Vol. 18 No. 7 · 4 April 1996

Search by issue:

Among Wolves

In his review of Generations of Resistance (LRB, 2 November 1995), Benedict Anderson finds a ‘close similarity’ between East Timor and Eritrea. One of the striking differences, however, is that the legitimacy of the Eritrean case was not formally acknowledged by the United Nations until it was clear, after thirty years, that Eritrea was about to win the war with Ethiopia, whereupon the UN agencies were all over the territory. Another is that European friends of African liberation were not always keen to defend the Eritrean struggle after the fall of Haile Selassie and the rise of the ‘progressive’ Mengistu Haile Mariam – in 1993, for example, the Guardian’s deputy foreign editor defended Africa’s only copy-book Stalinist in the New Statesman as ‘a brave fighter’. East Timor has been spared the UN’s ostracism and the laisser-crever attitudes of the rearguard Left: there is very little disagreement on the justice of its case.

The closer similarity is with Western Sahara, which was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania on the eve of its independence from Spain. Between the April 1974 coup in Lisbon and Franco’s death in November 1975, the outposts of the Iberian dictatorships which became sovereign states – Angola and Mozambique especially – fell among wolves. But Western Sahara was snatched by its neighbours before the handover tabled between Spain and the Polisario Front could take place. As Anderson shows, it’s too simple to blame the beleaguered successors of fascism in Portugal for the disasters that occurred in Africa and East Timor, but Western Saharans feel that the new metropolitan government in Madrid left them in the lurch.

The good news from Anderson is that East Timor is now ‘closer to real independence than at any time in the last two decades’. The bad news, which never even makes the news, is that Western Sahara is further from proper decolonisation than it was at the close of Spanish rule. Eighteen years of armed struggle by the Polisario Front, first against Spain, then Mauritania and Morocco, then Morocco alone, were concluded in 1991, with Mauritania out of the running and Morocco ready to negotiate a referendum under UN supervision. It has not taken place. The biggest obstacle is Morocco. The next is the susceptibility of the UN to obstruction by the occupying forces in Western Sahara, which has been heavily policed and ‘Moroccanised’ for twenty years.

The UN team which is supposed to prepare the referendum on Saharan independence or ‘allegiance’ to King Hassan II of Morocco has made little headway. The vexed task of drawing up a voter registration list in a territory from which thousands of potential voters were evicted by Moroccan bombing in 1976, and into which thousands of Moroccan settlers have poured, is at a standstill. Shortly, the Security Council will receive a lack-of-progress report from the head of the mission in Western Sahara, who may well recommend that the UN withdraw from the territory.

Perhaps it should. A former deputy chairman of the Identification Commission told a Congressional sub-committee on appropriations last year that the UN had become a pawn in ‘Morocco’s domination of the identification process’. Moroccan security forces in the occupied areas of the territory, he claimed, could choose whom to ferry to the mission’s offices for identification and then confiscate their endorsement slips. Other sources have reported that the mission’s phones are tapped and deliveries of supplies withheld. Intimidation, torture and disappearance are as common for Western Saharans as they have been for Moroccans. In 1991, with the referendum process under way, Morocco freed 310 Western Saharan nationalists from detention, but the whereabouts of many more are unknown. Outside the territory, a complex of miserable desert camps in western Algeria accounts for 150,000 Saharan refugees, to whom the promises of the UN sound more and more like another twenty years with their faces in the sand.

In March, Mandela decided to extend formal recognition to the Saharan ‘state-in-exile’. Boutros Ghali, whom Polisario regards with some suspicion, has asked him to delay this step, for fear of upsetting ‘delicate negotiations’ with Morocco. But Morocco has been playing the game of fragile sensibilities for five years. Perez de Cuellar was as craven as his successor in accommodating Moroccan wishes – which suggests that, in addition to their influence with the permanent members of the Security Council, where France runs their errands, King Hassan and his diplomats now have the hang of the Secretariat. A return to hostilities between Morocco and Polisario seems probable before the end of the year. It seems equally probable that, unlike developments in East Timor, which Cox and Carey, Anderson and others have documented well, the next move in Western Sahara will not get much attention in the British press.

Julia Tennyson
London NW5

Que sera sera

Nick James is far too kind to both Leaving Las Vegas and the novel on which it is based (LRB, 7 March). Watching the film, one knows that its novel-source must be terrible; and reading the novel, one knows that no decent film could ever be made from it. John O’Brien, the author of Leaving Las Vegas, has been treated sweetly by film critics such as your contributor because he was a young novelist who committed suicide. But O’Brien also committed his novel, and this too seems a shame.

Like the film, the novel is sentimental, fraudulent and preposterous. It wants to be truthful and ‘searing’ (a word whose use by film critics now means its exact opposite), but is in fact hazy and genteel. Like Mike Figgis’s film, it recycles old clichés: the prostitute, or fallen angel, who leads a chosen sinner towards apotheosis. People such as Nick James seem to have been conned by the film’s sad ending – in which Nicolas Cage has sex with Elisabeth Shue for the first time, and then dies of alcohol poisoning – into judging it a triumph over Hollywood’s upbeatness. But of course this ending is a haloed consummation: the sinner is led by the angel towards a point he has never reached before. Meanwhile, just in case we missed the point, Sting croons about ‘angel eyes’, and Cage wonders aloud if Shue is not an angel ‘sent to me from one of my drunken fantasies’.

Cage warns Shue, when he moves into her cosy apartment, that he will be difficult – that he will vomit, knock things over etc. In fact, the film protects us from real degradation, wrapping up the truth in cartoonishness and bombast. In this it exactly resembles O’Brien’s novel, which becomes more flailingly ‘literary’ the more it strives to tell the truth. Here are two quotes, both concerning Sera, the prostitute, who is standing on Las Vegas’s main boulevard:

Across the street – not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods – a dormant construction site, populated with adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the green and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the night. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums.

It is worth remembering that O’Brien is writing about a construction site in this passage. I will pass over the hilarious, St Trinian’s-like carload of ‘chums’. A page or two later:

And she is a good thing, good at this thing. Paying for and using her, there are always men available. The tricks turn to her, for she glistens with the appealing inaccessibility of the always introspective. They turn to the buyable quench – no lie, no promise in the panties – and she plays out the bargain with the competence of one consistently able to hit well the mark … Her tricks go away quietly, their burden of dissatisfaction lessened sufficiently to fulfil the terms of any implied agreement that may have been struck.

This world of sentimental cliché, in which prostitutes of ‘appealing inaccessibility’ relieve men of their ‘burden of dissatisfaction’, is copied by the film. This is a fantasy of the truth, not the truth, and its determination to glamorise unhappiness – Cage dies of alcoholism with only some stubble and eye-shade to show for it; Shue is a street-walker who dresses in Vivienne Westwood and lives in a book-lined condo apartment – exactly partakes of the Hollywood ‘hypocrisy’ which Nick James thinks it has overcome.

James Wood
Washington DC


Correlli Barnett and I disagree on the ‘British Decline’ (Letters, 21 March), as was evident from my review of The Lost Victory in the previous issue. Barnett seems to think that disagreement with him amounts to ‘wholesale misrepresentation’, or at best to a ‘misunderstanding’. It is clear that one cannot argue with him, and I don’t propose to. Most of his points were met in my review. The remaining self-contradictions and misleading implications arise from the core problem I identified: for all his supposed anchorage in the archives, Barnett implicitly denies that into the Fifties and beyond, Britain was richer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated more, spent less on welfare, and exported more manufactures. Only in one sense does his letter add something to my review. It gives, in a way no commentary adequately could, the measure of the historian and his methods, personal abuse included.

David Edgerton
Imperial College

Our War

Nicholas Hiley (LRB, 7 March) is not sufficiently well known for his mastery of English prose to merit employment as a literary critic; Noel Annan is. Your own biographical note tells us that Mr Hiley teaches the history of Intelligence at Cambridge; I presume this indicates military-political studies rather than those in the department of psychology. Mr Hiley will certainly have a special expertise in his field but he did not call on it in his review of Noel Annan’s book on the ‘defeat and regeneration of Germany’. Mr Hiley chose instead to give us his personal views on prose style while failing to tell us what he thought about Annan’s detailed account of the Nazi breakdown and of our part in Germany’s re-emergence to sanity. Surely a bitchy view of Noel Annan’s English is of little relevance to a critique of his penetrating account of Anglo-German relations at a period when much escaped the record. I know poor Hiley winces at what he calls a ‘false personal pronoun’, but one is left to assume that the matters treated in Annan’s book are not covered in Hiley’s Cambridge curriculum.

K.W.C. Sinclair-Loutit
Kasbah des Oudaias

Mental Health Warning

Two advertisements concerning ‘psychoanalysis’ appeared in the LRB of 7 March. There is acceptance within the mental health professions that the term ‘psychoanalyst’ and its cognates (with or without a hyphen) be restricted to people who have been trained by the British Psycho-Analytical Society, or by another component society of the International Psychoanalytical Association. There is wide-spread confusion among the general public about what is implied by terms such as ‘psychoanalyst’, ‘analytical psychologist’, ‘psycho-therapist’; advertisements such as the ones put out by the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research Ltd add to the confusion. Clarity in these matters is in the public interest, for if a person goes to a psychoanalyst who is a member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society he or she has an assurance about training, standards and the existence of procedures to review complaints.

Brendan MacCarthy, Michael Brearlely
British Psycho-Analytical Society

From Sea to Shining Sea

Lest Alan Bennett (LRB, 4 January) convey the notion that a ‘cord’ of wood is an anachronistic measure found only in ‘old-fashioned’ US cities, let me assure him that we calculate, cut, split, deliver and burn our firewood by the cord from sea to shining sea!

Margit Malmstrom
San Lorenzo, New Mexico

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences