What the Debate Over a History Textbook Can Tell Us About the Conflict in Ukraine.

The last month or so has been taken over by various global conflicts that seem to repeat some of the most vexing foreign policy challenges of the 1980s: the conflict in the Middle East, particularly the Gaza region, and Russian relations with its East European neighbors. Those interested in international relations find their attentions divided between these two regions due to two sadly violent events taking place simultaneously: the military conflict between Israel and Gaza, and the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine, where about 300 people died. This brings forth the question of how do international relations and international security stakeholders react to long lasting conflicts that feature the messy combination of ethnic and national disputes over limited geographical boundaries.  This entry will focus on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and try to look at how the debate over the development of a history textbook for Russian elementary schools can illuminate the reasons behind the violent evolution of Putinism in the border between Russia and Ukraine. The connection between the debate over a history book and the debate over the land in Eastern Ukraine may not seem evident at first. However, the way the debate over the textbook evolved points helped to illuminate Putin’s view regarding Russia’s historical condition has facilitated the escalation of tensions in the Ukrainian territory.

This story, as most stories about the current state of Russia, starts with the Soviet period and how it developed school curricula. The United States for the most part leaves textbook choice selection to the discretion of the individual school districts. Under the Soviet Union, Russia developed a nationally centralized curriculum. The 1988 literature readers for fourth and fifth grade mirror each other in their structure.  They progress in a roughly chronological order. The first section features traditional folk tales. The second section contains adaptations of folk tales written by Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. The third section contains samples of nineteenth century literature. Works by Soviet writers focusing on the evolution of the new Soviet society round out the last section. Each section includes an essay focusing on a particular aspect of the section’s reading, be it plot, character development, or a comparison of prosaic and poetic language. The readers present a unified heroic narrative of the evolution of Russia. It also includes stories that feature young children as heroes, be it as Young Pioneers of as witnesses of heroic military struggle. It sends a message to the young ten to twelve year old audience that they are part of the heroic mission of Russia, particularly Russia as the leading republic within the Soviet Union.

Fourth Grade Russian Literature Reader for the Russian Federation, academic year 1988

Fifth Grade Russian Literature Reader for the Russian Federation, Year 1988. Notice the positioning of the young boy, presumably the fifth grader, and his encounter with the heroic Soviet soldier from what could be interpreted to be the heroic first half of the twentieth century.

 

Russia has maintained the policy of using centrally produced textbooks in the post-Soviet era. What has proved particularly curious is the high profile the central government has given to the development of national textbooks, particularly the development of a new Russian history school. January 16, 2014 featured a meeting of the committee charged with developing the new history textbook.  Some of the professionals who participated come from fields traditionally related to curriculum development: the minister for education and science, various members of the Russian Duma’s education committees,  history teachers from the K-12 realm, the head of the history department at Moscow State University, as well as faculty members from several other Russian institutions of higher learning. Some of the participants, however, prove a curious addition to what one would expect to be a pedagogical task force. The head editor for the Russian History television channel and the Archimandrite of the Sretensky Male Monastery formed part of the textbook development committee. While some argument could be made for the possible interest in the History channel’s view of how media can influence the development of  history curriculum, the presence of the archimandrite begs the question of how the Russian government views issues regarding the separation of church and state when it comes to curriculum development.

Outside of the issues of the curious composition of the curriculum committee, there is also the fact that Vladimir Putin actively charged them with the design of the new textbook. The transcript of the meeting on January 16 shows Putin defending what he sees as a need for unified treatment of Russian history within the national curriculum.

Концепция, которая доработана и уже принята, насколько я понимаю, должна лечь в основу и целой линейки учебников и методических пособий.

Сразу в этой связи хотел бы сказать, что единые подходы к преподаванию истории совсем не означают казённое, официозное, идеологизированное единомыслие. Речь совершенно о другом: о единой логике преподавания истории, о понимании неразрывности и взаимосвязи всех этапов развития нашего государства и нашей государственности, о том, что самые драматические, неоднозначные события – это неотъемлемая часть нашего прошлого. И при всей разности оценок, мнений мы должны относиться к ним с уважением, потому что это жизнь нашего народа, это жизнь наших предков, а отечественная история – основа нашей национальной идентичности, культурно-исторического кода.[1]

The Kremlin provided an official English translation of this statement that gives a general idea of what Putin stated, but which also makes some unfortunate word choices in trying to convey some interesting Russian concepts.

The concept, which has been finalised and adopted, as far as I know, should form the basis for an entire set of textbooks and study guides.

I would like to begin by saying that coordinating our approach to the study of national history does not mean formal, official, ideology-driven single-mindedness. We are talking about something different: a single logic in teaching history, an understanding of the inseparability and interconnectedness between all stages in the development of our state and statehood, the fact that the most dramatic and ambiguous periods are an inseparable part of our past. There is a wide range of assessments and views on these issues and we should respect them, because this concerns the life of our nation and of our predecessors, and our history is the basis of our national identity, our cultural and historic code.[2]

I would like to focus on the first sentence of the second paragraph of the quote. Here, Putin defends the need for a unified presentation of Russian history while trying to address the fear of Soviet styled censorship of uncomfortable historic periods, such as the Stalinist period from 1928 to 1952. «Сразу в этой связи хотел бы сказать, что единые подходы к преподаванию истории совсем не означают казённое, официозное, идеологизированное единомыслие.» The Kremlin provided the following translation: “I would like to begin by saying that coordinating our approach to the study of national history does not mean formal, official, ideology-driven single-mindedness.” While the Russian original really does sound as mind-numbingly bogged down in jargon as the English translation, there is a significant problem with how they translate one phrase: казённое, официозное, идеологизированное единомыслие.  Kазённое means bureaucratic, related to the state – governmental. Oфициозное means something not official but that conveys the government point of view. Идеологизированное means to idealize, in the sense of imagining something as better than what it is. Eдиномыслие refers to someone who thinks the same as some other person, but not in the sense that unanimity conveys that idea. Thus, the phrase should read closer to: “First off, I would like to say in relation to this that a common approach to the teaching of history does not mean governmentally driven idealized concurrence.”

Putin looks to standardize the presentation of history while uplifting those areas he finds most positive, and without over-emphasizing negative events. While he does not mention it explicitly, it seems like he is looking to figure out a way to minimize the negative side of the Soviet period, particularly the Stalinist purges. He also sees this history curriculum as a possible way to unify a country that saw itself in such disarray during the last decade of the twentieth century.

So what, pray tell, does this have to do with Putin’s reaction to events in the Ukraine? First, it shows a consistency to how Putin views the nature and role of the Russian state in a post-Soviet world. Ever since his inaugural address in December 31, 1999, Putin has emphasized again and again that he sees a strong, centralized state structure as an integral part of the Russian nation. He also has pushed for a vision of Russian history as one uninterrupted unbroken process, instead of several periods broken by radical change. [3]

If one starts with that understanding of Putin’s world view, one can understand why he would see it as necessary to assert Russia’s influence in regions that have historically been considered to fall under Russia’s sphere of influence. Ukraine occupies a particular spot in this equation due to the flowing nature of the Russian borders during the nineteenth and twentieth century. The issue of the Crimean peninsula highlights this complex set of issues. Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 through a declaration by the Politburo of less than a page in length. This did not matter from a security standpoint during the Soviet period, since the Ukraine belonged within the confines of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, it provided a point of tension due to its high percentage of ethnic Russians and the nature of its transfer to Ukraine. One of the main challenges Putin has faced since 2000 is managing the tricky calculus of ethnic and civic tensions that have emerged in the borders of post-Soviet Russia. The United States press has generally paid attention to the tensions in the Central Asian regions of Russia, where Muslim national groups have presented a challenge to the Russia’s centralized federal structure. Its position on the Eastern region of Russia – read: its geographical location in the non-European regions of Russia – have meant that European and North American governments have not reacted in a particularly strong way to Russian governmental and military activity. However, Putin’s expansion beyond Russia’s Western European rational-legal post-Soviet borders have agitated European and American governments that for the most part viewed the issues of post-Soviet borders settled in 1991-1992.

Putin’s view of Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence in the Western region of Russia and Eastern Europe complicates important aspects of relations with an increasingly interconnected European region. Most significant is the growing dependence of Europe on Russian gas, and the Soviet legacy of Eastern European reliance on gas from Russia. Simply stated: if Eastern Europe sees its pipeline to Russia cut off then they will find themselves facing a really cold winter. Phrases that have become clichés such as “energy independence” and “renewable energy sources” take on a much more real dimension.  Russia’s increasing level of trade with Europe also proves challenging. Trade, however, still has some Soviet legacies, so the percentage of Russian trade with Europe is still much larger than the percentage of European trade with Europe. Read: if trade levels go down, Russia gets more affected than Europe.

Finally, this highlights American foreign policy’s continuing difficulty in dealing with the other “N” word: “Nationalism.” Nationalism, in Putin’s view, is important in creating a strong Russian state. It, however, causes great problems when conflicting claims to one territory occur, particularly when the claims are framed in terms of “Slavic” or “Russian” essentialist terms. Put in really explicit terms: does Ukraine really have a claim to Ukrainian right to exist if it is nothing but a descendant of an original Russian ethnic territory? Ukraine’s attempts at closer ties to Western Europe – read: independent of great Mother and Father Russia – becomes a real threat to Russian national sovereignty within its ideally constructed territories.  Ethnicity, nationality, and statehood then become the volatile mess that we witnessed in Central Asia before and in Ukraine today.

 


[1] Встреча с авторами концепции нового учебника истории. 16 января 2014 года, 15:45, Москва, Кремль. http://www.kremlin.ru/news/20071

[2]“Meeting with designers of a new concept for a school textbook on Russian history.” http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/6536

[3] Vladimir Putin. “The Modern Russia: Economic and Social Problems.” Vital Speeches of the Day. February 1, 2000. pp. 231-236 and Meeting of Council for Interethnic Relations http://www.eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/5017.

 

AUTOMATISM, ART AND SUMMER VACATION II…

One of the problems with teaching is that you cannot quite get away from nagging problems so you can focus on research and writing. In this case, the three main problems have been related to late implementation of fall semester assignments. So… Problem #1: Since I was assigned my courses late, and the textbook manager went on a well-deserved (and I mean that seriously, without irony) vacation, I still have to order my textbooks, so I have not been able to finish my syllabi for next semester. Problem #2: I was assigned my courses late, so I have yet to finish my syllabi. Problem #3: I am still dealing with next semester, when next semester is supposed to be already planned and done. This gets in the way of drawing full benefit of enjoying the full effect of summer defamiliarization – остранение. As I mentioned in a previous blog, there is a need to disconnect from the familiar to recognize the full complexity of the structures of the familiar.  In the academic setting, what a lot of professionals do not realize is that a good academic tends to fulfill three full time jobs. The first, and usually most visible, is teaching and promoting knowledge among students. The second is defined as service, where the academic serves on committees that help administer the university – usually in the form of committees or special programming on campus. The third, and usually most complicated, falls under the heading of “research.” Research often includes outside sources of funding for their work. Research usually culminates in various forms of publications, where the academic shares their knowledge with the public at large. This includes publishing articles, books, traveling off-site to conduct research, and presenting at conferences. If you keep track, that tends to amount to two and half to three times the workload of a mainstream nine to five job.

The biggest challenge tends to be fulfilling the research part of this equation. Research, by its very nature, tends to be a solitary endeavor, demanding monastic practices bordering at times on the obsessive. In the humanities, this tends to require substantial travel to libraries, archives, and historical sites to gather all necessary materials. Summer, in short, is not an unexpected vacation bonus time, but rather a frantic race to finish research before mid-July and August, when most archives shut down for the summer, and then finishing anything from a twenty page article to a two to three hundred page book manuscript before orientation starts, in some cases as early as mid-August. Untethering from campus and the cacophony of demands found there proves vitally important for what most of us consider the most important part of our jobs: the dissemination of knowledge.

This year I have taken my traditional trip to the Midwest. I am also engaging in a trip to a Dominican retreat center in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. The idea is to contemplate – yes, in that deep and religious manner. Many students fail to understand how self-consciously our moral beliefs tend to help shape our research. The small community of gulag scholars, for instance, are frantically trying to collect interviews with surviving prisoners – and prison guards and administrators – to try and provide a record to explain the reasons why people agreed to help operate these prison camps. At the core of much of humanities research is recording the memory of human experience, while at the same time we analyze the way we construct out memory. Why do we see certain acts as positive and ethical in one context, yet immoral and unethical in other? We, indeed, actively engage in deconstructing social myths, but in critically sound manner. Understanding the core of the foundations of our theology and ideology allows us to understand how better to engage with our current surroundings at all levels: interpersonal, ideological and ecological.

Displacing ourselves from our regular environments to find materials not readily available in our home institutions is the most important aspect of our summer estrangement. Many researchers take a few weeks to visit libraries such as the Library of Congress, or archives that contain primary materials for their research. At the same time, we as researchers can take time to place our materials within a greater historical and cultural context.

Sometimes, exposure to different places can also allow the researcher to think in a different way about their topic. Among the places I have visited this summer, the two that have struck my analytical mind the most was my visit to George Washington’s winter headquarters in New Jersey and Fort Nisqually in Tacoma, Washington. In both cases, the original pretext for the visit were completely touristic. The visits provided me with the opportunity to visit some examples of pre-modern architecture. In the case of Washington’s headquarters, the eighteenth century domestic architecture proved surprisingly flexible to the needs of the young nation’s military leadership. In these early years of the twenty-first century, one would be hard pressed to imagine a regular home suiting the needs of a large detachment of military officers, particularly officers as high ranking as Washington and his officers.

Washington’s winter headquarters, New Jersey.

George Washington slept here!

 

George Washington wrote here…

 

Alexander Hamilton maybe slept here…

The visit to George Washington’s headquarters was juxtaposed with a visit shortly thereafter to the John Deere Pavillion in Moline, Illinois. It is meant to be a hands-off tourist attraction to feature John Deere’s amazing technology. It actually also makes it possible to envision the changes in the definitions of rural agricultural culture since World War II. The tractor below runs around a quarter of a million dollars, and is used to farm thousands of acres at once.

Between New Jersey and the Pacific Northwest, there was the Midwest trip, with the trip to the John Deere Pavillion, an excellent hands on museum of agricultural technology..

 

In the case of Fort Nisqually, one gets to realize how labor intensive life even during the middle of the nineteenth century was. The visit to Fort Nisqually contrasted nicely to the presence of the Washington state ferries, which many Tacoma and Seattle residents take for granted but which produces a sense of awe even among those who used to live in King County in a former life.  The juxtaposition of mid-twentieth century technology with the reconstruction of life from the bare beginning of the modern era, combined with the post-modern transformation of downtown Seattle all came together to create this visual narrative of the nature of modernity and change in the last century.

 

The visit to Fort Nisqually impressed even more because it exists in the middle of the most developed area of Washington state, King and Pierce counties.

Post-modern downtown Seattle.

 

Bremerton, Washington, at night, from the ferry.

 

A Washington state ferry…

The opportunity to view such contrasts in such a short period of time, and to feel the drastic contrasts in a three dimensional manner, allow one to better understand descriptive moments in literature. It also allows one to identify great literature. Great literature allows one to feel the structure without being there, brings out the stony without having to travel three thousand miles. Understanding how a stone – or in this case, a ferry or a really big piece of seaweed – can allow the reader to get over the initial stage of unbelief.

What truly struck the greatest visual chord was the area surrounding the Saint Benedict Dominican Retreat Center in Mackenzie Bridge, Oregon. The area was surrounded by a huge national park. It is also possible to walk to deposits of volcanic rock not too far from the center.

 

The falls go with Makcenzie River, Oregon…

The chapel at Saint Benedict’s Retreat Center…

The chapel.. The interior is made with local wood, giving a new meaning to the term “locally sourced…”

 

As Shklovskii noted: “If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us…”  Separating ourselves from our normal surroundings becomes critical to developing new ways to contextualize our normal surroundings, to explaining what is it that allows our everyday surroundings to become “automatic.”

CONFERENCE PALOOZA #2: LASA 2013 Washington DC

So, the end of spring brings out the big academic conferences like mushrooms during a damp April rain. In a bit of symbolic justice, the District of Columbia is experiencing its first heat wave with the arrival of the Latin American Studies Association Congress – in honor of what is possibly the largest gathering of tropical Latino/Latin American intellectuals in the United States. I have come to catch up on Latino studies, make some contacts with Cubanists, and get ready to pop out a book proposal by the end of the summer.

First thing about DC Big Academic Conferences – everybody comes. You can feel the nervous sweat of the ABDs as they try to figure out what topics will lead to The Interview and The Job. There are people like me, who need to figure out what to do with our academic life. Then there are the tenured, who see this as a chance to hear one or two new things and have drinks with buddies they have known for decades.

The second thing about DC Big Academic Conferences – they do not come cheap. Parking at the conference hotel for the day is $32. I chose this the second day because I want to go to the evening reception, which starts at 10pm. (Insert your favorite quizzical emoticon here.) 10pm, which a very Latino time for a party, is rough for a middle aged academic who had to wake up before 6am to get here on time. Otherwise, it is $14 for parking and metro, or $199 for the conference hotel for the night.

Then, there is the need to dress in layers. It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but less than 70 degrees inside. Layers are critical, because you are not spending $30 for lunch in the hotel when you are (not) on a per diem and you can get lunch for less than $11 if you just walk right outside of the hotel. The ability to survive the change in temperature is vital to keeping costs under control.

Most striking about the Latin American Studies Association national congress, as opposed to the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies national conference — coming up in Boston this November — woo whoo! — is the fact that here I see me. One of the charms of Soviet studies is the ability to keep that vaunted critical personal distance from the object of study. No such pretense here. I have attended a couple of Puerto Rican panels. The first was on Carlos Fuentes – yeah, I know, not Boricua, but the panel was fielded by UPR Rio Piedras folk. Boricuas with Ph. D.s still strike me as moderately Martian.  The other panel I attended was on development policies on the island during the first half of the twentieth century. That one was weird. One of the papers mentioned the activities at Ramey Base before it was decommissioned. The other panels I attended were on Cuban studies.

Except for the Friday 5pm panel. That one, I have to say, was a special treat. I met Jorge Volpi in person. Jorge Volpi is a Mexican writer who is part of this post-Macondo group called the “Crack Movement.” He has written, and writes, a lot. He writes a lot in that post-modern ironic way of writing, and he keeps a blog. In Spanish. Yeah, I know, hegemonic English is not the way to access the beauty of this language. Fortunately for those Spanish impaired, a lot of his works have already come out in English translation. You can look in your local library for In Search of Klingsor, Season of Ash, and In Spite of the Dark Silence.

Jorge Volpi and B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz after his presentation at LASA 2013, Washington DC.

I have to say one of the things that really really frustrates me after attending these conferences is the way a lot of these scholars lead a life ready to drop everything, grab that passport and go. Maybe it comes from being a Sovietologist, and knowing that Russia as a scholar is not the most user friendly place in the universe, and that getting the blasted visa is but the beginning of your research troubles, but still, to bounce around like that without worrying about you home security system or how to deal with your syllabus for next semester. Also, this year I am really feeling that sense of four heavy undergraduate courses eating up all your time.

And I did not buy one single book. Now that one is one for the records. A great conference, all in all.

When They Beat Up on You, or How Much More Painful I Am Cuba’s Fate Was…

So, the last few months I have been busy working on the research side of my portfolio. First, there has been the cascade of end of the year conferences. Actually, April has really been a Conference-palooza, starting with Howard University’s Women Ambassador Conference , where I got to do an extemporaneous presentation on Capitol Hill – that was cool. Then I attended Georgetown University’s The Soviet Gulag: New Research and New Interpretations, where I hung out with about two dozen scholars for three days of fellowship and discussion of the best way to scientifically exterminate you political opposition. That was cool, in a nerdy sort of way, if you get into the topic of highly efficient concentration camps.

Meantime, back at the ranch, I have been completing a research paper on Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba,  this completely stunning Soviet film from 1964-1965, filmed on site in Cuba, co-authored by Evgenii Evtshenko, and filmed by Sergei Urusevskii. The thing is a thing of visual beauty. The opening sequence features this fly-over over coastal Cuba that is just spectacular. Then it moves from the shore to Habana, where you see the decadent capitalists hanging out by the side of a hotel pool. The camera literally goes from the side of the pool into the water and up and above.

English language critics have had a hard time figuring out what to say about this film. Rotten Tomatoes, one of the most widely read popular film review sites, gives it a 100 rating, describing it as “an unabashed exercise in cinema stylistics.” Cuban critics generally  ignored it.

Harshest of all, however, were the Soviet critics. The highly respected granddaddy of Soviet film journal, Ikusstvo Kino, [i]dedicated a long article in its March 1965 issue – 13 pages to be exact, which by Soviet standards for this journal was monumental. The critics were simply ruthless in their review of this movie. The article describes how the public had awaited the release of the film with “great interest” this film about the Cuban people, the Cuban revolution, the Cuban heroism. Yes, hyperbole about Cuba was the order of the day in this article. A. Golovnia, a professor in VGIK, the leading Soviet film school,  talks about how Kaltozov and his cinematographer, Uruevskii, used the film as a means to explore new forms and means to represent revolutionary pathos, revolutionary poetics. Now, for those not initiated into Soviet official speak of the 1960s, being accused of innovation was, well, bad. Golovnia describes how the film is harmed by an excess of virtuosity.

Iu. Kun, a producer, accuses the film of “poetic estrangement,” directly making a reference to Eikhenbaum’s and Shklovsky’s formalist theory – again, a bad thing for 1960s Soviet Russia. S. Poluianov, a camera operator, found the form overbearing. “I had the feeling that clarity, cleanliness, and simplicity had gotten lost somewhere… I learned nothing about the people of Cuba”[ii] One has to keep in mind the Soviet art had a really really strong explicit didactic streak in it – if one did not find an explicit historic – read Marxist – storyline, as defined by the standards of Soviet socialist realism, the work was seen as unfit and valueless. As if that was not enough, he gave the ultimate negative review: he found the film “boring.” Because sitting through a dozen sittings of Pudovkin’s a Mother’s water dripping scene was not enough to drive one to the nearest bottle of vodka.

G. Krapalov, a critic, accused the film of being a hybrid of naturalism and formalism – again, cloaked negative reviews in the highly ideological Marxist-Leninist canon. Saddest of all, however, was G. Chukhrai’s review. Grigorii Chukhrai directed the other great Soviet war film, Ballad of a Soldier. If anyone should have an understanding of the use of cinematography, it should be the director who gave us probably the most famous upside down tank scene in film history. Instead, he described how the film left him with a feeling of disappointment, offense, and exhaustion, a feeling of complete “protest against the film.”

As Slavists, we tend to avoid the extremely extreme pieces of party propaganda, except in small amounts. Soviet propaganda is well constructed, consistent, constant in its guiding principles, and extremely repetitive. Your eyes can just glaze over with the consistent repetition of the same slogans and clichés. This article, however, populated by the voices of some of the best respected members of the 1960s film community, really makes it clear how the members of the cultural elite were so finely attuned to the demands of the party to present an ideologically consistent image of the regime.  These highly negative reviews shows how homogenous and monotonous accepted visual interpretations of the revolution abroad had become by the Khrushchev period. The Marxist-Leninist approach to visual representation had become so ingrained by that point in that, in spite of the fact that a lot of these directors had survived the Stalinist period and understood how lucky they were to simply survive that period alive, let alone with an influential job in the cultural field, they would turn immediately against  a work that did not feature one easily identifiable socialist realist protagonist for the length of the film. Most importantly, it shows how what we could term the middle layer of party operatives worked almost independently to perpetuate totalitarian practices within the cultural sphere, and that is a sad sight to behold.

 


[i]Ia, Kuba.” Iskusstvo kino. No. 3, March 1965, pgs. 24-37. All translations from this article are my own.

[ii] Iskusstvo kino, 27

First Love and the Conventions of Plot

In today’s post-modern, hyper-deconstructed, energetically hyphenated age of literary criticism, it may seem curiously old-fashioned to ponder plot conventions for different types of narratives. A historically sensitive analysis of certain types of plot narratives, however, can point to elements that writers find consistently appealing and constantly effective. In this case, a critical analysis of the plot formula for First Love can point to some of the compelling aspects of the novel as a modern and post-modern device.  In the interest of working with a manageable amount of data, this comparison will encompass Ivan Turgenev’s narrative, “First Love,” from 1860, Joyce Carol Oates First Love: A Gothic Tale, from  1996, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, from 2011. [i] While The Marriage Plot does not deal exclusively with the plot structure for first love, it is a self-conscious narrative about all narratives that take on the topic of young love.

The first curiosity about the plot pattern for first love is the season when it occurs: it is first and foremost a narrative of summer loving – yes, feel free to enter your favorite Grease reference here.[ii] The narrative starts with the season of the year reflecting the chronological status of the narrator/main character. The narrator is in the threshold adolescent stage, at the beginning of their reproductive cycles. In Turgenev’s narrative, the narrator channels his sixteen year old persona. In Oates’s First Love, her narrator channels her eleven year-old self. The narrators narrate of the experience of first love as a past event, an experience that allowed them to figure out the societal constraints that would control their future selection of a spouse.

These narratives prove curiously didactic in nature, as the conclusion of these tales emphasize not the triumph of emotion and sentimentality, but rather the way that social relations turn a supposedly romantic endeavor into a lesson of how to pick a proper spouse. The presence of an implied spouse, something like Booth’s implied narrator, haunts all of these narratives, imbuing the narrator’s voice with an effect similar to science fiction’s ubiquitous temporal paradox, where characters from the future come in to document past events yet cannot get involved in them for fear of affecting a fixed future timeline, or in this case a fixed unstated narrative line. Turgenev’s “First Love” is actually the main narrator’s recollection of his first romantic experience as a middle aged man. Joyce Carol Oates’s narrator, while not clearly specifying from what future reality records her experience, speaks as the knowledgeable narrator from the future.

The idea of summer as a transition period from childhood to adulthood has proven one of those narrative conventions that authors have used over the centuries. Yes, at times this literary fixation with summer as the time of young love has become at times a painfully overworked cliché – reference again the opening sequence of the musical Grease. However, talented writers have saved this convention from banishment into the trite and overused clearance rack of the bookstore. The emergence of youthful desire has merged with the elemental aspects of summer, particularly the easy access to the outdoors caused by the heat, to reflect the vegetative state of reproductive ardor seen in the world around them.

One thing that has struck me when reading these narratives is how much more sense they make if one has actually physically experienced the difference between summer heat and winter snow. People from the Caribbean, for instance, can take for granted a perpetual state of vegetative reproduction, with year-round access to a variety of fruits as the standard, as well as the need to constantly upgrade you beach wardrobe every six months. This type of body lacks the physical reaction to an environment that for over half of the year can prove too cold for external activity. Summer vacation becomes particularly valued because it coincides with the time of year when you can readily step outside of the house with little forethought put to what you wear or what you need to bring with you. The body feels the difference between the intense tightening of the muscles that occurs during freezing cold weather, and the immense relaxation of muscles that occurs in warm weather. In Russian literature, the knowledge that summer is just intensely short plays an important part in this awareness of first love – a brief, fleeting moment, comparable to the life cycle of a lightning bug. In Joy Carol Oates’s case, the presence of summer weather serves as a plot device that helps lead the main character into the unexpected relationship she eventually shares with her cousin. (Yes, this is putting a G rated spin on an R rated topic!) As the seasons once again turn from winter into seemingly sudden summer in the Mid-Atlantic region, as I watch my female students change into curve revealing garments, as I watch myself ponder if I can get away with a skirt for a day, as I find my eyes itching from all the blooms, it becomes almost inevitable to wonder what new revelations will come with the next summer narrative awaiting on my shelf.

 


[i] For the purposes of bibliography, I will be referring to the  Constance Garnett translation of Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love,” http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/turgenev/ivan/first/index.html, First Love: A Gothic Tale, by Joyce Carol Oates, New York: The Ecco Press, 1996, and The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[ii] Grease, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Randal Kleiser, director, 1977.

On the Prevalence of Predatory Policing

On February 28, 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D. C., sponsored a presentation called Crime, Violence, and Insecurity in Central America, based on the findings of the Latin American Public Opinion Project, based out of Vanderbilt University. The presentation dedicated considerable amount of time to the discussion of the effect of police corruption on a community’s level of trust. They also looked at some of the factors that seem to affect trust in the police, such as race, language, and economic status. The presentation summarized the results of their 2012 polls. The data reported echoes a lot of the findings from their 2011 report, “Trust in the National Police.”[i] The report states the seemingly universally accepted assumption that: “Trust in the police is important because security is one of the principal directives of a sovereign state.”  Both reports indicated that young males in urban centers were more likely to face police abuse.

This led med to think about another region that has historically shown low levels of trust in the national police: Russia. Russia presents an interesting case for comparison when it comes to the topic of police corruption. The evolution of what most specialists consider a traditional police force dates back to 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union. Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, in the article “Public  Experiences of Police Violence and Corruption in Contemporary Russia: A Case of Predatory Policing?” [ii], describe the problems of police corruption in “…a global power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and a relatively modernized economy…”[iii] The authors in this case emphasize how dysfunctional public institutions can impede democratic transition and exacerbate the general population’s low confidence in the police and courts.

This led me to think about one more case of “predatory policing,” the Cerro Maravilla case in Puerto Rico, back in 1978. I have to say, my family was two years away from moving to Massachusetts in 1978, I was barely ten years old and I remember the case. What I never found out was the way in which this case constituted part of disturbing police practices in the island. For those not familiar with the case, in July 1978, the police shot and killed two pro-independence activists who were on their way to sabotage satellite towers located on a mountain called Cerro Maravilla. This case led to the discovery that the police had kept secret files on citizens and organizations identified as being pro-independence.[iv] These files amounted to 1,204 dossiers about 74,412 individuals. If one keeps in mind how small the island is, geographically speaking, that represents an impressive level of surveillance on a domestic population. What I find even more surprising is that the best summary of the Cerro Maravilla case and its effect appeared in a journal dedicated to the discussion of how to preserve historical documents.

On the continental United States, citizens take positive relations with the police as a given, or at least as an achievable standard of behavior. Granted there are notable exceptions to this rule – one only needs to look at the evidence presented in the Whitey Bulger case in Boston, [v] but for the most part children in the United States grow up with a view of the police as Officer Michael, the policeman who helps the ducks make their way back to the Public Gardens in Make Way for Ducklings, or as the friendly officer who brings their police dog to meet children at public schools and cub scout pack meetings. It is almost ingrained into everyone that it is safer to dial 911 for help than not to dial. In Seattle, there is a strong tradition of civic awareness of non-corrupt public behavior, down to citizens themselves enforcing laws often ignored at other places, such as cars stopping to let pedestrians cross at crosswalks. Maybe a key to ensuring an absence of predatory policing is internalizing a cultural mythology of the importance of a trustworthy police force – as shown in the increased awareness of the importance of not just police, but First Responders, since the attacks that took place in New York, District of Columbia and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

 


[i] Nabeela Ahmad, Victoria Hubickey, and Francis McNamara IV, “Trust in the National Police.”

[ii] Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, in the article “Public Experiences of Police Violence and Corruption in Contemporary Russia: A Case of Predatory Policing?”  Law and Society Review,  42(1)2008, 1-43

[iii] Ibid., 37

[iv] Joel A. Blanco-Rivera “The Forbidden Files: Creation and Use of Surveillance Files Against the Independence Movement in Puerto Rico.” The American Archivist, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Fall – Winter, 2005), pp. 297-311

[v] See Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Putin and Cultural Statism

Since taking power on December 31, 1999, the Putin administration has followed a well defined policy of state involvement in the area of cultural development.  Putin’s political calculation behind this policy is not accidental, and comprehensible. This has proved a point of continuity since the fall of the Soviet regime. The Soviet Union seemed to have a government ministry for almost every aspect of culture, from literature to movies to education. In a union of countries spreading from the Black Sea to the Pacific, an active policy of state shaping of culture was seen as critical for maintaining harmonious relations within the realm of civil society.

The Russian state has viewed civil society with suspicion from imperial times. Russian cultural history has developed full mythology of the suffering censored artist, from Pushkin to Dostoevsky to Akhmatova to Solzhenytsin. The acceptance of state imposed censorship at all levels of civil society — education, the arts, the media — to name areas with contemporary equivalents — as a given marks one of the main defining features that differentiates the frame of mind of American historians in the field of Slavic studies from those who specialize in American studies.

The surprisingly peaceful fall of the Soviet Union brought a new challenge to the Russian administration — maintaining corporate unity during a time predicated on the disassembly of a multinational state structure. It also pointed to the awkward state of Russia within the Soviet structure. Even though Moscow served as the administrative center of the Soviet structure, it served as the center of a government predicated on the erasure of nationalistic supremacies, while simultaneously preserving national cultures.

The 1990s and the Eltsin era became a period of state redefinition and reconstruction — rebuilding Russia as a solitary state instead of Russia, the great coordinator of continental policy. Following Eltsin’s reconstitution of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin emerged as the redefiner of cultural statism,[i] with a view of a singular, increasingly homogeneous Russian culture as a critical component of a robust post-Soviet Russian state. Putin stated clearly in the first speech he read when he took power on December 31, 1999, that not only unity, but state centralized unity, that would define the future of the post-Soviet state. “Be it under communist, national-patriotic or radical-liberal slogans, our country, our people will not withstand a new radical break-up.”[ii]

In this speech, Putin outlined a vision of a Russia defined by a strong state that maintains a central role in the growth of cultural life.

“Another foothold for the unity of Russian society is what can be called the traditional values of Russians… Patriotism. This term is sometimes used ironically and even derogatively. But for the majority of Russians it has its own and only original and positive meaning. It is a feeling of pride in one’s country… If we lose patriotism and national pride and dignity, which are connected with it, we will lose ourselves as a nation capable of great achievements… For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.

Modern Russian does not identify a strong and effective state with a totalitarian state. We have come to value the benefits of democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom… It is a fact that a striving for corporative forms of activity has always prevailed over individualism… This is why I, personally, am paying priority attention to building partner relations between the executive authority and civil society, to developing the institutes and structures of the latter, and to waging an active and tough onslaught on corruption…”[iii]

Fast forward thirteen years to February 19, 2013, to a session of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations, where Putin net with some leading government officials to discuss his National Ethnic Policy through 2025. At this meeting, Putin presented a six step strategy “to strengthen the harmony and agreement in a multinational Russian society so that people, regardless of their ethnic or religious identity, recognize themselves citizens of a single country…”[iv]

The six policy proposals were:

  1. Formalizing the recognition of Russian language as the state language, and the language of multinational communication.
  2. Standardizing school curriculum built on an understanding of Russian history as one uninterrupted unbroken process.
  3. Civil society non-governmental organizations will operate within the framework of state supported social non-commercial organizations.
  4. Support of the initiative “For the Strengthening of a United Russian Nation and the Ethnocultural Development of the Peoples of Russia.”

The next one, I have to admit, left me scratching my head at all levels. Unlike the rest of the proposals, which I have translated by myself, I present the Kremlin’s official translation. Anyone who has any idea of what this means, feel free to pipe in!

5. “Our civic chambers operating at different levels also have great potential. Together with state and municipal civic councils, they could promote a dialogue between the Government and civil society on the implementation of national policies.”[v]

6. Sports as a tool for cultural diplomacy. Like when they had the 1980 Olympics. Except that this time, the United States might show up to Sochi.

Looking at all these policy proposals put together, what emerges is a vision of civil society organizations, regardless of the services they provide, or the scope of their missions, increasing falling under the direct supervision of the federal government.

The Russian transcript also includes the statements by government dignitaries who attended the meeting, and some of their statements had a sense of everything new being old and everything new old being new, down to Viacheslav Aleksandrovich Mikhailov’s statement that one of the more serious problems facing this mission is the “problem of the training of cadres” properly trained to carry out this vision of Russian society. This represents a disturbing strategic ideological and structural homogenizing of civil society structures, particularly those engaged in cultural activities. Furthermore, the intense drive to manage the presentation and interpretation of Russian history proves equally disturbing. It is comprehensible that Putin and his administration are maybe trying to smooth out the vision of Russian history after decades of teaching the importance of the “great break” in history, where Stalin called for the collectivization of the Soviet economy.[vi] Can a call for post-modern self-criticism be far?

 


[i] Statism is one of the favorite terms within the field of Soviet studies.               For an example of the Sovietologists’ take on statism, see Robert V. Daniels, “The Soviet Union in Post‐Soviet Perspective” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 74, No. 2 (June 2002), pp. 381-391.

[ii] Vladimir Putin. “The Modern Russia: Economic and Social Problems.” Vital Speeches of the Day. February 1, 2000. pp. 231-236.

[iii] Putin, 233-234

[iv]  19 февраля 2013 года «Заседание Совета по межнациональным отношениям.»  http://www.kremlin.ru/news/17536

[v] Meeting of Council for Interethnic Relations http://www.eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/5017

[vi] И. В. Сталин «Год великого перелома: к ХII годовщине Октября», Правда, 3 ноября 1929 г.

Roadtrip II: The Midwest

It takes one thousand miles to drive from Washington, District of Columbia, to Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa City is approximately one hour west of the Mississippi River, and is considered part of Eastern Iowa. Eastern Iowa reflects the presence of the Central and East European settlers who arrived during the middle of the nineteenth century, responding to the offer of homestead farms, in a lot of ways. It also shows many of the paradoxical effects of late twentieth century cultural shifts.

The traditional industry that has dominated the Iowan economy and Iowan mythology is agriculture. Johnson County, the area where Iowa City is located, has a great number of family farms. Rybel’s Farm, right outside of Solon, Iowa, has some amazingly fresh early sweet corn. Local farmers’ markets abound with summer produce such as zucchini and tomatoes. Residents of the coastlines may not lack for fresh seafood, but in the summer they do suffer from a want of the flavor of corn fresh from the stalk or freshly picked heirloom tomatoes. Early summer harvest also marks the gentler lifestyle –and notice, I use the adjective gentler, not easier — of summer in the Midwest.  This represents the first of the paradoxes of life in the Midwest. Summer may bring gentler weather, but that hides the higher level of labor that you find in expected and unexpected places.

You expect to find more intense labor in Iowa’s dominant industry – agriculture. Fresh corn and other vegetables and fruits may dominate the farmers’ markets, but these usually do not come to mean much to the local palate without the addition pork and corn fed beef, the dominant products from the state’s animal husbandry.  Animal husbandry occupies a place second to corn within Iowa’s culinary mythology. The favored products from this realm are pork and corn fed – emphasis on the corn fed – beef. I have yet to see an Iowa pork farm, but I have to say that – and these, as they say, are considered “fighting words” in parts of the state – I tend to prefer the pork over the beef. But that derives from my Puerto Rican roots, most likely, since Puerto Rican culture favors pork over beef. The Iowa farm cycle culminates in the late summer with the Iowa State Fair, the largest agricultural state fair in the United States.

Food, and the way it is prepared, further represents the merger and evolution of East and Central European cuisines at the hands of the diasporic communities of the Midwest. In any of the German heritage restaurants in the Amanas Colonies – and please note the use of the term “colonies” for this region – the term “salad” refers to any combination of steamed, boiled or shredded vegetables slathered  in mayonnaise sauce. Think of any of the endless permutations of potato salad or cole slaw type presentations so familiar to those of us who have studied abroad in Slavic countries. The epitome of the culinary celebration of this Eastern European past is represented in Saint Ludmila’s Kolach Festival, in June. Saint Ludmila’s Church in Cedar Rapids[i] hosts this celebration of the culinary legacy of the city’s Czech settlers.

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Hay stacks along Highway 1 on the way to Solon, Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa..

Signs of the presence of increasingly global monocultures have started to manifest themselves within Iowa’s strong emphasis on local agriculture and local self-sufficiency.  A drive among the corn fields in Iowa start to show the signs of the increasing concentration of large agricultural conglomerates, as the fields are marked by the signs of large agricultural seed producers – the kind that do not allow the historically thrifty Iowa farmers to keep any leftover corn seed for heirloom harvesting the next year.

Even the local art scene shows the increasing influence of global forces. At first glance, it seems as if each and every business in downtown Iowa City belongs to a local business person. Among some businesses of long standing are Herteen and Stocker jewelers and Pagliai’s PIzza.  This does not mean that global connections do not affect the popularity of local establishments.  The particular favorite of people in the field of cultural studies is Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore that includes a wonderful coffee shop on the third floor, as well as regular readings by authors from the University of Iowa summer writers’ workshops. These readings are actually a much bigger deal than anyone may expect from a city in the middle of Iowa. UNESCO has given Iowa City the title of City of Literature. The title is due, in great part, to the presence of the University of Iowa. The University houses a Writers’ Workshop and an International Writing Program that attracts an amazing amount of literary talent to the city. This has turned University of Iowa into a powerhouse within the writing community, in part because of the ability to focus on the writing rather than on a whole gaggle of museums or events to attend each day.

For language and literature types, summer is the highlight of the year in Iowa City. The warm weather, the manageable dimensions of the city, and the breathtaking expanses of the rolling corn and soybean fields offer a writer a welcoming atmosphere to meditate and to create. This writer’s equivalent of the Super Bowl lastas through what I find the most pleasant part of the year in Iowa.

One of the favorite summer establishments right outside Iowa City — Rebal’s fresh picked sweet corn!

 


[i] http://www.stludmila.org/kolach/

Contemplating Translation: Kind of a Performance Review… But Mostly About Poetry…

Reposted to reflect author’s name…

On January 28, 2012, Vadim Astrakhan performed his translations of Vladimir Vysotsky’s poetry at the American Council for Teachers of Russian/Russkiy Mir Center offices in Washington, D. C. Mr. Astrakhan has been on a mission to make Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved Russian semi-official guitar poet, popular in the English speaking world by translating his guitar poetry and performing it wherever anyone is willing to listen. He has a nifty website, http://www.vvinenglish.com/, and he has recorded a couple of compact discs.

The performance was held in a small conference room, so the feeling was definitely intimate, which is similar to how most of this music was shared during the Soviet period in Russia. Guitar poetry was a genre of performance poetry that emerged in response to the heavy-handed approach to poetry supported by the Soviet regime. It was definitely unofficial – even though Vysotsky did get some of his songs into a couple of films – and circulated from friend to friend on tapes. Yes, one of the nicest presents you could bring to hosts and friends were empty high quality Maxell tapes, preferably 70 minute or 90 minute ones, because then they could use them to make more copies of this mostly unofficial music.

So, rewind to the early 1980s, when I was starting to study Russian. I just happened to be in one of those high schools in Massachusetts that a lot of the children of Digital Equipment’s executives studied, so they had a fairly robust offering at all levels. Mrs. McNally, officially an English teacher, also taught Russian. One of the first things she taught us was Pushkin’s poem “I Loved You,” and I was hooked. This fascination with Russian poetry was left over from my experience in Puerto Rican elementary schools, where we memorized poems as a regular part of the curriculum, including yearly poetry reading competitions among the different grades. I still remember how we all had to memory Luis Palés Matos’s “Danza Negra,” with its opening line, “Calabó y bambú.” I really missed the different level of learning required when you memorized poetry, and after my arrival in New England I thought I would never encounter another group of people so excited to memorize and recite their poetry – sorry Emily Dickinson, but they just did not make memorizing your poems part of our high school curriculum!

Suffice it to say, I was amazed at how much Russians love their poetry. Your average Russian, at least of the Soviet generation, probably had hundreds of poems memorized. This was not a simple act of aesthetic pleasure – it also came to represent an act of political opposition. Anna Akhmatova’s opus Requiem, for instance, would probably not have survived if her friend Lidiia Chukovskaia had not served as her living tape recorder. It is easy to forget twenty years after the fall that being caught with a copy of the wrong text could lose you your job or even land you in jail. Popular culture, particularly popular forms of art such as guitar poetry, served as an active front in the battle against Soviet censorship.

Knowledge of guitar poetry served as a cultural identifier for those who sided with the Russian intelligentsia in the opposition of cultural censorship. As eager young undergraduates, we took the task of memorizing the right kind of poetry seriously. Our first choice was never the official writers like Evtushenko. Rather, we favored Okudzhava, Dolina, Dol’skii, and Vysotsky, which circulated almost exclusively through underground recordings on those Maxell tapes.

Mr. Astrakhan’s project appeals at one level because of its heavy component of nostalgia. In spite of the fact that he has been dead for almost thirty years, Russians still highly enjoy Vysotsky’s songs. The post-Soviet era has seen the release of really nice compact discs of a lot of these poets’ works. One of my favorites is a two volume set of Bulat Okudzhava’s songs. I have to admit, given the choice of guitar poet, or “bard,” to which I could listen, more often than not I would listen to Okudzhava.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions to scholars of cultural studies. How do you analyze the shift in cultural value that something like guitar poetry has in post-Soviet society? How do you measure its relevance in current day Russia? How do you provide outsiders, such as my traditional American undergraduate students, with anything close to an understanding of their place and cultural meaning?

At the end of his performance, Mr. Astrakhan spent some time describing the challenges of translating text such as Vysotsky’s. He mentioned how he had not tackled some of his most popular songs because he considered them “untranslatable.” I think the issue is not so much that a text is impossible to translate, but how hard it is to convey the cultural meaning of a certain work. The hardest aspect of conveying cultural meaning falls on the reader him/herself – on the challenge of becoming familiar with some of the context and history of the major symbols encountered, be they the fairly open reference to Stalin’s purges in Master and Margarita, or the communal grief displayed by Akhamtova’s narrator’s line in Requiem. Translators face new and unexpected challenges with a new generation of readers who are faster to ask “Is there an app for that?” than to look at hard copies of novels from the first half of the century.

Un poema favorito…/A Favorite Poem

Reposted to reflect the author’s name…

Primero, el poema. First: the poem…

ERA UN NIÑO EN LOS 70

no le hacíamos caso paula no era una niña

decía ella

llegaba con los ojos repintado

los zapatos de su madre

el bolsito y andaba

tropezando una tarde nos reimos a lo bestia de mi padre

es guardia civil

y os va a fusilar como a los rojos

 

(De Para quemar el trapecio)

Álvaro García. Aparece en: Luis Antonio de  Villena, Fin de siglo(El sesgo clásico en al última poesía española): antología. Colección Visor de poesía. (Visor: Madrid, 1992) 184

 

I WAS A KID IN THE 70s

 

we paid no mind Paula was not a girl

she said

she came with her eyes overly made up

her mother’s shoes

the handbag and walked

tripping one afternoon we laughed like hell at my father

he is a civil guard

and he will execute you like the reds

 

The translation here is my own. It worked on it way too quickly, but in some ways the speed reflects the conversational nature of the poem.

The first thing that strikes the ­reader is the lack of traditional punctuation signs. No upper case letters or periods to indicate the beginning and the end of an individual utterance. No commas to indicate breathing points.  The title: “I Was a Kid in the 70s” indicates some of the basic premises of the narrative stance of the poem. “I Was a Kid” means I am not a child any more – this is being brought out of the vault of childhood memories for some reason. The reason is never revealed, and really is not important. The lack of punctuation makes for a tempo that reflects the nature of memory – fluid, rapid, moving from object to object without respecting the presence of periods or exclamation points.

The first line indicates a childish rejection of others, as we “paid no mind” to Paula, who was not a girl. That is a problematic statement. Does that mean she is the kind of childhood friend who defies gender perception? At the same time, Paula comes in performing her best impression of a grown woman, in her mother’s shoes – high heeled most likely? She probably chose the highest set of heels she could find. Then you have the rest of the outfit: handbag, overly made up eyes.  Just like Paula is performing her best impression of a grown woman in 1970s Spain, however, the narrator pulls a Freudian slip as the children laugh at the father, who is a civil guard, a guardia civil, part of Francisco Franco’s domestic enforcement forces.  The punch line is the last line, where our narrator, in a moment of childish honestly, describes his father’s possible reaction, violently executing those who mock him – which stands for opposition, as he executed members of the Spanish Communist Party, who probably participated in the civil war of the 1930s. The lack of normative punctuation and orthographic markers helps to show how the perception of violence exists at the same level as Paula’s role playing in the beginning.

The memory of violence is spontaneous, an element of daily life that became ingrained as a normal element of life, so normal that it became part of the kind of childhood role playing depicted in the first half of the poem. The spontaneous appearance of violence turns it into something that has now become part of child’s play.  It is, however, only a memory, something that apparently now belongs to the past, just like playing dress-up with our little girlfriend.

That is the content of the poem. The content provides one with an opportunity to start thinking about the nature of political violence such as the one Francisco Franco exercised upon Spain during this regime. The violence eventually becomes part of the everyday, something everyone takes for granted and learns to avoid at a personal level.

How we internalize this kind of violence begs the question of how possible is it to emerge from this kind of violent regime without carrying on daily acts of violence, violence that had become part of child’s play? The most important transformation, in this case, is not the external transformation of practices followed by police officers in everyday life, but the internal one, the one where the cultural memory gets to transcend the cultural and political group identities that defined the previous regime, such as Communist or Republican (this refers to the Second Republic, not the United States party!) or Fascist. Just as important is learning to transcend the pain left from the massive systematic violence that such dictatorships used to cement and maintain their power.

The author of the poem, Álvaro García, comes from Málaga, Spain, and was born in 1965. [i] He is the  youngest of a group of Spanish poets called “the generation of the 80s.” He was awarded the 24th International Poetry Price by the Loewe Foundation for his book Canción en blanco.[ii]  He is the author of El río de agua (2005), Caída (2002), Para lo que no existe (1999), Intemperie (1995) and La noche junto al álbum (1989).

 

 


[i] http://www.poetasandaluces.com/autor.asp?idAutor=192