The metaphorical life

From anti-capitalist zombies to existentialist New Orleans, this week’s world of arts brings allegor

Zombies and Brains: The un-dead and the well-read

The living dead are back in cinemas across the UK, bringing a new onslaught of films about flesh-eating zombies and the unintended consequences of scientific experimentation.

First, zombies terrorise a small town in Texas after an experimental biological weapon is accidentally released from a remote US military base in Planet Terror, released in the UK tonight, on 9 November.

Then a few weeks from now we’ll see the UK premiere of I Am Legend on 19 December (with the national release on 4 January). In this film a biological war leaves Will Smith the lone survivor destined to battle against a breed of mutants.

I love zombie films, but perhaps not as much I love the critics who over-intellectualise these flicks as paranoid allegories for capitalism’s automatons who trawl the strip malls of our consumerist culture like the zombies in Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead.

Yes, it’s true that Marx once called the capitalist system "vampire-like," evoking images of blood-sucking middle-managers preying on the working class.

But the intellectual elite seem to have run away with their metaphors, descending deeper and deeper into the theoretical esoteric of the "politico-aesthetic."

Curl up with one of Amazon’s "10 Best Zombie Flicks" and a copy of Mute magazine’s excessively theoretical article Zombie Nation, and see for yourself if the zombie sub-genre is truly a radical satire of capitalists devouring themselves (the ultimate in consumption!).

Meanwhile, the most radical consequence of pop culture’s devouring obsession with zombies is more likely the surprising proliferation of "Zombie walks."

Sprouting up around the world and mixing cultural critique with flash-mob style, Zombie walks – where people dress up like zombies and gather for marches and rallies of the un-dead – have kicked off from New York and Boston to London and Amsterdam.

Check out a video of London’s Zombie Walk from Leicester Square in August 2007. Also, see www.brains4zombies, the parody of Amazon that is "Your online home for Brains and Brain-Related Products."

Related

The web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece on Reason.com this February on "We the Living Dead: The Convoluted Politics of Zombie Cinema."

Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, 2005

"Cowardice, Complicity and the Withering of the Soul of America," Zombie Nation in Counterpunch, 2 November

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

As US authorities scurry to the rescue of their beloved Golden State, recently scorched by epic forest fires, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward are still waiting – for their homes to be rebuilt, for their streets to be repaved, and for their neighbourhoods to be repaired and repopulated.

And as the government takes care of their Hollywood stars, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has arrived in New Orleans.

As the time drags on without reprieve, residents of the city will see free, outdoor performances of Godot this weekend. New York’s Creative Time and the Classical Theatre of Harlem are behind the production.

A play with a history of radical performances, Waiting for Godot has been repeatedly staged at San Quentin Prison in California since 1957. Then, in 1976 a mixed-race production was staged in apartheid South Africa, and in 1993 Susan Sontag staged it in wartime Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, the Beckett-acolyte Tom Stoppard’s newest play Rock ‘n’ Roll– about 1960s Czechoslovakia, socialism, and the Plastic People of the Universe – is up on Broadway in New York.

The political possibilities of theatre are then further explored in London this month with the production of The Lady of Burma (on from 7 Nov – 2 Dec at Riverside Studios), about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratically-elected leader of Burma currently under house arrest in her country, amid the unfolding crisis.

Related

NPR’s story on the New Orleans’ productions of Godot

Anthony Minghella on Beckett in New Statesman

Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty, has workers waiting for Lefty, the union’s elected chairman, who never comes.

Bollywood does Dostoevsky

Tonight’s newest Bollyood blockbuster, Saawariya, is based on Dostoevsky’s short story "White Nights".

A love story about a chance encounter between an itinerant musician and a worker in the city’s red-light district, the romantic musical opens in the UK 9 November just in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

But it’s not the first time Bollywood has tackled European classics -- recall the industry’s adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Bride and Prejudice), where "the Bennet family becomes the Bakshis and Mr Darcy becomes a wealthy American." Bollywood has also done numbers on everything from Fight Club to Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool).

See India’s national newspaper, The Hindu on "Shakespeare in Bollywood."

Part of a much larger theme, Bollywood’s adaptations of Western literature and film echoes the similar experience of West Africa, where Greek tragedy in particular has become a model and inspiration for African playwrights. Favourites include: Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Uripides and Sylvain Bemba’s Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone.

Related

The BBC on "Are Bollywood remakes a good idea?" Dec 2006

Kevin Wetmore’s The Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedy, 2001

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times