Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cassandra, by Christa Wolf

“Freedom!” shout the Yanks. “Equality!” bellow the Commies. “Life! ” yell the people, but their voices are drowned out.

Christa Wolf wrote about prophetess Cassandra and her role in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. She saw parallels between herself and Cassandra, between East Germany and Troy - both states insist on absolute loyalty, both keep fighting on when there is nothing left to fight with, both are eventually defeated by a stronger state. In the Greek –Trojan war, the ideological cause of war (Helen, epitomizing beauty and love) is little more than a noble myth to disguise the power struggle over territory and trade routes: namely, the Hellespont. The war between the USSR and the USA was the same - argues Wolf - although portrayed as an ideological struggle, the Cold War was actually about economic control and territory. The Cold War, like the Greek-Trojan war, brought both states to the brink of self destruction with the arms race; the people of both empires lived in perpetual fear of attack.


…a few hours after reading Cassandra we start talking about Nicaragua, and the fact that mum was a foreign reporter there in the 80s. She told me she travelled with a Nicaraguan translator. A year after she left he ended up dead. My dad produces a book of photos from the country, taken in the '70s. I flick through the book of photos, trying to get a handle on the political situation of Nicaragua of the last thirty years. Reluctantly I move from the timeline at the back to the beginning – for how can I judge the people in the photos or understand their plight if I do not know the dates and facts of their story?

Fool. Has the Cassandra allegory taught you nothing? Troy could be a state now; the disputes for territory and ideology continue. The earth is the earth is the earth. I look at the photos: the women intently studying pistols; the guerillas with their dirt-studded jeans; one lighting a cigarette below the ubiquitous Coca Cola posters (that hint at the American involvement); the lower half of a body; a skeleton jumped and livewired out of the earth – the remnants of a man, his love, his legs.

The red blood tinge, always somewhere in the frame. I don’t need to know the dates to get the story: humans, suffering, pride, fighting, desperation, intense poverty of materials and intense creativity of spirit – a people to despair of and a people to admire – a people that we first world Westerners rarely have to face and never really understand. We don't get it, because we have not in seventy years been forced to face ourselves, bloody and skeletal in the mirror, with almost nothing left as future or past, and ask ourselves if we will fight.

Blood, feuding, fighting, revenge, death. Revolution, civil war, guerilla fighting, collapsing government, exile. As a Westerner, I find that this is the language of the newspapers. I never have to read it in the mirror.

An article about Christa Wolf from the New York Sun
Another article about Christa Wolf from the Goethe-Institut

Thursday, February 18, 2010

courrier international

After a bad day at work , I walk to a newspaper stand and ask for the Courrier International. The newspaper-seller grins. He has dark weathered skin and his wrinkles glow golden.
"Etes-vous Parisienne?"
I smile back uneasily. I am always defensive when people inquire about my origins.
"Non. Pourquoi?"
"Bahhhh..." The newspaper-seller lifts a copy of the latest Courrier International to the light.
Les Parisiens: quelques raisons de les d
étester.The front cover is crowded with grumpy Parisians, like the ones I encounter on the metro every morning: the ones who never stand up to give little old ladies their seats, the ones who listen to oversized music on oversized headphones, the ones who stare unsmilingly back, who mutter "pardon" before barging past you like you're a pillar...I'm not saying all Parisians are like this all the time. It's simply commuter culture here. The morning metro's a hostile, humid rainforest peopled with commuters clutching canopies of newspapers, trying to protect themselves from others' prickly stares.

I grin back at the newspaper-seller. The characters on the cover are definitely from the metropolis, there's no doubt about it. These are Parisiens all right; and the magazine's got their ca-fait-chier attitude down to a T.

Then I realise that the newspaper guy might actually *be* a Parisian. I stifle my grin, just in case, and hand over 3 euros.
"Ne vous inquietez pas, je cache la manchette," I reassure him, folding my magazine in half so the front page is hidden. He nods, solemnly - and then grins back. Perhaps he's not a Parisian after all...