Vol. 19 No. 24 · 11 December 1997

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Cosmopolites, Pseuds and Poltroons

I was digusted to learn, via Lorna Scott Fox’s Diary (LRB, 13 November), that the work of Agustin Ibarrola has been deemed ‘not up to scratch’ for inclusion in the marvellous new Guggenheim in Bilbao. Since I came across a sample ofhis drawing in from Burgos Jail, in 1964, I have thought him to be a supreme draughtsman, who balances wonderfully between ‘distortion’ and the lifelike in his images of people hunched and metallised and scorched by durance, whether in prisons, coal mines or the armed forces. His 15 black and white images in that booklet have remained with me as distinctly as Picasso’s drawings, ten years earlier, of an old man and a young woman, perhaps more distinctly.

Ibarrola drew faces sculpted into dark stones by hunger and torture, arms and hands growing into bludgeons, bayonets or clumps of barbed wire. The inflictors are as denatured as the victims. Although he had tried to kill himself after interrogation and torture in Burgos under Franco, he could still look without blinking at the lineaments of brutality. His images are smeared without loss of clarity, his lines broken yet strong. Some of them were done on flimsy paper apparently with charred stubs, then smuggled out of his cell. It is not a matter of sympathising with him because he was a martyr: it is a question of seeing the distinction of his style, whatever the subject.

It looks as though the people who selected for the Guggenheim, whether in Euskadi or New York, are the usual cosmopolite pseuds and poltroons whose taste for tat and kitsch has made a desolation of so many galleries over the past thirty years.

David Craig

Fermat’s Last Stand

Mathematics is not the organised hypocrisy glimpsed in the background of Brian Rotman’s self-portrait, ‘a renegade blowing the whistle’ (LRB, 27 November). Broadly speaking, if you accept the existence of the whole numbers 1, 2, 3 … as a set, some rules for making new sets from old ones and the use of the syllogism in arguing about them, then you have accepted modern mathematics as ‘true’. The simple is indivisible from the complex. If Fermat’s Last Theorem is metaphysical, then so is Baby’s First.

The serious worries are lower down. Style and standards of proof constantly drift: we visualise wrongly, we dupe ourselves, we miss possibilities. What keeps the literature from pullulating with errors is that falsehood tends to lead to more falsehood and finally to the absurd, such as that 1=2, from which we retrace our steps. But incomplete proofs of true state· ments are a legitimate concern. Wiles’s first draft was not quite there; in the late Eighties, an initially promising assault on the Poincare conjecture was lost altogether.

Why bother then? Why believe there are truths about numbers? What Wiles was doing in the attic all those years was raising what Wordsworth calls

that interminable building reared
By observation of infinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
to passive minds.

Graham Nelson

First Filipino

For weeks now, I have been puzzling over a curious line in Benedict Anderson’s review of José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (LRB, 16 October). Since Rizal wrote in Spanish, Anderson claims, ‘he wrote as much for the enemy as the friend, something that did not happen with the Raj until the work, a century later, of Salman Rushdie.’ I surmise that the colonists are the enemies and those with the same mother tongue are friends, but I am still left with questions. Since (as Anderson notes) far more of his enemies than his friends knew Spanish, wasn’t Rizal writing more for his enemies than his friends? Whatever the merits of post-colonial theory, surely Rushdie’s work appeared after the Raj? Innumerable Indians before Rushdie wrote for their enemies, from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to A. Madaviah, who wrote four novels in English for the express purpose of enlightening the British. I believe Tagore won the Nobel Prize for his English-language writings. Many of these writers also wrote in their own languages – and their bilingualism much better suits the phrase ‘as much for the enemy as the friend’. Nor is Bengali an ‘ancient’ language any more than, say, French, and there’s something odd about the remark that Tagore wrote for the ‘huge Bengali population of the Raj’. Surely Tagore wrote for the huge Bengali population of the world?

V.K. Mina
New York


In his review of John Ingamells’s Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, Hugh Honour (LRB, 13 November) laments the ‘premature demise, incomplete’ of the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, and concludes his essay by asking: ‘Might the Italian state or some international organisation come to the rescue?’ I am rather puzzled by that question. Has there ever been an Italian state? It is rather ironic that the Dizionario, begun on the hundredth anniversary of ‘a geographic expression’ has terminated at ‘F’. No wonder! Only dozens of ‘states’, never an Italian ‘nation’, have existed since Etruscan times.

Luigi Romeo
Nederland, Colorado

Khrushchev’s Secret

Thomas Powers is wrong when he says that the Cuban missile crisis ‘ended halfway into the second day - Wednesday 24 October’ (LRB, 13 November). He must mean the second week. When Khrushchev learned that JFK was to give a major speech on Monday 22 October, he realised the game was up. The premise of Khrushchev’s missile strategy had been to surprise the Americans with a fully-functional nuclear weapons system based on Cuba: thanks to the U2, and to CIA Director John McCone’s hunch, it was the Americans who managed to surprise the Russians, and the first to go public – JFK-was the winner. Thereafter, Khrushchev more or less acquiesced – even removing the dangerous tactical cruise missiles, which no one in America knew about until 1990. Had Khrushchev taken away the intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles but left the cruise missiles, JFK would, I imagine, have found it quite hard to challenge the presence of these purely defensive missiles on Cuba. Yet for reasons unknown, Khrushchev shipped even these back to the motherland.

Finally, neither Powers, nor the editors of The Kennedy Tapes, nor the authors of ‘One Hell of a Gamble’ give George Ball much credit for his role in the missile crisis. Which is strange since (a) he was the first to suggest trading the Cuban missiles against the somewhat out-of-date Jupiters in Turkey, and (b) he seems to have been the calming influence on RFK, who in turn was the restraining factor on JFK. Hence the significance of Ball’s Pearl Harbor analogy (which Powers mentions) - a point that made a significant enough impression for the idea of an invasion of Castro’s Cuba to be abandoned.

Inigo Thomas
New York

Martin Amis, Film Star

Katharine Weber
Bethany, Connecticut

Mediterranean Man

The history of Africa and of its relation to the European colonising powers is depressing enough without the night being further darkened by R.W. Johnson’s recriminations against state and society in Algeria (LRB, 16 October). The picture of Camus constructed by Olivier Todd, and overwhelmingly endorsed by Johnson in his review of Todd’s biography, has all the antique charm of a text of the Cold War period – of, say, an article in Encounter c.1956. It was surpassed thirty years ago by Conor Cruise O’Brien’s little book on Camus – written before O’Brien’s own vertiginous swerve to the right – which so skilfully punctured the afflatus of clichés and sterile paradoxes that were to constitute Camus’s contribution to political thought. It was Sartre who pointed out, when Camus made his famous statement about putting the life of his mother before the operations of justice, that it was difficult to see why these should demand the head of the blameless Mme Camus. More generally, O’Brien made Camus responsible for the mistaken notion that a crime committed in the name of a philosophy of history is more heinous than one committed at random.

Johnson suggests that Camus’s separation from other writers was a consequence of his social origins – a view inflected by the conditions of English snobbery rather than of French intellectual life. For one thing Camus’s rise through the republican-aristocratic educational system of inter-war France is one of the least contentious elements of his biography; for another, intellectuals of ‘humble’ origins (though a minority) have never been scarce to the point of being real curiosities in France. Among direct contemporaries of Camus must be counted Genet and Fanon; in earlier generations Michelet, Zola, Vallès, Barbusse. Two who, like Camus, submitted to their own myth of the absolute authority of the intellectual caste – Péguy and Céline – ended up, in 1914 and 1944 respectively, on the extreme and the ultra right, a shift which maybe tells its own story.

Camus’s politics of grudge and insult was notoriously idiosyncratic and unstable (’obsessed’ to the point of supporting Suez; almost ‘forced’ into the OAS – how can one judge this rationally?). It was the devious, cunning, dishonest Sartre whose flat was bombed by the OAS after he had incited military rebellion in an attempt to end the war: the man who judged him ‘too little to be hit’ was careful to restrict himself to a call for an oxymoronic ‘civilian truce’. Camus owed much of his career in political prominence (one can hardly call it a political career) to a reputation gained earlier on the left, while performing for the Right as the rebel who repented. In this he was neither the first nor the last – but in his ability to deceive Johnson’s small and, it would appear, heroic South African group he would seem to have been among the most plausible.

All this is of small account beside your reviewer’s total denigration of the Algeria which existed for 30 years, from Liberation to the present barbarism. Anyone visiting the country in those years will have had ample evidence, in virtually unparalleled hospitality and intellectual generosity, of the ‘precious Mediterranean synthesis’ – which Camus allegedly yearned for and which the FLN allegedly ‘destroyed … utterly’. ‘Corrupt’ the FLN regime certainly was/is; though in terms of pots and kettles it is distressing to see the new hypocrisy of South Africa taking over with such faultless ease from the old hypocrisy of the Mother Country. What ‘social regression’ might mean in the country with the highest literacy rate in the area and a social security system based on the French is anybody’s guess. The suspension of free elections has had the most appalling consequences: yet supposing in January 1933 the SPD and the Reichswehr had agreed to suspend the German elections and ban the Nazi Party, might not even such determined liberal individualists as Camus have been tempted to approve? And ‘authoritarianism’ in the People’s Republic? Camus (unlike Sartre – Les Temps modernes, 1945, passim) took little interest in the oppression of Algerians whether in Algeria or in liberal democratic France; comparison of the FLN regime with its regional neighbours would doubtless be unsatisfactory to a thoroughgoing liberal-moralist, but might, I suspect, yield some revealing parallels with effective liberty in France at the time of the First Empire and in the crumbling feudal states ranged against it.

The grossest suggestion is that ‘women were forced back into the veil.’ One of the most attractive sights in an Algerian town before the present crisis – now, sadly, only to be seen in Algerian society in Paris – was a family group out on a Saturday night: grandma in her veil, mum and dad in formal dress and suit, granddaughter in a miniskirt. Many of these teenage girls have had their throats cut for refusing to be intimidated by Islamist fanatics into giving up their miniskirts. Their heroism is as great, it seems to me, as that of any woman in this century.

John Coombes
Essex University

Memories of Barra

David Craig’s Diary (LRB, 30 October) about the Outer Hebrides mentions the Coddy, ‘Barra’s famous memorialist or seanchaidh ‘. I discovered Barra in 1945: the Coddy was in full flight and Compton MacKenzie had a house on the Cockle Strand. The Lochearn left Oban before daylight and carried a cargo of sheep and a white stallion which was swung over our heads to the hold. The journey to Barra took almost 12 hours and we were met by the Coddy in his car, of which he was inordinately proud. Other visitors to the island travelled on the back of the coal lorry.

The Coddy took us all around the island and told us the most hair-raising stories of second sight. The evenings were spent sitting in front of the glowing peat fire listening to more tales told by a priest. I have lived in Australia for thirty years, but when I hear the wind in my pine trees here, I imagine it is the sea roaring on the white strand.

Margaret McHugh
Yass, New South Wales

New York Hankies

I was much taken by Mary Hawthorne’s tribute to the late Maeve Brennan (LRB, 13 November). Miss Brennan was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of the New Yorker in the early Sixties. She was as remarkable-looking as Mary Hawthorne describes and she had that wonderful Irish lilt and a very impish sense of humour. On one occasion I ran into her on 43rd Street in front of the New Yorker offices. With no explanation she said: ‘McKelway’s gone into the Royalton to buy handkerchiefs.’ McKelway was her ex-husband and the Royalton was then a somewhat seedy residential hotel. ‘The Royalton,’ she went on, ‘has the best handkerchiefs in all of New York. You’ll have to be knowin’ things like that now that you have moved into the City.’ And then she vanished into the hotel.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

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