Jeremy Harding rather spoils his report on the situation in Macedonia and Albania (LRB, 29 April) with a concluding sentence accusing opponents of the war in the Balkans of wanting to keep ‘a clean conscience’ by staying out of what they regard as a barbarous region – ‘a kind of Africa in Europe’. In the first place, such prejudice is common enough among supporters of the war: consider John Keegan’s outrageous claim on Newsnight that the past decade of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia is merely the latest instance of a pattern introduced into the Balkans by the Turks.
Secondly, the critical question that every citizen of the Nato countries must confront is this: is the Western military offensive achieving its primary stated objective of providing the Kosovan Albanians with personal security and political autonomy? The answer is, plainly, that it is not. Yet we are being asked by our governments to support yet more of a policy that has already produced such negative results: more bombing, increasingly directed against the civilian population and infrastructure of Serbia; and, if our vaingloriously hawkish Prime Minister gets his way, a ground offensive that could cause untold carnage and, assuming depleted uranium rounds are used as lavishly as they were in Iraq, leave behind it an appalling environmental legacy.
Thirdly, would a Western military victory benefit the Kosovars? Harding tell us that all those he met rejected ‘the suggestion that Nato is to blame for their flight from Kosovo’. Since it was Serb forces who expelled them, and since the Kosovars now appear to have the support of the greatest military power on earth, this is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, any real friend of the Kosovo Albanians would say to them: don’t trust Nato. Harding suggests that the combined impact of Serb atrocities and Western intervention will be an increasingly militant and self-confident Kosovar nationalist movement. Far more likely is that the Kosovars will find themselves, like the Iraqi Kurds, encouraged, suppressed or ignored, depending on whether or not their national aspirations accord with the interests of the new Euro-American colonialism.
University of York
I visited Macedonia twice during the Balkan wars, in 1994 and 1996. This little country – invariably described in recent British media reports as ‘fragile’ and ‘dirt-poor’ – was conspicuously affluent. Nowhere in Zagreb or Sofia could one see so many mobile phones, lycra shorts, new buildings, fancy cafés and brand-new Porsches with Swiss or German number-plates. Three reasons emerged for this unaccountable prosperity: sanctions-busting with Serbia; Western money spent by Unprofor troops and NGOs stationed in Macedonia through the Nineties; and economic ethnic cleansing. In 1991, non-Slavs were evicted from the state-run factories and large businesses. The purge was complete, bloodless and unreported. It became clear that Macedonian cities had an apartheid structure. On one side of the river was a prosperous and largely employed Macedonian ‘new town’: on the other, a poor and unemployed Albanian ‘old town’. Further along the road came a destitute Romany ghetto where city authorities did not even surface the roads or supply running water.
On the other hand, there have always been ‘anti-apartheid’ activists in Macedonia, people who believe that the whole meaning of the country is to be mixed. Many of them now support the aims of the Nato action against Milosevic, at some risk to their safety. In the mud of war, it was difficult for Jeremy Harding to find these people. But we must not see the two young men he encountered (Macedonian by ethnicity, ‘Serb’ by sympathy, Croat by destination) as representing the whole of Macedonia. In so doing we give credence to the big lie that the war against Milosevic has united all Slavs in a nationalist bloc.
Nor should we look for answers to the new Macedonian nationalist government or its Albanian junior partners. I find it strange that a government of former dissidents chose to call their party VMRO – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – with its fierce inheritance of assassination, terror and torture. it’s almost as strange as seeing these otherwise Western-leaning government ministers returning sealed trains of refugees or leaving them to die in muddy fields. Yet their actions are being condoned by the British government and media. Are they unaware of Macedonia’s apartheid, or do they (like Lords Owen and Hurd and their Foreign Office pals during the Bosnian wars) privately feel that ethnic separation is the route to stability?
An outraged Serbian Minister remonstrates with us: what would we think if the BBC was bombed by a foreign power? He is unaware, presumably, that this great TV-watching nation would retort angrily: what would he think if a ‘foreign’ army evicted his family and pulverised his home with heavy artillery? Which is what we, in our safety and comfort, have been watching his countrymen do on TV for months. To us this seems to be a hard fact and to send in our forces a hard moral obligation. But it is harder still to read Jeremy Harding’s account of the many reasonings, resentments and paranoias which crisscross the Balkans and to realise that, for us TV-watchers, to be all-seeing is not to be all-knowing. This is the price we have to pay for our sense of well-being – a small agony perhaps. A far greater agony would be to stop doing what we have thought was reasonable. This Serbian Minister is telling us something about delusion – and about television.
High Wycombe, Bucks
John Sturrock (LRB, 29 April) might be interested to learn that one anagram of ‘London Review of Books’ is ‘no wind of rebel Kosovo’.
Among the Darwinians
Thomas Nagel writes (LRB, 1 April) à propos of the differences between poetry and science that ‘science satisfies a hunger for understanding, a hope for universal order and reduction of complex variety to simple elements, so that the relations between things become intellectually transparent.’ He adds that ‘this is not poetry – it is not like any art – and its effect on us does not require poetic forms of presentation.’ If Nagel turned to 16th and 17th-century Spanish and Italian poetry, and also some 17th-century English poetry such as Donne’s, he would see that, at its very best, poetry is nothing but an attempt to carry out the function that Nagel assigns exclusively to (modern) science, and to satisfy the hunger about which he speaks. And just as it was done, it was also theorised. The Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio of 1642 and 1648 is a systematic and persistent attempt to define and articulate how poetry can do this. His conclusions are uncannily similar to Nagel’s, but applied to poetry, not science, and seen, ultimately, as a justification of the ways of God to Man.
What’s going on?
Rebecca Loncraine (Letters, 15 April) speaks for me, too. I wrote to the LRB on the issue of non-representation of women shortly after becoming a regular reader, in August 1986. I still have my first issue, Caroline Forbes’s photograph of Vikram Seth on its cover. Looking at it again, I found that I’d marked up the instances of sexist language in Philippa Foot’s article on the usefulness of philosophers to modern medicine. So there has been one change at least: the LRB’s style of writing is now inclusive.
For its paltry number of articles by women I stopped reading the relatively new magazine Prospect, which boasts that it is ‘Britain’s intelligent conversation’. So what has kept me reading the LRB over the past 12 and a half years? As Loncraine says, it is interesting and stimulating and often the sheer quality of the writing has an emotional charge. But importantly, few though they are, the women who make it into the LRB’s pages do so with some regularity and great readability. And although Loncraine didn’t expect her letter to be published, it was. Twelve years ago mine was not.
My only quibble with Loncraine is that she doesn’t appear to have counted the poems. I’m astonished each fortnight that yet again no woman has managed to write a poem which the LRB considers worth publishing.
I am a long-time subscriber to the LRB and I like it a lot. I particularly enjoyed that letter a while back from the woman who had nothing to say but to express a desire to be published. I have not looked in detail at my back copies – is Ms Loncraine the sort of academic who counts the incidence of certain words in Shakespeare? – but I strongly suspect that my countrymen, those with names seemingly devoid of vowels, who comprise a sizable minority in the UK, have been under-represented in your pages. Indeed the Poles seem to have been ousted by the Czechs in this respect. Is a long-term demographic analysis of LRB contributors pending?
Dorothy Hodgkin may have had a ‘15-year absence from all committees’, as Mary Beard writes (LRB, 15 April), but she was very active at Pugwash Conferences, fought for three decades for unilateral nuclear disarmament and tirelessly campaigned for the Vietnamese in both the North and South during the war.
Alan Hollinghurst treats Houston like a model displayed on an architect’s table (LRB, 18 March). The image is distant and sanitary, attractive and persuasive, but behind that image the place is a repellent monster. His Houston portrait creaks under the weight of Le Corbusier’s inhuman dream of a ‘living-machine’. Houston is not a livable place, and it is misleading to turn it into a readably-attractive one. Writers seem irresistibly tempted to work similar reverse magics on many cities in the American South-West: the Phoenix metropolitan area where I live, for example, which with its gleaming towers, multiple national sports franchises and stadia, and insane traffic aspires to Houstondom. Phoenix and Houston make a sweet pair. Each is an acceptable place to live because one can readily escape it to places one would prefer to be.
I read with interest and homesickness Alan Hollinghurst's essay on his stay in Houston. As a temporarily displaced Houstonian, I found it accurately and perceptively described the city's many charms and idiosyncrasies. Not everyone can appreciate the city, but those who do are rewarded with an environment that is vital, cultured and engaging. Having now lived on both the East and West Coasts, I can safely say there's no place like it.
Leann Davis Alspaugh
Studio City, California
Alas, in my review of Rosemary Mahoney’s A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman I mistranscribed the final line of Eileen Myles’s poem, ‘On the Death of Robert Lowell’ (LRB, 15 April). It should read ‘Fucking dead’, not ‘Fucking nuts’. My sincere apologies to Eileen Myles for this authorial flub.