Thursday, March 17, 2016

Unsung Classics: Olivia Manning

White Americans love St. Patrick's day and not just for the happy hour specials. Today is the one day of the year white people are permitted an ethnic identity that isn't tied up in slavery and empire and basically every bad thing of the past three or four hundred years. In fact, since Irish history is full of invasion and oppression, it can give comfortable crackers that much coveted victim status they're always striving for!

But more importantly there's the literature. Irish writers have had an influence on English-language literature far greater than their meager numbers and you've certainly seen all the respectable publications posting lists of classic and newly classic novels from folks with names starting with "O" and "Mac." The lists might even appear novel to the illiterate hoi poloi but if you dig reading, you know all the heavies already. Joyce, Flann O'Brien, whichever Roddy Doyle novel the listicle author likes that isn't The Commitments...

So instead, the good people and gnomes here at VectorPress are gonna learn you about the magnificent Olivia Manning!

Technically Anglo-Irish, her unmoored upbringing was quite typical of those born just before the revolutions of the 1920s. As was her "sense of belonging nowhere" following Irish independence from the British Empire. Elizabeth Bowen wrote from a similar place, though much more bitterly. Manning stands out not just for her output - six novels on World War II alone! - but also for how she manages to convey a crushing normality in the middle of the biggest geo-political restructuring of the 20th Century.

Manning writes what she knows across both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. And what she knows is the dull ridiculousness of expat existence, first in Romania and later in Athens and Cairo. The Balkan Trilogy begins just as everyone thinks the Iron Guard ends, though it soon returns as fascism was just so darn popular in Europe prior to 1945. Though across the first two novels, there is only ever one proper battle and it doesn't even get as violent as a Baltimore protest against police brutality. The war is always something just on the horizon, even in The Levant Trilogy once the main characters have washed up in Cairo, injecting an anxiety into the humdrum domestic drama of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

Guy, you see, is an idealist. A strident Marxist, supporting Revolution despite his vocation as literary lecturer for the cruel British Empire's many far-flung posts. He takes this commitment all the way to opening his own home to every tramp and con man - like the charmingly parasitic Yakimov - who should happen to pass through his life. Loved by all and viewed as possessing the highest moral character, all while making his wife Harriet miserable.

Harriet is of course the sympathetic one in this narrative and it serves as more than just an indictment of her shallowly political husband. Rather, Guy's starry-eyed view of the human condition - and by extension the radical leftism of Manning's time - is contrasted with Harriet's very practical concerns of how the two of them are to live and avoid becoming a statistic in a war that doesn't show any sign of stopping. Repeatedly called a reactionary for her indifference to first Greek and later Egyptian poverty, Harriet still comes across as the practical and even-minded of the pair simply because she does not seek to save everyone.

Not that saving anyone is really an option. Manning presents a harshly naturalistic world, where death comes without warning and often without reason. A foreign office functionary is gunned down on the road from Budapest, a sensitive boy is disappeared twice for the crime of being rich more than for being Jewish. And then there's the fate of poor old Yaki...

Really, Yakimov is the star of The Balkan Trilogy. An impoverished White Russian aristocrat, he keeps up a churlish yet endearing Bertie Wooster shuffle from his first appearance in Budapest to his sensless finale in Athens, always with a witticism or a charmingly self-deprecating story or just a petulant pleading for one more round of drinks. He'll pay you back, old sport. Just as soon as his remittance comes through.

Manning's talent is making you feel compassion for dull if not outright contemptible people. When Guy thinks Harriet has died in one of the many impersonal attacks of the war, he regrets taking her for granted and grows just enough as a character to easily snap back to his old habits once she shows up alive. The venal mediocrities who burrow into the good professorships at Alexandria, who are just trying to survive like everyone else. And Guy never pursued his own interest as Harriet encouraged him, trusting in the natural goodness of humanity which the events of his life should have long since disproved.

Then there's the singular experience of Simon Boulderstone in The Levant Trilogy. A British Army officer deployed to the North African theater just as Rommel is starting his famous blitz, he crosses paths with the Pringles while looking for the promiscuous girl his elder brother had claimed as a girlfriend, Edwina. He befriends Harriet mostly because she's there, much as she befriends him, and the young officer's half of the narrative provides a look into the actual fighting. Like the private lives away from the front lines, it's just as mindless as confused. Nearly dying a few times in stupid and preventable ways, Simon still always finds his way back to Cairo and the fantasy of Edwina. Simon's motivations are more than just platonic and the girl might even have taken him up on it had she no better prospects - much as the Romanian gal Sophie flirted with Guy blatantly in front of Harriet in the hopes of getting a British visa through marriage. Again, people just trying to survive while the world loses its marbles.

Harriet remains the one constant throughout all these schemes and hysteria. Not because she can exert any control over her own situation. Far from it - Harriet is buffeted by circumstance and her own self-defeating impulses as much as anyone else but she retains a self-awareness the others lack. Sophie and Edwina truly believe they love their meal tickets, just as Guy truly believes he is helping to uplift the common man against the bourgeoisie by teaching young men poetry and directing the occasional Shakespeare play. Harriet counts her victories much more realistically and humbly, like cajoling an extra bit of meat or cheese out of a shopkeeper already hurting from the wartime rationing.

Control is the one thing all the other characters seek and never really find. It's a notion likely born of Manning's own sense of lacking control as she had such a mixed up - and often plain missing - ethnic identity at a time Europe was destroying itself over which ethnic identity was superior. That sort of atavism is still alive in the world - as ISIS and the "I'm one fifths Irish!" white American demonstrates - making Manning's epic exploration of absurd misery all the more pertinent.

And it's just a cracking good read.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Liberals for Empire

It should come as no surprise a self-proclaimed "Goldwater Girl" thinks the Contras were keen. To paraphrase Ted Rall, Hillary Clinton never met a war she didn't like.

What should come as a surprise is all the card-carrying liberals trumpeting her neocon bullshit as the latest victory over Sanders and his movement for common human decency. Should come as a surprise - probably does for some of you dear-hearts - but really doesn't. As I mentioned last time I commented on this bummer of an election, American liberals love blood and violence when it's their own team pulling the trigger. Hell, I'm guilty of it myself!

And Democrats really do have a history as good imperial managers. Much like the British, who raped everyone and everything they could find below the equator for a century. Just because they're good at it doesn't mean it's not objectively terrible.

But that raw ugliness and evil of global empire is still a foreign concept to Americans of every political persuasion. This is to be expected with the Tea Party and the Trumpers, as their entire raison d'etre is spite and hatred for life. But it's still a bit shocking to see the folks who still kvetch over Bush's wars turn around and advocate for basically more of the same.

Rather, it would be shocking if this hadn't been going on for the past decade. At least.

[T]he real responsibility for the Iraq war lay not with Bush but with the Lettermans, the Wolf Blitzers, the CNNs, the New York Timeses of the world -- the malleable middle of the American political establishment who three years ago made a conscious moral choice to support a military action that even a three year-old could have seen made no fucking sense at all.

A so-funny-it's-sad way of paraphrasing the position of the US media and political class on the Iraq war is "We shoulda invaded on Thursday instead of Tuesday." And that simplistic We're The Good Guys notion is shared by many of the rank-and-file liberals who marched and protested and all turned very silent once a black Democrat was commanding the exact same drone executions as a Texas dipshit.

This goes back decades, well before Reagan but let's start in the '80s anyway because it was the worst era ever. Also because Sanders is getting flak for not disavowing the Sandinistas, who are now the Bad Guys for the liberal press because reasons. Reagan's financing of the Contra death squads who targeted the FSLN gets most of the attention but it was really just SOP for the US at the time in every sovereign nation south of the border. Like El Salvador:

When she heard the screams, Rufina, who together with her children had been sitting on a bench with her back to the front wall of the house -- the wall facing the church -- climbed up on the bench so that she could look out a small window high up in that wall. Through the window she saw soldiers leading groups of men from the little whitewashed church -- blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them. Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Márquez and took them out of the hamlet in various directions. After a time, she saw her husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw him -- Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and father of Cristino, María Dolores, Marta Lilián, and María Isabel -- bolt forward, together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl levelled their M16s and brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and, unsheathing their machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.

The El Mozote massacre was conducted against suspected Marxists, just like hundreds of others. All with the tacit approval if not active support of US intelligence and special operations. Stan Goff provides some excellent snapshots - including the bumbling alcoholics from the State Department overseeing all this horror - in Full Spectrum Disorder. But to see how things really don't change, you have to read his first and arguably better book, Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti. It recounts his time with 3rd Special Forces ODA 354 in the first Clinton era, trying to do an invasion and occupation humanely so as to relieve his old and battered conscience - and just how doomed his efforts proved to be:

Are you anti-FRAPH?
They're a death squad network.
According to the task force command, they're to be treated as the legitimate political opposition.
They're still death squads. Were we ordered to work with them, too?
No, you weren't ordered to work with them, but it sounds like you harassed them.

There's more in the book of that bureaucratic double-think. So much more, but it's not what got Goff brought up on charges that "were either silly or pure bullshit, but a couple of them were true..." It was his own team, his comrades-in-arms who were just as indoctrinated to the American fantasy of Good vs. Evil as Salon knobs like Amanda Marcotte. Not one of them would ever self-identify as liberal - a few were anticipating race war in the bucolic Clinton years and are likely strident Trump supporters today - just like no Hillary Men or bourgeois feminists consider themselves on the side of death squads. Except maybe this guy.

The liberal interventionists have just as much blood on their hands as the neocons. They used to try and hide it but with Sanders showing he can win, they've all lost their marbles and wouldn't even blink at a Clinton-Kissinger ticket come November. 'Cause there are bad guys to kill, dontcha know.