Friday, June 26, 2015

One Hundred Days by Lukas Barfuss

Lukas Barfüss, One Hundred Days (Granta Books, 2013)

I’m sure you’ll agree, translators are the nicest people in the world, (teachers excepted of course). Just think about it, some poor, asocial sucker, with the loneliest job in the world, has spent the past year or so locked up in a room writing a book.  Along comes the translator and, in return for a pittance, sits for the best part of half a year or so locked up in a room and miraculously turns the foreign words into something you can understand, thereby allowing you to break out of the narrow-minded parochialism that comes with being an English speaker and actually hear what other people (the majority) are saying in other languages. So three cheers for Tess Lewis (whoever she is), for translating the novel One Hundred Days by the young Swiss author Lukas Barfüss.

In this contemporary version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, steamy sex and genocidal murder make for a potent mix, told in deceptively simple, taut prose. The protagonist is a naïve chap by the name of David Hohl. He has always been moved to fight against injustice. Had he gone to Zurich International School he would have won the ZIS Cares Award. So he gets a job in economic development and his first post is in the sleepy African backwater of Rwanda. But, the surface is deceptive and Rwanda is about to explode into the 1994 well planned genocide of Tutsis. In the one hundred days of the title the Hutus slaughter nearly 800,000 people. Because he is obsessed with a beautiful, but racist Hutu woman, David Hohl refuses to be evacuated, and instead stays and witnesses the slaughter. No wonder his name is Hohl (which means hollow).

Barfüss reveals the hypocrisy that lies at the root of Swiss development work. His book is a meditation on how a strong sense of virtue can gently lead to passive participation in the most horrifying cruelty. Most of all, his book works as a metaphoric warning against being sucked into any organisation that comes to see efficiency as an end in itself - surely a lesson for us all. Peaceful, well organised Rwanda was sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa. Barfüss sees that you can reverse this, seeing Switzerland as the Rwanda of Europe. He reminds us that Switzerland is a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly, where order, routine, discipline and respect for institutions holds sway, but adds: “These characteristics are not impediments to mass murder, but necessary conditions. Evil loves nothing more than the proper implementation of a plan, and in that domain, you have to admit, we are world champions.”

This book has garnered Barfüss a number of literary prizes, as well as nominations for the biggest book prizes in Germany and Switzerland. He is, of course, almost unheard of in the insular, provincial English speaking world.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Maria Dermout and "unremembering" lost time

It has been nine months since I last wrote in this blog, basically because I needed to focus my energy somewhere else - researching the cultural legacy of decolonization in the Netherlands.

This, I am happy to say, has resulted in an article of mine appearing in the Canadian Journal Of Netherlandic Studies. Nevermind that it is the 2013 edition of the journal - it only appeared last week.

My article provides an analysis of two Dutch novels. In the early 1950s  Only yesterday (Nog pas gisteren) and The ten thousand things (De tienduizend dingen), appeared from a new writer, Maria Dermoût. In this essay I argue that both of these works helped to shape a collective memory of the recent colonial past and that with the loss of place, the Indisch community was threatened by a potential loss of identity, but that literature was able to provide the memory of a sense of place, and collective memory could be retained. I argue that this memory took on a nostalgic form, helping to shape a collective identity based partially on a melancholy sense of common loss. But dwelling on nostalgic loss did nothing to help explain the loss of the colony, and thereby inadvertently contributed to a general unremembering, or refusal to remember, the painful final years of decolonization. A post-colonial analysis of her novels reveals that they were written from the viewpoint of colonial privilege and that, as such, they silenced alternative narratives and thereby further contributed to unremembering the painful process of decolonization. I conclude that Dermoût’s work helped to create a mnemonic community based on nostalgic remembering, but by trivialising or ignoring Indonesian nationalist aspirations, her work inadvertently served to unremember the reality of decolonization. I hope you'll go to this link and read my entire article. I would love to hear back from you.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Go-Betweens: The World Seen through Children

View of Tokyo from Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills
 Post-colonial theorists, such as Homi Bhabha, have problematized what he refers to as "the irresolvable, borderline culture of hybridity that articulates its problems of identification and its diasporic aesthetic in an uncanny, disjunctive temporality."[1] Edward Said himself provides a case in point: raised as an orthodox Christian Palestinian with American nationality, he was born in Jerusalem, educated in Cairo (attending an English primary school and American secondary school) and he gained renown as a professor at an American university. With such a background, it is not surprising to read in his memoir of his childhood that "the overriding sensation I had was always being out of place."[2] What he remembers yearning for, throughout his life, was the wish that "we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all Orthodox Christian, or all Muslim, or all Egyptian, and so on."[3] This feeling on not quite fitting in, of in-betweenness, animates Said's work but also, he claimed, lent it a strength, because being able to identify with both sides of the "imperial divide" allows the hybrid to feel that he or she belongs to more than one group, more than one history.[4]
               A problem for the in-between or hybrid is that he or she can gain the feeling that they belong to neither here nor there. Take the author Pico Iyer, for instance: born to Indian parents who resided in the USA while he attended school in Britain, he has written: "The country where people look like me is the one where I can't speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all."[5] This emotion of always being the outsider was summed up by Salman Rushdie: "Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools."[6] But Iyer too, like Said, sees the fortunate repercussions of belonging to more than one group, more than one history, as it enables one to "live a little bit above parochialisms" and allows one to see "with a flexible eye".[7]
A current exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, focuses on the hybrid nature of childhood - the ways in which children inhabit mental states that continually cross borders - borders that separate the imaginary from the real, the living from the dead and, most significantly, the borders that separate cultures.[8] During my enjoyable visit to the exhibition I couldn't help but ponder upon the words of Bhabha, Said, Rushdie and Iyer.
Jacob A, Riis: How the Other Half Lives, c. 1890
The exhibition takes its beginning point from the work of the 19th century Danish photographer Jacob A. Riis. He documented the lives of children in the USA who had to act as translators for their non-English speaking immigrant parents. These children were forced to play the role of being bridges between languages and cultures and Riis gave them the name "Go-betweens".[9] But as curator of the exhibition Natsumi Araki has pointed out, being a translator between cultures was not uncomplicated as the children provided a link between the old homeland and the new country, but also, they were "often caught between the two".[10] As Sandra Holstein pointed out, there is a natural connection between seeing immigrant children as "go-betweens", as Riis did, and the post-colonial predicament of subjects, adults as well as children, who find themselves to be "in-betweens".[11]
Kim Insook: Great-grandmother and I, 2008
Today it is easier than in the 19th century to acknowledge and recognise the in-between status of many of the world's population. For instance, the Korean photographer Kin Insook has movingly documented the lives of Korean families in Japan - outsiders in Japanese culture but equally, if not more so, strangers within Korean culture.[12]

Zhang O: Daddy and I,No.12, 2006

Chinese photographer Zhang O has created a series of images of adopted Chinese girls with their Caucasian American adoptive fathers, providing a stark visual statement of the in-betweenness of these young girls, who look Chinese but are outsiders to Chinese culture, but who look different than the common citizen of the culture into which they have been adopted and are raised, examples of the unfathomable richness and complexity of the father-daughter relationship.[13]  
I attended the exhibition with my three daughters - born on two different continents, none of them has a passport from the country of her birth and none have lived in the country of their father or of their mother. Rising above the narrow parochialisms of the nation state, perhaps the future lies with these in-betweens. 

[1] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) 225
[2] Edward Said, Out of Place: a memoir (London: Granta Books, 2000) 3
[3] Ibid., 5
[4] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1994) xxx-xxxi
[5] Pico Iyer, The Globa Soul: Jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home (London: Bloomsbury, 2001) 24
[6] Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (London: Granta Books, 1991)15
[7] Pico Iyer, The Global Soul, 24
[8] Go-Betweens: The world seen through children. Curated by Natsumi Araki. Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. May 31st - August 31st, 2014
[9] Natsumi Araki, "Go-Betweens: The power of children to transcend boundaries". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 32
[10] Ibid.
[11] Sandra Holstein, "From Go-Betweens to In-Betweens to Hyphenated Americans". In: Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 150
[12] See the catalogue Go-Betweens: The world seen through children edited by Natsumi Araki,Hitomi Sasaki and Chinatsu Kuma (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014) 62-67
[13] Ibid., 58-61

Thursday, May 22, 2014

French Revolution Jokes

Just revising the French Revolution with my class this morning and we decided to make up some French Revolution jokes. Here is the best of the bunch. (Imagine what the worst are like!)

What did Robespierre’s mistress say to him on their first night together?
“Disrobe Pierre.”

Who was the heaviest revolutionary?

Why were the Jacobins so ambitious?
They wanted to get a head.

Which Declaration was a bitterist one to swallow?
The Pill-nitz Declaration!

What was the weather like during the French Revolution?
Storm and Terrorble Reign

When does March come after September?
During the Women’s March on Versailles.

What was the most popular game during the revolution?

Which revolutionary was a real nuisance?
Tom Paine

Who was the most popular general among the working class?
General Maximum

During which oath did the participants make an awful racket?
The Tennis Court Oath

Which club formed the loudest group of revolutionaries?
The Giron-dins

Why was one revolutionary club never serious?
Because they were always Feuillants around.

Which writer was always depressed?
Marquis de Sade

Friday, April 18, 2014

Article in Spanish

Professor Anaclet Pons of the University of Valencia in Spain has translated my recent article on the history of decolonization in the Dutch East Indies, which first appeared at University of Exeter's Centre for Imperial and Global History. You can read the post in Spanish here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Imperial Past Returns to Haunt the Netherlands

In July 2012 a Dutch national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos on its front page showing Dutch soldiers brutally shooting dead unarmed victims in a mass grave. The images were shocking to a nation that prides itself as being upright and humanitarian.  Never mind that the photos were nearly 70 years old. Found in a rubbish tip, they were, in fact, the first ever photos to be published of Dutch soldiers killing Indonesians during a war of decolonization that is still euphemistically referred to as “Police Actions.”  

To read the rest of my article click here to visit the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter.