Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel (P.S.) The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel by Debra Dean

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Memory allows us to survive under duress. Memory also plays tricks on us, incorporating magical elements into our lives. Memories exist of things that could not possibly have happened, and yet that is how we remember them. Marina's hallucinations, brought on by hunger, enable her to see visions in the paintings, and allow her to process her rape on the rooftop as a visitation by a god. These become survival mechanisms that allow her to accept and incorporate the events, without being certain what, if anything, actually took place. Her mind finds beauty, and this quality also enables her to survive. Anya, the babushka, teaches Marina to build a "memory palace" in order to recall the paintings that once hung on the walls of the Hermitage Museum. Recreating the memory of those paintings, stored away to protect them from the ravages of the Second World War, allows Marina to keep her mind sharp and focus on beauty when the rest of her life is hardship.

The book moves back and forth between the contemporary Marina who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and the young woman who was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and who lived in the museum's cellar that was used as a bomb shelter during the war.

Author Debra Dean juxtaposes descriptions of the paintings as an indirect commentary on the characters' lives in a way that is evocative without being heavy-handed. What might have been trite, sensationalist or cruel, transcends to become hyperrealist and universal.

The book is slightly uneven, in that the story told in the past is more interesting and compelling than that of the contemporary characters. It could be argued that this is also true of people with Alzheimer's, that their memories of the past are more vivid than their present, but that does not mean that this makes a good literary device if the contemporary story is noticeably weaker. With Alzheimer's, the rooms of Marina's memory palace are emptying. Still, this book had moments of high beauty, and overall I recommend it.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

The War We Have Not Seen

The exhibition "The War We Have Not Seen" opened on 14 October at the Bogota Museum of Modern Art, Calle 24 No. 6-00. It runs until 14 November.

View the exhibition online at:

"The War We Have Not Seen: a historical memory project," is an exhibition of 89 paintings organized by the Puntos de Encuentro Foundation. It presents works by former combatants from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (National Liberation Army), AUC (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), and National Army soldiers who were wounded in combat. All of them are anonymous fighters: campesino men and women whose common denominator is the desire to paint what they witnessed and experienced as the protagonists of Colombia's armed conflict. The objective of the exhibition is to provide an occasion for artistic and social debate, so as to raise awareness and take a stance against war.

Picture a Unicef card: The naïve style of painting scenes of daily rural life and celebrations in bold bright colors. Picture a child's painting of a hamlet in the mountains where the townspeople are dancing in the streets in celebration of a saint's day, or simply going about their business: the world of Macondo where "nothing happens." Now picture the same scene, only instead of dancing, people are fleeing armed gunmen, and rather than banners festooning the streets, bodies streaming blood are strewn about.

Because the technical execution of these paintings is not skillful, the portrayals are not very realistic. This makes it possible to view them without turning away in the way that a more graphic and realistic image would cause the viewer to do. Still, the contrast between the primitive, childlike technique, with simple shapes and bold, bright colors, and the profoundly disturbing subject matter, dispels any illusion of innocence. One artist stands out in terms of technical excellence. His paintings were signed John Jairo. In his paintings the landscape dominated the few figures he showed; the denseness of the tropical forest practically swallowing up the scene. He conveys a sense of silence, remoteness, and oppression. I hope to see more of his work.

Recurring themes in the paintings

Anonymity and ambiguity: As untrained painters, the artists lack the skills to effectively differentiate the individuals in their paintings. This technical deficiency becomes a commentary on the anonymity of war. It is often difficult to distinguish which armed group is being represented: Is this the Army, the guerrillas, or the paramilitaries? Are they attacking or protecting? The methods and actions are often interchangeable, giving rise to the question, who are the good guys?

Closeness to the civilian population: In war the distinction between combatants and civilians is often not respected. The image most commonly portrayed in the paintings is that of the civilian population caught in the crossfire of war. Executions of civilians who are suspected of being collaborators are portrayed a number of times. One painting shows two kidnap victims bound in the forest; in the distance between the mountains, a nearby village may be seen. The distance between barbarity and civilization is very close.

The undercurrent of violence: In many of the paintings, the violence is not always apparent on first glance. It takes a while to shift through the details before noticing the figures moving between the trees, or the fact that in the lower corner all of the passengers have disembarked from the bus and are standing on the road while a couple of their fellow passengers are being executed.

Context information: A brief introduction to the armed conflict in Colombia

The guerrilla movement grew out of poverty and abandon, in a misguided attempt to vindicate rights by through armed violence. The rank of the guerrillas were populated with humble peasants who allowed themselves to be convinced that their movement would lead to more fairness and a better standard of living for all, as promised by the idealist, university-educated leaders who had embraced the socialist banner. You can't run a rebellion for free: revenues to support their war came from "taxing" the rich, extortion, kidnapping, and then they branched out into drug trafficking. They also waged a highly successful international campaign by claiming to represent the true voice of the people and alleging that the people were being forcibly repressed by the government. The Colombian public has expressed overwhelming repudiation for the guerrilla movements and their tactics.

The self-defense movement was the response by landowners who found themselves under siege by these guerrilla groups. Their private security forces grew in strength and number until these were operating on their own, as paramilitaries, and selling their security services to landowners and businessmen, making them "offers they could not refuse." As the de facto authority in their regions, they considered themselves to be above the law. They also found drug trafficking to be a lucrative way of funding themselves. As the paramilitary groups have demobilized, a percentage have continued to be involved in drug trafficking.

The Army: For many years the Military Forces were ineffective at fighting the guerrillas. They tacitly acquiesced to the self-defense groups, thus giving rise to the denomination paramilitaries. Under paid, ill-prepared, the ranks of the military were rife with corruption and human rights abuses. Most of the rank and file soldiers come from the obligatory military service requirement that young men must fulfill upon completing high school. In recent years the Colombian military has made enormous strides in terms of better preparation, better equipment, and better strategy. The military has managed to secure control in regions that had no government presence for many years, although in some areas this control is still not consolidated, and human rights violations continue to be a problem.

The common denominator of these three groups is that the foot soldiers in this war all come from the same campesino roots, joining the armed groups via threat of forced recruitment, lack of other opportunities in life, or military conscription, with a minority joining because of shared ideals. It is the humble who are the cannon fodder in war.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So You Think You Can Dance

Watching So You Think You Can Dance, I am disturbed by the number of people who audition and who are seriously delusional about their own skills. They don't have technique, physique, or stamina. The most hapless cases are also overweight. I am embarrassed for them.

I consider myself a good dancer. Okay, I consider myself a very good dancer. As a kid, I took ballet classes and that provided me with a sense of body awareness. I know when my rib cage is centered over my hips. I have good extension. This has served me well in life. Later I switched to jazz and modern, which was good for loosening up. I learned Latin dance (salsa, merengue, cumbia, vallenato, etc.) in rumba classes at the gym. I love dancing and do it well, to the point that strangers will come up to me at the gym or dance clubs and compliment me on my dancing.

That being said, I've never learned partnering technique in salsa so I don't know the cueing to execute complex turn sequences. I've been learning tango, which is great. Tango, as well as being very sensual, can also be very elegant and dignified. You can be 70-years-old and dance tango without looking ridiculous.

Several years ago in Havana I went to the Casa de la Música, which is where well-heeled Cubans go out to dance. It was amazing to see how good the Cubans were. Colombians consider themselves to be good dancers, but the Cubans set the standard for salsa dancing. I am not talking about a professional floorshow, just everyday people who like to dance. I was hugely impressed

I love to dance but you won't be seeing me on So You Think You Can Dance any time soon.

Switching channels I caught a bit of Jennifer Hudson on VH1's Divas signing a duet with Stevie Wonder. She's very Ruebenesque and can really belt out a song with her great gospel-style voice. Afterwards was a reaction from a plump young woman who thanked Jennifer for being a good role model and for "allowing herself to accept herself as she was." Given the current rate of obesity in North America, I think that a whole lot of people should be less accepting of poor nutritional habits and obesity. Suggesting that obesity is acceptable does the nation a disservice. This does not mean that I think that Jennifer Hudson shouldn't be a public figure; she has earned her stature by training her voice. She has also earned her size by overeating. She is the result of her habits, both good and bad, and is not the helpless victim of her genes. People need to take responsibility for who and what they are.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The 13th Element

The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Cheap Sensationalism

The first hundred pages address the history of the alchemists and their attempts to make phosphorus, in a breathless recounting of professional jealousy and completing claims to have discovered…. Oh, sorry I dozed off for a moment there-- a method for its manufacture, mainly using vast quantities of human urine. Early medicinal claims have all been debunked. Well, that covers the first hundred pages.

It has some interesting anecdotes like the history of the Swedish match king, but these have no lasting bearing on the "story," and as I finished reading each anecdote, I couldn't help but thinking, so what?

The most interesting aspects of phosphorus were the ones that relate to daily life. For example the debate about the environmental damage allegedly caused by phosphorus in laundry detergent, and how subsequently it was discovered was that the culprits were the heavy metals, oils and insecticides that had killed the zooplankton that eat the algae blooms. I remember the hue and cry over phosphates, and then how the debate quietly faded away.

The book attempts to compelling but the closest it achieves is sensationalism, with graphic descriptions of the gruesome ailment phossy jaw, the horrors of the incendiary bombs that were dropped on Germany, tales of murder by phosphorus, and a look at how phosphorus might be implicated in what is known as spontaneous human combustion. All in all, The 13th Element left a bad taste ion my mouth… wait a minute, what is that taste? I've been poisoned! Arrrrgh…..

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