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We're sorry, but we do not have permission to present this article on our website. It is an excerpt from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Metropolitan). © 2000 by Eduardo Galeano. Translation © 2000 by Mark Fried.
Let's cut to the chase on Ken Burns's Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.
1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.
2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres
normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.
3) Does it need more editing? Yes.
4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.
5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.
6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.
7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.
8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.
9) Is it good history? It's made-for-PBS history.
10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn't, and it hasn't even aired yet.
11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns's Jazz are bullish.
12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.
13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.
Now let's dolly back and try to tell the story.
The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it's the biggest documentary that's been done about jazz.
And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it's too constrictive. It's easy to see why. It's certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz's first decades using a handful of pioneers.
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937)," writer Albert Murray declares, "Jazz is primarily dance music." Though that hasn't been true for nearly half the music's history, it's clear he's speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of "adult sensibility" and is the series' gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on--out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what's left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus's to Sonny Rollins's flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis's push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don't appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film's senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs--on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in "soundies." But the video record of what fans like to call America's greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns's strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover's point about its integrated patrons--a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman's 1938 "Sing Sing Sing" concert at Carnegie Hall.
The series boasts tours de force. The evocative segment called "The Road" strings out a head-turning daisy chain of wondrous footage: bands on trains and buses and touring cars, chugging 500 miles a day, six days a week, making whoopee and changing tires, riding high onstage and coping with breakdowns and prejudice offstage. The recently deceased bass and photography great Milt Hinton recalls how at band stops his wife would head into town to look for black homes where the musicians could eat and stay, how musicians were people of prestige in the community. Readings from journals and newspapers and diaries sample big-band life's dizzying ups and downs, while the film rolls from impromptu baseball games to a couple of female jazz fans puffing fake reefers while hugging the sign of a town named Gage.
And in the background rolls out more jazz by far than 99 percent of America has heard. Much of the time, it's as snippets in the background when one after another talking head pops up. The heads are duly identified time after time. The tunes aren't, unless they're keyed to a biographical or sociological set piece. Why not flash a subtitle to tell the audience what's playing?
Because jazz is the soundtrack for this series as much as or more than it is its subject. To put it another way, this isn't really a movie about jazz history. Think of Burns as PBS's Oliver Stone. Like the Civil War and baseball, jazz for Burns and Ward is a lens to focus on basic questions: Who are Americans, and how do they manage to get along--or not? And their central query concerns race.
So they film jazz as the tale of black redemption in and of America, a narrative of conversion and triumph whose shape recalls St. Augustine and Dante. From the days of slavery through the humiliations of Jim Crow and minstrelsy to the assertive freedom of the blues and jazz, Burns's movie resounds with the apocalyptic ring of apotheosis, as it examines a few crucial candidates for cultural sainthood. For it wants both to carve jazz greats into the American pantheon and to underline jazz's pivotal centrality to twentieth-century America as an affirmation of African-American creativity and endurance.
This, coupled with Marsalis's camera-savvy polish as a spokesman as well as his insistent championing of jazz education over the years, explains why a filmmaker like Burns would feel drawn to JALC's version of jazz history. (Actually, Dan Morgenstern, the respected head of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, was the film's senior historical consultant and vetted the script; there were twenty-three consultants in all, so until the final episode there are inevitable points of similarity, but not identity, with Lincoln Center's tale.) But dramatic necessity also helps explain why some characters, like Armstrong and Ellington, are the story's recurrent focus.
Swing, you might guess, is a buzzword in this series, and you'd be right, even though the film itself doesn't swing much. The earnestness that suffuses PBS cultural products won't let it float for long. At times, the music's lilting ease and fire contrast vividly with its deliberate, self-conscious pace. That's exacerbated by Burns's seventy-five talking heads: Watching can be like sitting through a course team-taught by the UN.
Besides Marsalis, Burns's other main soloist is writer Gary Giddins, and Giddins swings: His wide-ranging erudition rides his love for jazz easily. Other commentators--Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Artie Shaw, Gerald Early, James Lincoln Collier, Dave Brubeck--give good camera and consistent historical edutainment. But too many proffer vague impressions, clichéd memories, breathless interpretations and warmed-over anecdotes. They could easily have been edited or edited out. Then there are periodic pileups. In episode seven Joya Sherrill, Mercedes Ellington (Duke's granddaughter) and a few others repeat that Duke and Billy Strayhorn were a rare and wonderful match. In episode five, the same two dancers appear twice with virtually the same observations about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.
Sometimes the anecdotes are fun or fabulous, sometimes they're bad history. Take Jon Hendricks, who in episode four retails the disproven mythic origin of Armstrong's scatting (sheet music fell off his stand at a recording session). Or director Bertrand Tavernier, who gushes about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli introducing the guitar-violin combo to jazz, though they themselves would have fingered Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Ballplayer Buck O'Neil rambles good-naturedly about Billie Holiday giving listeners "the greatest moments" and "the saddest moments," demonstrating how a tighter edit could have sliced out the lapses into vacuity.
Marsalis's starring role has several sides. He delivers very effective musical glosses and explanations, polished by years of shows and clinics with adults, teens and kids. His knowledge of and passion for the jazz he loves, and his conviction that it represents American life in full, are infectious, if sometimes hyperbolic. But when he holds forth about Ellington and Armstrong and the semilegendary Buddy Bolden as if he knew them intimately, it's TV, not history.
History can be light-fingered instead of heavy-handed, and Jazz could use more humor, more of the "light" Marsalis ascribes to the best jazz musicians. It has some fabulous vignettes from Crouch, the third-ranked talking head. Except for the last two hours, Crouch swings. In one priceless bit he mimics pre-Armstrong pop vocalists and then Armstrong himself, and asks why anyone would want to revert. "That would be a bad choice," he deadpans. Anybody who makes that choice, he adds, should be deported--count a beat--"to somewhere." Another beat. "Maybe Pluto." It's impossible to disagree, especially when you're laughing.
To some extent, Burns has himself to blame for the unjoyful noise in the jazz world. In conversation, he tends, rightly, to underplay his work's ambitions. It's not the history of jazz, he says. Viewers will get to know a handful of musicians, meet another dozen or two and brush past a few dozen more. He can't possibly compete with books like Giddins's Visions of Jazz or jazz histories like those of Ted Gioia or Marshall Stearns; he's made a movie that tells an educational story for a mass audience. This is reasonable, accurate and no small feat. And, in fact, the movie is steeped with rich human detail of the sort most music historians rarely touch on. But the PR bombast trumpets him as jazz's Joan of Arc, and once he's on-message he can't stop selling. Jazz, like academia, is small and marginal with plenty of defensive, combative types; "the music" is a secular religion. Burns's perceived power inevitably lights the territorial fuses.
As it happens, the jazz industry, now down to about 1 percent of US music sales once you exclude Kenny G and his clones, looks like a Victorian maiden lashed to the tracks awaiting her hero. Burns's movie is a mantra, as record labels crunch despairing numbers and weed out personnel and artists after the latest wave of megamergers and Internet terrors. For his well-designed five-CD companion set (subtitled The Story of America's Music), the filmmaker brokered a deal between Sony and Verve (Universal), bitter corporate rivals, then brought in other labels; all are hoping for sales like the companion book's, which had a first printing of 250,000. This is mind-blowing if you're a jazz-label head used to dealing in niche sales (Marsalis himself rarely moves more than 10,000 CDs) and waiting for the next guillotine stroke.
Potential audience numbers get tossed around fervently: 40 million viewers for Baseball and The Civil War, and Jazz will probably draw less, but... It fascinates me that few of the film's critics address that. Why not consider an America where 20 million more people--or 3 million, or however many finally watch--know something, anything, about Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and a few others? Where, if they survive the overstatements, talking heads and pacing, they learn some hidden history?
Am I a Pollyanna? Maybe. Reality check: This is a made-for-TV movie. But I too think race is America's central issue, even more multifaceted in the twenty-first century. What holds this joint's pasted seams together, beyond the Founding Documents, is the frequently intangible glue called culture. TV is a major place American culture gets made. Can anyone measure what it meant to have Bill Cosby playing an upper-middle-class dad-next-door for a generation? What it means now that there are black and Hispanic and Asian and gay and you-name-'em channels filling cable and satellite TV? Can anyone guess what it might mean in five years to have Jazz, whatever its warts, playing over and over to a country as terminally divided and in search of itself as this one?
These are not delusions of grandeur about the power of jazz or Ken Burns. They are possibilities written in the history of jazz in America. Take Burns's vignette about Charlie Black, a white Texas teen who saw Armstrong perform in the 1930s. It changed his life. He joined the NAACP's legal team working on what became Brown v. Board of Education. The sociology of jazz is full of such stories. And they are very real.
For instance, no one with a brain disputes that jazz was initially an African-American creation. But as Marsalis, Giddins, Crouch, Murray and Early point out over and over, jazz was welcoming, inclusive, open. It replaced minstrelsy with a cultural site where all Americans could participate, speak to one another, override or ignore or challenge or slide by the society's fixations on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black Americans (and other ethnic outsiders) could use it to enter mainstream society, white Americans could flee to it from mainstream society, and the transactions created a flux and flow that powered American cultural syntheses.
Jazz, the theme goes, represents America at its best--the dream of America. In the Depression, as Early reminds us, it rivaled MGM musicals in lifting the country's spirits. Of course, since jazz is a human activity, it also reflects the deepest divisions as well as the ideals at America's core. Race, sex, money, power, capitalism, creative freedom, the interaction of the individual and the group--these are all questions embedded in jazz history. They're the questions Burns and Ward are truly interested in. At its best, Jazz gets us interested in them too.
Burns admits he never listened to jazz until he started considering it as a subject. Ward became an Armstrong fan at age 10, when he was hospitalized with polio. Jazz is lucky they're interested in it.
Right now, jazz's commercial future is murky. The major labels are mostly wreckage. Marsalis, who used to get $1 million a year to make niche-market records in the hope that they would turn into catalogue gold, doesn't have a label; neither does Redman. High-profile jazz promoters are hemorrhaging. The Knitting Factory is reportedly in the hole for $2 million, after luring a big entertainment firm to take a stake, opening a club in LA and losing its annual jazz-festival sponsor. The Blue Note chain is said to be spurting red ink from expansions into Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan. Nor are jazz's nonprofit arms thriving. The Thelonious Monk Institute, so closely aligned with the Clinton/Gore Administration that its head was reportedly hoping for an ambassadorship if Al won, is looking pale. And the long-dormant board of Jazz at Lincoln Center has just fired executive director Rob Gibson in a swirl of intrigue: changed door locks and computer codes, fired and rehired personnel, amid persistent rumors of financial malfeasance, bullying and drug abuse.
Jazz has been on a commercial slide since the 1970s, when it racked up 10 percent of retail music sales. At the same time, it began entering the groves of academe. Today most jazz musicians are trained at schools; jazz history is laced through American studies and music curriculums.
This process has already fundamentally changed jazz itself and its relation to American culture, though how isn't always clear at first. As a colleague reminded me recently, in the jazz heydays celebrated by Burns's Jazz, musicians fashioned their own idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems, drawing on oral tradition (which varied considerably) and their own ingenuity and needs. This meant finding individual creative solutions to problems--how to finger this note or sequence, how to get that timbre, how to connect those chord changes. Now, a professor distributes computer analyses of famous solos, templates for solutions that are shared by hundreds and thousands of students. This has a paradoxical effect: It raises the general level of and standardizes jazz training, but it also tends to vitiate the individuality traditionally at the music's heart. This is why older musicians routinely complain that younger schooled players all sound alike. On the other hand, they're well suited for jazz repertory programs like JALC.
That is part of jazz's changing contemporary dynamics. So is Ken Burns's Jazz.
In the aftermath of the Iran/contra crisis, one of the networks decided to make a docudrama about the life of Ollie North, loosely based on a biography by Ben Bradle Jr. Its problem was that once North joined the Reagan National Security Council staff, the story lost both its moral compass and empathetic value. The producers could not find a single real-life character among the top Administration officials who displayed the slightest concern about the moral implications of North's drug- and gun-smuggling, hostage-buying and terrorist-supplying enterprises. They solved this problem by simply inventing someone.
The producers of Thirteen Days, the new Kevin Costner/Cuban Missile Crisis $80 million extravaganza, have done something similar. Instead of inventing a new character, however, they have invented a new history for an old one. Special Assistant Kenneth O'Donnell, who was responsible primarily for presidential scheduling in real life, does not even register in respected crisis histories. In the nearly 700 pages of transcripts from ExComm, the ad hoc committee dealing with the crisis, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow and published by Harvard in 1997, O'Donnell rates exactly two insignificant lines. Yet here we see O'Donnell, played by Costner, saving the Kennedys from themselves and the world from self-destruction. One minute SuperKen is bawling out the President for going soft on the Commies, the next he's roughing up Mac Bundy for suggesting the same. A cross between an über-aide barking orders at quivering politicos and a shaggy dog who follows his master around with scotch-filled Waterford crystal, he instructs Adlai Stevenson to stand up to the Soviets at the UN and a fighter pilot to pretend he was not shot at in Cuba. Cynics looking for an explanation of this rather odd historical rewrite might point to the fact that the film was partially funded by O'Donnell's son, Earthlink co-founder Kevin O'Donnell.
Reviewers like the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern innocently term the film "a valuable history lesson." In fact, the film takes countless liberties with the documentary record. For instance, Thirteen Days
§ conveniently skips Robert McNamara's initial arguments that Russia's placement of the missiles should be ignored because Soviet long-range missiles made them strategically meaningless, lest this comment undercut the film's entire rationale;
§ ignores the record of US efforts to destabilize the Castro regime, including contingency invasion plans being readied at the time of the emplacement;
§ explicitly whitewashes the Kennedys' unconscionable McCarthyite plot to discredit the dovish Adlai Stevenson, whose recommendations they largely--and secretly--ended up following;
§ sans evidence, attributes a column by Walter Lippmann that contained the seeds of a crisis-ending missile trade to a leak direct from Jack and Bobby;
§ places the Kennedys' meetings that decided in favor of a missile trade inside the ExComm, when in fact they deliberately kept these secret from the "Wise Men," fearing the same attacks they themselves had leveled at Stevenson.
Of course, the level of accuracy is not too bad for a film whose credits include six tailors and seven hairdressers but not one academic historian. (Former CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, author of a fine book on the technical aspects of the crisis called Eyeball to Eyeball, is listed, but one hopes he had nothing to do with its story line.)
My view is that anyone who takes Hollywood's history for scripture deserves whatever they get. As John Sayles has observed to Eric Foner, "Using [the word] 'responsibility' in the same sentence as 'the movie industry'--it just doesn't fit." Yet at the same time, Sayles noted, Hollywood can't help itself. Often the only way to sell a movie is for the ad to read "Based on a true story..." Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes not, usually depending on whose interests are served by the lies in question. When Costner and Oliver Stone offered up their loony version of the Kennedy assassination in JFK, the Washington media establishment reacted with such outrage the Capitol threatened to float away on hot air. No one wanted to see Stone's conspiratorial version of the assassination and the Vietnam War replace the official misinformation. On the other hand, some Hollywood lies are welcomed by pundits. Last summer, Mel Gibson and company came up with a version of the American Revolution in The Patriot in which the Americans, not the British, freed the slaves. No matter that the Southern revolutionaries fought to protect their "peculiar institution" while the British offered the slaves their freedom should they join the loyalist cause. William F. Buckley (surely a born loyalist if ever there was one) came forward to endorse Hollywood's fictional history. David Horowitz, displaying his patented post-Stalinist brand of hysterical ignorance leavened with personal dishonesty, complained, "Leftwing reviewers inwardly despising its patriotic themes have taken to faulting its alleged historical 'inaccuracies' as a way of dismissing its significance.... [But] isn't this what the American revolution was about--the promise that all men would be free? And didn't the new nation deliver on that promise in a generation and pay an even greater price in blood to do so?"
Well, no, Comrade Horowitz, it didn't. A generation after the Revolution, the slaves were still slaves, and Southern revolutionaries were still slaveowners. The Emancipation Proclamation (which freed only selected slaves) took nearly a century, and blacks were not given the right to a meaningful vote in the South for another hundred years after that. (Moreover, some, including quite a few thousand in Florida, are still fighting.)
Judged by the standards of JFK and The Patriot, Thirteen Days looks pretty good. At least it comes with a warning: "You'll never believe how close we came," its ad campaign promises. And I didn't.
Modern Russian history, as taught by Clinton Administration spin doctors and Op-Ed pundits, holds that Boris Yeltsin dismembered the Soviet Union and set Russia on a historic path to democracy and a market economy. The Russians were eager to follow their first "duly elected" leader. They idolized ;the West and they willingly surrendered their values and their dreams--at least the "new Russians" did, a term that apparently is confined to a segment of the newly rich Muscovites. Year after year we were told that Yeltsin's reforms were changing the face of his land--witness the number of Mercedes and the evidence of breathtaking conspicuous consumption. A few years ago, shortly after I checked in to one of the new luxury hotels in Moscow, I was told that each Friday I could avail myself of fresh lobster flown in from Canada that very day! Western experts advising Yeltsin's "young reformers" on how to proceed were optimistic. I was given a stern lecture by one of them, an economist from Sweden, for suggesting that conditions in the country appeared catastrophic in comparison to the days of Communist rule.
The Yelstin legend took hold; he was Clinton's icon for a new Russia. From the moment he stood on a tank in August 1991 to face down an attempted Communist coup, Yeltsin was championed by the West as Russia's great hope. He was an appealing figure, athletic, always neatly dressed. He publicly boasted of his friendships with Bill Clinton and other Western politicians. He was a man to do business with, the Kremlin leader whose government was no longer a threat, whose human failings were on display for all to see. Who could forget Clinton's uproarious laughter as he tried to defuse Yeltsin's drunken diatribes during their summit at the Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park? Or the inebriated Yeltsin snatching the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Band and proceeding to conduct himself? Little attention was given to Yeltsin's tanks pounding his "duly elected" Parliament or to his policy in Chechnya. The Clinton Administration publicly encouraged Yeltsin to disband the Parliament because a solid majority of deputies wanted to pursue reforms more slowly. Several months before he actually moved against the legislature, a senior US official told the New York Times that "if Yeltsin suspends an antidemocratic parliament, it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act." Later, while Russian planes, tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, Clinton saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln. Even when Yeltsin's entire economic reform program came crashing down in 1998, Vice President Gore voiced the opinion that "optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia."
In short, the Clinton Administration hitched its Russia policy to Yeltsin's fortunes. Yeltsin's critics in Russia were dismissed as "dark forces" seeking Communist restoration or worse. There is a simple explanation. Heavily dependent on Western loans and subsidies, Yeltsin was always prepared to render services to Washington, provided he was handled with great sensitivity and accorded even greater public respect. He proved accommodating in Bosnia and again in Kosovo.
But for most Russians, Yeltsin's rule was a social and economic disaster. They viewed him--not without good reason--as being completely dependent on Washington, where the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund are located. These institutions were a primary influence on his behavior and the often violent and self-destructive course he followed.
When he suddenly resigned on New Year's Eve a year ago, Yeltsin left his successor an impoverished state with few features of democracy and many more of authoritarianism. It is too early to assess properly the true meaning and consequences of his rule. But figures indicate that it wreaked far greater damage on Russia's economy than the Nazi invasion and World War II. Russia's gross domestic product between 1991 and 1998 declined by 43 percent, compared with the Soviet GDP decline of 24 percent from 1941 to 1945.
Behind this figure lurks a dramatic decline in living standards. An estimated 40 percent of the population lives in poverty--a tenfold increase since the collapse of Communism. Yeltsin's policies have had a catastrophic effect on health, education and social programs. Rising infant mortality, declining life expectancy and spreading infectious diseases have produced a negative population growth that is obscured in part by the steady stream of ethnic Russians returning from the outlying parts of the former Soviet Union (by 1995, Russia's population had declined by some 2 million). Agriculture remains comatose--Russia today imports 55 percent of its food supply. Officially, unemployment is about 12 percent, but the real figure is estimated to be between 20 and 25 percent (there are about 11 million Russians of working age who are listed as "missing"). The average daily food intake today is 2,100 calories, less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization; in the 1980-85 period, the average intake was 3,400.
None of these troubling issues are to be found in Yeltsin's Midnight Diaries. Memoir writers of course want to present themselves in the best possible light, and Yeltsin is no exception. He portrays himself as the leader who set Russia on a new course, gave it political stability and secured a peaceful transfer of power. Under his leadership Russia has joined the exclusive club of the eight most advanced industrial nations in the world.
What seems most remarkable about this Panglossian version of one of the most turbulent decades in Russia's history is its tenuous relation to reality. The disastrous reform program and the failure to introduce the rule of law, to the extent that they are touched upon at all in this book, are presented with serene detachment--Yeltsin writes about such things as though they had nothing to do with him.
On the other hand, Yeltsin wants us to believe that he had everything to do with his memoir, that he wrote it himself "in fragments over the years...late at night or early in the morning." It is widely known that it was ghostwritten by Valentin Yumashev, a former journalist and Yeltsin's longtime personal aide, with daughter Tatyana being the final censor. Only in passing--in Chapter 13--does Yeltsin mention that Yumashev worked with him on the manuscript. Other bits of contrived candor are sprinkled sparsely around with the apparent aim of defusing--with a sentence or two--some of his well-publicized shortcomings, even his drinking problem. Yeltsin says alcohol was his "only means [of getting] rid of stress"--until his 1995 heart attack. His consumption was afterward reduced to a single glass of wine per day.
Herculean efforts are made by the authors of this slapdash tome, which is filled with homilies about duty and patriotism, to suggest that Yeltsin possessed mysterious and therefore miraculously effective leadership skills. He liked the "simple, effective" style of leadership and made his decisions with "surgical precision." His stationery was embossed in gold with the presidential seal. His desk was cluttered with "coded telegrams" and "presidential mail." He used his "presidential pen" to sign decrees. By pushing buttons on a presidential "control panel" he could reach his far-flung minions. Metaphors reinforce the image of a supercool superexecutive who is always in control. Sometimes he is the sea captain, steering the Russian ship of state past dangerous reefs and shoals. On another occasion, before making a major announcement, he is like the space expert about to fire a rocket. ("Now it was too late for doubts. The countdown had begun. The bomb was ticking.")
The oddest thing about the details is that they offer the illusion of concreteness to obscure enormous ambiguities. We don't see Yeltsin making decisions on any substantive domestic issues. There is no evidence of his even being aware of the scope of devastation visited upon the people by his social policy. (Statistics give us an inkling: His government used only 9 percent of GNP on social services, compared with around 33 percent in the West.)
Yeltsin is certainly not stupid, but when you consider his remarkable energy in fighting for the presidency he seems unaccountably passive in other respects. We don't see him really concerned with the substance of his job. It is difficult to find an economic or social initiative Yeltsin conceived and brought to completion. ("There won't be any inflation," Yeltsin tells the press shortly before prices explode following the collapse of the ruble.) In fact, he reversed the democratization trend initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin resorted to force to overhaul the entire constitutional order and to create a presidency that suited his needs. According to his own account, his crowning political achievement was Vladimir Putin's election as Russia's president in March 2000 (much of the first and last portions of the book are devoted to this).
There was something Reaganesque about Yeltsin, for his leadership seemed to exist only in his public utterances. But Reagan looks like a giant by comparison, since he held on to a few simple but firm beliefs and surrounded himself with capable aides. Yeltsin seems to be missing a central core belief--"the vision thing." He believed, he said in his final speech (in which he asked forgiveness of the people), that he was moving the country from its totalitarian past "to a bright, prosperous, civilized future." But wasn't that exactly the belief he was supposed to cherish when he served as the Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk?
There is nothing in this book that appears to qualify Yeltsin for the presidency, with the exception of his prodigious lust for power and a genius for behind-the-scenes, byzantine politics, in which various elites struggle over the reallocation of power and wealth. Yeltsin was not a marionette. Far from it--he made his way up the greasy pole of power and fought constantly to stay at the top. He may have been extraordinarily passive on economic and social matters, but he was a superb bureaucratic infighter--bold, decisive and ruthless. He had no qualms about sacrificing even his most loyal supporters. "It was too bad, really just too bad," he notes after dismissing one of his prime ministers. When he fired his longest-serving prime minister--"faithful, decent, honest, intelligent" Viktor Chernomyrdin--he did it without forewarning because decision-making requires a special approach. "A decision should not wait. With any leakage of information, the decision ceases to be a bold, unexpected move and turns into the opposite." But even though he says firing people caused him "the severest kind of stress," Yeltsin concedes that he "felt an unusual rise in spirits, an enormous wave of optimism." He insists that his perpetual personnel changes were part of a careful and deliberate search for a politician to replace him and continue "on the path of democracy."
On the basis of the evidence, in the light of his years as president, we see Yeltsin as confident, surefooted and deeply interested in only one issue: the preservation of his personal power. He is a genius at perpetual conniving. Unlike Reagan, Yeltsin feared competent officials with established reputations. He entrusted great power to younger, inexperienced people without a political base of their own, then dismissed them when things went wrong. The failures were attributed to his revolving-door prime ministers as though they bore exclusive responsibility.
But why put oneself at the mercy of incompetent advisers? Yeltsin reveals his priorities in explaining his reasons for appointing Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, an obscure and inexperienced official, as prime minister: "Everybody needed a new figure, not someone who would lobby for the interests of some against others, not someone from some sort of camp, not someone who had already appeared in Moscow's echelons of power." In short, someone without a history or a political base. During his most severe crisis, in 1998, Yeltsin turned to his foreign minister and perhaps the most experienced man in the government, Yevgeny Primakov. But when Primakov suddenly gained widespread popularity in early 1999, Yeltsin became alarmed. He realized, he writes, that Primakov "was becoming a serious political alternative to my course and my plan for the country's development." Ignoring Primakov's "honesty, decency, and loyalty," Yeltsin swiftly defused the threat by dismissing the prime minister for alleged pro-Communist sympathies. "Primakov had too much red in his political palette," Yeltsin writes.
His final choice was Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, who was named prime minister in the summer of 1999. Putin's first move on becoming acting president was to sign a decree protecting Yeltsin from future criminal prosecution.
In this context, Yeltsin's rambling memoir is inherently interesting for what it tells us about his character and maneuverings. Its author-statesman casts the ongoing Russian drama in terms of Kremlin intrigues, ceremonial functions, gossip, meetings and talks with foreign potentates, and perpetual personnel changes. All along it is Yeltsin who holds every string in his hands and who, like a puppetmaster, keeps moving the cardboard characters he has created, apparently for that very purpose. The sagging economy, rampant corruption, rising crime, growing social inequities and one of the greatest lootings of assets ever recorded in history seem to be matters of minor concern. "How can you force a bureaucrat not to take bribes to feed his family, when he earns only 5000-6000 rubles per month but is involved in monitoring multi-million-ruble transactions?" Yeltsin writes. "Naturally, the only way is to raise his salary."
The picture that emerges is one of a petulant, self-centered, cunning man whose lust for power and fragile ego were the dominant forces of his presidency. Even though he was the picture of a model Bolshevik throughout much of his life, even though he had toadied up to Brezhnev, Chernenko and other political leaders to crawl up the party ranks, Yeltsin had always been a man waiting for the main chance. He turned against his colleagues when they blocked his path to the top in 1987. He fought hard. He finally seized his chance. The image of the man atop a tank was the apex of his career, the grand gesture for which he will be remembered in history.
Paradoxically, despite his anti-Communist diatribes, Yeltsin remained a Bolshevik at heart insofar as he believed that strong-willed and determined individuals could change the world by forcibly engineering social and economic changes. He saw himself as just such a man. He sought to obliterate the past, revise his own history and cultivate his own myth. I recall a St. Petersburg historian contemptuously quoting from an early New Year's Eve address to the nation in which Yeltsin referred to Communists as "they"--"They have imposed Communism on us for seventy years." And who was talking, the historian asked rhetorically? A former Politburo member and Communist boss of Sverdlovsk.
What is there of substance, if anything, in this man who strove mightily for grand gestures and theatrical effects? Midnight Diaries provides no answers, so there remains the question of whether Yeltsin ever seriously considered championing a democratic revolution.
What happened in 1991 is that the students and workers who made the revolution and toppled the old regime did not know how to make a new government. Those who did know how were the ones from the old regime. Yeltsin brought those same people back to power and subsequently worked mightily against the very democratic forces that had been the mainstay of his support when he was a populist politician.
Yeltsin's memoir offers no evidence to suggest that he was ever interested in the systematic mobilization of Russia's democratic forces. He had no vision of the nation's identity and future; his concerns were far more personal. His obsession with the grand gesture--something that required an element of surprise--made him fret constantly about leaks. Not only did he crave the limelight, he always tried to stun the world by unexpected actions: "If the news were to leak, the whole effect would be lost," he writes about his decision to resign. "Any leak, any advance talk, any forecasts or proposals would put the impact of the decision in jeopardy." In June 1999, at the end of the war with Yugoslavia, he ordered the Russian brigade serving on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia to steal a march on NATO and occupy the Pristina airport in Kosovo even though he knew it was an empty maneuver. "I decided that Russia must make a crowning gesture, even if it had no military significance," he writes. This was, he adds, "a sign of our moral victory."
Ironically, the first wave of opposition to Yeltsin's policies came from the very people who brought him to power. They argued that his economic reforms had little to do with a genuine free market but amounted to a Bolshevik-style, top-down expropriation and redistribution of assets in disguise. In The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski note that by late 1993, most democrats--"an entire generation of talented and idealistic would-be leaders of Russia's body politic and civil society"--were "pushed off the political stage along with the democratic movement as a whole."
Reddaway, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the Washington-based Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, and Dmitri Glinski, a senior research associate at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, teamed up to produce a critical analysis of the Yeltsin years in power. It is a finely argued and frequently provocative account that deserves a respectful hearing.
Reddaway and Glinski believe Yeltsin had "little commitment to democracy, the national interest, or the economic development of his nation." His rule was an age of blight. The destruction of Russia's intellectual assets was particularly severe. The number of scientists has shrunk from 3.4 million to 1.3 million. Russia's net financial loss from the decline in its science is estimated at between $500 billion and $600 billion annually.
The overall damage inflicted on the economy, they write, exceeds that of the comparable American experience during the Great Depression or, again, the industrial loss inflicted on Russia in World War II. High-tech industries suffered the worst. Production in electronics fell by 78 percent between 1991 and 1995. In 1997 imports made up half the Russian consumer market.
The picture of devastation looks even grimmer in light of dramatic declines in energy production (since 1991 oil production has declined by 50 percent, gas by 13 percent and electricity generation by 20 percent). Lack of investment in electricity generation will have potentially far-reaching consequences for the military and civilian economies, with the prospect of future migrations away from the frigid northern zones of the country. Brownouts have already forced a population exodus from the city of Norilsk.
"For the first time in recent world history," Reddaway and Glinski write,
one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development...and slipped into the ranks of countries that are conventionally categorized as "Third World." To make this experience even more dramatic, this comprehensive national collapse occurred at the same time as the nation's leaders and some of their allies in the West promised Russians that they were just about to join the family of democratic and prosperous nations.
Instead of promoting democracy, these analysts argue, "Yeltsin and his associates disbanded the new post-Soviet parliament by force and emasculated its successor, blocked the development of an independent judicial branch, reduced the power and revenue base of local self-government, and by 1994 had imposed a regime of Byzantine authoritarianism on the country."
The authors contend not only that Russia's social and economic degradation "can and should be reversed" but that it is in the national interest of the United States and Western Europe to assist in that process. A more stable Russia, they say, would provide better hope for viable security arrangements and for a more cooperative relationship between Moscow and key international organizations.
But this is a Catch-22. Given the fact that Moscow is not able to service its foreign debt, no influx of foreign capital is to be expected. Who wants to invest in a country lacking comprehensive, clear and effective tax legislation?
In his book Post-Soviet Russia, the distinguished Russian historian Roy Medvedev also chronicles the failures of Yeltsin's rule, arguing that Russia's plunge to capitalism was both precipitate and ill conceived.
Yeltsin first privatized the area of public safety, which led to the creation of private armies and mafias. At the same time, the managers of state-owned firms created private companies and moved the cash flow to offshore banks in Cyprus. New banks were formed and made fortunes in currency transactions.
There was something very Russian about the whole endeavor. Yeltsin approached it much in the way Peter the Great and other czars carried out their modernization programs; "capitalist perestroika" was imposed from above. Medvedev notes Yeltsin's explanation: "We had to forcibly introduce a real market place, just as potatoes were introduced under Catherine the Great."
The remark suggests, perhaps inadvertently, how vague was Yeltsin's grasp of the magnitude of the undertaking. Once prices were allowed to float freely, they immediately jumped fifteen to twenty times over. Hyperinflation wiped out life savings of the population. It touched off the flight of capital, as profits from exports were deposited in Western banks as a hedge against inflation. Low domestic prices on raw materials generated illegal exports and the emergence of illicit trade. Domestic production declined sharply. In 1998 the government once again devalued the ruble and froze bank accounts.
Another of Yeltsin's failings was his lack of sound judgment about people. Medvedev catalogues the incompetent, inexperienced young men with whom Yeltsin chose to surround himself. One was a junior foreign ministry bureaucrat, Andrei Kozyrev, who was made foreign minister. Medvedev likens another Yeltsin aide, Boris Nemtsov, to the character of a confidence man in Gogol's Dead Souls.
Why did Yeltsin entrust so much of the government to a young and green journalist, Yegor Gaidar? During their very first meeting, Gaidar assured Yeltsin that the shift to the market could be accomplished in one year. Yeltsin himself provided an account of the "surgical precision" of his decision to place Gaidar in charge: "It's a curious thing, but I couldn't help being affected by the magic of his name," Yeltsin wrote later. Gaidar's grandfather, Arkady Gaidar, had been a famous children's writer whose books were read by generations of Soviet kids, Yeltsin explained, "Including myself. And my daughters. And so I had faith in the inherited talent of Yegor, son of Timur, grandson of Arkady Gaidar."
Gaidar's advisers included a group of Western experts, led by Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard and Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment [see Janine R. Wedel, "The Harvard Boys Do Russia," June 1, 1998]. The Russians were very receptive to outside advice; they thought the West was genuinely concerned. But expert recommendations failed to "take into account the structure of the Russian economy and its particular features" and thus did more harm than good, Medvedev believes. He goes even further and suggests that the experts were trying foremost to preserve the interests of the wealthy Western countries.
"Shock therapy" sent the country reeling with pain, causing tremendous harm to an economy that, despite all its known shortcomings, did include first-rate firms and research and development laboratories. This was particularly true of the military-industrial complex, which employed millions of highly skilled workers, technicians and engineers. Yeltsin failed to reorient these resources to the production of consumer goods. At the same time, there was a sharp drop in government orders for military-industry goods.
But the calamity also created opportunities for people to become rich almost overnight. For aficionados, Medvedev provides a detailed analysis of this new but small class of Russians who acquired vast fortunes during what can only be described as the looting of Russia. One of them is the subject of Paul Klebnikov's excellent book Godfather of the Kremlin, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the Yeltsin era.
Klebnikov, a senior editor at Forbes, makes its amply clear that thievery on such a scale has occurred with the cooperation of top political leaders. The businessmen, in a strict sense, committed no crimes and broke no laws; they were advised and helped by Yeltsin's young reformers in the Kremlin. Virtually all the people around Yeltsin, including members of his family and the President himself, are portrayed as deeply corrupt. "Yeltsin was very quickly compromised by all those things that accompany limitless power: flattery, luxury, absolute irresponsibility," Yeltsin's former chief of security is quoted as saying.
Klebnikov's vivid portrait of Boris Berezovsky, until recently one of the wealthiest men in Russia, is closely documented by detailing financial transactions, strategies and alliances. Berezovsky's fortunes rose after the publication in the early 1990s of Yeltsin's memoirs Notes of a President, which Berezovsky had partly underwritten. Having expected to make $1 million, Yeltsin was disappointed by his far more modest proceeds. At that point, according to Klebnikov, Berezovsky began putting funds into Yeltsin's personal account at Barclays Bank in London, explaining that this was income generated by the memoir. Berezovsky in turn became a Yeltsin favorite (by 1994 Yeltsin had $3 million in the account).
In addition to Berezovsky, a former scientist turned car dealer, Klebnikov skillfully describes other members of the clique of predatory oligarchs who plundered the country's most important assets with the connivance of the regime. "He and his crony capitalists produced no benefit to Russia's consumers, industries, or treasury. No new wealth was created." They did, however, produce substantial benefits to Yeltsin and his entourage.
Yeltsin, in Midnight Diaries, dismisses such allegations. "In fact, these people don't have any links to the criminal world. These are not robber barons and not the heads of mafia clans. These are representatives of big capital who have entered into close and complex relationships with the government." The evidence indicates otherwise, though. Klebnikov's presentation suggests that Berezovsky was involved in mafia wars, that he attempted to have his chief rival killed and that he was the target of an assassination attempt himself. (Berezovsky was badly injured and his driver decapitated by a bomb placed near his automobile.)
Klebnikov may indeed go too far, however, when he asserts that Berezovsky, as a private individual, managed to "hijack the state." Berezovsky's influence was always directly linked to his proximity to Yeltsin. Yeltsin appointed the oligarch to several top posts, including that of deputy chairman of the National Security Council. But ultimately Berezovsky remained a moneyman who was never allowed into the charmed circle of power. Political power in Russia, when it came to a crunch, always had more punch than financial muscle.
Klebnikov adds his voice to recent charges that the Clinton Administration stuck by Yeltsin even though it knew all along about the unsavory nature of his regime. The Administration, he writes, "while trumpeting the principles of democracy and the free market, repeatedly ignored evidence that the Yeltsin regime was a kleptocracy."
Gaidar, the architect of Yeltsin's shock therapy, acknowledged in a 1997 book that the entire Yeltsin program was a failure. "Unfortunately," he writes, "the combination of imperial rhetoric, economic adventurism, and large-scale theft seems likely to become the long-term determinants of Russian realities." The term now commonly used to describe Russia is a "bandit state." Reddaway and Glinski call it "market bolshevism."
The new books have punched some big holes in the Yeltsin legend as well as in Clinton's own uncritical backing for the Russian president. Reddaway and Glinski provide some evidence that Yeltsin used his secret police to stage "a provocation that unleashed violence on the part of the opposition, thus giving Yeltsin a pretext to proceed with a bloody crackdown on the parliament." Clinton joined Yeltsin's war against Parliament, saying, "We cannot afford to be in the position of wavering at this moment, or backing off or giving any encouragement to people who clearly want to derail the election process and are not committed to reform." An unnamed US official was quoted by Newsweek as saying the Administration "would have supported Yeltsin even if his response had been more violent than it was." (Official figures say 187 people died and almost 500 were wounded in the attack.) Charles Blitzer, chief economist on Russia for the World Bank, commented on the incident: "I've never had so much fun in my life." Another Western economist advising the Yeltsin government was quoted in the press as saying, "With parliament out of the way, this is a great time for reform."
There is also evidence that the 1993 referendum on a new constitution--which gave Yeltsin extensive personal powers--was in fact rigged. Reddaway and Glinski cite various infractions, including intimidation and other irregularities engaged in by the Yeltsin people. The minimum voter turnout was reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent; the minimum wage was raised; television access for oppositionists was sharply curtailed. "By all indications, the constitution did not gain the necessary minimum of voter support, but the authorities declared it [had] been approved," they write. "The gap was evidently closed by government vote fraud."
Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign--financed by Berezovsky and other oligarchs and mafia barons--"was marked by spectacular violations of the law on the part of the incumbent," Reddaway and Glinski write. Yeltsin started with an approval rating of less than 10 percent and succeeded in getting re-elected by spending thirty times more than the legal spending limit. One incident is telling: An aide of Anatoly Chubais, a key Yeltsin assistant at the time, was caught leaving his office with $200,000 in cash in a suitcase. Apart from direct distribution of money, to win votes Yeltsin used government funds on a lavish scale for tax breaks; made cash transfers to institutions, garden owners and small farmers; and disbursed government credits. The Economist estimated that the effort cost the Russian treasury some $10 billion. The aggressive giveaway dwarfed the promises of all other contenders combined. But the most powerful weapon in Yeltsin's hands was the broadcast media. The brazen violations of the law on campaign coverage were summarized by the European Institute for the Media: Yeltsin got 53 percent of prime-time coverage; the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, 18 percent; and all other candidates combined, 11 percent.
After the election, the oligarchs divided up among themselves the most valuable state companies, which Yeltsin privatized under fire-sale conditions. But corruption permeated all levels of government, and included Yeltsin's "young reformers." One of them is said to have handled an estimated $178 million in precious stones, gold and antique jewelry smuggled out of the Russian treasury, to be sold in San Francisco and Antwerp. The bribery involved in "trading" operations was on an epic scale. The wives of the interior minister and his first deputy, invited on a three-day shopping trip to Switzerland by a commodities trader, bought $300,000 worth of furs, perfumes, watches and so on (and carted the haul in twenty pieces of excess luggage)--all paid for by the trader's firm.
Primakov was the only prime minister who made a determined effort to fight corruption and hold Berezovsky and others accountable to the law. This may have brought stability and trust back to Russian politics, but his corruption probe was extremely dangerous for Yeltsin. Moreover, Primakov did not offer enough of a guarantee that Yeltsin himself would not face prosecution after leaving office. Finally, Klebnikov says, Primakov's government evoked loud protests from Washington. He was replaced as prime minister by the minister of internal affairs, the man who had promised to protect Berezovsky. ("The dismissal of Primakov was my personal victory," Berezovsky later told Le Figaro.) Here lie the reasons for the selection of Putin.
Putin and his people are left with the overarching need for a qualitatively new strategy of economic and social recovery. Yeltsin's course reached a dead end; polls suggest that discontent with capitalist experimentation now permeates all classes--workers, peasants, the army, intellectuals. Whatever emerges in this decade in Russia is likely to be viewed as a communist reformation--a moderate shade of red--that would allow some degree of private property, individual freedom and entrepreneurship. How this will evolve is going to depend on Putin himself. An argument can be made that the origins of Communism's collapse may lie partly in a car trip the young Gorbachev and his wife made in the 1960s, which allowed them to observe that even Italian peasants lived better than Russian elites. Putin served as a KGB officer in East Germany for six years in the 1980s, but even that exposure was enough for his wife to complain about the empty shelves back home in Russia.
How will history judge Yeltsin? On one level, to use the image of one of his acolytes, Yeltsin could be compared to Ilya Muromets, the peasant hero of medieval epics who one day is bravely slaying Russia's foes, then spends weeks sleeping on the stove in his hut.
On another level, however, Yeltsin's final grand gestures do set an enormously important precedent. During the twentieth century ten men stood at Russia's helm, but only one of them--Yeltsin--was actually elected by the people. Moreover, there was no regular system of power transfer in Russia throughout the twentieth century, and that was perhaps the most important cause of the country's difficulties and setbacks. Five of its ten leaders died in office, three were removed by revolutions and one by a palace coup. Yeltsin alone left office before the end of his term. This indeed established a much-needed precedent to legitimize an orderly system of succession. In the context of Russian history, this has been progress.
In their campaigns for the White House, the major-party candidates--even the one backed by labor--spent little time debating labor-law reform.
Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO had hoped that a Gore victory and Democratic gains in Congress would lead to strengthening of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or, at least, union-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Continued Republican control of Congress now eliminates the possibility of the former, while Bush's court-won victory makes the latter highly unlikely. In fact, when our new President gets through filling three vacancies on the NLRB early this year, his appointees will insure that the failure of labor law--a scandal exposed in different ways by former NLRB chairman William Gould in Labored Relations and by lawyer Lance Compa in the recent Human Rights Watch report Unfair Advantage--continues to thwart union organizing for the next four years.
Since the AFL-CIO began putting greater emphasis on membership recruitment in 1995, there have, of course, been important new gains. But some of the most significant victories involved organizing campaigns in which unions used their bargaining or political clout--where they still have it--to secure recognition in new units without using Labor Board certification procedures. For tens of millions of workers in the private sector, bypassing the law is not an option--and, for better or worse, the sixty-five-year-old NLRA continues to shape organizing strategies in many key industries.
Long hailed as the "Magna Carta of American labor," the NLRA (or Wagner Act) is definitely showing signs of age. The act was designed in 1935 to promote collective bargaining as a peaceful alternative to the many violent, Depression-era battles over union recognition. Its New Deal sponsors viewed unionization as a necessary corrective to the "inequality of bargaining power" between individual workers and management. To referee workplace disputes, Congress created the NLRB, which conducts representation elections, awards bargaining rights based on them and investigates "unfair labor practices" by employers that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.
But the limited remedies, light penalties and secret-ballot elections available under the NLRA are meaningful only if its administration is swift and efficient. In few other areas of the law is there greater truth to the axiom that "justice delayed is justice denied." When union votes are stalled for months, union victories tied up in litigation for years, bad-faith bargaining goes unpunished and fired union supporters get reinstated (if at all) long after an organizing campaign has ended, management wins--even if the board ultimately rules otherwise.
The selection of NLRB members--and the agency's influential general counsel--is determined by who controls the White House and what kind of nomination deals are brokered with the Senate. (Functioning at full strength, the board consists of three appointees, including the chairman, from the President's own party and two from the opposition party.) However, as the AFL-CIO argued in its last major campaign for labor-law reform in the late 1970s, unfair-labor-practice victims need more than a sympathetic NLRB majority or efficient functioning by the agency's 2,000 career employees around the country. The law itself must be repaired.
The enormous gap between workers' legal rights on paper and the reality of NLRA enforcement under Democrats and Republicans alike is most effectively documented in Unfair Advantage. Labored Relations also describes how bad substantive decisions, "the creakiness of the NLRA's administrative procedures" and its "lack of effective remedies" have undermined worker organizing and strike activity in recent decades. But the bulk of Gould's memoir is devoted to refighting the personal political battles that occupied him during his four and a half years as a Clinton appointee on the NLRB. Gould's book thus invites comparison with Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich's glibly amusing account of his stint as Clinton's Secretary of Labor. Both men assumed their Washington posts--Reich at the Labor Department and Gould at the board--after a career in academia. Even before Clinton nominated Gould in 1993, Reich had tapped him (based on his work as a Stanford University law professor and respected arbitrator) to serve on the Dunlop Commission, a panel of experts convened to recommend labor-law changes.
At the time, Gould had just offered his own ideas on this subject in a book titled Agenda for Reform. In it he called for many of the same corrective measures now advocated by Human Rights Watch: employer recognition of unions based on signed authorization cards rather than contested elections; imposition of first-contract terms by an arbitrator when the parties can't reach agreement by themselves; greater use of injunctive relief to secure quicker reinstatement of workers fired for union activity; a ban on permanent replacement of economic strikers; and heavier financial penalties for labor-law violators.
Needless to say, Senate Republicans weren't too keen on Gould's proposals and kept his nomination to the NLRB dangling for almost a year. In fact, even Reich's labor-law-reform panel--which Gould left prior to being confirmed as NLRB chairman--failed to promote these much-needed changes. Instead, the Dunlop Commission stressed the importance of amending the NLRA so management-dominated "employee participation" schemes could flourish even more widely as an alternative to unions. Repackaged as the Teamwork for Employees and Managers (or TEAM) Act and adopted by Congress after the GOP took over in 1994, this anti-union legislation was ultimately vetoed by Clinton--after frantic labor lobbying.
To survive his contentious confirmation process (and avoid the fate of fellow African-American Lani Guinier, whose nomination to a top Justice Department post was dropped by Clinton when her writings as a law professor were attacked by the right), Gould played up his credentials as a "professional neutral." He proclaimed that his goal in Washington would be "to reduce polarization both at the board and also between labor and management." Equipped with what turned out to be a serious lack of diplomatic skills, Gould might have had an easier time trying to bring peace to the Middle East.
During Gould's tenure, Congressional Republicans sought to cripple the NLRB's operations with budget cuts, harassing oversight hearings and nonstop political sniping. Positive initiatives, like general counsel Fred Feinstein's attempt to get more federal court orders reinstating fired workers while their cases were being litigated, became a lightning rod for conservative criticism. Under these trying circumstances, Gould, Feinstein and pro-labor board members like Sarah Fox and the late Margaret Browning needed to stick together and coordinate their strategy in the face of common adversaries. Gould, however, quickly fell out with his colleagues in a fit of pique over their failure "to accord me stature and defer to my leadership." His "leadership" soon took the form of public feuding with, and criticism of, his fellow Clinton appointees--combined with attention-getting public statements about many of the leading labor-management controversies of the day. Even when he was on the right side of these disputes, his ill-timed interventions had the effect of exacerbating the NLRB's political problems.
In 1998, for example, Gould injected himself into the debate about a state ballot initiative in California that would have required unions to obtain the individual consent of their members before using dues money for political purposes. Gould's statement of opposition to this Republican-backed "paycheck protection" scheme correctly noted that it would "cripple a major source of funding for the Democratic Party." When his testimony was briefly posted on the NLRB's website after being presented to state legislators, it created such a ruckus that even Congressional Democrats generally supportive of labor and the board raised the possibility that Gould should resign to avert further Republican retribution against the agency.
Ironically, Gould's batting average at the board shows that he was not as much a union partisan as his business critics claimed. According to a recent law-review analysis by professor Joan Flynn, Gould's "votes in disputed cases were considerably less predictable than those of his colleagues from management or union-side practice... [they] broke down in a much less lopsided fashion: 159 for the 'union' position and 46 for the 'management' position." In contrast, when Ronald Reagan tried to change the NLRB's alleged pro-union tilt during his Administration, his chairman was a management-side lawyer--Donald Dotson, a figure no less controversial in the 1980s than Gould was in the '90s. Did Dotson pursue Gould's stated goal of "return[ing] the Board to the center to promote balance"? Of course not. Despite equally hostile Congressional oversight by members of the then-Democratic majority, Dotson openly promoted a Right-to-Work Committee agenda, defending management interests just as zealously as he had when he was on the corporate payroll.
Naming Gould to lead the board was, thus, very much an expression of Clinton's own political centrism. Unhappily for labor, Gould's unexpected personal showboating, squabbling with would-be allies and what Flynn calls his "near-genius for irritating Congress" impeded, rather than aided, the administrative tinkering that Clinton appointees were able to do at the board during his tenure. Vain, impolitic and--in the view of some critics--hopelessly naïve, Gould often did as much harm as good. In this respect, he was not unlike the Dunlop Commission, in that Reich's vehicle for building a political consensus on labor-law reform instead fed right-wing attempts to weaken the NLRA.
Gould's defense of his record seems designed to avoid the kind of flak that Reich received over his memoir's fanciful reconstruction of private and even public exchanges with various Washington notables. Labored Relations quotes extensively from the author's minutiae-filled daily journal, leaving the impression that no such literary license has been employed. Unfortunately, Gould lacks Reich's self-deprecatory humor and acute sense of irony. The author's tedious recitation of his speaking dates, telephone calls, case conferences, lunch and dinner conversations, etc., will be a hard slog for anyone but specialists in the field or ex-colleagues searching for critical comments about themselves (of which there are many).
Outside the Beltway and the "labor bar," settling old scores about who did what to whom as part of the "Clinton Board" is much less a preoccupation than the difficulty of defending workers' rights under any administration. Unfair Advantage does a much better job of keeping this big picture in focus, in particular by documenting the rising toll of workers fired for what, in board jargon, is called "protected concerted activity." In the 1950s, author Lance Compa reports, "workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In the 1960s, the number climbed into the thousands, reaching slightly over 6,000 in 1969. By the 1990s, more than 20,000 workers each year were victims of discrimination for union activity--23,580 in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available."
The "right to freedom of association" is, of course, enshrined in international human rights standards that the United States nominally supports and often seeks to apply to other nations. Compa, a former organizer for the United Electrical Workers who now teaches international labor law at Cornell, exposes the hypocrisy of this official stance in light of persistent NLRB enforcement problems and the structural defects of the NLRA itself. In this Human Rights Watch report, he concludes that "provisions of U.S. law openly conflict with international norms...of freedom of association."
Millions of workers, including farm workers, household domestic workers and low-level supervisors, are expressly barred from the law's protection of the right to organize. American law allows employers to replace permanently workers who exercise the right to strike, effectively nullifying that right. New forms of employment relationships have created millions of part-time, temporary, sub-contracted and otherwise "atypical" or "contingent" workers whose freedom of association is frustrated by the law's failure to adapt to changes in the economy.
The problem with Compa's sweeping indictment of the status quo is that it contains no strategy for change--other than elevating the debate about what should be done from the lowly sphere of labor-management relations to the higher moral plane of international human rights norms. At the local level, Jobs with Justice coalitions and some AFL-CIO central labor councils around the country are actually trying to build a long-term grassroots campaign to promote greater public support for the right to organize. Not unlike that of Human Rights Watch, their target audience is the same elements of academia, the arts, churches and the liberal middle class that have long displayed admirable concern about human rights violations abroad or discrimination against women, gays and minorities at home.
Public officials, university professors, the clergy, civil rights leaders and neighborhood activists are now being encouraged to intervene in organizing situations to help neutralize illegal management resistance to unionization. Workers' rights activists will find plenty of new ammunition in Unfair Advantage, and even some that's buried in Labored Relations. Hopefully, their community-based efforts will create an improved climate for organizing--in some parts of the country at least--and put NLRA reform back on the national political agenda of labor's putative allies in the Democratic Party. Yet while having a Democrat in the White House may prove a necessary condition for reform initiatives, it's hardly sufficient--as the Clinton era just proved. Workers who try to form unions will continue to be at risk until Americans elect both a Congress and a President willing to do more than just tinker with our tattered protection of the right to organize.
TROOPS IN THE STREETS
Nation contributing editor and radio host Marc Cooper was tossed out of the California State University system for antiwar activities in 1971 by executive order of Governor Ronald Reagan--and ended up in Chile, working as a translator for Salvador Allende. What footnote could be more oddly appropriate in Cooper's memoir Pinochet and Me? The book is part diaristic reconstruction of the 1973 coup against Allende, part chronicle of return trips Cooper has made since to Chile and part consideration of that country's--and Pinochet's--fate at century's turn.
Chile "briefly shined as a beacon of inspiration," Cooper laments, the culmination of fifty years of massive campaigning for democratic socialism and the notion that "perhaps, radical social change and resulting improvements in the lives of common people were possible through democratic, peaceful and legal means." His firsthand reporting on the twists and turns of the following quarter-century is by turns chilling and poignant.
Cooper could easily have met the fate of Charles Horman (whom he knew slightly), subject of the film Missing; his account of the coup and its aftermath is fraught with chaos, luck and what he calls the "moment of greatest naivety in my adult life"--assuming the US Embassy would be of help. The American consul told Cooper and a few others that "the armed forces are restoring order but there's still a danger of scattered left-wing snipers." Cooper may be the journalistic equivalent of the latter, but the only danger he poses is that he fosters understanding of the social forces at work in the country he has, in more than one sense, married into. His account of returns to Chile first under an assumed name and, years later, under his own, are compelling: an arrest for photographing an army bus that civilians had tied to random shootings; an encounter with youths who say they are hungry and beg for guns; the effects neoliberal economics have wrought on everyday life; the feelings of Chileans on Pinochet's arrest in London. Cooper ends with the inscription on a Chilean memorial to the disappeared: "The forgotten past is full of memory."
"What we saw in Seattle across those tumultuous days stretching from November 28 through December 3, 1999, and then in Davos, Switzerland, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Prague was the flowering of a new radical movement in America and across the world, rambunctious, anarchic, internationalist, well informed and in some ways more imaginative and supple than kindred popular eruptions in recent decades," write Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and his co-authors in this eyewitness chronicle of protests against the WTO and other institutions of the new global economic order. The authors have keen eyes for the social ironies surrounding the events: Jeffrey St. Clair's Seattle diary observes not just the segregation of the city's high-tech opulence from south Seattle's old-economy piers and pulp and chemical factories but an account of an officer frisking a woman whose boyfriend was walking her home from work. Just before unloading his pepper spray on her escort, the policeman tells her, "You've no idea what we've been through today." Protest experience at the Democratic National Convention left the authors concluding as well that "America is moving toward the normalization of paramilitary forces in law enforcement." Winking at the old journalistic saw of quoting taxi drivers to get the street pulse, Nation contributor and former senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski, whose DC diary of World Bank and IMF protests is included, quotes an Ethiopian driver: "What is going on is simply the recolonization of the so-called developing world." Adds another: "This is why we are taxi drivers."
About a year ago, Amit Chaudhuri published in the Times Literary Supplement a panoramic survey of the past century or so of Indian writing and its reception in the West. He observed there that the postcolonial Indian novel tends to be celebrated as a hybrid form in the West, with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children eclipsing all previous Indian writing. Unhappily, critics seem to believe that the postcolonial totality of India can only be articulated by Indian novelists writing in English. Yet the novella, Chaudhuri argued, is an equally important form in the vernaculars (there are around twenty major languages and countless dialects with their individual literary traditions in India), as is the short story, and ellipsis is often more effective than all-inclusiveness in attempting to describe India. The tendency to forget that vernacular Indian literatures existed long before Salman Rushdie's brilliant experiment with magical realism--or Vikram Seth's presentation of India as a mosaic of epic proportions in A Suitable Boy--sets a problematic yardstick for judging Indian writing in English. It leads one to think that the Indian narrative is essentially "lush and overblown," whereas the literary traditions of India are actually much more delicately nuanced. Chaudhuri also suggested that hybridization of language is not the only tool for conveying the otherness of perception: Even the correct English of writers like V.S. Naipaul has otherness implicit in it.
To Chaudhuri, who is Bengali, this otherness takes the form of returning to older regional traditions of India. His literary forebears include the Bengali writers of what is known as the kallol jug--which was roughly around the second quarter of the twentieth century in Bengal--rather than contemporaries like Rushdie or Seth. As such, his novels have strong affinities to a specific movement in Bengali literature that attempted to capture the humdrum and the quotidian, though his audience is more the yuppie Indian who constantly juggles English and the vernacular than the educated Bengali middle-class bhadralok. Even the code-switching between Bengali and English--and the occasional Hindi--in Chaudhuri's novels seems to be an attempt to tell the story of the Westernized but ordinary Bengali, rather than hybridization or what Rushdie calls the pickling of language. It is also the story of polyglot India, where most of the population speaks, and habitually switches among, several languages. And mellifluous as Chaudhuri is at times, no one can accuse him of writing overblown prose.
In writing his fourth novel, A New World, Chaudhuri seems to have remained true to his critical principles: The result is not quite likely to make readers in Calcutta swoon but a novel that is as much an attempt to capture the macrocosm of India in a microcosm as it is an attempt to carry on a particular vernacular tradition in English. And to those who have never been to Calcutta, it offers a refreshingly low-key and intimate insight into the heart of the city.
In A New World, a quest for solace brings the protagonist to Calcutta to seek the comforts of the familiar rituals of his parents' home. Jayojit Chatterjee, a not-so-young professor of economics at a Midwestern US college, is back for the summer with his son in tow. Normally, his parents would have been overjoyed. But neither Jayojit nor his parents can get over the fact that the family is now broken, that Jayojit's wife has divorced him. Jayojit has recently won partial custody of his young son, Bonny, and the visit to Calcutta promises to become an annual summer retreat, an escape from his adopted country to the land of his birth.
Divorce has familiarized Jayojit with a new world of frozen pizzas and TV dinners. It also seems to have made him acutely attuned to the harmonies and dissonances of lives around him. One of the clichés about storytelling is that plots are essentially of two kinds--either someone undertakes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In such a schema, this novel would appear to fall into both categories. Jayojit may not be a stranger visiting Calcutta, but he has certainly moved far from the roots to which he has temporarily returned. He stays with his parents, runs across his neighbors, moves around the city and muses on his married life and the attempt at a second, arranged marriage that he had made on his last visit home a year previously. Daily life in Calcutta is familiar, yet no longer quite familiar. Family photos still clutter the drawing-room table, only now there is a gaping hole in this tapestry of faces--all the pictures of Jayojit's ex-wife Amala have been removed. Her absence haunts the family perhaps more than her presence would have. Nothing sensational happens in Calcutta, not even another attempt at arranging a marriage. Jayojit's visit affects no one but his parents--but the details of a humdrum holiday are meticulously captured.
There is something very familiar about this stillness to anyone who has spent any time in Calcutta. I remember this torpor from countless summer holidays spent in the city, so it is no surprise that Jayojit neglects the book he is planning to write. I also remember vendors selling Kwality ice cream--a brief respite from the oppressive heat, which Bonny yearns for--from pushcarts.
Like New York's pushcart hot dogs and Bangkok's curbside satays, Calcutta also has its distinctive street fare--the rolls, jhaalmuri, phuchka and bhelpuri sold by vendors--whose taste simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. Jayojit's brief interaction with a bhelpuri seller brings back to this reviewer many memories of the tangy snack, flavored with spiced tamarind water, sold by a particular vendor near Sunny Park in the city. A New World speaks to the expatriate reader of little, intimate, everyday things in Calcutta, reminiscent of the way that Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines, a novel set partly in that city, did a few years ago.
Chaudhuri's book almost self-consciously tries to be different from the usual Indian writing in English. To put things in perspective, consider Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread, the other novel set in Calcutta that has recently been published in America. An interesting foil to A New World, it is nothing if not sensational in plot and incidents. Its narrator is another not-quite-young man, but one who has a secret to reveal--and has just one night to write it all down. In the bedroom a newborn child lies on a blue bedspread; in the adjacent room, the narrator struggles to give voice to a mosaic of stories from his and his sister's past that can be pieced together to reveal the truth, insofar as truth may be known. The idea is clever but the secret obvious from page five onward. Of course, the ingenious aspect of Jha's plot is the frame that the story needs to be written in a matter of hours--which means that any rough edges and disjunctions in the text are automatically to be excused, the way amateurish camera work was in, say, The Blair Witch Project. This accounts for inconsistencies in the story line, and the series of deliberately unreliable narrative perspectives only helps further the cause. Judging by its reception in the West, however, he pitched his story to the right audience: the Western critic who, by all appearances, has little idea of what Calcutta is like, is willing to give Jha credit for having done for Calcutta what Joyce did for Dublin (as a reviewer wrote in the New York Times). Critics also laud Jha for letting the incestuous cat out of the bag of a repressive India. That particular cat, however, has always roamed at large in Vedic creation myths and vernacular writings. In fact, over a decade ago, Safdar Hashmi, one of India's foremost theater personalities, was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists for staging one of the earliest mentions of incest in Indian literature: a little-known version of the epic Ramayana in which the hero Rama's queen is also his sister. Jha certainly explores the eternally sensitive issue of incest in contemporary society as his narrator tells overlapping pieces of the story, and he even throws in a bit of sodomy and pederasty for good measure; but his method is a tabloid-ish piling of sensation upon sensation that might, at best, be an unfortunate outcome of his training as a journalist.
Unlike Chaudhuri, who tries to produce a miniaturist's portrait of Calcutta by adding brush stroke upon brush stroke of minutely observed detail, Jha sets out to write the novel that will lay bare the heart of Calcutta but loses his way in the quagmire of sensational revelations. This is a pity, as the novel has its occasional and redeeming moments of brilliance:
Just outside the oil mill, a couple of feet to the right of its entrance, were the birds. In a large cage, more like a coop, the kind you see at the Alipore Zoo, slightly smaller, the size of an average storeroom in an average house...people stopped by to look at these dozen birds in the cage.
Flying round and round, grey and white, grey and white. On certain rainy days, when the sky was dark, it seemed tiny clouds had slipped into the cage each dragging with it just a little bit of the sky. And then one afternoon in 1977, the oil mill closed down. Just like that, all of a sudden.
Too bad the novel does not contain more quiet gems like this passage. On the other hand, India has long been imagined as the land of elephants and tigers, jungles and sadhus, snake-charmers and the vanishing-rope trick, so why blame the author for catering to popular fantasies?
If The Blue Bedspread is a psychological study, then A New World is probably best described as an anthropological exercise. It undoubtedly offers one of the more lyrical descriptions of Bengali life that exists in English fiction. Jayojit's mother is the quintessential Bengali homemaker of a particular generation: She welcomes him home with a fond "You've put on weight, have you" but also reverses herself to "Where--I don't think you've put on weight" when he protests against eating too much. His father, a retired rear admiral and patriot who had sided with the Nationalists against the British, is nonetheless a holdover from the colonial days and eats, brown sahib style, with a fork and spoon. He is the detached head of the family, who still maintains an "inconsequential tyrannical hold over this household, in which usually only he and his wife lived, with part-time servants coming and going each day." Neither parent can quite accept their son's divorce: "they seemed to feel the incompleteness of their family, and that it would not be now complete. Someone was missing. Both mother and father were too hurt to speak of it. In a strange way, they felt abandoned." This feeling of bereftness is perhaps only to be expected. Divorce is still a relatively rare occurrence in India. Not surprisingly, when the parents try to arrange the second marriage for their son, it is to a fellow divorcée. The family doctor gets involved as an intermediary, a situation not unusual in the delicate rituals of matchmaking. She, unlike Jayojit, is childless, a crucial consideration for the still-patriarchal Calcutta society.
On the lighter side, Bengali idiosyncrasies like the obsession with traveling are gleefully dwelt upon. The Admiral's ire against Bangladesh Biman remains unclear till he sardonically observes, "Every week tens of middle-class Bengalis who've been saving up all their lives queue up in the airport to travel by Bangladesh Biman--to visit their son or daughter in England, or to travel: you know the Bengali weakness for 'bhraman'?" referring to the well-known Bengali obsession with globetrotting. His own projected trip to visit Jayojit had been derailed by his son's divorce. The thankless but socially necessary habit of keeping track of obscure relationships gets some ribbing--"Jayojit's mother's late brother-in-law's niece had a husband whose sister had married Bijon, who himself had no children." And Dr. Sen, the neighbor and friend of the Chatterjees, chuckles over how Bengalis "only come out during the Pujas. Then you'll see them--heh, heh--bowing before Ma Durga!" No believer dares run the risk of offending the goddess who once saved the very gods from calamity.
Chaudhuri's nuanced ear for language is likewise directed at readers familiar with Bengali. Jayojit's mother greets her grandson with a "Esho shona.... Come to thamma." Bonny, who speaks little Bengali, cannot pronounce the hard th. "All right, tamma," he says. Unfortunately, not every attempt to transliterate words is equally happy. The phrase "How much" might have been better transcribed as "koto" than "kato," which suggests the Bengali imperative "cut"; and the "Hay" in "Hay bhelpuri" sounds more like the lofty address "O" than "yes." What jars more is Chaudhuri's tendency to italicize words in an attempt to convey Bengali speech rhythms--it becomes wearisome. (Unlike English, word stress in Bengali is not predetermined but changes with the speaker.)
While this novel remains a bold attempt to transfer to Indian writing in English some of the characteristics of vernacular literatures, it is not without other, deeper problems. One can, after all, read of beads of moisture condensing on the outside of glasses of cold water and heads of dead fish only so many times before wondering where such aestheticized details lead. Also, given that Dhaka is a half-hour ahead of Calcutta, it's a pity that Chaudhuri's chronological error in claiming that "although they'd [Jayojit and Bonny] left Calcutta at half-past seven, it was still seven-thirty in Bangladesh" was not rectified in the editorial process. On a lesser note, one would also like to quibble over Chaudhuri's referring to phuchkas as golgappas, a term that is common in Bombay, where Chaudhuri grew up, but which many Calcuttans might not recognize.
Good translations of vernacular Indian writing are scarce in English, but there are several collections of Rabindranath Tagore's fiction available here, the best of which perhaps are those by William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson; Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) offers three tales about tribal women--the most marginalized among the marginal--of a significantly different flavor; and the two-volume Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by K. Lalita and Susie J. Tharu, is a good anthology for a historical overview, albeit with a gender bias. Nitpicking aside, A New World is definitely worth reading. Nowhere close to the best writing available in India's regional languages, it is still a creditable endeavor and should be appreciated as such.
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