Michael Laub and Antonio Skarmeta
Two Superb Latin American Novelists
Michel Laub’s haunting novel, Diary of the Fall, develops from layers and layers of deceit and what the unnamed narrator will eventually call the “nonviability of human experience,” which is his belief that nothing can ever be done to change one’s fate—or, to extend this, the fate of mankind in general. That’s the realization he makes when he is forty, after he’s recorded much of his earlier life beginning at age thirteen. Getting to that stage has not been easy, and that applies also to his father and his grandfather. Moreover, an added burden is that they are Jewish.
There’s a horrific incident when he’s still thirteen, attending an elite Jewish school where all the other students are Jewish, except for one Catholic boy named João. João’s father scrimps and works two jobs to pay the school fees and provide his son will a quality education. When João is thirteen, his father decides to give him a birthday party in an attempt to replicate the bar mitzvah that all the Jewish boys celebrate. It’s a modest enough event, limited because of his father’s resources, and at the end a number of boys decide to throw the birthday boy into the air, catching him thirteen times. That’s been done to all of them at their own thirteenth birthday parties.
But the boys plot in advance that on the thirteenth toss into the air, João will not be caught but crash to the floor. It’s a cruel plan with terrible results: the boy is seriously injured and needs to spend months in hospital. João had always been ostracized at the Jewish school, bullied, except by the narrator. Yet he, too, participates in the awful plot. Afterwards, the other boys deny that the incident was premeditated, but the narrator—in his guilt—confesses. And the result of the incident is that both João (after he is released from the hospital) and the narrator transfer to another school.
The narrator’s family is filthy rich, quite a contrast to João’s situation. The narrator has a violent argument with his father when he tells him that he wants to transfer to a new school, and on that occasion the thirteen-year-old learns that his grandfather was a survivor of the Holocaust, specifically, Auschwitz. In context, this is where the deceit begins, because the boy’s father did not learn about his own father’s time at Auschwitz until his father died. And the boy’s own father has kept those details from his son for the longest time. Thus, although Diary of the Fall is about surviving the Holocaust, it is also about the deceit that is necessary to cover up unsettling events in one’s life. For the narrator, that means his participating in the prank that almost resulted in João’s permanent crippling.
Here’s one example: “My grandfather lost a brother in Auschwitz, and another brother in Auschwitz, and a third brother in Auschwitz, and his father and his mother in Auschwitz, and his girlfriend of the time in Auschwitz. And who knows how many friends in Auschwitz, how many neighbors, how many work colleagues, how many people he would have been quite close to had he not been the only one to survive and set off on a boat for Brazil and spend the rest of his life without ever mentioning any of their names.”
At forty, the narrator has not been able to get beyond the incident involving João’s injury. He’s gone through multiple careers and marriages and become an alcoholic, using João’s “fall” as an excuse for all of the failures of his life. The implication is that João’s tormentors were just as despicable as the Germans who slaughtered Jews at Auschwitz, tormenting the innocent, narrowly avoiding crippling him. Yet these boys—and the narrator—are Jews. What will it take, Laub has his narrator ask, to break the pattern? Is it even possible? Layered within this deeply satisfying novel are the answers to those two questions. And although I would never say that Diary of the Fall has a happy ending, it does have a hopeful one. And with Margaret Jull Costa’s superb translation Michael Laub’s expansive story will haunt you long after you encounter the resolution.
To shift to Antonio Skármeta’s A Distant Father is to continue the pattern of conflicted relationships between fathers and their sons. Skármeta (who is Chilean) is perhaps best known in the United States for The Postman, the movie that was made from his novel, Il Postino. But this, too, in a memorable work, almost delicate in its sparseness—a novella that you will read in little more than an hour. Skármeta, it should be noted, is also blessed with a talented translator, John Cullen.
Twenty-one-year-old Jacques, who is a schoolteacher in a remote village, is suddenly jolted by his father’s abandonment of him and his mother. His father is French, his mother Chilean, and on the day Jacques returns to the village to begin his teaching, his father departs without a word of explanation for his leaving. Jacques has a hunch that his father has returned to France, but months later, when he goes to a neighboring city—intending to lose his virginity in a brothel—he encounters his father, who is pushing a stroller with a baby. Nothing more needs to be said about the engaging story, other than to say that A Distant Father also ponders issues of deceit and faithfulness. Moreover, Jacques realizes that he is the only one who can change the situation involving his father, his distraught mother and himself. Cleverly, Jacques manipulated their lives (and those of several others in the village), correcting their mistakes.
A Distant Father is never so grim as Diary of the Fall but an equally compelling story of how it is sometimes possible to restore dignity to people who have made terrible mistakes in their lives. I read both novels in one day and found the sense of respect for others something not only hopeful but something close to elation.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Laub and Antonio Skarmeta
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New UK Company acquires Oil Exploration Blocks in Ogaden
A new UK-based company, Delonex Energy Limited, two weeks ago acquired oil exploration blocks in the Ogaden basin, in eastern Ethiopia.
Delonex Energy is an oil and gas exploration company focused on sub-Saharan Africa. In a statement issued on August 25, Delenox Energy said that the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines had awarded it an exploration license in the Ogaden basin.
Delonex Energy said it was leveraging its technical expertise, proven project execution skills and strong balance sheet to fast track the exploration and development of hydrocarbons for the benefit of host nations.
Delonex Energy was established in 2013 with an investment capital of USD 600 million dollars led by Warburg Pincus, a renowned global private equity firm based in New York, and the IFC, a member of the World Bank Group. Delonex energy is headquartered in London, with subsidiaries in UK, India and Kenya.
SCOTLAND’S REFERENDUM ON AUSTERITY
JOHN NICHOLS GLASGOW, SCOTLAND—
Thursday’s Scottish referendum vote is often framed in terms of the politics of nationalism—and the desire of a people for self-determination. And of course there have always been, and there still are, impassioned Scottish nationalists. But the reality that becomes overwhelmingly clear in the last hours before the referendum vote—which polls suggest will see an exceptionally high turnout and a close finish—is that this process is being shaped by the politics of austerity. This is highlighted by the campaigning of supporters of a “yes” vote and, increasingly, this is being acknowledged in the last-minute promises being made by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the most fervent foes of a Scottish break with the United Kingdom. The politics of Scotland has long been at odds with the politics of Britain, as my Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan has ably explained. The Conservative Party has ruled the United Kingdom for the majority of the past sixty years. Yet the Tories last finished first in a Scottish election in 1955. And as Britain has moved to the right, not just under the right-wing leadership of Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher but also under the neoliberal leadership of Labour Party prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Scotland has felt increasingly isolated politically. This isolation has a huge economic component, as Cameron has implemented an austerity agenda that threatens the National Health Service and broader social services, undermines trade unions and communities, and deepens inequality. Despite the devolution of some powers to a Scottish Parliament over the past decade, Scotland is still governed in many of the most important senses from London—even though less than 17 percent of Scots backed Cameron’s Conservatives in the last election, giving the Tories just one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the British Parliament. So it was that the posters on sound trucks rolling through the streets of Glasgow Wednesday shouted: “End Tory Rule Forever.” The energetic Radical Independence Campaign was putting up posters with an “X” over Cameron’s face and the promise that “Another Scotland Is Possible.” This is not about nationalism in some old-fashioned sense, tweets Radical Independence Campaign activist Cat Boyd; this is about democracy is a very modern and practical sense. “It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Conservative majority and half of that time we have [had] a Conservative government,” she notes. Author and activist Tariq Ali, who appeared with Boyd at a forum in Glasgow just before the election, agreed, explaining that the referendum is “all about giving the people the power to determine their own future—rather than to have it determined for them.” Ali traveled from London to Glasgow to support the “yes” campaign, arguing that bringing governing power closer to the people changes the dynamic of the austerity debate in Scotland—and in other places around the world. “The symbiosis of big money and politics is not just America’s problem,” he said. “It has now spread to Europe in a big way.” The notion that Scottish rule will change the circumstance has been at the heart of the broad-based “Yes Scotland” campaign, which says a “yes” vote will mean We can use Scotland’s wealth to build a fairer nation. Scotland’s NHS [National Health Service] will be protected from creeping privatization. We spend money on childcare instead of Trident missiles. A lower pension age and higher pensions. The end of Tory governments we don’t vote for. Decisions about Scotland will be made by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live here. A radical notion? David Cameron no longer seems to think so. The prime minister was in Scotland on the eve of the voting to promise that if Scots vote “no,” he and other British party leaders will push for the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament—which is all but certain to be led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party. This so-called “devo-max” approach would afford Scotland far greater control of its own affairs—with greater authority over taxation and spending shifted to Scottish leaders—while maintaining the basic outlines of the United Kingdom. Critically, the “devo-max” promise, at least to the extent that it is understood at this point, would allow a Scottish Parliament to steer a different course from the British on issues of social spending and the broader austerity debate. Cameron, his governing coalition partner Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party and Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband actually signed a vow—published on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record—to work together to give the Scots more of a voice in their future if the independence vote fails. “People want to see change,” Brown said. “A ‘No’ vote will deliver faster, safer, and better change than separation.” Of course, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, termed the promise from Cameron and the other leaders a “desperate offer” that only came as the British leaders recognized Scotland might vote “yes” for independence. With the polls so close, it is certainly possible that the “devo-max” gambit will tip the balance toward the “no” camp. But even if that happens, this remarkable democratic debate over independence has forced an admission that austerity is a vital, perhaps definitive, issue in Scotland—and beyond. The only question then is how best to stop the cuts, stop the redistribution of wealth upward and begin shaping fairer and more humane policies.
Mr. Cooke has written a good article on ISIS, terrorism, the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the dilemma faced by the U.S.A.
Professor Mekonen Haddis
The Never-Ending Cycle of War
Obama’s No-Win War on ISIS
The newest crisis in the Middle East has sucked the U.S. into yet another insoluble military problem. Obama is again considering a bombing campaign in Syria after infamously not bombing the country last year. This time, however, he’s not targeting his enemy Bashar al-Assad, but his enemy’s enemy — ISIS — now referred to as the Islamic State.
By attacking the Islamic State in Syria, Obama will become a de facto ally of the Syrian government, just as Obama and ISIS were de facto allies when they were both targeting Bashar al-Assad. Most Americans are likely fed up with Obama’s zig-zagging foreign policy, and with each new u-turn support drops for the next war.
But the U.S. has no plans to leave the Middle East to its own devices, and “fixing” the current problems will mean that Obama will need to tear up the patchwork of alliances previously pieced together amid past U.S. wars. The next U.S.-led “solution” will only compound the catastrophe, and continue the senseless logic of permanent war.
The situation has become so absurd that the U.S. is now spending millions of dollars bombing U.S.-made military equipment in Iraq — itself worth millions, previously gifted to the Iraqi government and then taken by ISIS.
Obama’s constant Middle East flip-flops have made it difficult to keep allies. After having built a coalition of nations to wage a proxy war against Bashar al-Assad, Obama backed out of his promised air strikes last year, in effect abandoning his anti-Syrian partners, many of whom still bear a grudge.
As a result, Obama faces a “credibility gap,” as does anyone who doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do. Obama also said he supported a two-state solution in Palestine, but then backed Israel 100 percent in its ongoing slaughter against the Palestinians and its continued building of settlements.
Obama also promised to wage a “war on terror,” but allowed the growth of jihadi movements in his fight against the Libyan and Syrian governments, since they were de facto allies against the targeted governments. This is one of the reasons given by Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn on why the “war on terror” failed.
But there are other reasons Obama has few allies to fight ISIS. The unbreakable bond between the U.S. and the Saudi dictatorship can never be too public, since the overwhelming majority of Saudis hate the United States government, as do the vast majority of people across the Middle East, according to a recent poll.
Why do they hate the U.S. government? Unlike the American media perception of U.S. foreign policy goofily stumbling from one good-intentioned mishap to the next, the average person in the Middle East views the American military as a sociopathic power hell-bent on annihilation.
Obama also has to keep Israel at arms length as he searches for war allies in the Middle East, since Israel is the only country hated more than the United States in the region, for the exact same reasons. Thus, teaming up with Israel would worsen Obama’s horrible image in the Middle East.
Many mainstream media publications have recognized Obama’s crisis of allies and are pushing Obama to make new friends, fast. An increasingly popular plan among the mainstream media is to have the U.S. make yet another u-turn and officially ally with the Syrian government, after many of these same publications had been previously urging Obama to attack it.
Interestingly, the Syrian government recently said that it would welcome U.S. airstrikes, but only if Syria were notified first. Without officially allying or “cooperating” with Assad, Obama’s air strikes in Syria will be a breach of national sovereignty, and Assad likely knows that when a tiger gets its paw in the front door it’s not long until it dominates the house.
Obama, however, continues to shun President Assad, recently adding that “Assad is part of the problem.”
Instead, the most “popular” idea seems to be the same one that has failed for the past three years in Syria: create a “moderate” opposition to the Syrian government that would also fight the Islamic extremists. The Guardian explains:
“The favored option, according to two [Obama] administration officials, is to press forward with a training mission, led by elite special operations forces, aimed at making non-jihadist Syrians an effective proxy force. But the rebels are outgunned and outnumbered by Isis and the administration still has not received $500m from Congress for its rebel training plans.”
To continue to advocate for this “plan” after three years of failures is to grasp at already-combusted straws.
The Syrian opposition is completely dominated by Islamic extremists, a fact which nobody seriously contests. But Obama would like to create a whole new “moderate” fighting force out of his armpit, powerful enough to tackle both the Syrian government and the Islamic State. Fantasy quickly reaches its limits in war.
Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn explains:
“There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition being helped by the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis. It is, however, weak and getting more so by the day.”
“Jihadi groups ideologically close to al-Qa‘ida have been relabeled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of U.S. policy aims.”
This “relabeled” type of moderate is what Obama would like to grow in Syria. For example, the U.S.-backed “moderate” group, the Islamic Front, is dominated by the extremist group ahrar al sham.
A more realistic — though equally reckless — solution that Obama is suddenly pursuing is arming the Kurds to the teeth, which creates an entirely new set of regional problems. The Kurds have large populations in several Middle East countries, though most notably Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
The Kurds have long wanted their own nation, which they likely believe that the U.S. will help them get, since giving a population tons of guns —Obama’s plan — is the first step toward carving out a chunk of land. And although the Kurds have been a long-oppressed minority group that deserves its own country, carving a country out of land already claimed by other nations isn’t done without war, and lots of it.
Here’s how the Guardian explained Obama’s brand-new Kurdish alliance:
“Obama needs the Kurds, and he knows it. They are largely secular and pro-Western, but also maintain dynamic ties to both Iran and Turkey. They offer a potential base from which the US can stage counterterrorism operations against Isis… It [Kurdistan] offers a stable, economically prosperous buffer zone right at the intersection of several regional conflicts.”
Although the mainstream media has suddenly discovered the ‘Kurdistan’ strategy, many analysts have long speculated assumed it as being the “grand plan” for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East: the main purpose would be to create a new nation and regional power — Kurdistan — that would be loyal to the U.S. and thus serve as a countervailing force to the anti-U.S. “Shiite crescent” countries of Iran, Syria, Iraq (under al-Maliki) and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A key part of creating the new Kurdistan would require the partition of Iraq into three separate nations, which has been advocated by Vice President Joseph Biden.
This idea — having long been considered a “conspiracy theory” —appears to be manifesting before our very eyes, especially when Vice President’s official plan of a “soft partition” is gaining popularity in D.C.
The above cluster of irrational events are based on one fundamentally incorrect assumption: that the U.S. can create and maintain steadfast allies through military interventions, which inevitably attract the hatred of every Middle Eastern person. This false assumption is why Obama’s foreign policy has mirrored Bush, Jr.’s: creating disaster on top of disaster, leaving a strong stench of death in its wake.
And with each new military intervention in the “war on terror” the jihadist movement grows exponentially, born amid the rubble of U.S.-destroyed Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and groomed to maturity by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and other Gulf States.
Such an irrational, never-ending cycle of war cannot last forever. It is already collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.