Thursday, November 4, 2010

The art of colluding with reaction: Lost City Radio

That book I just read? You know, the one whose author is one of the 20 Under 40 recently celebrated by the New Yorker and whose recognition and success are offered up as proof of how U.S. publishing is becoming less narrow, more inclusive? That book set in Latin America, which is also a credit to the industry, in this case one of the big houses, Harper Collins, that they are finally taking a look at the rest of the world? The one with the beautiful writing and the subtle, complex consideration of the human stories behind the blood-and-conflict-filled news headlines?

I started that book, Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarc√≥n, last week, and finished it earlier this week. My feelings about it changed from appreciation of fine writing and an openhearted hope about where this read would take me, to disappointment and feelings of betrayal as it took me deeper and deeper into the same muddy old bog. The empty heart of the anti-struggle liberal intelligentsia's favorite dogma: that the left and right are equally bad, their actions equally evil, that they equally harm average individual human beings haplessly caught in the crossfire. Fascism is equated with people's revolution. When the two sides clash, and especially when fascism wins as it does in the unnamed country where this novel is set—this fable whose moral after all is that fascism will always win, that there is no point to the struggle, and that revolutionary leaders are soul-less lovers of violence who care nothing about the masses and their misery—the inevitable result is shattered lives, lost love, loneliness hopelessness ruin wreckage.

As I read on, getting toward the end of the book where this slant became clearer and clearer, I started marking the passages that ticked me off. There are too many to include in this post. Here are two to give a flavor of the whole. This passage is about the young villagers recruited into the guerrilla force:
We'll take the capital, the commanders said, and the boys repeated it to Rey, and he could tell they believed it. Meanwhile, they practiced making bombs in the jungle. None had even the cloudiest sense of what the war was about, and none had ever asked. They were happy to be out of their homes. Once a month, they marched into some town to kill a priest or burn a flag fluttering above a police outpost.
Then there's this, in an internal monologue by one of the main characters, a sympathizer and sometime collaborator with the rebels who was once captured and horribly tortured by the fascist government yet who ultimately is presented as proof of the wrongheadedness and futility of the class struggle:
Consider the improbability of it: that the multiple complaints of a people could somehow coalesce and find expression in an act—in any act—of violence. What does a car bomb say about poverty, or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement? Yet Rey had been a party to this for nine years. The war had become, if it wasn't from the very beginning, an indecipherable text. The country had slipped, fallen into a nightmare, now horrifying, now comic, and in the city, there was only a sense of dismay at the inexplicability of it. Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now? They had all been student protesters, had felt the startling power of a mob, shouting as one chorus of voices—but that was years ago, and times had changed. No one still believed all that, did they?
OK, we get it already. Violence is bad. Any and all violence is equally bad and its perpetrators equally evil, or maybe, probably, those fighting the status quo are worse, more to blame, because if they'd just lay down their weapons the fascist state could stop slaughtering people and things might achieve at least a semblance of normalcy. Whooey—that's some slippery slope the author is skidding down. That's liberalism. Ostensibly opposing political reaction while objectively enabling its continuance by siding with the status quo as opposed to actual action in struggle against it. Liberal, too, is the depiction of revolutionary warfare as aimless random terrorism, of its soldiers as clueless ignorant delusional saps, of its activists and partisans as a misled misguided hypnotized mob. There is no place in this model for an honest depiction of guerrilla warfare as something other than crazed meaningless violence, or of the armies that successfully took power after strategically waged revolutionary wars based on profound popular support like those led by Fidel and Che, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Leon Trotsky; or those like the FMLN in El Salvador, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the New People's Army of the Philippines, the fighters in Guatemala, in Puerto Rico, everywhere people have taken up arms against neocolonial repression. There is certainly and absolutely no acknowledgment of the U.S. role in the mass misery—deep poverty, lack of potable water, decent housing, education, health care—that is engendered by imperialism and upheld by the comprador bourgeoisie in these countries.

Have I said oy yet?

When I started reading Lost City Radio, I thought I was entering a thoughtful fictional treatment of recent history in Argentina and the Dirty War in which tens of thousands were disappeared by the fascists, or perhaps Chile where the Pinochet coup assassinated an elected president and also killed and disappeared tens of thousands, or Peru where the Fujimori government waged war against the Shining Path people's army, or Colombia where the FARC is up against government by death squad—in each case, again, the ever-increasing poverty and ever-worsening overall conditions of life caused by capitalism, by U.S. imperialism in particular—but no. I was entering instead that territory most beloved by literary commentators in this country, in thrall as they all are to bourgeois consciousness. It is called by various names. "Subtle." "Complex." "Humane." "Chaotic." It is a landscape devoid of political consciousness or artistic responsibility to the reality of the raging class struggle, substituting instead a cynical rejection of the possibility of revolutionary change. This default to support for the status quo is couched, swathed, smothered in beautiful writing, in lovely language conveying the pain and suffering of various characters. We are meant to feel these characters' individual pain and suffering as at once more important than the pain and suffering of the vast masses from whose numbers are drawn the ranks of revolutionary warriors, and at the same time as symptomatic, emblematic, of the rank wrongness of the revolutionary project. There is not one sentence's acknowledgment that all this pain and suffering is caused by a particular system and that it takes a struggle for revolutionary change to overturn that system and replace it with one that is just and equitable and might end the pain.

I've written before on this blog about a genre of U.S. fiction I think of as "the madness of the 60s" novels, books that portray the great struggles of that time as crazy and misguided and powered mostly by white middle-class youthful drugged self-centered idiots. I've also complained about that vastly populated category, the counter-revolutionary emigrant's tale, which most often takes the form of a screed against the Chinese or Cuban Revolution. This novel I just read falls in yet another category: the fictionalized polemic against revolutionary struggles in progress. All three types (and they're not the only three in the bourgeoisie's endless artistic arsenal) so starkly give the lie to the "literature shouldn't be political" cant chanted ceaselessly by the literary powers that be in this country that you'd think it'd be put to rest for once and for all. Or at least that they'd admit what they really mean is "literature must not be allied with the workers and oppressed."

I am sorry to say all this. I wanted to like this novel. But because it takes sides against the revolutionary struggles that are currently on the rise in Latin America, I couldn't. Once again, then, we who long for fiction that stands with the workers and oppressed and tells their true stories are left in the lurch. And here's the thing: those stories are out there. I never doubt this. Is there a great novelist in the Colombian jungles camping with the FARC? I know there is. Are there wondrous political poets locked in the stinking jails of Peru? No doubt. But theirs is not the work we get. What we get is this, and, as I write this, a month after the Nobel ascension of Mario Vargas Llosa, I know I shouldn't be surprised. The search continues, for the words of our side.