No One Can Stop The Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng (2005)

As with all stories everything was one big confusão.
(Karin Moorhouse in No One Can Stop The Rain, page 201)

Karin and Wei

Karin Moorhouse was born in Australia. At university in April 1981 (p.262) she met and fell in love with Wei Cheng, who had fled Mao’s China (where he had been a very young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution) and was training as a pediatric surgeon.

The couple married in 1988 and moved to Hong Kong, where she was a successful marketing executive and he was a successful pediatric surgeon. They led a hectic, happily married life for some years and then, in 2000, put into affect a long-cherished ambition, which was to volunteer for a charity in the developing world. They went to work for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Angola, which was still caught up in its ruinous 27-year-long civil war (1975 to 2002). Wei was to work as a surgeon and Karin as a financial administrator.

This book is the co-authored account of their experiences. It is a long, thorough narrative, overflowing with charity and compassion. It contains plenty of grim descriptions of horrific injuries and grinding poverty and yet somehow, amid it all, a fair amount of humour, and some moments of beauty and redemption. A portion of the profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières.

They were sent to Kuito, capital of Angola’s Bié province, which had a pre-war population of about 200,000, almost dead centre of Angola and the most heavily landmined city in the country (p.247).

Kuito is/was on the Benguela to Zambia railway line, built by a British company in 1902, which once brought trade and development to all the stops along the line. But for a generation before they arrived it had been fought over by the opposing sides, with UNITA in particular doing their damnedest to destroy it and had succeeded very nicely. Kuito railway station was mined and off limits during their stay. Nobody could remember the last time a train had run on the ruined line.

Map of Angola showing Kuito, capital of Bie province in the centre of the country

Wei went out first (August 2000) and sent Karin detailed emails of life in the new role and country which form the basis of the opening chapters. Eight weeks later (end of September 2000) Karin joined him. He worked as a surgeon with responsibility for the emergency ward (the Banco de Urgência) and orthopedic ward, she worked as an administrator both at the hospital and at the related nutrition and care centres.

They were both in the roles for about 8 months (Wei from August 2000 to April 2001). They wrote emails and letters to friends and family, as well as diaries and other fragments, which they glue together with present-day narrative and reflections to produce a kind of mosaic of impressions, thoughts, history and experiences.

Writing

The couple co-wrote the book so that alternating chapters or sections are clearly marked ‘Karin writes’ or ‘Wei writes’. This immediately prompts the question whether you can tell them apart as writers, whether they have different writing styles or approaches, and the quick answer is Yes, they do.

One of the main reasons writers are ‘writers’ is because they’ve put a lot of thought into the art of writing. This art or craft no doubt consists of many things but maybe two key ones are: working hard to develop a voice or style which stands out, and working hard to avoid clichés, banality, bromides, sentimentality, Hallmark Card triteness.

Obviously the point of this book is the terrible things they saw and how they coped, and their conscious intention is to show that, amid the horror, they also witnessed the positive side of human nature which real adversity and misery sometimes brings out. But before the narrative arrives in Angola we are assessing the pair as authors.

Karin’s style

Wei is a better writer than Karin and it was interesting, over the course of the book’s 300 pages, to analyse why. Karin is allotted early sections giving an overview of the war which display a shaky grasp of the facts (she says Angola’s war was thirty years old in 2000, whereas there’s general agreement that it officially started in the year of independence, 1975, and so was 25 years old) and she has an equally shaky way with the English language:

  • If we were not abstracted from the surroundings, the panorama could have been one of incomparable splendour. (p.82)
  • A particularly average bottle of Portuguese rosé tasted sweet between our lips. (p.82)

Right at the start of the narrative, when describing the flight from Brussels to Luanda, and the evening the reunited couple spent at a restaurant and sauntering along the beach there, Karin sounds like a bad tourist brochure. Maybe it’s that she’s writing Australian English, a version of the language continually going off at a mild but noticeable tangent from my English English, but I was continually pulled up short by her unexpected phrasing:

  • Her colleagues gaggled with laughter about something I couldn’t understand. (p.46 and p.208)
  • I quickly gleaned what to expect from the arrestingly basic conditions. (p.82)
  • By far the most confronting ward was orthopedics. (p.87, p.267)
  • I felt a heightened sense of anguish by the political statement Wei was making in those times of insecurity. (p.127)
  • It was exasperating to be so linguistically challenged because I yearned to understand how people were managing inside themselves. (p.128)
  • From the door I watched as the ambulance pulled away and sunk into the night. (p.140)
  • It was a cheap escape from certain volatility. (p.146)
  • The shower dispensed a burst of icy-cold water and even my wimpish aversion to this embracing start to the day paled in significance. (p.146)
  • When it rained, the morning’s swelter was extinguished. (p.156)
  • I set to with overt confidence. (p.157)
  • With Christmas only three days away we were taken with the near lack of suggestion that the festival was approaching. (p.161)
  • The vehicle chortled over yawning potholes. (p.167 and p.256)
  • His vociferous cries echoed through the corridors. (p.180)
  • We were all green with envy from her linguistic prowess. (p.206)
  • It was a clear night and the milky moon glowed to the size of a dinner plate. (p.212)
  • In the middle of obscurity the government of Angola decided to reopen the Department of Social Security. (p.242)
  • Rain pelted on the window in staccato fashion. (p.243)
  • I became conscious of where I was placing my next footprint. (p.246)

Karin seems to have been assigned writing up the broader political and geopolitical situation and towards the end of the text mentions the amount of factual research she did to write chapters about not only the war but Angolan society, about its poverty index, life expectancy and so on, that kind of factual content. But even here she comes up with imaginative new locutions:

  • The Angolan government had been trying hard to foster a process of normalisation within the international arena. (p.34)
  • Neglected and unable to influence events [Angolans] bore the full brunt of both sides’ pursuit for absolute power. (p.35)
  • The government, in pursuit of the last vestiges of Savimbi’s army, had forged into the interior. (p.35)

I began to look forward to the Karin sections because of their linguistic kookiness. I get bored of trying to write plain, grammatically clear and comprehensible sentences. Karin’s inventive way with the language was sometimes funny, but sometimes genuinely interesting.

  • Once the Cubans were out of the way, the US was free to switch sides and support the government, leaving their old ally Savimbi to re-establish arms suppliers among numerous nation-pieces of the former Soviet Union. (p.129)

Added to which, her enthusiasm often spills over into amusingly schoolgirl gush:

  • A kaleidoscope of emotions overwhelmed me (p.88)
  • The children made my heart melt…
  • And when I walked, I loved to observe life around me. (p.93)

She is regularly ‘charmed’ and ‘beguiled’ and ‘captivated’ by the loveliness of native women’s dresses, by the singing of the church choir, by the beauty of the children. She finds so many things ‘delightful’. Karin has a couple of favourite words which I grew to like, too. She ‘surmises’ lots of things. I’m not sure I’ve ever surmised anything in my life. I’m impressed by someone who does so much surmising.

And everything is over-described. No noun goes without a melodramatic adjective, no verb goes without a gaudy adverb. Wei doesn’t just ‘crash’ onto his pillow after a hard day, ‘he crashed heavily onto his pillow’. Karin never sits up when she could sit ‘bolt upright’. The shadows in the street have to be ‘gloomy shadows’. Nobody’s ever just nervous, they’re always ‘a bundle of nerves’. The driver doesn’t struggle to turn the ambulance round in a narrow street, he ‘struggles deftly’. Duarte doesn’t just sigh, he ‘let out a worrisome sigh’. On a short break in South Africa, they don’t just hire a car and take to the road, but ‘took to the roads with glee’. When they’re pulled over by police, they aren’t just anxious, their ‘anxieties reached a crescendo’ and then ‘my fears had reached their zenith’. Arlete doesn’t just have a frail body, she has ‘a cadaverously frail body’. The conifer trees in the garden don’t just provide shade but ‘needle-sweet shade’. Mud isn’t just mud but ‘slurping mud’. Everything has to be amped up, all the time.

We often say that someone has a physical age but also has a mental age, which can be different. Arguably, people also have a literary age i.e. the age revealed when they try to write something. Karin regularly displays the literary age of an excitable 13-year-old. The trip to South Africa ‘was a magical ride’, a dizzy contrast to Angola, ‘that cauldron of carnage’ (p.144).

Everything is overlit as in a soap opera full of exaggerated compassion, alarm, horror and tragedy. In the TV series Friends the character Joey gets an acting job on a popular soap set in a hospital, called Days of Our Lives. Often, reading Karin’s account is like watching a version of Days of Our Lives set in the Third World, with the heroine sitting ‘bolt upright’ in bed as her hero husband manfully declares ‘By God, I’m going to save that little girl if it’s the last thing I do!’

When my kids are at junior school, the English teachers told them to write essays which included as many ‘wow words’ as possible, a strategy designed to increase their vocabulary. Karin’s text overflows with wow words. When the power fails at the airport, the crowd ‘claw’ for their baggage on the stalled carousel; they ‘scuttle’ outside into the fresh air; taxi touts ‘buzz’ around them as they make their way through ‘a sea of prying hands’ (p.145). Reading Karin is a bit like being on drugs.

She likes the word ruminate and why not, it’s an interesting word. When a young mother dies shortly after giving birth: ‘A hollow feeling ruminated from within’ (p.126). After the senior nurse Manuel Vitangui is murdered: ‘We all ruminated for weeks’ (p.142). Ruminating and surmising. And snaking, too. Roads don’t lead or wind, they always snake; as, inevitably, do queues and UN motorcades (pp.46, 171, 227, 253, 254).

Karin has one particular theme or bugbear which she returns to three or four times, which is the way everyone in the West is in so much of a rush and a hurry that we never seem to have time for each other any more! Compared to the Africans she meets who don’t have two sticks to rub together, but often seem to have more time and compassion for each other. It’s almost as though we in the busy West could learn a thing or two about taking life more slowly and enjoying it more!

There in Kuito, in the middle of a civil war, the stress of modern city life peeled away like onion rings. (p.94)

She repeats the idea a lot, harping on about the intolerable 24/7 workload of their lifestyle in Hong Kong, about ‘the Hong Kong scramble’ and the blur of ‘time-devouring commitments’, the ‘pressures and stresses of the commercial world’ (p.208). From the opening chapter onwards, Karin is at pains to describe how their time in Kuito was time out of what she repeatedly describes as the stressful overwork of their lives as super-busy professionals in Hong Kong.

The overwritten dressing-up of pretty banal and obvious statements like these for some reason reminded me of James Herriott’s vet books. You don’t read them for the cutting edge philosophy or incisive social commentary; you read them for their down-home sentimentality and comfort and reassurance. Even when cows or sheep die in horrible circumstances, everything is ultimately contained by the warmly reassuring tone of the narrative. Same here. The comparison is reinforced by the way this book, like the vet books, is divided into chapters which often focus on specific individual cases, in this book’s case, into 66 very short chapters. 273 pages / 66 chapters = about 4 pages per chapter.

That said, there are frequent chapters on non-medical subjects, such as the one where they go for a picnic by the river, or attend a church service. There’s an entirely comic chapter about how she and Wei agonise about what to do with a rooster one of their staff has brought and tethered to a tree for them. The idea is it’ll be the centrepiece of the dinner party they’re planning for the evening, but neither of them has any experience of slaughtering, gutting and cooking a live bird or, as Karin refers to the chicken throughout, ‘our feathered friend’.

My wife likes the BBC TV series Call The Midwife and has read all of the original memoirs by Jennifer Worth. I imagine they have the same combination of sometimes intense tragedy with spirited comedy over ‘life’s little mishaps’, with ‘light-hearted moments’ of ‘comic relief’.

And this isn’t accidental. Karin is deliberately trying to inject humour into the text. Hence the chapter entirely about their comic inability to kill the chicken; an extended passage about how she gives Wei a disastrous haircut, clipping several bald patches into his black hair; the chapter about their comic struggles to contain an infestation of Angolan mice; or a chapter about the nuns associated with the hospital, which is punningly titled ‘Nuninhibited’. Sometimes the humour is surprisingly blunt, as when Karin titles a chapter devoted to their upsetting work in the malnutrition clinic, dealing with starving children, ‘Weight Watchers’.

To be clear, none of her or Wei’s shortcomings as writers detract for a second from the basic fact that they made the brave decision to park their high-flying careers and go and do real good in the world, bringing health and hope to thousands who would have lacked it without their efforts.

I am well aware that nitpicking about her prose style is trivial weighed in the balance against what she and her husband achieved. But books provide a complex matrix of intermingled pleasures, even the most horrific subject matter comes dressed in words, and words come draped in connotations and overtones which create complex psychological affects. And it’s these effects which interest me, often more than the ostensible subject matter.

The civil war in Kuito

Despite her wayward way with words, Karin conveys lots of important information, a lot of it sourced from official reports by the likes of the UN, UNICEF, the World Bank, Transparency International and so on. She gives references for these facts which are gathered in a lengthy References section at the end of the book. Obviously her specific references are dated now, but the organisations are still going strong, so it was interesting looking up the contemporary 2021 versions of many of the annual reports she cites. It is striking to see how, 21 years after their trip, Angola remains towards the very bottom of global league tables for infant mortality, life expectancy, poverty and corruption.

Chapter 51 is devoted to a brief but comprehensive overview of Angola’s history, from the establishment of small coastal settlements by the Portuguese in the 1480s, through the rise and rise of the slave trade during which an estimated 3 million blacks were abducted and carried over the ocean through to the end of slavery in the mid 1800s. She describes:

  • the very slow progress of Portugal in settling the interior, the precise borders of Angola only being settled in the early 20th century
  • the brutality of the forced labour under the Salazar regime
  • the complete failure to build schools or hospitals for the locals
  • the sporadic revolts which broke out in 1961 and snowballed into the brutal 14 year war for independence
  • the collapse of the regime back in Portugal and its replacement by a new liberal government which simply walked away from its African colonies, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Portugal
  • how this left various freedom fighter/guerrilla movements to erupt into ruinous, decades-long civil wars in which repeated attempts by the international community to negotiate peace treaties repeatedly failed and the war resumed with ever-greater savagery

Not a happy history, it it?

Anyway, the key fact of the whole narrative is that the couple arrived in Angola just as the civil war was entering its final phase. There were two sides in the Angolan Civil War:

  • the de facto government run by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (in Portuguese the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA) which held all the main cities, the coast, and benefited from international loans and ever-increasing oil revenue
  • and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (in Portuguese the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola or UNITA) based in ‘the bush’

The MPLA drew support from the Mbundu people of the coast while UNITA drew support from the Ovimbundu people of the central highlands.

After a series of failed peace treaties and the withdrawal of UNITA’s South African backers and the MPLA’s Cuban backers in the early 90s, the MPLA government, enriched by increasing oil revenues and benefiting from a generation raising, training and funding its army, began in 1999 to make a final push for victory. They set out to clear the entire country of UNITA guerrillas, province by province. This was described as limpeza, the strategy of systematically ‘cleansing’ an area of guerrillas.

This is what the official MPLA army was attempting to do to the area around Kuito throughout our heroes’ stay. Karin has a chapter clarifying that it amounted to a brutal scorched earth policy in which government soldiers destroyed all villages, torched all the buildings, burned all the crops and expelled the entire populations of regions to ‘safe areas’, accompanied by indiscriminate beatings, murder, rape,  torture, mutilation and pillaging. Hence the never-ending stream of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) into Kuito. Hence the entire country was systematically reduced to poverty and starvation by both sides (p.232).

Crucially for our heroes’ experience of their sojourn, MPLA forces had only recently driven UNITA forces out of Kuito. Both Wei and Karin comment on the appalling damage wreaked on the town. Not a building had remained undamaged and many were utterly ruined. Bullet and shrapnel holes pock every facade.

Typical building in war-damaged Kuito © DW Digital Archive

When they arrive the town was surrounded by a 7 kilometer ‘security zone’ but this was none too solid. At night Wei can hear gunshots and artillery fire, some from distant fighting, some from more nearby shooting, not least by the consistently drunken MPLA soldiery garrisoned in the city.

And during the day, in the hospital where he has been brought to work, Wei sees patients with gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds and an endless flow of horrible landmine wounds. A much reduced UNITA had resorted to a strategy of making occasional raids on villages, shooting 7 or 8 peasants one night, burning down a few huts the next. Just making their presence felt as an ongoing ‘nuisance’ to the government.

Wei’s account

Wei is the doctor and his sections concentrate on a) his efforts to overhaul the surgical department of Kuito hospital which he has been deployed to and b) detailed descriptions of individual patients, their symptoms, diagnosis and treatment with c) some descriptions of his civilian life – of the MSF house he shared and the fairly regular parties given for new aid workers arriving or experienced aid workers leaving.

At the hospital he tries to instil punctuality into the staff, insists they don’t wear their everyday shoes into the operating theatre, sets about training the nurses who assist in surgery, makes a big request back to MSF headquarters for more equipment and resources. Halfway through the book his wife gives a proud list of his achievements (p.137). Wei:

  • devised a new way to plan operating lists
  • revised gown regulations
  • implemented new handwashing and swab-counting procedures
  • introduced a clean zone
  • improved interdepartmental meetings
  • improved morbidity and mortality records
  • improved ward round procedures and patient records
  • reorganised rosters to improve care and training for the anaesthetic nurses
  • increased ward round frequency
  • increased outpatient consultations 300%

If these sound like slides from a PowerPoint presentation or entries on a LinkedIn profile that’s because that’s is the kind of people Karin and Wei are – highly trained, highly capable, highly successful and highly ambitious Westerners. Vague wishes to do good aren’t enough. Practical skills, not only at doctoring, but in organising and administering, are what the couple brought to Kuito hospital, its malnutrition clinics, and to the numerous displaced border camps around the city.

Doctors from other agencies or passing through volunteer or are co-opted to help, such as the English doctor who assisted a seven-hour operation to remove hundreds of pieces of shrapnel from a little girl’s body, face and eyes.

Wei operating on a victim of a UNITA attack on the town of Andulo (p.157)

This all explains why Wei’s sections are ‘better’ than Karin’s. He is closer to the reality of Médecins Sans Frontières’ central work i.e. doctoring the poor. He is at the coalface, he is dealing with specifics of conditions, diagnoses and treatments. Also, being a doctor, he is used to writing up factual notes and/or scholarly papers (as a doctor he has had to sit no end of exams in very factual subjects). This has had the affect of disciplining his mind and his prose to be that bit more accurate and precise, both in his observations and in his phrasing. In fact at one point, when he’s discussing training up the local staff, Wei makes the point that writing forces you to think more clearly.

I kept reminding my staff that writing was training itself, as it helped crystallise thinking. (p.68)

Mind you, even Wei has an occasional brain freeze of a sentence, enough to make you pause and reread and then marvel a little at the English language’s endless capacity for malapropisms and lapses.

  • I felt bereft…imbibed in sorrow. (p.65)
  • Costly dental work was beyond the realms of our facilities. (p.89)

Landmine injuries

Alberto, a boy who picked up a grenade which blew both his arms off (p.164). The little girl covered in shrapnel from the grenade her brother picked up and which killed him outright. The endless stream of impoverished peasants missing a foot or a leg. The ward devoted to amputees. The factory run by the International Committee of the Red Cross which makes prosthetic feet and legs (p.51). Karin tells us the ICRC fitted about 300 prosthetic limbs a year (p.231).

It was in Kuito that, in January 1997, Princess Diana made her famous trip to publicise the work of the HALO Trust, the charity dedicated to removing landmines of which she was patron. (She was to die in the Paris underpass just seven months later.)

Late in the book, in chapter 61, Karin describes a visit she and Wei made to a minefield close to the city, under the careful supervision of HALO Trust experts. It’s an opportunity for showcase her research and inform us that Angola is meant to be the most landmined country in the world, with as many as 10 million mines buried across it, coming in about 75 different shapes and sizes, originating from 21 countries of manufacture. Imagine if you work in a landmine factory. Plenty of people must. How would you feel about your work? That’s the kind of character you never come across in fiction or movies. When I worked in TV I remember trying to develop the idea for a documentary which would being together amputee victims of landmines from a country like Angola with the no doubt working class people who make them.

Delay

So many of the victims arrived late, after days on the road or being carried from remote villages or because they are ashamed to seek out a doctor. Or, even more simply, they have to travel immense distances to get to the clinic in a land with no fuel so no cars or buses or taxis or horses or donkeys.

The only way is to trek scores of kilometers over hard stony desert on bare feet. So many of the patients he sees are filthy dirty, exhausted and malnourished before he even gets round to the condition which has brought them., that in most of the cases infection had set in. Again and again Wei has to clean wounds suppurating with pus, and all too often gangrene has set in and what might have been minor amputations turn into removal of the entire limb (p.65). And maggots. Wounds which are so gangrenous that maggots have hatched in the mass or purulent dead skin (p.240).

Gunshot wounds

Gruesomely, he comes to recognise a subset of gunshot wounds which aren’t directly related to the war, but which have, amazingly, been administered by the police. As patients shamefacedly admit to him, or as his staff of nurses explain, some of the patients they see were shot by the ‘police’ who tried to extort money or goods from them and when the patient was reluctant, shot them, as a direct punishment and a warning to others.

The little boy selling charcoal at a roadside stall. Two police stopped to extort money from him. He said he didn’t have any, holding out a few wretched cents in his fist, so the police took shot him through the hand, smashing it so that when he is brought to the hospital, Wei has no choice but to amputate it (p.232).

In the worst case, a young woman is admitted with a gunshot wound to her upper thigh and the story reluctantly emerges that a policeman tried to rape her and when she resisted tried to shoot her in the vagina, narrowly missing. Drunken police or soldiers attempting to rape civilians is a recurrent theme, as when drunk tropas burst into the Katala Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, separate off the women then systematically rape them all (p.169).

One night some drunk soldiers (or tropas in the local slang) accost a pregnant woman in the street. When she flees to a nearby house, the soldiers burst in and shoot the house owner, his son and wife. The father carries his son to the hospital. When the ambulance goes to collect the badly wounded wife, the soldiers open fire on it, wounding the driver and killing Manuel Vitangui, the senior nurse sitting alongside him. These are government soldiers who are meant to be protecting the population (Chapter 34). The 5 year old boy shot through the face by government soldiers, his brother shot dead (p.228).

Soldiers who, for no discernible reason, shot Adelina, a pregnant woman walking to market with some corn husks, through the back. The wounded woman walked for miles to Kuito where Wei performed emergency surgery (p.258).

Wei, like many doctors, refrains from moralising and commentary:

I wrote in my diary that I was not there to judge. (p.238)

It is left to the reader to ponder what future there can possibly be for a society whose police extort money and sexual favours from a wretchedly impoverished population at gunpoint, and whose drunken soldiers shoot them at random. None. No kind of future except eternal misery.

You sympathise with Wei’s heartfelt excursus on the evil of guns, his careful description of what a high velocity bullet really does to a human body, the difficulty of cleaning a gunshot wound of its fragments of smashed bone and fragmented tissue, and the wickedness of Hollywood movies for glamorising guns (p.73).

Domestic violence

Mix the strain of wartime conditions, the availability of guns, and alcohol, and you have a toxic mixture. Karin devotes a chapter to the issue of drunk, psychotic men: the policeman who attacked his family in an angry rage, killing his wife and youngest child, shooting his eldest who was rushed to hospital which is where Wei performed the operation on her gunshot wounds and learned the story.

The fit young soldier who is rushed into intensive care with a gunshot wound to the heart but dies on the stretcher as they’re carrying him into theatre. At which point it emerges it was a suicide; he had first shot dead his wife, then his two young children, then himself.

During their stay the biggest threat came not from UNITA or outback guerrillas but from Kuito-based soldiers or policemen off their faces on the local own brew and behaving with drunken violence, stopping cars to extort bribes or just letting off their guns for no rational reason (p.211).

General conditions

Wei gives medical conditions their proper medical names and there’s an appendix which includes all the medical conditions mentioned in the text with definitions, including:

  • abscess
  • anastomosis
  • bowel resection
  • dermatitis
  • ectopic pregnancy
  • elephantiasis
  • haematocolpos
  • hernia
  • intussusception
  • laparotomy
  • menengitis
  • pellagra
  • peritonitis
  • post-partum hemorrhage
  • utero-vesical fistula

He makes a lot of deliveries by caesarian section, often to pregnant women in terrible conditions, almost all suffering from malnutrition, some who’ve been shot, either by UNITA bandits but sometimes by drunken MPLA soldiers.

Diseases of poverty

Wei had been fully briefed and expected the war wounds, but he’s surprised that the majority of cases he sees result not from war but from crushing poverty. Take the prevalence of pellagra, a disease that occurs when a person does not get enough niacin (one of the B complex vitamins) or tryptophan (an amino acid).

Or the fact that by far the highest numbers of patients were those suffering from abscesses caused by malnutrition and infection (p.41). About 50% of all the patients he saw had worms and there are some revolting descriptions of cutting open a malnourished human being to discover a writhing tangle of worms inside their guts (p.42).

A lot of this was caused by the huge number of internally displaced persons (IDPs or, in Portuguese, os deslocados). Karin gives some staggering stats: up to a third of Angola’s entire population was displaced by the war: a first wave of some 2 million when, after a temporary lull, the war resumed in 1993; and then when the war resumed with renewed vigour in late 1998, a further 2.6 million were displaced. Kuito’s population was around 190,000 but as many as 100,000 had been forced from their homes in the surrounding province and had come to live in shanty towns around Kuito’s perimeter. By and large, at least 80% of the deslocados are women and children (p.254).

Thus MSF runs two centres devoted purely to the problem of caring for some 3,000 malnourished children with 230 severely malnourished cared for via a therapeutic feeding centre, and hundreds of new children being registered each week (p.153).

Karin watches workers for the World Food Programme handing out rations to IDPs in Andulo camp: a litre of oil, a scoop of beans, a bag of maize and a small quantity of salt were the monthly ration for an entire family (p.172).

The thing to grasp is that it wasn’t so much a civil war, that makes it sound reasonably rational: it was a war against its own people. UNITA set out to systematically destroy the country and they succeeded. They destroyed the rail lines inherited from the Portuguese. They mined roads and blew up bridges. They murdered and raped defenceless villagers and burnt their villages to the ground. But worst of all they littered the landscape with millions of landmines and grenades thus making it almost impossible to work in the fields. They waged sustained war on the country’s ability to feed itself. In the 1970s Angola was self-sufficient in foodstuffs, with a thriving agricultural sector (p.259). By 2000 this had evaporated. Both sides worked very hard for decades to reduce the entire country to a state of malnourished starvation. And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They reduced Angola to being one of the poorest countries on earth, with 30% infant mortality and life expectancy of 44. Leaving the rest of the world to pick up the mess, treat the hundreds of thousands they shot or maimed, and feed millions and millions of starving displaced people. What cunts.

Natural remedies

Wei encounters a variety of natural remedies and tries to keep an open mind but most are clearly disastrous. Tying a string round your toe to cure diarrhea is the most innocent. When a woman doesn’t conceive after 6 months of marriage, the local healer recommended a mix of herbs wrapped in animal gut and stuffed up her rectum. A few weeks later she presents at the hospital with what appears to be a yard of dead intestine hanging out her anus until Wei solves is told about the ‘traditional remedy’. Less amusing is the woman who developed mastitis and the local healer prescribed a poultice of herbs which was so acidic that it burned through the entire thickness of the skin denuding half of the breast tissue. Removing the dead flesh took a long operation and then the woman was in screaming agony every time the dressing had to be changed.

Another woman presented with hands so badly burned they were carbonised. She had fallen into a fire. But why hadn’t she immediately scrambled out? Because, it emerges, she was having an epileptic fit. And why did none of her family come to her rescue? Because the traditional belief is that an evil spirit possesses an epileptic and anyone who touches him or her is at risk of also becoming possessed. So they let her lie with her hands in the fire till they burned to a crisp. Wei has no alternative but to amputate them both (pages 239 to 241).

The rich and the poor

There’s no evidence of any rich people in Kuito. The Portuguese abandoned the city a generation earlier in the great flight of 1975, and anyone with money had long departed for the relative security of Luanda. The town and its environs are a kind of quintessence of African poverty and abjectness. Throughout this period the government was making more than enough money from oil revenue to halt malnourishment at a stroke. Yet over half the budget went on armaments and paying soldiers to devastate the country’s agriculture and shoot and rape its citizens. Wei and Karin take several breaks from Kuito, including one big holiday trip to South Africa. At Luanda airport they meet a couple of oil men flying in on business who don’t even realise there’s a civil war going on – so completely are the glossy, luxury hotel, chauffeur-driven car, all-expenses lives of Luanda’s business elite and their foreign partners divorced from the extreme poverty and suffering of the mass of the rural population (p.79).

Photos

Each of the short chapters ends with a couple of black and white photos of the subject or people described in the chapter. Early on he tells us his camera was the best thing he took to Angola – helped distance, record, document and make sense of things.

Some of the photos are very run of the mill shots of local colour, the market, the high street, get-togethers with other aid workers, at the airport unloading shipments from the little MSF plane, and so on.

But about half the photos are of specific patients whose conditions and treatments he describes in the text, and these are often very harrowing indeed. Especially the ones of small children or even babies who have been shot. Jesus. (p.73)

Repeatedly we are told that UNITA was no longer capable of making any real military resistance against the government but was instead reduced to making cowardly raids on unarmed villages to maintain its nuisance level is disgusting and the results are catastrophic. Take the attack on unarmed peasants of Andulo, in which UNITA ‘soldiers’ held down villagers and hacked at their faces with machetes as a warning to the entire town against supporting the MPLA. Or the attack on the village of Belo Horizonte from which Wei treats an 8-year-old boy shot in the back as he ran away. His younger brother was shot dead. Another woman was shot in the head and dies in the hospital (p.176). The people in UNITA who ordered this strategy were evil scum.

Wei the Red Guard

Wei’s account of Kuito is interwoven with his autobiography which is almost as interesting. We learn that his father was a doctor in China who was forced, during Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) to go and work as a ‘barefoot doctor’ in the remote, peasant countryside (p.46). So: Like so many doctors I know, it runs in the family. Not only that, casual comments about Wei’s parents, in particular his father, reinforce the idea that Asian or Chinese parents are extremely competitive and ambitious for their children (p.223).

Title

The title is from a poem by MPLA leader and first president of independent Angola, Agostinho Neto (the same man Ryszard Kapuściński knows and drops in for a chat with in Another Day of Life). It’s quoted page 80:

Here in prison
Rage continued in my breast
I patiently wait
For the clouds to gather
Blown by the wind of History
No one can stop the rain.

I love poetry but poetry, like any other human communication, can lie and distort. Neto may have been a fine poet but he was founder and first leader of the MPLA, the party which was to run Angola into the ground and, after the long futile civil war, emerge as the corrupt petro-elite government described by Daniel Metcalfe in his 2014 travelogue, Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola.

After 35 years of rule by Neto’s MPLA, Angola is still one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. If by ‘rain’ he meant independence from colonial rule, then, yes, no one could stop the rain. But if he meant anything like equality and prosperity for all then, no, it turns out you can stop the rain. It turns out that, for some people, the rain will never come.

Karin’s character

By the end of the book you realise Karin has written the majority of the chapters and her exuberant, optimistic, if often anxious and tearful personality, is the one which dominates. She is as open and charmed by the dancers at the mardi gras festival, the singers in church and the toddlers playing in the dirt streets as she is terrified by the drunks who sometimes lurch out of the darkness at her on the streets at night, and appalled at the sights and suffering she sees at the hospital.

In other words, although I have ripped a little into her erratic prose style, there’s no denying she is a kind of everywoman figure and that viewing the entire, intense experience through her eyes is all the more powerful for her downhome style and ordinary responses.

Married love

It’s worth mentioning one last aspect of the narrative which is the tenderness and kindness and love at the core of her marriage. In this as in everything else she is much more open and candid than Wei. Whereas he downplays risks and worries in the classic male style, Karin is open as a book about the numerous moments of anxiety, worry and fear she feels, above all at the thought of losing the love of her life. Wei is her rock, her strength (p.223), her guide, with his head for facts and figures (p.249), his calmness, his endless capacity for work, his tact. And she in turn takes it upon herself to cook and care for him, worrying about his health and his diet when medication makes him lose weight.

In other words, running through the core of this book is not one person’s experience, but a real sense of the joint experiences of a rock solid, loving, married couple who share the anxieties and tragedies and occasional triumphs together. Obviously the surface of the book details the many gruesome, tragic and disgusting things they saw, garnished with a host of facts and figures supplied by Karin and medical analyses supplied by Wei.

But putting the entire subject matter to one side, this book is an extraordinary tribute to the power of married love.

And love of humanity. Karin describes the final weeks as they prepare to leave, when their replacements have been finalised by MSF, as they pack up and have a little string of parties to say goodbye to friends and fellow aid workers and the hospital staff. As Wei shakes hands, as he and his team give each other hugs, I couldn’t help tearing up. The couple’s naive, open and honest accounts of all their experiences includes the tremendous emotional turmoil they feel at leaving forever people they had worked so closely with in such terrible circumstances, and I was genuinely moved, but also awed at their bravery and commitment. For all its clunky style, this is a wonderfully moving, informative and life-enhancing book.


Credit

No One Can Stop The Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng was published in 2005 by Insomniac Press. All references are to this paperback edition.

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Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1976)

The image of war is not communicable – not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.
(Another Day of Life, page 108)

Ryszard Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 to 2007) was a Polish journalist, photographer, poet and author. He received many awards and was at one point considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kapuściński started working as a journalist soon after leaving Warsaw University in 1955. He was sent abroad and ended up developing an award-winning career as Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, working for the communist government-approved Polish Press Agency. By the end of his career, Kapuściński calculated that he had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences.

In the 1960s developed a reputation for reporting from Africa, where he witnessed first-hand the end of the European colonial empires. But he was quite the globetrotter, reporting from central Asia in 1967, then from South America before moving to Mexico for a spell (1969 to 1972) and then returning to Poland.

In 1975 Kapuściński flew out to Angola to cover the chaos surrounding the country’s independence from Portugal after a long and bitter war for independence (1961 to 1974). He witnessed the wholesale flight of the country’s 300,000 Portuguese and the outbreak of civil war between the three largest independence movements: the MPLA based in the capital Luanda, the FNLA based in the north, and UNITA based in the rural east and south.

It was this trip and reporting which formed the basis for his first book, Another Day of Life, the first in a series of six or so book-length accounts of key coups and overthrows, which established his reputation in the English-speaking world (others in the series described the overthrow of Haile Selasse in Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran).

Another Day of Life

First things first, this is a very short book, weighing in at just 136 pages. It’s divided into five ‘parts’, topped and tailed by empty pages so it’s more like 120-something pages. So it feels both literally and content-wise a very light book. 123 pages of text.

This is reinforced by the almost complete absence of hard facts. Once you start reading, what becomes quickly obvious is that this isn’t traditional reporting. It doesn’t have the close description of actual events found in Fergal Keane’s book about Rwanda or the fact-heavy account by Daniel Metcalfe of his journeys through Angola. Both contained a lot of facts, dates, places, names. By contrast Kapuściński’s text has almost no dates, very few references to specific identifiable historical events.

And as for the names, there are named people in the text but they are suspiciously emblematic, idealised representations of the kinds of people you ought to find in the kinds of scenes he describes. They are often suspiciously like characters in a play, undergoing archetypal experiences such as you’d expect in a novel or play or movie rather than the ragged realities of life.

In fact by about page 30 I realised this is more like a fairy tale than either journalism or history. His stories are very pat, they fall just so, are very rounded and neat. They have the rounded perfection and the symbolic weight of allegory.

All this explains why you can read clean through the entire 136-page text and not be slowed down by a single fact. There are only two or three actual facts in the entire book. All the effects are literary and derive from his conceptualising of scenes as scenes, staged and arranged for literary effect.

Part one (25 pages)

In the first sentence he tells us he stayed in Angola for three months, in a room in the Hotel Tivoli. It is notable that he doesn’t say which months or the year, although after a few pages he mentions spending September there and we know he’s there I suppose we’re for the runup to independence ie September, October, November 1975.

Books of this sort always require eccentric neighbours so he supplies some, Don Silva a diamond merchant who has diamonds sewn into the lining of his suit but can’t leave town because his wife is in the final stages of terminal cancer and therefore deep in her deathbed.

Instead of facts, what Kapuściński conveys is mood and atmosphere. The stricken Silva’s are heavily symbolic of the entire white European culture which is coming to an end in Angola, rich but stricken and trapped.

Kapuściński describes the rumours circulating among the panicking Portuguese that the Holden Roberto’s guerrilla movement, the FNLA, has thousands of members hiding in the capital just waiting for the signal to attack the terrified whites and murder them in their beds. He describes everything as a novelist would:

Rumour exhausted everyone, plucked at nerves, took away the capacity to think. The city lived in an atmosphere of hysteria and trembled with dread. People didn’t know how to cope with the reality that surrounded them, how to interpret it, get used to it. Men gathered in the hotel corridors to hold councils of war. (p.6)

Because it is about panic-stricken people trapped in a city it reminds me a bit of The Plague by Albert Camus, but also because Kapuściński plays up the generic and allegorical aspects of the situation, as does Camus.

People escaped as if from an infectious disease, as if from pestilential air that can’t be seen but still inflicts death. Afterwards the wind blows and the sand drifts over the traces of the last survivor. (p.13)

Because it’s specifically about the slightly hysterical inhabitants of one building it reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s shocker High Rise (published the same year Angola’s independence cause the Great Flight).

You can tell almost immediately that Kapuściński’s prose is translated from another language. English is full of phrases and idioms. Very often all these get omitted by translators keen to translate the sense of the foreign text into smooth, untroubled English. Hence the rather rounded, smooth finish of the prose, which always plumps for the euphonious word and the mellifluous phrase. This is one of the reasons why reading Kapuściński is like eating ice cream in a nice restaurant. Smooth and pleasurable and flavoursome without any sharp angles or surprises.

Everybody was in a hurry, everybody was clearing out. Everyone was trying to catch the next plane to Europe, to America, to anywhere. Portuguese from all over Angola converged on Luanda. Caravans of automobiles loaded down with people and baggage arrived from the most distant parts of the country. The men were unshaven, the women tousled and rumpled, the children dirty and sleepy. (p.10)

He conveys the sense of bad-tempered bickering among the queues of hot impatient white refugees, with whites saying the country will go to the dogs once the blacks take over (as, indeed, it did), how they’ve worked here for forty years, given the best years of their lives etc etc. They argue about who should have priority onto the flights, pregnant women, women with babies, women with young children, women with children, women with no children, well, why not men, then? And so on.

He has an extended riff about crates, about how Luanda was transformed into a city of crates for people to pack their stuff into, big create, small crates, wide crates, narrow crates, crates for the wealthy, crates for the poor. In high allegorical style Kapuściński describes how the ‘city of stone’ (ie bricks and mortar, buildings, homes) was transformed into a city of wood (crates piled high in every direction. Then they were loaded onto ships and sent off into the blue.

Nowhere else in the world had I seen such a city, and I may never see anything like it again. It existed for months, and then it began suddenly disappearing. Or rather, quarter by quarter, it was taken on tricks to the port. Now it was spread out at the very edge of the sea, illuminated at night by harbour lanterns and the glare of lights on anchored ships. (p.17)

See what I mean by fairytale simplicity. Although it’s about a war and fighting and refugees somehow it  is told with the clarity and simplicity of a children’s story, or a certain kind of simplified science fiction story.

The nomad city without roofs and walls, the city of refugees around the airport, gradually vanished from the earth. At the same time the wooden city deserted Luanda and waited in the port for its long journey. Of all the cities on the bay, only the stone Luanda, ever more depopulated and superfluous, waited. (p.22)

See what I mean by ice cream? Kapuściński’s simplified, smoothed-out prose slips down a treat. Then he begins a new riff, based around the categories of basic worker who are leaving. First all the policemen leave, with a paragraph pondering what that means for a city. Then all the firemen leave, ditto. And then all the garbagemen. How do we know? Because very quickly the rubbish starts piling up in heaps. For some reason all the cats start dying. Luanda turns into an abandoned city from a science fiction story.

In a way what’s most interesting in this long enjoyable semi-fictional description is the absence of Africans. Kapuściński reports on a worldview in which, when the Europeans leave, Luanda is deserted. But of course, it wasn’t. Far more blacks lived in Luanda than whites. But they were confined to the black slums at the edge of the city, unknown slums renowned for their lawlessness and extreme poverty.

Two points. One: it is fascinating to enter, through this text, into a worldview of Africa where Africans are banished, invisible and don’t count even in their own country. Two: as a kind of spooky proof of this enormous conceptual divide, even after the whites have mostly left, the Africans don’t come pouring into the abandoned capital. They continue living in their slums even while properties throughout the city fall empty, while the nice, European part of the city become a ghost town.

Having just soaked myself in Dan Metcalfe’s travelogue of modern Angola which is, of course, populated almost entirely by black Angolans, it is striking, strange and mysterious to be taken back to the weeks of independence, not because of their political importance, but because they represented an enormous imaginative shift; from a capital city run by and for Europeans, to one which was inhabited, run by and for Africans.

Part two (11 pages)

Having watched the capital empty of its European owners, Kapuściński goes to be with the soldiers at the front, to the town of Caxito 60 km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA.

Part two rotates around Commandante Ndozi of the MPLA, who explains the capital city is being threatened by the FNLA from the north and UNITA from the south. He has been fighting for a long time and Kapuściński portrays his experience through a sort of extended monologue in which Ndozi shares his experiences.

But the highlight of the little chapter, and one of the memorable moments of the book, is the insight into the way inexperienced soldiers fire so much and so loudly so as to drown out their own terror.

A green soldier fears everything. When he is transported to the front, he thinks death is watching him on every side. Every shot is aimed at him. He doesn’t know how to judge the range or direction of fire, so he shoots anywhere, as long as he can shoot a lot without stopping. He is not hurting the enemy, he is killing his own terror. (p.32)

This segues into a description of the MPLA commissar attached to the unit, Commandante Ju-Ju. Despite his name Ju-Ju is a white Angolan. Kapuściński explains that the way to be white and part of The Struggle is to have a beard, the bigger the better. Then the soldiers will call you camarada and assume you are someone important.

Kapuściński watches Ju-Ju politely question FNLA soldiers the MPLA captured. What comes over is how young, uneducated, illiterate and simple they are. A man of the Bakongo people explains that he, like many of his tribe, was pressganged in Kinshasa by Joseph Mobutu’s soldiers, then packed off to join the FNLA. He liked in the FNLA because they gave you something to eat, goat and rice during the week and beer on Saturdays. Better than starving. Another prisoner looks about 12, claims he’s sixteen, and explains that he was told that if he went to the front as a fighter, they’d let him go to school, which is what he really wants to do, so he can become an artist.

Walking round the little town Kapuściński comes to the compound where the 120 or so prisoners are being watched over by a dozen armed guards. They’re all very young men and they’re engaged in a good natured argument about football, as young men everywhere ought to be. Only these men are going to continue fighting and dying. (We modern readers know they would continue fighting and dying for another 27 years. It’s just as well we can’t see the future, isn’t it?)

Part three (18 pages)

Having visited the north, he wants to head south. A digression on the management of roadblocks, which are everywhere. There are 3 phases to the roadblock:

  1. the explanatory section
  2. bargaining
  3. friendly conversation

From a distance you can’t be sure which side is manning the roadblock. Since none of the 3 forces have regular uniforms but ragged combinations of whatever they’ve been able to purloin, it’s difficult to tell. If you hail the soldiers as camarada! and they belong to Agostinho Neto’s MPLA they will hail back. But if they belong to the FNLA or UNITA who prefer to call each other irmão or brother, then they’ll kill you. You need the right papers but it also helps if you take time to chat. Kapuściński gives an example of how he likes to distract the soldiers by telling them about Poland, basic facts which the mostly illiterate soldiery refuse to believe.

He travels all the way south to Benguela, through countless checkpoints, perfecting his essay on the metaphysics of the checkpoint.

There’s a passage which told me more about the physical terrain of Angola than anything in the Metcalfe book, which really brings out how hot and barren and dusty the landscape is.

The road from Luanda to Benguela passes through six hundred kilometers of desert terrain, flat and nondescript. A haphazard medley of stones, frumpy dry bushes, dirty sand, and broken road signs creates a grey and incoherent landscape. In the rain season the clouds churn right above the ground here, showers drag on for hours and there is so little light in the air that day might as well not exist, only dusk and night. Even during heat waves, despite the excess of sun, the countryside resembles dry, burnt-out ruins: It is ashy, dead, and unsettling. People who must travel through here make haste in order to get the frightening vacancy behind them and arrive with relief at their destination, the oasis, as quickly as possible. Luanda is an oasis and Benguela is an oasis in this desert that stretches all along the coast of Angola. (p.53)

Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t he? He finds Benguela even more deserted than Luanda and reflects on the strangeness of the way the blacks haven’t moved into the empty houses and flats abandoned by the whites.

Because it didn’t actually happen while he was there this enormous shift in imaginative possibilities is nowhere directly addressed, but it peeps out from cracks in the narrative.

Kapuściński meets Commandante Monti a white man who is MPLA commander here in Benguela. While he’s waiting to talk to the commandante, a four-man TV crew from Portugal arrives (p.55). They start squabbling about whether to proceed to the front or not. It’s dangerous. But then Monti assigns them an escort, the 20-year-old woman fighter, Carlotta.

Kapuściński is funny and shrewd about the way the Portuguese immediately start vying for her affections but, more than that, the way all five of them conspire to create a kind of collective myth about her, all conspiring to find her attractive and romantic and glamorous. Later on, Kapuściński develops the photos he took of her and realises she isn’t at all attractive. But at that time and that place they needed her to be.

In this slightly delirious mood, they agree when Commandante Monti rustles up a couple of civilian cars for them to be driven the 160 kilometers to the frontline town of Balombo. Through the landscape of war: a damaged bridge, a burned-out village, an empty town, abandoned tobacco plantations.

They arrive at Balombo, a village in the jungle which was taken by 100 MPLA only that morning. Almost all the ‘troops’ are 16 to 18, high school kids. The boys are driving an abandoned tractor up and down the high street. The camera crew film, Kapuściński takes photographs. The sun falls and they get impatient to get away. The jungle comes right up to the houses. The enemy could counter-attack at any moment.

As they climb into the waiting cars to drive them the 160km back to Benguela, all five foreigners remember it was exactly the moment when the driver put the car in gear that Carlotta decided she must stay with the fighters and gets out. Sad goodbye and they roar off into the deepening twilight.

Later they learn that UNITA counter-attacked, took the town and Carlotta was killed. Tough guy sentimentalism not a million miles from Hemingway. They insist they hadn’t been fleeing fighting, there wasn’t any fighting when they left. But if they’d heard gunshots would they have been brave enough to turn round etc?

So there probably is a village called Balombo and it probably was taken by the MPLA then retaken by UNITA and maybe there was someone called Carlotta, but the factual basis of the story has been rounded out, perfected in order to become allegorical, a symbol of the collective male delusions involved in war, and a sentimental tear for its sadness and waste.

Part four (23 pages)

Next day Kapuściński watches the plane carrying the camera crew fly out heading for Portugal. There happens to another small plane at the airport, but this one is heading south to collect a last bunch of white refugees from Lubango, which also happens to be base to the southern command of the MPLA. On an impulse Kapuściński blags his way onto the flight. Having landed, he moves through the desperate white refugees and finds someone who can take him to MPLA HQ. The man in charge is an Angolan white, Nelson, who scribbles Kapuściński a pass for the front and pushes him out the front door where a big, knackered old Mercedes lorry piled with ammunition and six soldiers is about to set off on the long drive south. Kapuściński crams into the cab and off they rumble.

The leader of the little troop, improbably named Diogenes, explains to Kapuściński that they are driving 410km south to the town of Pereira d’Eça, the MPLA’s most remote outpost. They hold the towns but the entire countryside is in the hands of UNITA who may attack at any moment. They have ambushed all previous convoys and killed the troops. Kapuściński conveys the enormous sterility of the Angolan desert very vividly, in fact I remember his invocation of the country more than the people.

Time is passing, but we seem to be stuck in place. Constantly the same glimmering seam of asphalt laid on laid on the loose red earth. Constantly the same faded, cracked wall of bush. The same blinding white sky. The same emptiness of a deserted world, an emptiness that betrays life neither by movement nor by voice. Our truck wobbles and rolls through this unmoving, dead landscape like a small tin car in the depths of a carnival shooting gallery. The owner turns the crank and the toy, stamped out of tin, bucks from side to side, and whoever wants to take a shot is welcome. (p.71)

You can see why the literary reviewers of the time compared him to Graham Greene or V.S. Naipaul the two British writers of the 1970s most associated with exotic settings and colonial conflicts. The text is packed with evocative literary descriptions like this.

After a long day’s drive of nail-biting stress, expecting bullets to fly at every bend in the road, they arrive at the dusty abandoned settlement of Pereira d’Eça which is run by Commandante Farrusco (another white Angolan). They are welcomed. The sun sets. They meet the commandante. Food, cigarettes, conversation. Backstory on Farrusco who during the independence war fought in a Portuguese commando unit, but on the outbreak of hostilities between the three independence armies, volunteered for the MPLA and showed them how to take Lubango and Pereira d’Eça.

Then there is one of Kapuściński’s highly finished, semi-symbolic incidents. A dishevelled man is brought in by the troops to face the Commandante. He is a Portuguese named Humberto Dos Angos de Freitas Quental. He fled with his wife and four children to Windhoek, capital of Namibia to the south. But his 81-year-old mother refused to leave. She is deaf and has run the town bakery time out of mind. All she told him was to come back with some flour, which is running low. So having settled his family in Windhoek, against his better judgement, the man returned with a carful of bags of flower and was picked up by the MPLA troops.

But he has something very important to say. In Windhoek and a couple of settlements on the road in Namibia, everyone is saying the South Africans are about to launch an attack into southern Angola in support of UNITA. Kapuściński realises this is Big News and asks Farrusco for help getting back to Luanda so he can file his story. But nothing moves along the road at night. He has to stay.

Next morning he is up and in a different vehicle, a Toyota being driven by 16-year-old Antonio, along with the Commandante, heading back along the 400km road to Lubango. En route the commandante explains a basic fact about the war which is that the territory is so vast and the number of troops in it so pitifully small that it is like no conventional war. There is nothing like a ‘front’.

On any road, at any place, there can be a ‘front’. You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a meter from where you’re standing. There are no principles, no methods. Everything comes down to luck and happenstance. (p.83)

Again, you have the feeling of an allegorical, metaphysical force behind these words, spoken by a character in a kind of modern version of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Kapuściński as Pilgrim, stumbling through panic-stricken cities, empty towns and the wide stony desert.

In a new section Kapuściński and the reader are rudely awakened by banging. He made it to Lubango safe and sound and slept in the building commandeered by Commandante Nelson. Now he’s being woken in the early hours because Nelson is going to be driven by his aide Manuel and whiskey-swilling colleague Commandante Bota, all the way back to Benguela. Only catch is there’s some kind of battle going on somewhere on the road.

Sure enough, a few hours later they start to hear bangs as of mortars, then some kind of grenade goes off raining shrapnel on the car roof. As the slow to avoid a parked lorry a soldier leaps out in front of them. He is MPLA and terrified. He tells them UNITA have them surrounded and he needs gasoline to fuel the vehicles to make an assault. Nelson tells him they have none to spare, to get some from the nearest town and then – heartlessly – Manuel the aide steps on the gas and they accelerate through the firefight, such as it is, seeing tracer bullets flying through the night sky. Then the road dips between walls of earth where there’s no firing and they encounter two young black soldiers who are running away from the fighting. They stop and Commandante Nelson tells them sternly to return. But he and Manuel and Kapuściński drive on.

As dawn rises they reach the town of Quilengues which is eerily, surreally empty, not only of humans but any form of life. They tiptoe through the town to make sure there’s no enemy soldiers, no sudden ambush. And then, suddenly confident, Commandante Nelson announces, “Another day of life” and starts to do a round of vigorous callisthenics!

Part five (46 pages)

The fifth part is by far the longest. After his adventures our hero is back in Luanda, in familiar room 47 in the Hotel Tivoli. After a night of feverish dreams he wakes determined to phone or telex his Big News Story about an impending South African invasion of southern Angola through to his employers in the Polish Press Agency. After days of intense travel he feels delirious and has a metaphysical moment:

I looked at the calendar, because I no longer had a feeling for time, which means that time had lost all sense of division for me, all measurability, it had fallen apart, it had oozed out like a dense tropical exhalation. Concrete time had ceased to signify anything and for a long while now the fact that it was Wednesday or Friday, the tenth of the twentieth, eight in the morning or two in the afternoon, had meant nothing to me. Life had propelled me from event to event in an undefined process directed towards an unseen goal. I knew only that I wanted to be here until the end, regardless of when it came, or how. (p.94)

Then he shakes himself and gives us one of those rarities in a Kapuściński narrative, namely a specific concrete fact. It is, he tells us, Saturday 18 October 1975. Four weeks before the date set for independence.

One of the hotel staff gives him a number to call. Secretive voices answer and switch to Spanish. They come round to his room, a big black guy and a stocky white guy, and reveal they are military ‘advisers’ from Cuba, sent to train the army, only they can’t find an army, only small units scattered over a wide area. Kapuściński tells them what he’s heard about the South Africans being about to launch an invasion, and they mull over the scenarios, then leave.

He tells us about Operation Orange which was South Africa’s plan to mount a three-pronged attack on the MPLA designed to seize Luanda by 6pm on 10 November i.e. the day before independence, in order to announce a western-friendly joint government by UNITA-FNLA. He describes how Commandante Farrusco drove south towards the border, until he suddenly encounters the South African column which opens fire, badly wounding him, his driver reverses and drives like a madman back to Pereira d’Eça.

Meanwhile, back in Luanda Kapuściński describes the weird atmosphere in the big empty city, abandoned by its European owners, as the stayers-on hear the sound of artillery fire from the north and  FNLA leaflets are dropped from a plane announcing Holden Roberto will be in the city centre in 24 hours.

He walks to the offices of a local newspaper where the journos tell him that all the FNLA forces, five battalions from Zaire plus mercenaries are attacking from the north. One of the reasons this last part is longest is because Kapuściński includes the texts of telex conversations he has with his managers back in Poland, as they offer to fly him out, he insists on staying but warns communications may be cut at any minute, no-one knows what is happening, anything might happen.

Kapuściński sardonically counterpoints the ‘grand plans, global strategies’ (p.108) he hears on radio discussions – call in the UN, convene a conference, get the Arabs to pay, get behind Vorster the leader of South Africa etc etc – and the cruder reality on the ground. For example the way, in the absence of working radio, one of the few people with any idea what’s going on is Ruiz who flies a beaten up old two-engine DC3 to various MPLA-held points of the country, dropping supplies picking up news and gossip.

He is woken in the middle of the night and has a fearful presentiment that it is the FNLA come to arrest him as a spy. In the event it is Commandante Nelson, along with Bota and Manuel, filthy and hungry and exhausted after a long drive from their southern outpost. They tell him the South Africans have rolled up all the MPLA’s southern positions and are at Benguela, 540km to the south.

Then the format of the text changes to diary entries for the last key week leading up to independence, a day-by-day account of life in Luanda starting on Monday 3 November 1975.

Monday 3 November 1975

The Cubans pick him up and drive him to the front line just beyond the city limits. Earlier in the book Kapuściński had a whole passage about the etiquette of roadblocks and checkpoints, the sussing out, the demand for papers, the drawn-out negotiations, the attempts to extort money of cigarettes. But all the Cubans have to do is say “Cubano” and they are waved through as though they have magic powers.

Kapuściński surveys the landscape all the way to the enemy lines. A message is brought to the Cuban that Benguela has fallen, all the Cubans there were killed. He sees lorries full of Portuguese troops. They have lost all discipline, have no belts, beards, they sell their rations on the black market and loot houses, packing everything into crates. They are scheduled to leave the day before independence and have nothing to lose.

Ruiz the pilot of the only plane the MPLA possesses flies south carrying sappers and explosives to blow the bridge over the Cuvo River which will cut the road between Benguela and Luanda. That night Kapuściński telexes Polish Radio the news.

Tuesday 4 November

Kapuściński is woken along with all the other guests and the hotel manager, Oscar, by armed men, who claim they are infiltrators, fifth columnists. They are sweating and tense and might shoot at any moment. While they wait for transport to take their prisoners away the MPLA press attaché arrives and sends them packing. Kapuściński clearly enjoys privileged status.

It is nowhere stated but I wonder how much this was because he was with the official press agency of an Eastern Bloc country, Poland i.e. a country controlled by the Soviet Union which the Marxist-Leninist MPLA needed as a backer for its attempts to become the new government.

A week earlier he had gone with four other journalists to the town of Lucala 400km east of Luanda which had recently been recaptured from the FNLA. The road to the town was strewn with corpses. The FNLA killed everyone and then decapitated or eviscerated them. Women’s heads littered along the road. Bodies with liver and heart cut out. Cannibals. Drunken cannibals. Hence the panic-fear in Luanda a week later that these are the people threatening to take the city by storm.

Wednesday 5 November 1975

A friend of a friend drives him to Luanda airport. It is almost abandoned and covered in litter and detritus, the wreck left by the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who have fled. The friend, Gilberto, takes him up the control tower. And as they watch a pinprick of light appears in the dark sky and grows larger. then three more. Minutes later four planes land, taxi to a halt in front of the control tower and disgorge their passengers – scores of Cuban soldiers, battle-ready in their combat fatigues. Next day they are despatched to the front. Lucky Kapuściński happened to be there right at that moment. Or is it another one of his embellished, polished, symbolic fictions?

Right here at the end of the book he makes what is maybe a subtle self defence. He describes the challenges facing any journalist sent by their editor to Luanda and told to report on the fighting: the government will tell him nothing; the MPLA press office stays silent; he can’t get to any front because Luanda is a closed city and he is turned back at the first checkpoint; rumour is rife but there is no radio or any other communication with any part of the country. Brick wall. Hence the temptation to write the story his editors want to hear.

At this point he gives a page and a half long definition of the concept of confusão being a specially Portuguese notion of impenetrable, causeless, fruitless chaos, a handy explanation for all life’s screw-ups. Daniel Metcalfe liked this concept and explanation so much he quotes it in its entirety in his book about Angola written forty years later. Maybe every nation, or culture, has its own distinctive form of confusão.

Monday 10 November 1975

On Monday the last of the Portuguese garrison sailed away, ending nearly 500 years of Portuguese occupation. There is no love lost with the locals who look forward to freedom, but Kapuściński became friendly with some of the officers who he thought behaved with professionalism and courtesy. He notes that they at no point threatened the Cuban military advisers who, after all, were flying in to what was still Portuguese territory.

That night a lorry goes round Luanda removing all statues of Portuguese from their plinths, goodbye to the sailors and geographers and soldiers and administrators and kings, goodbye.

Tuesday 11 November 1975

At midnight it becomes Tuesday, independence day after 500 years of oppression. Kapuściński is with the big crowd assembled in Luanda’s central square. A handful of international dignitaries had flown in for the ceremony, not many because there were rumours one or other of the attacking forces would bomb the airport therefore making departure impossible. MPLA leader and Angola’s new president, Agostinho Neto, makes a short speech then the lights are put out for fear of air raids.

Kapuściński sends a dispatch back to Poland explaining that the FNLA and UNITA have come to a deal and declared their own independent government of Angola to be based at the inland city of Huambo.

He hops a lift with Ruiz and flies down to the southern front at Porto Amboim on the Cuvo River where the bridge has been blown up, leaving South Africa armoured units on the south side and MPLA bolstered by an ever-increasing number of Cubans on the north side. He investigates the front in a downpour of rain. Troops are leading women and children who’ve crossed the river from the south in search of food. That night he flies back in a plane carrying soldiers wounded in a firefight further up the river.

In one of his last dispatches to Warsaw he says the nature of the war has significantly changed in his time there. To begin with it was a conflict of pinpricks without a formal front, as explained by Commandante Farrusco. But the incursion of the South Africans changed that. They have armoured vehicles, artillery and good military discipline. They expect to fight battles. On the other side the MPLA army has been feverishly recruiting and is being whipped into shape by significant numbers of battle-hardened Cuban officers and trainers. In three short months it’s gone from being a desultory guerrilla  conflict to something much more like a conventional war.

He asks to come home. He’s shattered. His managers agree. He says his goodbyes, most notably to the new president, Agostinho Neto who, we learn at this late stage in the day, Kapuściński knows well enough to pop in on. Neto is, among many other things, a poet, and Kapuściński can quote some of his poetry by heart. They sit in the president’s book-lined room chatting. Friends in high places.

Next day he flies back to Europe, itself awash with troops and frozen in a Cold War which was to divide the continent from 1945 to 1990.

Coda

There’s a two-page coda dated 27 March 1976 i.e. four months later. He reports that the last South African units have left Angola, crossing a bridge over the Cunene River where they were reviewed by the South African Defence Minister Piet Botha. Kapuściński writes as if the war is over.

We, now, 45 years later, know that it was only just beginning. There were to be 26 more years of civil war in Angola, leaving 800,000 killed, 4 million displaced, and nearly 70,000 Angolans amputees as a result of the millions and millions of land mines planted throughout the land. Well done, everyone. Bem feito, camaradas.

Thoughts

No doubt most of this did happen. The big picture stuff certainly. Probably most of Kapuściński’s excursions also, yes. But the way he shapes the material, turning the ordinary ramshackle events of life into symbolic moments, turning ugly, stupid or drunk people into Emblems of War – this is all done with the artistry of the imaginative writer, the novelist or playwright. He paces his scenes so as to create maximum impact, giving his characters wonderfully lucid and meaningful dialogue to speak, and punctuating the narrative with profound asides about the nature not only of war, but of time, the imagination, fear and compassion.

At first sight only a skimpy 126 or so pages long, this book nevertheless packs a range of profound punches to the imagination and intellect.

Map of Kapuściński’s Angola

Locations mentioned in Another Day of Life in the order they appear in the text.

  1. Luanda – capital of Angola
  2. Caxito – 60km north of Luanda where MPLA forces have held off an attack by the FNLA
  3. Benguela – 540km south of Luanda, to the MPLA garrison run by Commandante Monti, where he hooks up with the Portuguese TV crew and Carlotta before driving on to…
  4. Balombo – the recently taken town where Carlotta is killed
  5. Lubango – where Kapuściński cadges a flight to, base of the southern command of the MPLA run by Commandante Nelson; and then further south to…
  6. Pereira d’Eça – (subsequently renamed Ondjiva, which is how it appears on this map) the MPLA’s most remote outpost, run by Commandante Farrusco
  7. Quilengues – the deserted town they arrive at having run the gauntlet from Lubango, where Commandante Nelson utters the sentence which gives the book its title and then does his callisthenics
  8. Lucala – town 400km east of Luanda where he sees evidence of FNLA cannibalism
  9. Huambo – city 600km south east of Luanda where the FNLA and UNITA set up their rival government to the MPLA
  10. Porto Amboim – where he hitches a ride to in Ruiz’s plane, 260km south of Luanda to the new southern front, to see the South Africans hunkered down on the other side of the Cuvo River
  11. Chitado – the crossing over the Cunene River where South African troops exit Angola at the end of the narrative

Map of Angola showing locations referred to in the text. Source map © Nations Online Project


Credit

Jeszcze dzień życia by Ryszard Kapuściński was published in Polish in 1976. It was translated into English as Another Day of Life in 1987. All references are to the 1987 Pan paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe (2014)

Having read quite a lot about Rwanda and Congo, I felt I needed to read up on their neighbours, finding out about other African nations radiating out from the central core of the Congo. Trouble is that books about them are hard to find, for example, there don’t seem to be any books about Burundi’s civil war, 1993 to 2005. Either that, or the existing books are heavy academic works, often collections of essays, which weigh in at £30 or £40 and can’t be found second hand. Reading between the lines, no-one in Britain cares enough about these countries to write, publish or read books about them.

Daniel Metcalfe’s travelogue was one of the few paperbacks I could find about Angola and seemed like an affordable way of finding out about the recent history and current shape of Angola, Congo’s large nation to the south, and one of the participants in the Great War of Africa. I didn’t really take to the personality created in the text and found it a grim read whose occasional attempts at humour didn’t come off. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it as giving a very good overview of Angolan history, along with first hand accounts of the tremendous disparity between the oil super-rich and the majority of the population which remains dirt poor, and for the vivid descriptions of his excursions into the (generally very unattractive) interior. The net effect of the book is to make Angola sound like an awful place.

Angola historical overview

Angola is the seventh largest country in Africa (Wikipedia). It was first reached by Portuguese sailors in 1484 and the current capital city, São Paulo de Loanda (Luanda), was founded in 1575. (It was conquered by the Dutch in 1640 and briefly ruled by them till 1648, when the Portuguese resumed control.)

The Portuguese didn’t penetrate far inland, instead creating a series of coastal ports and trading entrepots. The main commodity was Africans as Angola became one of the main locations of the transatlantic slave trade, which was well established by 1600, with around 10,000 slaves a year transported. Most of them went to Portugal’s other vast colony, Brazil, a thousand miles across the stormy Atlantic.

Throughout the 18th century Portugal slowly conquered various tribes and kingdoms in the territory they claimed, and pulled natives into the global economy, forcing them to produce raw materials such foodstuffs and rubber. Brazil won its independence in 1822 and Portugal abolished the slave trade in 1836, illicit trading being policed by the anti-slavery Royal Navy. But generally Portugal still only had a very thin, coastal presence.

It was only at the time of the Berlin Congress of 1885 and the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa that the Portuguese made sustained attempts to penetrate further inland, to explore, conquer and claim the territory of what was to become the modern territory of Angola.

Part and parcel of this late 19th century conquest was the widespread imposition of forced labour on the hapless natives, hard forced labour under the compulsion of the whip, to turn out agricultural goods to be shipped back to the motherland. (It was a Brit, Henry Woodd Nevinson, who exposed the extent of the exploitation in his book A Modern Slavery, published in 1908, the year King Leopold was forced to hand over his barbaric rule in the Congo over to the Belgium state.)

Soon afterwards Portugal entered a period of political turmoil triggered by a coup in 1910 which overthrew the Portuguese monarchy (the same year, as it happens, as the Mexican Revolution) to establish what became known as the First Republic. One of the republic’s many liberal reforms was ending forced labour in the colonies.

However, the First Republic suffered from chronic instability and was overthrown in 1926 with the advent of António de Oliveira Salazar, who established the so-called Estado Novo in the 1930s. This new regime came to be known as the Second Republic as Salazar established an authoritarian corporatist state in Portugal. As part of the ‘return to order’ the New Order reimposed brutal forced labour in its colonies.

Portugal stayed neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War while millions of Angolan natives slaved to produce agricultural products for Portuguese consumers and profits for Portuguese companies. Appalling conditions led to a high death rate among workers and a scandalously high infant mortality rate of 60%. Critics wrote reports calling for change in the 1940s and 50s but were ignored or imprisoned.

A workers’ protest starting in a cotton company in 1961 led to widespread rebellion across Angola which was suppressed with much bloodshed (p.114). This and the uprising of Bakongo in northern Angola are now seen as marking the start of the Portuguese Colonial War, which lasted from 1961 to 1974 and involved not just Angola but Portugal’s other colonies in Africa, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

The wars were as ruinous and futile as the Vietnam War and ended in the full independence of the three African countries involved, after elements in Portugal’s own army overthrew the authoritarian civilian government on 25 April 1974 in what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution (pages 71 and 135).

There was a year delay while the new regime established itself and while peace talks to end the colonial wars dragged on. The Alvor Agreement of January 1975 called for general elections and set the country’s independence date for 11 November 1975. Hooray!

Except that the country was almost immediately plunged into a civil war between the three main anti-colonial guerrilla movements: the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

The FNLA were eliminated in the first year but the conflict between the other two refused to be settled and dragged on for decades, becoming one of the leading proxy wars between the Cold War adversaries, the USA and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets and Cuba backing the communist MPLA government and the Americans funding and supplying the anti-communist UNITA.

UNITA developed some bases inside Zaire, to Angola’s north, with the support of Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s western-backed dictator, but were mostly based in the south, enjoying support from the apartheid South African regime which was funneled through the state immediately south of Angola, Namibia, itself a colony of South Africa which was experiencing its own war of independence. (Namibia won independence from South Africa in March 1990.)

This being Africa there was also a strong tribal element in the civil war. The MPLA was primarily an urban-based movement in Luanda and its surrounding area and was largely composed of Mbundu people. UNITA was a predominantly rural movement mainly composed of Ovimbundu people from the Central highlands who make up about a third of the population (pages 123 and 133). Obviously there was overlap and complexities. There are many more tribal groupings in the country and allegiances and membership shifted and complexified over time.

The Angolan civil war raged from 1975 to 2002, 27 years of massacre and destruction which not only left an estimated 800,000 dead, but displaced over 4 million people and devastated the country’s infrastructure, leaving it one of the poorest in the world. In 2003 the UN estimated that 80% of Angolans lacked access to basic medical care, 60% lacked access to water, and 30% of Angolan children would die before the age of five, with an overall national life expectancy of less than 40 years of age. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (p.70).

Whole families sat and begged on the rubbish-strewn streets [of Luanda] that stank of animal and human excrement. (p.49)

Metcalfe writes that the population of Luanda is 4 million, but a recent Guardian profile (see below) gives it as 7.8 million and that this number is set to double by 2030.

So from the start of the independence struggle in 1961 to the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola suffered 41 years of hurt and wasted lives.

Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe studied classics at Oxford then went to work in Iran and travelled around central Asia, material which he used for his first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia (2009). This is his second book, and is actually not so much one journey as an account of three journeys across Angola undertaken in (I think) 2010, with follow-up visits.

Right from the start Metcalfe describes himself as a financial journalist and his bio says he’s written for the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, Foreign Policy and the Literary Review. In other words, he initially appears just the kind of pukka chap that has formed the backbone of English travel writing for the last hundred years, all of whom went to top private schools (Evelyn Waugh [Sherborne], Wilfred Thesiger [Eton], Eric Newby [St Paul’s], Colin Thubron [Eton], Bruce Chatwin [Marlborough], Jan Morris [Lancing]). So I was expecting references to tiffin and cricket, or a trip to the little known Luanda polo club or some such. Posh boy eccentricity.

I was wrong. Metcalfe doesn’t have the de haut en bas tone of the classic English chap abroad; quite the opposite, he’s keen to rub in what a man of the people he is, travelling with only a grubby backpack in the cheap and chaotic minivans ordinary Angolans use, cadging a night’s kip on the sofas or packed beds of all sorts of random acquaintances, and having at least two severe bouts of food poisoning.

But with the thought of the Great Tradition of English Travel Writing in mind I couldn’t help being struck by a sense of the text’s belatedness. What I mean is that earlier travel writers described to their readers distant and exotic lands a) which none of the readers had travelled to or knew much if anything about and b) which were largely ‘unspoilt’.

Metcalfe’s book arrives in the internet age when:

a) there is no ‘distance’ or ‘remoteness’ any more – any of us can Google articles about Angola and its history, geography, tourist features, festivals, national costume and so on and find out more or less everything contained in this book; and

b) Angola is definitely ‘spoilt’, ruined in fact, but in two senses of the word: i) the cities, towns and landscape are still recovering from 40 years of destruction, for example tourists are advised not to wander anywhere off the beaten track because the country is still covered in millions of unexploded mines; and ii) every conceivable tourist attraction has been photographed, thoroughly documented, posted on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Metcalfe is therefore labouring in a genre which is almost obsolete. These days a travel writer has to work very hard to find anywhere that millions of Western tourists haven’t already trampled and photographed to death, and then has to work up in their prose a sense of enthusiasm for sights or experiences which bored locals experience every day and post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on.

The book’s structure

São Tomé and Príncipe then mainland Angola

In a bid to be quirky and original Metcalfe starts his journey by flying in to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, two archipelagos based round the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which are themselves about 87 miles apart and about 150 miles off the northwestern coast of Gabon. This far from the mainland, they were uninhabited till the Portuguese discovered them and populated them with Africans. The islands became an important entrepot for the slave trade as well as slave plantations producing coffee and cocoa. The islands became independent alongside Portugal’s other colonies in 1975 and form the second-smallest African state after the Seychelles.

Metcalfe visits the capital cities of each island and is shown round a rotting old plantation house. He learns about the semi-fictional slave king who led a Spartacus-style slave rebellion, ‘Rei Amador. He tells us it has the smallest economy in Africa, 80% of which is contributed by foreign donors ie it’s not really a viable state at all.

But the main story is that oil has been located near the islands, which are therefore teetering on the brink of becoming very wealthy, but there is general anxiety that, as with every other ‘petrostate’ (like in nearby Nigeria), the money will end up funneled into the hands of a tiny super-rich elite while the rest of the islanders continue living in poverty.

Then he flies to mainland Angola where he makes three journeys, carefully indicated on the book’s one and only map. A throwaway remark reveals he seems to have made at least two trips to the country: he tells us he first visited Angola in 2010, then two years later, in 2012 (p.83).

Anyway, it’s not really a journey into Angola but maybe five distinct journeys:

  • down the coast from Luanda to Benguela
  • from Benguela inland to Huambo and then to the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale
  • then, after returning to Luanda, from Luanda directly inland to Malange and then Saurimo
  • then north up the coast into Zaire province, to the heartland of the old Kongo kingdom, M’banza-Kongo, to the oil town of Soto
  • then flying into the enclave of Cabinda which is part of Angola but separated by the mouth of the river Congo which is inside the Democratic Republic of Congo

A well-ruined country

The bottom line about Angola seems to be that it has been ruined at least three times over. First by the brutality of Portuguese rule which enforced harsh forced labour on most of the population well into the 1960s, doing little to create a decent infrastructure such as roads and schools, or to foster an educated middle class. Second, by the 40 years of warfare, first for independence, then the terrible, futile and ruinous civil war.

But what really strikes Metcalfe is the ruin brought since the civil war ended by the arrival of OIL. The Angola he flies into is now a ‘petrostate’ with a huge gulf between the overclass of politicians and businessmen who have made themselves fabulously rich on the proceeds of oil, drive huge four by fours, live in gated mansions, stay in gleaming hotels – and the great majority of the population (of 33 million) who scrape a living off the land (periodically stepping on one of the millions of abandoned landmines) or make a living by working the utterly corrupt life of the cities. Thus despite the billions of dollars pouring into the treasury from oil revenue, Angolan life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, while infant mortality is among the highest. A third of the population can’t read or write.

José Eduardo dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA, once, back in the olden days, a ‘Marxist’ party, was Angola’s president for almost four decades. During the oil boom his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was ‘awarded’ numerous lucrative contracts, thus becoming Africa’s richest woman. She is nicknamed ‘the Princess’ and at the time this book was written, was said to be a billionaire. So much for Marxism. Interestingly, she attended the elite fee-paying St Paul’s School for Girls in London before going on to become a billionaire.

London, where you can launder your drug or organised crime money through any number of willing banks, invest in shiny new riverfront developments, pick up some multi-million dollar artworks for your portfolio, and drop in to see your son or daughter being educated at one of its elite private schools. Convenient for oligarchs and kleptocrats from all nations.

Angola is a country divided between a small, super-rich, oil-rich elite, and the rest which helps to explain why everything is diabolically expensive, even the most basic food and drink. Luanda is routinely voted the most expensive capital city in the world (p.45). This is apparently because the agricultural sector is in such a state that almost everything has to be expensively imported. Even the most basic hotels and restaurants are beyond his budget. This isn’t a tropical paradise where you lounge in cheap cafes enjoying the streetlife. Luanda is a city where he trudges along busy with his backpack while shiny four by fours roar past on their way to hotels, cocktail bars and restaurants which are wildly beyond his reach.

Author’s persona

I felt vulnerable, exposed and ill equipped. (p.44)

Right from the start Metcalfe presents himself as a down-at-heel traveller with a backpack, ‘an unaffiliated writer’ (p.68), himself slightly confused about his motives for going, blessed with some contacts but relying on wit to busk a lot of the journey.

This pose would have been cool in the 1960s or 70s but in the age of the internet and modern, luxury, all-expenses-paid travel journalism, it comes over as a bit forced and contrived. I did the backpacking thing back in the day. In the 1970s I hitch-hiked round Europe and then round America because I was 18 and genuinely didn’t have any money or ‘contacts.

But it seems to me that worldview, that cultural possibility, has gone. A few short years later friends with their first jobs in the City were flying Club Class to New York or Sydney. In the 1990s the barely employed could afford to fly to Ibiza or Phuket. Hitching with a backpack was no longer at the cutting edge of anything. As airplane tickets and travel costs, generally, plummeted in the 1980s and 90s, ‘roughing it’ became a quaint throwback to a simpler age.

And as the internet has given access to every hotel and every restaurant and almost every person anywhere in the world, there’s no excuse not to have rung ahead, booked and organised everything.

I arrived at Saurimo at midnight, with not a clue where to stay. (p.225)

For a journalist who’s written for the Financial Times and the Economist, who mentions elsewhere that he looked up contacts and had names and addresses of businesspeople, NGOs, charities and various other contacts before he left London, to reduce himself to this impoverished state seemed a bit contrived.

It’s a running gag that Metcalfe’s backpack gets put on the wrong plane and flown to the other side of the world by mistake and it takes a week or so for it to be returned to Luanda airport for him to collect. In another age, and in another writer’s hands, this might be funny, but here it comes over as pathetic.

On not one but two occasions he manages to get food poisoning – once from eating the in-flight sandwich on the plane from Sao Tome to Luanda, once from eating prawns at an all-day party in Luanda – and we are treated to descriptions of him lying on a sofa moaning for days on end punctuated by sudden dashes to the shared toilet. Possibly this is meant to be comic but it comes over as squalid.

Because he can’t afford to stay in the ruinously expensive hotels, he cadges beds for the night on the sofas of strangers. As I say, in another age and in the hands of a more stylish writer, this might come over as cool or funny, but in this account it comes over as shabby, and wilful, a choice to do things the most difficult, dirty and sordid way. The impatient reader thinks, ‘Enough with the backpacker chic, already. You should have just negotiated a better advance from your publishers or with the FT Travel section or with any number of upmarket travel mags. Then you could have stayed in all those gleaming hotels and we wouldn’t have had to read about you roughing it on the sofas of hospitable Luandans who barely know you.’

When Metcalfe sticks to the fact he is very interesting indeed. He gives solidly researched, thorough and authoritative accounts of a wide range of historical issues from the first founding of the country, the slave trade, the ups and downs of 20th century Portugal. He is especially good on the history of the long bloody civil war, which he cuts up into passages which are deployed throughout the book at appropriate moments or in the relevant towns where key battles occurred.

A good example is his trip to the remote town of Cuito Canavale in the south-east of the country, where a 6 month long ‘battle‘ brought together all the combatants in the war for a confrontation whose ending can now, in retrospect, be seen as a turning point not only in the Angolan war but for the wider region (leading Cuba to withdraw its forces and South Africa to grant Namibia its independence).

His encounters with numerous people like businessmen and entrepreneurs, staff at NGOs like the HALO mine-clearing charity or Save The Children, passengers on numerous coaches, cafe owners and academics, geologists and ‘oilies’, street rappers and hawkers, manic minibus drivers and drunk taxi drivers, miserable bar owners and fierce museum keepers, Congo kings and holy men, each shed factual information on Angola’s past and present and are uniformly interesting.

But when he tells anecdotes about the travelling itself, they come over as strangely limp and dead. This is a really good factual primer for Angola (albeit ten years out of date) but when he writes about himself and his ‘adventures’, Metcalfe is a peculiarly charmless writer. Maybe part of this is because so many of the people he meets are depressed, defeated and downbeat and their negative mood affects the author and, thus, the reader, too. Angola does sound like a grim place.

  • We sat down, exhausted and somehow a bit sad. (p.211)
  • Living in Luanda seemed to drive him to despair. (p.215)
  • The king was playing his part but I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit sad. (p.238)
  • I sat, by now stained and a bit depressed, pondering my destination, unaware of how bad the next eighteen hours would be. (p.286)

I wasn’t surprised when the tough son of the household where Metcalfe dosses in Luanda, Roque, reveals that he tried to commit suicide a few years previously (p.258). Somehow it’s that kind of book. There are flickering attempts at humour, but for the most part it’s pretty downbeat.

One of the saddest things about Angola is the decimation of the wildlife. Most of the wild mammals have been exterminated. He has a passage about the last few remnants of the once flourishing giant sable or palanca negra gigante and meets a worn-down conservationist who is trying to save it from extinction (pages 214 to 219). Despair and sadness. Metcalfe even travels through a region where there are no birds. The skies are empty. Everything is dead.

Anti-tourism

The book amply demonstrates why Angola is on no-one’s tourist trail.

There is really no tourism here. There is nothing to visit in Luanda, except for one or two clapped-out museums that are invariably closed. Walking is pretty much out, due to the threat of muggings, not to mention the polluted and pungent streets. There are no taxis… Excursions into the country are generally a no-go. The few eccentric tour leaders who do venture into the empty national parks explain that most of the game has been shot and eaten and numbers haven’t recovered yet. Hiking or bush-walking is definitely not an option, due to the millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance, most of them unmapped. And there are diseases, lots of them: yellow fever, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, typhoid, rabies and rampant falciparum malaria (that’s the worst kind)…

In short, Angola is an anti-tourist destination, and certainly no place for a backpacker. The only sane kind of visit is brief and on business, with someone to meet you, lodge you and cover your laughable expenses, before you are gratefully shuttled out on a non-Angolan liner. (p.46)

Then there are the police, ‘feared for their erratic behaviour and drunken extortion of passersby’ (p.47). And the absurd expense of everything. And the street crime. And the dedicated stonewalling obstructive Soviet-style bureaucracy you face every step of every process designed to wear down and crush any applicant for anything, as he finds out when he tries to get his visa extended or goes the labyrinthine process required to apply for an audience with king Muatchissengue Watembo of the Chokwe people (pages 232 to 239).

Eastern bloc-style obstructionism which is reflected in the hyper-suspicions of the police who stop him and demand to see his papers countless times, with or without then bullying him into giving them a bribe to let him go on his way (the Angolan police being ‘renowned for’ their demands for gasosa, p.230). Far from being relaxed and casual like Congo, Angola has overtones of being a police state. ‘Basic education, sanitation and health care are all awful’ (p.45).

Basically, Don’t go.

Highlights

Marxist capitalism

Metcalfe is good at explaining the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Marxist’ MPLA government. Even as it bought communist textbooks printed in Moscow and Havana to indoctrinate generations of schoolchildren against the capitalist enemy, it set up a massive corporation, Sonangol, which functioned on purely capitalist lines. When the first oil was found in the 1970s the franchise and money was handled by Sonangol who, over the following decades, developed into a huge corporation with interests in every aspect of the economy, almost a parallel economy in its own right.

At its heart was MPLA leader and president José Eduardo dos Santos, known as ‘the magician’ for his skill at keeping all political factions onside by the skilful doling out of contracts and backhanders. The elite surrounding him were known as ‘the Futunguistas’ after one of the many presidential palaces. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the MPLA made a smooth transition to capitalism because they had, in fact, for years, already been practising it (pages 72 to 75). These former Marxists now have their noses ‘deep in the trough’ of the purest capitalism. Mobutu only with oil. Transparency International ranks the country as almost bottom of the league table of corruption.

The ruling class of Angola has misplaced, disappeared, embezzled and creamed off tens of billions of dollars for themselves, leaving most of their compatriots in abject poverty. Why on earth should Western governments give them loans and Western aid agencies step in to treat the poor and ill when more than enough money exists in the government system but Angola’s leadership refuses to use it for good, preferring to loot their own country?

Slavery and degredados

He gives a good brief history of the slave trade, pages 100 to 106. The academic he interviews, Fernando Gamboa, makes the familiar point that slavery was already a well-established practice among African tribes before the Europeans arrived, but they massively increased its scale and ‘efficiency’ as a business (p.198).

I was more intrigued to learn that a) Angola’s second city, Benguela, was founded in 1615 in totally unsuitable location near a swamp which resulted in the earliest settlers dying like flies (very like the early English settlements in Virginia at the same period); and b) that, like Australia, it was forcibly settled by transported convicts or degredados. Unlike the convicts Britain sent to Australia, who were often guilty of relatively minor offences such as stealing a loaf of bread, these degredados were hard core villains, mostly murderers. Being hard core urban villains they were unsuited to agriculture but took to the slave trade like ducks to water, and also ensured the city had a ‘hellish reputation well into the nineteenth century’ (p.100).

The Salazar regime (1932 to 1968)

What comes over about Salazar’s Estado Novo regime is its dusty, down-at-heel backwardness, its narrow-minded closedness, its petty bureaucracy and inefficiency. Visiting diplomats, especially Americans, thought he lived in a parallel universe. This helps to explain his response to the rebellions of 1961 which was total refusal to accept reality, negotiate or relinquish the colonies, and instead his insistence on fighting on to the bitter end which meant that, long after Europe’s other imperial nations had bitten the bullet and given their colonies independence, Portugal continued fighting its bitter wars to retain them (pages 114 to 118).

White flight

As the scale of the civil war became clear, between 1975 and 1976 pretty much the entire white population of about 300,000 left, flying back to Portugal in what Metcalfe refers to as ‘the great airlift’ (p.124). That included all the administrators, civil servants, the police, engineers, designers, builders, architects, managers of the education and health systems, doctors and teachers, everyone who ran everything left the relatively unskilled, untrained Angolans to figure out how to run a modern country in the middle of a brutal civil war. The result: services ceased to function, education and health ceased, ministries shut down, the rubbish piled up in the streets, no-one knew what to do (pages 72 and 136).

The irony is that once the civil war had ended and the oil boom began in the Noughties, lots of Portuguese flocked back to the country for its boomtown opportunities and, by a spooky coincidence, there are, once again, about 300,000 expatriate Portuguese in Angola.

Sex trade

Oxfam’s regional director Gabriel de Barros explains how girls as young as 12 are traded by families to rich men in return for financial support, the resulting rise in teen pregnancies, STDs and AIDS (pages 108 to 111).

Huambo

Originally named Nova Lisboa, Huambo is the capital of the fertile highlands and was beautifully laid out by Portuguese planners to become the new centre of their empire in the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, it then became an epicentre of the civil war, the landscape around ravaged by war, littered with mines, and the town fought over again and again, climaxing in a 55-day-long siege in 1993 which eviscerated it. The government enforced a press blackout and in 1993 international journalists were busy in Somalia and Yugoslavia so the world never got to hear about it.

Landmines

The countryside is littered with millions of mines, anywhere between 6 and 20 million, no-one knows. Never stray off the path, don’t climb rocks or walk round a bridge. Any prominent or beautiful natural feature was targeted. For the foreseeable future they must all remain off limits (p.124).

Queen Njinga

An extended passage giving the life of the remarkable Nzingha Mbande (1583 to 1663) who rose to be Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in present-day northern Angola. She fought for 30 years to maintain the independence of her kingdoms against the encroaching Portuguese and to later generations became a symbol of resistance. The most notable things to emerge from the account are that she supported the slave trade, but insisted it be carried out according to the old customs; and the stories that she dressed as a man, insisted on being called a man, dressed her guard of women as men, and made her many male lovers dress as women if, that is, these later stories are true (pages 198 to 206).

Chockwe art

Metcalfe visits Chockwe country and even manages a (bizarre) audience with the old but still revered Chockwe king. The Chokwe people once ran an empire which covered parts of modern-day Angola, southwestern Congo and northwestern parts of Zambia. There are about 1.3 million people living across that territory. The Chockwe are famous for their sculpture art, which fetches high prices in the West.

Wooden statuette of a Chockwe princess

The role of Cuba in the civil war 1975 to 2000

Castro’s communist Cuba saved the Marxist MPLA government. In 1975 as Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA took more and more territory and advanced on the capital, Cuba flew in thousands of soldiers who stabilised the situation then reversed UNITA’s advance. Cuba’s involvement in Angola was deep and long. Between 1975 and 1988 over 300,000 Cubans served in Angola (p.212). Rejected in most of South America, snubbed by the North Vietnamese, unable to get a purchase in Mobutu’s Congo, Angola provided an opportunity for Castro to dream of spreading his revolution around the developing world. Now all that sacrifice seems utterly pointless. You could say that the 300,000 Cubans who fought to keep the MPLA in power ended up helping Isabel dos Santos to become the richest woman in Africa. Thus, as Shakespeare put it, does the whirligig of Time bring in his revenges.

The last phase

The last phase of the civil war from 1999 to 2002 was the most brutal. Metcalfe dwells on the character of the larger-than-life, brutal, charming, paranoid UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi. Like president Habyarimana of Rwanda, like Mobutu and Kabila of Zaire and the Congo, Savimbi genuinely believed in black magic, spirits and witches.

By the 1990s there were frequent burnings of dissidents and accusations of witchcraft in UNITA areas. In one case, Savimbi himself ‘discovered’ a woman spying on him by flying over his house at night. Suspected women and children would be dragged to a stadium and set alight. Anyone who dared to speak against o mais velho risked execution, including any woman who refused his advances. (p.246)

Lovely to see the old traditions being kept alive. Jeane Kirkpatrick, America’s representative to the United Nations, called Savimbi ‘one of the authentic heroes of our time.’ Hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants were terrorised by UNITA, press-ganged into working as porters, cooks or prostitutes. The MPLA government rounded up entire regions and confined them in camps. In the final months of the war as many as 4 million people were displaced, a third of the entire population.

M’banza Kongo

On his third journey, Metcalfe cadges a lift north in a battered Land Rover with the staff from a Save The Children refuge in the town of M’banza Kongo in the north-west of Angola. Back in the 1480s when the Portuguese discovered the river, the Kongo empire stretched for hundreds of miles north and south of the river mouth and far inland. Metcalfe retells the sorry saga of how initial optimism on both sides of the cultural contact quickly deteriorated as the Portuguese realised the potential of the Kongo people as slaves. In Metcalfe’s account it was the discovery of Brazil in 1500 and the quick realisation that it had great potential for sugar plantations but lacked manpower, which transformed the situation.

500 years later Metcalfe visits the homes and refuges in M’banza Kongo which house the large number of children who are thrown out of their families every year for being evil spirits. Belief in witchcraft, spirits, kindoki (a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits) and the power of fetishes is universal and when any ill luck befalls a family its most vulnerable members – children and to a lesser extent the elderly – are blamed.

Update

Metcalf’s book was published in 2013. Apparently, since then, some of the gloss has gone off the oil boom so that the planes and top hotels are no longer as busy as they were. But the structural divide between super-rich elite and everyone else remains, as evidenced in this photo essay published in the Guardian.

MCK

Protest song by anti-government rapper MCK who Metcalfe interviews (pages 83 to 88).

Portuguese terms

Recurring words and ideas include:

  • assimiliado = African who, according to the Portuguese colonial system, had reached an approved level of civilisation; comparable to the évolués in francophone colonies
  • bom dia = good morning
  • candongueiro = mini bus
  • confusão = a metaphysical state of chaos and confusion before which mere humans are helpless
  • contratado = Portuguese form of forced labour
  • empregada = home help /servant
  • feitiço = fetish or the spell is controls
  • garimpeiro = unofficial diamond miner
  • mestiço = mixed race
  • musseques = shanty town
  • pula = slang for white person
  • roça = plantation-type farm run on forced labour
  • soba = official

Fluffs

The book is generally well proof-read and typeset, but I did spot a couple of errors which humorously point towards a new use of language:

  • As she flocked cigarette ash out of the window… (p.27)
  • I felt huge a sense of excitement. (p.54)
  • There are railroads totally some ten thousand miles. (p.124)
  • They grew rich on commerce between the Zanzibar and the Atlantic… (p.229)
  • A strange period ensued when neither war nor peace reined… (p.243)

The title of the book is explained on page 144.


Credit

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe was published by Hutchinson books in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Arrow Books paperback edition.

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Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)

Reading the final novel in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy was like having my teeth pulled out one by one. It was a gruelling slog. Several times, as I forced myself to crawl on across the shiny, beautifully engineered desert of Gibson’s prose, I caught a glimpse of a pile of old Carl Hiaasen paperbacks I bought in the 1990s lying around by my shelves, and began to fantasise about escaping from Gibson’s pretentious, globe-trotting, expense account narratives, with their exhaustive descriptions of every item of clothing every character is wearing, and the expensive cars they drive and the pretentious gadgets they use, and Gibson’s eerie absence of plot and disappointing denouements, for something simpler and funnier from a simpler, funnier time.

Hiaasen’s books, by contrast, are quick and hilarious. Instead of Gibson’s laboured, carefully-wrought, burnished chrome sentences, Hiaasen just tells it quick and dirty.

‘Look at that crybaby,’ Jesús Bernal said, scowling at the heartsick Indian. ‘Somebody shot his pet lizard.’
‘You shut up,’ Viceroy Wilson hissed at the Cuban, ‘or I’ll nail your nuts to your nose.’ (p.218)

Hiaasen’s plots are outrageous and farcically convoluted (as opposed to Gibson’s plots which are contorted and obscure yet consistently disappointing). Hiaasen’s characters are varied, over the top and grotesquely colourful, unlike Gibson’s monotonously soundalike ‘cool’ characters who display as much personality as shop window mannequins.

Potted biography

Hiaasen was born in 1953 in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated with a degree in journalism and, by 1976, was writing for the Miami Herald where he worked for the city desk, Sunday magazine and award-winning investigative team. In 1985 he became a thrice-weekly columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, the ambitious author had already published his first novel, Powder Burn, co-written with friend and fellow journalist William Montalbano, in 1981, followed by Trap Line 1982.

In 1986 came his first solo novel, Tourist Season. It’s a rip-roaring comedy crime thriller, by turns breath-takingly violent and gut-wrenchingly funny. The plot makes sense, albeit in a savagely satirical manner, and the characters are immediately colourful and entertaining.

The setup

The lead writer and columnist for the fictional newspaper the Miami Sun, ‘Skip’ Wiley, who had been writing increasingly savage satirical pieces against the ruination of Florida by mass immigration from other parts of the US of fat philistine retirees, finally goes postal and sets up a half-assed band of environmental ‘revolutionaries’, dedicated to acts of terror designed to wreck Florida’s reputation as a haven for the old and tasteless. They call themselves Las Noches de Diciembre and consist of Skip himself (aged 37) and:

  • Daniel ‘Viceroy’ Wilson (black, 36), previously a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team who, after being dropped from the sport, spent some time as a drug addict and a petty criminal, before reading up on history and realising how his people had been exploited, cleaning himself up and dedicating himself to the fight against the white-dominated Florida establishment
  • Jesús Bernal (Cuban, late 20s), a shifty, sneaky Hispanic, formerly a member of an anti-Castro group named the First Weekend in July Movement, who was their lead bomb-maker and letter-writer, but was kicked out for his farcically inept attempts at making and planting bombs (they’re always going off too soon or he blows up the wrong people) and in any case, his revolutionary politics are a pose, since he was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from posh Dartmouth College, and has never been to Cuba in his life
  • Tommy Tigertail (mid-20s), a cool, looming, unspeaking member of the Seminole Nation who, in one of the novel’s thousands of ironies, are allowed to run gambling operations and so have made a fortune by catering to the infatuation of white retirees for bingo – like the others he is motivated by anger at white men’s over-development of Florida’s natural habitat, and also whitey’s victories over his forebears

Tommy keeps a ‘tame’ crocodile named Pavlov and in the early phase of the ‘revolution’, the Noches kidnap random tourists and feed them to the crocodile, starting with a blameless middle-aged tourist visiting Florida on a convention of Shriners, Theodore Bellamy, whose fez washes up on a Miami beach. The Noches crank things up a notch when they kidnap president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, dress him in Bellamy’s garish tourist outfit then have the crocodile tear him in half and stuff the remains in a tourist suitcase for the cops to find, with a a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.

So the novel is, in part, a satire on a terrorist group made up of cranks and, to some extent, ethnic stereotypes; but mostly a fierce satire on the tackiness of northern tourists in Florida, and the desperate and destructive commercialisation of the state and its fragile environment.

There are two other groups of characters, namely the cops and Wiley’s fellow journalists. Chief among the cops is Al García, Detective Sergeant for the Metro-Dade Police Homicide unit, who we see being routinely patronised by his predominantly Anglo colleagues and by the decidedly white, middle-aged men of the Chamber of Commerce. García is appointed head of a task force to catch the terrorists.

As to the journalists, at the Miami Sun were are introduced to two main characters, the paper’s long-suffering managing editor, Cab Mulcahy, and Ricky Bloodworth, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter. Energetic and ambitious, Bloodworth yearns for success in journalism, but lacks all the qualities necessary for a good reporter, including sensitivity, tact, and even basic writing skills. It is a running gag that Skip reads the articles about him and the Noches in the Sun and is professionally insulted when they fall below his own high standards and rings up the paper’d editor to shout down the phone at him. He is especially enraged when Bloodworth rewrites some of the copy he himself has submitted.

The joke being an ironic one about journalists as a profession, that Skip may have become a murdering fanatic but he still gets incandescent at poor writing style.

(It’s also a running gag that most of the white cops and journalists find it hard to pronounce Las Noches and don’t know what it means, finding it much easier to refer to the nachos, much to Skip’s exasperation.)

Sitting mid-way between these groups, and overlapping all of them is probably the central character of the book, Brian Keyes (32), a former reporter for the Sun and now a private detective, who gets caught up in the increasingly psychotic behaviour of Skip’s ramshackle band of would-be terrorists.

The victims

  • Theodore Bellamy, shriner
  • B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce
  • Renee LeVoux, tourist from Montreal
  • Ida Kimmelman, retiree
  • Dr. Remond Courtney, shill psychiatrist
  • Pavlov: a giant American crocodile
  • Jenna: Skip’s girlfriend, Brian’s ex-girlfriend

Plot developments

Keyes is hired by the widow of Theodore Bellamy to find out what happened to him. Slowly it becomes clear the Noches, led by his old friend and star newspaper reporter Skip Wiley, murdered him. In her meeting with the widow, she introduces him to two burley Shriners, colleagues of Theodore, who volunteer to help him.

Keyes goes out into the Everglades in search of Las Noches and finds a derelict cabin on stilts. He’s captured by Las Noches and forced to watch the ritual killing of tourist Ida Kimmelman, as Viceroy and Tiger throw her to the crocodile, Pavlov. Brian tries to stop them but sneaky little creep Bernal stabs him in the back. The Noches motorboat Brian back to the mainland, dumping him on a highway, where he flags down a car and is taken to hospital to be treated.

Skip’s girlfriend is the flakey Jenna, who Brian used to go out with, so there is an immense tangle of emotions and relationship damage, particularly since her loyalties seem to waver between the two men.

Keyes tails Jenna from her apartment to the airport, where he discovers that two Shriners have been tailing him. With commendable professionalism, the Shriners identify that Jenna has caught a plane to Grand Bahama, and all three catch the next one.

Here Keyes tracks Wiley down to a beach where he is sunning himself and confronts him with his deeds. He tries to reason with him, but Wiley puts his side of the argument: 1,000 new Northerners arrive every day to foul up Florida’s beautiful countryside, the only way to protect it is to terrify them away.

Keyes seriously contemplates killing Skip there and then to prevent any more innocent civilians being kidnapped and murdered. But while he’s still figuring out the possibilities, Skip blows a whistle and a bunch of compliant Bahamian cops come running, arrest Keyes and the Shriners and deport them. Skip has lavishly bribed the local authorities.

Just before he blew the whistle, Skip portentously announced to Keyes that he is planning the biggest spectacular so far, and mysteriously announces he is going to defile the most famous virgin in Florida. Keyes spends the plane journey home wondering what this can possibly mean and, by the time he has another meeting with Cab Mulcahy, has come to the conclusion that Skip and Las Noches are going to disrupt the annual beauty pageant and parade which leads up to the climax of the state football season.

One of the consistent characteristics of Hiaasen’s novels is their artful construction, whereby he creates about 4 or 5 sets of characters and then stages their increasingly convoluted and frantic interactions with masterful skill. That and a steady stream of outlandish and grotesque incidents.

Ricky Bloodworth and the bomb

A good example is the bomb. Jesús Bernal is a short weedy guy who feels jealous of the tall manliness of the others in the Noches and is continually trying to prove what a real man and real terrorist he is. Inevitably each attempt is even more of a fuck-up than its predecessor.

This Bernal has the bright idea of posting a parcel bomb to Detective Al García who is doing a good job tracking down Los Noches. But unfortunately the parcel arrives on García’s desk at the police station as ambitious young journalist Ricky Bloodworth is hanging round waiting for a scoop. In García’s absence and convinced the package contains vital information, Bloodworth swipes it and nips down to the station toilets to open it. It is perched on his lap when he opens it and triggers the bomb, which explodes, blowing his fingertips off and scorching his penis. See what I mean by outlandish and grotesque.

The kidnap of Detective García

When he reconvenes with the other Noches Bernal is ridiculed for his abject failure and for  so he ups his ambitions and kidnaps García, driving him out to an isolated lake where he tries to get him to sign a document admitting he is a traitor to the cause of Cuban Liberation, the cause García kids himself he is a leading light in. The scene builds up to a gruesome climax when Jesús shoots Al in the shoulder with a shotgun and his body falls into the lake, but we have been following Brian Keyes as he tailed the car out to this isolated spot and now Keyes shoots Bernal dead.

The cruise ship full of snakes

Next evening Skip pulls off another of his anti-tourist stunts. He hires a helicopter and flies low over a cruise ship full of fat tourists, abruptly throwing from the chopper loads of shopping bags. Initially the tourists think it’s some kind of marketing game until the bags land and out of them slither thousands of swamp snakes. Panicking passengers dive off the ship which radios for the Coast Guard but as it begins to fly in in pursuit, there’s a big surprise for the reader as Skip’s helicopter unexpectedly crashes at sea before it reaches land. There’s realistic wreckage and no bodies are found.

The Orange Bowl Parade

Throughout the second half of the novel the city authorities, the cops and Brian had been assuming that Skip’s threat had meant he was going to attack the annual Orange Bowl parade. Central feature of this is the presence of the winner of the annual beauty pageant., so this prompts a lot of satire about the utterly impure and often seedy motivation of all concerned behind such parades.

At the final pageant the young woman chosen to be beauty queen is Kara Lynn Shivers who has only entered the pageant to please her father. The authorities had been thinking the Noches were going to  attack the parade and seize the queen, but they didn’t want to ruin it and wreck the start of the tourist season by either calling it off or stuffing it with heavy-handed cops. Instead Garcia suggested a compromise which is to hire Brian Keyes as personal bodyguard to Shivers. Initially wary of him, Shivers begins to appreciate his honesty and valour and the pair, unexpectedly, fall in love.

Although Skip’s helicopter appears to have crashed and the Noches been wiped out, the authorities take no chances and Brian’s personal protection of Shiver is accompanied by a strong undercover police presence, and the Orange Bowl Parade itself is described in great detail and the reader is genuinely on tenterhooks about whether something very bad will happen. But it doesn’t. The entire thing passes off without a hitch and there is a sense of anti-climax among all concerned.

The big game

It is only after the parade is over, Kara has gone home and Brian has gone off duty that it dawns on him that on the following evening Kara will make a brief appearance during half time at the big annual football game. He buys a ticket and goes along, but is helpless when the Noches do appear, outrageously and flamboyantly, using an airboat to skid across the football pitch and scoop Kara from the half time podium.

The black ex-football player ‘Viceroy’ Wilson had bribed one of the players to lend him his kit so that he can take part in the kidnap, scooping Kara off the podium and then helping her into the airboat, but Kara fiercely resists. The airboat is followed by none other than the two dogged Shriners we met right back at the start of the novel and, at the moment when Viceroy finally throws the squealing Kara into the airboat and turns and gives a black power salute, one of the Shriners shoots Viceroy dead.

Tommy Tigertail is piloting the airboat out of the stadium and hands Kara over to Skip waiting in a fast car, which roars off down the road before the stadium cops can catch up. Tigertail turns in the other direction and heads off to hole up with his uncle somewhere in the swamps, hoping to never see a white man again. (Note that Tommy makes a cameo appearance in Hiaasen’s 2006 novel, Nature Girl, which features his mixed-race nephew, Sammy Tigertail, as a lead character.)

In a fury Brian descends on Jenna’s flat. Up to now she has limply defended Skip’s actions and Brian has given her the benefit of the doubt because he still holds a candle for her. But now he is furious. One of Skip’s foibles was keeping all his cuttings in a real wooden coffin. Brian rips it open and leafs through all his cuttings.

Confrontation on Osprey Island

One of them gives a clue that he has taken Kara Lynn to a remote place called Osprey Island, a small nature preserve in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

Cut to Skip on the island with Kara Lynn who he has tied and gagged. He explains that a massive new condominium development has been planned for the island which is going to be ploughed flat. Step one was the developers have comprehensively mined the island with dynamite set to be exploded at dawn.

Now Skip explains to Kara Lynn that he is going to leave her here to be blown up along with the rest of the island’s wildlife and when her death is discovered it will cause such a stink that it will send a ‘revolutionary’ message to Florida’s greedy developers. As he explains all this Skip is impressed by the way Kara Lynn keeps her head and tries to reason with him. He begins to regret his plan, certainly taking her gag off and listening to her. Shame. She seems like a sweet kid.

He’s still talking to her when Brian arrives and shoots Skip in the leg. Brian tells him the boat he came is out of fuel, they need his one to escape in. Initially Skip refuses to tell Brian where he has anchored his boat and is ready for the dynamite to kill all three of them till Brian reveals that he brought Jenna along too. At which point Skip caves in, tells him where his boat is moored but, to Brian’s surprise, refuses to come along. He will see his crusade out to the bitter end.

Kara, Jenna and Brian run to Skip’s boat, fire it up and are motoring away as the seconds count down. As they come out into clear water they all see the Skip is climbing a tree because a bald eagle nesting there has returned to its roost and Skip is desperately trying to scare it away.

After so much comic mayhem the novel ends on a surprisingly moving note, just as the ‘all clear’ signal for the detonation sounds, with Jenna, Brian and Kara all praying for the eagle, a powerful symbol of the dignity of the Florida environment, to fly away and be safe.

Nostalgia

Ah the good old days, before the internet, before smartphone, before social media. When the only phones were in offices, private homes or payphone boxes on the street. When the height of digital technology was sending a fax. When there were computer monitors and keyboards on desks but only so you could send documents through internal systems, such as journalists sending their copy to the printing section of the Miami Sun. None of them were connected to the wider world. Nobody had heard of the internet let alone smartphones and social media. People were just as corrupt and violent but the technology they were corrupt and violent with was easier to understand.

Also, no mention of climate change. Hiaasen was writing from a time when green and environmental issues really were for a tiny minority of fruit loops and eccentrics. What everyone now knows about global warming and systematic environmental degradation (death of the corals, seas full of plastic) has tipped the balance in Skip’s favour. Doesn’t seem so mad now. This novel feels like a message from much simpler times.

Florida’s environment

In 1986, when this novel was published and Hiaasen was raving against the overpopulation and resulting environmental destruction of the state, Florida’s population was 12 million. Today it is 21 million. People means pollution, means degradation of the environment, destruction of habitats, obliteration of other life forms. Thus:

Sprawling development has carved wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, divided by highways or paved over altogether for shopping malls and office parks — threatening state symbols such as the Florida panther and the Florida black bear. Many of Florida’s coastal marshes and barrier islands — home to endangered wildlife such as manatees, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles — have been transformed into marinas and condominiums. The Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 68 federally endangered or threatened plant and animal species, has already lost half of its area to agricultural and urban development and continues to face pressure from South Florida’s booming development. (Floridian nature)

I wonder whether anything Hiaasen has written has had any impact at all in slowing the destruction of Florida’s environment. (If you read his most recent novel, Squeeze Me, his explicit reply is No. Squeeze Me explicitly despairs of saving the Florida environment, which he now [2020] sees as irreparably ruined.)


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is the print shop, whose function is to put on displays of work by contemporary or modern photographers in quality prints which are for sale. The print room is currently hosting the first UK solo exhibition for Raúl Cañibano, one of Cuba’s most famous and prolific photographers.

Malecón series: Havana, 1994 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The room contains fifteen of Cañibano’s prints (more are available to view on request) and they’re all marvellous.

Cañibano is a people’s photographer, down and dirty among peasants and workers. There’s no studio work or models or posing. He works in black and white capturing the grit and feel of life for ordinary, generally pretty poor, Cubans.

Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

So first of all I responded to them as gritty images of the labour and enjoyments of the Cuban working classes. Only slowly did certain patterns or approaches to emerge.

There are two obvious tricks or techniques he uses. The first is the use of multiple levels. In the photo above there are, pretty obviously four levels: the old guy’s face right up close to the lens, the guy on the right swinging an axe, the horse in the middle distance, and then the mountains on the horizon. You could say these multiple levels draw you into the image, but they also emphasis the photos’ artificiality: an odd combination of the naturalistic and the heavily contrived.

Secondly,  there is Cañibano’s use of shadows. In the photo below the shadow of the woman washing her hair is reasonable enough. But the shadow of the horse and rider is unexpected, suggesting all sorts of interesting stuff going on outside the frame, and adding an air of mystery, of almost symbolic power, to the image.

Vinales, Cuba, 2013 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

What Cañibano’s use of both shadows and the multiple levels or depths do is to disrupt the predictability of the images. To disconcert and decentre them.

By comparison, behind the sales desk in the Print Room are photos from previous exhibitions, including some by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bravo’s compositions tend to have a lovely flat, calm and classical feel. They are artfully composed.

The Daughter of the Dancers (1933) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Comparing the Bravo images with Cañibano’s brings out the dynamism not only of the Cuban’s subjects (all his people are generally doing things) but the dynamism of the compositions themselves, starting with the two elements mentioned above – the multiple levels and the shadows. His people are doing things, but the image is doing things as well.

Another favourite disruptive element in Cañibano’s photos is translucent fabrics. Sometimes kids are wrapping it round themselves for fun, or making a cape out of it. Or it is just there in the background or as a feature, maybe mosquito netting or fine muslin used as an awning, as in this photo which seems to be depicting age and youth, at least we think it’s a child silhouetted in the window. (Note the multiple levels: foreground, sheet, background silhouette and, very faintly in the distance, the horizon of trees.) The woman friend I went with said it reminded her of a pre-natal scan.

Raúl Cañibano, Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

Cañibano was born and raised in a poor family in the rural province of Las Tunas on the eastern side of Cuba. He had little formal education and worked as a welder until 1989, when a visit to an exhibition of Alfredo Sarabia’s surrealist photographs at the Fototeca de Cuba inspired him, at the age of thirty, to consider a career in photography.

It paid off. In 1999 he won the Grand Prix in the Cuban National Photography Exhibit for his project on the life of rural workers, Tierra Guajira.

Thus Cañibano had little or no formal training and picked it up as he went along. His first art photograph, depicting the shadow of an equestrian statue cut off in the middle to reveal an array of modern lamp-posts against a clear cloudless sky, established his style but also hints at his socio-political concerns.

After the collapse of communism in 1990 Cuba’s role as the pioneer of communism in Latin America lost its rationale. For generations the population had put up with travel restrictions and the shortage of consumer goods because they were told they were building a better society. Then communism collapsed. Now what? In Cañibano’s photograph the general riding his proud horse into the dream of a perfect future has been cut in half.

De su serie Ciudad (1992) © Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The print gallery assistant explained to me that, because of the restrictions on imports of photographic equipment into Cuba, Cañibano initially had to use expired film and materials, and didn’t have the correct printing resources to hand when starting out. So he tended to convert the negatives straight into digital images which could be stored and distributed.

And so, this year, the Photographers’ Gallery made the decision to fly Cañibano to England, bringing his precious negatives in a cigar box. Once here the negatives were turned into limited-edition silver gelatin prints in collaboration with master printer Robin Bell, who has worked with such big name photographers as David Bailey, Don McCullin and Terence Donovan. So this exhibition is a real first, creating high quality prints of Cañibano’s work, and making them available in the UK, for the first time.

All the prints are for sale, starting at £1,250 + VAT. I can’t afford anything like that but I can well imagine people who would pay that sum for a limited edition, high-quality print of one of these wonderful, vivid and evocative images.

Malecon Habanero, Cuba, 2006 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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