in his most intense assignments by his friend Hawk, a monumentally tough, in fact completely unbeatable fighter who could always straighten out anyone giving Spenser real trouble. But Hawk was not the only non-Caucasian featured in Parker’s work, which regularly featured Mexican-Americans, Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, and gays, not to mention his  long-term live-in girl friend who was almost aggressively Jewish, something that was treated with amused acceptance by the detective.
Of course, the work was variable, one might say, as would seem inevitable in someone who wrote more than a book a year. Of the two I picked up at the library, I thought Double Deuce published in 1992 was a lot better than Chance published in 1996.  Double Deuce was the name given to a housing project on the outskirts of Boston, dominated and terrorized by a teenage gang, called the Hobarts after the street they lived on, and run by a teenaged hood who went by the name of Major.  Spenser and Hawk decided, because of something unfortunate that happened to a friend of theirs, a young woman who lived in Double Deuce, that they would clean up the building. They had no idea how to go about it, so they simply parked in the yard, and awaited developments. When Major appeared, they announced their intention of having his gang move somewhere else, to his utter incredulity. They kept this up, provoking various confrontations that Spenser knew Hawk would never lose (Hawk lose to a bunch of undisciplined teenagers? Do me a favour!)  until the desired effect was achieved.  The book is a classic page-turner, and among other virtues, it produces what to a foreigner seems like an extraordinary picture of the underbelly of United States life.
I am a slow reader, but I whipped through this one in an afternoon, lost in admiration of the skill shown by Parker in keeping my interest.
Book No 6: A few years ago I read some of the detective novels of Ross Macdonald, a Canadian-raised guy whose real name was Kenneth Millar, who eventually settled in Los Angeles, where, from his home, he poured out a stream of books until his death in 1983.  His wife, Margaret Millar, was also a well-known writer.  I never really did care for Macdonald’s tales of the US underworld, but I picked up one of his at the library, deciding to give him another chance.  Unfortunately once again I bogged down: the stuff was well enough written, but it moved too slowly for me and I never managed to finish The Underground Man, which I have discovered from the Internet was one of his most-admired earlier works.  Oh, well, you can’t win ‘em all.
Book No 7: This one, which I imagine might have been left behind by a disgruntled or shocked  hotel guest, was called The Surrender, an Erotic Memoir, by Toni Bentley, formerly a 10-year veteran dancer with the New York City Ballet company, who, after injuries enforced her retirement, has taken to writing, has published five books, as many anthologies, and countless review articles in mostly serious American literary journals. As Wikipedia rather primly says, this book “caused considerable notoriety upon publication in 2004 due to its subject matter: heterosexual sodomy and the author's celebration of female sexual submission.”
The author – a beautiful woman, as most ballet dancers are --- records how she was brought up an atheist, but was in her own peculiar way in search of God, which search set her off on a promiscuous series of encounters with almost 40 men, that culminated in her finding a young guy who sodomized her so successfully, 298 times, she recalls,  that she believed she had at last found God in that act.  She certainly can write in a kind of frenetic way, and has won international renown, this book having been translated into eighteen languages, and having been made into a play that has been performed in seven countries around the world. I tired of the story about halfway through, found it all quite un-erotic, and wondered what effect the production of such an apparently obscene work might have had on her career, only to find it had catapulted her into the ranks of writers recognized as serious by the best critics. Not for me, however. I have to confess I was rather bored than excited, not the impact that a really erotic work should have on a normal man, I would think.