Posts Tagged ‘Isabel Allende’

My A-Z of Reading: Z is for Zeitgeist

December 28, 2016

Warning: this post is political, and I make no apology for that.

The spirit of our times is selfishness. Thatcher’s Britain – me, me, me; there’s no such thing as society. For two generations now, this mantra has been dinned into everyone; the neoliberal tentacles have spread in every direction so that even to suggest that some things are better done by the state on behalf of everyone in society is to seem to exhibit signs of lunacy, and one is treated as if one is somehow wrong in the head. Writers such as Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, to name but a couple, who challenge such orthodoxy, are regarded as being on the extremes of politics.

The US is the individualist society par excellence, with power and influence far beyond its shores. The individual self-fulfilment preached by the hippy movement of the sixties and seventies was soon co-opted by consumerism, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction and the balance between individual and collective was lost, to everyone’s cost. Britain suffers perhaps more than any other nation because we have the misfortune to share a similar language with the US, which means that every crackpot idea from that land can reach us virtually instantly, unmediated. Not that we aren’t short of home-grown crackpots, mind…

Where is the literature in all this, you may wonder, as that is supposedly the driving force of my blog? Two novels spring to mind. The first I must go back to soon, as it’s more than thirty years since I last read it: Robert Tressell’s masterpiece from the early twentieth century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which reduced me to tears when I read it; it makes an irrefutable case for socialism being a fairer way to run society in the interests of the vast majority of people. And then there’s a utopian, science-fiction classic from the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Dispossessed, which shows us how an anarchist society might be run, and what it might feel like to be part of one. Life isn’t easy on Anarres, but people feel that what they have is worth working for, struggling for. In different ways, both these writers take us outside the mainstream bubble and show us how things might be very different.

In my younger days, as a student, I mingled with all sorts of political groups on the left, and the communist party analysis then, straight from Marx, was that the class struggle was the paramount struggle, and if that was won, the other issues in society, which did exist, such as racism, sexism, ageism, environmental issues and the like, could then be resolved. Other interest groups, however, chose to prioritise their struggles in their particular areas, dividing the opposition exactly as the hegemony wanted.

In my older years I’m coming to think that Marx was right, and that over the years energies have been diverted from the main problem: look at what has happened in the recent US election, where one might say that the struggles by people of colour, women, environmentalists and others, kept the Democratic Party fragmented and led to its losing, while somehow Trump managed to present himself as the champion of an impoverished and disenfranchised class… and won… There are two classes, however you look at things, and what is vague is where the dividing line between them is drawn, but there are the wealthy few who take money from the many ordinary people, the few who enjoy a far greater share of wealth and property than they have right to or need of, right across the world, and are prepared to use violence of all kinds to keep things as they are.

I suppose that brings me to the second spirit of the times: violence. The world is a much more violent place now than when I was a student: you could feel safe travelling pretty much anywhere. I had friends who hitch-hiked to India, via Afghanistan… now even in the relative safety of Europe there is the risk of a terrorist outrage at any moment. How did we get here? Two things stick out, for me, based on what I’ve seen in my life so far. The first is the failure of the West to contribute to a resolution of the Palestine problem; in fact our attitudes and policies have made the situation much worse, and helped poison the feelings of much of the Middle East towards us. And secondly, we can’t stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Capitalism needs unfettered access to their raw materials, and again this manufactures conflict. Nor can any country be allowed to offer a working alternative model to capitalism: far too dangerous a precedent for our system. See Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits for further exploration of this idea, or just read up on modern history. Writers have always been political: Shakespeare explored contemporary political issues, as did Jane Austen.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this blog will return to dealing (mainly) with literature, teaching and travel…

Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits

July 23, 2013

9781400043187This novel had sat around for a long time waiting for me to get to it; what a revelation, as it was well worth waiting for. Isabel Allende’s uncle was Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected President of Chile in 1970, and murdered in a US-backed coup in 1973. This event was one of the most shocking of my younger days, and made me realise just how difficult any meaningful political change anywhere in the world was going to be.

Allende writes in the familiar Latin American ‘magic realism’ genre, reminding one easily of Marquez’s great novels. She traces the history of her country – never named, but clearly Chile – through the story of the successes and failures of several generations of one family, against the backdrop of more general social and political change; this family becomes more closely involved with the movements that led up to the events of the 1970s as the story nears that time.

The lyrical portrayal of a loved country and people develops very effectively; one comes to know and love the range of – sometimes bizarre – members of the family, their houses and country estates. It is magical realism at its captivating best, but obviously there is always in the back of the reader’s mind the traumatic events of forty years ago, and one of the things that drew this reader along was wondering how Allende would integrate them.

The chapters that deal with the coup and murder of the president are a kick in the crotch to the reader; the brutality leaps out, and characters we have grown to know and like are sucked into the nightmare; the magic vanishes and the reality is devastatingly effective.

I was drawn to compare this novel with an old favourite of mine, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which is also set in Latin America, although the fictional land of Costaguana is less readily identifiable than Allende’s Chile. Again, the backdrop is the economic development of the country against the backdrop of scheming and coups and revolutions, and how revolutions – at least to Conrad – inevitably seem to corrupt those who make them or are involved in them. Both writers seem to me to raise the question of whether, and how, it is possible to make a better world, that encompasses all people, rather than benefiting only those ruthless and fortunate ones at the top of the heap. They don’t offer an answer, though…

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