Issue 214 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

FILM

Blurred vision

Welcome to Sarajevo

Dir: Michael Winterbottom

This is a powerful and well made film. With its mixture of real news footage and drama it tells the true story of the experiences of ITN journalist Michael Nicholson (called Michael Henderson in the film and played by Stephen Dillane) during the civil war and the siege of Sarajevo that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. It shows how Nicholson changes his view of covering the war and the whole role of the press when he visits a bombed out orphanage on the front line and meets nine year old Emira, whom he eventually smuggles out of the country to adopt.

The familiarity of prewar Sarajevo is brought home by the grainy colour footage of winter sports, skiing and tourism behind the opening credits which contrasts with the sudden fast forward to 1991 and the first scenes of the war. Filming actually took place in the city itself. The bombed out apartment blocks, makeshift cemeteries and dug out trenches for dodging snipers' bullets give a vivid 'Mad Max' feel to the underground life of the Sarajevans. But the ordinary people of the city provide merely the backdrop to the concerns and anxieties of the group of journalists who hang out in what remains of the bombed out Holiday Inn, competing for fresh angles on the long war.

However, there are a number of problems with the film that cannot be ignored. The most fundamental is the simplistic standpoint taken on the nature of the war which is depicted as one of evil Serbs against powerless Muslims. The reality is that this was a bitter civil war in which atrocities were committed on all sides but it has suited the west to portray the Serbs as the enemy. Yet, for example, military documents which have just come to light reveal another side to the defence of Sarajevo which is so heroically dramatised in the film. The documents, which are largely confessions and testimony by Muslim soldiers to military courts, show that Muslim paramilitary groups herded hundreds of Serb civilians to the mountains overlooking the city. Their throats were cut with hunting knives and their bodies thrown into a mass grave in a crevasse which up till now has been kept secret.

The role of the west is another central theme of the film. Winterbottom has cleverly interspersed shots of hospitals being bombed and civilians suffering with news clips of various world leaders saying that the west is unable to intervene. Although the exposure of the lack of concern of politicians is effective the message is mistaken. Intervention by the west was not and is still not a solution in the Balkans, as the ethnic cleansing which accompanied the Dayton accords clearly shows.

The journalists whose story we follow throw up a lesser but nonetheless important weakness in Welcome to Sarajevo. We see Henderson at first reacting with anger and derision at the news coverage of a maverick American journalist (Woody Harrelson) helping civilians move the body of a woman shot by Serbian snipers. Saying that they are only there to report, not to intervene, he implies that the press are pure and disinterested observers of world events. This naive and demonstrably false view of the press is meant to show how dramatic a break Henderson makes when he finally does take sides.

Many other real life war correspondents have told similar stories about the effect of the Bosnian war. There is no examination of why western journalists found the Bosnian conflict particularly distressing. The war was in a European country with whose population it was easy to identify; many will have been familiar with Yugoslavia as a holiday destination; reporters were not corralled and protected as in the Gulf or Falklands wars. There is no objective reason to accept the claim that it was a significantly worse experience than, say, the war in Rwanda.

Henderson's meeting with nine year old Emira acts as the turning point in the film where the battle hardened hack becomes involved for the first time. Henderson vows to keep the children's story on the screens every night until they are moved to safety, despite his producer saying that that would be a 'campaign, not news'.

What follows is the apparently true account of how Henderson illegally smuggles Emira out of Bosnia on a bus with other refugee children. When the bus finally reaches the coast the children run into the sea under a blue sky and the relief and joy at their escape is palpable. But the issue of smuggling a child out of one country and adopting her permanently in Britain (for this is what Henderson does) is not so clear cut as the film's attempt to manipulate your emotions might suggest. In fact the woman who runs the same orphanage today was recently quoted as saying that she now had the problem that westerners did not want to give money to renovate the orphanage but just wanted to adopt the children, most of whom were not orphans but were simply poor.

Even when Emira's mother comes out of hiding and asks for her daughter back, all the images we see of Emira are idyllic, playing cricket on an English lawn with her newly adopted and clearly wealthy family. When Henderson returns to Sarajevo to get the mother to sign papers allowing him to adopt Emira, his right to do so is never questioned. He is a well off foreign professional, while her real mother is poor and living in a bombed out apartment block.

Welcome to Sarajevo is a film that sets its sights high but fails to deliver. Although it appears to be attacking the establishment view of the Bosnian war, the myths it feeds are ones with which western political leaders will have no problem.

Judith Orr


Half the seed of Europe

Regeneration

Dir: Gillies Mackinnon

The context is set with an aerial shot of a battlefield. Men, too numerous to count, lie dead and dying. The powerful imagery of mud, barbed wire and blackened, skeletal trees evokes the war that laid waste a generation across Europe. The war which they promised would be 'over by Christmas' lasted four years and saw the greatest slaughter the world has ever known. Regeneration tells the story of four men, each in his own way a casualty of that war.

In the war years Craiglockhart Castle in Edinburgh was used as a military hospital for shell shocked officers and it was here that, briefly, their lives met. The hospital is a magnificent 19th century building set in wooded grounds reminiscent of the background of many of the officer class but for the patients the beauty provides no comfort as they relive, again and again, the horrors they have experienced on the front line.

Dr William Rivers was the psychiatrist whose task it was to restore the men to health so that they could return to the front. The bitter irony of this was not lost on Rivers.

Jonathan Pryce portrays him as the compassionate and intelligent man who, in helping the men confront their unendurable terror, is himself driven to the edge of insanity. Pryce conveys the burden of the doctor's inner conflict with exceptional subtlety.

In 1917 two of the great poets of the First World War were patients at the hospital. Siegfried Sassoon was not strictly ill, more a prisoner of conscience having been sent there out of harm's way when he published a pamphlet attacking the generals. Sassoon, already an eminent poet, befriended and encouraged the work of the young Wilfred Owen. Lines from Owen's verse spoken over the images of men broken both in body and spirit add a heartrending poignancy to this film. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; it is sweet and honourable to die for your country.

The fourth man was Billy Prior, a soldier from a working class background who had risen through the ranks to become an officer. His experience in the trenches had left him mute. We learn that although this affliction was common among rank and file soldiers it was unheard of in an officer. Johnny Lee Miller plays Prior as a bitterly angry man ­ angry not only at the atrocities he has witnessed and experienced but also at the class that has perpetrated them.

On a short break from the hospital, Rivers visited a London hospital to observe the method of Dr Yealland who prided himself on achieving a 100 percent success rate in 'curing' mute soldiers. The brutal application of electric shock treatment was in stark contrast to the infinitely more humane and progressive treatment given to the officers at Craiglockart. Far from being impressed by the efficacy of the treatment, Rivers was distraught and angered that the soldiers, men with no 'voice' in the army, were tortured out of the only protest available to them. The episode sharpened his torment about the morality of what was being done in the name of medicine and of his own role in the process.

The main focus of the film is Rivers' relationships with his patients. Through their exchanges we can consider a range of moral and ethical questions as doctor and patient grapple with the nature of heroism, the futility of war and the wider implications of individual acts. There is no attempt to provide easy answers here but this challenging film does not shrink from posing the question.

As the film ends we find Rivers reading Wilfred Owen's 'Parable of the Old Men and the Young' in which Abraham is tested by God who tells him he must sacrifice his son. Just as he is about to slay him an angel tells him to stop, 'But the old man would not so, but slew his son.' Rivers weeps for the young men who died in the mud far from home and for the old man who slew his son and 'half the seed of Europe one by one'.

This is a film with a powerful message and from which you will return home mute and shellshocked like the patients of Craiglockhart.

Pat Smith


Pursuit of the money god

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Dir: Robert Bierman

This film's billing at the London Film Festival as 'high quality British production at its best' should have been enough to ring alarm bells. What started off as a sharp and hard hitting George Orwell novel has been turned into a lightweight romantic comedy, with chirpy cockney urchins taking the place of images of the real degradation of poverty.

The original novel is a telling comment on capitalism and its values through the eyes of a penniless writer, Gordon Comstock (played by Richard E Grant). Gordon leaves his 'good job' at the New Albion advertising agency, where he thought up snappy slogans to sell pills and tonics, to liberate himself from a society which worships the 'money god' and become a free man and a full time poet.

Based in 1930s London, the story follows Gordon as he reluctantly takes a job in a bookshop, but only because it has utterly no prospects, and lives in a seedy boarding house where the landlady clings on to respectability with her aspidistras. He tries to write an epic poem and carry on courting his girlfriend, Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter), but, despite his rejection of his past lifestyle, he can never be free from the money god. He sees that only the wealthy elite who went to Oxford and Cambridge ever make it as poets and even blames Rosemary's refusal to go to bed with him on his lack of funds.

In the film much of Gordon's railing against society and money sounds more like envy of the rich, as if the screenwriter has completely missed the point of Gordon's reasons for choosing to leave his proper salaried job. Orwell portrays Gordon as an idealist, suffocated by the world of middle class respectability and snobbery into which he was born. His decision to turn his back on it all is a considered one. He feels his writing talent is wasted and corrupted by being forced to write empty rhymes to encourage people to buy 'Queen of Sheba toilet requisites' and decides there is more to life than trying to climb up the social scale, which is weighted against him anyway. When, after a drunken spree with the proceeds from a published poem, he loses his bookshop job, his descent into deeper poverty is swift and brutal. Orwell's descriptions of the digs in Lambeth that Gordon ends up in are stark ­ the squalor of life with no running water, shared outside toilet and bed bugs is spelt out.

Robert Bierman has created a very different character and has subtly but significantly changed the tone of the whole story. Gordon's idealism is given no real explanation and so his choice of poverty seems merely foolish. As the story and characters are played for laughs, there is no place for contemplation of Gordon's motivations or a serious look at the society that provoked them, making the compromise of the ending seem a happy one instead of one full of contradictions.

This transformation of the book is explained in unashamed terms by the screenwriter, Alan Plater ­ 'I think I'm better at jokes than Orwell. He was a great social and political analyst, but never a barrel of laughs really. I always feel that if people make the effort to go to the cinema, they should be given a good time.'

Keep the Aspidistra Flying disappoints precisely because it seems to have been made to order as big box office entertainment. If you're interested in Orwell the social and political analyst, then the original novel is a great read. If you want to see how pursuit of the money god can turn a good story into a superficial film then see this.

Judith Orr


THEATRE

Stories of good and evil

Angels and Demons

by Besht Tellers

Angels and Demons is a lovely piece of theatre. The performance consists of two actors, one male and one female, dressed in pale blue. They have a sparse set with ropes, ladders, frames, mirrors, pallets and boxes. It is simple but effective.

The play is a collection of different old fables which cover different centuries, countries and cultures, telling stories about lust, love, money, religion and power. The two actors narrate the stories and play characters of the opposite sex and all different ages.

Storytelling in the past was not just about old biblical morals ­ it could also be a form of expression about oppression and injustice in society, of good triumphing over evil. A number of stories in this play reflect this. However, despite the humour some of the stories could have done with more of a comment about how attitudes towards lust and sex have changed, and why they should not to be taken too seriously. The play asks, who are the angels and who are the demons? What is good and what is bad? This is left open for the audience to decide.

At times the play is very moving, because of powerful yet tactile performances from the actors. And this is helped by the music ­ just two musicians played guitar, flute, saxophone and keyboards. You can picture the storytellers from centuries ago being watched by groups of people of all ages participating in the stories. Storytelling was a form of expression of what was happening in society.

One of the stories in the production is very moving. It is about a king who would not allow music or singing in his kingdom because he thought it would soften people's emotions. This, he believed, would have made it easier for the queen of a neighbouring kingdom to invade as his armies and people would be ill prepared. A young woman is brought before the king because she has been heard singing. He demands to hear her song. She sings and everyone in the kingdom stops what they are doing and hears it as their song. The king himself is moved but angered, so he throws her into the dungeons until he can no longer live without her song. He goes to the dungeon and demands that she sings but it is too late ­ she dies in his arms endeavouring to sing the song he wished to hear.

Angels and Demons is enjoyable and you can take your kids because storytelling, and the appreciation of it, is ageless.

Beccy Palmer

Angels and Demons plays throughout the country during December and January


MUSIC

Time for independence

Swaraj

Released by Acid Jazz

Asian music in Britain is on the verge of a massive breakthrough into the mainstream of popular music, and not before time. For many years sales of Asian music on cassette have consistently outsold the Top 40, but because they are distributed primarily through small outlets and are often pirated, the sales don't count enough to make it into the charts.

What is changing is that the new breed of Asian music is not being imported from the subcontinent ­ it is being made by Asian youth in Britain. It is a hybrid form, combining hip-hop, jungle and funk with sitars, a variety of Asian percussion instruments, and vocals in Hindi and Punjabi.

Swaraj (meaning independence) is a celebration of 50 years of Indian independence and a compilation of artists who are currently at the leading edge of British-Asian music. It is a fantastic album which proves that some of the most exciting developments in musical history have occurred when two music forms are combined to create a new sound.

Some of the artists will have commercial appeal because they allow recognisable jungle, hip-hop, reggae and even blues breakbeats to dominate an Asian vocal track. However, most have sought to incorporate Asian instrumentation into their backing tracks as well. As well as known acts, like Fun-da-mental, Apache Indian and Punjabi MC, there are contributions from Ravi Harris, who epitomises 'sitar funk', and Dub Factory, who make an Indian form of dub reggae.

Historical precedent suggests that as this music develops a bigger audience there will be pressure from the major record companies to seek mass appeal by reducing the 'Asian-ness' of their sound, or to stick with one particular tried and tested formula. At the moment this pressure does not appear to have been able to exert too much of its damaging influence ­ Swaraj testifies to that.

Yuri Prasad


BOOKS

The left writes back

Safety First

Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann Granta £9.99

The End of Parliamentary Socialism

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys Verso £15

Why has Tony Blair been able to shift the Labour Party so far to the right, and why was the left wing inside the party so impotent in the face of the breathtaking speed of Blair's changes? Both these questions are tackled in those two new books. Safety First is an accessible account written by Paul Anderson, former editor of the left wing Labour paper Tribune, and Nyta Mann, who still writes for the paper. The book puts the New Labour project in the context of the last 50 years and is a useful resource for socialists.

Firstly it's a good read. Here you'll discover that Labour's spin doctor in chief Peter Mandelson once flogged the Communist Party paper, the Morning Star, outside Kilburn tube station. You'll also discover how nearly all the leading figures of the Labour cabinet ­ Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Tony Blair himself ­ in the past made speeches which would bar them from even getting selected as a Labour candidate today.

But there is an important point to all this. It illustrates the route travelled by so many who start out wanting to change the capitalist system but see the only route as through electoral and parliamentary means. So the book shows how much Tony Blair and his group of advisers have attacked the traditions of Old Labour, but also shows how Blair's New Labour project is a continuation of the reformist policies of the whole Labour tradition.

So it was not Tony Blair who began the process of 'modernisation'. Rather, many of the biggest rightward shifts, such as the ditching of unilateral nuclear disarmament and accepting most of the anti trade union laws, happened under the leaderships of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith. It was also Kinnock and Smith who began the process of curtailing Labour Party democracy and debate and who began the obsession with image and the media.

Safety First is flawed in its analysis, however. The authors accept much of the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party, agreeing with the expulsion of Militant and accept many of the earlier changes.

The authors of The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, are much more critical of Labour's shift to the right and Blair's ascendancy. Both authors are associated with the group of left wingers around the late Ralph Miliband, and Leo Panitch continues to edit the yearly socialist journal Socialist Register.

Their book is a much more academic analysis than Safety First. It concentrates on the failure of the Labour left, particularly of those grouped around Benn through the 1970s and 1980s. At its height the movement around Benn attracted thousands of people to meetings up and down the country, culminating in the campaign to get Tony Benn elected as Labour's deputy leader in 1981. Its emphasis was not on mobilising workers' action. Indeed the movement was at its height after the defeats of workers' struggle in the late 1970s and the disillusion which would see Labour booted out of office in 1979.

Rather the Bennites sought to democratise and change the internal structures of the Labour Party itself. This, the authors admit, was its downfall. The Labour left, the book concludes, by 'concentrating on trying to change the Labour Party...became trapped in that struggle'. And, 'It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committees and conferences without becoming absorbed by them.' This is damning criticism which the authors hope will provide us with important lessons in rebuilding the left today. Pantich and Leys not only argue for a rejuvenation of the kind of debate which the coterie around Tony Blair have extinguished, but for a break with New Labour altogether. This is an important and welcome step which raises one of the key questions of how socialists should organise.

The authors quite rightly argue that 'the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party'. They want to build a new form of socialist organisation which avoids the pitfalls of the Benn campaign and which does not get bogged down in a fruitless attempt to change the Labour Party.

The next question is what type of organisation is needed? Unfortunately Panitch and Leys explicitly reject revolutionary organisation. Indeed they argue that the '"Bolshevik" language' (of 'demands', 'lines' and so on) of some of those involved in the Benn campaign 'was not only incapable of reaching out beyond the ranks of organised labour, as Benn could, but also repelled many people who needed to be persuaded'.

Despite the authors' criticism of the Bennite left, their detailed account underplays its weaknesses. They do not examine, for example, how Tony Benn's continued membership of the Callaghan government gave left credibility to massive spending cuts implemented by the Labour government.

And missing throughout the account is the dynamic of class struggle. So there is no sense of the mood of anger and bitterness seething beneath the surface which would sweep Labour into power on 1 May. Indeed the authors accept that Blair's victory was due in large part to the 'Labour modernisers' ruthless redesign of party policy to win back former Conservative voters in the marginal seats of 'Middle England'.

The rejection of revolutionary strategy and organisation ultimately leaves the authors with nowhere to go except along a similar road of a mix of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. But it was this similar strategy which proved disastrous for so many socialists in the early 1980s, channelling their energies away from revolution and towards reform.

Hazel Croft


The test of time

A Socialist Review

Eds: Lindsey German and Rob Hoveman
Bookmarks £9.95

You would expect a good review in this magazine of a book which is a collection of articles taken from Socialist Review over the last 20 years. And at the risk of spoiling the punchline this is an excellent book which should be on every socialist's bookshelf.

There are a few obvious things about this collection to recommend it. The 59 (mostly longer) articles all stand in their own right, and will spur you to go off and read more about the subject covered. Even people who have large collections of back issues of Socialist Review rarely get round to reading them, yet good Marxist writing deserves to be reread over and again. And many of the best writers on the left are collected here.

But what also comes out of reading this collection is how well it has stood the test of time. Unlike other magazines on the left, Socialist Review has neither fallen for each new intellectual fad nor simply restated the basic tenets of Marxism like a monthly textbook. Through the very wide range of subjects covered here ­ from the royals to postmodernism ­ runs a thread of using Marxist theory to analyse the world, and thus to help win new layers of people to revolutionary politics.

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, it was commonplace on the left that Thatcher and the Tories had a stranglehold on British politics, and that Labour could never win another election without the help of the Liberals. But you can read here an article by Lindsey German written before the poll tax riot which points to how the poll tax united the opposition to the Tories. Previously the government had been careful not to fight on more than one front at any time.

Paul Foot's article written just after Labour's 1992 election defeat looked at how Labour had failed to harness the class anger against the Tories seen in the anti poll tax campaign, and argued that the class struggle rather than elections produces decisive turning points in history. While most of the left at the time drew the conclusions that Labour had to move even further to the right, the 1992 pits crisis and Black Wednesday ­ from which the Tories never recovered ­ were only months away.

An interview with Mike Davis on the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 argued that the racism of the Rodney King beating acted as the spark which lit the bonfire of a more general discontent which pulled in young whites and Latinos. Many at the time saw the rebellion as a frustrated but impotent act, as evidence that class was an insignificant factor in US politics. Yet Socialist Review's analysis, that the class struggle is political and ideological as well as economic, linked the rebellion to the deep crisis of US society.

Chris Harman's article written on the 10th anniversary of the events of May 1968 is another gem which deserves to be read. Harman rejects both sickly nostalgia and the cynicism which came from those who saw 68 as ultimately producing nothing. May 1968 symbolised the simultaneous crisis of the two traditions on the left which had squeezed out revolutionary socialism since the late 1920s ­ reformism and Stalinism. As Russian tanks rolled into Prague and Labour supported US barbarism in Vietnam, the postwar boom was coming to an end, allowing the tiny forces of revolutionary socialism to win an audience amongst workers.

But while events may have been on the side of revolutionaries they could not catch up and overtake the reformist and Stalinist parties. With their help the system survived the crisis. The crisis of Stalinism proved terminal, and Tony Blair gives a new meaning to the phrase 'reformism without reforms'. Harman's conclusion is still relevant today. 'Just as there have been many "Mays" in the last ten years, there will be many more, much more bitter than before, in the next ten years. The revolutionary left has to remember this. But it also has to remember that the worse the general crisis of society the greater the need for an active, intransigent, but cool headed revolutionary party.'

There are many other highlights, such as the interview with Tony Cliff on his 70th birthday. The articles brought together in this book will inspire as well as explain, but don't take my word for it ­ find out for yourself.

Nicolai Gentchev


Biologically speaking

Lifelines

Steven Rose Penguin £20

Steven Rose is one of a small number of scientists who have battled against genetic determinism. For 20 years he has argued against other scientists and popularisers of science who say that human behaviour is determined by our genes. He has done so not just as a scientist, but as a socialist. He co-wrote the now classic text Not in Our Genes. His new book in some ways is an update of that work but also an attempt to outline an alternative philosophy of biology and hence of science generally.

Rose's starting point is the famous quote from Marx that 'men make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing'. Rose extends the idea to all living organisms. Rather than see living creatures as simply prisoners of their genes, blindly following a programme set for them in their DNA, Rose argues that they are constantly reacting to and modifying their surroundings. There is a constant dialectical interaction.

But Rose also demonstrates that even the term 'gene' means different things to different people. When people ascribe complex behaviours like homosexuality or aggression to genes, they are talking nonsense. Genes are an important part of the complex web of chemical reactions which occur in all cells, but they are only a part. Even a relatively simple characteristic like eye colour strictly speaking cannot be reduced to a single gene. The colour of the human iris depends on the presence or absence of certain pigments. These pigments are produced in a long series of chemical reactions. Each reaction is made possible by the presence of a protein called an enzyme. The absence of one or more of these proteins may result in an individual having blue eyes. Hence 'a gene for blue eyes now has to be reinterpreted as meaning one or more genes in whose absence the metabolic pathway that leads to pigmented eyes terminates at the blue eye stage'. This is an important distinction, and all biologists will admit that the idea of 'genes for' is merely a convenient shorthand. Even the arch-champion of reductionism, Richard Dawkins, admits this, but claims that it is irrelevant as organisms behave as if such 'genes for' exist. When Dawkins and others talk about genes they are talking about imaginary entities, not the strands of DNA molecules referred to by biochemists.

Rose argues that part of the reason that genetic determinism has grown in the past 20 years is that the growth in our knowledge of molecular biology has paralleled the growth of information technology. Computing theory has been used as a metaphor to describe the information coded on each strand of DNA. Dawkins has described life as simply 'bytes of information'. But the idea that life is simply information, passed from generation to generation in our genes, distorts and grossly simplifies the complexities of biology.

Many reductionist scientists start by looking for the origin of the master molecule, DNA. But Rose argues convincingly that in the evolution of the earliest living cells the creation of a chemically stable environment and mechanisms for the generation and utilisation of energy would have to evolve before the chemical replicators DNA and RNA arrived. His fundamental point is that, in defining life, we have to look at the complete organism.

Rose has always fought against the genetic determinists, not simply on the grounds of their right wing politics, but because their science is wrong. His book spends some time discussing the politics behind books like The Bell Curve, which argues that blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than whites and therefore that spending money on their education is a waste. However, the bulk of this book attacks the reductionism which dominates much of biology, and outlines an alternative materialist philosophy.

John Baxter


Greek myths

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Louis de Bernières Minerva £6.99

Among the books that currently dominate middle class reading, Louis de Bernières's novel about occupied Greece stands out. Captain Corelli's Mandolin regularly appears in the bestseller lists.

Like many bad but successful novels, Captain Corelli's Mandolin gets whatever power it has from the historical incident on which it is based. It is set in Cephallonia, a large Greek island in the Ionian Sea not far from Corfu and next door to Ithaca, from where my own family comes.

Most of Greece, including Cephallonia, was initially under Italian control after the German conquest of April 1941. In July 1943, after the Allies had landed in Sicily, Mussolini was overthrown, and Italy withdrew from the war. The Germans moved quickly to disarm the Italian forces in Greece. In some cases, the Italians resisted. The garrison on Cephallonia held off the 1st Mountain Division for nearly a week before surrendering on 24 September. The Germans retaliated by shooting nearly 5,000 of them.

This was one of the many ghastly episodes that made the Nazi occupation of Greece particularly terrible. Out of it Bernières weaves his tale, which centres on the romance between an Italian officer, Antonio Corelli, and Pelagia, the daughter of the old doctor with whom he is billeted. The gentle, musical Corelli plays a mandolin, which is also a metaphor for Pelagia, and indeed for all women, whose shape it shares.

This is bad enough, but there is much worse to follow. Bernières, particularly in his depiction of Pelagia's first suitor, Mandras, repeats the ancient Cold War myth that the main resistance movement, the Communist led ELAS, avoided taking on the Nazis, and concentrated rather on persecuting the people for whom it was supposed to be fighting.

This is, not to mince words, a lie. Unfortunately for Bernières, Inside Hitler's Greece, a superb study of the occupation by the historian Mark Mazower, appeared at much the same time as Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Mazower shows how the savagery of Axis rule produced a veritable social revolution.

ELAS was the political and military expression of this revolution. It succeeded in liberating large portions of the countryside from the occupiers, where it developed its own system of popular justice and encouraged many young women and men to break free of patriarchal structures. Britain, which was assigned '90 percent influence' over Greece in a deal between Churchill and Stalin, regarded ELAS as a threat. It built up the rival forces of the royalist leader, Zervas, even though he was suspected of working with the Germans.

In December 1944, after the Germans had withdrawn from Greece, British troops were unleashed on ELAS, setting the scene for the civil war of 1946-49 between the Western backed monarchy and the Communist led guerrillas. To justify their part in this tragedy, which decisively shaped postwar Greek history, British intelligence officers have regularly retailed the lie now repeated by Bernières.

His aim seems to be to establish, in what has become one of the great clichés of our times, a stance of ironic detachment from all ideologies. So fascism is sent up too. Of course, bad politics can be redeemed by good writing ­ but not in this case.

Bernières seems to have been inspired by the great Latin American magic realist writers who are able to integrate great historical events with the idiosyncrasies of individual lives and family histories. The lengthy separation of the lovers is rather obviously modelled on García Márquez's Love in a Time of Cholera.

But what was in the Colombian novel a narrative necessity is here merely a clumsy device. Pelagia's and Corelli's nearly 40 year separation depends on the premise that someone could visit a Greek village, however briefly, without everyone knowing ­ an absurd idea to anyone familiar with the islands.

None of these weaknesses represents a barrier to the success of Bernières's novel. On the contrary ­ Captain Corelli's Mandolin offers the English middle classes a safe, undemanding version of magic realism set in the sort of place they spend their holidays, and combining a titillating encounter with the horrors of history and the comforting reassurance that, in the face of the century's threatening ideologies, liberalism is the best outlook on the world.

Alex Callinicos


Daughters of slavery

Harlem's Glory

Eds: Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph Harvard £11.95

Harlem's Glory is a collection of writings by black women from 1900 to 1950 that gives a powerful insight into the lives of black people, particularly women, in the US at that time. Short stories predominate, but there are essays, poetry and plays from 60 different women, covering themes from love, interracial relationships and loss to lynching, racism and the legacy of slavery.

Despite a somewhat abstract and offputting introduction, the editors have done a brilliant job at collecting and recovering the writings of not only better known figures such as Zora Neale Hurston and the anti-lynching activist Ida Wells, but also many less known writers and previously unpublished work.

Racism was the daily reality for all these women and aspects of the racism faced recur throughout the writings.

One of the most striking features is how, in an era before civil rights, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, notions of racial purity and a form of biological racism in which white people are terrified or ashamed to discover any strain of black blood could dominate. In a time before Black Power some lighter skinned black people chose to 'pass' as white. One of the most striking writings to deal with this is Regina Andrews's short play, The Man Who Passed, set in a barber's shop in Harlem in which a black man from Harlem who has 'passed' into the white world returns to have his hair straightened.

The influence of religion, spirituality and the black church is present throughout. Many writers, however, engage with this critically, such as in Margaret Walker's powerful poem 'We Have Been Believers', my favourite poem in the book. Margaret Walker is one of the many writers from Harlem who capture a growing mood of resistance.

It is no coincidence that many of the best writings of this period come from Harlem. From about 1920 to 1935 there was an explosion of black art and writing in Harlem known as the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston's wonderful Story in Harlem Slang has a useful glossary to explain among other terms that 'beating up your gums' in Harlem at the time meant talking with no purpose! The 1930s in Harlem, with the onset of the Great Depression, saw a growth in new ideas, new forms of protest, new religions, and the growth of the Communist Party among black people.

Ellen Tarry in her autobiographical Native Daughter captures a sense of why many of the writers from Harlem at this time were either in or identified with the Communist Party. She relates some of the violent racism from police and the Ku Klux Klan that she has witnessed. The spirit of resistance and what that means in people's lives makes Harlem's Glory compelling to read.

Esme Choonara


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