Kaboré’s Defeat

Slowly but surely the headlines are building a new conventional wisdom: coups are back in Africa. Al Jazeera labelled 2021 ‘the year military coups returned to the stage in Africa’; following the Sudan putsch, the BBC asked a rhetorical question about whether ‘military takeovers’ were on the rise ‘in Africa’. CNN evidently responded yes to that question, since its own query was about why coups were ‘making a comeback in Africa’. This is just a sample from the larger outlets, and the buzzword buzzes farther afield across the international media-sphere, think tanks and academia.

Obviously, ‘Africa’ here is a generalization. In the 54 countries of the continent, there have transpired of late five or six events that fit the description of a military coup, two of them in the same country (Mali) and one closer to a constitutional than a military coup (Chad). More significantly, all but one of these events took place in the same region, West Africa – and even more specifically, Francophone West Africa. The exception is Sudan, and the West African cases are Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. One final detail: in all three cases, one can hardly speak of a ‘comeback’. Within the last fifteen years – a time-horizon perhaps too vast for the media – there were coups in Guinea (2008), Mali (2012) and Burkina Faso (2015). Niger, which has not featured in the most recent spate, had a military coup in that period (2010) and escaped a slipshod attempt just last year.

And this is not counting a type of coup that generally goes unnoticed in the media – the constitutional coup, again a speciality of Francophone West Africa, which witnessed a string of them beginning with one in Niger in 2009. (Chad, mentioned above, is a less clear-cut illustration of the phenomenon). These take the form of brutal modifications or – as in the Nigerien case of 2009 – scrapping of the constitution so that the reigning president could seek a new term despite a legal bar. With the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, these constitutional coups ended badly everywhere they were attempted, twice by way of a military coup (Niger 2010, Guinea 2021), and twice through popular resistance (Senegal 2012) and insurrection (Burkina 2014).

The most recent of these ‘coups in Africa’, the one in Burkina Faso, should therefore be understood against this background. Most of these Francophone West African coups played out in the struggle between politicians determined to stay in power come what may, and citizens aspiring to be true citizens, i.e., people governed by law, free elections and political participation – two diametrically opposed ambitions. But not all of them fit this description: the Malian and Burkinabe coups tell a different story. In other words, the category ‘military coup’ is not a very helpful one, since different military coups carry very different meanings. Of the three last coups in Francophone West Africa, the one in Guinea is part of the democratic struggle story, since it was a response to the constitutional coup previously made by now-ousted president Alpha Condé. But the ones in Mali and Burkina Faso are both ‘defeat’ coups, meaning that they are responses to failure in war. Even then, each occurred in a highly specific national context, and their consequences will not be the same.

The stage, for both countries, is one of an intense security crisis triggered by an asymmetric war of attrition conducted by Jihadists, loosely affiliated to the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, against the states of the central Sahel (Burkina, Mali, and Niger) – since 2012 for Mali and Niger, and after 2015 for Burkina. Mali was defeated by the Jihadists from the start and was saved only by France’s Operation Serval (early 2013). But since then, the Jihadists have developed a war of attrition strategy that has had a devastating impact on all three countries, effectively removing the state from large swathes of territory, including the districts surrounding the capital in Niger, the entire north and centre of Mali – roughly half the country’s surface, though sparsely populated – and over a third of the territory in Burkina Faso.

‘Removing the state’ here concretely means that these regions are war zones in which normal life has become impossible, populations are mass-killed or subjected to levies by Jihadists and other armed groups, and national defence and security forces are severely degraded. Given that this process has not only lasted year after year, but actually expanded slowly and relentlessly, there is no other word for it than defeat, if one of a creeping rather than a single-blow sort. And defeated regimes are always on shaky ground – a vivid lesson of history the world over. Losing patience, populations in the Sahel turned against their regimes in Mali and Burkina, though not in Niger, where anger boils in the most affected region (the west) but not elsewhere. They also turned against the French, who have been involved in the fighting since the days of Serval – later Operation Barkhane – but equally ineffective, succeeding only in stoking the skin-deep resentments which many Francophone Africans nurture against the former colonial master. In December last year, a Barkhane logistic convoy from Cote d’Ivoire to northern Mali was attacked by enraged citizens when it crossed Burkina Faso and western Niger.

Faced with the failures of elected governments, populations openly or secretly wish for a military takeover, especially since they ascribe the failures to the kind of corrupt shenanigans by which often dubiously elected leaders run public affairs. Acutely aware of this, rulers become suspicious of the military, which does not help in times of war. This is the congeries of issues out of which – unsurprisingly – sprang the Burkina coup.

Of the three Sahel countries, Burkina Faso was the one with the more promising politics. More than Malians and Nigeriens, Burkinabes have national and patriotic feeling. In Mali, northerners literally live in a different country from southerners; Niger is divided between easterners, still carping long after the fact about how westerners hogged political power for the first three decades of independence, and westerners who now feel they are a maligned minority. Such riving internal geopolitics, though they exist in Burkina too, are bridged there by the intense sense of common destiny that brought about such unique events as the unseating of President Maurice Yaméogo by the people in 1966, the revolution of 1983, and the unseating of President Blaise Compaoré in 2014. In 2015, the people defeated a coup intended to restore Compaoré. It was out of the citizens-led processes of 2014-2015 that came the constitutional regime overthrown on 24 January.

The coup is popular. Unlike his colleagues in other Francophone countries of the region, ousted president Roch Kaboré was elected and re-elected in comparatively free and fair polls. Though his government inevitably had critics and naysayers, Burkinabe politics since 2015 were the most liberal in Francophone West Africa in terms of citizens’ freedoms and respect for opposition. But the security crisis became its albatross. Kaboré made it his ‘absolute priority’ and donned the mantle of defence minister, in addition to the presidency, but no discernible strategy or set of reforms accompanied the posture. By 2022, upward of 1.5 million Burkinabes were displaced from the east and north of the region – playground of Al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, ‘Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims’) – and over 2,000 people died in countless attacks. The military suffered many setbacks, the latest of which, in the locality of Inata at the Mali-Burkina border, triggered rage across the country, after details revealed that beleaguered gendarmes had holed up there without food supplies and logistical support. They were forced to hunt in dangerous terrain to feed themselves, despite the huge funds the government claimed it had allocated to defence. To the shock of the nation, 53 gendarmes were killed in the attack and the army base was totally destroyed by Jihadists who took the time to film their exploits.

Burkina’s defence sector was clearly in need of urgent reform, but none was forthcoming. Early in 2021, frustrated French president Emmanuel Macron went so far as to tell journalists – on the record – that President Kaboré was refusing to reform his army for fear of a coup. Many in the Burkinabe military also believed as much. When the coup began to unfold, the coup-makers circulated a six-point list of reforms that they deemed indispensable for war against the Jihadists. It has since transpired that these demands, which led some to believe that the ‘mutiny’ (as it was first presented) was just ‘khaki unionism,’ a manoeuvre the coup-makers employed to dupe the government until they could act at night. Still, they were significant especially in that they asked for the resignation of some of the top-brass close to Kaboré; they had been voiced by junior officers for months, but were ignored in a context where the military was deeply divided along generational lines.

But the popularity of the coup is also based on worrying myths. Many in Burkina believe that former despot Blaise Compaoré would have better dealt with the Jihadist crisis. There is an ill-founded conviction – once shared by Kaboré himself – that the Compaoré regime had connections with Jihadist groups that protected Burkina from attacks. The fact that the first terrorist attack in Burkina – a ‘classic’ city-centre bombing that hit Ouagadougou in January 2016 – occurred after the failure of the pro-Compaoré coup of 2015 gave rise to notions that ‘the terrorists’ thought Burkina was free game now that their ‘ally’ was definitively out. In fact, Jihadists had voiced threats against Burkina as early as 2013, due to its alliance with the French, a firm policy choice of the Compaoré regime (when he was toppled the following year, he was airlifted out of the country by French special forces). Mindful of the intense anti-French feeling that courses through Burkinabe public opinion, Kaboré accepted French help but made a show of limiting it to a minimum. Nonetheless, he had accepted it, and that was a contemptible sin for the most vocal sections of Burkinabe public opinion. France has proved incapable of vanquishing the Jihadists despite having the resources of a great Western army. That impotence looks suspicious and has bred theories, bolstered by past French mischief (real or imagined), that the former coloniser may actually be using the militants to destabilize the Sahel and take control of the untold riches in the region’s grounds.

Such sentiments and the pressures they create in the political field have already pushed Mali into the arms of Russia, which Malians – at least those in the south – see as the right kind of foil for the country that they consider their only true enemy, France. Russian flags are waved at the mass demonstrations that the junta in Bamako organises to ramp up support at each challenging turn – recently, the punishing sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Russian flags were also waved in the popular rejoicing that erupted in Ouagadougou after the coup was completed – but nothing suggests they were issued by the new powers that be. Burkinabe public opinion has long been taking its cue from Mali. Two days before the coup, a demonstration in support of ‘the Malian people’ had been forbidden by the Kaboré government, and the Russian flags were probably ready by then. Some suspect they are supplied by Russian stooges. The instability of Francophone Africa, and the anti-French paranoia in many of these countries, is a geopolitical boon that Russia is happy to exploit in the context of the emerging Cold War 2.0 with the West.  

Although an agent of the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner – funded by ‘Putin’s chef’ Yevgeni Prigojin – has already tweeted that they were ready to respond to a call from Ouagadougou and help where France had been ‘totally unsuccessful,’ it is not clear that Burkina will go the way of Mali (and of the Central African Republic, now all but a ‘Wagner state’). As a polity, Burkina has been much less damaged by the Sahel crisis than Mali. Kaboré was not a target of the heated passions – exploited to the hilt by populist politicians such as Choguel Maïga (rewarded with the post of prime minister) or religious demagogues like Mahmoud Dicko – that brought down Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020. Anger was at his incompetence, not his rottenness, and Burkina’s presidential democracy allowed no removal of the head of the executive branch by way of a vote of no-confidence. The junta in Ouagadougou claims for now the role of Cincinnatus, not – like the Mali junta – that of Caesar: that is, they want to be saviours in times of war, not opportunist dictators. Their leading man, 41-year-old Lt.-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, is the author of a monograph on the ‘uncertain responses’ (his incertaines is perhaps better translated as ‘unclear’) of West African armies confronted by terrorism, that reads in turn like a student thesis and a deeply – if coolly – frustrated analysis of the passive and obsolete roles to which the Sahel armies are consigned by their governments. He also deplores the lack of ‘national defence strategies’. I have heard the same lament, in precisely these words, amongst army officers in Niger, who – mindful of the suspicions of their rulers – meander only briefly, and in a low tone of voice, into the topic. (I never dare to press them).

The first political move of the Ouagadougou junta has been to discuss with the Kaboré government the terms on which cooperation may arise – in sharp contrast with the witch-hunt and acrimony that followed the Mali coups. The political class and civil society organisations fully expect to participate in the political process triggered by the coup. And in his first public speech, Damiba has insisted that Burkina ‘now more than ever needs the support of its partners’, pledging a rapid return to constitutional governance. If ECOWAS is wise, they will take advantage of this auspicious disposition and make of Burkina Faso a counter-example to Mali on how to end a ‘defeat coup.’ But clearly the more important development for the country itself – and the region – is whether this action will finally make the fight against the Jihadists effective.

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.


Enter: Monsters

In an introduction to Frankenstein, written for a new edition of the work in 1831, Mary Shelley recounted a question she had been asked frequently in the thirteen years since the novel’s publication: how had she, ‘then a young girl, come to think and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?’ A prying concern permeates the query, as if the monstrosity of the work’s content must indicate perverse conditions of production, some titillating mistreatment inflicted on the nineteen-year-old Shelley that could justify the creation of a new category of monster. For Julia Ducournau, director of the Palme D’Or-winning Titane (2021), the fallacy of the question would be obvious. No backstory is necessary: to be a young girl is monstrous inspiration enough.

Ducournau’s triumph at Cannes last year surprised Anglophone soothsayers of French film awards; her use of the cinematic grammar of body horror seemed to demarcate her as a director in the derided tradition of cinéma de genre, and, with only one other feature under her belt, more established auteurs such as Ryu Hamaguchi and Asghar Farhadi were touted as likely victors. Effusive critical responses to her first full-length film, Grave (Raw, 2016) were eclipsed by breathless tales of viewers collapsing at an early screening; news reports, untroubled by the distinction between correlation and causation, explained the syncopal episodes as a result of watching ‘the scariest, most disgusting film ever made.’ When confronted with this characterisation of her work, Ducournau replied, incredulously: ‘Seriously? Have you ever seen Cannibal Holocaust?’

Born in Paris in 1983, to a dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother, Ducournau graduated from both the prestigious Lycée Henri IV and the Sorbonne, before studying filmmaking at La Fémis. Biographical instruments often make crude tools for criticism, yet Ducournau’s family trades shed light on her thematic passions. Her female protagonists experience abdominal discomfort as an early sign of uncanny afflictions. As a result, they are examined by doctors (who are sometimes also their fathers) who heavily imply that menstruation, or its absence, is the cause. The insufficiency of this diagnosis is immediately evident to the viewer, who understands that something far more troubling is at work. Ducournau repeatedly highlights the dismissive reaction to extremity by figures of authority – the parent, the teacher, the doctor – who then rely on ambiguous categorizations to explain events beyond their comprehension. A similar attitude has typified the reception of her films which, like her characters, exist in an experiential gulf between definition and event yet are quickly filed under a single polymorphous label. Inexplicable abdominal pain that develops into infernal itching and the gestation of a hybrid car-baby? Call it hormones. An insatiable desire for human flesh, activated by the consumption of pickled gizzards and that seems to run matrilineally through a vegetarian family? Call it a feminist vampire flick.

That Ducournau offers her viewers tableaux of visceral, churning, bone-crunching pain is undeniable. But her work cannot be reduced to such sequences. Across her oeuvre so far there is an abiding concern with the process of physical transformation, particularly as undergone by girls on the cusp of pubescence, and young women propelled suddenly into maternity. In the short film Junior (2011), the eponymous protagonist (played by Garance Marillier) is a tomboy adolescent, revelling in her own androgynous presentation, unconcerned by hair grease, zits, or the merciless rivalry of schoolgirl cliques. A supposed bout of gastric flu, welcomed by her family doctor for its ability to ‘clear her out’, is quickly revealed to be a misdiagnosis as she begins to shed her entire epidermis, picking at sheets and flakes of skin, poking her fingers under the peeling ridge of her own spine (the French idiom être bien dans sa peau, to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, inverted and literalised as metaphor for the grisly metamorphoses of puberty). Fully exfoliated, she recovers and returns to school, glossy and bright, only to find herself the subject of her male friends’ sexual attention. The film ends with Ducournau’s refusal of the received idea in horror that the expression of female sexuality is coeval with initiation into victimhood: Junior (who continues to refuse her birth name Justine) kicks her new tormenters in the groin and skips home to begin a new flirtatious relationship with her best friend.

Mange (Eat), a telefilm co-directed with Virgile Branly in 2012, continues Junior’s preoccupation with the cruelty enacted within the transitional, unsupervised spaces of school: the canteen, the corridor, the yard. Laura, an overweight teenager, is made the subject of an obscene classroom chant by her peers, her name daubed on the walls, her telephone number distributed on flyers advertising parts of her as ‘for sale’. Fifteen years later, Laura has developed and recovered from bulimia, lost weight, grown up, and become a successful lawyer with a handsome police officer for a boyfriend. The arrival of the architect of her high school misery, now a highly-strung stay-at-home mother, at her support group provokes a demonic apparition of Laura’s teenage self to appear, encouraging her to seek revenge. This Laura duly does, setting out to ruin her nemesis’s life with cocaine, binge eating and extra-marital affairs. Laura, of course, falls into her own traps, losing her job, relationship and role as cool stepmother (to a daughter played by Marillier) along the way. No anagnorisis follows the successful completion of her mission, however, and the ruined Laura ends the film smirking to herself in an insalubrious hotel room in the company of her own shrieking eidolon, the viewer left uncertain whether their shared lust for vengeance has been satisfied or merely awakened.

Grave, Ducournau’s first feature film, shares certain thematic concerns – the inevitable passage through trauma into adulthood, the twinned grotesque and hedonistic pleasures of hunger and sexuality – with her earlier works, yet is a substantial development in cinematographic style. Marillier is cast once again as a character named Justine, this time a first-year veterinarian at a desolate northern French campus university, attended in the past by her parents and, in the year above, her elder sister. All the members of the family are vets, all are also vegetarians, or so Justine thinks until her sister forces her to swallow a preserved rabbit kidney as part of a vicious week of hazing for the new students (the title of the film recalls the everyday phrase ‘c’est pas grave’, or ‘no big deal’ – the attitude of Justine’s sister who swallows the specimen with a shrug). The taste of flesh prompts Justine to develop an insatiable hunger for meat and, after accidentally amputating her sister’s thumb in a waxing accident, she succumbs to her new cannibal appetite and gnaws on the digit. Marillier’s transformation from petulant girlhood to vampiric huntress in a lab coat is achieved via a series of mood swings in her character – confidence and shame, desire and repugnance, intimacy and betrayal – the unsettled motion between them encapsulating the dizzying experience of the first flushes of adult agency, the result of asking and then confronting the answer to the terrible question, ‘what do I want?’

Grave heralded not only Ducournau’s arrival as a significant new director, but also the reconciliation of the categories of genre and auteur filmmaking held, by some, as oppositional tendencies within French cinema. In collaboration with her director of photography, Ruben Impens, Ducournau has developed a cinematic language in which bodily mutation translates into visual elegance. Multiple sources of artificial light direct attention to the prickled and bitten surface of skin, wide-angle shots of the desolate dawn greys of the northern French countryside render the aftermath of a deadly collision picturesque, a single shallow-focus shot immerses the viewer in the bodily abandon of dancing – such elements of Grave comprise the vocabulary of Ducournau’s style, and the fundamentals of her second feature.

Where Grave is a declaration of the potential for emancipation through monstrosity, Titane is a film about the humanisation of a monster. It is also a film about a young woman’s sexual attraction to cars, and the terrible consequences of consummating that desire (the two central horrors of Ducournau’s features could be summarised with some accuracy as pregnancy, and the experience of being a vegetarian in France). As a young girl Alexia, played in adulthood by Agathe Rousselle, causes a car accident which leaves her with a titanium implant in her skull, and a desire for physical proximity to petrol engines and Autoglass. Two decades hence, she works as a dancer at a heavy metal car show where she is pursued by a simpering fan across the car park. In a scene characteristic of Ducournau’s ability to conjure the threat of violence from mundane objects, the fan’s neck lingers over the blade of the electric window as he begs for her number, then chances a kiss. Having teased a decapitation Ducournau instead gives us a honey trap: Alexia returns the kiss passionately, while loosening her metallic hair pin, arranging her victim’s ear just so, plunging the weapon in. A rendezvous with the backseat of a flaming Cadillac follows – a sex scene which echoes without imitating Cronenberg’s Crash – impregnating Alexia with a cyborg foetus who grows with preternatural speed. The inhumanity of her actions has deadly repercussions, triggering a fatal case of mechanical reproduction in Alexia as well as her swift transition from murderer to serial killer.

The rampage that ensues, however, is brief. Alexia misjudges the number of residents in a house share and, visibly exhausted, botches the job. Ducournau has described the scene as a comedic ‘pressure valve’ allowing for a release of tension, but it also injects a highly referential style: Caterina Caselli’s 1966 hit ‘Nessuno mi può giudicare’ (Nobody can judge me) soundtracks the massacre, evoking Tarantino’s use of music at his most adrenalized moments of gore, while Alexia’s stalking of a naked female victim through the house recalls the chase scenes of numerous mid-90s teen slashers. The fun is manic, unsustainable, a hyperactive moment shortly before which Alexia realises the fact of her hybrid pregnancy, panics and attempts to employ her hairpin in lieu of an abortifacient. Returning blood-smeared and nauseous to her parents’ home, she locks them inside and without hesitation sets fire to the building and goes on the run.

The remainder of the film takes place after Alexia, in an attempt to evade capture, deforms herself so as to resemble nineteen-year-old Adrien, the son, missing for a decade, of Parisian fireman Vincent, played with virtuosic sinuosity by Vincent Lindon. The shared effort by the two characters to avoid the evident deception at the heart of their relationship, at turns comic and pitiable, becomes a non-verbal expression of their deep need for one another. Both are committed to bodily fictions, Vincent in his refusal to accept his own physical decline and reliance on gurn-inducing steroids, Alexia in her attempts to bind away her breasts and growing belly, to not merely disguise herself as, but to become, Adrien. In Titane, the burdens of gender are not worn lightly but nor are they more consequential than logistical frustrations. Alexia-Adrien shows no attachment to either sexed self, only to survival which is dependent on the love of Vincent and on the ability to do what his son did not: to stay.

Alexia’s fugitive journey takes her from south to north, the cool marine blues of her past life washed over with a neon fuschia in Vincent’s world, an electric imitation of fire’s warmth, used to particularly memorable effect in a party scene at the brigade’s headquarters. The song ‘Light House’ by the band Future Islands mixes in and out of aural focus, as Vincent, surrounded by his recruits, unclenches and sways. It is a moment with a cinematic parallel in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), which concludes with an astonishing acrobatic dance by Denis Lavant, whose character’s demise lends urgency as well as pathos to his movements. Where Denis keeps Lavant in the centre of the frame, his whole self in view, alone but for his reflection in mirrored walls, Ducournau shows us only the bust of Lindon’s loosening body, the camera kept at shoulder height, the viewer brought into the dance, inebriated by the slowed and fluid motion, the institutional rigour of the Sapeurs Pompiers dissolving frame by frame. Ducournau has made her name through the unflinching depictions of bodily pain, but both Titane and Grave pay equal attention to such horror’s antithesis, the pleasure and self-surrender of dance.

What is at stake in a cinema that invites you to look away? Only watching. Ducournau’s films demand second and third viewings – braced this time for the crunch, the snap, the bite, the challenge is to keep one’s eyes open. In doing so, the reward is often comic delight, a conjoined anticipation of and release from the worst possible thing approaching, happening, then being over. And if it is over, if we are still here, could it really have been that bad? Where Ducournau’s films declare a statement, it is this: once lived through, horror loosens its grip; our compulsion to repeat a trauma is akin to picking a scab, we don’t do it just to hurt ourselves, we do it because it feels good. In her acceptance speech at Cannes, Ducournau thanked the jury for ‘letting the monsters in’, they might well have answered her, ‘c’est pas grave.’

Read on: Hal Foster, ‘On the First Pop Age’, NLR 19.


Against Concepts

On November 29, 1944, the last Nazi forces on Albanian territory fell to the National Liberation Army led by Enver Hoxha’s Communist Party, making Albania the first country in Europe to defeat its Fascist occupiers without major outside help. By May 1945, Yugoslavia became the second. Both governments declared their commitment to Soviet-style socialism, and the two grew so close that in 1948 they seemed to be on the point of merging. Yet Yugoslavia unexpectedly fell out with the Soviet Union, leading Albania, loyal to Stalin, to cut all ties with its neighbour. A year later, Greek Communists to the south lost their civil war with British-backed monarchist forces, and across the Adriatic, Italy joined NATO. Albania was surrounded by enemies.

At the time it was Yugoslavia rather than Albania that found itself internationally isolated. But the former would go on to become one of the world’s most outward-looking countries, forging tactical alliances with the Eastern and Western blocs while becoming a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Hoxha’s Albania, by contrast, would progressively shed allies, breaking with the Soviet Union in 1960 and with China in the course of the 1970s. While the rest of the nominally Communist world opened up to its bourgeois rivals, Albania proclaimed itself the last true standard-bearer of socialism, beset not only by Western imperialists, but also by Eastern revisionists who had cravenly abandoned the project of Lenin and Stalin.

All of which is to say that by the time Lea Ypi was born there in 1979, Albania was hardly a typical Communist country. By most accounts, it was exceptional in its lack of freedom. While Yugoslav workers and intellectuals were travelling the world, while the Central European masses were enjoying cheap cars, cheap gasoline, and ample vacation time in country houses and spas and on Croatian beaches, and while even non-conformist youths of the Soviet Bloc could enjoy officially sanctioned rock music, Albania’s diplomatic isolation translated domestically into social confinement. The state did what it could to keep Albanians from visiting or learning about the outside world or buying the strange goods produced there – at least until December 1990, when Albanian Communists proved not so out of step with their time after all and followed their regional counterparts in relinquishing their monopoly on power, acknowledging the newly discovered necessity of radical market reforms, and tasting the benefits of privatization for themselves.

For those few anti-communists who paid attention to the differences between Communist-led countries, it was precisely Albania’s exceptional status that would serve as concrete proof of socialism’s general failure, as if the purity of Albania’s communism were evidence of an ugly truth that underlay all fine-sounding attempts to share ownership and mitigate exploitation. Meanwhile, for most of the world’s left, Albania’s retrograde past has always seemed irrelevant to any emancipatory vision of the future. Even for those willing to recognize the positive elements in Eastern Europe’s often-tragic Communist history, Albania seems to hold little worth remembering.

In her recently published memoir, Free, Ypi makes a case for memory – emphasizing that when we look more closely, even the most repressive historical periods become more complicated and more interesting, both more maddening and more inspiring. The repression in Communist-led Albania was real, but so were the people who lived through it, struggled with it, and even found some sense of freedom within its bounds. Ypi shows formally isolated people avidly following world events on Italian radio and Yugoslav television, which inspire them to wide-ranging political reflection. She equally shows us the austere solidarity of people who, while not blessed with much consumer or electoral choice – and in spite of the ever-present risk of misusing their apportioned freedom and ending up in prison ­– were able to find ways of working together to improve their lives. (Although she doesn’t explicitly compare this with the situation in Communist-led Central Europe in this period, one might observe how much less solidarity remained in those societies, where governance relied more on consumption-induced apathy than exhortation to collective work).

As for what came after Albanian Communism, Ypi shows how the scope of everyday political imagination actually narrowed with the onset of parliamentary democracy, when anything smacking of socialism was summarily banished from respectable discourse. She depicts a newly emerging set of freedoms, both exhilarating and perverse, which were accompanied by new forms of domination. If post-communist Eastern Europe offered inspiration to the neoliberal crusade to liberate (read: impose) markets in every corner of the world, Albania’s experience could have also provided leftists with excellent arguments against that crusade, if only they had been paying attention.

Ypi paid attention because she lived through it. Yet she made her academic career writing mostly about other subjects. As a political theorist, currently based at the London School of Economics, she works in the abstract realms of – predominantly Western – European thought. But something happened when she set out to write a book about these ideas in Albania. As she writes in the epilogue, Free ‘was going to be a philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions. But when I started writing…ideas turned into people’. It’s to her credit that in turning her attention to people, Ypi nevertheless doesn’t lose sight of ideas. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel, about a girl – Ypi’s younger self – coming to terms with the thought-world that swirls around her as voiced by her family, friends, teachers, as well as occasional bureaucrats and experts. Ideas become all the more interesting when they lose their purity and analytic consistency – when they don’t just confront one another as rational arguments, but ‘love and fight each other’, as Ypi puts it.

We meet the confident Marxism-Leninism of Ypi’s grade-school teachers, who impress ideas like equality, solidarity and self-determination on young minds decent enough to believe in such things. We meet the cautious progressivism of Ypi’s grandmother, who once rebelled against her upper-class upbringing but found no place in a post-war order that only accepted one form of leftism. We meet the rebellious radicalism of her father, in love with revolutions that have not yet happened but disappointed by those that have already taken place. We meet the increasingly shrill market-liberalism of her mother, who runs with the spirit of history after 1990, until her running takes her to work cleaning bathrooms in Italy. We meet the pragmatic technocratism of an affable Dutch privatization specialist who moves into the neighbourhood in the early 90s and sees the world in categories as inflexible as the orthodox Marxist-Leninists before him.

Free is also a bildungsroman of sorts, a story of how a post-communist left intellectual comes of age – of how, despite society telling her (like so many others) to love the freedom of the market, she could dare to be dissatisfied. It is a compelling narrative, in part because its endpoint is by no means an obvious one. Ypi’s generation in Eastern Europe is, in some respects, a lost one. In a recent interview, Ypi reflected that if she had been just a few years older – enough to develop a visceral dislike for the regime – she would likely have become a right-winger. If she had been a few years younger, she would have entered the new era with little memory of the past, perhaps less committed to fighting the spectres of the fallen enemy, but all the more prone to accept post-communism as the natural state of affairs.

Instead, she finds herself one day in December 1990 as a true-believing eleven-year-old Communist hugging a statue of Stalin, only to flee in horror when she sees its head has been cut off by protesters demanding what she believed the system had already been offering them: ‘freedom’ and democracy’. By the time she reaches the age of rebellion, the new system is firmly in place, and the echo of the protesters’ calls sounds as empty as the bank accounts of the two thirds of Albanians who have been tricked into investing in pyramid schemes. She is too young to see the new order as her own, but too old to regard the old order as if it belonged to another world. The 1980s were too real to ignore; the 1990s too painful to accept.

This task was made harder by the fact that the revolution of 1990 was, in Ypi’s words, ‘a revolution of people against concepts’. Protesters marched not only against the individuals who had oppressed them, but also against the ideas that had cloaked their oppression. They blamed their ruined lives less on the specific way their unique society was organized than on the ideas of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as such. And when protesting bore fruit, history in general was supposed to have reached its end, resolving and rendering obsolete the great battles of ideas that had plagued the decades and centuries before.

‘The owl of Minerva had taken flight and, as usual, seemed to have forgotten us’, Ypi writes. Rather than illuminating the passing epoch with its wisdom, as Hegel imagined, the owl not only steered clear of Albania but, I would add, seemed to have fled the earthly scene entirely. What remained of absolute knowledge was expertise – the unquestionable certainty that ‘structural reforms’ would be applied everywhere, while ideas about changing the world in any other way would be banished. The transition to free-market democracy was not understood as an idea among other ideas, to accept or reject, debate or defend. It was simply reality, to be realized more or less perfectly, faster or slower, but preferably as fast as possible: ‘There was no politics left, only policy.’

When I first visited Eastern Europe – Slovakia in 2000 – I felt as if I were entering a realm of collective madness, so effectively had reasoned debate been substituted by conjuration, incantation and denunciation. In educated circles, the word ‘socialism’ was enough to void any proposal, crush any vision; the words ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, and ‘reforms’ were enough to win any argument; and the ‘transition’, the unquestioned reality that shaped all personal effort and public governance, struck me as little more than a figment of a few experts’ imagination. I failed to see how the policies of ‘transition’ – the privatization, mass firings, destruction of infrastructure and cutting of social programmes just when they were needed most – would bring anyone closer to the ideals of prosperity and democracy that were supposed to justify all this transitioning.

Not that collective madness is especially unusual. I suspect that an outsider entering Albania circa 1955 would have been just as dumbfounded by the twisted rationalizations and groundless illusions that were passed off as official truth. Madness is always madness to someone else, and recognizing it takes someone who is alienated enough to reside, at least partially, in an alternative system of rationality. This is how Ypi depicts the dying days of one madness and the birth of another – by presenting each system through the lens of opposing rationalities. The clarity of true believers runs up against the coded criticism of dissidents; pragmatic strategies of survival run up against frustrated outbursts, when people dare for a moment to imagine that everything could be different. Sometimes it seems that the self-contained systems will win out. Albanian Communism has an answer for every one of its problems, until suddenly all its reasoning fails. Shock therapy, then, appears as the perfect metaphor for the subsequent period – because what is shock therapy, in the eyes of an observer who might walk in from the street, but a mad scientist’s cure for madness, a cure as mad as the disease?

Since the supposed necessity of post-communist ‘transition’ still justifies so much policy today, there is obvious value in complicating its narrative and relativizing its claim to truth by telling of the ignored or forgotten suffering it entailed. But what value is there in returning to the days of Communist rule which today’s right continually invokes as a caricature, and which the left would rather forget? In her epilogue, Ypi reproaches Western friends for denying that 1980s Albania had anything to do with real socialism and could have any bearing on their own beliefs. But of all the questions raised in her book, this one may be the least clearly answered. Her sensitivity to the complex motivations that underlie contradictory ideas seems to give way here to a blanket condemnation of the Western left for ignoring the legacy of Eastern socialism. I, for one, raised as a good Western leftist, have no desire to concede the title of ‘socialism’ to the oppressive system into which Ypi was born.

Yet this can’t be an excuse for failing to engage with the past. Even if the system established was not socialist, the movement that brought it about was. It involved people who genuinely believed in socialist ideals, who integrated these ideals into one or another system of ideas, and who made concrete decisions about how to bring them to life. How can we find the right concepts for insisting that Stalinism was not genuine socialism, while recognizing that Stalinists formed a significant part of the movement whose legacy we carry on today? Can we work toward something new by working through the real contradictions, hopes, tragedies and fits of madness of the past?

Ypi seems to suggest that her method of writing about ideas as lived by real people could offer a way forward. Albanian Communism treated people as abstractions. Ypi’s father and grandmother were not permitted to work toward their own conception of socialism; they were condemned by their abstract position as descendants of the bourgeoisie. And then, after 1990, the rejection of nearly all grand ideas left them lost in a reality that they were not licensed to question or debate. Ideas without people were replaced by people without ideas. Can we put them back together?

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Fin de Siecle: Socialism after the Crash’, NLR I/185.


Our Daily Sanction

A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist. 

Never has the cruelty, the cold violence of economic sanctions, been better expressed than in these words, pronounced by the American president Woodrow Wilson at the Indianapolis Coliseum on 4 September 1919. The sanction is a ‘deadly remedy’; it ‘does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted’ – it only kills over there.

Wilson’s words remind us that – despite a handful of illustrious precedents we’ll return to shortly – sanctions became an ordinary practice only during the 20th century, and subsequently dominated the first two decades of the 21st. The League of Nations, born out of the Treaty of Versailles, stipulated in article 16 of its Covenant the possibility of imposing sanctions on states that had breached its rules, enjoining member states to, ‘subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not.’

The first sanctions it passed were against Italy in 1935, when the fascist regime invaded Ethiopia (before leaving the League of Nations in 1937). Sanctions were also applied to Japan in 1940-41. OFAC, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Treasury, was established in 1950. The Suez Crisis of 1956 – when France, Britain and Israel sought to block Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal – was resolved when the United States forbade Britain from using its IMF reserves to defend the Pound. The Cuban embargo of 1962 is the classic example of how the US used sanctions against the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. But the use and abuse of sanctions skyrocketed after the fall of the Berlin Wall (the first to feel their effect was Saddam Hussein).

Wilson also reminds us that sanctions are acts of warfare – economic, to be sure, but warfare nonetheless. The growth of sanctions and of sanctioned states necessarily means the proliferation of warfare. In recent decades the tactic has been applied with increasing frequency, against ever more nations by a growing number of powers, proxies and sub-proxies (China against Lithuania; the European Union against Belarus; France against Mali; Saudi Arabia against Syria and Qatar). Naturally, the sanctioning power par excellence remains the United States. According to a report by the US Treasury, in the period from 2000 to 2021 sanctions issued by the United States increased by 933%: from 912 in 2000 to 9,421 in 2021.

In parallel to their quantitative growth, sanctions have become more sophisticated. They’ve diversified to the point that they now represent a panoply of distinct weapons. Before imposing a nationwide sanction, you might target a single individual, a specific plane, even a particular ship. Today, OFAC administers and enforces 37 different ‘sanctions programmes’ targeting 12,000 different entities or designated persons. Visiting the website dedicated to these programmes is like entering a Kafkian labyrinth in which one risks losing oneself. Selecting randomly from individuals added to the SDN (Specially Designated Nationals) list last December, we find, for instance, Mr

FRAGOSO DO NASCIMENTO, Leopoldino (a.k.a. ‘DINO’), Luanda, Angola; DOB 05 Jun 1963; POB Luanda, Angola; nationality Angola; Gender Male; Passport N1999980 (Angola) expires 08 Apr 2036 (individual) [GLOMAG].

This gentleman, known as ‘General Dino’, was head of communications for the Angolan strongman José Eduardo do Santos between 2017 and 2019. But Dino also serves as the president of the board of the Cochan group, and is therefore sanctioned through the companies ‘Cochan Angola, Cochan Group, Cohan S. A., Geni Group, Geni Novas Tecnologias, Geni Novas Tecnologias S. A., Geni S. A., Geni Sarl’. If you then have a peek at the alphabetical list, you find under ‘A’: AFAGIR, the Aerospace Force of the Pasdaran; AFAQ, a Dubai-based company; a Russian national (Sergei Afanasyev) and his wife, Yulia Andreevna, and so on.

A table published by The Economist further clarifies the variety of these US targets. In Venezuela, for instance, the US has sanctions in place against 56 aeroplanes, 47 ships, 141 individuals and 89 juridical entities (including banks, companies, etc.). In North Korea, not even the Academy of Sciences is spared.

After the Cold War, as the US empire became mediated through globalization, these measures abounded, and financial sanctions became far more effective than the commercial variety.

Historically, commercial sanctions have scarcely been effective. One of the first recorded examples is the commercial blockade imposed by Pericles’s Athens against the city of Megara in 432 which, according to Thucydides, led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. This is an idea Aristophanes seems to share in his Acharnians, in which the events leading to the embargo are described in a way that parodies the Trojan war, featuring a series of retributive kidnappings of Athenian and Megarian prostitutes:

Then Pericles, aflame with ire on his Olympian height, let loose the lightning, caused the thunder to roll, upset Greece and passed an edict, which ran like the song, ‘That the Megarians be banished both from our land and from our markets and from the sea and from the continent.’ Meanwhile the Megarians, who were beginning to die of hunger, begged the Lacedaemonians to bring about the abolition of the decree, of which those harlots were the cause; several times we refused their demand; and from that time there was horrible clatter of arms everywhere.

Aristophanes notes how the Megarians were ‘beginning to die of hunger’ – a fate they would share with a long succession of sanctioned peoples.

Twenty-two centuries separate this instance from two equally notorious commercial blockades which, when applied, both triggered a boomerang effect. The first was the Continental System, the ban on British ships in European ports declared by Napoleon in 1806. As we know, this move backfired and resulted in a British blockade against European commerce. The following year, Thomas Jefferson had an Embargo Act passed to punish Britain and France for harassing American ships. The measure proved disastrous, for at the time the US was more in need of European markets than the Europeans were dependent on American trade.

We might also recall that the embargo on oil and other raw materials that targeted Japan during the Second World War precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Nor did the OPEC blockade of 1973 by oil-producing states greatly aid the Palestinian cause during the Yom Kippur War. The question about whether or not international sanctions were decisive in the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, too, has been subject of many inconclusive debates (it’s worth remarking that the end of apartheid followed closely on the heels of the Soviet collapse).

Following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, commercial sanctions – which Putin countered with his own embargo on food imports from Europe – did indeed cost Russia a few percentage points of GDP, but they also proved beneficial in a certain sense: sanctions forced Russia to replace the fruits of its raw material exports (crude oil, natural gas, timber, minerals) with domestic manufactures, pushing it to industrialize and acquire greater self-sufficiency – so much so that in January 2020 the Financial Times could run the headline: ‘Russia: adapting to sanctions leaves economy in robust health. Analysts say Moscow now has more to fear from removal of restriction than additional ones’.

More recent measures include the tariffs on Chinese products imposed by Trump in 2018, though as Daniel Drezner notes in a recent piece in Foreign Affairs,

if anything the sanctions backfired, harming the United States’ agricultural and high-tech sectors. According to Moody’s Investors Service, just eight percent of the added costs of the tariffs were borne by China; 93 percent were paid for by U.S. importers and ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

But this hasn’t dissuaded the disciples of sanctioning. China, for instance, has placed various sanctions on Australia, South Korea, Japan, Lithuania, and even the NBA. Russia has targeted various ex-Soviet republics. Even Saudi Arabia has tried its hand.

Financial sanctions, however, have proven far more efficient. Thanks in part to the dollar, the United States can, with a simple gesture, banish an entire country (or a company, bank, industry) from the global financial circuit: simply forbidding its use of the SWIFT code might suffice. I realized this the day my wife and I decided to send some flowers to an Iranian friend for her birthday – it was impossible, because florists in Tehran can’t receive transfers from credit cards. There you go: isolating a country from the network of global finance means you can’t even send flowers to a friend.

This type of sanction has another advantage: whilst commercial sanctions can be sidestepped, and cause black markets to prosper, financial measures are also applied to foreign partners of the target, in what are known as ‘secondary sanctions’. Anyone with financial ties to a sanctioned state is also singled out in turn, and thereby excluded from financial markets. The financial partners of a sanctioned entity become enforcers themselves. This mechanism works with commercial sanctions too, but it is less effective since loopholes are easier to exploit.

 ‘In 2014’, The Economist notes, ‘BNP-Paribas, a French bank, pleaded guilty to processing thousands of transactions involving countries blacklisted by America, paid an $8.9bn fine and was forced to suspend its dollar-clearing operations in New York for a year’. In fact, banks are reluctant to maintain ties with individuals from sanctioned countries even in the absence of any specific directives, due to the difficulty they would face in rescinding contracts in the event of future sanctions.

Even in this case, however, sanctions present certain inconveniences. The first is that it undermines the dominion of the dollar, and pushes other countries (including European allies) to find an alternative to the SWIFT system. After all, the boom in cryptocurrencies is fuelled in part by the attempt to escape the yoke of the dollar.

But what’s even more detrimental about sanctions becoming the principal – if not the sole – instrument of pressure in international relations, is that they are extremely difficult to repeal. ‘Presidents are always eager to impose sanctions but wary of removing them’, Drezner writes,

because it exposes leaders to the charge of being weak on foreign policy. This makes it difficult for the United States to credibly commit to ending sanctions. When Biden considered lifting a few sanctions on Iran, for example, Republican lawmakers criticized him as a naive appeaser. Furthermore, many U.S. sanctions – such as those against Cuba and Russia – are mandated by law, which means that only Congress can permanently revoke them. And given the polarization and obstructionism now defining Capitol Hill, it is unlikely that sufficient numbers of lawmakers would support any presidential initiative to warm ties with a long-standing adversary. Even when political problems can be overcome, the legal thicket of sanctions can be difficult to navigate. Some countries are subject to so many overlapping sanctions that they find themselves trapped in a Kafka-esque situation, unsure if there is anything they can do to comply.

If a state knows that even absolute submission to American diktats would be unlikely to lift its sanctions regime, then surely it would be reluctant yield. What’s the point of complying with demands if there’s no reward?

What’s more, it may be true that the US is the most powerful – and most global – empire in history, but if it continues to impose sanctions without revoking them it will end up antagonizing the entire planet. History reveals two types of sanctions, which differ according to their objective. The first kind aims to contain: economic measures are put in place to impede the growth of a country or alliance, as with the embargo against the signatories of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. In this case, the country hit by sanctions expects no concessions. Compliance is the objective of the second: to oblige a state to do – or not do – something specific; see the attempt to stop Iran from enriching uranium. But in the latter instance the US needs to extend a credible prospect of withdrawing its sanctions, and base this on the satisfaction of clear and well-defined conditions, rather than using it as leverage to escalate demands. The problem with the sanctions the US has passed in recent decades is that they ultimately require regime change, which targeted regimes clearly refute, preferring instead to shift the burden of sanctions onto their own people, as has occurred countless times from Cuba to Iran, Russia to Syria, Libya, Myanmar, Venezuela, and so on.

Nowadays US foreign policy is all stick and no carrot. It’s curious to hear Western TV networks (BBC, CNN, FRANCE 24) warning Africa of ‘Chinese generosity’, putting the beneficiaries of new infrastructure projects (subways, dams, railways) on guard against becoming prisoners of Chinese debt, as if Africans haven’t for decades been shackled to Western credit – the only difference being that after the formal end of colonialism the West hardly built anything in Africa again. For the last 30 years, since it began considering itself master of the world, the US has only shown its forbidding, irascible side; like the earthly version of Yahweh, that ‘jealous god’ that looks at Beijing’s proposals for the Belt and Road Initiative as a husband registers the smiles his wife gives to a rival suitor.

It’s not that Washington doesn’t realise the implicit risks of this one-dimensional turn in US foreign policy. The Americans know full well that rather than reinforcing it, too many sanctions weaken the empire. They’ve debated this for a while now, as the article in Foreign Affairs and various others in the international press demonstrate. The problem is that sanctions are often of a lethal efficacy – quite literally – but they are also easy, both practically (their enforceability) and politically (they are impressive, and it’s relatively simple for Congress to approve them). The point is that they’ve all but become a tic of global diplomacy, an automatic reflex to any and every contrariety: 9,421 sanctions in a single year means around 26 sanctions a day, more than one per hour. Before long we’ll be saying that war is the continuation of sanctions by other means.

What’s funny is that this growing web of sanctions undermines the very fabric of globalization, precisely because it places insurmountable obstacles in the way of the free circulation of commodities and, most of all, of capital. We could almost say that at this rate, the US will end up sanctioning itself.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Vira Ameli, ‘Sanctions and Sickness’, NLR 122.


Kazakhstan’s Unrest

Unlike Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced three revolutions since 2005, and Tajikistan, which suffered a bloody civil war from 1992-1997, Kazakhstan has been one of the most stable and wealthy Central Asian republics. From the dissolution of the USSR up until 2019, the country was ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former First Secretary of the Kazakhstan branch of the Soviet Communist Party. Externally, Nazarbayev established amicable relations with the United States, European Union, Turkey and China, while also maintaining strong ties to Russia and other former Soviet Republics. Domestically, he built a muscular form of neoliberalism based on fire-sale privatizations – selling over 20,000 state-owned enterprises during his first five years in office, many of them to foreign multinationals.

However, the uneven distribution of resources in this oil-rich nation has occasionally elicited popular resistance. In 2011, oil workers in Zhanaozen in southwest Kazakhstan went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions. After seven months, the strike was crushed when police killed at least fifteen workers and wounded and arrested hundreds more. (Soon after, Tony Blair began advising Nazarbayev on how to launder his reputation in the wake of the massacre – receiving approximately £8 million for his services). Protests erupted again in 2016, when dozens were arrested in demonstrations against planned changes to the land code, which would have allowed foreign citizens to rent land of agricultural importance for up to 25 years. This time, the government was forced to halt the reforms and the ministers of energy and agriculture offered their resignations.  

Now, more than ten years after the Zhanaozen strike was brutally suppressed, the city has once again become a focal point for protests. On 2 January, protests over the increased cost of fuel began in Zhanaozen and Aktau in Mangistau Oblast, after price caps on liquified petroleum gas were lifted. They then spread to Aktobe, Taraz, Kyzylorda, Karaganda, Shymkent, and Almaty, where they began to focus on broader socioeconomic issues. After several days of unrest, in which police used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to clear the streets, the government agreed to lower the price of gas and place a moratorium on raising the price of utilities for 180 days.

The political fallout from the protests was significant. On the morning of 5 January, Nazarbayev’s successor, President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Askar Mamin and his government. Mamin was succeeded by Alikhan Smailov as acting prime minister, and Tokayev succeeded former president Nazarbayev as head of the Security Council: a hugely symbolic announcement, which appeared to mark a rupture with the previous regime. These concessions failed to ease the discontent, however, and further armed clashes broke out between protesters and security forces. A national state of emergency was declared. In Almaty, the capital of the country until 1997, protesters briefly seized control of the city administration, former presidential residence and airport, before being beaten back by security forces. At the time of writing, 225 people have been confirmed dead and more than 9,000 have been arrested.

On the evening of 5 January, President Tokayev appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for assistance. Subsequently, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Chairman of the CSTO council, announced that it would send a peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan to defend the country’s national security and stabilize the internal situation. The peacekeeping force, numbering almost 4,000, was primarily composed of soldiers from Russia, but also included troops from Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Addressing a CSTO meeting on 10 January, Tokayev announced that at this point in the protests, ‘economic and civil-political demands [had] faded into the background’. This was no longer about fuel prices, he declared. ‘It’s about an attempted coup.’

Tokayev blamed the disorder on foreign interference – a sentiment echoed by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, who have characterized the events in Kazakhstan as a would-be colour revolution. On paper, Kazakhstan is indeed a prime target for Western regime change: the country has immense geopolitical importance for Russia, and its location makes it vital for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet Kazakhstan does not border any NATO or European Union member states and has no illusions about ‘joining Europe’. Nor is there any evidence that the recent violence was fuelled by ethno-nationalist forces equivalent to the Right Sector in Ukraine. Tokayev himself has not explicitly accused Western governments for meddling, instead claiming – more ambiguously – that Kazakhstan was infiltrated by ‘foreign militants’. Any level-headed analysis shows that Tokayev’s administration was not the victim of a plot engineered by the United States and other Western countries. On the contrary, the US and EU have so far declined to make any meaningful intervention, simply calling for dialogue between the government and protesters.

It is clear the recent protests were, in their early stages at least, led by Kazakhstan’s multinational working class, squeezed by the rising cost of living and outraged at further price hikes. Yet this social stratum had been weakened by years of repression, and lacked political representation after the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Kazakhstan was banned in 2015. Thus, without external assistance, it is unlikely that spontaneous working-class protests could have achieved the ubiquity and intensity seen in recent weeks. It is probable that they were aided by a faction within the ruling bloc, which seized upon the unrest to sideline its political rivals. Indeed, it is worth noting that the violence sharply increased after the government agreed to reverse the price increases, suggesting the involvement of outside actors.

If the violence was symptomatic of an intra-elite struggle, rather than a colour revolution or proletarian uprising, what form did this take? Some commentators initially believed that popular discontent in the Caspian oil provinces had prompted Tokayev to launch a palace coup against his predecessor Nazarbayev, removing him from his prominent position on the Security Council. However, five days after this decision was announced, Nazarbayev stated that he himself had made the choice to relinquish the post. Denying reports that he fled to China, Nazarbayev confirmed that he remained in Nur-Sultan and has been in close contact with the President – calling on the country’s citizens to close ranks and support him. If Nazarbayev is to be believed, he and Tokayev are not enemies but allies. In which case, it is possible that the real conflict is not between these two strongmen, but between the government and the upper echelons of the domestic security services, whom Tokayev tellingly bypassed in appealing to the CSTO.

Since the violence began, Tokayev has focused his energies on purging the National Security Committee (KNB), removing the powerful Karim Masimov as its head. Masimov had twice served as prime minister – from 2007 to 2012 and 2014 to 2016 – and as a senior figure in Nazarbayev’s administration. Before Tokayev was chosen as Nazarbayev’s successor, Masimov was widely believed to be a potential candidate. Three days after his removal from the KNB, he was arrested on suspicion of state treason. Then, on 9 January, Tokayev began to dismiss and arrest Masimov’s KNB colleagues. In a televised appearance, Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, a former minister in the Nazarbayev government, blamed the recent unrest on the treachery of the KNB. Under Masimov, he alleged, the organization had covered up the existence of extremist training camps in the mountains in the hope of ousting the President.

If Ertysbayev’s allegations are true – we do not yet have enough evidence to confirm or deny them – this leaves yet more unanswered questions. The first concerns Masimov’s motives. If he was indeed planning a coup, did it begin as early as 2019, in response to Nazarbayev’s appointment of Tokayev as his successor? And what was its means of execution? Were these supposed ‘training camps’ created by the KNB, or did the latter merely cover them up, believing they could be useful in the future? Whether or not the so-called ‘terrorists’– i.e. the violent elements active in the protests – were being directed by dissident sections of the KNB, the instability they unleashed would have provided sufficient cover for a coup on the pretext of restoring order. When Masimov is put on trial, the Tokayev government will probably waste no time publicizing whatever evidence – real or fabricated – it has on him.

One important upshot of the unrest, as Ertysbayev himself noted, was the conclusion of the Nazarbayev era. While he remains known as the Elbasy, or ‘Leader of the Nation’, his departure from the Security Council has brought his thirty-year dominance of the political scene to an end. Since 2019 President Tokayev ruled in the shadow of his predecessor, but now his power has been cemented by the support of Russia and the CSTO. Closer relations with other former Soviet republics will likely follow. Although Tokayev has so far led a nation considered a ‘faithful and reliable ally’ (in the words of Tony Blair), recent events may alter his perception in the West. Like Lukashenko, he may decide to abandon a multi-vector foreign policy for a more Russocentric one, while simultaneously consolidating his crackdown on domestic opposition. Meanwhile, Tokayev’s economic reform package – the ‘New Kazakhstan Agenda’ – aims to pre-empt another round of popular protests. The programme pledges to close the income gap, control inflation, boost employment and improve quality of life. Such measures may ease tensions in the short-term. Yet, so long as the President is unwilling to repudiate the basic model built by Nazarbayev – an autocratic post-Soviet state atop an economy dominated by foreign capital – new cycles of resistance will emerge. 

Göran Therborn, ‘Transcaucasian Triptych’, NLR 46.


Rentier Brazil

Although Brazil’s tumbling capital market triggered the suspension of numerous initial public offerings (IPOs) planned over the course of 2021, it did not discourage all investors. The logistics start-up Favela Brasil XPress, based in the country’s largest favela, Paraisópolis, went public last November with the expectation of raising R$1.3 million in six months and the ultimate aim to rival Amazon. In the poor communities where some 14 million people live, many of which are effectively controlled by drug traffickers, e-commerce deliveries do not always arrive. By filling this gap, Favela Brasil XPress intends to bring big business to the favelas, where it will become a stand-in for the vitiated state.

Even if Favela Brasil XPress does not succeed (as seems likely given the precipitous rise of interest rates), similar finance initiatives will continue to sweep the country. Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement – once a radical campaign for land reform – has recently begun to mirror the activities of agribusiness giants, issuing five-year fixed income securities to invest in organic food production. Two factors explain the prevalence of such ventures. First, they offer basic provisions which can no longer be expected from the public sector. After the 2016 parliamentary coup that removed President Dilma Rousseff from office, a raft of neoliberal reforms were implemented, the most damaging of which was the adoption of a constitutional cap on public spending – now locked in place until 2036. With austerity legally enshrined, new forms of private provision have become crucial to meet people’s essential needs. 

Second, such initiatives are connected to a widespread shift to mass-based financialization, fomented by state actions over the past two decades. By now the effects of this process are plain to see. Through fuelling aggregate demand, expanded access to credit promised to create an inclusive mass consumer society. Yet the credit boom came with serious drawbacks. Brazil’s household debt-to-income ratio rose from 18% in 2004 to 60% by late 2021, while total wages never surpassed 45% of GDP in the same period. By the end of 2021, household indebtedness affected 74% of Brazilian families and defaults followed suit, hitting 64 million adults. Rather than a step toward asset ownership, debt has become a means of survival. With the unemployment rate hovering at around 12.5%, wages relatively stagnant, interest rates rising and millions of Brazilians living in poverty, household debt is unlikely to to contract.

Low-income shareholders have flocked to the stock market in the hope of making short-term equity gains. Since 2003, their number has risen from 85,500 to over 4 million. The stakeholder mentality has seeped into society at large: a sure sign that the redemocratization of Brazil has broken with the welfare society envisioned by the 1988 Constitution. As such, the most urgent question facing the country is this: if elected in November 2022, will Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) challenge the hegemony of big finance and rescue the economy from rentierism?

To answer, we must first understand how and why this sea change occurred. In the 1980s, when inflation rates started to skyrocket, the banking and finance sector in Brazil developed institutional mechanisms for monetary adjustment, offering inflation-protected gains derived from the public debt. Only firms and the very wealthy, who were the bulk of bank account holders at the time, benefited from such measures. This led to growing autonomy for the financial sector, which came to contest the centrality of the state in crafting macroeconomic policy, while encouraging rentier activity among non-financial firms and high-income households. The mounting influence of the banking and financial sector then shaped the commercial and financial liberalization of the 1990s. Under the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Brazil was integrated into global financial markets, and domestic industry was devastated.

With the Real Plan in 1994, which succeeded in bringing about monetary stabilization, the dynamic of financial accumulation shifted axis. Inflation-protected gains were replaced by high-interest income and other forms of financial income, derived from a new monetary regime that set the lending prime rate (Selic) at stratospheric heights – acting as an anchor to control inflation. The rush to buy Brazilian treasury bonds linked to the public internal debt signalled the opening of a new avenue for financial accumulation, still concentrated among the wealthiest. Profits indexed to Selic consolidated a coalition of rentier and financial interests at the helm of the Brazilian state. In parallel, a wide-array of institutional regulations were laid out for a new stage of capital-market expansion and consolidation.

The electoral victory of the Workers’ Party in 2002 changed the game. On the one hand, it preserved the inflation-targeting regime put in place by the previous government, effectively concentrating wealth. It also passed new regulations to incentivize financial investments and made no attempt to implement a tax reform to curb inequality. On the other, it granted access to credit on an unprecedented scale, promoting a massive process of financial inclusion through the creation of millions of simplified bank accounts (no fees attached) and special loans (some of them underwritten by the State). By failing in the provision of public goods and services, it also paved the way for their recommodification by finance.

Lula’s presidency therefore saw the first great expansion of financial markets in democratic Brazil. He succeeded in turning the public pay-as-you-go civil servants’ pension system into a hybrid scheme with individual private accounts. He also took steps to guarantee creditworthiness for those with no credit records and stimulated the 2004-2008 stock market boom, which attracted huge foreign investments, catalyzing a record number of IPOs. Lula engaged in dialogue with the finance sector and preserved the institutional neoliberal framework established by his predecessor. He did not check Brazil’s integration into global financial markets, nor the autonomy of its Central Bank. At no point, not even after Lula’s reelection with a huge popular mandate in 2006, did the PT government attempt to consistently tax financial wealth, or place a witholding tax on dividends. The counterpart to the implementation of the anti-poverty Bolsa Familia programme, which reached 14 million families with only 0.5% of GDP, was a primary surplus policy that further undermined public provision, allowing the financial takeover of social policy.

The financialization of social policy has been particularly evident in the education and healthcare sectors. The PT’s investment in the Student Financing Fund (FIES) provoked an IPO race that led to a wave of mergers and acquisitions, spawning educational conglomerates among the largest worldwide, whose share prices rose in tandem with the FIES’s expansion of credit. Millions of students were plunged into debt. At the same time, under Rousseff, the healthcare sector was opened to foreign capital, overriding a constitutional norm. Brazil’s public health system became increasingly dependent on private providers – international corporations and investment funds – whose power to dictate regulations grew rapidly. By 2020, the revenues of private healthcare plans that cover only the 25% of the population with the ability to pay were estimated at R$229 billion – almost twice as much the overall budget that allocated to the Ministry of Health in 2022, responsible for caring for the other 75%, or 165 million Brazilians. Most worrying is the fact that even the public sector is trapped in financialized strategies: states and municipalities now invest part of the Public Health Fund in secondary markets to increase revenues, at their own risk, to finance activities that used to be entirely funded through the tax system.

Non-financial firms also increased the share of financial profits in their balance sheets, while the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES), responsible for providing subsidized loans for the corporate sector, experienced a downgrade starting in 2014. While financial assets have witnessed an extraordinary surge in value, the investment rate has continued to drop sharply (falling to 14% of GDP in 2021) and the amount of productive assets has stagnated. But with the Selic base rate on the rise yet again, fixed by an independent Central Bank, no one doubts that the public debt can regain its prominence as a driver of the Brazilian financialization, this time in tandem with the rebound of the stock markets.

Financialization accelerated in the wake of the 2015-2016 recession. The Temer government (2016-2018), which took over from Rousseff, passed labour reforms that wiped out an array of employment rights. They stressed the primacy of negotiated settlements over labour regulations, abolished wage parity, enabled greater outsourcing and approved 12-hour uninterrupted workshifts. This caused the informal sector to grow, along with extreme poverty. Bolsa Familia cash transfers were disconnected from rising demand to comply with the new constitutional cap on federal expenditures. Aiming to dismantle state capacity, Temer also undertook major administrative reforms to shrink the number of available careers within the public sector from 300 to around 30, and pushed through pay cuts of up to 25%.

Yet if top-down expropriation depends on a mixture of coercion and consent, the Temer government could no longer elicit the latter. Although he preserved widespread access to credit, popular support was eroded by a deepening economic crisis, high unemployment rates and, above all, coruption allegations. His reforms were met by large protests and a general strike. As his approval ratings plummeted to 3%, Temer lost the political capital necessary to steer the transition towards autocratic neoliberal rule. It was this setback that Bolsonaro sought to rectify by turning radical conservatism (anti-communism, sexism and racism) into the dominant expression of discontent. In so doing, he discharged financial capital from culpability for deteriorating conditions and blamed a series of false culprits: leftists, feminists, migrants, indigenous people.

During his first year in office, Bolsonaro approved a controversial pension reform that raised the retirement age for women and the number of qualifying years of contribution. As the average value of pension benefits from the pay-as-you-go scheme decreased, and the survivor’s allowance was cut by nearly half, the future of the public pension system became increasingly uncertain, causing its deligitimation and increasing the attractiveness of the funded-capitalized pension regime. Bolsonaro also gutted public spending in a number of areas – health, science, social security, the environment. Recently, he approved a new law that modernizes the legal framework for the foreign exchange market and international capitals. An old demand from the financial sector, this controversial law should, among other things, facilitate the dollarization and internationalization of the Brazilian elite’s portfolios, which are currently allocated to assets denominated in national currency.

When Covid-19 arrived in Brazil, however, Bolsonaro’s presidency entered a downward spiral. As well as mishandling the public health crisis, his adoption of a War Budget marked a volte face in his programme to dismantle the public sphere. An Emergency Aid Programme raised the social safety net and provided adequate coverage to 67 million recipients, while cash transfers and furlough schemes kept low-income households afloat, despite the continued underfunding of the healthcare sector.

While such policies reduced the default rate and arrears of families indebted to big finance, they also boosted a new cycle of household indebtedness. Households cut down on balances that were in default while increasing their overall credit load, along with the average payment terms for credit portfolios. This deepened their dependence on financial markets: new loans were taken out, to be paid off over longer timelines. The cycle of financial accumulation expanded, both through a decrease in delinquencies and an uptick in credit supply. Yet, crucially, this new sequence of debt restructuring – suspension, renegotiation and expansion – did not occur within a solid institutional framework, set by the Brazilian state, to regulate the levels and mechanisms of financial expropriation. The process was rather led by the banks, who succeeded in maintaining stratospheric interest rates from previous contracts despite the falling prime rate (2% in December 2020).

The Covid outbreak has therefore had complex implications for the Brazilian political landscape. In one sense, it discredited Bolsonarismo by foregrounding the values that it sought to relegate – science, state management, social provision – and undermining the precepts of its radical conservatism. Opinion polls now forecast Bolsonaro’s defeat in the election this October. Yet, at the same time, the economic problems that Covid has consolidated are likely to destabilize an incoming PT administration. For no matter how much autonomy financial capital is granted, it will be unable to generate an economic rebound without a strong state apparatus – which must be rebuilt after years of gradual erosion.

Will the PT recognize that its previous policies produced an unustainable model rooted in financial expropriation, and take an alternative course? Or will they prove unwilling to challenge the extant economic setup? The former could be done by rescuing policies that were dismissed in by previous PT administrations: promoting the deconcentration of the banking system; breaking with the Central Bank’s autonomy; expanding the supply of public services, at a quantity and quality necessary to remove the sphere of social reproduction from the grasp of the financial sector; passing a progressive tax reform capable of effectively confronting inequality in Brazil, starting with a tax on dividends and financial income.

In recent years, the damaging consequences of financialization have been highlighted by Brazilian social movements. Last September, the Homeless Workers’ Movement occupied the São Paulo Stock Exchange, protesting the concentration of wealth amid rising hunger and poverty. Will they be listened to? That remains to be seen. However, the positions of Fundação Perseu Abramo, the Workers’ Party think tank, indicate that credit will still play a large role in their blueprint for society. The PT may once again attempt to combine anti-poverty programmes, at one end, with more credit at the other, to compensate for insufficient wages and social policies. As such, the Workers’ Party suggests that the progressive values brought to the fore by the pandemic are not in contradiction with the continuous expansion of financial markets, products and logics. If financial expropriation remains the engine for developing this peripheral capitalist economy, its already intolerable levels of inequality may be set to worsen.

Read on: Mario Sergio Conti, ‘Pandemonium in Brazil’, NLR 122.


Sounds of History

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) begins with a title card: ‘Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before me’. Boonmee lives on a farm in Isaan, Thailand’s rural northeast, the same region where Apichatpong was raised. He grows tamarinds and keeps bees. Surrounded by dense jungle, the edges of Boonmee’s farm demarcate a threshold between civilization and wilderness, man and animal – as well as speaking to something else, something mythological.

What are those ‘other beings’ the title card refers to? Midway through the film, a late-night dinner is interrupted by two spirits: Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife, who appears as a faded apparition; and Boonsong, Boonmee’s long-lost son, who has become a ‘monkey ghost’ – Apichatpong’s own creation, resembling a mid-budget Bigfoot with glowing red eyes. There are several more monkey ghosts in the film, and one senses the presence of other phantoms throughout. There is also a talking catfish, perhaps a water god, who copulates with a princess at the mouth of a waterfall.

These are not the only mythic creatures to inhabit Apichatpong’s films. Tropical Malady (2004) features seua saming, or were-tigers, which come in two types, male and female. The latter is always a malevolent spirit, while the former can bend its shape at will, maintaining the mind and soul of a human even in tiger form. The film culminates in an encounter between Keng, a young soldier, and Tong, a seua saming, deep in the jungle one night, where Keng confesses his love: ‘Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh, and my memories. Every drop of my blood sings our song. A song of happiness. There… do you hear it?’ The scene may be one of the most beautiful in world cinema – marked, like all Apichatpong’s films, by slowness, stillness and strangeness. Though Apichatpong is today something of a festival darling, this protracted sensibility still sometimes leaves audiences at a distance. Even the Cannes intelligentsia struggled with Tropical Malady when it debuted. Some reportedly left the film early; others stayed and booed.

If you find yourself sedated rather than sutured by Apichatpong’s languid pace and oblique images, he would much rather you simply fall asleep. In fact, he encourages it. He compares the experience of cinema to that of dreaming (not the first director to do so): losing oneself in the dark, the body subsumed by light. Dreams are merely another layer of reality, Apichatpong argues, ever present, much like spirits. This perhaps explains the ease with which his films marry realist aesthetics with the presence of ‘other beings’ – why the ghost of a dead ox can rise from its own corpse and lumber so naturally into the night. As in a dream, ontological borders are dissolved. Living and dead have no difference, nor reality and imagination, truth and myth.

The mythological, however, is missing from Memoria, Apichatpong’s tenth film and his first shot outside of Thailand. The action takes place in Colombia, where Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, an awkward orchidologist suffering from auditory hallucinations – the recurrence of a sudden booming sound, inspired by the director’s own experience of Exploding Head Syndrome. Though in many respects Memoria represents a departure for Apichatpong – his first film not in Thai, his first to use professional actors – it nevertheless follows a familiar arc: Jessica travels from city to jungle where, like Keng or Boonmee, she experiences a strange and overwhelming encounter with the other. Only this time, removed from Apichatpong’s native Thai mythology, what she encounters is not a monkey ghost, were-tiger, or concupiscent catfish. To give the game away: it is an alien.

His name is Hernán, a man who can recall all past lives – even those of stones and trees. He resembles Borges’s Funes the Memorious, isolated and evading interaction so as to remove himself from the vast flurry of narratives that would otherwise overwhelm him.

This is one of two Hernáns in the film; the other is young and handsome, with no special powers except as a musician. Jessica asks for his aid in electronically recreating the booming sound in her head, and this, in a sense, is the entire plot of the film: she seeks the source of her sound and meets the young Hernán; she seeks it a second time, following its direction out into the jungle, and meets the old Hernán. Though not quite sexual, nor love-struck, nor horrific, as with the encounters in Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee, what occurs between Jessica and each Hernán is nevertheless a profound experience.

How to articulate a sound only you can hear? Jessica tries at one point – ‘Bang!’ – and it is hard to imagine this helps the young Hernán much. She has come to meet him at his studio in Bogotá, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and he attempts to recreate the ‘bang’ digitally using pre-existing soundbites. Thankfully, Jessica’s second attempt at a description is more illustrative: ‘A big ball of concrete falls into a metal well surrounded by seawater’. It conjures a Magrittian image – simple shapes and textures, knowable objects made strange.

For Magritte, the ocean is a threshold much like Apichatpong’s jungle, the place at which we slithered ashore and became human. (Think of The Collective Invention or The Wonders of Nature, both featuring Magritte’s inverted mermaid – a ‘missing link’. The latter work also implies a colonial arrival, a discovery or first contact, with its hazy galleon looming in the distance, a useful image for thinking about Memoria and its alien.) The surreal seawater sound prompts a kind of evolution within Jessica. She begins to transcend the human world, to lose track of time and place and people. At a dinner party, she mistakenly believes that someone is dead; later, she searches for the young Hernán, only to discover that he may never have existed at all.

When she first meets the old Hernán, at his cabin on the outskirts of the Amazon, he is scaling little red fish. He is somewhat animalian himself – mermaid-like – capable of translating the nearby cries of howler monkeys. For Hernán, all sounds are ‘vibrations’ that hold in them the history of the world. He views the terrestrial as Jessica does orchids: as subjects to be studied. Earlier in the film, Jessica visits a local hospital to see her sister, Karen, who is also unwell. (Another mystery – the curse of a dog, Karen speculates.) Jessica sits in a hallway, blocking a door, until the diener arrives and asks her to move. Noticing what lies within, she asks, ‘Is that a morgue?’ and is promptly invited inside. As she enters, Apichatpong cuts to a library, where Jessica is looking through pictures of infected orchids, their fleshy leaves and petals all painted with disease.

If Memoria is a work of anthropology, in which the alien is an objective and all-seeing observer, then the film is hamstrung by Apichatpong’s fear of descending into ethnography – his discomfort at being elsewhere than his native Thailand, and not wanting to impose. When I spoke to the director some years ago, when Memoria was still in its germinal stages, he communicated this hesitancy, stating that he could not ‘represent a genuine memory there [in Colombia]’ because he was an ‘outsider’. ‘You just feel like you cannot and will not understand certain things. You’re really on the outside’.

This explains Jessica’s role as a fish out of water – a character who relies heavily on Swinton’s distinctive appearance (Swinton herself describes Jessica not as a character but a ‘predicament’). A widow without direction, Jessica is pale and gaunt, eyes over-tired, a ghost drifting through frozen time, haunted and haunting. She hardly blinks when Hernán discloses that he is an alien (‘I remember we were floating through space and then I was born’), nor when he tries to sleep and momentarily dies (‘I just stopped’). Perhaps she senses in him a kindred spirit, or something as strange as herself.

When Hernán finishes scaling his fish he shares some tequila with Jessica, a homebrew apparently useful for invoking dreams. They move inside, and soon we are treated to an incredibly long scene, in single-take, where the two hold hands and Hernán channels his memories (the world’s memories) through Jessica – ‘I am like a hard disk and you are an antenna’, he says. Jessica begins to remember experiences that are not her own. It seems agonizing; tears fall from her eyes. Petrified, she becomes like Benjamin’s angel of history, privy to all the misery of the world, staring back at the great storm blowing from Paradise. There is, in Benjamin’s description, a certain historical impotence that resonates here. ‘The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’; but this vision of an all-at-once history has ‘got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them’.

No reference however is made in Memoria to Colombia’s unique horrors, its slumbering dead. In the style of distorted radio, we hear voices, the vague stories of a man mugged and a girl hiding beneath a bed. Perhaps this is that awful banging noise now attuned to human frequency, revealed not as a roar but a scream. And yet, one senses that we are not meant to feel for these disembodied voices so much as for Jessica, our awestruck angel, who suddenly believes that she has lived these experiences, that she was once hiding in this room, though from what we do not know. As a masterful display of cinema’s capacity to communicate through sound, this sequence represents Memoria’s great encounter – reminiscent of Keng and Tong in the jungle. But though it is certainly affecting, it also feels politically deadened in a way that Apichatpong’s films never have before.

Part of the reason for Apichatpong filming in Colombia is an ongoing battle with censorship in his homeland. ‘The government thinks the media needs to be propaganda’, he said in 2016 of the then-junta government – the product of Thailand’s 18th coup since it ceased to be an absolutely monarchy in 1932. ‘I have no colour but I’m not neutral’. This is true: Apichatpong’s films are never explicitly political, and the scenes that have been censored are often some of his most innocuous. Those removed ­– on apparently moral grounds – from Cemetery of Splendour (2015) include a monk playing guitar and two doctors kissing, for example. Nevertheless, Apichatpong protested their removal by leaving those scenes black, and later pulling the film from circulation in Bangkok.

Apichatpong’s politics are often conveyed through absence and the immaterial. He lets ghosts do his bidding. There are spectres haunting Thailand, and it is no accident that the monkey ghosts of Uncle Boonmee reside in the jungles of Isaan, a land which, during the Cold War, became a stronghold for communist insurgents. It was there that the ‘people’s war’ was launched in 1965 by the Thai Patriotic Front, beginning with targeted political assassinations before escalating into outright warfare. The guerrillas were 12,000 strong at their peak, commanding enormous influence over the region – spurred initially by Chinese Maoists but evolving over time into a distinctly ruralist, native movement. Jungles and caves were their base of operations; in Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong excavates these spaces and their secrets.

Boonmee laments that both his kidney disease and his being haunted by ghosts are the result of bad karma. ‘I killed too many communists’ he confesses. As he succumbs to his illness, in a cave not unlike a communist hideout, Boonmee dreams of a future in which an ‘authority capable of making anybody disappear’ rules the city. Apichatpong sets this monologue against photographs of young soldiers – like Boonmee in his communist-killing days – as they pose with captured monkey ghosts. In doing so, he suggests that photography and ghosts have something in common: they are both prostheses for trauma. Note how Cathy Caruth defines the term: ‘the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event’.

Memoria employs its own prosthesis. Jessica is possessed by a sound, a ‘rumble from the core of the earth’. She insists on these elemental descriptions – earth, metal, water – because they lend some materiality to her phantom pain. Unable to represent a ‘genuine memory’ in Colombia (which we might take to mean a historical or political one), Apichatpong has instead constructed a film around the incomprehensibility of trauma, where, like fungal infections on the skin of an orchid, the symptoms are visible but not the disease itself.

‘Trauma is the name for an impossible history,’ Caruth writes in Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Which is to say, it is not history at all. What it reproduces is not actuality or reality but rather the very ‘unrepresentability’ of those things: an infinitely productive paradox that in Memoria begs the question, what exactly are we watching? In this way, Apichatpong’s film – which we might subtitle ‘Explorations in Trauma’ – is more bruise than blunt force. It is frustrating to see the director succumb so fully to the pitfalls of ‘trauma’ when he has otherwise elided them with such grace, with his historical ghosts and mythic monsters, his magic and his realism.

Most telling is the fact that the young Hernán is still capable of recreating Jessica’s sound, using a filmmaker’s library of sound effects, no less – an archive of historical artifacts. That the process of recreating trauma is displaced through a metaphor for that very process is perhaps another way of illustrating trauma’s unrepresentability, but what exactly does this offer the viewer? We are ultimately left watching a man flip switches on a soundboard. Trauma does nothing to resolve the tensions, gaps and transgressions of history. It is another name for a stalemate: two kings stuck in a box step. Perhaps this is what makes the encounter between Jessica and the old Hernán – between trauma and history – so unfulfilling. To even graze the tip of Hernán’s finger would be electrifying, enlightening. But sadly, he takes Jessica’s hand, not ours.

Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73.


Something Mild

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson has various things in common with his work of the past fifteen years, an unignorable run started by There Will Be Blood (2007) and continued with The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). Like its predecessors, Licorice Pizza takes place at a carefully presented historical moment (Southern California in 1973), and derives key details from an existing source, the early life of the producer Gary Goetzman, here given the surname Valentine. Like Anderson’s other recent protagonists, Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is male and largely defined by his professional activities, in this case as a teenage entrepreneur, and his central relationship, with the twenty-five-year old Alana (Alana Haim), has elements of the collaboration. Other areas of overlap include a running-time that exceeds two hours, and an original score by the composer and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood used alongside familiar music: McCartney’s ‘Let Me Roll It’, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ Yet for all the continuities, the recourse to dependable methods and motifs, what defines the new film – and makes it such a monumentally frustrating experience – are properties not previously evident in Anderson’s body of work: obstinate optimism, conceptual muddiness, and a near-total lack of stakes.

It’s clear enough what Anderson is inviting us to care about. In the first scene, Gary spots Alana at his high school, where she is assisting a yearbook photographer. First he takes her for dinner at his favourite local restaurant, then he enlists her as his chaperone for a trip to New York, where he is performing a skit on a talk show – as things turn out, his last hurrah as a child actor. Back in Los Angeles, specifically the San Fernando Valley, Gary, who loves a scheme, and Alana, whose life is going nowhere, start a business selling water beds, while their downtime is devoted to activities that make the other feel either jealous or cared-for.

Anderson is familiar with the ways of pairs – the oscillations between caginess and receptive warmth, hostility and fondness, enmeshment and estrangement. His short, Cigarettes and Coffee (1993), screened at Sundance when he was twenty-three, portrays both of the kinds of duo to which he has repeatedly returned: in a roadside Nevada cafe, a young man seeks the advice of an older acquaintance, while a few tables over, lovestruck newlyweds bicker. Sometimes Anderson’s films are presented almost baldly as exercises in double portraiture, as with The Master, in which a wayward seaman falls in with a cult leader, and Phantom Thread, about the relationship between a dressmaker and his latest muse. But even when he adopts the outward form of the ensemble or the epic, his chamber-piece proclivities still tend to win out. The ‘Goodbye 70s… Hello 80s’ party sequence that marks the turning-point in Boogie Nights (1997) comprises, among other two-handed scenarios, a chance encounter that ends in marriage, a summit about the future of the porn industry, an abortive come-on, and a man killing his wife and then himself. Anderson’s next film, the vast Valley snapshot, Magnolia (1999), is engaged exclusively with one-to-one dynamics – marital, parent-child, employee-boss, romantic, legal, medical.

Even There Will Be Blood, a feverish depiction of the California oil industry, is really a battle-of-wits-in-variations, with supporting characters taking turns to be bested or rejected by the burgeoning magnate Daniel Plainview. During the thirty-minute passage concerned with the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be his ‘brother from another mother’, Daniel doesn’t cross paths a single time with his otherwise constant antagonist, the preacher Eli, his son is packed off to boarding school, and his sidekick sidelined. In Anderson’s work, three rarely gets a chance to be a crowd. Look past the running-times and period trappings, the yawning vistas and snaking cast lists, and the standout American director of our times is almost exclusively interested in what happens when two people go head-to-head across the space of a desk or dining table.

It’s usually a lop-sided affair, with one key-term recurring. In the first scene of Anderson’s first film, the gambling drama Hard Eight (1996), the drifter John mocks the suspiciously generous Sydney as ‘Mr Helpful’. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood both end with a struggling youngish man turning up at a large house, and telling its ageing male owner, ‘I need help’, with diverging consequences (a hug; a bowling-pin to the skull). The same syllable occurs many times in Magnolia, most prominently in the stories of the cop Jim and the nurse Phil, who says at one point ‘this is the scene of the movie where you help me out’, and with Inherent Vice, Anderson adapted the only Thomas Pynchon novel in which that concept plays a significant role, starting on the very first page. Anderson’s most recent film, Phantom Thread, marked a return to the Hard Eight formula, favour-giving as offered, even enforced, with Alma telling Reynolds that she wants him ‘flat on your back, tender, helpless, open, with only me to help.’

Help with what exactly? The immediate context is often practical – money, a favour. But the broader purpose is to locate a better way of getting by. Alma, for example, believes that Reynolds is refusing to accept, let alone embrace, his vulnerable true nature – a tendency towards repression avidly abetted by the other woman in his life, his stern-faced sister Cyril, whose promise to leave Reynolds ‘on the floor’ is altogether more aggressive in tone. Jim, the Valley cop who likes to ‘help people’, assures the erratic Claudia that she deserves more – and is capable of more – than her prevailing routine of cocaine, hook-ups, and self-censure. Without such interventions, left to their own vices, Anderson’s characters derive their feeling of relief, and perhaps a sense of purpose, not just from quick fixes and cathartic outbursts, but from controlling their environments and silencing dissent, from moments of victory and phallic domination – literally, as with Eddie in Boogie Nights, who wins an industry prize for Best Cock, or symbolically, in the case of Daniel Plainview’s ‘drilling’.

Then there are the many acts of bragging, the assertion of status or even existence: ‘I am a star’, ‘I am an oil man’, ‘I am strong’, ‘My name is quiz kid Donnie Smith from the TV’, ‘We. Are. Men’. What seems to need allaying is the threat of futility or inadequacy, the possibility of being ‘stupid’, ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘an idiot’, ‘a loser’, becoming ‘a laughingstock’ or suffering ‘a crying spell’. Some of Anderson’s characters remain trapped in a cycle, chained to their worst impulses, and confront the end credits with defences intact. But in the stories with apparently happy endings, there’s a willingness to abandon current compensations and find a different way to mitigate a basic anxiety – to do something to help that might actually help.

Anderson’s most gifted contemporary, Noah Baumbach – who is a year older, and made his debut a year earlier – has displayed a similar concern with lost and suffering figures and the bonds they struggle to forge, but Anderson is working more consciously in a tradition. He has spoken with rapture of numerous double-act films, notably F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which bears the subtitle ‘A Song of Two Humans’, and Jonathan Demme’s postmodern screwball romance Something Wild. Perhaps the closest he has to a precursor is Bernardo Bertolucci, a specialist in tales of contretemps, including an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, as well as a film concerned, like Phantom Thread, with an obsessed creative Englishman, living in a large empty house, who is liberated by a foreign employee-cum-muse (Besieged), and another, Me and You, about the alliance between a spotty, strong-willed fifteen-year-old and a troubled woman in her mid-twenties which makes prominent use of Bowie in his science-fiction mode (in that case, ‘Space Oddity’).

Anderson has never cited Bertolucci’s example, though it’s hard to watch the seduction guru Frank berating his comatose estranged father in Magnolia, or hear Lancaster in The Master use ‘pig fuck’ as a curse, without recalling Paul’s speech to his dead wife towards the end of Last Tango in Paris. Whatever the case, the true kinship between these writer-directors – other than a liking for method actors and a precocious start that gave way to substantial achievement – is a shared strength, their ability to exploit psychological terrain (more overtly Freudian in Bertolucci’s case) as a route to the analytic and the sensual, a way of delivering a lesson that is also an experience. Anderson, for his part, has displayed increasing discomfort with one half of the equation, and Licorice Pizza suggests how far he is willing to go in response. His desire to get closer to his characters, to forgo distance in favour of immersion, results here in something close to a rejection of insight and even meaning. (It seems telling that the title, borrowed from a chain of record shops, possesses no claim to relevance.)

It’s the result of a conscious process, an act of serial adjustment that has now reached a point of over-correction. In his early work, from Cigarettes and Coffee to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Anderson used a range of devices to impose his perspective on the material. His characters said silly things while his narrative techniques nudged us to notice delusion or myopia, by presenting an image at odds with a voiceover description or through the use of the Robert Altman jigsaw framework, that grants the viewer a version of omniscience. Anderson wanted to get his message across, and one obvious advantage of the ironic method is legibility of attitude. Magnolia, for example, portrays two deficient fathers with terminal cancer, is bookended with a narrator reflecting on ‘coincidence and chance’, and uses Aimee Mann songs with lyrics that provide comment on the action: ‘can you save me?’, ‘it’s not going to stop / ’til you wise up’.

The oddball romance, Punch-Drunk Love, represented a partial reaction – though half the length of its predecessor, it was still a winky affair (‘he needs me, he needs me, he needs me’, Shelley Duvall sings on the soundtrack). But since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has tended towards an altogether stricter style. Action is presented from two perspectives (at most). Music is used to connote a period of time or enhance the emotional atmosphere. Inter-titles are kept to a minimum. The fourth wall is respected. In Phantom Thread, Anderson steers the audience with organic patterns of detail (the atmosphere at meal-times, the recurrence of dairy products) and moments of pointed dialogue, such as Reynolds’s account of his childhood. Otherwise, the vehicle of expression is the showdown – Reynolds accusing Alma of oppression, Cyril advising him that his moaning hurts her ears.

Licorice Pizza, by contrast, offers neither an overarching framework nor much in the way of local clarity. While Gary and Alana amuse each other, and Anderson appears convinced that something powerful exists between them, there is no clue as to what. The forms of help exchanged are hardly meaningful. His absent father is never discussed, nor is her fractious home life. Gary’s occasional advice to Alana derives narrowly from prior experience – with casting directors, for example, when she dabbles in acting. And it’s Alana who recognises the implications of the OPEC crisis for a business reliant on rubber, though again this is not reflective of her personality, merely the fact she’s an adult. The episodes of verbal combat are difficult to track, with the air of a word-association game and very little paraphrasable substance. So we are asked to make do without the one thing that has underpinned all of Anderson’s previous work – a definable dynamic.

Anderson has talked with awe about how, in Something Wild, Demme showed ‘how loose you could be with the rulebook’. But that is to emphasise the film’s impudent tone and narrative surprises at the expense of its rigorous character-drawing, evident right until the final shot, which reveals that the apparently reformed rebel Audrey has parked her car beside a fire hydrant. It’s a far cry from the anything-goes aesthetic of Licorice Pizza, where causeless chronology rules, details are introduced then abandoned, and the sense prevails of a story that begins afresh with almost every scene and might conceivably go on for ever.

In the one scene where Anderson seems to place a hand on the tiller, Alana sits dejected on a kerb. Gary is making penis jokes with his friends to her right, while to her left their latest customer, the Hollywood hairdresser and playboy Jon Peters, is trying to pick up a couple of women out for an early-morning game of tennis. Behind her, in an office window, is a poster for the local politician Joel Wachs – a passionate progressive and, as it turns out, gay. She resolves to volunteer for his campaign for city council. But even here, the things Alana is spurning – adolescent horseplay, middle-aged predation – have played little role in her fate. And though Alana’s new career is the closest the film offers to what Anderson calls a ‘gear shift’, referring to the mid-point swerve in Something Wild from joy to peril, it yields neither a change in mood, nor any increase in ethical seriousness.

Wachs may have designs on reforming L.A. land use, but Licorice Pizza fails to extend the surprisingly trenchant, committed, and fine-grained critique delivered in There Will Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice, which draw on the story of L. Ron Hubbard, and the work of two political novelists, Upton Sinclair and Thomas Pynchon, to scrutinise the exertion of American power at home at various points between 1898 and 1969. Almost as soon as Alana enters the Wachs headquarters, she calls on the endlessly adaptable Gary to shoot promotional videos, and City Council corruption becomes another opportunity for nostalgic scene-setting and a backdrop to yet more bickering.

The danger with Anderson’s initial approach was a tendency to the traits – bombast, bravado – which he liked to skewer in his characters. His motto seemed to be, ‘I am a major film-maker’. There Will Be Blood realised that statement by legitimate means, and he found the balance he was seeking in the first hour of The Master, and for long stretches of Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. It seems that at this point he would rather do too little than too much. He recently praised the way that Billy Wilder didn’t feel the need to ‘put a hat on top of a hat’. But Licorice Pizza serves up a bewildering spectacle – the director of the six-hatted breakthrough Boogie Nights and twelve-hatted follow-up Magnolia aspiring to a hat-less state, an authorial reticence that borders on the abstinent. (The extremity of the shift recalls the claim, in Boogie Nights, that Eddie ‘can fuck hard or he can fuck really gently’.)

For all its surface busyness, Licorice Pizza is marked by the things it doesn’t provide, in terms of either drama and technique – voiceover, flashback, revelatory dialogue, explanatory cross-cutting, enriching context, escalating discord. Gary’s early declaration, ‘I’m a showman’, is basically right, and his occasional out-of-his-depth moments, or tendency to be ‘braggy’, reflect adolescent gaucheness, not delusional fantasy. When Alana calls him ‘idiot’ in the film’s final seconds, it isn’t a tool of emasculation but a term of endearment. This is the first film that Anderson has made in which a male character doesn’t cry. It’s also the first that contains smiling in both the first and last scene (the smile that clinches Magnolia is especially hard-earned). And though it isn’t quite grins all the way, the emotional range is starkly narrow, leaving an aftertaste that’s not so much licorice as supermarket mozzarella.

It seems odd that the film is so taken with its creaseless hero when Alana is clearly the more fruitful creation, not just in her impulsive behaviour and pained uncertainty and listless lifestyle, but the familiar pathos of her paper-thin assertions: ‘I have integrity’, ‘I’m a politician’, ‘I’m cooler than you’. There’s a similar, and similarly tantalising, glimpse of Anderson’s strengths, the power to illuminate and elate, to fuse the incisive with the energetic, in the sequence devoted to the whim-driven motormouth Jon Peters, played with almost unhinged flair by Bradley Cooper, an actor in the tradition of ragged intensity of earlier Anderson collaborators Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Entitled, vain, and openly aggressive, Peters is a mix of Frank, the agonised philanderer in Magnolia, and the wild-eyed drug dealer who pops up at the end of Boogie Nights. ‘Do you know who I am?’ Peters asks Gary, and then, after he receives the answer he is looking for, ploughs on: ‘Do you know who my girlfriend is?’ (Barbra Streisand.) For a brief passage, Licorice Pizza sparks into life, illustrating and at the same time embodying a lesson taught by all of Anderson’s previous films. We can tame our wildest excesses, or at least reach some form of accommodation, but we can never escape who we are.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Speed and the Cinema’, NLR 16.


Living Fictions

The French writer Christine Angot has built a career out of provocation. In spite of a purported desire to be ‘read, and not seen’, she is a familiar presence in the French media, regularly dispatching unpalatable opinions and clashing with her interlocutors. Notable recent appearances on the late-night television show On N’est Pas Couché have seen her draw unpopular comparisons between the Holocaust and the American slave trade, as well as excoriate the French Green Party spokesperson Sandrine Rousseau to the extent that the latter burst into telegenic tears. Promoting her latest novel, Le voyage dans lest (2021), on the L’heure bleu radio show in the autumn, she was asked of its contents by the host Laure Adler, ‘More incest?’

Ever since L’inceste (1999), Angot’s work has chewed over the same intractable subject: the sexual abuse of her autofictional persona, Christine Angot, by her estranged father Pierre. That book, which also scavenges the fallout of the narrator’s first sexual relationship with a woman, begins ‘I was a lesbian for three months’ – in deliberate, arch parallel with the counterfactual opening sentence of Hervé Guibert’s era-defining À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), ‘I had AIDS for three months.’ To equate lesbianism with an AIDS diagnosis requires, as Paul Preciado has noted, above-average levels of chutzpah. Yet audacity is a shrugged-off given for Angot. The astringency of her prose and public persona reflects an eagerness to antagonise a literary establishment which for many years consigned her to the status of media kindling or a therapeutic ‘diarist’. Only last year did she receive a nomination for the Prix Goncourt, having proved herself, with Le voyage dans l’est, to be a ‘real writer’ at last.   

Born Christine Schwartz in 1959 and brought up in Chateauroux by her Jewish mother – the antisemitism of French society is another contentious preoccupation – she attended university in Reims but left after a year to pursue writing. Throughout her childhood she was deprived of even the acknowledgement of her father, who left her mother for another woman in the early 1960s, but re-emerged in her early adolescence and began to abuse her. Surprisingly, Angot chose to adopt his surname when her work began to be published in 1990. Her debut, Vu du ciel, which appeared when she was 31, centred on the posthumous perspective of a little girl following her grisly rape and murder; her second novel, Not to Be (1992), was a Beckettian exercise which portrayed a dying man’s thoughts in his hospital bed. Angot lived in Bruges, Nice and then Montpellier, where she moved with her partner Claude and daughter Léonore (the subject of her 1993 novel Léonore, Toujours), both of whom recur as fictionalized avatars in her oeuvre, before finally settling in Paris. Much commentary has orbited the unanswerable and uninteresting question of who the ‘real’ Christine Angot is, something which the author has both condescendingly rejected and playfully indulged, publishing a book titled Subjet Angot as well a collection of staged ‘interviews’ baiting the media’s appetite for gossip.

Un amour impossible (2015), recently published in English as An Impossible Love, marks a moment in which Angot sought to shift the spotlight. The ‘impossible love’ of the title refers not to the abusive relationship with her father, but to the more universal, knotty nature of the maternal bond, which, Angot intimates, requires ‘a whole book’ to circumscribe. Angot is often perceived as untranslatable in English – partly because her prose is sometimes cloaked in heavy psychoanalytic garb – but Armine Kotin Mortimer has produced an impressive rendering of the novel which preserves its subtleties, such as Angot’s sensitive depiction of the gap between mother and daughter, which widens once Pierre dies. Christine becomes increasingly resentful of her mother’s failure to incriminate him and testify to the unutterable crime: ‘In the years that followed, I began to attribute my failures to her. I accused her of not having examined her conscience, of having stayed in analysis only three years, of having found an easy guilty party in my father, of not having reflected on her own responsibility for what had happened to me.’ 

Angot has explained how she could not ‘leave a hole in the place of my mother in my books’. But as with L’inceste, whose sentences disintegrate and splinter the more the narrator probes its eponymous subject, the effect is of getting closer to an object without ever truly touching it. Like looking at the sun a beat too long, Angot’s childhood memories dazzle her otherwise precise, insistent prose. ‘Trying to write’, Angot observes, ‘for me is trying to remember what it was like inside. Inside of things, in the middle of living. Not having a thesis or a discourse “on” or “about” something.’ To make a book about her mother would be to reduce her consuming and ambivalent role within Angot’s life.

The title also signals the book’s representational ambitions, its presumptuous narration of the moment Angot’s parents met, and her subsequent conception. This affected omniscience – for how could Angot really knowthe intricacies of her parents’ doomed encounter in such granular detail? – rescues the novel from any narrow debates about veracity. While in L’inceste, where reflexive, metafictional elements perforate the narrative, reminding us that we are reading a constructed literary artefact, An Impossible Love immerses the reader in both the solipsism of the two lovers and the wider world of French society in the 1950s, which is so cinematically evoked that the director Catherine Corsini adapted it into a lush melodrama in 2018. In place of the earlier novel’s meditation on incest as both a corporeal transgression and a seismic violation of the codes of representation, An Impossible Love marshals the tropes of detective fiction, seducing the reader with what Angot has called the ‘libidinal energy’ that pulses beneath trauma narratives.

In further contrast, Angot declines to render the abuse – or indeed the affair between her parents – in salacious detail. In Mortimer’s translation, Angot describes the relationship between her parents as ‘inevitable’ but also ‘unpredictable, incongruous’. It ‘escapes from the social order’ because the pair descend from polarized milieux: he from a multilingual bourgeois family in Paris; she from a small-town where the sole cultural ventilation came from the local cinema. The iron barrier of class, rather than mothers or daughters or the conditions of incest, is perhaps the substrate of An Impossible Love: the divergent sensibilities which mean that Pierre, while declaring his love for Rachel over long, intertwined afternoons and evenings, could never marry her, nor recognize their daughter as his own. ‘He had warned you from the beginning’, Christine reproaches her mother at one point. ‘Contact with his social person – by which I mean his milieu, his identity – was out of the question.’

In interviews, Angot has scorned ‘testimonial literature’ as the sole genre afforded to survivors of abuse. The latter, she argues, have been permitted to ‘speak as much as they want’, yet their writing is rarely considered capital-L Literature. Still, there is something reportorial about the forensic prose of An Impossible Love. In preparation, Angot studied other writers’ texts about their mothers, including Georges Bataille’s Ma mère and Annie Ernaux’s Une femme (whose mode of sociological excavation bears some similarity to An Impossible Love, though Angot never goes quite as far as Ernaux’s bracing self-effacements). But Angot wanted her own effort, she says, ‘to be as if the little girl herself was writing.’ The result is that the text oscillates between the cadences of lullaby and an almost clinical register. The second mode is perhaps marginally more successful, in its counterposing of legibility to the hazy relativity that makes incest possible in the first place: the refusal to acknowledge the lines of filiation that make a father a father, a child a child.  

Angot’s account of maternal indebtedness and entanglement recognizes that the autofictional self, though often viewed as narcissistic, is always embedded in a wider terrain of relationships and references. She is often criticized for repeating herself, for grimly circling the same narrow subject, much like her forebear Marguerite Duras – another survivor of abuse whose work folded and re-folded the worn fibres of her childhood. Yet Angot is interrogating the difficulties of persisting, of continuing, of somehow living in the present – and through her writing – despite a devastating past. An Impossible Love ends with an extended dialogue between mother and daughter in which Rachel, while making notes on Christine’s latest manuscript, interrupts the process to recall a memory of picking cherries in the garden of their former home in Chateauroux. The passage is vivid and resonant, yet it is not straightforwardly nostalgic. In typically rebarbative media appearances, Angot has suggested that there is no distinction between real and fake, nor true and false in literary writing. There is only ‘alive prose’ and ‘dead prose’. There are words that remain on the page, and those that somehow manage to transcend themselves. Angot’s writing lives. 

Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, NLR 31.


Errant History

Hamid Ismailov is widely regarded as one of Central Asia’s greatest living writers. His work has been translated into all the major European languages, including Russian, French, German, Turkish, English and Spanish. Yet in Ismailov’s home country of Uzbekistan his books are outlawed, and since being forced into exile in 1992 for what he has described as his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’, he has only been able to return there on rare occasions. Tragic ironies of history recur throughout Ismailov’s oeuvre, not least in his three most recent novels to appear in English, The Devil’s Dance (2018), Of Strangers and Bees (2019) and Manaschi (2021), which form an extraordinary informal trilogy that interweaves the region’s past and present.

Born in 1954, a year after the death of Stalin, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, Ismailov had a peripatetic childhood spread across the various republics of Soviet Central Asia. Following his mother’s death when he was twelve, Ismailov was raised by his grandmother in the city of Tashkent. It was his grandmother, who had been born into a noble Uzbek family, that kindled Ismailov’s interest in literature, making him read aloud to her from books of Uzbek poetry and One Thousand and One Nights. His adolescence coincided with the cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era, following the harsh years of the purges and Second World War. Censored Uzbek writers like Abdurauf Fitrat, Cho’lpon and Abdulla Qadiriy – all killed at the height of Stalinist repression – were rehabilitated and their literature returned to circulation. The young Ismailov was free to encounter their work, along with translations from English and other European languages that began to proliferate during this period.

After an eclectic education at the military college and local university, Ismailov moved to Moscow where he lived throughout the years of Perestroika. While working for the Uzbek Writers’ Union he translated Uzbek classics into Russian and Russian classics into Uzbek, and eventually became involved in agitating for democratic reform. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Ismailov had published three poetry collections and had finished his first Russian novel, Collection of the Refined (published in Moscow in 1995), as well as parts of another in Uzbek under the title Arosat, a work that would later become the Russian language novel The Railway (1997). When Ismailov showed his early literary efforts in Uzbek to an older writer who had lived through Stalin’s purges, he was told in no uncertain terms that ‘This will never be published. You’ll be arrested. You need to drop this and write in Russian.’

As reaction set in across the region during the 1990s, the independent nations of Central Asia converted into what Dmitri Furman labelled ‘imitation democracies’, pairing authoritarian rule with neoliberal shock therapy. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who had ascended the ranks of the Uzbek Communist Party during the Gorbachev years, remained in post after the Union’s dissolution, launching a brutal crackdown. Political opposition was outlawed in spite of the ongoing election cycle (Karimov’s re-election in 2000 saw him face off against a little-known Marxist historian who admitted that even he voted for the incumbent). Uzbekistan’s culture industry, which had begun to develop during the final decade of Soviet rule, suffered heavily. Critical newspapers were suppressed or banned, television was heavily controlled, and writers such as Mamadali Mahmudov, Yusuf Jumaev and Muhammad Salih were forced into exile or spent years in prison. Yet the country’s geopolitical role as a strategic ally in the War on Terror, alongside Karimov’s crusade against domestic Islamism, kept international condemnation at bay.

Ismailov returned to Uzbekistan shortly after independence, working as a journalist for a Russian newspaper, but the threat of arrest soon forced him to flee. After brief spells in Moscow and Paris, he eventually settled in London, where he worked for the BBC World Service – ascending to the top of its Central Asia department – until his retirement in 2019. His early novels were largely written in Russian and were typified by bitterly comedic reflections on Central Asia as a crossroads of empires. In The Railway, translated into English in 2006, the ancient Silk Road is replaced by the modern Iron Road of the Soviet railways that, like its forbear, brings a carnivalesque atmosphere to the steppe and the small Uzbek town at the novel’s centre. The Underground (2009), published in English in 2015, employs the peripheral outlook of a mixed-race Russian orphan in Moscow – born to a Russian mother and an African father – to metonymize the final decade of Soviet rule. We follow Mbobo, ‘Moscow’s underground son’ – or ‘little Pushkin’, as his stepfather nicknames him in reference to the great poet’s Abyssinian ancestry – as he tours the palaces of Moscow’s Metro system, posing searching questions about what Russian literature is, or could be.

Ismailov’s three most recently translated novels, however, were composed in Uzbek: a change signalling a more concerted engagement with the cultural traditions of Central Asia, and one which brought with it significant changes in form and tone. Whereas the Russian novels are indebted to the biting satire of Gogol and Platonov, the Uzbek trilogy is written with a prosaic economy and the cadences of myth and parable. They have a hallucinatory quality, more reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights than Dead Souls. Taken together, the books offer something like a fable of Uzbek history from the age of Ibn Sina – known in the West as Avicenna – to the tumultuous struggles of 19th-century imperial conquest, through to the resurgent nationalisms and the rise of Islamism in the present. (It must be said, however, that Ismailov disputes his publisher’s claim that the novels constitute a distinct series, asserting that this was never his intention).

The latest to be published, Manaschi, was translated by Donald Rayfield, a scholar of Russian and Georgian who learnt Uzbek solely to work on Ismailov’s writings. It centres on Bekesh, a radio presenter in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, who awakens from a dream believing he is destined to become a manaschi, the venerated figure in Kyrgyz culture who recites the Epic of Manas, a giant oral folk epic widely considered the foundational text of Kyrgyz nationalism. The Epic tells the story of an 8th- or 9th-century warrior, Manas, who united the forty Kyrgyz tribes and clans in a rebellion against the Kitai. Ismailov’s narrative is punctuated with extracts from the Epic of Manas itself, a continually evolving text that, depending on the teller, can comprise anywhere between 250,000 and 900,000 verses. Returning to his village to fulfil his destiny, Bekesh is confronted by the tide of modernity sweeping across the region. As the village is transformed by Chinese building projects and contractors – the product of China’s Belt and Road initiative – the long-simmering border disputes between the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks threaten to erupt into violence.

The previous book, Of Strangers and Bees, is set during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We follow Sheikhov, an Uzbek writer-in-exile in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he makes his way across Europe and America, scraping together a living through stints as a painter, decorator and translator, as well as assisting in the production of a documentary about the real-life Uzbek cyclist Jamaliddin Abdoujaparov, known as the ‘Tashkent Terror’ for his frenzied riding style. Sheikhov’s journey is interwoven with two further narrative strands: one that follows 10th-century polymath Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine, as he reappears throughout history during periods of religious and political strife; the other, the story of a honeybee called Sina that finds itself ostracized from its hive. The book is a deeply felt, richly textured, and multi-layered fabulation that wonderfully evokes the agonies of exile.

But it is The Devil’s Dance, the first of the trilogy, that best encapsulates Ismailov’s literary talents. At its outset we encounter a man crouched over a book in a damp prison cell somewhere in Central Asia on New Year’s Day 1938. Taken from his home just as celebrations were about to begin, the prisoner – a fictionalized version of Adulla Qadiriy – is being held in solitary confinement. During his interrogation, he noticed some writing on a slip of a paper which claimed that he had broken Articles 58 and 67 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. As luck would have it, there happens to be a battered copy of the code by the door to his cell. Qadiriy rifles through it, discovering the reason for his confinement: he is guilty, it says, of counterrevolutionary activity. Nothing Qadiriy has done, he thinks to himself, could possibly fit this definition. While his novels may contain nationalist themes, he’s never taken part in organizing against the state. After several days, Qadiriy is taken during the night and bundled into a new cell that is overflowing with prisoners. Before his arrest, all he’d wished for was a winter of uninterrupted work on his latest novel, a historical work about Oxyon, the second wife of Emir Umar of Bukhara, and the courtly intrigues of early 19th-century Central Asia. But now he longs for the interruptions of family and friends.

Qadiriy was one of the region’s most revered writers during the 1920s and 1930s. Forged at the intersection of empires and cultures, the nomadic and the sedentary, the traditional and the modern, Qadiriy’s work stands alongside that of other great founders of late-arriving national literatures such as Natsume Soseki in Japan and José Rizal in the Philippines. He is perhaps best known for Oʻtgan kunlar (1926), generally considered the first novel in the Uzbek language. This story of a Muslim reformer set in late 19th-century Tashkent high society was so popular that it was supposedly read aloud in tea shops (an English translation, Bygone Days, belatedly appeared in 2018). Qadiriy’s work initially found favour with a Soviet regime under which the distinction between ethnic and national groups in the federalist union was promoted as, in the words of one Party official, ‘a communal apartment’ in which each republic was a ‘separate room.’ Yet this soon changed, and Stalin’s purges targeted thousands of alleged bourgeois nationalists – Qadiriy among them. In Devil’s Dance, the captive Qadiriy descends into the dreamworld of his stories, and his own fate begins to merge with that of Oyxon. Just as Oyxon is subjected to brutal beatings and rape at the hands of the cruel Emirs, Qadiriy, too, is assaulted and brutalized by his guards.

If, as Perry Anderson has written, the classic form of the historical novel developed under the spell of romantic nationalism, as ‘a nation-building exercise in the backwash of romantic reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion’, Devil’s Dance is a more postmodern historical narrative, shaped by contrasting historical circumstances. The work is inflected by the local oral traditions of Uzbek storytelling. In prison, Qadiriy initiates a form of collective narrative, eliciting tales and anecdotes from his cellmates. One prisoner, the Party lector Laziz, holds forth about the ‘ideologically impoverished and artistically shallow’ poetry of Umar, set against the ‘progressive-democratic’ verse of his first wife Nodira (his lecture, Qadiriy tells us, is stuffed with ‘nonsensical jargon’ that pours from his mouth ‘like a kettle’). Another, a Russian professor, when asked about the fate of the imperial-era British spy Colonel Stoddart, turns to his fellow inmate, an elderly scholar who proceeds to reel off a list of books on the Khanate of Kokand (‘to put it bluntly’, he tells Qadiriy, ‘there are a lot of books, and life is short’). It seems that everyone in the prison is an intellectual or an artist; their patchwork of reflections is gathered together in Qadiriy’s tale.

Awaiting his execution, Qadiriy begins to weep. ‘He wept as he recalled his mother’, Ismailov writes, ‘he grieved for the wife and children he had failed to make happy; for his friends lying here in neighbouring prison cells; his tears were bathing the defunct and forgotten, his wretched people and their errant history, of whom the beautiful, betrayed Oyxon seemed such a potent symbol, her memory in danger of being lost along with her poetry, another chapter of Uzbek literature brutally excised.’ Qadiriy’s suppression at the hands of the Soviet regime is another brutal chapter in this story, as is Ismailov’s forced expulsion from his homeland. As Qadiriy thinks to himself in his damp prison cell: ‘Every generation says, “we have come anew to the world, we shall create the world anew!’’’, yet ultimately, it is ‘the same old wooden tub built over the freezing cold.’ Despite its modern maladies, Central Asia appears mired in an endless cycle of imperial intrigue and domestic repression. Few bodies of work register this historical burden more trenchantly, or more beautifully, than Ismailov’s.

Read on: Dmitri Furman, ‘Imitation Democracies’, NLR 54.