I'm in the newspaper underneath Sasha Grey

Suddeutsche Zeitung this weekend ran my photograph and article on Rwandan gacaca, drawn from the experience of working with Anne Aghion during the making of My Neighbor, My Killer. The article is print-only, and in German. Click the image below to read it.


Reading: Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier

When you've worked at making a revolution, it's difficult to go back to what you did before. --Explosion in a Cathedral

The people of Cartagena de Indias, perhaps the most spectacular ancient city in the Americas, proudly describe themselves as Caribbean. In contrast, those from the interior, from the chilly, moist highlands of Bogotá, are called cachacos, a term that carries a pale tinge of disparagement. The cachacos are forever outsiders on this coast, where one often has the sense that to be Caribbean is appreciated as more vital than any notion of national pride. Particularly with the Colombian football team in a long, profound slump. Outside of Colombia, few would place Cartagena on a list of the top ten or even twenty-five Caribbean destinations, but Cartageneros are steeped in their own history; the sixteenth century fortifications, the city wall, and the massive castillo dominate the landscape and the psychology of the town, whose people seem not to have forgotten an era when Havana, Port au Prince, New Orleans and Veracruz were connected to it via a constant web of commerce and shipping.

It is a fitting place to read Explosion in a Cathedral, Alejo Carpentier's epic novel, set in some of the farthest corners of the Caribbean basin, in once glorious and gloriously rich cities like Point-a-Pitre, Cayenne, and Paramaribo, places most people today will be hard-pressed to put a country to. Carpentier is one of Cuba's greatest novelists, but I fear I would have been unlikely to read this dense chronicle about the Caribbean aftermath of the French Revolution if it hadn't been for the recommendation of another, Leonardo Padura Fuentes. I've written about Padura Fuentes before; he is a writer whose work and opinions I respect immensely. Googling revealed a 2004 "ten best" list of Cuban novels he created for the Guardian. Explosion in a Cathedral came in at number one. "(T)he theme," Padura Fuentes wrote, "is the tragic destiny that awaits all revolutions: the failure of their grand aims and the perversion of their beautiful ideals." This is a loaded observation coming from a Havana writer whose work is characterized by a volatile blend of love for his city with disdain for the entrenchment of petty bureaucracy and the more ridiculous castigations of contemporary life there. Given that he also called the book "the perfect fiction and supreme expression of stylistic and conceptual ambition in narrative prose," I promptly ordered a battered ex-library copy.

The novel tells the story of Victor Hugues, a little-known Jacobin who maneuvered first to bring the French revolution to the Antillean colonies and then struggled to maintain his power in the face of shifting allegiances back in Paris. Born a baker, he traded in his rolling pin for a guillotine and became a butcher. When we meet him, however, he is a merchant, with interests in Port au Prince and Havana. He has just burst into the young and naive household of three bereaved relatives, a brother and sister, Carlos and Sophia, and their cousin Esteban. He easily insinuates himself into their lives, and ultimately his starry-eyed discourse and brash charisma will seduce two of them. Esteban succumbs philosophically, Sophia more traditionally.

Carpentier conjures up a compelling image of the stasis of life in Havana in the pre-information colonial age. It is a place where the veneer of civility is warped by slavery, ripe for the exportation of the equalizing fire of the French Revolution: "because people here seemed to be asleep, inert, living in a timeless marginal world, suspended between tobacco and sugar." His initial description of the city serves as the metaphorical template for Hugue's descent from infectious idealism into violent pragmatism: "Strangers praised the town's color and gaiety after spending three days visiting its dance halls, saloons, taverns and gambling dens, where innumerable orchestras incited sailors to spend their money, and set the women's hips swaying. But those who had to put up with the place the whole year round knew about the mud and the dust, and how the saltpetre turned the door-knockers green, ate away the iron-work, made silver sweat, brought mildew out on old engravings, and permanently blurred and misted the glass on drawings and etchings, already curling up with damp." Carpentier makes great use of this formal device throughout the novel, foreshadowing the action with ominous sentences ostensibly unrelated to the trajectories of the characters. On the imminent threat of a hurricane, to which Hugue's response will elevate him as a kind of savior of the household: "Those who lived on the island accepted the cyclone as a dreadful meteorological reality, which ultimately none of them would escape."

When the Spanish colonial authorities set out to purge Cuba of revolutionary thought, the strange family foursome is broken apart. Carlos tends to business in Havana, and Esteban and Sophia accompany Hugues as he flees to the south coast and Santiago de Cuba with his fellow progressive, the mulatto vodou doctor Ogé. The Caribbean is in an uproar. Rumor has it that Haiti's slaves are rising up; the fearsome black revolt has begun. Sophia remains in Santiago for safety; Hugues, Ogé and Esteban sail across the channel to find Port-au-Prince in flames. There is no going back to Cuba, and no staying in Haiti; suddenly Esteban, who is really the tortured hero of this book, finds himself in Paris, swept up in events much larger than himself.

Soon, he is diminished. Just one of the innumerable minor satellites orbiting Hugues' rising star as the conquering revolutionary exports the new France back to Guadeloupe, he will bear witness to the all corrupting influence of power as it rots away at his former mentor's ideals. Before long, the guillotine blade is dropping onto the necks of Hugues' enemies with disturbing frequency. Esteban follows Hugues to the next killing fields, the malarial Guyane, not because he wants to, but because he has become a virtual prisoner. When finally he manages to escape and return to Havana Carpentier introduces his grandest and most daring metaphor. Sophia, recently made a young widower and still in thrall to Hugues, years after a fleeting seduction in Santiago, abandons the reunited family to go and join him. Most writers would end their novel with the happy family reunion, but for Carpentier history is bound to repeat itself, and now it is Sophia, as mistress to the iron-fisted ruler, who will suffer disillusionment and witness the latter stages of Hugue's downward spiral into tyranny. In this novel there is no escaping the virulent fever of power and influence.

Padura Fuentes is by no means suggesting that guillotines are falling in Cuba today, but merely by suggesting that we read this novel now he continues his measured, thoughtful, and literary critique of the Cuba he sees out the windows of his home in Havana, fifty years on from another revolution. Here, too, there seems to be some Caribbean common ground.


Adding to the collection... UPDATED

El Gran Fidel (2008) Dairo Barriosnuevo, detail

When embarked on obscure passions and pursuits it is always a joy to discover a fellow obsessive. One of the high points of a recent trip to Colombia to investigate the enormous mobile sound systems of the Caribbean coast was the discovery that this vibrant scene, in which deejays battle for the affections of the crowd from behind towering stacks of speakers, has a portraitist to immortalize their efforts on canvas. Dairo Barriosnuevo is a self-described music freak, but he is not a deejay; he is a visual artist who draws and paints his interpretations of the world and culture of the picó, as these sound systems are known. For some fifteen years the picó, their personalities, traditions, presentation, and history, have been his subject matter.

The picoteros are known and prized for their selection of music and for their brute auditory power, but they are also typically decorated with a vibrant popular iconography that evolves over time. When performing or competing, the picó display technicolor banners painted on thin scrims and hung before the speaker boxes. These are essentially self-promotional in character, images that hover somewhere between logo and mythology. Barriosnuevo does not (at least so far) decorate the picó himself. Instead, his paintings about them, while emerging from the same arte popular idiom, simultaneously celebrate and comment on the culture. Barriosnuevo sees the perennial competition between the picoteros as a kind of mock battle between titanic cartoon characters, comic-book superheroes, or manga warriors. He calls the picó "machines of war," whose weapons are sound and music.

Perhaps best known for what I might describe as his portraits of various beloved sound systems, a kind of fetishizing and even anthropomorphizing of the equipment itself, Barriosnuevo recently completed a new series he calls Heráldicas Picoteras. In these "heraldic" paintings, the sound system itself is no longer the subject matter. Instead the works interpret the icons of the various picó. They are therefore versions of the same sorts of paintings which the proprietors commission from a handful of specialist popular artists and have painted on their speaker grilles. "El Coreano," for example, has long been identified with a tank, charging into battle; the sound system was named in the 1960s in honor of the owner's nephew, wounded in action in the Korean war as part of the Colombian battalion that fought there, the only South American representatives of that particular US-led coalition. In Barriosnuevo's version the tank threatens to crush a frog, representing the hapless multitude of other, croaking picó, beneath its treads. His image of "El Conde," the count, depicts a seated, top-hatted patriarch, with all the imagined trappings of the refined, land-owning elite; in a tuxedo, he is seated on a gold-brocade armchair, with monocle, cane, and cravat, on a ballustraded patio, with the ancient city walls of Cartagena visible across the bay in the background.

"The Korean," "The Count," "The Guajiro" (which in Colombia has a completely different meaning than it would in Cuba, referring to the remote north-eastern province of Guajira, with its heavy indigenous population of Wayú Indians), and "The Supersonic," are just a few of the legendary sound systems Barriosnuevo has interpreted. Other sound systems are named for cultural or political heros: "El Gran Che," the great Che, is one now-defunct picó. Still in action today on the patios and terraces of Barranquilla is "El Gran Fidel." When I saw Barriosnuevo's painting of the same name I entered immediately into negotiations with the artist, and a few days later, arriving at customs at JFK Airport in Queens, I was able to have the following nerve-wracking exchange as I handed in my customs declaration form:

Dept. of Homeland Security: "Colombia, huh? What's inside that tube?"
Me: "Hmmmn. Uh.... It's, it's a painting."
DOHS: "Really? Of what?"
Me: "Well, to be perfectly honest, occifer, it's a picture of Fidel Castro, deejaying!"

El Gran Fidel, restretchered courtesy of Atlas Industries, in situ back at the Red Hook ranch.

Fabian Altahona, of the excellent Africolombia blog, read this post and was kind enough to send along a snap of El Gran Fidel ready for action, to illustrate what it is, exactly, that Dairo Barriosnuevo is illustrating. It is in no small part thanks to Fabian's blog that I owe my renewed interest in the subject of the picoteros and the phenomenon of African popular music as played throughout the Colombian Caribbean litoral.

Photo courtesy Fabian Altahona Romero


There's a reason they call it cloud forest...

Just back from the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo ("the knife of St. Lawrence") in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a place I have wanted to visit for a very long time. This particular Sierra Nevada contains Colombia's tallest mountains, despite all the competition from the twin spines of the Andes that carve across most of this country further to the south. But this comparatively small cluster of mountains emerged in isolation, like an island, away from the principal Andean chains, and the therefore has an extraordinarily high rate of endemism in its flora and fauna. To see these unique birds and plants, however, one must climb high up into the mountains, something that has until recently been rather unsafe.

For much of the 1970s, before American growers perfected the cultivation of their crop on their home turf, the Sierra was largely given over to marijuana production; it was the source of the famous Colombian Gold, packed down the mountainsides and loaded into clandestine ships in the jungly coves Magdalena's north coast. In the 80s and 90s the guerilla and then the paramilitaries controlled the zone, then just one of many badlands totally out of governmental control. When I last visited the region, in 1993, I was strongly advised not to go up into the mountains. I took that advice, and so the ornithological riches dwelling in the high altitude cloud forests remained, for me, imaginary. But this time, when we asked around in the placid port city of Santa Marta, the situation was said to be completely calm. And it was, blissfully so. After the thick heat of the coast the mountain air was crisp, oxygenated by steep hillsides of dense forest festooned with epiphytes. Nothing disturbed the tranquility but strange birds darting amongst the gnarled trunks. There were toucans and toucanets, the passive and deliberate Golden breasted fruiteater, and the Santa Marta brush finch, which Laura quickly nicknamed "cheeks," for the dusky patches it has on the sides of its black head. The most dangerous things we could find were the columns of leaf-cutter ants carting their shards of greenery back to their vast nests.

Not all the specialties made an appearance, so we'll just have to take that as an excuse to go back...


Don't you go touching my coconuts...

Apologies for the recent scarcity of bloggage. We've been in the Caribbean coastal jungles of Tayrona. We've been high up in the mountains, in the former guerilla stronghold and 1970s world capital of weed production, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We've been lurking with the hummingbirds in the dark corners of the forest. Internet remains scarce in these places of extreme natural beauty and ornithological opportunity, but our stay in Colombia has been rich in blog-worthy topics, and many posts are soon to come.