No Recourse

In The Use of Man (1976), the second instalment of Serbo-Croatian novelist Aleksandar Tišma’s Novi Sad trilogy, a schoolboy stares at the books in his Jewish neighbour’s library on the eve of World War II ‘as if they contained the clues to salvation, as if they could rescue one from being beaten, cursed, spat upon, killed’. The books, it turns out, can do no such thing: the neighbour is murdered by the Nazis, while his daughter, Vera, is forcibly sterilized and put to work in a concentration camp brothel. Are words just so much dust in times as dire as these?  

Tišma does not think so. For his characters, language is no mere luxury: it is, in its own way, as indispensable as food and shelter, for it is only language that can render a private pain public. After the war, Vera yearns to confide in someone, but her memories remain ‘stuck inside her, silent, like resin’. When she is asked to write out her biography on a communist questionnaire, she finds herself trying ‘to put the unutterable on paper’. In the end, she crosses out, ‘in thick ink, every word she had written’. She annihilates first her family, then herself: ‘Father’s name: nothing. Mother’s name, maiden name: nothing. Day, month, year of birth: nothing. She was nothing’. Now, she is ‘a prisoner of those blank sheets of paper, as she had been a prisoner in the camp’. She has been exiled from intelligibility, thereby from human community.  

If silence debases and depersons, then the desire to speak – and to be understood – is no less than a desire to become human again. In Kapo (1987), the last and best book in the Novi Sad trilogy, newly reissued in English translation by New York Review Classics for the first time since 1993, Vilko Lamian is riven by conflicting imperatives: even as he strives to avoid punishment, he longs to confess to the many misdeeds he committed as a kapo in Auschwitz. Sequestered in the remote Bosnian town of Banja Luka, he gains weight and dons dark glasses in an attempt to disguise himself from former inmates who might recognize and report him. But try as he might, he cannot escape his victims entirely. As he goes about his business, working a mindless job at the local railroad, he is haunted by thoughts of the fellow Jews he helped to murder – and the many female inmates he contrived to rape with the help of corrupt camp authorities.  

It is to one of these women, Helena Lifka, that Lamian dreams of making a complete confession. The ‘summing word had to be spoken, and heard, and confirmed – by someone, whose response could be even silence, a look of damnation or forgiveness’, he thinks. Like Vera, Lamian knows that he must talk – and be heard and understood, if never forgiven – if he is to go on living. Before long, he has quit his job and embarked on a quest to find Helena, in hope that she can restore some measure of his drained humanity. 

* * * 

Tišma himself did not testify until late in life. He was born in 1924 in Horgos, a village on the border of Hungary and Serbia. The child of a Serbian father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother, he was raised in the then-Yugoslavian and now-Serbian city of Novi Sad. Before setting out to memorialize his own war-time agonies, he spent years working as a journalist: he began writing about the Holocaust only after a trip to Auschwitz in the 1960s. Though he was never interned in the camps and though he escaped the most violent massacres – a Hungarian neighbour lied to soldiers knocking on doors during the infamous raid of Novi Sad, when an estimated 1,400 Jews and Serbs were rounded up and slaughtered by occupation forces in just three days – he nonetheless considered his fiction broadly autobiographical.  

The result is some of the finest and most brutal writing about the Second World War and its bruising aftermath that I know of. Unlike his Yugoslav compatriot, Danilo Kis, Tišma makes no recourse to the leavening forces of fabulism and black comedy. His fiction is merciless, bereft of relief or respite. It is the work of a documentarian accustomed to confronting atrocity without allowing himself the indulgence of looking away. Even among Holocaust literature, it is uniquely bleak: its capitulation to hopelessness is near complete.  

The novels that make up the unsparing Novi Sad trilogy – The Book of Blam (1971), The Use of Man (1976), and Kapo (1987), all originally translated into English in the late 80s and early 90s and reissued by New York Review Classics in the last few years – are paranoiac and nightmarishly non-linear. They flit from one decade to another as the past claws at the present. In The Book of Blam, a quavering travel agency employee is racked by guilt as he contemplates his improbable survival, the product of his marriage to a Catholic: his unconverted Jewish parents and sister are dead. In The Use of Man, a group of acquaintances – a lonely German teacher, a dreamy schoolboy, a sadistic Serbian youth, and a prosperous Jewish businessman and his family – attempt to navigate an increasingly fraught political landscape as the Nazis solidify power. The two characters who live to see peacetime spend their days not planning for the future but reminiscing, by way of reading and re-reading the diary of their erstwhile German tutor, who died before the war. And in Kapo, Lamian is tormented by flashbacks that yank him out of his solitary life in sleepy Banja Luka and plunge him back into the cold heart of horror. On a warm day when other men on the street are lounging in their shirtsleeves, he shivers, recalling the Nazi who made him stand for hours encased in ice, a perverse punishment for appropriating a sweater from a corpse. ‘Leaving the camp behind’, writes Tišma, ‘he now found himself in a camp of his own’, a camp he cannot describe and therefore cannot escape.  

The Novi Sad trilogy endeavours to speak the unspeakable by means of lists and litanies. Even when its catalogue of deaths and indignities at last comes to an end, they gesture at continuation, as if to intimate that the horrors go on at greater length than we can endure or imagine. One chapter of The Use of Man consists of an inventory of ‘natural deaths and violent deaths’: ‘Sarah Kroner…choking in an Auschwitz gas chamber disguised as a bathhouse’, Robert Kroner ‘lying on his black winter overcoat in the transit camp’. In Kapo, Lamian comforts himself by reciting the names of the witnesses of his crimes and assuring himself that they are all dead: ‘Schmule and Krumholz – by injection. Schmauss and Leitner – sent to the front and killed. Varminsky – strangled in a bunker. Lang, Mell – dead in the revolt at Crematorium 2’. The sheer volume of the slaughter is overwhelming, especially when Lamian reflects on all those he was forced to kill,  

the columns of those who had been selected for him to lead to the dispensary to receive an injection of phenol in the heart…..Or the little girl with the doll who stood by the wall in the execution yard as SS man Pfalzig killed her father and mother with a bullet to the back of the head…..And the Russian prisoners, three hundred and sixty of them crowded into a log hut at the Brzezinka, the windows sealed with mud so that the effects of cyanide D could be tested on them. And the new arrivals who came at a time when the crematorium was too full. Led into the birch woods one by one, they were killed with a bullet to the head and thrown onto a grate across a fire, where their bodies burned, the fat crackling and the black smoke rising.  

All this is ‘too much for one head, one mind; and that was why it rushed forth to be told, to be revealed’ – and why Lamian is bursting to speak. 

Yet he has no one to talk to, even casually, much less anyone to confess to. His university friends became Nazis; his parents and neighbours perished in the camps. Insofar as he interacts with anyone else at all, he does so from a distance: he stands alone in a hotel, gazing out his window at a man behind another a window, or he eats alone in a restaurant, staring intently at the other patrons and speculating about their origins. He is incapable of even touching the prostitute he coaxes to his room, a woman whom he watches with interest but makes no effort to seduce. For the most part, he conducts imaginary conversations – with the Nazi who anointed him a kapo, with the dead, and, most urgently, with Helena Lifka.  

* * *  

Many of Lamian’s monologues consist of frantic attempts at self-justification, for he is desperate to believe that ‘no one was wholly untainted. Each of them, in one way or another, in one form or another, had been an accomplice in that degradation and suffering, even if it was only by consenting to endure it in order to live’.  

It is hard to say if this is just an excuse. Maybe it is true, as Primo Levi once cautioned, that no one is ‘authorized to judge’ kapos, ‘not those who lived through the experience of the camps and even less those who did not’. Lamian himself insists that ‘one had to live through the squalor and the cold and the threat of death to understand’. If we cannot understand, then we cannot judge. The camps are unspeakable precisely because they defy comprehension: do the crimes that took place inside them therefore defy moral censure? 

On the other hand, it is not possible to finish Kapo without experiencing Lamian’s transgressions as sickening. It was obscene to read Tišma’s masterpiece, as I did, in a café, so anathema are the abominations it chronicles to pastries and pleasantries. There are few images more bitterly, biliously hideous than that of Lamian coercing starving Auschwitz prisoners into bed with him by offering them food he knows they cannot resist. ‘If you want to eat, you have to come here and sit with me on the bench and kiss me’, he instructs his emaciated captives. ‘For every kiss you get a bite of bread and butter with ham on it, and a sip of warm milk. Want some?’ The women he selects have no choice but to acquiesce, and the grotesque ritual is repeated with one after another: ‘When she swallowed the food, he took his hand away, raised the pot, and brought it to her mouth so she could drink. He set the pot back on the table. “Kiss.”’ 

For Lamian, women are not only plied with food but equated with it: 

He wasn’t sorry that this one or that one would soon die because he no longer wanted her and asked for her…Because he saw in them….nothing but flesh, shape and colour, which were transient qualities of a fruit bound to spoil. And he used them for his pleasure until they did spoil, just like apples or lemons, which carry in their meat the imminence of rot, though their destruction is still invisible. They are eaten and sucked in the knowledge that if left untouched, they will go bad and be useless. All the women were fruit condemned to rot, tossed in a heap amid the stench of the camp; but then he would appear, the Kapo of the workshop, to grab the best, the soundest ones before the mould and stench got to them. 

If Jews are mere objects to their Nazi tormenters – at one point, a cadaver is heaved onto a cart ‘like a log’ – then Jewish women are ultra-objects, both to the SS men and to the collaborators who abuse them. Tišma is one of the few writers of Holocaust fiction to recognize the plight of those who were degraded both as Jews and women, and throughout the trilogy, rape victims are characterized by their torturers as animals, inanimate things, and bodies bereft of feeling: they are ‘meat without speech, without a voice, without a name, without a will, without a mind’.  

On the face of it, Lamian’s increasingly manic efforts to contact Helena Lifka may seem to entail a repudiation of his former misogyny. After all, a human being is the only suitable or satisfying audience for a confession: rotting meat cannot absolve or condemn. Yet Helena is the only one of Lamian’s victims he remembers by name, and even she remains for him a vague and self-serving fantasy. When he tracks down her cousin and learns that she died several months prior, he is jolted out of his dreams of exoneration by the sheer, recalcitrant reality of Helena’s independent existence. He is shocked to hear that the weeping woman he raped ‘always tried to emphasize the bright side of things’. ‘Oh?’ he exclaims, amazed. ‘Though he had never considered what Helena Lifka’s outlook might be like, her tears had given him the opposite impression – that she was prone to despair and hopelessness’. 

Ultimately, it is not Lamian who utters the unutterable, but Tišma. His prose is for the most part unadorned and unsentimental, but it is punctuated by images that pierce: after an air raid a horse drags behind it ‘a purplish braid suspended from its torn belly’; people lining up on the banks of the Danube to be shot in the raid of Novi Sad are ‘like grain walking to the mill’. Kapo succeeds for the very reasons that Lamian fails so heinously. Unlike his protagonist, Tišma addresses himself not to lifeless dolls or hunks of meat but to fellow human beings, for which reason he is able to say a little of what can never be said quite well ­– or quite horribly – enough.  

Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘On Re-reading Life and Fate’, NLR 95.


Kremlin in Decline?

On 19 September, Russia’s three-day elections ended with the expected result – United Russia (UR), the Kremlin’s party, yet again won a constitutional majority in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. Since its formation in 2001, the party has always held a majority of seats. Though elections in Russia are neither free nor fair, the results are not 100% falsified either. The regime’s political operatives need to ensure the UR’s resounding victory every time without losing the air of credibility. During this electoral season, the challenge was particularly tough: UR’s popularity, even according to the official surveys, stood at barely 30%: not nearly enough for a simple let alone constitutional majority. Nevertheless, the party won 324 seats out of 450, only 19 less than in 2016. For this result, credibility had to be sacrificed – and it was.


The scatter plot above is the simplest visual proof of widespread electoral fraud in Russia. The dots represent individual electoral precincts, with the X axis showing the turnout and the Y axis the share of the UR vote. The comet-like shape indicates a strong correlation between the turnout and the vote for the Kremlin’s party – the higher the turnout at the precinct, the more votes are cast for UR. The comet’s ‘head’ – a dense cloud of dots – unites the precincts with more or less honest results. However, the ‘tail’ comprises the precincts with irregularities. There is only one way of explaining such a strong correlation between the turnout and the UR vote: ballot-stuffing of various shapes and sizes (the photo and video evidence of such practices is, of course, abundant). In fact, the dots in the top right corner of the plot are the precincts where both the turnout and the UR vote are close to 100% – the results there are falsified in their entirety. Such precincts are mostly located in the so-called ‘electoral sultanates’, where fraud is particularly widespread. Most of the Caucasus falls into this category.

Detecting fraud is not the only use of the scatter plot shown above. It also allows us to glimpse the real results of elections. The center of the comet’s head approximates the national turnout and votes for UR that were unaffected by fraud. Since the last election, held in 2016, the comet fell – that is, real support for UR declined by some 10 points, from 40% to 30% (a figure that corresponds to the pre-election polls). However, the official results did not decline nearly as much, suggesting that the scale of fraud has dramatically increased since 2016, perhaps to an all-time high.

Organic support for the regime is waning. After a decade of economic stagnation punctuated by deep crises, the government is out of ideas and has no vision for the future. The ‘rally-behind-the-flag’ effect of the Crimean adventure has disappeared, and the pain of austerity measures, particularly raising the retirement age in 2018, has been felt by the population. In this unfavorable conjuncture, the Kremlin was forced to hold elections that were particularly significant for its future: the Duma elected this September will preside over Putin’s attempt to reelect himself as president in 2024. Its failure to secure a landslide might exacerbate the ‘problem of 2024’, which is by far the most important obstacle for the regime. Gauging this, the Kremlin has acted increasingly brutally and erratically. Alexei Navalny was poisoned and then imprisoned, his organization banned as ‘extremist’; multiple independent media outlets have been closed; opposition activists have been sent to prison or into exile. The elections were held over three days, creating additional opportunities for fraud. The Kremlin’s strategy was to mobilize state-dependent groups such as public employees and workers at state-owned factories while avoiding high ‘real’ turnout that could result in a protest vote.

UR launched its campaign last spring by holding so-called ‘primaries’. Their official purpose was to identify the party’s strongest candidates in single-member districts, yet in reality this allowed them to test the capacity of the vast administrative machinery to coerce votes. State workers were forced by their bosses to register as participants in the ‘primaries’, which eventually attracted 12 million voters (half of them by electronic voting). This figure was already more than 40% of UR’s performance in the previous parliamentary elections. Thus, UR needed about 15 million more votes to reach its target and regain its constitutional majority (at least 300 deputies). With the party’s rating steadily declining, success could only be ensured primarily by a further expansion of compulsory voting.

To boost support for UR, which in the eyes of most Russians is associated with declining living standards and increasing repression, its party list was topped by two of its most popular members of the government – Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In August, the government also made a one-off payment of 10,000 rubles (117 euros) to pensioners and families with children, which the state media portrayed as an initiative of the ruling party. The main message of UR’s election campaign was the need to maintain stability, since any attempt to challenge the status quo would only worsen the situation and be used by external enemies to weaken the country.

The elections thereby became a quasi-referendum where voters were enjoined to either accept or reject the current regime. In this binary system, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) finally became the most obvious way to register dissent. Despite the traditional conformism of its leadership and its close contacts with the Kremlin, the KPRF was the most oppositional of all parliamentary parties in the previous Duma: the only one to consistently vote against the unpopular pension reforms of 2018 and the amendments to the Constitution in 2020 that allowed Putin to be re-elected as president for two more terms. This position has attracted new voters to the KPRF in recent years: residents of large cities, disenchanted young people and the educated middle classes, for whom the KPRF’s traditional ideology – a mixture of Stalinism, nationalism and social democracy – mattered less than its insurgent energy. The emergence of this new electorate has also transformed the party’s rhetoric (which is increasingly focused on democracy and social justice) as well as its cadres. Over the past few years, a number of bright young party leaders have sprung up in different regions of the country, marking a rupture with the old image of the KPRF as an archaic fragment of the Soviet state apparatus.

In Saratov, for example, Nikolai Bondarenko, 35, a member of the local KPRF leadership and one of the most popular political vloggers in Russia, ran as a candidate in a single-member district. His YouTube channel, which has more than 1.5 million subscribers, features live reports from protests and regional parliament sessions, where Bondarenko regularly confronts the UR deputies. The authorities made exceptional efforts to prevent Bondarenko from entering the State Duma: his supporters and election observers were constantly detained by police. Bondarenko ultimately lost to a little-known UR functionary from Saratov. Meanwhile, in the northern region of Komi Republic, local KPRF leader Oleg Mikhailov, 34, managed to defeat his UR competitor after coming to prominence as one of the figureheads of a protest against the construction of a huge landfill site. In Moscow, the KPRF backed the candidacy of a university trade union activist, 37-year-old mathematician Mikhail Lobanov. His campaign was supported and staffed by members of radical left-wing groups such as the Russian Socialist Movement. Lobanov, who openly describes himself as a democratic socialist, was able to draw support from a wide range of voters and mount a forceful challenge to his UR opponent, a well-known propaganda talk-show host on Russian TV, whom he beat by 12% (more than 10,000 votes); though the victory was eventually stolen by UR’s electoral fraud.

One of the main problems for the Kremlin during this electoral season was the ‘Smart Voting’ strategy proposed by Alexei Navalny two years ago. The essence of this strategy was to identify UR’s strongest opponent in a single-member district and urge all opposition voters to support this candidate regardless of her party affiliation, with the singular goal of decreasing the number of seats available to UR. With the ruling party’s credibility steadily declining, Smart Voting has become a serious threat to UR’s chances of winning a constitutional majority in the new parliament. Russian security agencies made enormous efforts to block all web pages that offered Smart Voting recommendations (even Apple and Google were forced to comply and remove Navalny’s phone apps a few days before the election). Nevertheless, Smart Voting lists, most of which were occupied by the representatives of the KPRF, circulated widely on the internet. In numerous videos, Navalny’s supporters endorsed the KPRF on a party-list vote as the only opposition party guaranteed to pass the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation.

When the first election results were published, based on voting at regular polling stations but not on electronic voting, they showed a huge increase in support for the KPRF, whose candidates stormed to victory in a number of single-member districts. In Moscow, candidates from the KPRF and the liberal Yabloko party won 8 out of 15 districts. In Moscow as a whole, the KPRF took first place on the party lists, receiving 31% of the vote (while the UR got 29%). However, the next morning, when the results of the electronic voting were made public, the picture was inverted: UR was now the winners in all of Moscow’s single-member districts, with an outright victory on the party lists. Electronic voting proved to be the Kremlin’s trump card, enabling them to manipulate the outcome in their favour.

Still, even after all the Kremlin’s machinations, the election results showed a major increase in support for the KPRF. Compared to the previous election, the party received 3 million more votes and finished second behind United Russia with 18.9%. In four regions (Khabarovsk Area, Yakutia, Mari El and Nenetsky Autonomus District), the KPRF came first, overtaking the ruling party. Despite UR’s official victory (49.8% for the party lists and 198 seats out of 225 in the single-member districts), its position is weaker than ever before. Without voter coercion and fraud, it is now unlikely to win a majority. Further losses of support will push the authorities towards openly repressive methods and accelerate the regime’s mutation into an outright dictatorship.

The other main outcome of the election was the success of the Communist Party, which finally became Russia’s main legal opposition force. By contrast, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s right-populist LDPR abandoned its image as a protest party and lost almost half of its vote (7.4% compared to 13.1% in the previous election). The new position of the KPRF will inevitably activate an internal contradiction between the old leadership, accustomed to acting within the limits set by the Putin administration, and the younger generation of activists, determined to transform the KPRF into a mass party of non-parliamentary protest. The radical left, which has always viewed the party as a conformist remnant of the Soviet bureaucracy, incapable of militant, independent politics, will have to adjust its approach as well.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Contours of the Putin Era’, NLR 44.


Wintry Moods

The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy practices an astringent minimalism. Her icy, rigorous fictions are naturally preserved in the manner of an alpine corpse. The elegance of her prose disguises its lurid appeal. Elements of the gothic mode are often present – suicide, terror, insanity – though scrupulously denied the fuel necessary for spectacle. Something is always held back, a force at odds with its own circumscription. While reading a Jaeggy novel, one senses the dark sea roiling beneath the ice, the uncharted depths, entire phyla of creatures, great shelves of stone. But her restraint never falters; the hoary crust remains inviolable. ‘She could even tidy the shelves of the void’, one of her characters says admiringly of another. The dedicated reader of Jaeggy feels something similar about the author. This austerity is a matter of profound artistry. But over the course of a four-decade career, it has also come to suggest its own repressed opposition. The implications of Jaeggy’s fictions are forever attempting to escape her control, like light around the edges of a collapsed star.

Jaeggy, 81, was born in 1940, in Zurich. She grew up speaking German, French, and Italian. (She would later translate Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian, the language in which she writes.) Like several of her protagonists, she spent her adolescence at a Swiss boarding school. Having completed her studies, she modelled in the United States before moving to Rome. There she befriended the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, who sometimes appears in her stories, and married Roberto Calasso, the novelist and future editor of the prestigious publisher Adelphi Editions. Her stock has lately risen in the Anglophone world. The writer and translator Tim Parks discovered her first masterpiece, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), while browsing a bookstore in Italy in the early ‘90s. (The book had already established her reputation there.) Its recent reissue aligned with a vogue for short, elliptical fictions written by women, including rediscoveries like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979) and Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark (1983), and newer works by writers like Kate Zambreno, Sigrid Nunez, and Nathalie Léger. Jaeggy is too severe and macabre for a Ferrante-like sensation and too good to fade into respectful obscurity. Instead, she is passed around like secret cargo among devotees who have come to rely on her exactingness, her black humour, and the clean, crystalline beauty of her prose.

An early novel, The Water Statues (1980), has recently been published by New Directions, in a translation by Gini Alhadeff. It is a strange addition to Jaeggy’s canon of frozen miniatures, a brief and mesmeric work structured in part like a play. (A dramatis personae is provided.) The novel concerns a man named Beeklam, a recluse who stocks the flooded basement of his Amsterdam villa with statues. His father, Reginald, lives in seclusion with an enigmatic servant, Lampe. Father and son circle the abyss of their late wife and mother, Thelma. There is no plot so much as a series of wintry moods, a vast, disembodied brooding. Narration proceeds in a sort of depleted roundelay, with Beeklam, Reginald, servants, and family friends drifting through the opiate fog of memory. As in much of Jaeggy, this obsessive recursion signals morbidity. For Beeklam, being a son means inheriting an already fallen world. His nostalgia is a form of resentment. ‘He had a horror of anything hereditary’, he says of himself, ‘because whatever comes to us by natural inheritance belongs to the dead’.

This is a familiar anxiety in Jaeggy’s fictions, which often dramatize the unwelcome legacies – financial, psychological, physiognomic – that entangle her narrators in baffled need and obligation. The inscrutability of family life estranges them from the social rituals of the adult world. Friendship, sex, and community become confounding and self-negating trials. In Sweet Days of Discipline, a young woman develops an obsession with a fellow student, Frédérique, at a Swiss boarding school. While the devouring intensity of their relationship takes centre stage, the novel is also notable for its cast of despised mothers and distant fathers, inscrutable figures who visit during holidays for brief hotel lunches or send cards in which nothing is offered or explained. Money is often given in lieu of time and attention. Bought off or ritually abandoned, the students seem unable to enjoy their youth while remaining forever mired within it. Jaeggy offers a vision of ‘senile childhood…protracted almost to insanity’. That this condition carries over into maturity is suggested by Frédérique’s eventual fate. (At twenty, she lives ‘as if she were in a grave’.) The girls’ savage intimacy is in some sense a response to this unstated filial lack.

S.S. Proleterka (1993), a semi-autobiographical novel in which a woman remembers a cruise she took as a girl with her dying father, advances the conceit. The girl’s absent mother, acting as legal guardian from South America, authorizes the cruise as a kind of farewell tour. But the father’s reticence and social enervation render him unknowable. He is a living tomb, sealed in silence and mystery. The girl ends up spending her nights with various members of the ship’s crew in a sexual initiation that is itself a kind of annihilation, a running from emptiness to emptiness. Through it all there is a defensive posturing typical of Jaeggy’s narrators, though this can’t quite dispel the sense that the novel represents an inverted love letter to her father:

Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold…They are no longer creatures that have been abandoned, but those who mentally beat a retreat. And they go away. Towards a gloomy, fantastic and wretched world…Some children look after themselves. The heart, incorruptible crystal. They learn to pretend. And pretence becomes the most active, the realest part, alluring as dreams. It takes the place of what we think is real. Perhaps that is all there is to it, some children have the gift of detachment.

The publication of The Water Statues offers an intriguing view into the early development of the Jaeggy mythos. Many recognizable elements of her mature fictions are present – bewildered children, distant or dead parents, stasis, elegant lacunae – though they are collected here into a glancing and uncharacteristically lyrical novel. Those used to the gorgeously pared sentences of the later Jaeggy will be surprised to find a comparative surplus of language. This voluptuousness lends the proceedings a languid quality. All is submersion, iridescence, intoxication. (A late scene in which snails become drunk after eating cabbage leaves coated in beer droplets acts as a microcosm for the novel: creatures enmeshed in slowness, slime, inebriation, and curious beauty.) The specific motivations of Beeklam and the others are suggested but never spelled out directly. They move through a series of associative preoccupations – water, time, houses, rooms, parks – meditating, singly or in pairs, on the accumulation of years.

Beeklam’s habit of collecting statues to store in the lower regions of his villa suggests the subterranean posture of the novel. ‘From childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him’, we are told, ‘statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and start out from where they end’. The flooded basement seems immune to the flow of time, the marble figures he surrounds himself with displaying an enviable and soothing permanence. (He names at least five of them after his mother and her friends.) ‘I’ve spent a great deal of time in these basements’, he says early on, ‘not that I was weary of the sun, of the open air: I was simply losing control of the hours and of life’. It is only in the basement where the intimate pressures of history are returned to him. There his passion attains a certain surreal animation, ‘as though the irrigated statues were walking about aimlessly, like wading birds’. A mysterious existential transaction occurs with each descent. ‘As in fairy tales’, Beeklam’s servant, Victor, says, ‘we have come back up from the basements, laden with the years, tranquil, unwearied, almost not alive’.

The novel’s second section centres on Katrin, an old friend of Thelma’s who, while in boarding school, was accused by the head mistress of being in the grip of ‘some inscrutable witchcraft’. (The novel can sometimes feel like a testing ground for Jaeggy’s enduring archetypes.) Katrin lives with her companion, a widower named Kaspar, and both are attended to by Lampe, the servant previously employed by Reginald. (Some echo here of Kant’s servant Lampe, similarly dull, devoted, and dismissed?) The sticky, incestuous web of connections contributes to the feeling of airlessness and suspension. A speaking crow appears – this, too, is pure Jaeggy, the cryptic animal, a recurring motif alongside twins, gardens, crystals, crosses – and summons the group together for some final reckoning. Time and class overlap in Katrin’s pavilion, as servants and spectral, threadbare aristocrats speak past one another, obscure their motivations, and remember in a way very like forgetting.

Their meeting is partly to do with Reginald, who plays the familiar figure of the impenetrable father. At the age of seventy, he suddenly deserts the aforementioned Lampe with the ‘amiable freedom sometimes found in saints and the elderly’. The attempt to bridge this parental desertion – inevitably doomed in Jaeggy’s fictions – is enacted by Beeklam. ‘It is odd how suddenly the urge comes over us to find a certain person who has disappeared’, he says, ‘and we are naïve enough to think that lost things become so small, idle, and wayward that we might suddenly find them again on the ground’. He eventually discovers his father in a mountain sanatorium. Reginald is drunk and surrounded by other itinerants who think of their own phantom sons. The exchange between the two is terse and inconclusive. An attendant eventually pushes the young man out the door: ‘Are you here to identify someone? Go away’.

The Water Statues is a novel in which identifications of any kind – between reader and text, or character and character, or past and present – are never less than uncertain. Questions linger. We may ask, for instance, who this play is put on for. Over what stage does Beeklam wander? Is anyone watching the players? These are actors – children, parents – in search of a commensurate form, a drama to explain their diminishment and their distance. This is the great, hidden drama of Jaeggy’s fictions, to supply relation with adequate structure. Her horror and impotence before the fact of heredity can only be countenanced by way of literature’s delusions. The gorgeous vice grip of her prose is finally a fantasy of control. For these boarders, itinerants, and spiritual orphans – an entire deracinated kingdom – memory and death are life’s compensations. The novel ends with the image of a sundial surrounded by Beeklam’s statues: ‘From beneath chipped lids, placid eyes gaze at Time’. But for all the scene’s arrested motion, the dial’s shadow continues moving, ‘black and slithery’. Springing mindlessly from the light and the stone, it moves according to laws it cannot fathom. It is this liquid darkness that Jaeggy returns to continuously. In her incomparable fictions, shadows cannot help but apprehend their blinding source.

Read on: Jon Halliday, ‘Switzerland – The Bourgeois Eldorado’, NLR I/56.


Montaldi’s Notebooks

It was in the pages of the journal Quaderni rossi (Red Notebooks) that the theoretical and political current known as Operaismo (Workerism) began to take shape in Italy during the early 1960s. Central to this body of thought was the idea that the working class exists as an autonomous, self-constituting force, and not merely as a passive victim of capital’s onslaught. Among its most original contributions was an emphasis on the relationship between capitalist expansion and the formation of working-class subjectivities. This was explored to particularly brilliant effect by one of the journal’s founders, Danilo Montaldi, a figure little known outside Italy. Through oral history and autobiography, Montaldi’s work produced a living image of worker and lumpen subjectivities in motion, one without parallel in Marxist theory.

Born in Cremona in 1929, Montaldi grew up in fascist Italy, surrounded by artists, workers, anarchists, and socialists – all friends of his father, a transport worker with ties to the Bordigist faction of the Italian Communist Party (an anti-Stalinist left current). He left school at fourteen to fight in the resistance, acting as a courier for the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) Fronte della Gioventù. Joining the party after the war, Montaldi soon left when his father and several of his comrades were expelled. The experience was a formative one: in Montaldi’s view, the PCI’s leader Palmiro Togliatti had sacrificed the most intellectually vibrant wing of the party for a national-electoral strategy that was ultimately reformist and patriotic in character.

Cremona was also decisive in shaping his outlook. Situated in the heart of the Po river valley, the region had been subject to an intense wave of agrarian capitalist development in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was the setting for some of the first socialist organizing in the country. Montaldi faulted the PCI for misunderstanding the needs and aspirations of the region’s farm workers, who wished ‘not at all to take possession of the land in order to reach the standard of living of the landowners, but to reach the level of the industrial worker in the cities. In fact, when these peasants occupied land, they never divided it into small properties, but made it into cooperatives.’ To focus solely on agitating in the factories was thus to exclude a mature and radical element of the rural proletariat.

Moving to Paris in the early 1950s, Montaldi made contact with the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, which had recently broken away from the Trotskyist international. Their politics were oriented around a critique of bureaucratization: that millions of workers were organized into hierarchical parties and trade unions constituted, in their view, a key barrier to social revolution. In a more libertarian vein, they looked to explore different forms of proletarian revolutionary action. To this end, the first issues of the group’s journal featured a serialized translation of The American Worker, a pamphlet published in Detroit in 1947 consisting of an autobiographical account of factory life by an autoworker, Paul Romano, and a theoretical analysis of that experience by Grace Lee Boggs. When he returned to Cremona in 1953, Montaldi published a translation of Romano’s account, explaining in a preface the significance of this text. It showed that it is in the realm of production that the proletariat’s ‘revolt against exploitation takes place, where it finds its ability to construct a better kind of society’. This was an implicit critique of Togliatti’s strategy for the PCI, which operated on the premise, first argued by Gramsci, that Italian capitalism was exceptionally backward: it was thus the responsibility of the party to overcome the disparities between north and south by building a strong national base and working with bourgeois parties. Secondly, Montaldi argued, the text demonstrated that the labour expended in the factory entailed a total subsumption of the worker’s personality to capitalist production: his or her physical as well as creative capacities were exhausted in the course of their daily work. This for him was the essence of Fordism, whether it was in the factory or the countryside: the experience of subordinating one’s life to the rhythms of production.

Montaldi was ultimately searching for a politics more directly connected to workers’ struggles. In 1955, he organized a study-group whose aim was to map the productive relations in Cremona, and in doing so, establish a common basis of struggle between workers and intellectuals. In 1957, this developed into an activist organization, the Gruppo di Unità Proletaria (GUP). Montaldi had by now fine-tuned the research technique that would guide its strategy: ‘conricerca’ or ‘co-research’. Its objective was not to produce a totalizing picture of social reality, or have workers simply report their knowledge to intellectuals who would then theorize about it. Instead, the starting point was the ever-changing ways that workers experienced forms of domination. By focusing on the subjectivity of workers, the partnership between intellectuals and proletarians could reveal the lines of fracture and class tensions that structured the workplace. This could enable them – as Montaldi emphasized in their 1957 program – ‘to give support and appropriate direction to the demands of the working-class base’. Accordingly, Montaldi called for co-research initiatives at the largest industrial and agricultural concerns in the region, from Sperlari and Negroni to Consorzio Agrario.

From 1948 on, Italy experienced the greatest economic boom in its history – a ‘miracle’ as it came to be called, with annual growth rates above 5 per cent, and giant leaps in per capita income. But, as Lucio Magri has noted, ‘everyone had to pay for accumulation, and the powers-that-be decided that workers and farmers should be the first to pay and the last to profit.’ A coordinated political attack against the left hobbled its capacity for concerted action, and empowered bosses and landlords at its expense. Mass layoffs and evictions followed; wage growth remained sluggish through the 1950s even as labour productivity soared; and management dismantled the structures of worker representation while bringing new machinery and forms of hierarchical control into the workplace. In 1959-60, workers began to strike back. A first wave of actions by electrical engineers took place in Milan; a second broke out in Turin among autoworkers, leading to an industry-wide strike. Montaldi’s GUP called for a nation-wide general strike, arguing that a fragmented offensive was sure to be defeated by the bosses. It also pushed for workers to form councils in the factories and the countryside: ‘the emancipation of the proletariat’, wrote the group, quoting Marx, ‘will be the work of the proletariat itself.’

Bound up with Italy’s miracle was a set of migratory movements. One flowed outward toward other countries in need of manpower; the others were internal, streaming from countryside to city, and from underdeveloped South to industrialized North. At first, the internal migrants landed in the metropolises of Turin and Milan, but increasingly they settled in the borderlands of the cities, living in makeshift huts known as ‘Koreas’, so called because they began to appear during the Korean War. These slums were the subject of Montaldi’s first book, Milano, Corea (1960), co-written with Franco Alasia. Like much of Montaldi’s work, the book has an autobiographical dimension: half is a collection of life stories from inhabitants of Milan’s Koreas, which endow the migrants – an otherwise ghostly presence in the northern cities – with flesh and personality, giving them authority and authorship over their own lives.

The other half is an ‘investigation’ by Montaldi. With a kind of ethnographic precision, he describes the familial relations migrants brought with them; their patterns of work; their moral codes; the humiliations they suffered in the older districts of the city. Montaldi analyzes how migrants have changed Milan, collapsing distinctions between centre and periphery, old and new. He also attempts to explain how the subjectivities of the migrants are linked to the larger social and productive relations of the city. For this he mobilizes an impressive amount of quantitative research: showing how landlords and bosses profit from the construction boom around Milan; how the city’s web of social services continually fails residents of the Koreas; how the political machinery of the city works to exclude migrants from civic life while benefitting from their low-wage labour. What emerges is a multi-tiered diagram of capitalist expansion in the city. This system, Montaldi notes, is riddled with contradictions. Its size and complexity is such that it can absorb and displace them, but not forever: Montaldi predicts that the migrant cities will resist being integrated completely into Milan’s civic life, and will one day ‘bring into crisis the key institutions of the current system of relations’.

In its experimental way, the book is a living document of proletarianization, capturing working-class subjectivities as they are moulded by the rhythms of industrial capitalism. This anticipates a key tenet of Operaismo, that capital is a system of social control that functions not merely by exploiting workers through the wage relation, but by subordinating and dominating them through institutions and government-initiated planning programs. The city as a whole becomes a kind of ‘social factory’, in which labour-power is controlled and disciplined by the political forces of capital. The theorists of Operaismo would also argue that workers nevertheless find ways to resist this regime and reassert their autonomy – through wildcat strikes, slowdowns, and absenteeism. This interplay of subordination and autonomy is at the heart of Milano, Corea’s sequence of migrant autobiographies: all share the experience of displacement and relocation; but, at the same time, each migrant struggles to reclaim the unique features of their own life.

Montaldi explored this dynamic from a different angle in Autobiografie della leggera (1961). Like its predecessor, the book features a lengthy introduction followed by a suite of worker autobiographies, but these are set deeper in the country, among the inns and taverns of provincial highways, and along the banks of the Po. Its protagonists are not migrants but drifters, or, as the book’s subtitle would have it, ‘outcasts, petty criminals, and rebels’, scraping together a living at the margins. There is a temptation, notes Montaldi, to romanticize these figures, to see them as the remnants of a lost pre-capitalist world. But capitalist development had in fact been transforming the Italian countryside since the nineteenth century and had made possible the growth of the northern cities. It was ‘the agrarian crises of the Po valley’, writes Montaldi, that produced emigration, and sent luckless peasants into the slums of Milan and Turin. The people who remained in the country and did not become farm workers tended to practice the kinds of rural trades – fisherman, woodcutter, or boatmen – that had no place in city life. This left them suspended in an interstitial space: too unskilled to work in the old artisanal trades; but not deskilled enough to join the ranks of the proletariat in the factories or in the fields of capitalist agriculture.

As Pasolini noted in an admiring review of the book, there is a literary sensibility to its autobiographical narratives: ‘each writer-speaker seems to me to be fully aware that there is something special in the telling of their life stories’. The experiences of which they tell are remarkably unbound and contingent: the narrators wander from town to town, sometimes finding work, sometimes engaging in petty crime. Money is scarce, the police and fascist spies are everywhere, and most of the narrators spend time in prison. Fiu’s story opens with an orgy that is broken up by the police. Teuta, a thief, happens to be in France at the outbreak of the First World War and is sent to fight at Verdun; Cicci, a prostitute, moves at one point to Africa, where the pay is better but the work more dangerous. Like the Koreas, the world in which they operate is lacking basic provisions: few shops, pitiable schools, and minimal health-care services. Orlando P.’s brother dies of an unknown disease; Cicci’s mother attempts suicide by throwing herself in the Po.

For Montaldi, these narratives are symptomatic of their setting. On the one hand, capital’s restructuring of the countryside has meant the destabilization of older patterns of culture and modes of subjectivity. On the other, Montaldi sees in the authors’ adherence to older folkways a ‘refusal’ to conform, a conscious ‘non-adaptation to industrial life’. He even detects ‘traces of resistance to assimilation’ in the way the narrators switch out of standard Italian into local dialect – disobedience at the level of language. A similar point could be made about the narrative forms adopted by the authors, which often have the feel of a fable. Their modern use was explored by Benjamin in his 1937 essay ‘The Storyteller’. Unlike the novelist, who, Benjamin says, ‘isolates himself’ and begins from a place of solitude, ‘the storyteller finds his material in experience’, which he then recounts to a community of listeners. As such, the art of storytelling has ‘long flourished in the world of manual labour’ and ‘is itself a form of artisanal labour’. ‘It does not aim to transmit the pure intrinsic nature of the thing like information or a report. It plunges the thing into the life of the teller and draws it out again’.

But, ultimately, Benjamin, like Montaldi, resists seeing the storyteller merely as a relic of the old world. Rather the emphasis is on the new role they have assumed in modernity, that of sage or counsellor. For both thinkers, the autobiography-as-fable functions as a record of experience, but more significantly, it offers moral instruction: Montaldi’s authors model a radical autonomy in their refusal to submit to the domination of capital. In this sense, the proletarian autobiography is not an isolated product, but a moment of class struggle, the record of a social movement in formation.

As worker and student militancy boiled over to produce the biennio rosso of 1968-1969, Montaldi continued to work feverishly. He translated Lévi-Strauss’s Totemisme aujourd’hui, opened an art gallery in Cremona, and published another volume of worker autobiographies, this one focused on grassroots party militants (Militanti politici di base). Montaldi and the GUP was active in the worker revolts of 1969, agitating with ironworkers in Venice, and publishing texts and communiqués from the working-class insurgents. He regretted that there was no true proletarian party in Italy to help the masses take power.

Montaldi’s short life ended in 1975 when he drowned in unknown circumstances in the Roya, which runs along the Franco-Italian border. At the time, he was assembling materials for an oral history of the 1969 worker revolt, which had been proposed to him by the historian Carlo Ginzburg. Given Montaldi’s unique approach, it would have been a momentous document. Even so, Montaldi’s influence was far reaching. For Sergio Bologna, one of Operaismo’s leading thinkers, it was Montaldi’s two books from the early 1960s more than anything written by Marx that shaped the movement’s thinking in its early days: ‘As I remember it,’ he wrote, ‘the group of young people who gravitated towards the Quaderni Rossi in 1961-62 were characterized first and foremost by a desire to understand the profound transformation that both productive facilities and the urban environment were undergoing; the need to master a theoretical-systematic framework by which to interpret what was happening in accordance with a Marxian logic came second.’ Montaldi directly influenced a number of these Quaderni Rossi figures, perhaps Romano Alquati most of all, a sociologist from Cremona who used Montaldi’s ‘co-research’ technique to conduct a landmark inquiry into new forms of worker consciousness at FIAT and Olivetti. After a split in 1963, Alquati went on to found Classe Operaia with Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti, which became the core journal of Operaismo.

Well before Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, Montaldi shattered the false antinomy between a supposedly idyllic, pre-capitalist countryside and a corrupted, industrialized city. The effect was to bring working-class revolt out of the factories into the migrant suburbs and depopulated countryside. It took a figure of Montaldi’s upbringing and outlook to see in the lumpen characters of the modern city and its peripheries the making of revolutionary subjectivities.

Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.


In the Woods

On a recent walk in Białowieża Forest, the immense primeval woodland that straddles Poland and Belarus, I saw a perfectly still figure holding binoculars. It initially appeared to be a birdwatcher, until I drew closer and realized it was a soldier from the Polish army. 

In Białowieża, bison stride through oak, ash and linden trees that are hundreds of years old. Recently they’ve been joined by refugees, who are entering the woodland from Belarus. In August, people from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria were caught crossing into Poland through the forest. For over a month, a group of Afghans has been stranded on the border near the village of Usnarz Górny (north of Białowieża, in the Podlasie region). The ruling Law and Justice government has refused to let them apply for asylum or provide humanitarian aid. ‘We are defending sacred Polish territory’, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.

European officials and Belarusian exiles have accused Alyaksandr Lukashenka of taking revenge against sanctions by luring migrants to Minsk and releasing them into the EU through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. In response, Poland has sent 1,800 soldiers to the border, installed barbed-wire coils, and announced the construction of a new 2.5-meter-high fence. Lithuania also announced that it is building a wall on the 679-km border it shares with Belarus.

The EU’s Eastern borderland, and especially the forest, is a long-time site of debate over the difference between ‘ours’ and ‘other’, East and West. Historian Larry Wolf traces this imagined boundary between civilization and backwardness to the educated travellers of the Enlightenment, who expressed horrified fascination with the supposedly barbaric lands they encountered to the East. While competing camps have claimed Białowieża as their own, its entangled history resists ethnic or ideological separation.   

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the area that spans modern-day Poland, Belarus and Lithuania was united under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the last partition of Poland in 1795, the forest was turned into a private hunting ground for the Russian tsars, who decimated its population of bison. When Poland gained independence after World War I, it became a national park.

The region was seized by the Soviet Union in 1939, then the Third Reich in 1941. Nazi leader and hunting enthusiast Hermann Göring planned to create an enormous protection zone in Białowieża and populate the area with German peasants. This required the removal of local villagers, who were deported or shot, alongside the extermination of the region’s Jews. Many of them were executed in the woods alongside Poles and Belarusians accused of collaborating with partisans hiding out in the forest.

The current border through Białowieża was created at Yalta. The Belarusian side (Belavezhskaya pushcha) served as a hunting preserve for Soviet leaders, who bonded with Eastern bloc Communists on boozy shooting trips. These displays of affection ceased in 1991, when the Belavezha Accords formally dissolved the Soviet Union at a dacha in the woods.

A visitor approaching the forest from the neighbouring village of Białowieża enters on a dirt path. On the left side is the ‘strict reserve’, where mossy logs sink into layered ground cover; to the right is the national forest, which is subject to clearing and management. The road is so close to the border that cell phones connect to Belarusian telecom networks. A biologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences has warned that the new fence will inhibit the migration of endangered Eurasian lynx, which circulate across the two sides.

On August 29, a group of nine people (four from Egypt, three from Afghanistan, one from Lebanon, and one from Syria) entered Poland through the strict preserve. One of them was a man named Omar, whose relatives told his story to a journalist for Oko Press. Like many of those who have recently tried to cross the border, Omar purchased a travel package to Minsk with the promise that he would be taken to the EU. After reaching the Polish side, he was told by the border guard that he could apply for asylum, only to be dumped back in the woods and ordered to return. His family hasn’t heard from him since.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, James Mark has argued, Eastern European elites eager to prove their membership in Western Europe framed the region as an existential buffer against the East. As Poland joined NATO and the EU, Białowieża became a setting for orientalist fears and fantasies about the threat of the Communist past and the Eastern other (personified by Belarus, which has retained a command economy and close ties to Russia). According to anthropologist Eunice Blavascunas’s recent book on Białowieża, a now-defunct adventure train ride through the woods gave visitors the thrill of being captured by uniformed ‘Soviets’, who forced them to join the Communist Party.

Lukashenka’s migration games have combined with news of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan to fuel anxieties over a possible repeat of the 2015-16 refugee crisis. At the time, populist parties in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic presented their refusal to accept Syrian refugees sent by the EU as a defence against arrogant liberalism. According to this narrative, only the long-suffering nations of Central Europe were prepared to protect Christian civilization from the dual threat of ‘cultural Communism’ to the East and Islam to the South (which Viktor Orbán sought to keep out by building a steel fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia). Since 2016, as the bloc has fortified its external borders and paid large sums to Turkey and other countries to ward off migrants, this stance has coalesced with the official view from Brussels. The latter is currently preparing a massive financial package to Afghanistan’s neighbours in an attempt to keep displaced people from coming to Europe.

Poland flaunts its growing role as a safe haven for political refugees from Belarus. These include the sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who is seeking asylum after she criticized her coaches on social media during the Tokyo Olympics and Belarusian officials tried to force her onto a flight home. After arriving in Warsaw, Tsimanouskaya appeared on an evening news program whose host excitedly asked her what she wanted to see in her new country. While welcoming Slavs who flatter its self-image, Law and Justice rejects arrivals from Africa and the Middle East, with a revival of the xenophobic rhetoric it rode to power. ‘Poland will defend itself against a wave of refugees, just as it did in 2015 ’, Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński said.

Some inhabitants of border villages offer food to people who turn up in cornfields and cow sheds, while others place an immediate call to the border guard. In reportage for Krytyka Polityczna, sociologists Sylwia Urbańska and Przemysław Sadura found that fear of the newcomers tends to be greatest among women who have returned from years working as cleaners in Western Europe, where they competed with people from majority-Muslim countries for the lowest-paid jobs.

Criticism of the government’s policy often invokes national memory of the Holocaust. Social media users retweeted a speech by Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski that called for an Eleventh Commandment: ‘thou shalt not be indifferent.’ Several opposition MPs and two priests attempted to bring food, medicine and supplies to the people at Usnarz Górny, where they were rebuffed by border guards. Donald Tusk, the leader of the party Civic Platform, has taken a more cautious approach, saying that the government should provide assistance to stranded refugees while emphasizing that ‘the Polish border must be kept intact.’

For Poles across the political spectrum, joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises near the border this month lend credence to the narrative that the region is in danger of Eastern invasion. Russia’s defence ministry has announced that a record 200,000 troops are taking part in the Zapad-2021 demonstration. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, playing his part in the neo-Cold War script, vowed that the organization would be ‘vigilant.’

By offering protection against outsiders, Law and Justice have cast themselves as the perverse heirs of previous rulers who tried to ‘purify’ a region known for human and ecological diversity. Their efforts enjoy the backing of EU border agency Frontex, which recently sponsored repatriation flights for citizens of Iraq. In early September, the Polish government (following Lithuania and Latvia) declared a state of emergency that requires activists and journalists to stay at least five kilometres away from the border zone. Aid workers previously communicated with the Afghans near Usnarz Górny through a megaphone; now, the latter are left without assistance and beyond the gaze of cameras. Some of those who arrived with Omar told a lawyer that they had already been pushed back into the forest several times. If it happens again, they said, they might not make it out alive. 

Read on: Alexandra Reza, ‘Imagined Transmigrations’, NLR 115.


Sceptical Credulity

They looked at me with a benevolent smile, almost pitying my credulity, my capacity to be fooled. This person, whom I met by chance, was in their sixties, had taught at the Sorbonne and published several books. They immediately told me they would never get the Covid vaccine. They smiled when I objected that over the course of their life they had unthinkingly accepted over a dozen vaccines, from smallpox to polio, and that to enter a whole host of countries every one of us has been inoculated – against tetanus, yellow fever and so on – with relative serenity. ‘But this vaccine isn’t like the others,’ they replied, as if privy to information from which I had been shielded. At this point I understood that there was nothing I could say to shake their granitic certainty.  

What struck me most, however, was their scepticism. I knew that if I entered into the conversation, at best we would have come to the issue of government deception and Big Pharma, at worst conspiracy theories about the microchips Bill Gates is supposedly implanting in the global population. Here we’re faced with a paradox: people believe in extraordinary tales precisely because of their sceptical disposition. Ancient credulity worked in a completely different manner to its contemporary equivalent. It was shared by the highest state authorities – who typically employed court astrologists – and the most downtrodden plebeians. Inquisitors believed in the reality of witchcraft, as did commoners, as did some of the accused witches themselves. In one sense the occult still functions this way in certain parts of postcolonial Africa, where the political class relies on the same rites as ordinary citizens, using witchcraft to perform some of the operations that are the purview of public relations departments in the so-called developed West. (Peter Geschiere’s 1997 text on this topic remains instructive: The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa.) But, by and large, the modern world has given rise to a form of superstition that is accepted in the name of distrust towards the state and managerial classes.

Naturally, we have ample reason not to trust the authorities, even when it comes to vaccines. The journal Scientific American once lamented the impact of the fake Hepatitis-B vaccination campaign organised by the CIA in Pakistan with the aim of discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts, which ultimately resulted in locals boycotting initiatives to vaccinate children against polio. We know of efforts to purposefully garble reports on the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate – the world’s most common herbicide – to tame the ire of its manufacturer Monsanto. And let’s not forget the decades in which the dangers of Teflon were hushed, whilst we cooked (and continue to cook) with coated pans. Nor can we ignore the authorities’ cynicism: between 1949 and 1969 the American armed forces conducted 239 experiments which introduced pathogenic germs amongst unknowing populations. In 1966 for instance, bacilli were released into the New York subway to study their effect.

Scepticism towards authority is the basis of modern enlightenment rationalism. The anti-vaxxers, one must concede, are enacting the very process which permitted science to develop: refusing the principle of authority, rejecting the ipse dixit (ipse here no longer referring to Aristotle, but to the titled and legitimated scientist), upholding the principle that a theory is not in itself true just because it is espoused by an expert at Harvard or Oxford.

But here we’ve already begun to slide into the unintended consequences of sceptical thinking. We cannot disavow the liberatory force of the suspicion that religion was invented as a disciplinary tool, as insinuated by Machiavelli in the 16th century. It was this distrust that came to animate the tradition of libertinism (Hobbes and Spinoza were both suspected of inspiring libertines, perhaps because they were considered crypto-atheists), as well as the theory of The Three Imposters, which held that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were tricksters who had feigned their divine knowledge to keep the masses in check:

Neither God, nor the devil, the soul, the skies nor hell resemble how they are depicted, and all theologians – those that disseminate fables as divinely revealed truths – with the exception of a few fools, act in bad faith and abuse of the credulity of the people to inculcate in them what they please.

(Traité sur les trois imposteurs ou la vie et l’esprit de monsieur Benoit de Spinoza [1719])

The radical potential of this statement is clear, but it must be noted that this is also the first known espousal of a systemic conspiracy theory. Its scepticism has a fideistic quality. The ambiguity it illustrates can be traced back to the Renaissance, which laid the foundations of modern rationalism and simultaneously found a faith-based solution to Catholic fallacies: the Protestant Reformation. Renaissance doubt goes hand-in-hand with mystic fervour; Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pietro Pomponazzi and Machiavelli are coeval with Thomas Müntzer, Calvin and Michael Servetus. Hence, incredulity had already become a politico-religious problem in the 16th century, as the title of a seminal study by the Annales historian Lucien Febvre suggests: The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (1968). We can therefore understand how beneath vaccine scepticism lies an oftentimes ferocious intolerance, for this group of unbelievers structures itself like a sect. (Tara Haelle has reconstructed, rather interestingly, the way in which the anti-vax movement fashioned itself as a healthcare Tea Party in a recent article for The New York Times.)

But there’s more: the ruling class that squawks in horror at the superstition of its subjects is far from innocent itself. For the majority of people, science and technology have a magical quality, in that there is an obvious imbalance between the effort one puts into an action and its result. Uttering a spell, ‘open sesame’, for instance, needs little exertion, yet this is sufficient to move a large boulder blocking the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave. There is no cost input in reciting incantations that allow you to extract gold from stone. In the world of magic, the limits imposed by nature are no longer valid; you can fly on a broom or see what goes on in distant places. And what exactly do aeroplanes, cars, radars do? The Ring of Gyges and Aladdin’s lamp have become patented products, churned out by assembly lines and sold in supermarkets. If magic is a shortcut which covers great distances by way of an easy path (press a button and darkness disappears, press another one and you speak with people far away, yet another and you see what’s happening on the other side of the world), then the entirety of scientific and technological civilisation amounts to sorcery, even more so given that the vast majority of humans are unaware of the mechanisms by which this magic operates. Like the wizard of old, the modern scientist is a keeper of arcane knowledge. Few among us have even a vague idea of how a phone works, not to mention a computer. Naturally, there’s also the division between white (benevolent) magic and black magic, the latter causing ecological catastrophes and wars.

This enchanted dimension of modern life does not just derive from the fact that the bulk of humanity is kept in the dark about the functioning of the world of objects that surrounds it. The truth is that since the 1930s (and all the more so with the advent of the Second World War) the search for natural truth has changed gears. If research once possessed an artisanal quality (Enrico Fermi researched quantum physics in a Roman basement), now it has transformed into a veritable industry (almost 2,000 researchers work at CERN), and a costly one at that. The natural-truths industry is financed by people, from politicians to CEOs, who know little about the projects they fund. An inverted relationship between researchers and donors has evolved in which the former, much like marketers or advertisers, must make constant promises that they will struggle to keep.

After the atomic bomb physicists had an easy ride; they could dangle extravagant weapons – whose unachievable prototypes remain firmly in the realm of Star Wars – before state officials, who would readily cut their own citizens’ pensions to finance the field. With the end of the Cold War, the rivers of military funding began to dry up, and the marketing of research needed rethinking. For decades, NASA has tried to ‘sell the cosmos’, instigating the belief that a colony on Mars was possible (an absurdity given the current state of technology).  It has also promised that with fresh funds it would be able to shield the earth from an inbound asteroid.

No longer able to promise the moon, the only miracle that remains for science to unlock is immortality: who would say no to this? Mark O’Connell’s extraordinary To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017) contains plenty of promethean, multi-billionaire entrepreneurs pursuing infantile dreams of cryogenic freezing pending resurrection. In 1992, the great physicist Leo Kadanoff wrote in Physics Today: ‘We are fast approaching a situation in which nobody will believe anything we [physicists] say in any matter that touches upon our self-interest. Nothing we do is likely to arrest our decline in numbers, support or social value.’

The result is that it’s more and more difficult for non-specialists to distinguish between science and pseudoscience – or between scientists and salesmen. This is because the latter very often mimic the former, but also because of the proliferation of ‘heterodox’ scientists – figures who possess all the trappings of scientific legitimacy (a PhD, publications in authoritative journals, membership of illustrious faculties) but who end up on the community’s margins, or even excommunicated. Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxed (2016) claims that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has covered up the link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and the development of autism. The thesis was originally presented by Wakefield, a respected liver surgeon, alongside others in the eminent medical journal The Lancet. But the article was subsequently disproved, and the surgeon shunned from the profession (though it seems a co-author of his was absolved of the accusation of scientific fraud). From then on, Wakefield has been an anti-vax activist. Another disgraced scientist, Judy Mikovits – PhD in biochemistry, author of articles in Science, also accused of fraudulent practices – is the protagonist of two conspiracist documentaries from 2020: Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 and Plandemic: Indoctornation.

These pariahs of the scientific community present themselves as new Copernicans facing an old Ptolemaic orthodoxy. They’re masters of all the formalisms of scientific research: bibliographies, diagrams, tables, footnotes. It’s understandable how they might sound convincing to those observing the commercialisation of the scientific-media complex from the outside.

I can confirm this disorientation with an anecdote. Shortly before he died, I went to interview René Thom (1923-2002), the founder of catastrophe theory, at a conference of physicists in Perugia. When I arrived, I discovered a meeting of physicists opposed to Einstein’s theory of relativity (nearly a century after it had been formulated in 1905), replete with papers presenting the flaws in the Michelson-Morley experiment (a key test for the theory), or in any case maintaining that its results could be explained by a host of other theories. I felt like I was participating in a clandestine meeting of some sect. I met European physicists who had been highly regarded in their field before they fell for a discovery which was proven to be false, and whose falsity they now struggled to acknowledge.

The close resemblance between science and pseudoscience – particularly in their relationship to funding, and therefore marketing – clarifies our recent difficulties in reasoning with anti-vaxxers, and why it seems almost impossible to break down the communication barrier without profound reforms to public education. For the latter, in its current form, is responsible for our present state of scientific, technological and mathematical illiteracy in an increasingly scientific, technological and digital world. Recently, in a large Roman market I saw an elderly man and woman converse across their respective vegetable stands. The man was an anti-vaxxer, and offered the argument that Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous and experimental. ‘Look who’s talking’, the lady replied, ‘all of you readily took Viagra without having the faintest idea of what it contained’.

A peculiar but highly significant case is that of Russia. Though it was the first country to patent a vaccine (Sputnik), by 2 September 2021 only 25.7 per cent of the population had been vaccinated, and only 30.3 per cent had received at least one dose (compared to a respective 58.4 per cent and 64.7 per cent in the EU). As a result, daily deaths in Russia have continued to reach 800 (out of a population of 146 million). To be sure, Russians’ wariness of the government has played a role (from the Tsars to Yeltsin, Stalin to Putin, there has never been much to trust). Even in Moscow we see versions of the fantasies about Covid and the vaccine we’ve discussed, including the online theory (signalled to me by friends who read Russian) that that ‘the virus was brought to earth by reptilian aliens who gained control of the earth in Sumerian times, and are responsible for creating the “Torahic religion”, and have now decided to curb the world’s population’, controlling humanity ‘via chips contained in the vaccine, in order to establish a new world order’. Amongst the reptilian humans are Obama, Putin and Biden (but not Trump).

But perhaps there is a more prosaic reason for Russian reticence towards the vaccine: Sputnik has not been recognized by Western (American and European) health organizations, invalidating it as a means to travel abroad. Many Russians maintain that if Sputnik permitted them to travel, there would be long queues to get vaccinated. Therein lies the power of bureaucracy, and of pharmaceutical companies’ commercial wars.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, The Philosopher’s Epidemic, NLR 122.


Corrosive Methods

The biographical outline that typically opens an essay on Paula Rego begins with her birth to Lisbon-based Anglophiles in 1935. It registers her first encounter with England in the early 1950s when her parents – despairing at the Estado Novo regime – sent her to a finishing school in Kent. Via the Slade, the young Rego developed through contact with the London Group, coming to serve as the feminist cherry on their cake. Dividing her time between the two countries for several years, she eventually settled in London with the English painter Victor Willing. From there, her story arcs towards recognition by the British establishment, culminating in honours (she was made a Dame of the Empire in 2010) and retrospectives (the latest runs at Tate Britain until 24 October).

Fame of this kind has led Rego’s career to be plotted as a kind of social narrative, its twists and turns bent to fit agreeable cultural metaphors. Her early work – drab oil paintings like Interrogation (1950), in which a woman flanked by the bulging trousers of two male torturers collapses on herself like a broken Anglepoise lamp, and Portrait of José Figueiroa Rego (1954–55), where the face of Rego’s father wilts into his own fist – are said to articulate a raw breed of anguish connected with her birthplace. Paintings such as Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), which depicts the dictator, his red and white belly stuffed with chauvinist dogmas, disgorging a curl of bile into the canvas’s bottom-left corner, soon garnered Rego a reputation as a fearless critic of the dictatorship. Yet as she becomes established in London a bifurcation occurs: the biographical image of Rego qua British national treasure comes to exist almost independently of her art. She is ‘one of our own’, yet the critical implications of her work are conceived as applying exclusively to the country of her birth.

Paula Rego Interrogation 1950. Collection Ostrich Arts Limited © Paula Rego

Tate Britain’s exhibition is a case in point. Foregrounding Rego’s examination of the female experience, it confines the political and cultural critique her work offers, or else reduces its import to individual psychology. This is primarily achieved by unmooring her paintings from their historical context. By the time of Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail (1981), Salazar has been replaced with the titular animal: a thin pale, orange monkey who vomits while his wife stands behind him wielding a pair of scissors. Biographical readings of this work and others in which the monkey recurs (Red Monkey Beats His Wife; Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove) refer to Willing’s marital betrayals and Rego’s fantasies of revenge: domestic dramas that occlude any wider political landscape. The same interpretation is affixed to the renowned pictures of stocky girls looming over pets or performing household chores, which are framed in terms of Willing’s late illness. These complex portraits of female aggression – in which women are variously rendered as lovers, carers and murderers – are presented as less concerned with matrices of political power than with psychosexual impulses. The bulging fossilised skirt of the bullish girl in Snare (1987) may hint at the darkness of the Portuguese metropole, but it has nothing to do with Thatcher’s Britain.

Instead, we are told that such paintings are primarily about personal revelations Rego had while undergoing Jungian analysis. As Jung himself observed, there are hazards involved in inferring an artwork’s social meaning from the intimate life of its creator. The curators direct us to find in Rego’s art ‘the repressed desires, weaknesses and sexual instincts within the unconscious mind’, but Jung distrusted any such approach. ‘The golden gleam of artistic creation’, he wrote in 1923, ‘is extinguished as soon as we apply to it the same corrosive method which we use in analysing the fantasies of hysteria’. Rather than hunting for visual symptoms of the artist’s subterranean desires, he proposed that we view art as a reflection of a collective unconscious which, contra Freud, was never ‘repressed’ or forgotten. Nor was it pre-political. For Jung, the archetypes revealed by artistic creation were social constructions – manifestations of collective thought, or the ‘psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type’.

Paula Rego The Policeman’s Daughter 1987. Private collection © Paula Rego

The exhibition presents the paintings completed during Rego’s ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1987 as referencing specific Portuguese people and places, but they can be better understood as archetypal constructs: The Soldier’s Daughter; The Policeman’s Daughter; The Cadet and his Sister. In these renowned de Chirico-esque stonescapes we find menacing military WAGs, their strong arms engaged in acts of force that belie the softness of their faces. The soldier’s daughter straddles the neck of a large, floppy goose whose plumage she grips with knuckles almost as white as the feathers themselves. The policeman’s daughter plunges her fist into daddy’s long black boot, polishing it with such intensity that her knee seems to grind against the table. These figures may resonate with themes from Salazar’s Portugal, yet they have no literal kinship with the state or its servants. They are neither psychological portraits of individual women nor ‘indictments of Salazar’s dictatorship’ as the Tate’s curators claim, but rather archetypes of feminine desire as produced by the carceral-military imaginary. For Rego, this imaginary operates in both the Estado Novo and the British Empire, though it is reducible to neither. 

In The Dance (1988), a redoubled husband figure, appearing once with his wife and once with another woman, twirls around a moonlit beach in the shadow of a military fort. The figure of the wife is multiplied such that she appears in five separate stages of her life. Here, the drama of familial loyalty and betrayal is indivisible from the backdrop of war, but the resemblance between the military base in The Dance and the Fort of Milreu on Portugal’s Atlantic coast is incidental. The fort, and the husband, are instead symbols of masculine power without specific referent. It is precisely the generality of these images that gives them equal resonance across Rego’s two national contexts. 

Paula Rego The Dance 1988. Tate © Paula Rego

For Jung, the beauty of the archetype lay in its connection to lost forms of greatness. Types unlock ‘ideals’ which are generally linked to forms of reactionary nostalgia: ‘the mother country’, ‘the symbolic value of our native land’, and so on. Jung writes that art’s social function is to conjure up essential virtues that the spirit of the age is lacking. Although Rego’s work is indebted to Jung on various levels, this is precisely the vision that she seeks to overturn. Where Jung sees valour, Rego sees only vomit. Her excavations of the collective unconscious spurn idealism for brutal realism. Many of her paintings are tragic, rather than triumphal, retellings – of folk tales, nursery rhymes, cartoons, novels, plays and poems. Take The Maids (1987), which reimagines the eponymous protagonists of Jean Genet’s play Les Bonnes (1947): a stylised narrative of the real-life Papin sisters, famed in the nineteenth century as servants who murdered their mistress. Genet depicts the sisters as furtive sadomasochists, restaging scenes of their own domination while wearing their employer’s clothes. When Rego represents them forty years later, the ‘mistress’ is the one who appears to have dressed up for the occasion; thick, burly legs extend beneath her skirt, while the faint outline of a moustache can be seen above her upper lip. Meanwhile, the maid whose hand is gently poised against her master’s neck is given dark skin, as though to hint at an act of colonial retribution.

In Rego’s retellings we see not only the psychoanalytic imperative to articulate again (bring into the present, revisibilise), but also a political will to articulate anew (disrupt, subvert, rearrange) – as in Time, Past and Present (1990), based on Antonello’s St Jerome in His Study (c.1475). The saint is reconceived as a pensive man amid several children. One of them attempts to draw him, yet her page remains blank; another, in the doorway behind him, seems to fade into sand. Antonello’s backdrop of verdant fields is replaced by the empty yellow of an infinite, sea-less beach. Hanging on the wall in the right foreground is a painted angel whose scorched tones evoke Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920): the painting that for Walter Benjamin captures the force we mistakenly refer to as ‘progress’. Rather than longing for the past, as in Jung, Rego uses it to estrange the present, in a procedure more closely allied with Benjamin’s image of messianic time. Her paintings make legible a reordered continuity between the disfigurement of the now and the mistakes of the what-has-been.

Absent from Rego’s art however are the utopias that Benjamin hoped this process would bring forth. In their place we have an unflinching treatment of desire which emphasises its ability to trap and ensnare its subjects. The policeman’s daughter gets off on servitude to the boot; the maids are enthralled by the murderous pleasures derived from their own humiliation. If Rego gives us surprising reconfigurations of the past, she makes no special effort to imagine the route beyond it. In this regard, the final room of Tate’s exhibition is perhaps the most starkly ill-conceived:

Rego is an artist who has consistently made work that responds to and fights injustice. In keeping with this lifelong concern, we end this retrospective exhibition with this group of powerful, harrowing works of art that serve as a provocation for action. Rego’s and our wish is that there might be an Escape, and more justice for all women.

If a woman finds her desire trained on her own, or other women’s subjection, how can this desire be retranslated into an impulse to ‘escape’? The evasive abstraction of the curatorial note – ‘works of art that serve as a provocation for action’ – is sufficient indication that Rego offers no clear answer. Yet, perhaps, by turning this desire into such visceral forms of disgust, she plants some seed of its eventual redirection.  

Read on: Herbert Marcuse, ‘Art as Form of Reality’, NLR I/74.


Bitcoin Sanctuaries

In early June, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador announced to the Anglophone world his plan to make bitcoin legal tender. Days later, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly – now stacked with Bukele loyalists – passed the proposal, and on 7 September the currency was officially adopted. Bukele promised that the country would soon be awash with bitcoin ATMs, facilitating conversions, transfers, and purchases of tokens. Fielding questions from an adoring audience at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami, Bukele explained how cryptocurrency would alleviate his nation’s economic problems and help Salvadorans escape poverty. He said nothing of its darker uses, from untraceable money laundering to anonymous transacting on the black market to priming the country for illicit profiteering.

Bukele was quick to identify his antagonist for the Miami crowd: the predatory wire transfer services and traditional banks that extract commissions from remittance dollars sent by Salvadoran emigres. Bitcoin, he said, would reduce the reliance on expensive dollars and keep more money in the pockets of Salvadorans. At the same time, the President hoped that the move would prompt a new round of tech investment in the country, expanding the prototype crypto-community set up in the small surf town of El Zonte, now known as ‘Bitcoin Beach’. He touted the availability of cheap oceanside real estate, entrepreneurial opportunities, development projects such as geothermal volcano mining, and the inevitable growth of other tourist-friendly industries. Together, these would turn El Salvador into a tropical crypto sanctuary, reinventing the Panama model of a deregulated offshore financial service center for the 2020s. Citing blockchain’s growing adoption in Europe, the US and Canada, Bukele presented it as a beacon of hope for ordinary Salvadorans struggling to get by in the informal economy.

Beyond El Salvador, other Latin American states are beginning to view cryptocurrency as a worthwhile enterprise. They regard it variously as a path towards financial sovereignty, the basis of a successful platform economy, a means to jumpstart the post-pandemic recovery or renovate the region’s decayed financial sector. These dreams of empowerment, deregulation and financial inclusivity hark back to the year 2000, when Ecuador and El Salvador abandoned their national currencies, the sucre and colón, for the US dollar. Prompted by hyperinflation and devaluation, and intended to stimulate global investment, the process of dollarization in fact resulted in extreme income disparity plus stagnating or declining wages across sectors, followed by waves of outmigration. In practice, the US dollar now circulates across almost the entirety of Latin America as a second, unofficial currency – an arrangement that Bitcoin may upend.

In Paraguay, bitcoin and other cryptocoins are swiftly becoming part of mainstream political discourse, with laws mooted to encourage their use and applicability. In Mexico and Panama, new legislation will soon be introduced to increase Bitcoin’s mobility. Bitcoin ATMs and exchanges are scattered across Panama City’s shopping centers and strip malls, granting easy access for crypto traders, who have operated in a legal gray area for many years. Uruguay, now considered the ‘Silicon Valley of the Americas’, continues to make inroads into global fintech, recently launching its own cryptocurrency called the ñeripeso. In Puerto Rico, bitcoin entrepreneurs have taken advantage of liberal taxation laws to create an investment hub known as ‘Puertopia’.

It is no coincidence that Latin America is home to so many crypto havens. ‘Banking the unbanked’ has played a key role in the economic strategies of many Latin American countries striving to synchronize their informal economies with the rhythms of global accumulation circuits. In the 1980s, microfinance emerged as part of IMF-backed neoliberalization programmes to confront this challenge across the developing world. Accelerating in the 1990s, microcredit institutions began to crop up across Latin America – Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Haiti and Venezuela – offering small-risk loans to the poor. As the region became a site for economic experimentation, its population was used to stress-test incipient financial instruments including early forms of ‘fintech’. The countries’ raw materials – bananas, palm, rubber, ore – and, by extension, their entire economies, became objects of market speculation. Meanwhile, trade liberalization policies precipitated recurrent debt crises which kept their governments trapped in fiscal bondage.

The turn towards Bitcoin is the latest of these experiments, which is likely to produce a kind of fiduciary colonialism. For bitcoiners, El Salvador’s reforms will provide valuable data on the social utility of cryptocurrency, demonstrating its function as a viable fiat currency. Yet the primary focus is on developing crypto infrastructure which can be exploited by Silicon Valley risk entrepreneurs. For the street vendor who worries about daily earnings, or the families reeling from the hardship of the pandemic, the influx of these techno-capitalists will inject yet more volatility into economic life. By creating unconventional markets of digital coins, blockchain essentially brings regular people into the speculative crypto bubble, where many will end up trading their subsistence wages for overvalued satoshis (the component cents of a Bitcoin).

Crypto use will likely continue to spread across the region as traditional banking introduces new Bitcoin credit products – from cards to rewards programmes – into the market. Yet El Salvador’s policy innovation, which could become a regional paradigm, is to use crypto for all state dealings, giving it official parity with the dollar for domestic transactions. The Bitcoin Law mandates that every business equip itself to accept crypto: a measure that threatens to create new forms of technological apartheid, given the unequal access to internet and smartphone technology across the country. Bitcoin will also increase the risk of cybercrime and petty theft (since people hold the currency in insecure ‘hot wallets’), as well as devastating local ecology by using volcanic energy to mine coins. Since its adoption, the cryptocurrency’s take-up has been patchy and contested, prompting Bukele’s government to launch propaganda campaigns to enroll citizens in the glitchy government cryptowallet, Chivo app. Almost 70% of Salvadorians oppose Bukele’s reform, and a movement to repeal it has been seen in the #NoAlBitcoin protests in the capital city. But the government, which grows more repressive by the day, has shown no signs of backing down.

If the Dollar Diplomacy of the early twentieth century led to imperialism by investment, forcing Latin American nations to put US interests above their own, then today’s turn to cryptocurrency will perpetuate this dynamic. Instead of offering community-responsive development, crypto diplomacy will pry open economies for super-rich investors searching for fiscal wildernesses to tame. Some risk-entrepreneurs are already receiving transaction commissions, earning on wallet and service adoption. Governments, too, will be able to acquire key information on the financial habits of crypto users by simply reviewing the public ledger – streamlining the mechanisms of state surveillance. For El Salvador, this is pure capitalism delivered through cryptography, where the daydream of laissez-faire decentralization masks an unsettling authoritarian creep.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Latin America Tamed?’, NLR 58.


Adaptable Cuba?

Ailynn Torres Santana and Julio César Guanche are Cuban political theorists who study republicanism and democracy in Latin America. In the following interview with Martín Mosquera, they discuss Cuba’s anti-government protests, political fractures in the country, and pathways for the ruling Communist Party.

Martín Mosquera: What was the political and economic situation in Cuba in the run up to the 11 July protests?

Ailynn Torres Santana: The protests that began in Cuba on 11 July were the result of a long-term trend stretching back to the 1990s, in which Cuba saw increased impoverishment and inequality after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. This initiated a process of economic and political reform that began in 2006-2007 and continues today. Its most recent stage is the Tarea Ordenamiento – or ‘restructuring task’ – which formally abolished the dual currency system last January and expanded the range of jobs that Cubans can do outside the state sector.    

US sanctions have obviously been a major source of hardship for Cuban workers. But so have the problems in implementing the country’s reform policies. For example, agriculture has been neglected while millions have been allocated to hotel investments. State-guaranteed welfare has been reduced and the domestic economy has been partially dollarized, as the government increases the number of businesses that operate in foreign currencies. This has heightened Cubans’ reliance on remittances, which in turn have been restricted by the US. Real wages have persistently declined, and in the last six months this drop has been dramatic, with Covid-19 forcing many small and medium-sized enterprises to close. Scarcities of food and medicine are beginning to bite.

There are, however, accumulated problems of another kind, including a lack of labour rights for those who work in the private sector; a hollowed-out trade union movement; obstacles to establishing or expanding non-agricultural worker cooperatives; a virtual block on creating new associations or formal spaces in civil society; restrictions on civil liberties; and an intensification of the US government’s ‘regime destabilization’ programme, which gives millions to actors aiming to topple the government. All these elements fed into the recent unrest.

MM: How would you describe the protests, both in terms of their scale and their political content? What role did the US-financed opposition play in them? Was it a ‘soft coup’ attempt?

Julio César Guanche: To be sure, there are right-wing extremist elements in Cuba that are directly connected to US-led ‘regime change’ initiatives. During the recent uprising, there were calls – especially from outside the country – to engage in arson and looting, and to attack police officers. Yet it is dangerous to write off every protest as part of an effort to wage unconventional warfare, because then there is only one possible response: military repression. In fact, the protests had popular aspects that cannot be overlooked or dismissed as anti-socialist.

It is still difficult to verify the details, because the official media has not provided adequate coverage, but one online outlet registered about seventy locations in the country where some form of protest took place. If this is correct, we are talking about the largest social protest in Cuba since 1959. For decades there has been a build-up of political demands that have not been granted any real space within Cuba’s established institutions. The government has not allowed certain sectors – including those that have nothing to do with the US-backed opposition – to participate in the political system. This has pushed them to the margins and created polarization.  

The political response to the protests aggravated this trend. When the disturbances began in San Antonio de los Baños, President Miguel Díaz-Canel travelled there to meet the crowds. This was a tradition started by Fidel Castro, who went to speak with protesters in 1994 and expressly prohibited state forces from using deadly weapons against them. But Díaz-Canel’s approach was different. He announced that ‘the order for combat has been given’: an expression that has a clear military connotation, invoking the obligation for revolutionaries to defend the country against external aggression. This was a lost opportunity to defuse the conflict through political channels, and to acknowledge that the Cuban opposition is more than just a monolithic ‘Miami-funded’ bloc.

ATS: If you map the barrios and localities where the protests arose, most of them are relatively impoverished. That’s important, because there is a tendency to present all anti-government activity as ‘bourgeois’ or imperialist when, in fact, political allegiances in Cuba are more complicated than that. It is true that there are social and political actors with ties to the US government and the European far-right, who are opposed to any socialist programme. Some of them have called for military intervention by the US government, or humanitarian intervention by international organizations. However, an overwhelming majority of Cubans are anti-interventionist, including some in the organized political opposition. Not all critics of the Communist Party come from the far-right.

MM: How much does generational politics factor into these divisions?

ATS: There is a new wave of feminist and anti-racist activists, artists and journalists in Cuba, which is overwhelmingly drawn from the younger generations. Not all of these people are – or see themselves as – left-wing; their attitudes toward the government range from rigid opposition to unconditional support. But this stratum represents an ongoing diversification of Cuban civil society which the state has been slow to acknowledge. For the Communist Party leadership, the political categories often boil down to ‘revolutionaries’ versus ‘counterrevolutionaries’, with many interesting and critical voices lumped into the latter category.

Of course, social media played a central role in the protests. Many young people used their command of the digital realm to broadcast what was happening and mobilize activists from other areas. Yet online platforms were also an important tool for organizing the sizeable pro-government counter-demonstrations. Overall, I’m not convinced that the protests were led by young people to the extent that was portrayed. The evidence suggests there was significant generational diversity on both sides. What seems more obvious to me is the class dimension: the protests began in the peripheries of urban centers, and in the densely populated areas of Havana, both of which have high rates of material insecurity.

JCG: During the crisis of the 1990s, also known as the ‘Special Period’, Cubans saw a drop-off in economic well-being after years of Soviet support. The population lost an average of 20 pounds per capita, and the US escalated its aggression, adding punitive new measures to the blockade. This marked a ‘before-and-after’ moment in the nation’s collective memory. The generations socialized during and since that decade have felt the shortcomings of the revolution more acutely. Their historical reference point is no longer 1959. So when the official government discourse warns that there are ‘attempts to restore a pre-1959 Cuba’, this simply doesn’t resonate with a certain demographic, who are more concerned with the difficulties of everyday life than with a possible return to capitalism.

There is a well-known joke about the Special Period: We all went in together, but we came out one by one. In other words, people ended up finding their own routes out of the crisis. The problem is that in Cuba, that goes against one of the central pillars of 1959: the revolutionary promise of equality. During the 1970s and 80s, Cuba had one of the lowest levels of inequality worldwide – so coming out ‘one by one’ involved an enormous rupture with the past. After 2000, Fidel Castro launched his ‘Battle of Ideas’ campaign to revive the pre-Special Period social settlement. But its scope was insufficient, and after his death it was largely dropped.

MM: What is the internal reality of the Communist Party of Cuba? Is there any possibility of democratic reform within it?

JCG: Today’s Communist Party of Cuba was born from a merger of revolutionary forces that contributed unevenly to the 1959 victory. The old Communist Party (PSP) was a force that did not participate actively in the armed insurrection against Batista. Nevertheless, the unification process of the 1960s brought together the 26 July Movement, the 13 March Revolutionary Directorate, and the existing Communist party into a new party: the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

While in practice the PCC has ruled unopposed since 1976, the Constitution did not officially sanction the single-party system until 2019. In the late 1980s an internal assessment of the PCC’s structures and methods pointed out many problems with its democratic procedures. As a vanguard party born out of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, it has continuously produced gaping power imbalances between its membership and leadership, with the second acting largely free of accountability. The government therefore embarked on a restructuring process based on a new democratic promise made in 1992: if Cuba is to have a single party, they said, it must represent the entire nation, which could mean recognizing some distinct political tendencies. Almost thirty years later, this is yet to happen. Discussion among the party’s lower ranks rarely filters up to its higher cadres, and differences of opinion are seen as dangerous ruptures.

However, now that Díaz-Canel is in power, we are on the cusp of a possible transition. The president knows that the type of popular legitimacy that Fidel and Raúl Castro had in Cuba is irreplaceable. Their role in the revolution and its aftermath was enough to win them broad support among the population. The current government, by contrast, has to legitimate itself solely through its performance in office. There is great pressure on Díaz-Canel to expand the points of contact between the state and Cuban society and set about fixing its serious institutional flaws. Cuba under his mandate has already achieved the enormous feat of producing two Cuban Covid-19 vaccines – the first in Latin America. Now it remains to be seen whether he will use the protests as an opportunity to roll out further popular programmes and democratize the PCC, or whether he will double down on the vanguardist system.

ATS: Judging from Díaz-Canel’s immediate response to the July protests, one might conclude that possibilities for democratization are non-existent. But in the days that followed, he began to appeal for solidarity and pledged to listen to the ‘unmet needs’ of Cuban workers. That rhetorical shift was important, because it signaled an awareness of the gravity of the crisis. I think it is possible that the PCC will adapt to deal with the current discontent, albeit on its own terms.

What would effective adaptation look like? It would involve opening up the country’s social and political institutions, at every level, to popular critique – particularly from younger activists and intellectuals. It would involve rethinking the role of the trade unions to make them less fossilized and more representative. It would mean transforming the state media and regulating the independent media. And it would require the government to ease restrictions on freedom of association, to allow for the creation of new civil society groups outside the PCC. Such sweeping reforms are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

MM: What is your evaluation of the Cuban political system?

JCG: Ten years ago, the word ‘republic’ was barely used in Cuba. It was absent from political speeches, school textbooks and media commentary. Now that has changed, although there’s been no official explanation as to why. The 1976 Constitution was called a ‘Socialist Constitution’, whereas the 2019 Constitution is the ‘Constitution of the Republic.’

Cuba’s concept of republicanism is often distorted and self-serving. For instance, freedom of expression is usually an inalienable republican value, but there are real problems in this area, because rather than using the category of ‘citizen’ – which implies a universal relationship between the state and its subjects – the government draws a distinction between ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘non-revolutionaries’, with different political rights accorded to each. The PCC claims that this constitutes a ‘socialist republicanism’ distinct from the bourgeois republicanism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – but this is clearly disingenuous.

Meanwhile, although the 2019 republican Constitution gives greater recognition to participatory rights and civil liberties, its language is extremely broad, and it has been followed up with several decrees that contradict its ostensive guarantees. (One example is the recent DL 370, which tightly regulates public data networks.) As of 2019, the National Assembly of People’s Power had approved three times more decrees than laws. Drafting legislation involves discussion, deliberation, and the clear articulation of societal codes; so minimizing laws in favor of decrees naturally weakens the role of parliament and removes political contestation from public life.  

Another problem for Cuba’s socialist republicanism is that of ‘state property’. Private property did not exist in a constitutionally regulated form until 2019, while the system of socialist property supposedly encompasses both state assets and cooperatives. Yet the ostensive owners of state property – the people – have rarely been able to exercise their collective rights. Instead, the state has clung to a top-down bureaucratic model which leaves little room for popular agency. If we understand socialism as a programme for distributing power and property to allow people to control their own conditions of existence, Cuba has a long way to go before it achieves this aim.

Translated by Rose Ane Berbeo.

A longer version of this interview appeared on Jacobin América Latina.

Read on: Emily Morris, ‘Unexpected Cuba’, NLR 88.


Rustling Leaves

The apocryphal story gets told again and again, perhaps because it cuts to the core of one kind of cinematic fascination: what purportedly captivated the first people who saw the Lumières’ Repas de bébé (1895) was not the ostensible focus of the action – the couple feeding an infant in the foreground – but the sight of the leaves rustling in the trees behind them. Whether or not the tale is true matters less than its tenacity. It speaks to an idea of cinema that has flickered in and out of view throughout the medium’s history, constituting a stubborn countertradition to the narrative contrivances that monopolize so many screens. It is a cinema not only of blowing leaves, but of dust particles, flower petals, and strands of hair; of clouds and eyelashes, cresting waves and stray insects. It is, in other words, a cinema animated by the world’s uncontrollable contingencies. Small, ephemeral details sting the spectator with their unruly indifference to all grand plans and occurrences, proclaiming the reign of transience, as if to say: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’

Typically, as in the ur-text of Repas de bébé, these microevents are relegated to the margins, where they may or may not catch the attentive spectator’s roaming eye; here, what is at stake is perhaps less an approach to filmmaking than a way of film viewing. There are, however, instances in which this aspect of the medium surges forth from the background to flood the frame, soaking the cinematic experience in the pathos of time’s passing. Such is the case with Haneda Sumiko’s extraordinary 43-minute film The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (1977), screening this month as part of the Open City Documentary festival at ICA London and in October at the Courtisane festival in Ghent; it will appear in a double bill with the director’s first short, Women’s College in the Village (1958).

Born in 1926 in Dalian, China (soon to be Japanese-occupied Manchuria), Haneda is likely unfamiliar to most audiences, even within Japan, despite her immense and accomplished body of work. From Women’s College in the Village to her most recent film And Then Akiko Is… A Portrait of a Dancer (2012) – which returns to Kanda Akiko, the subject of her 1985 feature Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer – she has dealt with an array of subjects including colonialism, elder care, women’s political activity, traditional arts, and the lives of performers. In his 2002 book The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, a rare discussion of her work in English, Eric Cazdyn describes Haneda as ‘a documentarist whose political commitments over the last four decades of filmmaking are matched only by her subtle sensitivity to the aesthetic’.

Like Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Haneda began her career at Iwanami Productions, a company making educational and promotional films, founded in 1950 as an offshoot of the illustrious publisher Iwanami Shoten, before striking out on her own. Yet she has never achieved the same recognition as these contemporaries, let alone that of celebrated male auteurs working in fiction. In Cazdyn’s words, ‘Haneda, who has directed more than forty-five films and assisted on scores more, deserves the same status as any other director in the canon of Japanese film history. At the same time, her struggles as one of only a handful of women in the industry raises her significance to near-heroic proportions.’ Subtitled copies of her films are hard to come by – none have been formally issued on DVD – making the upcoming screenings a special opportunity to encounter the work of this underacknowledged figure.

The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms was Haneda’s first independent venture, initiating a new phase of her practice. In 1969, while in the central Japanese prefecture of Gifu to attend a kyōgen theatre performance, she visited a cherry tree in the Neo valley said to be one of the oldest in the country, planted by Emperor Keitai in the early sixth century. As she would later recount, faced with its ancient, animistic majesty, a thought entered her mind: ‘With this tree, and this tree only, I could make a movie’. Haneda initially planned to use poetry written by her younger sister to ‘make a film similar to a small piece of music that sang praise of the cherry tree’, but only one year later, her sibling died of cancer. By autumn 1972, when Haneda returned to the project, the solitary tree, with blossoms that turn the colour of watery calligraphy ink as they fall to the ground, had become ‘something ominous’ to her. She shot intermittently over two-and-a-half years to capture its changing state across four seasons – in close-up and at a distance, in glorious bloom and dusted with snow – and then worked for a further 18 months to complete the film. The result is a poetic reckoning with mortality and memory at the crossroads of the human and nonhuman, anchored by a female voiceover, haunting appearances of an adolescent girl, and, of course, myriad images of the titular entity. It is a portrait of a village and its inhabitants; a cultural history of a celebrated tree; a film like no other.

‘For me, this film meant becoming true to myself when creating’, Haneda wrote, describing its making as ‘an act of searching for myself’. Whereas others of the director’s films engage directly with large political issues – such as Proof of Women (1996), which explores women’s participation in the labour movement – The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms refrains from social commentary. If it manifests the political commitment of which Cazdyn writes at all, it is in its claiming of documentary as a domain of philosophical and poetic expression and in the ecological humility that pervades Haneda’s approach to the tree and its environs. Although the endeavour feels deeply personal, the film contains no mention of her sister’s death, no traces of autobiography. Haneda does not position herself at the centre of The Cherry Tree; nor, for that matter, does she grant such a place to any human, even the ever-silent teenage girl. The film instead adopts an expansive, non-anthropocentric perspective that sees any one life as but a small part of a vast entanglement, inextricable from the surrounding environment. In its inaugural sequence, images of a flowing stream and a cemetery overgrown with grasses and wildflowers are accompanied by a hymn to impermanence, whispered in voiceover, in which the accumulation of time occurs in inverse proportion to the capacity for human memory: ‘A day passes, then a month, and so the years go by. Fifty years – people will remember. A hundred years – some will remember. Days will pass, months will come again, and so the years will go by. Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred years, none will remember anymore. Seven hundred, a thousand years, all memories fade into oblivion.’ Haneda then cuts to a series of shots of the girl, standing on a bridge, turning repeatedly to meet the camera’s gaze before walking away. The usuzumi sakura has not yet made its first appearance, but already the film has hinted at the nested temporalities it will unfold. From daily rituals to annual seasons, from the span of a villager’s life to that of the venerable tree, all things are bound by the bittersweetness of cycles that recur at their own pace. It is a far cry from the gales and gusts of post-war industrial development. 

Discussions of cinematic duration tend to centre on the long take, a unit of filmic vocabulary that has prospered in the era of digital cinematography, since cameras can now capture expanses of time far greater than the roughly eleven-minute maximum possible with photochemical film. One way of inspiring wonder at the ceaseless becoming of the world, of dwelling with the weight of time, is to let the camera roll and roll. The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms pursues the same ends through very different and less commonly employed means, assembling relatively brief glimpses of the same subject matter filmed over a prolonged period so as to foreground continuous transformation. (In this regard, Haneda finds a contemporary inheritor in another must-see film playing at both Open City and Courtisane, Anders Edström and C.W. Winter’s eight-hour-long The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) [2020], shot over fourteen months in a Kyoto Prefecture village.) The gesture echoes Claude Monet’s serial views but more directly stands as a cinematic iteration of the sensitivity to seasonal variation that has long marked Japanese art and culture. More than formal play, it bespeaks an attunement to the poignancy of transience, a philosophical orientation that is indebted to Buddhist and Shintoist principles.

Across these metamorphoses, the tree’s placid endurance stands against the brevity of human life, as Haneda frames the former as a steadfast witness to the births and deaths of those who live in the six houses surrounding it. After a villager tells her that, years before, bones were found under the tree and taken away to determine whether they were human, she explores the abandoned, crumbling home of the long-dead doctor who had been entrusted with the task. Weeds engulf the house; thick moss blankets the roof. The tree still stands while so many who once laid eyes on it have disappeared. As if to buttress this theme, throughout much of the film Haneda concentrates less on the tree’s leaves or flowers – icons of fleeting beauty that mark the coming of spring ­­­– and more on the hulking solidity of its mottled trunk, carefully documenting its many lichenous bulges and mossy crevices. Possessing little of the vertical elegance of a redwood, let alone the suppleness of the girl who stands in front of it and caresses its bark, the cherry tree wears the scars of its stubborn persistence on its misshapen core, watching over the village as the days, years, and centuries pass.

At the same time, the film emphasizes that the tree, too, is prey to the ravages of senescence. The survival of this elder body is never assured; because it lives, it may die. Unable to sustain its own weight, it is supported by a host of wooden crutches that guard against collapse. It owes its continued health not only to the daily ministrations of the villagers, but to the actions of a dentist from Gifu who in the 1940s grafted 238 young roots onto it, saving it from a termite infestation. The voiceover addresses the aged being with intimacy and directness: ‘You have lived too long; your life is already over. Yet you linger, still surviving…’ Like the inhabitants of the village – indeed, like all of us – the tree is vulnerable, existing within a web of interdependencies, beholden to the care of others if it is to persevere.

The horticultural technique of the graft, used to save the tree from rot, encapsulates ideas that inform The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms as a whole: it is a figure of mutual implication and non-autonomous growth that denies any strict separation between nature and culture. It also speaks to a powerful desire to make things last. As much as the film is imbued with an awestruck acceptance of impermanence, its reconciliation with the inevitability of disappearance remains incomplete. Humming within it is the urge to forestall loss by intervening in the cruel arc of another’s decline, as well as the saturnine resentment that takes hold when this proves futile – affects that complicate the cherry blossom’s famous associations with vernal optimism and the soft sadness of evanescence. There is something harder, sharper, in The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms, even as its delicacy astounds. There is the bittersweetness of mono no aware, yes, but also the sour tang of grief.

Read on: Erika Balsom, ‘Camera Lucida, NLR 129.