Show Hide image

Latin lessons

¡Viva South America! A Journey
Through a Restless Continent
Oliver Balch
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £

In 1947, George Orwell published an apocalyptic essay entitled “Towards European Unity”. Re­iterating Rosa Luxemburg’s choice between “socialism or barbarism”, he claimed that the only possible hope for socialism (hence, to him, for humanity) was Europe, the only place where “socialism means liberty, equality and internationalism”, as opposed to the “oligarchical collectivism” of the USSR. Elsewhere, he wrote, the Soviet myth held sway, or capitalism was entrenched. Although Orwell’s expectation of immediate nuclear Armageddon proved alarmist, 62 years later, with a similarly apocalyptic geo­political scenario of economic collapse and catastrophic climate change, his essay largely rings true – only we should exchange the continent of Europe for that of South America.

In Europe, despite the emergence of a new new left in France and Germany, socialism too often means Thatcherism with a permanently grinning face, or further east, the grim police states of the former Soviet empire. But in Latin America, avowed socialists of one sort or another have won a string of election victories, most recently with El Salvador falling by the ballot to the former guerrillas of the FMLN. None of these governments is strictly revolutionary – the name of the Bolivian governing party, Movement Towards Socialism, is telling, suggesting a slow, steady progression rather than a sudden rupture – and they range from Venezuela at the leftmost edge to the reforming neoliberal Workers’ Party government in Brazil. Nonetheless, most of these movements show an optimism and confidence that socialism genuinely means “liberty, equality and internationalism” rather than the surveillance, inequality and warmongering of Europe’s governing socialist parties. Yet expecting Latin America to solve the world’s problems would be foolhardy: this is a continent that remains mired in an often extreme poverty and violence, and where the reforming governments fund their social programmes through fossil fuels.

This combination of giddy hope and a sense of impending doom runs through Oliver Balch’s travelogue ¡Viva South America!, one of the few books in English to discuss the continent and its uninterrupted “pink tide” in any sustained way. Describing itself as “a journey through a restless continent”, it charts a chatty, unsystematic but often very informative and astute path. Balch, a British journalist based in Argentina, structures the book around two central organising conceits. First, he looks for evidence of “the ghost of Simón Bolívar”, the 19th-century revolutionary who liberated much of the continent from Spanish rule. Bolívar, a combination of visionary, pragmatist, bourgeois statesman, guerrilla, high-minded moralist and impressive philanderer, is taken as an embodiment of the continent’s contradictory radicalisms. Each chapter begins with a quote from the “great liberator”, and most reflect on his legacy (or lack of one) today.

Perhaps more worryingly, each chapter takes a country in South America (with one Caribbean addition, Cuba) and focuses on an element of its politics, daily life or national mythology. So we have “Colombia and Violence”, “Ecuador and Indigenous Peoples”, “Venezuela and Revolution”, “Bolivia and Economics”, and so forth. Some of these chapters make sharply counter-intuitive claims. This is perhaps where ¡Viva South America! is at its best, debunking or at least complicating some of the stories these countries tell, both to themselves and to gringos such as our correspondent.

So, Chile, which is now ruled by Michelle Bachelet, a former victim of Pinochet’s dictatorship, is found to be an endemically sexist state, where the cult of the Virgin Mary masks a reality of domestic violence and casual misogyny. Similarly, “Brazil and Race” takes well-chosen aim at the ideology of a colour-blind nation, noting that the official praise of miscegenation enables a situation where mainly black favelas and mainly white governments and boardrooms are induced to feel proud of their country’s enlightened attitude to race. These are also the moments where Balch’s unassuming manner is most effective. The book is dominated by everyday reportage, not facts or analysis, and this tends to succeed or fail depending on who Balch is talking to or how much the reader can do without a political ex­position. He questions his interviewees in the Louis Theroux manner, withholding his own opinions but gently pushing people into saying what they really mean.

When it works, ¡Viva! is both funny and serious, though its author will never win any awards as a prose stylist (more than once, he uses the inexcusable “x is like y on drug z” trope). Balch has no party-political axe to grind, although if anything his allegiances seem to lie with grass-roots politics, particularly with the attempts to build self-managing institutions against, or, in the case of Venezuela, alongside official governments. He is sympathetic, if gently ironic, towards Argentina’s self-managed factories, co-operatives and collectives, where his interviewees’ Guevarist posturing clearly exists in tandem with some genuinely serious attempts at eliminating exploitation. Prominent mention is made of the struggles of indigenous Americans, taking power for the first time in Ecuador and Bolivia; and in Venezuela, Balch marches and parties with the Chavistas and pours scorn on their neoliberal opponents, although he is not blind to the movement’s near-worship of its leader. When a quietly sardonic Balch describes a group of Venezuelan leftists yelling “¡Socialismo o muerte!” it’s clear he’s no joiner-in, but he never patronises their optimism or their seriousness.

Sometimes the travelogue exhibits the geopolitical nous of a gap-year traveller. In a concluding chapter on Cuba, just before last year’s dynastic succession in which Fidel Castro passed the mantle of head of state to his brother Raúl, he makes the not unprecedented observation that one-party states tend towards ossification and that Havana hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. The lack of analysis becomes glaring when he ponders how Cuba’s free universal health service lacks basic medicines (a half-century blockade might explain that little teaser). Similarly, the tendency to exotica can become wearying. But ¡Viva! is a vivid, enjoyable book about one of the few areas that offer any real hope for socialists today – though Balch is no Orwell, and ¡Viva South America! no Homage to Catalonia.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide