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17/11/2009

Magazine Roundup

openDemocracy | Polityka | London Review of Books | Words Without Borders | L'Espresso | The New York Review of Books | Magyar Narancs | The Nation | Le Monde | The New Yorker | Przekroj | The Guardian | Letras Libres | The New Statesman | Elet es Irodalom | Eurozine | Newsweek


OpenDemocracy 13.11.2009 (UK)

An exasperated Moscow poet, Tatiana Shcherbina, describes the obsession with Stalin in Putin's Russia. Russia is isolating itself, she writes: "There's no oxygen today, no sense of the future, just a disconnected nation which feels it has been deceived, humiliated, is helpless and futile. This is why it can only rummage around in the past - a past which was also deprived of oxygen… The humane way doesn't work, so let it be bloody and cruel, but we have to get out of our current psychological quagmire somehow. And then, of course, there's the conspiracy theory: we are encircled by enemies, no one loves us and we'll show 'em."


Polityka 14.11.2009 (Poland)

The surprise winner of the festival of Polish film in Gdingen, "Rewers" is now out in the cinemas, and critics are uniformly over the moon. The film - drama or black comedy? - plays in Stalinist Moscow, but there is no mention of politics in the film. This is what makes the film so explosive, writes Janusz Wroblewski. "'Rewers' astutely shows what Polish film has been incapable of showing for half a century. Not only does it give credit to normal people, who had nothing to do with the heroism of oppositional struggle; it also shows that the two experiences are inseparable." The surreal story is related using postmodern structures, yet it also makes it clear that the People's Republic cannot simply be deleted from memory, Wroblewski writes. "You have to learn to live with the virus, and films like this can show the way."

20 years after the fall of the iron curtain – is a good time for a survey of German unity. Adam Krzeminski is unpeturbed by the different mindsets of the East and West Germans. "Today's East Germany has little in common with the former GDR. Generation 89 is not concerned with rooting itself in its past. It sees its own "Eastiness" not in terms of GDR nostalgia, but as a particular awareness of its in-between status - after the disappearance of the GDR, yet still pending proper arrival in a unified Germany. (...) The dissatisfaction of the East Germans is a psychological anxiety, not a ticking bomb. The once-feared generational war has not happened – not today, not in five years and and not twenty-five years after reunification." Krzeminski also remembers that no one in Poland mourned the passing of the GDR or stood in the way of reunification."

Available in the print version only: The anthropologist Piotr Szarota has written a cultural history of Polish fashion. His conclusions are hardly uplifting, especially when it comes to the men: "The majority of them are unable to bring themselves to take care of their appearance, to think about clothes, or try them on of their own accord. Old complexes, prejudices, habits have formed a mental block in the majority of Polish men. By resisting fashion, they feel they are defending their masculinity." And twenty years of colourful capitalism have done little to chip away at this block, says Szarota.


London Review of Books 16.11.2009 (UK)

The publication of two new books of texts by Roland Barthes prompts Michael Wood to consider why this thinker is still so fascinating: "An impure subject, he finally calls himself, 'a patently impure fellow'. And then he says something that instantly reveals why it is such a pleasure to read him, and why all these reservations and ambiguities are such unmistakable virtues. For all these reasons, he says, he is not going to linger over the honour of being made a professor at the College de France and will concentrate on his joy at the occasion, 'for an honour can be undeserved, joy never is'. You have only to read a sentence like that to know you have found a friend. And you understand the notion of joy better than you did a moment ago."

Further articles: In an article headed "Post-Wall", Slavoj Zizek speculates on the new anti-communism, the authoritarian success-model China, and whether "socialism with a human face" should not be given a second chance. Tariq Ali wonders about the standoff situation in Afghanistan, and concludes with the desperate question "How could this end well?" Hal Foster visits an Ed Ruscha exhibition in London's Hayward Gallery. The reviews cover the history of the British MI5 and a study of the psychology that drives the economy, which strikes John Gray as plausible but less original that its authors believe.


Words Without Borders 03.11.2009 (USA)

The online literary magazine is all about the events and the aftermath of the fall of the wall, with writing from Kathrin Aehnlich, Stefan Heym, Yade Kara, Uwe Kolbe, Günter Kunert, Robert Menasse, Uwe Mengel, Thomas Pletzinger, Feridun Zaimoglu and Herta Müller. Here is an opening excerpt from Austrian author Robert Menasse's story "Eternal Youth": "My father was horrified when I told him that I was getting married and that the date and place were already set. He shook his head with his typical facial expression, a mixture of repugnance, incomprehension and resignation. As long as he made this face at me all the time, I knew that he still couldn't see me as an adult.
It wasn't the fact that I was getting married that so upset him. Nor did he have anything against the woman I wanted to marry. What bothered him was the wedding date. Of all days, it had to be that one. How can anyone get married on that day, he cried, shaking his head. What were you thinking? He tapped his forehead. You weren't thinking at all, as usual.
I objected that it was a day like any other—
A day like any other? That day?
I don't know what you mean. We want to get married, we want to get married as soon as possible, and November 9 is the next available date at the Ischl marriage bureau."


L'Espresso 13.11.2009 (Italy)

After the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of a mother who complained the crucifixes hanging in the classrooms of her two children were a restriction of religious freedom, Italy has been up in arms. Now Umberto Eco chips in to say that the cross is by no means a Christian symbol first and foremost. "Even if all religious symbols are banned in schools, it will do nothing to dampen religious feelings. In our universities, the problem is not the crucifix in the Aula, but the hordes of students who are jointing the "Communione e Liberazione". On the other hand, at least two generations of Italians have grown up in classrooms where the crucifix hung between King and the Duce, and of the thirty students per classroom, several went on to become atheists, other anti-fascists and others still, the majority I imagine, voted for the republic." Why not just have a cross without Jesus, Eco suggests. "The cross is an object of cultural anthropology that is rooted in society. People who immigrate here have to learn about the sensibilities of their guest country. I know that people in Muslim countries don't drink alcohol, and so I would not stand in front of a mosque swigging whiskey."

The New York Review of Books 03.12.2009 (USA)

In part two of his essay on 1989, Timothy Garton Ash looks at the velvet revolution and its spin-offs (orange in Ukraine, rose in Georgia, saffron in Burma, singing in the Baltic states, etc.). They not only revolutionised regimes but also revolution itself: "Painting with a deliberately broad brush, an ideal type of 1989-style revolution, VR, might be contrasted with an ideal type of 1789-style revolution, as further developed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Mao's Chinese revolution. The 1789 ideal type is violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. A revolution is not a dinner party, Mao Zedong famously observed... The 1989 ideal type, by contrast, is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—"people power"—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate. It culminates not in terror but in compromise. If the totem of 1789-type revolution is the guillotine, that of 1989 is the round table."


Magyar Narancs 12.11.2009 (Hungary)

Hungarian politicians, media personalities and other public figures are now speaking "very openly" about the Roma. The educational expert Gabor Sarközi takes up the rhetoric and declares that all Roma are mentally disturbed – himself included – because nobody could endure the discrimination and humiliation that the Roma face on a daily basis, without one's mind being affected in some way. "You need luck and incredible mental powers even just to exist is such a society. And there are very few reserves left to cushion people from mental breakdown when faced with the immense anguish and countless disappointments that every Roma experiences. Of course majority society has not escaped poverty and hopelessness, disappointment and anguish. But it has less reason to believe that the entire system has united against them in order to keep them in poverty."


The Nation 30.11.2009 (USA)

A collection of stories by the Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has provoked a flurry of interest in the US. Krzhizhanovsky, who started writing in the early days of communist Russia, described himself as "being known for being unknown", and indeed almost all of his work was published posthumously. Elaine Blair is reminded of Kafka, whom Krzhizhanovsky only discovered "with surprise" in 1939 . In one fascinating passage, Blair explains why surrealist and later postmodern narratives made so much sense in socialist countries. "Krzhizhanovsky realizes that the Soviet revolution not only overturned government, economic and social status, religious practice and traditional means of employment; it was an assault on one's very perception of reality. The rules of logic might be violated by the press, the most obvious lies passed off as truths. But the extent of this assault became clear, for Krzhizhanovsky and most Russians, only in retrospect, years after the revolution, as Stalin expanded the list of forbidden subjects while publishing ever more false denunciations and revisionist interpretations of the recent past."
Read one of Krzhizhanovsky's short stories,"Yellow Coal", at OpenDemocracy.


Le Monde 16.11.2009 (France)

The greatest threat to democracies, writes the Paris-based writer, Tzvetan Todorov, on the opinion page, comes from within. The main problem in France, he claims, are violations against the principle of division of power. In the media for example: "France has yet to reach the level of obscurantism that we know from Italy, where the prime minister controls several public television channels as well as a number of private channels.... But thanks to a recent change in regulations, it is the government and not an autonomous authority that appoints public media directors. The reason for this change is rather amusing: it is, they say, to avoid hypocrisy because the 'autonomous' authorities are following orders anyway! It's well known that hypocrisy is an homage rendered by vice to virtue, but there are two ways to deal with it: by drawing attention to the vice or trying to eliminate it. The nominations that followed this decision were certainly seen as being tied up with personal interests."

The New Yorker 23.11.2009 (USA)

Sadly many of the articles in this foodie issue are not available online. But there is one entertaining reportage by John Colapinto, who went undercover with an anonymous Michelin inspector. He accompanied the woman to Jean Georges on the ground floor of the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan which, with its chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is one of the highest rated in the world. The woman, who is in her early thirties eats multi-course meals in restaurants more than 200 hundred times a year, always emptying her plate, but thanks to a speedy metabolism, has avoided the obesity that often goes with the job. When presented with pureed duck liver on a piece of crisp toast with a lacy web of caramelized sugar on top, the sides studded with cherries, sprinkled with pistachios, and surrounded by a moat of transparent sauce made of white port gelee, she explains to him the criteria of her assessment: "It's not really about like and not like,' she said. 'It's an analysis. You're eating it and you're looking for the quality of the products. At this level, they have to be top quality. You're looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?' And then you're looking at the creativity. Did it work? Did the balance of ingredients work? Was there good texture? Did everything come together? Did something overpower something else? Did something not work with something else? The pistachios—everything was perfect.'"

Further articles: Adam Gopnik wonders about our insatiable appetite for cookery books. Peter Schjeldahl leads the way through "1969" exhibition in P.S.1. Paul Goldberger visits number 100 Eleventh Avenue, the new luxury block of flats by Jean Novel. Anthony Lane sat in the cinema for Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" and Roland Emmerich's latest end-of-the-world extravaganza "2012". There is also a short story "Indianapolis (Highway 74)" by Sam Shepard and poems by Liz Walder and James Longenbach.


Przekroj 10.11.2009 (Poland)

There is sadly no online access to the interview with the acting legend Andrzej Lapicki, who has just celebrated his 85th birthday and now looks back on his glory days: "We were not living in reality. The theatre was not reality and we almost never left the theatre. The only thing that interested us back then was good acting, even if you could only play Lenin or Dzerzhinsky - what was wrong with that? It was secondary, those were only roles. The theatre was highly regarded in those days, particularly between the uprising of 1956 and 'Solidarnosc'. It was the golden quarter of a century in Polish theatre; unbeatable quality and social necessity. Our audiences would run into the building."

Further articles: There is an unusual view of life in communist Poland from the director of the award-winning film "Rewers", Borys Lankosz, who has been compared to David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar by some critics. Among them Bartosz Zurawiecki, who describes Lankosz's debut film as "brilliant, intelligent, witty and made with feeling." Malgorzata Sadowska raves about a newly released DVD of the complete works of director Walerian Borowczyk, whose career spanned animation to soft-porn auteur films, which went against the grain of the usual Polish fare: "politics, petty moral dilemmas and escapist fairy tales – in these hard times it was considered inappropriate to make films about sex. Quite apart from the fact that the communist regime was extremely prudish. Only one director was prepared to break the taboo: Walerian Borowczyk" (he was in Paris at the time though!)

The Guardian 16.11.2009 (UK)

Martin Amis pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov as the ultimate poet of our dreams and madnesses. Only to slate his unfinished novella, "The Model for Laura", that has just been published against the author's will, as a "horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism": "This is modern literature's dirty little secret. Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies. Nabokov composed 'The Original of Laura', or what we have of it, against the clock of doom (a series of sickening falls, then hospital infections, then bronchial collapse). It is not "A novel in fragments", as the cover states; it is immediately recognisable as a longish short story struggling to become a novella. ...It is nice, I dare say, to see those world-famous index cards up close; but in truth there is little in 'Laura' that reverberates in the mind."

Letras Libres 15.11.2009 (Spain / Mexico)

The Argentinian writer Cesar Aira does not believe in forced reading. "I don't believe that literature is so important for society. On the contrary, I think that literature has always only been important for a minority, for a handful of people. And I think, when it comes to literature, that people should be free to read what they please. Lots of my fellow writers like to proclaim loudly that literature has to have an obligatory character, that young people should be made to read it. I don't like that. Everything in our society is starting to feel obligatory – we should let people decide for themselves whether they want to engage with literature or not. People should read if they want to. It will give them many joyous moments in their lives, but people who don't read can also be very happy. It has become very fashionable to encourage people to read, there are even foundations for it. I suspect that the people who are paid good money to work there, never read. We, the real readers, are moving away from propagating reading. Perhaps because we have learned that it is the freest activity that one can possibly engage in."

New Statesman 12.11.2009 (UK)

Nicky Gardner sends a sorry report from Berlin's hinterland, two decades after Helmut Kohl promised "blossoming landscapes". "Almost 20 years on, many communities in eastern Germany are still awaiting Kohl's nirvana. True, new names now populate the economic wilderness left by the state-owned companies of the German Democratic Republic. But the incomers - multinationals such as Oracle, eBay, DHL, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier and Daimler AG - are attracted by greenfield opportunities. They like concrete and glass offices rimmed by virgin forest. Or aluminium sheds in green meadows. In the move to Brandenburg's business corridor, many companies have pocketed fiscal incentives from a government that claims not to have the resources to attend to the dereliction of the region's towns." Gardner should visit Bitterfeld, the toxic GDR chemical park that was shut down in 1990, and has since been transformed into a blossoming solar valley. Read our feature by Monika Maron, a former East German author who has written a book on the subject.

Terry Eagleton looks into Walter Benjamin's curious notion that we can change the past.


Elet es Irodalom 06.11.2009 (Hungary)

The journalist Ivan Lipovecz criticises his colleagues' lack of skill and courage. The press, he says, is well on the way to becoming a "servant of power" again, just like under communism. "Over the course of this decade, (and the second half in particular) - parallel to the total divide in society and the media – the primacy of facts has been abolished and proclamatory journalism is returning. Factual truths are being replaced by verbal ones (as was typical under the party state), and this is mostly because the press is losing its controlling role and contenting itself with passing on (largely uncontrolled) information."

Eurozine 11.11.2009 (Austria)

The literary academic Margot Dijkgraaf gives a detailed panorama of contemporary Dutch literature. One thing that has attracted her attention is the return of religion as a theme, as in Jan Siebelink's bestseller "Knielen op een bed violen" (Kneeling on a bed of violets). Despite the unworldly atmophere of the novel, she senses contact with a contemporary nerve. "The religious mania that grips Siebelink's protagonist could also be said to touch on a completely different contemporary issue, which now manifests itself in the form of jihad. In the same way, the orthodox-protestants who get the protagonist in their grip seek to win new souls for their faith and to utterly destabilize the lives of the people they target."

Further articles: Tiit Hennoste discusses the development of the media in Estonia since the collapse of communism.


Newsweek 14.11.2009 (USA)

America's halo of technological achievement is fading. Fareed Zakaria charts the rise of the rest of the world and dispels the myth the American culture is somehow conducive to innovation. "While there is no good way to measure this yet, it would seem obvious that as opportunities increase in China, India, and other developing countries, fewer scientists will want to or need to uproot themselves from their country and culture in order to make a better living. In the early 1980s about 75 percent of all the graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology ended up in the United States. In recent years fewer than 10 percent have been America-bound. American culture is open and innovative. But it was powerfully shaped and enhanced by a series of government policies. Silicon Valley did not arise in a vacuum. It grew in the 1950s in a state that had created the world's best public-education system, a superb infrastructure, and a business-friendly environment that attracted defense and engineering industries. Today California builds prisons, but not college campuses."
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