Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

Patrick French's "The World Is What It Is": Book Review.

This authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul has provoked controversy for its prickly subject, who read the entire manuscript and altered nothing; it's also garnered praise for its author, who drew on the entire archive of what he notes may be the last major writer who's left an entirely paper trail, instead of disc drives. I've only read a bit of Naipaul: "Among the Believers" about his travels in the non-Arab Islamic realm, and "The Return of Eva Perón," essays on Michael X, Perón's Argentina, and Conrad. After finishing French's bold, compassionate, and fair-minded study of this formidable master of masks, I will seek out more. That's a recommendation for both the irascible author and his patient chronicler. This is not a flawless analysis, therefore not five-stars, but French's careful discussion often approaches perfection. I admired (and reviewed) French's "Tibet, Tibet," a brave book that took on an iconic figure and asked similarly tough questions honestly.

Often, reviews have commented on VSN's fearsome reputation more than French's nuanced interpretation. What's needed now: a flavor of French's prose. I will excerpt how he filters VSN. French introduces his aims as a biographer: "not to sit in judgement, but to expose the subject with ruthless clarity to the calm eye of the reader." (xv) The myth, as VSN himself mentions, rests in those who follow; the writer keeps only the control over his books.

His tiny birthplace, forty miles by forty, occupies an uneasy place for self- promoting, self- entitled VSN. Self- described as "a Trinidadian of Hindu descent," he's a British subject unable to find a homeland. Marginalized, he returns to the center of the disbanded empire to seek his rightful place. The colonial society that raised him, divided by castes and religions, ethnicities and politics, could not sustain his energy. To escape, he had to assume the master's mask. Yet, Oxford "was a traditional, English, clubbable, unreal way for a young man from the Caribbean to be living, and it left him feeling lonely and unfulfilled." (91-92)

French evokes well the snobbery of the Isis student magazine for which VSN worked; the insularity of the university clashed with his hopes of a literary career that he desperately pursued while nearly starving in post- WWII, discriminatory, and hardbitten society in London. He and his student- teacher wife, virgins when they met, lived on very little. They moved from friend to flat and back. They were not suited for each other, totally, but at his young age, VSN stayed with the first shy woman who befriended him. He told her, at their age of twenty, how he resisted reforming, rebelling, or resisting. Instead, he insisted to her on being accepted.

He enters Britain at its capital core, pioneering the post- colonial counter- diasporic critique. "Legally prevented" after graduation "from migrating inside the new Commonwealth," VSN in the early 1950s sought a career in a nation with few East or West Indians. This "double exile" as "a deracinated colonial" as the Empire contracted left VSN anxious, yet determined not to retreat. With little steady work, landlords hostile at best to his presence, and widespread prejudice, he complained to his wife, Pat: "That is what the whole policy of the Free World amounts to. Naipaul, poor wog, literally starving, and very cold." (135, 137) The self- pity mingles with a level- headed appraisal of the situation for this internal exile.

"I am the spectator, the flaneur par excellence. I am free of the emancipatory fire." (qtd. 101) French deftly measures Trinidad's racial divide between Indians and blacks, He traces how Eric Williams rose to unsettling populist power there. Later, West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James early on challenged VSN for exposing the depredations of their Caribbean homelands without relativism, without the imperial context of the white man's impact. VSN rebelled against any "betraying his essence" by averting one's eye.

VSN refused to back down; as one character puts it: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressor." The emancipated dark subaltern, VSN warned (in my phrase), could be as dangerous as the retreating British sergeant. He later mused how totalitarianism often disguised itself under an "illusion of serving virtue"; writers seeking truth cannot collude with this pretended core of virtue. (qtd. 469) This confident stance did not endear him to his Black Power peers, nor did it assuage the troubled consciences of many American, European, or Indian liberals.

It's sobering to find, well into his success, that VSN labored nearly destitute. He travelled to India, Africa, Trinidad, Europe frequently, but often relied on expense accounts, wealthier friends, or an absent friend of a friend's flat for accommodation. This led, however, to estrangement sexually and psychologically from loyal but bewildered Pat as his fame spread. The self- pity that he expressed to Pat early on deepened. Depression drove him to prostitutes. Shame grew; so did his capacity to transcribe follies of his fellows. He cultivated his imperious aura.

All along, as to his one-time protegee Paul Theroux, VSN rehearsed a familiar refrain. "Think of it like this: imagine the despair to which the barefoot colonial is reduced when, wanting to write, and reading the pattern books of Tolstoy, Balzac et al, he looks at his own world and discovers that it almost doesn't exist." (qtd. 269) True, but as French delicately counters, this "shrewd piece of self- presentation" repackages scholarship winning, Oxford- educated, critically lauded VSN as irredeemably "unprecedented, underprivileged, alienated." His pride and his determination segregated him from his Third World brethren, whether writers or workers. This pride kept VSN a difficult person to please despite plaudits brought by his fiction and commissions enabling his TV, radio, and print journalism.

"Ambitious, protean, made of smart material, deracinated by the accelerated politics of the end of empire, Vidia made a conscious choice to refashion himself." (209) India attracted him; the West Indies perplexed him. Out of this inability to fit in, overqualified and often overwhelmed by his intelligence and his Oxford education, where he lamented the absence of aristocrats vs. the state- scholarship students like himself and Pat, VSN's drive to succeed at the master's game made him a frank, yet brusque, critic of nearly everyone around him, no matter where he found himself writing, probing, and goading. This quality, as French tells us right away, comes from a Trinidadian "picong" attitude: "where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener sent reeling." (xi) Many fell for Sir Vidua's conversational bait over six decades. "As an accidental, occidental Indian from 'the most amusing island that ever dotted a sea,' Vidia felt included and excluded," and not only in India. (223)

He did his own including and excluding. "Vidia had a view of the world that he would do anything to maintain, just as he would sacrifice anything or anybody that stood in the way of his central purpose, to be 'the writer.'" (359) French judges that VSN could not countenance Pat as his equal. She, congenitally doomed it seems to play the "great man's wife," was cast aside by VSN as he pursued, on and off interspersed with Pat for many years, the Anglo-Argentinian Margaret Gooding. One of VSN's friends reported that his apparently captivating mistress appeared to have but fifty words in her spoken vocabulary; she does not come across, at least in English, as striking anyone of French's informants as scintillating or smart.

Documenting Naipaul's infidelity and his power over wife and lover, French through extraordinary tact paraphrases VSN's correspondence with both women. Reviewers have been aroused by the hints that French only alludes to (Margaret's literal "phallic worship" seems about it, that and his physical brutality towards her as emotionally against Pat) of sexually charged tension exploited by VSN. He's a ladies' man, despite his boorishness.

Pat reverenced her husband. I found his biographer's considerable discretion equally intriguing. As with the intelligent, isolated Pat's lonely diary and notes to her husband, these indirectly phrased letters to Margaret (who left her husband and her three children behind to be the on- off trophy VSN paraded globally) support VSN's own egotism. He moved between the two paramours; other times he lived alone. As he reduces it, he ruined Pat: "I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable." (qtd. 313)

His income under a new publisher (and endless lectures, conference invitations, and commissions for articles?) increased sevenfold after "A Bend in the River." By the '80s, he represented the frustrations of "corrected leftists," those who turned to VSN to argue why the Third World remained mired in post- colonial corruption. His judgments in "Among the Believers" appear prescient after 9/11, but when they appeared, he was derided as an Orientalist or apologist. Derek Wolcott, Edward Said, and activists who opposed his disillusion found themselves his targets. They fought back. VSN accepted Hanif Kureishi; he did not support Rushdie against the fatwa, "an extreme form of literary criticism." (qtd. 434) The title of this biography comes from the first sentence of "Bend." "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." (qtd. 386) VSN determined to be "the" writer of the harsh, globalizing, mediated, diasporic decade.

By the end of it, he earned a knighthood. He took the tube to the ceremony. VSN did not mellow, but he did express an admiration of what modernity allowed people such as himself: the pursuit of happiness that traditional mores and creeds did not allow many adherents. His own pursuits, typically, dominated his mature years. Pat died of cancer; French describes movingly their final weeks together. The day after her cremation, Nadira (a younger Pakistani Muslim journalist he had met while working on "Beyond Belief," a sequel to his earlier visits among the non-Arab Islamic world) moved in to VSN's house. Margaret learned of her ex-lover's marriage, two months later, in the newspaper; Pat had found out about-- in similarly roundabout fashion-- her husband's dalliances with prostitutes decades earlier only in a 1994 interview with The New Yorker.

After Pat's death, VSN found few with whom to mourn, perhaps understandably. His lifelong expectation of fealty, his shunning of friends, and his use or abuse of human sources may have helped him with his considerable gifts of extracting the essentials for his own journalism and travel narratives, but they did not win him many confidantes. French enlivens the discussion near the end, with a deeper look into how VSN composed his second Indian study, "A Million Mutinies," and a later Caribbean collection, "A Way of the World." These begin to prove why VSN attained his renown for careful explication; apparently he could usually put down verbatim, without notes on the scene, what he had heard each day from his discussions and observations.

A minor shortcoming of an otherwise impressive account: French tends to skimp on delving into the works themselves, especially earlier ones. He often cites critical blurbs, and summarizes a book's contents, but he tends to quote sparingly. This does quicken the pace. However, if lacking knowledge of the novels and essays first- hand, a reader may wonder why there's briefer coverage of most primary texts. On the other hand, this is not a "critical biography," so this emphasis, given French's need to interpret massive amounts of material (he acknowledges half a million words from interviews transcribed), may be understandable.

French concludes with VSN's marriage to Nadira. He bows out gracefully with a final word, "Enough." But then, typically, he adds his last footnote: "For the moment." It's perhaps a telling sign that French adapts, often, a detachment towards Pat, Margaret, and VSN that reflects his subject's own distance from the contradictions his selfishness creates. This may heighten the verisimilitude for some readers; it may irritate others. So persists his admirable, if also unsettling, diligence in an engrossing perspective on a life that surprised me in its awkwardness, secrecy, bluster, and, despite or because of it all, a wry-- if ultimately too bitter-- honesty. The cover photo by "jumped-up" (VSN's put-down) Lord Snowden shows a playful figure, pulling himself up by the untied shoelace. His shoe, for this frugal man, reveals on its sole a worn-away hole.

(Posted yesterday to Amazon US. Cross-posted to my daily-ish blog, "Blogtrotter.")

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Slavoj Zizek's "Violence": Book Review.

This "Big Ideas/Small Books" offering may repeat much of this Slovene philosopher's earlier critiques. As it's the first work I've read by him, I depend on others to verify this. It certainly tackles big ideas in this brief paperback, but its portability and relative concision may recommend it to those who, like me, had heard of this provocateur but hesitated to enter his dense, diffuse, albeit often entertaining debates.

Zizek's relevant: "The same philanthropists who give millions for AIDS or education in tolerance have ruined the lives of thousands through financial speculation and thus created the conditions for the rise of the very intolerance that is being fought." (37) He compares their guise as "liberal communists" (think Bill Gates or George Soros) to a dirty postcard that shows, if moved slightly, "the obscene figure" who's "at work beneath" the news of debt cancellation or the eradication of an epidemic. Global capitalists need to generate enormous wealth before they can distribute it to others. King Leopold and Andrew Carnegie-- and I might add the Bonos and Brangelinas, perhaps (oddly, Zizek does not name such celebrity counterparts, whom free trade's promoter Thomas Friedman labelled "super-empowered individuals" outside the nation-state or the "electronic herd" of corporate dominance)-- have more in common with today's Davos jetsetters and Hollywood trendsetters than we might have suspected.

On the surface, the "liberal communist" ten-point plan on pg. 18 sounds great; the "RED" campaign for Africa or wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer research or the Google slogan "do no evil" match these goals. So, what's Zizek's gripe with doing good while making a profit? Capitalism must thrive. This creates injustice.

The balance of wealth redistribution by dot.commers and rock stars may be cloaked in humanitarian liberties, but "it allows the capitalism system to postpone its crisis." No Marxist, but schooled as a former Yugoslav subject and ex-Party member/dissident, Zizek notes that while such liberal largess avoids "the destructive logic of resentment and enforced statist distribution of wealth which can only end in generalised misery," it also sidesteps the evils of concentrated affluence and power that keep the rich doling out handouts to the dependent poor.

As a Lacanian, what irritates Zizek? The gap between reality and the Real, the "inexorable 'abstract,' spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality." (13) An economist may report how an impoverished Third World nation keeps "financially sound" even as the poverty's apparent to any observer.

How do such criticisms of "liberal communism" fit into the book's larger subject of violence? It's a loose tailoring. Thematic stitches may not always be visible. He begins with defining three types of violence. First, there's subjective violence: the kind we can identify "performed by a clearly identifiable agent." (1) Behind this lurks a "symbolic" violence within language. It repeats the role that social domination plays in our habitual speech. For instance, "gold" when named as such means "we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing it with our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing to do with the immediate reality of gold." (61)

Third comes "systemic" violence, the "often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems." (2) The book in "six sideways glances" sidles around its impacts, allowing us to more dispassionately dissect the forms of violence, under critical control even as we peer towards its fearful emanations. The first section investigates the "trap" of "liberal communism" that I have already opened. The second looks into alienation as a solution rather than a problem to the Western need to assert "the right not to be harassed," to keep one's distance from others who may threaten us by their demands to be recognized and respected. (41) This chapter's more difficult, but the gist of it-- which I verified when I studied this very passage today on a crowded subway with my iPod plugged in-- asserts the advantage of European civilization: "the alienation of social life." (59) Rather than a failure, this opening up of a private zone in public allows us to obey rules mechanically, while insuring a proxemic space around us that preserves our inner world. This encourages peaceful coexistence in a multicultural realm.

Part Three confronts the eruption of violence, with the protests over the Danish caricatures of Muhammed and 2005's French banlieu riots. The urge to tear down not the enemy's camp, but to burn one's own Parisian neighborhood (even a mosque), Zizek explains as a need for those demeaned to be noticed as citizens. This outburst also shows the impotence of such violence. True fundamentalists, such as Tibetan Buddhists or the Amish, he reminds us, foster indifference rather than insecurity towards the mores of non-believers. Those insecure, such as the Muslim mobs in Pakistan, only betray their desperate fragility, their own projected inferiority. Those complaining about Euro-American dominance, Zizek insists, nevertheless define their opposition as aligned against its hegemony. (Porto Alegre fails to oust Davos: the neo-liberals have no genuine alternative vision in a late-capitalist empire, either.) Religious fundamentalists who have gained the spotlight, he adds, situate themselves in the true source of challenge today: religion supplants science as "one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society." (82) Science now solves our problems; religion stirs them up?

This chapter could have discussed further the limits of politically-correct "rules" when refusing to treat the uncomfortable truths it will not report for fear of inciting intolerance. Also, the vexed problems of massive immigration into the First World deserve more than an apercu or two. Still, Zizek provokes thought. He prefers to wander into (however astute or quirky) analogies to chocolate laxatives or Wagner.

In the fourth section, liberalism and fundamentalism both get castigated. Zizek reminds us that the European tradition always has mocked the divine; he finds such treatment "unimaginable in an Islamic culture." (106) I suppose so from the well-known, recent evidence, but still I wondered if this was too broad a statement for the past fourteen centuries? He points out an often overlooked abuse of rhetoric: discussing the hyperbolic equivalence of Israeli policies towards Palestinians with the Nazis "strangely contradicts Holocaust denial" preached by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (110)

He also reminds us of the fate of those who dare to speak out against liberal pieties; Oriana Fallaci's fall from leftist grace comes from her daring "to take the multiculturalist subservient 'respect' for the Muslim Other seriously." She incites contempt for exposing the "assymetry" of allowing Eurabia to colonize the continent, while Europe constantly retreats, apologizes, and urges only more "respect" for a regressive, intolerant barbarism. She failed to perceive how "fake" Western tolerance can be; it's "a sign of hidden and patronising racism." (114-15) Again, Zizek tends to raise many topics deserving more than a paragraph or two, but that's the tendency of his methods: to stir up our reactions.

This section's also digressive, but the whole book's so. It's like hearing a fascinating but erratic professor. Zizek has elsewhere belittled teaching; he's a professor who does not have to enter the classroom except when he wants, if at all. Yet, you get the sense of his restless range. I highlight what intrigued me; you may find an entirely different set of references that may rouse your enthusiasm. The book's full of detours, sideways glances, and momentary asides.

Israel & Palestine kindle more sparks. Zizek's at his best when urging a non-statist, truly sacred space for Jerusalem. He wonders at the U.S., the most religious of advanced nations, allying so strangely with the most atheist land (70% in some Israeli polls) which exists on the nature of its religious foundations! If Israel had been created two centuries ago, it'd have shared the roots of most "founder states;" its sin appears to be for the left that it was created after such imperial campaigns were delegitimized.

Skirting back to tolerance, Zizek as an atheist encourages us to remember how Europe's contribution to progress rests in its freedom not to believe. Blasphemy only works in a religious space. If we give in to all those who protest, we risk strengthening the pact between fundamentalists and the PC-left: "a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is and in which individuals are engaged in regular rituals of 'witnessing' their victimisation." (130) Botox injectors get equated with those forced to endure clitoridectomies by a too-capacious liberal tolerance granting a dimwitted approval to even oppressive cultures.

Instead, Zizek rallies for the courage to condemn religion if it indeed is truly entangled with hatred. We must fight religion if at its core we find violence. Apologists keep assuring us that we can rescue the truth of genuine faith from savage hijackers. Zizek inverts the game. Hack down the roots of violence. He dismisses cloaking its motives as if in a misused "authentic core" of a noble religion. The truest pacifists, he asserts, are those who lack belief. He wishes to advance atheism as a truly disinterested method to attain peace-- free of the Big Other of Marxism, monotheism, or consumerism, for that soul-dispiriting matter.

Section five's for me less engrossing. Yet, it has its moments. It covers "tolerance as an ideological category." Zizek observes how the price of living in the free West means that we may suffer violence, torn from our cultural roots so as to survive in our multicultural West. Within this milieu, the greatest art endures after it has been wrenched-- as with Homer or Shakespeare-- from its original context.

Society pretends to allow us free choice, but we have no option, usually, but to profess love for our parents or our flag. We're caught in a paradox of acting as if what's prescribed is preferred, as if we had some say in the choice. Juxtapositions float by: a TV show "Nip/Tuck" and the ground-floor vs. first-floor labelling of buildings in the U.S. vs. abroad; "The Birds" and the shot of the plane hitting the Twin Tower; Bukharin & Stalin compared to the hapless heroines of Lars von Trier's film trilogy. This portion left me somewhat at sea, but I kept paddling along.

In the last section, "Divine Violence," G.K. Chesterton provides unexpected evidence for what Zizek proposes as a truly mature acceptance that there's no larger supernatural rationale for our fate. Catastrophes occur, but God's gone. He wonders if the Incarnation and Crucifixion represent a God who's abandoned the transcendental to be truly and ultimately human. There's no Ascension, no Easter in Zizek's theology, therefore. God's demolition of the protector, and His assumption of the mortal, stands for our own existential plight. There remains, nonetheless, Judgment Day. But, it's delayed by the leftists. They promise that the "banks of rage" pent-up by so much injustice will bailout the oppressed. But, like the French or Soviet revolutions, the day of reckoning, and of utopian payback, gets postponed endlessly.

The epilogue reviews the main points. Three lessons earn summation: 1) When we shout down violence outright as "bad," we participate in mystifying its less visible social forms. Our capitalist system furthers the violence that erupts, by the inherent unfairness of the economic rules we all must agree to play by. 2) Real violence can evade those who try to act out their outrage. Twice Brecht's motto echoes: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" 3) Subjective and systemic violence intertwine. Acts can be violent or not depending on context. I doubt if his immediate comparison to the Higgs field of quantum physics would be one that anyone else would supply for clarification! Still, Zizek stays on track: "the first gesture to provoke a change in the system is to withdraw activity, to do nothing." (214)

What is there to be done? For one distrustful of Marx, of the state, of Kapital, not to mention God? Zizek concludes: "The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active', to 'participate', to mask the nothingness of what goes on." The true challenge? To step back. Abstaining from the political game, refusing to shop to stimulate the economy that has tottered because of our overspending-- I wonder what effect our concerted effort not to fuel capitalism, vote for oligarchies, or buy into credulity might achieve? Zizek's discussion may not provide any answers, but his typically barbed appeals may cause us to reorient ourselves away from the structures imposed on us that appear like natural facts.

(Cross-posted, as a longer review, here, Blogtrotter, and Amazon US today.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anthony McIntyre's "Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism"

Anthony McIntyre's "Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism."

(I'm posting this here as a forum for my longer book reviews, beyond the scope of my daily blog, "Blogtrotter," or the Amazon entries I regularly write. I may use NTLATBR as a medium for in-depth analyses of worthwhile titles that merit detailed study.)

Anthony McIntyre’s “Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism”: Book Review.

As an ex-IRA "blanketman," already imprisoned in his teens, interned for 17 years at Long Kesh, Anthony McIntyre knows his subject by having lived most of his life as a volunteer. After prison, he earned a Ph.D. in political science at Queen's. This Belfast native collects various articles and interviews from the past decade or so that list the deathbed rattles and defiant ralliery of Sinn Féin, the IRA, and the stalemated peace process after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The chicanery with which this deal was finagled to a rank-and-file previously misled about the continuation of their armed struggle led to McIntyre's break with the "Republican Movement" at least as constituted under the control of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and their devoted cadre.

Becoming a leading voice for those who disagreed, not for a return to the "physical-force tradition" but a renewal of the ideals which the IRA he and others joined had abandoned, Dr McIntyre combines two rarely encountered areas of expertise. As an insider, he betters the academics and reporters in relating the perspective of an Irish republican who's proven his credibility on the blanket. As a commentator, he's able to silence the "militant Republicans of the verbal type" eager to perch on barstools or boast to the naive their exploits, fueled with Dutch courage.

Admirably given his doctoral competence, McIntyre never lapses into jargon (although "etiology" escaped onto his keyboard once). He avoids sounding sanctimonious or overbearing. He, as with his model Orwell, manages to keep the human dimension within his sustained criticism of the IRA leadership that, for 320 pages, motivates his setting down-- with as much proof as can be summoned against an organization committed to double speak and clandestine councils-- the reasons why one can be principled, yet oppose the GFA packaged as "the peace process." Furthermore, he relates details to us in a calm, wry manner so that any newcomer can clearly understand the participants who support or oppose this intricate strategy.

It's a testament to his evenhandedness that one of the best moments comes when he's interviewing the chief of the reorganized Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the RUC), Hugh Orde. "It was the most I had ever talked in a police station," he admits. (282) While his sympathies remain throughout with the peaceful dissidents, he includes fair treatment of those later incarcerated from the splinter groups determined to fight for the cause abandoned-- with considerable cynicism, spin, and rhetorical acrobatics-- by the IRA leadership and Sinn Féin negotiators. Attention to the Loyalist perspective might have been welcome, but this anthology's already large enough. Counterparts to McIntyre or Ed Moloney's "A Secret History of the IRA" exist from the Unionist viewpoint. As the subtitle indicates, McIntyre's not providing a history of the past forty or hundred years in the North. He's analyzing the RM endgame itself, as a former player privy to many of the moves.

The book's organized into thirteen chapters. Each offers a few articles around a theme. I found the organization sensible, and there's an internal coherence that carries you from one topic to the next gradually, if subtly. An introduction by Moloney, whose own views have been met with the same outrage accorded McIntyre's among the party faithful, but with equal recognition of insight by those less aligned, provides background on the policy shifts. A glossary clues you in to who's Ronnie Flanagan or what's the IMC.

This will be a long review, as the ones so far I've seen have not dealt with the contents in depth. They've focused more on the controversy of the author and his thesis. What's missing from such terse attention? The flair with which McIntyre conveys his passion-- and his sobriety. There's little autobiography, but he's dealing with a shadowy, fatal, yet publicized and romanticized cause to which he gave his youth, and much of his adulthood. Half of his life's in the H-Blocks. He leaves to find himself facing a different IRA on the outside than the one he'd sworn to defend decades before. From the mid-1990s on-- along with like-minded volunteers, their families, friends, and comrades-- he's left to flounder while the party leaders posed for the cameras, accepted the acclaim, and betrayed the footsoldiers, those living and dead, those who had starved themselves rather than accept branding as common criminals.

One does not have to accept their methods of the proxy bomb, the guerrilla attack, or the torture of innocents to accept what McIntyre and those whose stories he tells believed in: a united Ireland that through their guns would be gained. They gave up their lives in total or a portion for such an ideal. This vision dimmed under the glare of their commanders who proclaimed a treaty that echoed that compromise which they had rejected in 1975. That was thousands of killings earlier. The confusion and outrage of those left fooled again becomes a human call for justice and truth.

Chapter 1 laments the GFA. McIntyre in 1999 conjures up the tale of the pickpocket who robs his prey while unctously soothing his victim: "your personal security is brilliant." SF strips their communal base of its pride while telling its gulled voters how they were "the most politicised people in Europe." (10) In Chapter 2, the ghosts of the Republican Dead return to haunt those investigating in 2004 the 1987 pre-emptive attack by the British upon an IRA mission at Loughall. This is one episode that may elude those less knowledgeable about such incidents. I'd have liked more attention to the moral conundrum underlying the Loughall inquiry. The larger question of how ethical should the state be in eliminating or sparing those who seek its overthrow, however, remains sadly all too contemporary.

Poignantly, McIntyre confronts this problem personally. With his toddler daughter, he visits Bobby Sands' grave, only to hear the girl chortle; thus in a small way's fulfilled Sands' prediction that the revenge of the Irish would be the laughter of their children. In this 2004 entry, "Padraig Paisley," this sometimes reticent reporter offers one of his most powerful admissions of the cost of the long war upon those who had invested their lives towards a different ending than the one now on offer from their former commanders. In Long Kesh, they followed a leader who turned on them once they were freed. "Were I to have suggested a course of action during my H-Block days that would lead republicanism to where it is today I would have found myself residing in a loyalist wing." (40)

The space given as Chapter 3 to the hazily explained 2002 mishap of the Colombia Three surprised me, but this episode foreshadows later IRA-SF debacles in the Northern Bank Robbery and the fatal stabbing of Robert McCartney. It remains a muddled area; the murky accounts at the time show the difficulty in separating dirty deeds by the IRA's left hand from SF's right hand. When Adams is charged by Congressman Henry Hyde to "'appear and help us determine what the Sinn Fein leadership knew about the IRA activities with the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia and when did Sinn Fein learn of them', it was clear that the knotted tie of the IRA was being moved uncomfortably close to the party windpipe." (50) The ten years of witnessing the RM's downhill slide proves grimly amusing, tracked from higher up this slippery slope.

Decommissioning magnifies the microcosm of the Colombian misadventure for global inspection. Not as a symbol, but as fact: giving up IRA arms dumps means the conflict's truly ended. 2001: As the leaders, pushed back from their goal of a unified Ireland into capitulation keep retreating and calling it progress, "they are moved muttering from one slain sacred cow to defend another before it too is slaughtered." (64) 2002: Those like him who complain will incur blame for raising their heads out of the trenches, where "they would immediately draw the attention and surveillance of thought traffic control and the fire of the verbal snipers, their weapons loaded with vitriol, eager to impose silence and prevent republicanism from becoming more democratic." (71)

Long before 2003, McIntyre's disgusted at "organised lying by organised liars. Half a century from now pilgrims, patriots, and prevaricators will flock to the graves of the Provisional Republican leadership to be greeted by an inscription meticulously inscribed into a headstone: 'Here they are-- lying still'." (78)

Cemeteries in West Belfast already fill with those who went to their graves believing in a patriotism that their leaders had, in secret, already abandoned. McIntyre has both outgrown his youthful enthusiasm and managed to nourish his righteous ideals. These matured, I would suggest, from the Fenian slogans of his teenaged years into a humanist skepticism towards totalitarianism in any form, however benignly promoted or however applauded by the chattering classes. He resists the cult of personality that has eclipsed the democratic socialist Republic of 1916.

Chapter 5, most notably with a twenty-page 2006 interview with fellow ex-blanketman Richard O'Rawe, delves into the difficult matter of how much Adams knew when in charge of part of the IRA contingent in the H-Blocks during the second hunger strike that left ten men dead in 1981. O'Rawe's "Blanketmen" book's claims are balanced by outside sources which both men carefully cite in their cautious yet charged dialogue. They explore O'Rawe's argument that Adams deliberately withheld information to advance SF electoral fortunes, rather than intervene with proposals relayed from British negotiators that could have ended the strike, thereby saving the last six men from self-starvation.

A quarter-century later, McInytre speaks at Bundoran to those who shared the years on the dirty protest. Addressing those who now oppose his own dissidence, he manages to affirm his own position while remaining respectful to his detractors. He defends O'Rawe, and reminds his comrades that the rumor-mongering against O'Rawe (and himself by extension) does the 1981 commemoration no credit. He paraphrases the press who lambasted the SF rally (with blankets sold to marchers) to commemorate the ten men dead "as resembling a Friar Tuck convention more than the austere era of the Blanket protest and hunger strikes. The contrast between the easy corpulence of today and the hard emaciation of twenty-five years ago was no more stark than it was on the Falls Road at that political rally. In a sense the imagery mirrored perfectly the ethical decay that has come to beset republicanism. The screws at least gave out the blankets for free." (115)

Suppressing Dissent, as Chapter 6, continues in similar tone. McIntyre allows us to hear more stories from those who speak out against party lines, and in West Belfast, who suffer for their rebellion. Brendan Shannon, "Shando," sticks to his guns as a proponent of the armed struggle. While McIntyre regards him as a cautionary tale of the true believer left stranded, he treats him with dignity and in 2003 tells his story honestly. In 1995, Shando explains to McIntyre: "I did not leave the Provos because they gave up the war. I left because they gave up republicanism." (139)

One who did not survive in early 2005 after standing up against the system, Robert McCartney, merits Chapter 7. His murder, along with the Northern Bank and Colombia 3 incidents, further tarnished an already dulled Sinn Féin. McIntyre and his wife ran the e-zine "The Blanket" 2001-08. They refused to back down to SF militia. They were harassed, raided, and intimidated. Most of the entries in this book originated with their grassroots Net campaigns on behalf of their cowed neighbors and harangued colleagues. They display to future historians and activists the birth of Web networks married to practical solutions. This harnessed solidarity for concrete gains rather than arcane monographs on republican community organizing.

These chapters also reveal McIntyre's growth as a more generous participant in his changing Irish reality. He almost encourages a PSNI officer with "good luck" as the police try to find Bert's killers. As one with his ear to the ground, McIntyre knows at least one culprit even if he's not charged directly. "IRA culture was drawn on heavily both to inflict the crime and to cover it up," (173) even if hard proof dissolves into soft supposition and perhaps a bit of brass knuckles on any witnesses out of the dozens of people who saw the fatal assault-- unless they were all as they claimed in the pub's jakes. The party interferes, so no allegations of collusion between the supposedly rogue IRA operators and SF can be sustained in court.

This leads to frustration. How can you fight such an implacable PR machine? Others join in the protest, but against those who complain. They defend Adams and McGuinness. Why do McIntyre and his colleagues oppose what so many voted for, North and South? The Loyalist veto's consented to by SF. The IRA surrendered. The Crown rules as long as most Northerners agree to a British ruler. McIntyre counters that "the process subverts the peace." (168) Many who favor cessation of violence do not assent to the process, he argues. Their disagreement with the GFA, moreover, remains non-violent. Meanwhile, the IRA and SF subvert the community they claim to advance-- with thugs, censorship, and discrimination.

Informers, long the republican's bane, now turn into its own agents of destruction. Freddie Scappaticci, "Stakeknife," and Denis Donaldson gain infamy. McIntyre's clever. He asks nimbly what Donaldson as a British agent did that Martin McGuinness as a British minister at Stormont did not. Both "shaft Republicanism." Rumors persist, and seem to be hushed, about IRA spies even higher up than Donaldson. The author knows the pressures that burden those volunteers fresh out of prison, unable to cope. "The choice was simple: Grow old and grey with imprisoned comrades and wake up alone each morning to the sound of clanging grills or come to beside a partner and to the laughter of children." (191) While never excusing what Stakeknife or others did by betraying their cause, McIntyre as an ex-prisoner and as one who has worked with many others like himself captures what few other writers could have expressed about the personal torment that a few of his weaker colleagues endured for decades as they fought, plotted, and confided in comrades whom they would expose to their own compromise, or often worse, at the hands of death squads within the IRA as well as among the Loyalists and British forces-- whether vetted or below the radar.

McIntyre's also compassionate towards the reputation that shrouds their children and grandchildren; he implies how this character assassination may be the worst crime yet hatched by such informers. "Provisionalism is being haunted by a spooky spectre," he confides in 2005. "What blossomed in spring has now become autumn fruit, as poisonous as it is bountiful." (193)

With Chapter 9, Comrades appear. These too have been weighed down by compromises when they emerged from prison. The late Brendan Hughes in 2000 tells McIntyre: "We fought on and for what? What we rejected in 1975." (198) A leader of the H-Blocks during the strike, on release he found himself cheated by building crews in West Belfast where he worked; those who were his bosses justified their hypocrisy by their ties to the cosy SF leadership. Exposing this immorality, he found himself expelled by those whom he once had commanded and respected. He concludes how the "Republican leadership has always exploited our loyalty." (200)

In 2006, "Granny Josie" Gallagher remembers when she visited her three sons, all jailed at Long Kesh, over twenty-two years. Two were in the Marxist INLA. Thumbing a ride in the snow on the way back from her prison visit, the Sinn Féin transport van refused her a ride. If she was at the H-Blocks to see her third son, in the IRA, than she might have earned a ride. Such was the discrimination and pettiness even within the RM, as McIntyre rues now.

For Dissembling, Chapter 10, McIntyre introduces other critics of SF-IRA groupthink. In 1994, when the cease-fire was declared, McIntyre was with his comrade Tommy Gorman when Gorman called to agree with Bernadette McAliskey on BBC's "Talkback" with her comment that "the war is over and the good guys lost." (226) From that point on, they and others discussed in this chapter found themselves the targets of the SF-IRA disinformation operatives. Their names were discredited, their supposed links to the militants were publicized, and their credibility was attacked. What differs between the tactics of any faction who has gained power in a putsch? Perhaps the fact that the leaders had led on the followers for so long, so fatally, while dissembling.

With the 2004 Northern Bank robbery in Chapter 11, there's not much point even pretending. "If, as has been widely alleged, the robbery is the work of the Provisional IRA's Army Council, then it is a matter of the rich robbing the rich." (254) Policing, in Chapter 12, finds SF in a quandary. Having lost the hearts and minds of those in projects such as Ballymurphy (where McIntyre had lived when writing these articles), the RM could not provide the protection the residents needed. Over nine months in 2006, 700 acts of violence or intimidation had occurred in his neighborhood. The collapse of the community, as former republican ideals to rally solidarity eroded under drugs, teen pregnancy, vandalism, and theft, showed another collapse of Irish idealism under British administration. The PSNI had first been castigated by republicans, and then clumsily courted, but this left the locals in an awkward situation of who to call on for help. The PSNI wearied, the IRA devolved into a gang, and with few arrests amidst the grim scenario, the costs of the long war's slide into a restless temper tantrum of dealing and dissing showed how hollow had been the claims of a peaceful Northern Irish settlement for so many in what had been Gerry Adams' heartland, his base for IRA action and a unified front pledging SF allegiance.

Strategic Failure, fittingly, concludes this book as Chapter 13. It includes the visit to Orde. What do republicans and dissidents do when the system's in place and the Loyalists remain in control with the consent of the nationalists, post-GFA? Learning to get along, in power or driven away from the dream of centuries of Irish men and women who fought and died for unification, republicans today may be the last of their line so bred to never give up the battle in every generation. Post 9/11, the lust for the brawl's faded. McIntyre's post-mortem for Moloney's 2003 castigation of the hypocrisy of the Adams-McGuinness leadership finds its eulogy repeated in his own compiled arguments here. "For those of us who sought a different and a better outcome-- more just, more egalitarian, more democratic, more honest-- read it and weep." (308)

One does wonder-- admittedly lacking the personal experience that informed the rationale of McIntyre after so much of his life fighting the British state-- if the author should finally blurt out what he locks inside. Why not, imprisoned for so long, as an ex-prisoner demonstrate your inner liberation? Why not embrace your local peeler?

Frequent criticism levelled at dissenters has been that in their refusal to change, they etch deeper the corrosive qualities of a toxic republicanism that will not glow much longer into our own century. McIntyre and his comrades debated against those who drowned them out in the mainstream media on TV most nights. They persisted despite direct and disguised attempts to shut them up. They refused to submit to those who had betrayed them; they turned away from those who beckoned them back to a useless fight. This collection offers carefully reasoned articles insisting that another form of purer republicanism still lingers that deserves resurrection. "The Blanket," as an aside, often featured spirited debate about this very issue, although the selection of more topical pieces by McIntyre may tilt his own anthology towards a clearer chronological, thematically cohesive presentation.

Perhaps, given the futility of the hardline remnant of compromised and infiltrated militants and the corruption of co-opted SF, any "third way" here appears a glimpse up a foggy cul-de-sac. McIntyre and Moloney convince you that the ground troops in the Fenian campaign have been betrayed, but like the Wild Geese, one now wonders what cause will answer their ambitions. Will those who visit the graves in fifty years look back on today's dissidents as students may skim the manifestoes from the ralliers for the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Bourbon dynasty?

The failure of an alternative movement to counter the party machine resulted, eventually as this anthology tacitly documents, the folding up of "The Blanket" earlier this year. Its purpose appeared to have been finished; other community activists had taken up the watch, the governments had agencies in place, and the criminal activities that had replaced the RM with petty theft, drug running, and slum squalor appeared less the blame of the Brits and more the lassitude of post-GFA residents. The tricolor flutters and the strikers commemorated on murals still grace the closely packed streets, but one wonders if these depictions will in time fade into "tradition" as walls in other redoubts, those post-GFA Unionist enclaves. The whitewashing waits. McIntyre's anthology warns us of the impermanence of what once stood as an unshakeable foundation under any republican, dawn over a unified island.

(Posted to Blogtrotter. A shorter version will appear on Amazon in Britain and the U.S. Disclosure: I contributed to "The Blanket" throughout its run, 2001-08, and know Anthony, not as well as I wish, but blame a continent plus an ocean's distance for that! You can read him at the archived 2001-08 "Blanket" and current "The Pensive Quill" or via the bloglinks at the right of the "Blogtrotter" frame.)

Friday, August 8, 2008

L.A. Times sounds desperate

As this is a real blog a-borning, not a spam one (I did not know such existed until Google flagged this as suspect.) The Book Review has been axed, the paper's reading my mind as it sends me a come-on renewal at a cheaper price locked in if I subscribe to pay on-line. It's hard. I've been a longtime suitor, an ardent swain, but I'm tempted by the Old Grey Lady's charms, her erudition, her pages spread open for book to drool over, and her considerable pedigree. New York, again, tramples L.A. flat.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This is a test

Under construction, given the impending demise of my hometown's Sunday Book Review.