Category — History
We Are Still Here:
How American Indian Literature
Re–visions the American Indian Experience
in American History
by John Smelcer
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On my office door is a poster of Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. The caption below his image reads, “We Are Still Here.” While American Indian literature of the past several decades has been about many things, it singularly hails with triumphant resolve that we are still here. Across Native America – and there are hundreds of federally recognized tribes – we struggle to maintain our own unique cultures. But it’s not easy. The clash of two cultures over hundreds of years has taken its toll. The old and the new are frequently inseparable, the lines blurred.
Early novels of the Native American Renaissance (I use the term simply to signal the wider availability of Native writing in mainstream literature), such as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969), James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974) and his haunting The Death of James Loney (1979), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), were about returning home, not merely to a geographic place, though that is paramount, but also to a cultural center of gravity – an Indian center where the American model of the rugged individual standing alone is supplanted by the indigenous sense of the self as part of a community. Everything we see or hear in media tells us that we must want something else and to be something else and somewhere else. We are pulled between two worlds, yet we are sometimes unable to fully embrace either. The literature was and is often about not belonging and the immense pressure of marginalization. Where do I belong? Where is my home? How do I fit in? Characters struggle with trying to become whole (and sometimes they fail). Among all the loss suffered by Native America – loss of customs, ritual, myth, religion, and especially of language – perhaps the most important loss has been the loss of self, as Leslie Marmon Silko writes in Ceremony:
But the world had become tangled with Europeans names: the names of rivers, the hills, the names of animals and plants – all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name. Christianity separated the people from themselves; it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ would save only the individual soul. (68)
In the decades since those first mainstream writers, many Indian (for that is what we call ourselves) writers go so far as to re–imagine history. Abraham Lincoln once wrote that “history is not history unless it is the truth.” In attempting to tell the Indian side of American history, many Indian writers try to re–vision the history of America, not revisionism but a re–visioning – a re–seeing – of history, a history of America that includes Indians and the Indian perspective.
And history is due for an overhaul.
I recently picked up a new children’s picture book about the westward expansion of pioneers as they rolled across the plains states hauling everything they owned in their wagons. Although the book illustrated their hardships (e.g. repairing busted wood–rimmed wheels, being stuck in blizzards, fending off starvation in sometimes gruesome ways, and so forth), it never once mentioned the American Indians they encountered (and eventually displaced) along the way. One gets the discomforting sense that America is trying to rewrite the painful parts of history for new generations by writing the American Indian experience out of the picture.
Consider, too, these iconic images of nationalism. The trope of Custer valiantly fending off thousands of Indians, his long golden hair blowing in the wind, demands a clearer image. In cowardice, Custer wore his hair short during cavalry patrols of the Black Hills for fear of being scalped should he fall in battle. He also wore buckskins, concealing his rank insignia, so as to avoid being targeted as an officer. So, too, the trope of George Washington as a boy always telling the truth on his way to paragoned manhood might be replaced with a new, more “historical” image. Washington rose rapidly through the ranks to general almost entirely on his success during the Indian Wars. He helped open and tame the northeastern frontiers of the New World for Europeans by killing the indigenous people who already lived there – men, women, elderly, and children alike. Does such a history blacken America’s patriotic eye? Most likely, but not irreparably. But if we are to realize fully and completely the history of America, the real history as Lincoln suggested, we must acknowledge the whole picture, the true picture, not just the tidy parts we choose to honor in our filtered history books.
Contemporary American Indian literature attempts to dispel stereotypes and romantic notions that forever “fix” Indians in the past – adorned in buckskins and feathers and red bandanas – as something that was, replacing them with the reality of American Indians living in America in the 21st century, both on and off the reservation. The project of many contemporary Indian writers is to portray honestly and bluntly the context of those issues, triumphs, and crises that define who we are. Oftentimes, the literature is sardonic, searing, and witty as is the best satirical writing of Jonathan Swift. The following poems are from my full–length poetry manuscript Indian Giver, which includes an introduction by my late friend and mentor James Welch.
THE INCOMPLETE & UNAUTHORIZED
DEFINITION OF AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE
“Indian” is not a derogatory word.
It’s what we call ourselves. We claim it.
Not all Indians wear long black hair
or faded red bandanas.
I’ve never seen a Red Man.
Percentage of people who say they are part Cherokee: 50%
Percentage who claim to have an anonymous
great–grandmother who was a Cherokee princess: 100%
Percentage of actual Cherokee princesses in history: 0%
Percentage of the Cherokee Nation compared to the
number of all other recognized tribes in America 0.2%
Percentage of Americans who are enrolled Indians
according to the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs: 0.67%
Fiction by Indians outsells poetry by Indians,
yet poetry is the language of sorrow and heartbreak.
All Indians speak poetry.
No Indian has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
This is the mathematical formula for deciphering
meaning in Native American poetry:
Where a represents anger and s represents sorrow,
let P represent poetry and t represent the duration
(time) of marginalization.
Thus, P = t(a + s)2
Indian writers shouldn’t drive sports cars.
I traded my yellow Porsche for a pick–up truck
with a quarter million miles
and a rifle rack in the rear window.
Not all Indians come from Horse Cultures.
Not all Indians ride horses.
I’ve only been on a horse once and it threw me.
Writing by Indians should contain dogs.
Many Indian writers have had at least
one of their dogs run over by a pick–up truck
with a rifle hanging in the rear window.
History is written by the victors.
Indians didn’t always lose the battles.
Don’t believe everything you’ve ever read
or watched on television.
John Wayne’s real name was Marion, but directors figured
Marion the Cowboy couldn’t defeat Indians.
Columbus didn’t really discover America
the way you think he did.
The Navajo Nation is as big as Nebraska.
Bingo is Indian Social Security.
Federal enrollment is how the government
counts Indians to predict when we will be extinct.
Not all Indians are enrolled. I am enrolled.
Enrollment doesn’t mean anything.
There are 500 tribes in America. No individual speaks
for all of them, barely even for a single clan or tribe.
Some bigshot Indian writers think they speak for everyone.
Does an illiterate white shoe salesman in Idaho speak for you?
American universities teach American Indian literature
but hire almost no Indian writers at all.
White professors who have never seen a reservation
teach American Indian literature
even when there’s an Indian writer on faculty
because it’s trendy.
Some Indians go to tribal colleges
Where they are taught by white teachers
who want to be Indian. New Age white women
have sex with Indian men so they can become Indian.
You can’t become Indian by proximity.
America loves the Indian–sounding names of places,
but they don’t want Indians to live there.
It gives them a sense of connection to a land
upon which they have little history of their own.
Sometimes a sweat lodge is just a sweat lodge.
Some American sports teams are named for Indians.
There should be an Indian baseball team called
the Cherokee Crucified Christs complete with
a bleeding team mascot nailed to a wooden cross.
Would that hurt your sensibilities?
All Indians aren’t proud and defiant.
When I do something right, my Indian uncle
tells me I’ve earned an eagle feather.
Only Indians can own eagle feathers.
Nearly all published Indian writing is in English.
Almost no Indian writer speaks their Indian language.
Fewer yet can write in it.
Sii cetsiin koht’aene kenaege’, tsin’aen.
Indian children love to dance Indian–style
but they don’t understand a word the elders sing.
Indian boys love to beat Indian drums
while Indian girls sway in moving circles.
The hearts of Indian boys are tight–stretched drums.
The hearts of Indian girls are beautiful sad songs.
The government decimated bison
so that Indians would become vegetarians.
The government killed wild horses
so that Indian spirits would break.
The government sent Indian children to boarding schools
so they would forget being Indian. Missionaries built
The Church of Infinite Confusion so Indians would
forget being Indian.
I forget what I was trying to say.
British writers don’t have to write about Shakespeare.
French writers don’t have to write about Baudelaire.
Blacks don’t always have to write about slavery.
Indian writers don’t have to write about being Indian
or about dogs killed by trucks with gun racks
on reservations while fancy dancing,
wearing eagle feathers, and beating drums
while mouthing words to songs they do not know.
Audiences at readings by Indians are almost always white.
Many urban Indians write about life on the reservation
even when they’ve never lived on one because it sells better
than writing about going to Starbucks after shopping at the Gap.
Few Indians have Indian–sounding names. Non–Indians pretending
to be Indians adopt name like “Runs–Beside–Spotted–Ponies,”
‘Walks–With–Wolves,” or “Elk Cloud.”
A publisher once asked me to change my name
to a hyphenated one with a preposition and a spirit animal.
I asked, “How about ‘Johnny Fakes–His–Name–on–a–Weasel’?”
All Indian writers aren’t spiritually attuned to Nature.
Most are fearful of getting lost in the woods.
Some Indians write out of anger and despair.
All Indian writers are not angry and depressed.
Native America is drowning in a sea of alcohol.
Indians commit suicide ten times more often than whites.
Day after day, our hearts are turned into cemeteries.
The impoverished state of our lives is not self–inflicted.
Most Indian writers are mixed–blood
who hate the term “Half–Breed.”
I am the son of a half–breed father.
I am an outcast. Even my shadow
tries to hide its face in shame.
In 1492, two Indians stumble upon a billboard
in the middle of a clearing with the words:
Coming soon. America!
“What does it say?” asks the first Indian.
“I don’t know,” says the second, scratching his head.
“But I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
THE ALTERNATE HISTORY OF
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Lester Has–Some–Books builds a time machine
in his uncle’s garage and sets it to the day
Columbus discovers America.
Quickly, with the masts of three ships
lurching on the horizon, he sets up a big sign
on the beach:
WELCOME TO SPAIN!
Columbus spies the sign from the bay,
scratches his head, and orders all three ships
to turn around and head back out to sea.
DUKE SKYTHUNDER TRIES
A JEDI MIND TRICK ON
This is not the land you were looking for.
HOW TO MAKE BLUE RIBBON
INDIAN FRY BREAD
“Indians could spend their whole lives
looking for the perfect piece of fry bread.”
– Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues
In a large bowl, mix the following ingredients:
Three cups of flour made from the ashes of failed Indian dreams
One cup of water made from the tears of Indian mothers
A pinch of salt, first thrown into open wounds of Indian fathers
Drop the rolled and molded dough into a pan of oil
hot enough to incinerate every Indian future
Remove fry bread when both sides turn brown and blistered
Thomas Two Fists
whittled a guitar from a tree
that had fallen during a storm
and killed a shaman. He carved
the tuning pegs from the bones
of a white buffalo.
he used the long gray hair of
old Indian mothers who had lost
their children and grandchildren
to alcohol and drunk driving.
Two Fists travelled from
reservation to reservation
and powwow to powwow
singing the blues.
Wherever he went,
Indians wrapped themselves in old blankets,
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept
dreamed of forgotten homes and wept.
INDIAN TIME MACHINE
invents a time machine in his sweat lodge.
So, he sets it back to Little Bighorn
with a video camera and tapes everything.
Then he invites the whole damn reservation
to watch the movie. Everyone’s eating popcorn and laughing.
It’s really something. You should see it.
Everything’s in color and there are these close–ups.
Here’s the part where Custer sends in the cavalry
catching the Indians off guard.
Oh, and here’s where three thousand Indians
chase them up a hill and whups their ass.
Duke Sky Thunder sits on his Indian motorcycle at a stoplight in Albuquerque
wearing a red bandana and a T–shirt
that screams Indian Pride,
Crazy Horse painted on the gas tank
and a license plate that reads INJIN.
A pickup truck with two Rednecks pulls alongside.
The closer dude leans out the window and hollers,
“I hate you sonabitches!”
The second dude with really bad teeth yells,
“Why don’t you go back wherever you came from?”
When the light turns green, Sky Thunder grins and shouts,
“Right back at ya!” and peels away –
his long black hair whipping in the wind like a stallion’s mane,
the smoke signal from his tailpipe rising like a finger.
About the author:
John Smelcer is a tribally and federally enrolled member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska and a member of Tazlina Village Traditional Council. In the mid–to–late 1990s, he was the executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, where he produced a dictionary of his language for which Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker provided forewords. He is the author of 45 books, most in Native American Studies. With Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), John co–edited Native American Classics (2013), a graphic anthology of 19th and early 20th century American Indian literature. He is a contributing editor to Ragazine.CC. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Indian Life & Literature/John Smelcer
At 3 Rue des Saints Pères on the Left Bank, Maman became a renowned art dealer during and after the war. She was heartbroken when she had to sell the gallery in 1946 when we moved to Larchmont, New York.
* * *
* * * * *
PARIS ART GALLERY
At the end of summer 1941, having left us in Brittany under the kind auspices of the Mother Superior and her flock of devoted nuns, my parents continued to live in occupied Paris in du Plessix’s grandiose apartment on the third floor of 6 Rue de Longchamps, facing the quiet sloping street in the front and the busy courtyard in the back.
Maids and cooks would dump their garbage in dark gray bins and take time out to chat, their voices echoing around the walls past the sixth floor up to the clouds. Rubbing their chafed hands on rough cotton aprons, they complained about everything, compared notes about their employers, commiserated about their own families far away in the country, and then went back to their jobs.
Free of children or housekeeping responsibilities since Arthur and Léontine took care of everything, my parents enjoyed a lot less pressure and even some measure of quality of life. While still complicated, provisioning requirements were minimal for just the four of them and so much easier in this quartier. Whatever came on the table satisfied them easily.
Often they rode their bikes over to see Bon Papa at Rue de la Trémoille, where Hortense surpassed herself in turning bland ingredients into delicious concoctions. Balancing leftovers on handlebars, my parents returned home quickly by the small streets before curfew.
Nonetheless, Maman was miserable knowing that to avoid a repeat performance of the terrible winter of 1940, her children had to stay put. Only thirty-seven years old, Maman began to think she should acquire some kind of occupation. Paris was at half-mast yet safe in so many ways that there must be some work she would find fulfilling. She had learned much running the show in Mimizan, surely there was someone, something, where she could apply her savoir faire to some benefit. With many empty days and nights she grew restless, especially as Papa was away on business much of the time. When he was there, she was as impassioned as she had been in the first days of their marriage; the strength of their love was so profound it couldn’t be plumbed or punctured.
On weekends when Paris was somnolent and Papa wasn’t working, they whipped around on bicycles in the deserted city that was practically free of motorized traffic. They loved ferreting through semidark antique shops and art galleries on the Left Bank. Wobbling on their bikes around the small cobbled streets of the old quartiers one Saturday, they stumbled on a sign A Vendre (For Sale) posted discreetly in the bottom corner of the window of a small gallery. They stopped and, hands cupped on the window to shield the glare, they saw misshapen piles of artworks strewn around a somewhat dilapidated shop. Stepping back, looking up through years of dirt, they saw a dark green sign with gold lettering: Galerie André, 3 Rue des Saints Pères. They looked at each other, entered the gloomy space, and unknowingly changed the course of their lives.
The weary proprietor showed signs of frustration as he described his situation. His story was no different than many others’. His mistress had been in charge, but she had died a few months back. He was leery of hiring anyone new. He still went to a boring day job as a bank clerk on weekdays, so could open only on Saturdays.
Maman started to daydream.
This man confided to my parents that he would gladly sell the gallery and retire if he could only find a buyer. He talked about the stock he had accumulated for the past thirty years. More than three thousand drawings, etchings, prints, and lithographs were asleep in cardboard portfolios, with prices that seemed ridiculously low. There were piles of these resting against the walls, on tables, on the desk, in the back room, haphazardly placed in such a way as to make it impossible to even sell one if he wanted to. In other words, the place was a shambles and needed an entire makeover.
Maman’s excitement grew as they began to look through some of the pictures. There was artwork of every kind, from the worst to the best.
“Who would be interested in this kind of business at a time like this?” he complained.
His question hit her like a lightning bolt. It was her eureka moment, and from that day on she could talk about nothing else. She was convinced that this forlorn art gallery was the perfect remedy to pull her out of her loneliness, and she made it clear to Papa that she would use her own money to acquire it.
The following Saturday morning, on their bikes from Rue de Longchamps to Rue des Saints Pères, through the Trocadéro, along the right bank of the Seine, flying over the Pont des Arts, my parents covered the two miles in record time, fueled by resolution. Breathless and flushed, they sat down with the owner to get more details and to inquire about his terms.
The owner was taken by surprise. He never expected to see that eager young couple again. He never even asked why my parents were interested, or what background in art had led them to want his gallery. Making a fast deal was foremost on his mind. He presented an irresistible bargain with very reasonable terms. He was anxious to retire. He needed only a little capital to help cushion his bachelor life-style, unencumbered by family or children. He wanted 100,000 francs for the business, including the lease transfer, and 50,000 for his stock.
Ever the wary executive, Papa had reservations about the value of the stock, which looked like a mess, even though the asking price was ridiculously low. He rummaged through some of it again and agreed to buy the whole lot at 40 percent off the list price. To his surprise, this turned out to be quite a bit more than the original asking price but, without haggling, he paid the required sum.
Maman was ecstatic. Right in the middle of the war she became the proud owner of an art gallery a few steps from the Seine, on the Left Bank of Paris, which cost her all of 400,000 francs ($4,000 at the time), an inconceivable deal.
Maman couldn’t believe her luck. Her mind veered quickly from somber news of the war and worries about the children, which were always tormenting her, and turned her focus to her gallery. She quickly hired a couple of day workers from the neighborhood and, with an innate sense of creativity, gave the place a modern, clean, and stylish look. Having never signed a check in her life, and with not the slightest notion of accounting, she went headlong into the ownership of a business and, somehow, succeeded brilliantly.
Her first working tool was an eraser. She carefully removed prices marked on works of art and increased them appreciably. Without revealing her new calling, she found out what their current values might be by visiting other galleries. She said that often she didn’t even erase a number but would just add a zero at the end, or even two. She had a genius for switching from etchings and lithographs to paintings and aquarelles, discovering young painters and changing her exhibitions often so she could expect a bigger turnover.
At 10 Avenue de Messine, in the prestigious eighth arrondissement, was a renowned dealer, Louis Carré, who had founded a first-class gallery in 1938. Known for representing and exhibiting modern masters — Gris, Klee, Matisse, Calder, Léger, Delaunay, Kupka, and Picasso — Carré also showed the works of Jean Bazaine, Maurice Estève, Charles Lapicque, and Jacques Villon, lesser known artists at the time. He was considered one of the great Parisian art dealers. Papa knew him well from handling difficult requests for deliveries of special papers.
Just a few months earlier, Carré wanted to print a limited edition of lithographs by Raoul Dufy on rare and hard-to-get art paper that Papa had been able to procure. As a way of thanking him, Carré offered to put Maman in touch with promising painters who did not yet deserve their consecration with an exhibit in his own gallery. She launched a few, while making her own discoveries: Dubuffet, who was to become very famous, Jean Dufy, the brother of Raoul, whose following was growing steadily, and several others. These artists became the beacon that brought fame to the Galerie André before long.
In those days, some Parisians had quite a bit of disposable money but had trouble finding safe ways to spend it. In a time of war, spending on luxuries was highly distasteful and suspect. Artworks and jewelry were considered safe private investments. If you had the means to find food first, often on the black market that was thriving behind the back of the Germans, then you could luxuriate in an oil painting or a diamond bracelet and keep them hidden easily. Maman was an expert at keeping secrets and, being a dealer, had every right to strap a painting to her bicycle to drop it off “somewhere,” no questions asked. Her books showed sales to names like Smith, Brown, and Jones.
In the back of the gallery, beyond the ground floor space open to the public, was a little office leading to a toilet and, beyond, a closed door. A tiny stairwell behind this door led six steps up to a small loft and bath, with only one window on the courtyard, therefore very dark. Maman fixed it up very simply with a desk, a chair, an armchair, a swing-arm lamp for both, a single bed, and, to break up the monotony, a colorful Moroccan rug. Except for the rug, it was just like a monastery room. Her intention was to be able to sleep there should she work too late to ride her bike home after curfew and to save time commuting back and forth when Papa was away.
But this room wasn’t to be her cocoon of safety. One day soon after she opened her doors, a tall, stooped, skinny man walked in with some paintings under his arm. He was dejected, tattered, and looked gaunt and desperate.
“Madame,” he said, “help me. Please…”
Moving him away from the front door toward the back of the gallery, she let him line up his paintings against the wall, while he said, “I will give you these…” His voice quavered and his eyes were alarmed and weary like a frightened animal. Maman was at once repelled and touched by his condition while very attracted to his art.
“And your name is?”
“Non, I don’t have a name anymore. I have no family.” He trailed off.
“Are you hungry?” Maman asked maternally. The haggard young man paused for a moment, then quickly nodded, his head down, looking at the floor.
“Please, sit down,” Maman said softly, pointing to the back office. The young man hesitated, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and suspicion.
He finally lifted his head up and looked at Maman.
“It’s OK. You’re safe here. You can trust me,” she said. The young artist finally followed her back to the office. He winced when Maman turned on the light. She turned it off with a sigh.
“Perhaps it’s best to keep the light off. Eyes are everywhere these days,” Maman said and nodded to the desk chair. He slowly sat down, heaving a sigh of relief as if he’d been standing for years.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, walking to the front of the gallery, drawing the nightshades, and locking the doors. She hesitated, it was still early, someone might question her closing at this time, but then she firmly flipped the sign to read FERMÉ on the street side and glided back to her unexpected guest. She quickly sliced some bread and a small wedge of cheese, adding half a tomato. She walked the small plate back to him.
“It’s not much, but…” she began to say when the young man quickly grabbed it and began to devour the food ravenously, licking it from his soot-crusted fingers.
“Merci, ah, merci Madame,” he repeated, muffled by mouthfuls of bread and cheese. The sight of him so helpless strengthened Maman’s resolve to help him.
She learned he was a Polish Jew on the run from the army and from the Gestapo, a target for raids by German soldiers and French police. She asked again but he wouldn’t give her his name, said it was too dangerous, had lost track of his family. She feared the repercussions that could befall our family if she helped him; she could be shot on the spot if discovered. She knew she should just give him some money for the paintings and let him out in the street. She had relatives who were prisoners of war at that very moment and thought of them. He looked so forlorn and lonely, her mind whirling with apprehensions, but eventually her decision was made though it went against the tide of safety.
All his answers to her questions were no. No food, no room, no money, no relatives, no one. He was truly a fugitive with nothing. She gave him some money for the paintings, which she deemed were quite good, and in an act of folly and faith, she also offered him the studio as a hidden shelter. He moved in with not much more than what he was wearing on his back and slept for hours that first day. She told me much later how his presence elated and scared her to the same degree, like having an illicit affair. But once embarked on saving him, she could never change her mind.
Little by little, her life took on an unusual rhythm of exhilaration and anxiety. Strict rules were set for his safety. She showed him an emergency exit through the courtyard and instructed him, “You must never go out in the street. If you smoke, blow it out the window but keep the shade down so people around the courtyard can’t see you from their windows. Don’t smoke when there are servants in the courtyard, they would notice right away and set off an alarm thinking it might be a fire. If you need something, you must write a note and slip it out under the door. You must never come out unless I knock on the door.” They established a knock-knock code. He spoke good French and that was helpful. He readily agreed to all her conditions; with her he felt safe for the first time in months.
Maman’s exhilaration at saving a life was tremendous, but her anxiety intensified. She was hiding a Jew from both the Germans and her husband, who she knew would harshly reprove her. She snitched some cigarettes from Papa as they were found only on the black market and sold only to men. She brought food to the artist that he would consume cold and return the plate immaculate, as if he had licked off every last crumb. She scoured the occasional church jumble sale for a sweater, a shirt, underwear, a pair of pants, to make him more comfortable.
Thus she fell into an unusual pattern of running the gallery up front, dealing with her artists, new friends, visitors, making sales, going to openings, becoming a successful Parisian art dealer, and, on the darker side, making sure her fugitive was alive, comfortable, entertained with newspapers and magazines, while patiently waiting for deliverance.
This fragile relationship held steady for almost a year, from the fall of 1941 to July 1942, without any mishaps. This was a miracle considering his close quarters, her multitude of activities, and raids for Jews in every corner of the city. No one ever denounced him because no one ever knew of his existence.
While Papa worked hard at the office, he was relieved that Maman thrived at Galerie André, until the day he found her filching cigarettes and she confessed about the perilous arrangement with the painter. He was infuriated about her dangerous position. How she ever got the nerve to hide a Polish Jewish painter escaping from the claws of the Nazis he’d never know. The thought of how she wavered for months before telling him enraged him. Years later, Papa admitted that part of him always knew that Maman had more courage and heart than he would ever know. But then, faced with a fait accompli, he had to accept the poor man’s presence while his concerns about the situation kept him from ever broaching the subject.
Papa simply refused to talk about him, fearing the echo of his voice might carry to the nearest Nazi, who would arrest them. It was impossible to think of the consequences that would have befallen Maman, the family, their children, should she have been caught by a patrol canvassing the streets. Papa would describe the situation later with disdain draped in so much love and pride for Maman’s bravery. He said she had a beauty of spirit and a certain presence of character that he could not transcend while it always seemed to protect her.
Without warning, this precarious balance was shattered one day in July, when the artist was attracted by an advertisement in one of the old newspapers scattered on his floor. Men’s shoes were on sale at a very advantageous price only a few blocks away. The money from selling his paintings was burning in his pocket and cramps were hurting his feet. These shoes had to be his. Exactly in the way I had been drawn to that mushroom bollard, he couldn’t help himself. He stared and stared at those shoes in print and eventually succumbed to their appeal.
Maman had not arrived yet that morning. He broke the rules. He left through the emergency exit and, quickly crossing the courtyard, turned south down the street toward Boulevard St. Germain. His collar turned up, his hat down on his face, he tried to make himself invisible. But transparency is intangible; just like magic, it disappears.
His tall, lanky body was visible to anyone nearby. His luck turned when a French police patrol, always on the lookout for fugitives, stopped him.
“Are your papers in order?” they asked.
He could not show any papers and was arrested. He had gone out just when raids were more intense than usual that July as there was a quota to fill for arresting Jews. Nazis strictly supervised the French police in various districts of Paris, during which more than four thousand stateless and foreign Jews were arrested that month. Even more devastating was the fact that he was reading an old newspaper. Had he had a more current issue, he would have known about the intensified raids and certainly would have stayed in his hideout.
Somehow Maman got word he was being held in the internment camp of Drancy, in a northeastern suburb of Paris. Built by the government in the late 1930s, this camp of dreadful high-rise residential apartment buildings was poetically called “The Silent City.” The Germans had requisitioned it in 1940, thrown out all the residents, mostly poor blue-collar workers, and set it up as a detention center to hold “undesirables” until their deportation. Without Papa’s knowledge, again, Maman took the grave risk of going on her bicycle to bring the artist some care packages— not just once, but twice. Soon he was deported to Auschwitz and was never heard from again.
Maman was lucky and blessed to avoid any kind of retribution from the police. The artist never denounced her and, bit by bit, with gloom in her heart, she erased all traces of his existence, keeping only one of his paintings for herself. On the order of Papa, unimaginably upset at her for placing the safety of a stranger over the family, she followed the trend of all Paris and closed down the gallery to come to Saint-Servan for the month of August.
By September the whole thing had blown over. Keeping his memory in her heart, Maman carried on as if this interlude had never happened. The Galerie André was for her an excellent occupation, a full-time job, a fascinating learning curve, and the center of her life while we children were under safe care elsewhere. With a very low overhead, she brought in an excellent increase in revenue for the household. A year later, at the end of 1943, she was proud to prove to Papa, statements in hand, that her profits had that year surpassed his income.
They sold the gallery after the war for 3.5 million francs to a Madame Ducret, who knew nothing about art and shortly had to let it go to an expert, who soon restored its reputation under the name of Galerie Framont. That storefront has retained its clean-cut prewar appearance that, with an occasional coat of paint, looks exactly as it did when Maman owned it.
About the author:
Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard is a self-taught photographer and artist born in France and raised in Larchmont and New York City. Her passion for photography developed early when she used her babysitting money to purchase her first camera at the age of 14. After successful careers in advertising and public relations, she was able to go freelance and turned to professional photography in her mid-thirties. In a field where she quickly excelled, it didn’t take her long to leap over boundaries in her ability to explore beyond the limits of cameras and films.
Her photographic archives have been acquired by the HILLWOOD ART MUSEUM on the C. W. POST CAMPUS of LONG ISLAND UNIVERSITY which exhibited a retrospective of her work September to December 2008. She is also painting in watercolors and acrylics, creates conceptual art pieces and writes books on various subjects. She lives in New York City and Naples, Florida.
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August 29, 2014 Comments Off on I Was A War Child/Helene Gaillet
and A Moveable Feast
by Raúl Villarreal
In 1950 Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Hemingway started to write what would eventually become the book with that title in the autumn of 1957 and finished the manuscript, as the preface indicates in 1960, at his estate, the Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, Havana, Cuba. The book was published posthumously in 1964 and to this day it is one of Hemingway’s most beloved works by scholars and aficionados alike. A memoir of Paris in the 1920s, where Hemingway writes about other expatriates and luminaries, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, his first wife Hadley, his infant son Jack (Bumby) and Pauline Pfeiffer, Hadley’s friend, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Hemingway. It was during this time in Paris and visits to the Louvre when Hemingway “was learning something from a painting by Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them” (A Moveable Feast, 13). Hemingway’s brilliant prose evokes the mood, the unquenchable and wild enthusiasm of a group of artists, of whom Gertrude Stein referred to as Une Generation Perdue (The Lost Generation).
Ernest Hemingway lived in many different places, but it was in Havana, Cuba, where he lived the longest. He first rented La Finca Vigía with Martha Gellhorn in 1939, purchased it in 1940, and lived there until 1960, when he left the island for the United States en route to Spain, never to return to his Cuban paradise. In the late summer of 1961, Mary Hemingway, the author’s fourth wife and recent widow donated the Finca Vigía to the Cuban people. The house and most of its contents tell a story of a certain writer whose experiences as a young man were to define him and his work for generations to come.
During his two decades in Havana Cuba, Hemingway’s beloved Paris was present at the Finca. On a wall of his workroom, between two large windows hung El guitarrista (The Guitar Player), a large painting by Juan Grís. It was one of Hemingway’s favorite paintings, which evoked much nostalgia from those Paris years. Hemingway would often contemplate the painting between writing and at times laugh and talk to himself. There were other works of art, which reminded Hemingway of Paris, such as The Farm by Joan Miró and The Jungle by André Masson. Besides the art there were also books by his favorite French authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and others. There were also visitors from all over the world who came to spend time with the man they fondly called Papa. Charles Ritz, the owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, visited Hemingway at the Finca Vigía in 1954 and two years later in Paris, Charles Ritz mentioned to Hemingway that there was a trunk with some of his papers stored in the hotel, which Hemingway brought back to Cuba in 1957. Those “Paris Stories” eventually became A Moveable Feast.
There was the time when Hemingway was away from Cuba for almost one year. It was 1953-54, Hemingway and his wife Mary went to an African Safari. Hemingway had been contracted to write an article with expenses paid by Look Magazine. During that time a very close friend of Hemingway, Evelio Mustelier, also known in the boxing world as Kid Tunero (aptly nicknamed because he was from Las Tunas), stayed at the Finca as Hemingway’s special guest. Mustelier had had a brilliant boxing career in Cuba and in Europe, however the ultimate pinnacle in the pugilistic profession, a world championship, had eluded him. Kid Tunero, a strong and fast middleweight, had defeated three former world champions but never for a belt. Hemingway saw his friend’s last fight against a much younger, stronger and heavier class opponent in Havana and was saddened by the experience. Hemingway later wrote an article for the Associated Press comparing Evelio Mustelier’s courage to that of Cuba’s Titan de Bronze (The Bronze Titan) El General Antonio Maceo, one of the foremost heroes of the Guerra de Independencia of Cuba against Spain.
Evelio Mustelier had most of his boxing career in Europe, eventually marrying in France and raising a family. However, in the mid-1950s, he was back in Cuba after some fights in South America trying to raise funds to get back to France to reunite with his family. Mustelier decided to invest what little money he had in France in the export of good French wine into Cuba. Upon Hemingway’s return to Cuba in 1954, he found out about his proud friend’s financial situation and purchased most of the shipment of French wines from Mustelier. A couple of Hemingway’s wealthy Cuban friends purchased the rest of the shipment and Evelio made enough money to return to his family in France.
These anecdotes told by my father, René Villarreal, are the kind of stories found in our book Hemingway’ Cuban Son, which was published by the Kent State University Press in 2009.
As the theme for the exhibition “A Moveable Feast” came about, Dr. Ginny Butera and I thought of such Hemingway anecdotes and the Paris connection at the Finca Vigía. Hemingway enjoyed his French wines with certain meals. He was very specific about that, just like his taste for Chinese food at the Finca, as well as in one of his favorite restaurants in Havana’s Chinatown.
Ginny Butera had seen my painting The Crisis of Abundance at an exhibition in New York City over a year ago. The piece has its inspiration from another work by Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea.” There is a lot of symbolism in the work with the nine King Mackerels (a fish that migrates), hoisted by the two fishermen (one old and one young), who seem to be going in opposite directions. The fishermen are inside a deteriorated and decrepit room surrounded by the ocean waves. The piece symbolizes migration, entrapment, but above all it speaks about perspectives. The perspectives and needs of a young person are different than that of an older person.
My father has often told me that his favorite work by Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, has meant something different each time he read the book at various stages of his life. “As a young man it meant something different than now when I am in my eighties,” he has said to me, “because our perspectives and priorities change.” For me, The Crisis of Abundance also speaks about having “too much” and having the knowledge or experience of dealing with an overabundance. Are we taking too much from Mother Nature? When is too much really too much? The presence of the ocean represents Yemaya, the sea deity, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the prayers, laments, songs, drums and hearts and beliefs of millions of African slaves, who were forcedly uprooted from their homeland and brought over to the Americas. In the African beliefs, Yemaya is the mother of all and without her there is nothing. She punishes those who abuse her good nature.
Ernest Hemingway enjoyed the numerous countries in which he lived, traveled, and wrote. He was one of the most recognized and adventurous global citizens of his time. This is evident in his works. He took notice of the local customs, food and drinks that his characters consumed in their time and place. For example in the Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman enjoys drinking Hatuey beer, having a café in the morning, eating rice and beans for dinner in his shack, and also the raw fish that he eats to maintain his strength as he battles his brother— the big fish in the Gulf Stream. However, no other work by Hemingway compares as such a brilliantly written memoir of a very unique epoch and place as does A Moveable Feast.
Roberto Marquez, El Mapa de México, 2013, Encaustic and oil on wood
A Contemporary Moveable Feast
by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration, is an exhibition currently on view through May 4, 2014, at the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. The show examines ideas about imagery in today’s art that were triggered by the intersecting cultural events I studied while developing an interdisciplinary course, “The Art of Salsa Making: The History of Hispanic Heritage in the Americas,” with my colleagues, food historian Sonia Hartunian-Sowa, Ph.D. and language professor and cultural historian, Christine Guedri Giacalone, Ph.D., with input from the exhibition’s co-curator, Raúl Villarreal, MFA, who was a guest speaker in our course. What became clear during the course was how food and related artistic subject matters have been affected by the mixing of cultures in the Americas during the last six centuries. This was reinforced when Prof. Villarreal showed an image of his painting, The Crisis of Abundance (above), to our class, and explained its cultural references as he does in the above article, “Hemingway and A Moveable Feast.” Subsequently, Prof. Villarreal and I decided to investigate how art today continues to reflect the effect of travel and migration on the imagery of food in art.
The forced merger of North, Central and South American native foods such as avocado, beans, cacao, chiles, corn, potatoes, squash and tomatoes with the 16th century Spanish conquistadores’ imported preferences of beef, garlic, onions, pork and wheat, meant that travel, conquest and migration resulted in a profoundly changed cuisine in both the “New and the Old Worlds.”[i] Each continent incorporated, willingly or not, these different ingredients and developed many kinds of foods we eat here and in Europe today. The food choices brought by the Spanish during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries also possessed cultural and socio-hierarchical meanings in the art both in Spain and the “New World.”[ii] When we examine the food that is represented in paintings of those periods created on both sides of the Atlantic, we sometimes find not just the imported comestibles themselves, but new kinds of plates, vessels and utensils which signal a subtle but clear history of travel, migration, adaptation and socio-economic status. [iii]
MOVEABLE FEAST V10N2 March-April 2014
First of two galleries posted in the article, Food, Art & Hemingway, V10, N2
One result of the 16th century Spanish conquest of the New World was the mixing of tomatoes and chiles (New World) with onions and garlic (Old World) to create “salsa,” now the number one condiment in North America. Here “salsa,” the chopping and mixing of ingredients, as well as the lively music and dance styles that bear its name, stands as the continuing metaphor for the food-related experiences of Americans from all different groups when they eat at home or abroad. The current exhibition reveals markets, restaurants, food, utensils and eating habits that define high and low culture and that signal the history, desires, realities, amusement and horrors that are part of the contemporary eating experience.
Throughout the history of art, food, like fashion, reveals a multitude of cultural traditions and implications. Visible in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, food was meant to be available for the deceased in the afterworld. In ancient Greek and Roman vases and wall murals, depictions of foodstuffs could reveal a painter’s skill as well as document the dining customs of the wealthy. Still-life oil paintings, the rage in late 16th and 17th century Italy and Holland, focused on the realistic depiction of food as well as its metaphoric implications, from the sensuality of bunches of grapes in Michelangelo da Merisi Caravaggio’s c. 1593, Boy with a Basket of Fruit (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/6818200/Paintings-by-artist-Caravaggio.html?image=1) to a reminder of death suggested by worm holes in the fruit or a dead rabbit on the buffet table as in Fran Synders, Still Life (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Snyders_-_Still-Life_-_WGA21533.jpg). By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the inclusion of food in art was no longer considered a subject matter secondary to history painting or portraiture as it had been until that time. Paintings of apples by 19th century French painter Paul Cézanne refer to classical Greek myths, Adam and Eve, female sensuality and fertility while still functioning as everyday subject matter and a vehicle for his dramatic new style of post-Impressionist painting (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/cezanne/sl/plaster-cupid/).[iv] American Pop Art pieces of the 1960s: Andy Warhol’s silkscreen images of soup cans (http://utenti.romascuola.net/bramarte/pop%20art/img/war3.jpg) , Claes Oldenburg’s food sculptures including hot dogs and hamburgers sewn with fabric (http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/05/24/dramaturgy-and-gut-inside-claes-oldenburgs-mouse-museum) and Wayne Thiebaud’s lusciously layered oil painted desserts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI_QJ5D9Qm8) pointed to consumerism, street culture and the growing affluence and self-indulgence of Americans where everyday life literally and figuratively became art.
A Moveable Feast: Art, Food and Migration includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, mixed media collages, videos and installation works where food and its rituals have an even greater multiplicity of meanings and purposes in our contemporary, globally-aware society than in prior times. When people move or travel, they often “take” their cuisine with them, sometimes dreaming of it as Roberto Márquez implies in his work, El Mapa de México.
Humans naturally adopt flavors, sauces, ingredients, spices and beverages from a new locale or entice the natives to enjoy their transferred cuisine as Bette Blank illustrates in a Madison, NJ, restaurant scene, Sushi Palace (Fig. 3). The exhibition, named after a book by Ernest Hemingway (and visualized by José Pardo’s painting of the same name, Une Fête Mobile) recognizes the allure of other cultures’ food, drink, and new experiences, ones that Hemingway had in France, Spain, Cuba and other places which also found their way into his writing. This internationalism is also reflected in the sophisticated, multi-layered, multi-cultural canvas, Tapas, by José Rodeiro (Fig. 4).
Laura L. Cuevas references the expulsion from paradise as the ultimate entwining of eating, the Divine and forced “migration,” in her collage, Each day had no limits. From birth until death, human beings are preoccupied with sustenance made visible in Formula by Bob Richardson (Fig. 5) and Carrie’s Recipe or Dad Feeding Mom by Judith Margolis. Fresh food markets, our own version of “paradise,” exist around the world in a variety of settings, in front of contemporary architectural structures painted by Kathleen Migliore-Newton (Fig. 6), on a barque in Kashmir, India, by photographer Jay Seldin or in front of a train stopped in Myanmar photographed by Sue Zwick. Shopping lists are made (Jacquelyn Stryker), recipes collected (Marilyn Walter), and feasts with family and friends are celebrated by Aliza Augustine (fig. 7), Barbara McElheny (fig. 8) and Zwick. Villarreal and Davide Luciano in his photograph, Tossed (Fig. 9) note with irony the problem of abundance and waste even as many in the world have little or nothing to eat.
MOVEABLE FEAST II V10N2 March-April 2014
2nd of 2 galleries posted in Food, Art & Hemingway, V10,N2
Maria Lupo’s canvas, Migration (Porca) (fig. 10) alludes to the fact that when the Spanish brought pigs to the New World, this “food source” inadvertently became agricultural destroyers, ruining Native American fields and crops, causing a problem that still exists in the southern United States today because of descendant wild pigs.[v] Nelson Alvárez and Jane Dell (fig. 11) also reference environmental troubles caused by factory manufactured food while Alan Alejo, Barbara Brill, Emily Tumbleson (http://vimeo.com/60211383) and Alan Walker (fig. 12) document our around-the-world fast food “addictions” to McDonald’s, pizza, take-out Chinese, vending machine snacks and soft-serve ice cream respectively. Coffee, beer, soda or juice boxes appear in works by Linda Stillman (fig. 13), Tracy Miller and Luciano although an upscale bottle of red wine completes the scene in works by Pardo and Larry Ross. Cakes and cookies by Asaya Dodina & Slava Polishchuk, Lori Larusso, and Lupo look scrumptious but watch out for the one by Gabriel Navar (fig. 14) which, with all its sugar, may be “eating” you. Adel Gorgy, abstracting imagery of Warhol’s soup cans some fifty years later, reflects the loss of simplicity and signals the distortion and multiplicity of food choices available in the U.S. and around the world.[vi] And yet, a contemporary video performance, Metabolism of Forms (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH9QW-wBQhA) by Greek artist, Filippos Tsitsopoulos, where his head is covered in fish, shrimp, oysters, vegetables and other foods harks back to the work of the 16th century Italian Mannerist painter Arcimboldo, now perhaps a contemporary portrait of “you are what you eat/wear!”
The show represents a contemporary slice of how artists have blended food and drink into their art works which bear little resemblance to centuries-old still life paintings. Instead, in our sampling, food signals how “invasions” and “conquests” are no longer necessarily waged on the battlefield, but rather in the farmers’ markets, fast food shops from all countries and high-end dining establishments where we can travel around the world without even leaving our neighborhood.
About the author:
Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D., is the Director/Curator of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery, a Professor of Art History and the Chairperson of the Art and Music Programs at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. She has been a curator for over thirty years, organizing exhibitions for museums and galleries around the country including The Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati), National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery.
The foregoing article, copyright by Virginia Fabbri Butera, Ph.D. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission of the author.
[i] See the general, beautifully illustrated, introductory essay in, Jane Milton, Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli, The Complete Mexican, South American & Caribbean Cookbook, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007, 6 – 81.
[ii] Rachel Laudan and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Chiles, Chocolate, and Race in New Spain: Glancing Backward to Spain or Looking Forward to Mexico?,” Eighteenth-Century Life 23, 2 (1999): 59 -70; accessed February 17, 2014, http://www.academia.edu/1034265/Chiles_Chocolate_and_Race
[iii] Byron Ellsworth Hamann, “The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay,” Art Bulletin XCII, 1-2 (2010): 6 – 35.
[iv] Meyer Schapiero, “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life,” in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, New York: George Braziller, 1978 , 1 -38, accessed February 18, 2014, http://www.ithaca.edu/faculty/wells/201/schapiro2.pdf
[v] Frank Bruni, “Malicious but Delicious,” The New York Times, April 22, 2013; accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/opinion/bruni-malicious-but-delicious.html?_r=0
[vi] Mary Gregory, “Adel Gorgy:Traces of Pollock, de Kooning and Warhol…Abstract Photographic Works at Able Fine Art NY Gallery,” Ragazine (November-December 2013), accessed February 20, 2014, http://old.ragazine.cc/short-takes/
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Food, Art & Hemingway
the PHOTOGRAPHY spot
Special Photograph no. 203A. Thomas Bede was charged with ‘suborn a witness’ at Sydney Quarter Sessions on 11 December 1928, for which he was fined £8. No other details known.
City of Shadows
Sydney police photographs 1920-1950
In the early part of the 20th century police routinely went to places that respectable people did their best to avoid, the dark places where bad things happened. They were just doing their job – asking questions, taking photographs, writing reports. But now, nearly a century later, the fruit of that footwork offers us the most extraordinary and intimate record of the more troubled sides of everyday life in early 20th-century Australia.
The series includes around 2500 “special photographs” taken by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930. These “special photographs” were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney, and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension.” Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, “the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed – perhaps invited – to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristic.”
-Sydney Living Museums
Published by: Historic Houses Trust of NSW
240 pages | Hardback
Author : Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams
Get the City of Shadows book here
Information about the exhibition at Sydney Living Museums
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Photo Editor’s Choice / March-April 2014
Writings of Kurt Tucholsky (Berlinica)
by Fred Roberts
When I was in high school in the 70’s, I had a book called “Prelude to War”, the first in a Time-Life series about World War II. The most fascinating chapter of the book was a collage of photos documenting the Weimar Republic days of Germany’s capital, “Dizzy, Decadent Berlin”. The collage of photos, many of them rather risqué, portrayed the gaiety and wildness of Berlin’s nightlife. My newly found interest led me to two films of the era. “Der blaue Engel” (1930) with Marlene Dietrich captured the decadence and perhaps cold-bloodedness of that cabaret scene. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) showed another side of Berlin, as the police and the underworld raced against each other to capture a child murderer. These ran on PBS at the time, and both left lasting impressions on me. A pair of silent movies “Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt” (1927), a film collage of one day in the life of that metropolis and “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930) – co-written by Billy Wilder, showing the typical Sunday pastimes of Berlin’s residents, complete a well-rounded cinematic documentation of 1920s’ Berlin. Add to that Berthold Brecht’s film “Kuhle Wampe” (1932) which is more political and portrays the working class experience of that era. If you never felt a fascination for this unique period in history a viewing of these films will whet your appetite for an important English-language book release “Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic”, writings of Kurt Tucholsky in Berlinica, translated by Cindy Opitz and edited by Eva C. Schweitzer. It is surprising that someone as brilliant as Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) could be virtually unknown in the English language. Tucholsky, a Berliner himself, was a leading satirist in Germany whose keen cultural, social, and especially political observations were unparalleled for the time, and maybe even today. His political satires, compelling and prescient warnings against the right wing tendencies of the time, would be enough to cement his reputation. The statements he made are so honest that they somehow set themselves above agenda, they are more in service to justice and democracy than to a transient political whim. It is not about preaching to the converted but rather making the guilty uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why the Nazi’s hated him so much. The Berlinica collection establishes that feeling early on in the piece “Three Biographies”: “Peter Panter … Born May 8, 1891 … The premature child is so hard of hearing in his left ear as a young boy that he already seems destined for a career in justice.” “Berlin! Berlin!” is an excellent first acquaintanceship with Tucholsky. The foreword by Anne Nelson and Introduction by Ian King give a good synopsis of the zeitgeist of the period and of Tucholsky’s biography and significance for anyone completely unfamiliar. The selection shows the many sides of Tucholsky in articles and a small selection of his poetry, interspersed with numerous photographs. Ample footnotes explain the background of the pieces as well as any references that might be obscure today. The volume follows a clear concept, namely Tucholsky’s writings centering on Berlin, organized into four distinct historical periods. The writings span the years 1907 through 1932. This was surely the only way to do it, given the amount of articles, stories and poems that Tucholsky wrote in his lifetime. In that respect the focus on Berlin is clever, given the general interest in that time and place in history. The volume contains several titles that are considered classics in the German language. One gem “Ape Cage” about a baboon exhibit at the Berlin Zoo reads like a cousin to Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”. A number of wry observations lead us to ask, who is the real spectacle? The apes in the cage, or the visitors? My favorite, “Where do the Holes in Cheese Come From?” is one of the first pieces of Tucholsky’s that I read (in German) I had considered it untranslatable, so was happy to find it accomplished here. A child asks his parents an innocent question his parents can’t answer and receives a runaround in return. The child is finally sent to bed but the question enters into the conversation among the evening party, leading to absurd extremes. “Central Office” is a timeless Orwellian snapshot of the decay inevitable in any organization. Just as timeless is the “Brief Outline of the National Economy” which teaches more about economics than an Economics 101 class. “The Times are Screaming For Satire” is another famous piece of Tucholsky’s which has fortunately been included, showing how the profit-oriented theater business transforms the richest satire into toothless entertainment. Echoes of Saturday Night Live in that. Here and there one encounters passages that ring eerily true today, about the complacent mainstream media, the absurdity of war, the disappearance of the middle class, wages that no one can live on, bitter attacks on child poverty (“A Children’s Hell in Berlin”). On an allegorical level the piece “Lion on the Loose” reminds of the recent manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. In “Leaving Berlin” one encounters the quote, “Now that’s the typical money man of our time… A tough guy when the going gets tough. He won’t let anyone get him down. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff; doesn’t read books; doesn’t give a damn about anything but his business.” Sound familiar? The most remarkable piece is the article “Röhm”, written 1932 about the head of Hitler’s SA, about whom accusations of homosexuality had been publicized. It shows the high standards to which Tucholsky adhered in his writing. He did not mock the man but took to task the “radical leftist press” for doing so. As long as Röhm did not abuse his position to seduce his subordinates, his private life should be off limits. Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the historical names I think of when searching for writers on a level with Tucholsky. Tom Lehrer, in the 1960s, comes to mind, too. But one is hard put to find satire of this caliber in America today. One thing in recent times that comes close is Stephen Colbert’s speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that ironic speech directly challenging the Administration and Press in ways that no one had dared during the five years previous. In reading “Berlin! Berlin!”, that place and time in history becomes something universal. Berlin is today and now. The social and political battles fought then are the same challenging us today, the human observations as applicable today as they were then. The translation by Cindy Opitz is contemporary English, but for my feeling the thoughts sounded exactly like Tucholsky. It is the first time I’ve read him outside of German. Compliments to Ms. Opitz. It is not easy to capture Tucholsky in English. I hope that more translations will be forthcoming, especially a volume focused on his political satires. The times are screaming for satire. Berlinica Publishing 255 West 43rd St. New York, NY, 10036 ISBN: 978-1-935902-21-8
Tucholsky in English: kurttucholsky.blogspot.com (my own translations)
August 31, 2013 1 Comment