There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more
The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.
I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more
Yesterday, I left Hungary having had a great time at the ELF in Eger. So encouraging – and quite apart from the excitements of seeing folk on our network again and being involved in teaching, I was able to have some very encouraging conversations with folks from Austria, Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria in particular. Things are really developing fast in some of those places for our work.
But am now in the Czech Republic for a few days, to do a weekend for the International Church of Prague. Had a couple of hours this morning to wander around with Simon, one of my hosts. So good to be back here. Prague is one of my favourite places on earth. Simon has been here for 18 months or so and had not yet had the chance to visit the Museum of Communism and so off we went this morning. It’s quite small – essentially a converted flat in the centre of town – but as well as tracing the history of the country during the 20th century, it manages to convey something of the atmosphere of fear and oppression. Unusually, one is allowed to take photos, so I took a few.
In one room was a looped video narrating the story of communism and in particular the protests against it. Both of us were blown away by a song that accompanied footage of police beating up peaceful protesters in Wenceslas Square in 1989 (during the months leading up to the regime’s fall). When we got home, Simon discovered that it was written by one Karel Kryl, who had lived in exile for much of the time, but wrote string of folk songs about his homeland. Very sadly, he died only a few years after the Velvet Revolution.
The song is simply called THANKS – and is full of profoundly Christian imagery – and speaks of the extraordinary ability of people standing up for truth and justice to endure suffering and even to find redemption through it.
Karel Kryl – Thanks
Lyrics – translation taken from this fan site
God created, created a branch
So as I could make wreaths
Thanks, Thanks for the pain
That teaches me to question
Thanks, Thanks for the failure
That teaches me to work harder
So that I could bring a gift
Despite my weakness
Thanks, thanks, thanks Thanks
Thanks for the weakness
That teaches me to be humble
To be humble with joy
To be humble without any bondage
Thanks, Thanks for tears
That teach me to be sensitive
To be sensitive for those who suffer
Who suffer and cry out for mercy
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Thanks for the desire for beauty
That gives me something to long for
Thanks for the fact
That love combats spite
For the sweetness
Sweetness of falling asleep
Thanks for the feeling of tiredness
For blazing of fire
For rushing of rivers
Thanks for the thirst
That was revealed by my weakness
Thanks for the torment
That inspires good deeds.
For the fact
That I love
Although my heart is constricted by anxiety
Lamb, Thank you
You did not die in vain.
Thanks, thanks, thanks
Very powerful – not least because of the images juxtaposed with it in the museum.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering, as we left the museum, what would have happened had the Cold War ended very differently? What if it had been the West that collapsed? What would a Museum of Capitalism then have looked like?
While I definitely prefer to live in a democratic and capitalist society (no surprises there), and think there are certain aspects of it that are clearly better than communism, it is by no stretch of the imagination perfect – not least because it is equally constructed on the flimsy, flawed foundations of modernity. I fear there would easily be enough material to prove capitalist complicity in iniquity…
Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain’s equivalent of George Orwell, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.
This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos.
- The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite).
- The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s
- The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great.
They’re very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems – the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one’s initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical – but then if you’ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the ‘purest’ in history), you’d be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates:
That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light. (p217)
I reviewed Kadare’s gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon’s Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha‘s brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story’s worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.
A Daughter Sacrificed for a Father’s Ambition
The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, ‘The Guide’, who’s clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl’s father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can’t fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else – but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana ‘higher up’.
But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves’ classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet this book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors’ radar. The narrator can’t help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.
The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.
But this is where Kadare’s genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No – it was the king himself who devised the plan – such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He’d had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn’t he?
Which is of course what, in the narrator’s eyes, Suzana’s father had done. He’d sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda – and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he’s prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he’d been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp…
The other myth that the narrator ponders is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania’s indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles – hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag.
One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear. There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings – but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn’t think this would be a problem. (p37)
The eagle’s flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected.
When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that.
It’s not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back. (p41-42)
This tale’s significance is obvious. It’s interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he’s been given the parade invitation, does that mean he’s also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too – Suzana’s father has paid with others’ flesh, and his own – and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader…
The Power of Literature
Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 – and his recipient’s speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it’s worth checking out prize chairman John Carey’s speech in awarding the prize too). There’s one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says:
To explain myself briefly, I’d like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante’s master Virgil tells him: “Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!”
That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a “dead storm”, you’ll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature.
That’s a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man – or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…
Thankful to my old friend Gareth Russell for this tip-off.If you’re in the UK, you may not have picked this little piece up, but CNN reported that in some research by the Pew Foundation, the American subgroup/subculture most likely to support the use of torture in the war on terror are EVANGELICALS!! This is what it said:
The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey…
… The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations — such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians — categorized as “mainline” Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified. A quarter of the religiously unaffiliated said the same, compared with two in 10 white non-Hispanic Catholics and one in eight evangelicals.
Well I ask you. Reading that got me spitting. Jack Bauer has clearly won the battle for hearts and minds – and it would appear that the Christian right have become his most ardent fans.
But then, when you look at it carefully, you notice that (inevitably), the headlines are not 100% fair. For a start, the sample size for the whole piece of research is pretty tiny: only 742. America is such a VAST and diverse country that I doubt any small sample would ever really tell you what was going on in people’s heads.
And I would expect (hope) that there are wide variances in opinions even amongst regular, evangelical churchgoers, as a result of age, geography, education and employment levels. Then, please note that the stats are not that different (see right) – there is some variation at the blue end but it’s interesting how the ‘torture can often be justified’ is fairly static.
But of course, that won’t bother the “religion-is-dangerous” brigade. It’s all grist to their mill. Chris Scharen sums up how this has gone down in the secular world – not that we need necessarily change our views because of how they look – but in this instance, it makes one truly cringe. Here are one or two that Chris dug up:
The God they believe in couldn’t find any better way to offer salvation than to have himself tortured to death. With this kind of violence at the heart of their belief system, I’m not surprised that they think torture is OK.
This isn’t the evidence of a fundamental difference between morals of theists and non-theists that same commentators are trying to make it. Take a look again at those numbers. They say that, roughly 40% of atheists, 50% of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and 60% of evangelicals, support torture. That’s hardly a huge difference. And given the sample sizes the statistical error alone is +-5%.
The thing is this. What bothers me most is not so much that evangelicals came out on top or bottom (depending on how you look at it). Call me naïve, but what’s troubling me is that this is a debate amongst Christians at all. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it seems pretty clear that torture is pretty counter-productive (I linked to this fascinating article about Churchill vs Cheney in the last Q Treasure map). But more significantly, I don’t see how one can really justify physical torture ethically, even if one goes down a just war line. I’m no ethicist – and i’ve never really studied just war theory properly – but I can’t imagine that it contains scope for a doctrine of “just water-boarding”. Can you see Jesus doing that? Or am I just being naïve again?
So find myself totally chiming with how Christian Scharen concluded his post:
Okay, folks, if this doesn’t motivate us to (1) actually get serious about becoming the kind of people who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us every week in church and (2) offering another version of Christianity in which Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s NO to torture, and our lives are not lived as ‘better than thou’ but ‘servant of thou’. Because that version is not the loudest in our time. The headline is, “Churchgoers like torture.”
Finally, while we’re on the theme, one of the most powerful moments in that epic series LOST was when Sayid, the former Iraqi torturer, is confronted by one of his victims. But he finds the only thing that can confront torture and deal with guilt: forgiveness. [The video was withdrawn from youtube because of copyright, so you’ll just have to buy the DVDs!]