Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. By Louis de Bernieres

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 1992.

The book is set in an unnamed South American country, and the milieu is familiarly like the ones in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books, and in some by Graham Greene. Perhaps as homage to Marquez, a large part of the book uses magic realism as a narration technique. And, while there are no yellow butterflies or ships stuck in the middle of a swamp, there is an overflow of tame jaguars in the streets of the village of Cochadebajo de los Gatos. Cardinal Guzman, who suffers unbearable stomach pains, is diagnosed as bearing a highly developed teratoma. This a tumor of a pluripotent stem cells that may develop hair and often the tissue of other organs including eyes and brains. The catholic priest is therefore forced to assent to an 'abortion' of a 'foetus' from his own (male) body!

But this style of writing is in only one part of the book. The rest is conventional, though here too there are frequent apparent allusions to Marquez - the names Aurelio, Remedios, Rinconondo (Macondo?), and a reference to the 'solitude' of a place. However, as somebody remarked in a Marquez obituary recently, no one writing about South America can anymore use the words 'solitude' or 'one hundred years' without invoking the presence of Gabo. 

Cardinal Guzman's catholic missionaries are rejected and sometime killed by communist or capitalist militia, or by native villagers who incorporate local pre-Christian traditions and create their own versions of the faith. In trying to protect them, the Cardinal unwittingly unleashes an inquisition, full of confessions and autos-da-fe, conducted by his grim, self-righteous secretary. A large bodyguard of thugs and a few priests constitute this new army of Christ. Owing to the preoccupation of the elected President with his libido, or rather the lack of it, there is no real government in the country. Taking advantage of this, El Innocente, as the secretary calls himself, travels across the country with his retinue, bringing 'heretics' to justice and to Christ in unspeakably awful ways. Meanwhile, the people in the village of Cochadebajo de los Gatos have established a comfortable equilibrium of existence in a free and easy society that includes blacks, native Indians, whites, Latinos, jaguars, whores, engineers and couple of priests. The avenging army of the inquisition comes up against its first major block at this village, and lays siege to it. Eventually, through a combination of luck, ingenuity, courage, magic and assistance from the lawful army, the villagers win, and it now the turn of El Innocente to be subjected to unspeakable horror.

The book is not as good as the one that first attracted me to de Bernieres - 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. It lacks its sweetness and narrative continuity. The story I have summarized above is only one of the narrative threads. There is another concerning the Cardinal, and a third about the crazy exploits of the President and his trophy wife. And a couple of others concerning various other minor characters. 

But it is the story of the new 'Albigensian Crusade*', which I summarized in the previous paragraph, on which de Bernieres hangs his humanist political beliefs. In discussing how the numbers of the crusaders grew so suddenly, he gives the following background: 'In the past the Liberals had mercilessly slaughtered, tortured and raped in the name of modern secular state, and the Conservatives had done exactly the same in the name of the Catholic theocracy.' The results of the wars were so confusing, that is was a deep puzzle why they were undertaken in the first place. A possible explanation was that 'the nation possessed the kind of mentality that would see no contradiction in invading another country to impose pacifism upon it.' 

In another passage, de Bernieres writes about how the the leftist guerrillas were 'first welcomed and supplied by the campesinos, who saw as their only means of survival the establishment of a communist state that would more equitably distribute the profits of production.' Also they hoped that they would be protected from the army, 'which seemed to be little more than a state-funded organisation for the perpetration of rape and pillage'. When the guerrillas overthrew the army and 'had a free hand to slot with immaculate precision into the place it had left vacant', now, in turn, 'the peasants were raped and pillaged by guerrillas who demanded supplies and other privileges'. Much the same kind of drama, I suppose, is being enacted in the forests of Central India today.

On the whole, book does not say anything new, at least not much that has not already been said with better support and more insight elsewhere. In sum, after the high expectations raised by 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', this book is a disappointment.

*The Albigensian Crusade refers to the 20 year campaign of massacre and pillage that occurred the early 13th century in the Langedouc region of France, centered around the town of Albi. It was carried out under orders from Pope Innocent III, who wanted to root out Catharism, a 'heretic' sect of Christianity which believed that all material stuff is evil and only the spirit is pure. The crusaders were constituted of the kind of thugs de Bernieres writes as comprising the new crusade.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Age of Revolution. By Eric Hobsbawm

The Age of Revolution

Eric Hobsbawm

Abacus. First published in 1962.

Hobsbawm is firmly and harshly characterized as a 'Marxist' historian in Wikipedia. But despite the right-wing slant of that article, quoting extensively from his critics, and very little from his supporters and admirers, it has to admit that Hobsbawm's scholarship is impeccable, that his knowledge and grasp of historical facts is thorough, and that his quartet of books, of which 'The Age of Revolution' is the first, is a brilliant exposition of the history of modern times, especially of the West. I had vaguely heard of him before, and always in connection with Marxism, but it was only on his death in October 2012 that I read about him more extensively, mainly in the pages of 'The Hindu'. So about six months ago, when I saw this book in the airport bookshop in New Delhi, I bought it. I came to read it only now.

This is not so much a 'history', with events and dates, but rather a study of the effects of the events, chiefly in Europe, specifically England and France, between 1789 and 1848, and how these events changed the world. The two revolutions that Hobsbawm studies are the French revolution and the Industrial revolution, the latter largely in England. The book is divided into two sections. In the first Hobsbawm describes the background and the events of the two revolutions. Not so much a day-by-day description, but more in terms of analyses. This section, and indeed the entire book, reads like detailed commentary as an addition to a more conventional history of the two major events. In other words, though sometimes called an 'Introduction', the book cannot be read profitably by anyone who has not already read some amount of European history of that period. Which I, fortunately, have. 

In the second section Hobsbawm deals with the results of the two revolutions. Though the conclusions and arguments are extremely dense, not easy to summarize, I gather that he characterizes these as the following. The French revolution brought about a downfall of the then reigning aristocracy, though only incompletely since the social hierarchy survived, but the social ladder could now be climbed on the basis of achievement - military, scientific, or artistic. Something similar happened in England through the Industrial revolution which 'broke out' in the 1790s. Hobsbawm confesses himself puzzled as to why this should happen in England, and not in France or elsewhere on the continent, which were at similar levels of scientific and technical development. Whatever the reasons, these changes in the economy and the rise of capitalism, along with the theoreticians and apologists therefor - Adam Smith being among the most prominent of them, a thinker whose ideas are hotly debated even today - changed English society in even greater ways than it happened in France. A new middle class was established, though it was yet very small. Working with one's hands or brains no longer constituted any serious obstacle to being 'received at St. James'. The French revolution was a left-wing event, violent and progressive but short term. The Industrial revolution was a right-wing, conservative occurrence, long term and continuing.

Hobsbawm discusses and concludes a great deal more, but these points are difficult for me to summarize. Here, to give a flavour of the kind of things he writes about, I will quote a few passages, along with some background.

In Chapter 8 he discusses the effects of the revolutions on the patterns of land-holding. Britain and most other European countries were then colonial powers and derived a large part of their income from rents in the colonies. [As an aside, and not discussed by Hobsbawm, it would interesting to know how much this kind of forceful appropriation of the wealth, labour and talent of the colonies contributed to the 'The Wealth of Nations', as set against the income generated by industrial entrepreneurship.] In this context he describes how the British overthrew the system set in place in India by the Moghuls and imposed their own. He says: 'Greed rather than convenience dictated the second type of revenue system, which eventually covered just over half of the area of British India, the Ryotwari' [as against the Zemindari].
And again: 'Liberal doctrine combined with disinterested rapacity to give another turn to the screw of compressing the [Indian] peasantry: they [the British Government] sharply increased the weight of taxation.'
And: 'The application of economic liberalism to the Indian land created neither a body of enlightened estate owners nor a sturdy yeomen peasantry' [in contrast to what apparently happened in Britain]. 
In Chapter 10 he discusses how the Industrial revolution enabled advancement by means of talent alone. But he also bemoans the destruction of traditional aesthetic and humane values these changes brought about. He repeatedly quotes Charles Dickens, and writes of 'this desolate epoch' being dominated by 'a pietistic protestantism, rigid, self-righteous, unintellectual, obsessed with puritan morality to the point where hypocrisy was its automatic companion', not a bad description of some parts of middle India today - though of course 'protestantism' is substituted by 'Hindutvavad'. 
And further on in the same paragraph he says: 'The masses of new proletarians had to be broken into the industrial rhythm of labour by the most draconian labour discipline, or left to rot if they would not accept it. And yet even today the heart contracts at the sight of the landscape constructed by that generation'.
'The crucial achievement of the two revolutions was thus that they opened careers to talent, or at any rate to energy, shrewdness, hard work and greed.'

In Chapter 11 he talks about the labouring poor. With regard to their participation in the social changes happening around them, he says that they were 'apathetic about the capacity of collective action...It is no accident that the least skilled, least educated, least organized and therefore least hopeful of the poor, then as later, were the most apathetic'. He then gives examples which show how large sections of the educated and skilled middle classes (technicians, masons, carpenters...) voted in elections, but only small numbers of the labouring classes did. Quite different from the situation in India today, where middle class South Madras and South Bombay have far lower voting percentages than rural Dharmapuri. 

In Chapter 13 about the effects of the revolutions on secular ideology. He discusses the rise of the concepts of liberalism and democracy, which 'appeared to be adversaries rather than allies; the triple slogan of the French revolution "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" [appeared] to express a contradiction rather than a combination'. In a profound summary of the sincere and well-meaning practice of almost all current political ideologies, he says: 'What distinguishes the various members of the ideological family descended from humanism and the Enlightenment, liberal, socialist, communist or anarchist, is not the gentle anarchy which is utopia of all of them but the method of achieving it.' If some simplification is permitted, 'gentle anarchy' is what both Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky advocate as a desirable 'End of History'.

In discussing the Arts (Chapter 14) he writes about how the Romantics (who thrived in this period) were haunted by 'the demonic element in capitalist accumulation, the limitless and uninterrupted pursuit of more, beyond the calculation of rationality or purpose, need or the extremes of luxury'. Further in the same chapter he discusses how 'Brahmin India' rather than 'the irreligious and rational Chinese Empire' became the spiritual goal of the medieval conservatives who rose as a reaction to the two revolutions.

In the last chapter he says that both the champions of liberal progress (and raw capitalism) as well the new socialists were united in admitting that the labouring poor were no better off after the revolution than before. However, the capitalists said that the reason for this was the opposition provided by the remnants of feudalism, monarchy and aristocracy. The socialists said that it was due to the very nature of the capitalist system, and would therefore require another revolution to change the situation. Hobsbawm clearly agreed with the latter idea.  

Though well-written, frequently with a nice turn of phrase, and the occasional sarcasm, the book is so dense with ideas that it should be studied like a textbook, rather than just read. I expect that the other three books in the quartet will be much the same. Nevertheless, they remain on my list of books to read.