Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tintin in the Congo: Why would Anyone Read it?

Maybe it is the age thing, but I was never a fan of Tintin. I did not read Adventuresof Tintin when I was growing up.

By the time Tintinin the Congo, the most controversial of the Tintin comics was published in the UK, in 1991 (I think), I was no longer a child and did not feel an overwhelming desire to read the comic. For the same reason I have not read any of the Harry Potter books save one. I struggle to understand why adults of average intelligence occupy themselves reading these novels aimed at children aged 10 to 14. I read one—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—under duress  a few years ago when my then girl-friend, who was a great fan of these novels, refused to have sex unless I read at least one novel in the series. She said that she was sick of listening to me slagging off Harry Potter without actually reading any of the novels. I pointed out that I wasn’t slagging off Harry Potter novels; I wasn’t slagging of children  who enjoyed the book-series; I certainly wasn’t slagging off J.K. Rowling, who, insofar as I was aware, had not claimed that her novels were classics which imparted knowledge about the human condition that made it worth everyone’s while to read them; I was specifically slagging off outwardly grown-up and mature adults who did not mind being spotted reading one of those books. She said whatever; she was still not going to have sex if I did not read at least one of the novels. I had to take her view on board (she had competent breasts). I asked her which of the Harry Potter novels she would recommend and she suggested Prisoner of Azkaban, which, I was informed, was the darkest of the series. I read the novel and was not overwhelmed. It was competently written but I did not find it a captivating read. I can’t remember what the plot was; but it does not matter—the themes are all the same in such novels. Harry and his mates get into sticky situations thanks to the machinations of a devious villain and Harry unleashes some crackerjack magic trick and saves the day. There is no real suspense: you know Harry is always going to be victorious because he has special gifts. The story is predictable and the prose, while adequate, is nothing great. Maybe you have to have the mind of a pre-adolescent to enjoy these novels. I don’t have that mind (downside of being an adult), therefore I am unable to enjoy them. Having read one of the novels I have no desire to read the rest. Life is too short to read lame adventures of a boy wizard.

But back to Tintin and his adventures.

Stephen Spielberg has produced a movie entitled The Adventures of Tintin. I have of course no intention of watching the film; however I googled the movie after reading about the brouhaha about one of the adventure comics (more about it later), and found a long entry on it in WikiPedia. I gave up reading the long plot- summary, which was tedious beyond endurance.

In the introduction of the WikiPedia article it was mentioned that the movie was based on three of the Tintin adventure comics. The list, unsurprisingly, does not include Tintin in the Congo. Very wise.

The publishers of Tintin comics have  decided to cash in on the world-wide release of the Spielberg film and have released the comics as ‘collectors’ items’.

All the graphic Tintin comics are in the children’s section except one: Tintin in the Congo.

Tintin in the Congo finds itself in the adult section along with other adult graphic vampire novels. In addition the novels are shrink-wrapped with the following warning:

‘In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young HergĂ© [Pen name of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi who created Tintin] reflects the colonial attitudes of the time . . . he depicted the African people according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period — an interpretation that some of today’s readers may find offensive.’

Not having read Tintin in the Congo (and not having any intention to read it either) I have to depend on WikiPedia for the plot of Tintin in the Congo. I also read an article in the Guardian by the Human Rights lawyer David Enright, who, in 2007, successfully campaigned for the comic to be removed from the Children’s Section to Adult Section.

The consensus seems to be that by today’s standards the portrayal of Africans in the comic book is stereotypical, patronizing and racist. According to Enright’s article, there are pages after pages of graphic representations of black people looking like monkeys, bowing before Tintin and telling each other that White man is very clever, worshipping Tintin’s dog Snowy as god etc. In the original (1931) edition there are descriptions of spectacular cruelty (by today’s standards) to animals—exploding a rhinoceros from within, killing apes and wearing their skins, stoning buffaloes etc.

It is argued by some that Tintin in the Congo is very much the product of its times; it reflects the European attitudes of its times and should be understood in this context.

So what were the European attitudes towards the people whom they had colonized?

                                                         Georges Remi (1907-1983)

In an interview he gave in the 1970s, Remi, the creator of Tintin, helpfully clarified the matter. Said Remi: 

‘For the Congo as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved… It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: 'Africans were great big children… Thank goodness for them that we were there!' Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.

So what was considered as standard norm in the 1930s’ Belgium had become an embarrassment in the 1970s, and racist in the 21st century.

The fact is that Europeans by and large considered themselves to be a superior race until probably the first fifty years of the twentieth century and the attitudes depicted in Tintin in the Congo were, sadly, reflective of the beliefs of the wider European society. Remi at least had the decency to feel embarrassed about it.

And Remi was not an exception. The views expressed by Winston Churchill, Britain’s Imperialist, war-mongering prime-minister in the 1940s, towards people who were not White or Europeans would be considered, by today’s standards, shockingly racist.

In the 1940s when a man-made famine was ranging in India, Britain’s largest colony, in which almost 3 millions died of starvation, Churchill, as prime-minister of Britain (which had complete control of and therefore responsibility for the continent), repeatedly stopped ships with food supplies going to India; the ships carrying cereals from Australia, for example, were not allowed to anchor in Bengal and went instead to the Mediterranean where there already was abundant food supply. Let me make it clear: it was not ineptness: Churchill deliberately, and in the full knowledge that millions were dying of hunger, thwarted efforts of those who wanted to ease the miseries of Indian people. He was responsible for the deaths of millions. By today’s standards it was a crime against humanity. (Although it is way beyond the scope of this post, he was without doubt also a war criminal.) Why did he do it? Perhaps we can find the explanation in a comment of his in which he declared that he hated Indians who were ‘beastly people with beastly religion [Hinduism]’ and the ‘only people worse than the Indians were the Germans’. Churchill infamously derided Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’ (which suggests that in addition to being a racist he was poor in mathematics) and indulged in despicable behind-the-scene shenanigans that ensured that Gandhi did not win the Nobel Peace Prize on the two occasions he was nominated for it. (Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 1950s for a body of work written by his assistants, which was a joke; by that time years of boozing had taken its toll and his alcohol-sodden brain was probably shrunken to the size of a dried apricot. If ever there was an undeserving winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it was this unscrupulous, unprincipled fat git.) Indians were not the only ones towards whom Churchill was racist. In 1937 he commented: ‘I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place.

No one in his right mind today would attempt to justify Churchill’s behavior and comments described above. The best his apologists could come up with is that these comments and behavior ought to be seen in their context; that Churchill was very much a man of his times. That is only partially true. Even in those times there were those who felt that such behavior was unacceptable. Churchill, one can say, belonged to a particular brand of Europeans in whom ignorance and arrogance combined to form the poisonous concoction of racism. (Gandhi, the ‘half-naked fakir’, on the other hand, was a man of altogether higher caliber than the cigar-smoking fatso and held views that were, by any yardstick, emancipated.)

The semi-apologetic explanation Remi (a Nazi sympathizer, although recanted it later) came up with to explain the vile things written about the Africans in Tintin in the Congo is the kindest explanation. Even in those times there were people, such as the great French writer Romain Rolland (the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but sadly a forgotten name these days), who held views about humanity different from the prejudices the likes of Remi propagated through comics.

I can’t see why in this day and age anyone would want to read anachronistic nonsense from the 1930s; it does not reflect the world we inhabit today. If I had a child living with me I would not want it to be exposed to such bilge. I wouldn’t say Tintin in the Congo should be banned (I will never say that), but it is appropriate that the comic book is removed from the children’s section in book-shops and comes with a warning. Many will find its content offensive, and the warning will ensure that parents will not inadvertently expose their children to this garbage.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Cricket Spot Fixing Scandal: Jailing of Cricketers is Stupid

There was a time when I used to watch cricket avidly. That was years ago. Players like Vivian Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Ian Botham, and Malcolm Marshall, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were my heroes, were players I enjoyed watching.

Over the years, however, I have gone off cricket. That is not because I was disillusioned with the stories of match-fixing scandals that started coming out, periodically, in the past ten years, usually (though not exclusively) involving players from the Indian subcontinent.

I went off cricket because, as I became long in the tooth, I simply couldn’t summon up enough concentration to watch a game which (in test match cricket) went on for five days and still ended without a result, and the shorter version went on for a whole day. I simply don’t have the stamina. (That does not however mean that I can cope with games which are of shorter duration, for example Football. I can’t understand what is there to enjoy in a game where aggressive men with attentional deficits run about for ninety minutes, ostensibly trying to kick a ball into the nets at the opposite ends of the ground, but, really trying to kick opponents’ heads and testicle, trying to trip others up, doing, in other words, whatever it is that men with impulse control issues can think of—if the erratic firing of their maldeveloped brain cells can be called thinking—to inflict grievous body harm on one another. In the past I allowed myself, out of my inability to say No, to be kidnapped to some grotty pub, serving crap food and rough looking waitresses and clientele that, were they not busy shouting obscenities at the plasma screen showing a game between, say, Arsenal and Spurs, would probably be lighting up matches with their farts for a ‘bit of a laugh’. But not now; life is too short to watch Football.)

The only game these days I can bring myself to watch is women’s tennis, preferably when Maria Sharapova or Daniela Hantuchova is playing (and the camera is focusing on them from behind as they bend down to receive the serve of their opponents).

Earlier this year I watched the cricket world cup final with an Indian friend (who was terribly excited about it, which was understandable, as India had reached the final). I just about managed that but found it hard-going.

I therefore had not devoted my diminishing energies and concentration to the spot-fixing scandal involving a cricket match played between England and Pakistan last year.

Three Pakistani cricketers, one Butt and two Mohammads, fell foul of some ridiculous act that probably does not exist anywhere other than in Britain. One of the Mohammads accepted his guilt while the other two, including Butt (who was the captain of the Pakistan cricket team at the time) decided (unwisely, as it turned out) to contest the charges.

Both were found guilty of charges—which, couched in convoluted legal gobbledegook, essentially were that these guys are cheats—by a majority verdict.

The judge—who, going by the sanctimonious sermon he delivered to the condemned men, seems like a pompous ass—gave the cricketers length jail sentences.

Some sanctimonious pompous asses in the cricketing media, however, think that the sentences were not harsh enough. For example, Simon Hughes—a third-rate county cricketer and a second-rate analyst / commentator. This guy played cricket in the 1980s and was so shite that he was not considered good enough to play for England, which is saying something, as the English cricket team in the 1980s was so shite that practically every cricket-playing nation was wiping the floor with us. After his mediocre, undistinguished career came to an undistinguished end Hughes became a journalist and commentator. To say Hughes talks crap would be insulting faeces. He frequently poses as a technical analyst and bores everyone into catatonia by talking his head off about the position of the batter, the friction of the fabric of his trousers against his testicles, the angle of his bat, his grip on the handle of the bat, the distance between his hands and the surface of the bat, the wind velocity, the action of the bowler, the friction of the fabric of the trousers against his testicles, the condition of the ball, the time of the day, the number of clouds in the sky—all of which conspire somehow to bring into effect whatever it is that Hughes has been asked to provide his expert comment on. It might be a wicket or it might be a boundary—it does not matter; he talks the same shit. It is impossible to take him seriously. Hughes has now written an idiotic article, giving the readers the benefits of his wisdom, and has come up with a five point plan (which will be discarded by Boy Scouts and which suggests that the man has the intelligence of a gnat) to ‘stamp out cheats’.

The sentences are excessively harsh, unnecessary and stupid.

Let’s take the sentence handed down to Butt. The disgraced skipper of the Pakistani cricket team has gone down for 30 months; however, if his behaviour is ‘good’ he can come out after 15 months. He will then be on a license for the remaining 15 months of his sentence during which he will be monitored. The other two cricketers who have received shorter sentences (but still way too long) will also be out on license after serving half their sentences if they 'behave'.

None of the cricketers is a British citizen. Presumably they have no place to live in England, no means of subsistence, and no medical cover. All of these will have to be provided to them when they come out. Who will foot the bill? Why, the British tax-payers. I fail to see why British tax-payers have to foot the bill for something which is not even considered a crime in many countries. (On a different tack, this was also the argument, I remember reading, of Julian Assange the boss of WikiLeaks (which, rumour has it, is about to go bust due to lack of funds. The legal definition of statutory rape in the UK is apparently different from that in the Scandinavian countries).

Mind you, I am not blaming the poor Pakistani sods for this. I am pretty sure they did not want to be in this position. They did not come willingly to the UK to stand the trial; they were forced to come here and stand trial.

And what was their ‘crime’? They took money and Butt, the captain, instructed the two bowlers to bowl a no-ball each. When a bowler bowls a no-ball the side that is batting is awarded one run. What the trio were accused (and found guilty) of was therefore ‘spot-fixing’ and not ‘match-fixing’.

They were investigated by the cricket’s governing body and were handed out bans of between five to ten years. That should have been enough. There are those who are now criticising the International Cricket Control (ICC) of being too lenient and are demanding that the cricketers be banned for life. The camel-faced captain of the English cricked team, Andrew Strauss , has weighed in and described the ICC as toothless tiger. Strauss would do well to reduce his waist-line and score runs against quality oppositions instead of adding more hot air to environment.

Those demanding harsher punishment by the ICC are wrong. A life-ban would not have been justified in this case. There is no evidence that the actions of the cricketers adversely influenced the outcome of the match (which, I guess, would be more difficult to arrange in any case, as it would require involvement of several players in the team). There is not even evidence to suggest that their actions accorded significant advantage (or disadvantage) to their team or the English team. After all how much difference a single run can make? This is not to say that the cricketers did not do wrong. However, the punishment meted out must be proportional to the wrongdoing. And a life-ban for spot-fixing is way too excessive.

Similarly the argument that the time-limited bans should be converted to life-bans simply because they have been found guilty in a criminal court in a country and sent to jail is a straw man. The criminal court did not hear any evidence that was not available to the ICC. The three cricketers had to stand trial because their cheating is considered as criminal as per an act which came into existence in England in 2005. In some other country this type of cheating—because that’s what it is at the end of the day, no different, some might argue, from an athlete or a swimmer who takes banned performance enhancing drugs and deliberately changes the outcome of a competition in his or her favour; and they are not prosecuted—would not have been considered a criminal act. Why, even in our country, before 2005, it would not have been considered a criminal act.

And the sentences are totally disproportionate to the crime the cricketers have been found guilty of. This is a country where MP’s who were systematically defrauding the tax-payers for thousands of pounds for years were given jail sentences of only a few months. An old friend of mine used to work as a care-assistant in a hostel for homeless people, some or more of whom, he used to tell me, were pretty nasty pieces of work—persistent and prolific offenders with lists of criminal activities longer than M1. For their 15th GBH they would be sent to prison for 12 months, would come out on license after 6 and would be recalled for one night in prison after they had breached conditions of their license 5 times, and released out again so that they could get on with their daily routine of drug dealing and other nefarious activities. I did not see any of the cheating bankers in the City of London go to jail for their greed. But we have seen it fit to condemn three cricketers, some from impoverished backgrounds, to lengthy prison sentences.

Butt (that is an unfortunate name given the circumstances in which he now finds himself), Asif and Amir are most definitely cheats. Prosecuting them was way over the top. Their prosecution was waste of British tax payers' money and their conviction makes no sense.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Book of the Month: Call It Sleep (Henry Roth)

Henry Roth was 28 when he wrote Call It Sleep. He did not publish another novel for sixty years.

The novel depicts the Jewish immigrant life from the eyes of a very young boy before the outbreak of the First World War, in the slums of the Lower East side, New York, an area densely populated by impoverished, semiliterate immigrants who led hand to mouth existence by doing manual labours. But the novel is a lot more than just a chronicle of the Lower East Side’s squalor. As Alfred Kazin observed, it interweaves a number of taboos—religious, sexual, cellar and gutter—that makes it a work of great art.

The protagonist of the novel is a young boy—David Schearl, who lives with his mother, Genya, and father, Albert. Albert is a bitter, unhappy man of violent temper, who is prone to read hidden demeaning messages and take offence at the innocuous remarks and gestures of others, where none is intended. ‘They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes!’ he complains. ‘How much can a man endure?’ The reasons behind Albert’s rancour, which borders on misanthropy, are never fully explained till almost the end of the novel, and even then the reader is left with the feeling that the explanation is only a part of the jigsaw. David, whom Albert seems to hate with a passion—the explanation comes only towards the end—, bears the brunt of his father’s ugly temper. Albert has shades of the violent father in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. The little boy is passionately loved and fiercely protected by his mother. The shy, introverted little boy has few friends. He is frequently bullied by urchins in his neighbourhood, and is solely and intensely dependent on his mother for meaningful human contact as well as inner growth. The relationship amongst the three individuals in this unhappy household is very Freudian: the son seems to have replaced the father in his mother’s affection; the father is excluded, or has excluded himself, from the close bond the mother and son share. Having realised that he has become emotionally otiose the father can only make his presence felt by violent displays of his temper. The newly immigrant family is striking it out in the ‘Golden Land’, uneasily, not least because of Albert’s inability to stick it out with jobs he dislikes.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section, appropriately titled ‘The Cellar’, deals with the darker elements of life—aggressive and sexual. There is, in fact, a palpable sexual tension—one of its many strands—throughout the novel. David observes early that his mother is attractive to a ‘fellow countryman’ of his father who visits the household regularly, at Albert’s behest—Albert suspects nothing—, to have dinners with them, and, on one occasion, when Albert has gone out, makes a sexual proposition to Genya. David is filled with an impotent rage: he desperately wants to ask Lutar, the acquaintance, to get out, wants to physically harm him, but can do nothing other than go with his mother to their upstairs-neighbours in order to avoid meeting him, where the neighbours’ crippled daughter, a few years older than David, drags him to a closet and ‘plays bad’. David knows that he has crossed some awful threshold and is filled with self-loathing and disgust, which is compounded because he cannot confide in his mother. ‘She didn’t know as he knew how the whole world could break into million little pieces. . .’

In the fourth and last section, ‘The Rail’, David enters the house when his mother has just finished taking a bath and opens the door for him wearing just a bathrobe, which, he notices, is clung to her breasts and thighs. Later, down on the streets he hears some boys in the street bragging about how they spied on a woman taking bath, describing in graphic details what they saw—‘big tids stickin’ oud in frund . . .Big bush under duh belly . . .Fat ass . . .’—and realises that it is his mother they are talking about. ‘The rush of shame set his cheeks and ears blazing like flame before a bellows, drove blood like a plunger against the roof of his skull. He stood with feet mortised to the spot, knees sagging, quivering.’ Later, in the same section, David becomes friendly with a Polish Christen boy, Leo, and allows himself to lead him (Leo) to the house of his aunt where he (Leo) ‘plays bad’ with David’s step-cousin, Esther, in the cellar while he, David, ‘lays chickee’ (be a lookout). It is this transgression, together with the religious one—leading a goy into a Jewish household—that leads to the novel’s violent climax.

There are those who think that at its heart Call It Sleep is a religious work. The third of the book’s four section is called ‘The Coal’, a reference to a passage from Issaih, which describes the purifying touch of the fire, brought by the angels, to the prophet’s lips, and which David first hears in the ‘Cheder’, the Hebrew school he attends to learn the ‘God’s language’. The passage makes a deep impression on the young boy’s mind, and he becomes preoccupied with finding a similar spark of light in his own life—his admiration for Leo is best understood in this context. This obsession eventually, in the violent dĂ©nouement of the novel, nearly costs him his life.

The novel also vividly depicts, without descending into hysteria, the immigrant Jewish community’s anxieties about being engulfed by the all-pervasive Christianity around them. David becomes utterly fascinated by the rosary-beads which he sees in his ‘friend’ Leo’s house, and it is in receipt of this rosary that he agrees not only to lead Leo to his step-cousin’s house knowing fully well what Leo is intending to do. David is also aware that his mother, years ago, when living in the ‘Old Country’, had been infatuated with a Gentile, a church organist, and had disgraced the family. She had married Albert even though he is not ‘suitable’. Albert has a secret of his own, told to Genya by his mother, although he is not aware of it. Following the incident at his step-cousin’s house when they are ‘found out’ by his other step-cousin, in the ‘Cheder’, in what can only be described as a breathtaking leap of imagination, he tells the old Rabbi that he is only half-Jewish, an off-spring of a liaison between his mother and a church-organist, a goy; that his mother is really his aunt and his real mother had died when he was very young. The old Rabbi promptly visits the house to impart this information, which confirms his father’s worst suspicions, paving way to the climax of the novel.

A less recognized, certainly less commented upon, attribute of Call it Sleep is its humour. The novel is suffused with black humour, at its most prominent in those portions featuring the fat, irascible, ill-smelling rabbi, Yiddel (‘Little Jew’ in Yiddish), on whom Roth pours his full scorn. The descriptions of the goings-on in the ‘Cheder’ are very Dickensenian in their tone. Then there is Bertha, David’s, foul-mouthed younger aunt, who appears in the second section of the book (The Picture). Bertha, a larger than life character, is not afraid to call spade a spade and can hold her own against Albert (who hates her almost as much as he hates his own son). Bertha offers some light relief in this intense and pensive novel, and it is easy to warm up to her. Perhaps because of Bertha’s presence this section of the book is the least broody and gloomy.

Call It Sleep is also remarkable for the innovative use of language. It functions at two levels and can be called multilingual, though it isn’t, really. Exclusively set in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant quarter of New York, almost all the characters in the novel speak terrible English and are fluent in Yiddish. Roth, the omnipresent, unseen narrator, lets it be known that the English they speak at home is in fact translation of the Yiddish. This ‘English’, in contrast to the guttural, savage English they speak outside, for example while speaking to strangers, is splendid, almost too splendid. As Alfred Kazin observed, English, in fact, is the foreign language in this novel which is set in New York! Roth seems to have used this device to depict, almost exaggerate, the sense of terrible alienation experienced by the immigrant community; the language itself touches universal themes that transcend time.

Call it Sleep is, like all of Henry Roth’s novels, autobiographical. First published in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Call It Sleep was appreciated by critics. It was out of print for several years and its author, nursing the longest writer's block in the history of twentieth century literature, disappeared from public view. It was reissued in the 1960s. With the reissue (and critical reappraisals) the novel (and its author) made a comeback and the novel, since, has sold millions of copies (although Roth would not publish another novel for thirty more yearsTowards the end of his life, after a silence that lasted six decades, Roth published four volumes of autobiographical novels under the title Mercy of a Rude Stream. The first two volumes were published in Roth's life time while the last two were published posthumously. In it Roth follows the young boy into adolescence and early adulthood, except that he is called Ira Stigman. Last year, full fifteen years after he died came out the last Roth novel, An American Type, which takes over from where Mercy finishes and traces the life of Ira Stigman, Roth's literary alter-ego, into Depression-era America.)

Call it Sleep is many novels in one. It is a moving chronicle of the now disappeared world of the Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrant community in America in the first years of the twentieth century; it is also a compelling chronicle of the lives of the American poor; the fervidly introspective narrative has subterranean Freudian influences; and its strange and lyrical language will hold you in its thrall from beginning to end.

Call it Sleep is a modernist classic of the twentieth century, one of those novels you must  read before you die.