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The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

April 4, 2018 10 comments

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé (2013) Original French title: La Rose dans le bus jaune. Not available in English.

In March, Télérama published an article about Memphis, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It reminded me that I still had The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé on the shelf. Ebodé is a French-Cameroonian writer. He was born in 1962 in Douala, Cameroon and emigrated in France in 1982. The Rose in the Yellow Bus is a novel where Rosa Parks narrates her life, beginning with the boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955. As we all know, segregation was the rule then, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man in a public bus. She was arrested by the police. She was already an active militant for the civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They decided to use her example to go to court against the Jim Crow Laws and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a movement that was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

As a child, I had a subscription to a magazine called Astrapi, published by the Christian oriented publisher Bayard Presse. (It still exists) Astrapi used to publish the life of famous people in comic strips, from Sister Emmanuelle to Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was in primary school and I remember vividly this comic strips: I was impressed by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the participants to the boycott and I was horrified by the concept of segregation. No wonder Ebodé’s book caught my eye when I saw it in a bookshop.

But back to the novel. I’d say it’s good but flawed. It was a difficult mission from the start because it deals with history. Ebodé made three creative decisions to tell this story.

First, Rosa Parks is the narrator, which means that famous leaders like Martin Luther King are a bit in the shadow. It’s an important choice because we focus on the reasons for the boycott and forget the famous leaders. The movement aimed at helping people’s everyday life, to ensure that they had the rights they deserved as American citizens. Rosa Parks shows that this boycott wouldn’t have been a success without a massive participation of the black population. He needed to write from the perspective of someone who had experienced life among the working class.

Second, Ebodé created the character of Douglas White Junior, the white man Rosa Parks was summoned to leave her seat for. Ebodé made him a man with white skin but black origins. One of his ancestors was raped by her owner and his white genes reappeared in Douglas. He’s a complex character, hiding in a white neighborhood, feeling like a fraud among his white neighbors and an outsider in the black community. He’s in an absurd position that stems out of the absurd Jim Crow laws. The awakening of Douglas White is an interesting part of the novel even if I don’t think he was a likeable character.

And third, Ebodé added an African character into the mix. He’s named Manga Bell, a Cameroonian surname, a way for the writer to link his novel to his own history. Manga Bell is the link between Africa and the African-American community. He’s by their side as a representative of their African cousins but also as a reminder that African leaders sold their population to slave traders.

These two fictional characters gave new dimensions to the story, they allowed Ebodé to include these points of views in the story.

In my opinion the novel is flawed because it’s unbalanced. It took Ebodé a long time to introduce Rosa Parks, her husband and mother, her everyday life and to describe the starting point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is 365 pages long and we are page 235 when the first day of the boycott is over. It was interesting but I would have liked more details about the rest of the fight, the victory and the court battles. The boycott lasted 381 days! The 130 remaining pages cover the boycott from day 2 till the end and Rosa Parks’s life until she’s 81.

The other flaw is that Rosa Parks doesn’t sound American. The book is written in French and she should sound like she was translated from the American. For example, she relates how embarrassed she was to be the center of attention. Je rougissais comme un piment d’Espelette (I blushed and was as red an Espelette chili) I doubt that an American woman would use the Espelette chili comparison since it’s a chili from the South West of France. She’d say something like as red as a beetroot or in French rouge comme une tomate.

Other French expression play strange tricks to the author. At a Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting, someone mutters about Martin Luther King who was only 26 at the time: “Que veut donc nous imposer ce petit blanc-bec venu d’Atlanta?”. In English it becomes something like “What does this little greenhorn from Atlanta want to push us to do?” Except that in French, greenhorn is blanc-bec or literally white-beak, which is kind of ironic when talking about a black man.

Here’s another example: Ces gens-là ne comprennent que les coups de bâton et rien d’autre. A propos de bâton, tenez, à Baton Rouge… (p240) It’s impossible to translate into English because there’s a play-on-word on coup de bâton (blow with a stick) and the city of Baton Rouge, which means Red Stick for a French. It’s not something an American writer would write.

Comparisons, puns and metaphors betray the writer’s origin and cultural references. I’d already noticed that in Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. It’s something a writer should take into account when editing their novel. Perhaps I hear it because I switch from the French to the English language all the time and read American lit in translation. It annoyed me a bit, just as it annoyed me that in 1956, Douglas White eats some coussins de Lyon, sweets that come from Lyon but where invented in…1960. I suppose that it bothered me but other French readers might not mind.

What it worth reading? Yes. Definitely. It was interesting to see the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the people and the organization that was behind it. It’s important to read these books to remember where we come from and where we could go back to if we don’t pay enough attention to all the supremacist and extreme right movements that seem to resuscitate these last years.

It’s important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and this is why this billet is published today. There’s an exhibition about him at the Lyon Public Library. I plan on taking my children there. Sometimes different unconnected events occur at the same time and happen to be related. I was reading Ebodé, spending time with Rosa Parks when Linda Brown, the little girl of the Brown vs Board of Education died on March 25th, 2018. It made the headlines on the radio here. Then The Origin of Others, a collection of conferences by Toni Morrison about racism was published in French. I read it right away. Meanwhile I had ordered The Kites by Romain Gary from Amazon US and decided to spread shipping costs and also bought Go Tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin. All these unrelated and small events push the same theme in the forefront, demanding my attention. I hope I’ll have time to read the Baldwin soon. Some battles I thought were won seem to be coming back; the victories were fragile and we need to protect them.

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 14 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 15 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

December 23, 2015 10 comments

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman (2006) French title: Le chagrin entre les fils. Translated by Pierre Bondil.

Hillerman_chagrin_filsTo be honest, I still have three books to review by the end of 2015 and out of the three, Hillerman’s book is the least appealing. This explains why my billet will be a short one.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) is an American writer of detective novels whose main characters are policemen from the Navajo Tribal Police Department, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His books are set in the Four Corners area, between Arizona and Utah.

In The Shape Shifter, Joe Leaphorn is now retired while Jim Chee has just gotten married and is back from his honeymoon. Leaphorn is a little bored, so when an old friend calls him about a Navajo blanket that had reappeared when everybody thought it had been destroyed in an arson, he jumps on the occasion to investigate further. Only it will be on his free time and without police backup.

It had been a long time since my last Tony Hillerman. His books are usually a pleasure to read because of the investigation but also because of all the information he gives about the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo cultures. This element is present in this opus as well. The blanket relates the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864 when they were deported from Arizona to New Mexico.

Hillerman gives details about The Long Walk and its impact on the Navajo psyche. However, I failed to understand how it was serving the plot. It was interesting to read about but I thought it never quite meshed with the plot. It felt more like a pretext than a real plot enhancer.

I also thought that the plot was a little weak and it sounded to me that the writer was as tired as his character. It didn’t help that I wasn’t in awe with the translation; I don’t like recent books with notes explaining what a pick-up is. And let’s talk about the French title. It’s not the translation of the original title, which I understand because it’s hard to translate. However, the French title, Le chagrin entre les fils, is unfortunate because the word fils, when you read it, can be understood as threads or as sons. Until I heard about the blanket after I started to read the book, I was convinced the title meant the grief between the sons and not the grief between the threads. The title makes sense as the blanket was made to keep a trail of this painful Long Walk and to express grief in an artistic form. But how can you guess that when you’re in the bookshop?

Despite the reservations I have on this volume of the series, I still highly recommend Tony Hillerman as a writer to explore. Just pick his earlier books and if you have any interest at all in Native American culture, this is an enjoyable way to learn things. For example, in The Shape Shifter, he explains that in the Navajo culture, being called rich is not desirable at all, it’s almost an insult. What a clash with the culture of the white America. Hillerman was an honorary citizen of the Navajo reservation, so you can trust his explanations. He also has a fantastic sense of place. He has a way to describe nature in the Four Corners area that makes you want to pay a visit. Reading it after a trip there is even better because you have your own images of the places he describes.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 11 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.

 

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

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