In the Critics this week

Žižek on Batman, Leo Robson on McEwan and Tracey Thorn on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Revolt, violence and class struggle are the themes jostling to the fore of this week’s Critics pages, most explicitly in Slavoj Žižek's essay on Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.

Žižek writes that “The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.” “The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic … they show in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.” Its villain, Bane "reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be 'the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and over-throw societal elites’.” Yet “the occupy Wall street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent… the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.” Just as telling is Žižek's examination of Batman’s wealth, “arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist.” Yet for “all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with popular uprising.”

One imagines that among the 1 per cent cheering into their gold-dusted popcorn at The Dark Knight Rises are those described in Tim Burt's book, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations, which the NS's reviewer Elaine Glaser believes to be “revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate ‘leaders’ and bankers really think.” “Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multi-millionare chief executives feel themselves to be.” Their answer? PR, which "treats" us to “better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs someone else.” “While business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractise and corruption won’t even see the light of day.”

Though the messages of PR and The Dark Knight Rises may be pure fantasy, Harriet Sergeant’s book Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang examines a demographic that really did explode into violent rioting last summer. Alan White says of it: “read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense,” and though “not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book.” Yet the picture painted bears no resemblance to the dark masses of Batman. “Harriet Sergeant… who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail… was never going to convince us that three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them.” The result is “a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.” “How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than commit crime to survive." "But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down.”

Another tale of politicised violence is the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. Ryan Gibley notes that “surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.” As “a film that insists its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of [IRA agent] Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her.” This subtlety carries through to the film’s exposition and characterisation, with “pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue.”

A quiet tale of conflict and espionage also forms the setting of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the story of a young woman who works as a spy during the Cold War. Like much of McEwan’s recent work, Leo Robson finds that it “rewards rereading, but not reading” as “a triumph of the most negative kind, a novel  that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason.” “Ample precedent has taught the reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentences seem capable of slipping its skin to expose another.” It also “follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic” and his trademark “belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting.” “It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and postmodernism.”

Amongst these stories of earth shaking conflict and social upheaval, Tracey Thorn’s eulogy to the shy and underrated writer Elizabeth Taylor is a welcome respite. She notes that, “as in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation.” “This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtly, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise.” “She finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.”

A man dressed as Batman (Image: Getty)
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood