Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997

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At the Movies in Sidi-bel-Abbès

Richard Sorge. I haven’t read the book (LRB, 22 May), but I certainly saw the movie. It was called Qui Etes-Vous, M. Sorge? and was made in Czechoslovakia before 1962. I saw it in unusual circumstances.

I spent May, June and the first eight days of July 1962 in Algeria. I had a commission to write an article about the end of French rule. I went to Sidi-bel-Abbès, headquarters of the Foreign Legion, where I had lived for a year as a schoolteacher. In 1962 it was a very dangerous place: the most popular column in the daily Echo d’Oran, irregularly and hurriedly delivered from Oran, 80 kilometres to the north, was, ‘Les Attentats des Dernières 24 Heures’, which everyone read to learn who had been bumped off. You needed good nerves. Mine started to weaken after I was shot at during dinner with some friends, and went completely the next day when I learned that some people were looking for me. For some reason that I do not remember, I couldn’t leave town on the first train. Trains were almost the only thing still operating. Banks had run out of cash. My problem was how to hide out during the afternoon. So I went to the one cinema that was still open and showing an afternoon film. I still remember the fear when I left the protection of a succession of doorways, where I attempted to cut the angle and make it difficult to shoot me, to walk across the open area in front of the cinema and buy a ticket. The exposure was excruciating.

I was the only customer. Naturally, I watched very carefully to see if anything moved in the darkness. I knew that if I had been seen coming in I was a goner and that the back exit would be covered, which was my only hope if I had to run for it. Then I started to watch the movie. It was black and white, confusing and made no sense to me whatsoever. I kept wondering what the hell it was all about. I had never heard of Richard Sorge. I had never met anybody who had heard of Richard Sorge. And what was a Czech film about an unknown Russian spy doing running in a side-street cinema in Sidi-bel-Abbès, given the situation?

Of course, I have no answer. I don’t believe I saw the name again for twenty years. Now I have seen it three times. As to Murray Sayle’s review, I was surprised to learn that both Kim Philby and Richard Sorge drank a lot. In my experience, personal security and drinking do not go together.

Peter Stollery
The Senate, Ottawa

A Vital Language

R.W. Johnson reports that his ‘liberal Afrikaner friend’ is ‘fulminating’ against the Government’s plans to ‘ram English-language instruction’ down my university’s throat (LRB, 17 July). The real situation is that some members of the Government, notably Professor Bengu, the Minister of Education, feel that the University of Stellenbosch has strategically entrenched Afrikaans as the language of instruction in order to discourage black students from coming here – which it effectively does. To quote from Bengu’s speech to the University of Stellenbosch, ‘the majority of South Africans’ may ‘perceive your language policy as the misuse of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness as pretext or camouflage for the perpetuation and preservation of apartheid privilege’. Indeed, I know quite a few liberal Afrikaner academics at Stellenbosch who share this perception and the Government’s concern about it. They also feel that the legal status of Afrikaans plays into the hands of extremists, like the professor who screamed abuse at a graduate student for answering the telephone in English. There is understandable impatience with conservative English-speaking students who come here because they don’t want to brave the more robust atmosphere of more fully integrated campuses, and then demand that their lectures should be in English – but other than for these spoilt children of privilege, many academics are quite willing and able to use English as a supplementary language of instruction, and are in fact already doing so. These same academics value Afrikaans as a vital language with a flourishing literature. It is the de jure entrenchment of Afrikaans that critics of the university, within and outside the university, object to: I’m not aware of anything being rammed down anyone’s throat.

Michiel Heyns
University of Stellenbosch

After the May Day Flood

Ross McKibbin, in comparing the landslide Labour victories of 1997 and 1945 (LRB, 3 July), claims that the 1945 Liberal vote was not anti-Conservative in the way that the votes which produced the Liberal Democrats’ 46 seats of 1997 were. He forgets that, while the Liberals did indeed suffer a reduction to a dozen or so seats in the election after the war, their share of the vote went into the millions for the first time since 1929, and many boasted, like Terence Rattigan, that they had voted Liberal because it was the furthest left they could bring themselves to go. In his maiden speech in the Labour Government, the National Liberal leader, Clement Davies, made it clear that his party’s job was to encourage the Government in its social reforms, not to hold it back.

McKibbin rightly points out that the Blair-Mandelson controllers of New Labour are in danger of underestimating popular attachment to the welfare state and the sheer hatred of the Tories, as evident in 1997 as it was in 1945 and 1966. Take Brighton and Hove: none of the seats in the area was won by Labour, or even by Liberals, in 1906 or 1945: they went to Labour in 1997.

What McKibbin fails to question is Peter Mandelson’s capacity to understand class history in any sense of the term. I have only heard him once, at a 1995 Labour Conference fringe meeting. He was all in favour of privatising hospitals, and kept trade union delegates at the back behind the Newsnight cameras.

Lawrence Irvine Iles
Kirksville, Missouri

Unfair to Dora

Michael Ignatieff’s sceptical appraisal (LRB, 17 July) of the ‘hystories’ detailed in Elaine Showalter’s recent book should have been extended to the labelling of patients as ‘hysterical’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By including Dora in a reference to ‘superbly expressive hysterics’ he is credulously accepting Freud’s diagnosis of a 17-year-old girl’s long-standing asthmatic and coughing attacks, and current depression, as ‘hysterical’. Dora’s emotional state, far from being hysterical, was amply explained by the distressing circumstances in which she found herself. That Freud’s ubiquitous diagnoses of ‘hysteria’ are generally taken at their face value is all the more remarkable given his notorious comment about an incident when a middle-aged married friend of her father’s, having duplicitously contrived to meet Dora alone, kissed the resisting young girl. The fact that she found the man’s advances repugnant indicated to Freud that ‘the behaviour of this child of 14 was already entirely and completely hysterical.’

Allen Esterson
London W6

The Lap Lap of Luxury

I was somewhat disturbed that Greg Dening should write of Gauguin that ‘he took to wearing a woman’s wrap-around skirt’ (LRB, 22 May), since I was at that moment wearing a ‘woman’s wrap-around skirt’. My worry was not so much for myself and my limen but rather for the London reader who might overestimate the significance of a male choosing to wear a brightly coloured lap lap or lava lava, the wrap-around ‘skirt’ that is endemic in this part of the globe. I am not alone in ‘going native’ in this way, since evening temperatures that may reach 88° and 100 per cent humidity strongly reinforce the view that trousers were invented by horsemen riding the chilly steppes of Central Asia. It is true that the wrap-around ‘skirt’ is not as widely worn as it once was by London Missionary Society pastors, policemen, government officials et al. Some have attributed this decline in popularity to presumptuous comments from Australian tourists.

John Rivers
Papua New Guinea University of Technology

Unfair to Gandhi

Pankaj Mishra’s Diary (LRB, 19 June) was an absorbing read, but he is a trifle too kind to the Economic and Political Weekly and Frontline as voices of genuine radical dissent. Both are of Stalinist-Maoist pedigree and should the country’s Communist Parties achieve exclusive power at the national level, neither journal is likely to promote the right of dissent it enjoys in India today. One Frontline columnist, the octogenarian Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader E.M.S. Namboodaripad, described Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu fundamentalist. Need one say more?

Premen Addy
London W9

Baying for Blood

The mental torture and paranoia of professional performers is a fascinating subject, but I feel it was ill-considered of Edward Said, in his piece on Glenn Gould (LRB, 17 July), to speak of audiences waiting for the isolated genius on stage to make a mistake. As a professional performer myself, in theatre and music, I can truly say that no colleague of mine has ever felt that an error would be applauded by a paying audience, or that any member of it would feel satisfaction at witnessing failure. We might be walked out on, or booed (rare in Britain), but we would never experience anything like the ordeal undergone by Richard Krajicek when every mistake he made against Tim Henman at Wimbledon was greeted with glee. Performers compete against each other, but it is only in the performer’s own mind that the audience is against him. Has Edward Said ever wanted a great performer, whom he has paid to see, to come out with substandard work? The pressures are huge for a performer, but it is the professionals surrounding him who bay for blood.

Rosalind Cressy
Frittenden, Kent

Norton will be publishing Peter Ostwald’s Glenn Gould in the UK and the rest of Europe on 17 September at £20.

Ariadne van de Ven
W.W. Norton

A Nation of Collaborators

Adewale Maja-Pearce’s gloomy overview of recent Nigerian history is hard to dispute (LRB, 19 June), and he doesn’t even mention the brutal public murder of Mushood Abiola’s senior wife in the streets of Lagos, which showed just how far this regime will go to silence its critics. But he should have his dates right. The first of Nigeria’s many coups took place in January 1966, not in 1965, as twice stated in the article. Since then, Nigerians have learned the hard way that the military is much readier to seize power than to relinquish it, especially while the oil money lasts.

Gerald Moore
Udine, Italy

From the Boyne to Brussels

Steven Misander
London SE17

What about Renoir?

It is of course difficult to get everything in when you have to cover a subject as rich as two decades plus of Cahiers du Cinéma, and Christopher Prendergast does a commendable job, on the whole (LRB, 5 June). Still, the Prince of Denmark ought to be in there someplace. It is true to say that the ‘key players’ in the early Cahiers were André Bazin and François Truffaut, but they both looked back, and up, at Jean Renoir as the true, the great film-maker. Bazin wrote most of a book about Renoir, and Truffaut assembled and edited it after Bazin’s death. In his Introduction Truffaut wrote: ‘it is quite natural that I should feel that Jean Renoir by André Bazin is the best book on the cinema, written by the best critic, about the best director.’ So, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks fair enough, but Jean Renoir above all.

Stuart Pierson
St John’s, Newfoundland

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