December 02, 2011

Mont Blanc, by Fabio Viscogliosi

Follow-up to Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders from Around Europe 2010-12

Mont Blanc

Review of: Fabio Viscogliosi, Mont Blanc, Paris: Stock, 2011

Last September, coming back from the Mont Blanc, I commented on the tunnel tragedy of 1999. In the same month Fabio Viscogliosi, French artist, musician and writer son of Italian immigrants, published a book on exactly that: it was the first book I bought once I arrived to Paris and I read it within a few days.

It is not an informative book, but a very personal one. Viscogliosi’s parents were driving to Italy on that 24th March 1999, and they died with other 37 people (or more? as with 9/11, the number does not include possible unclaimed dead, such as undocumented migrants, and the bodies disintegrated) in the middle of the tunnel, under 3,000 meters of rock, exactly at the border between their country of origin and their country of adoption. As the fire started, they managed to leave their car and walk some 500 meters towards the exit - but the smoke prevailed when they had another 8km to go.

The book is in the form of sparse intimate notes, like a diary. Only the first twenty pages describe the fire, with very human details on the victims. The book is more about a personal itinerary to come to terms with the unbelievable news of his parents burnt in the Mont Blanc, which he got that night from an estranged aunt, and to grieve the unexpected and strange loss. It also reports the trial (which ended with condemns for manslaughter), but with little detail, because the author could not concentrate during it, as well as the erratic reporting by the media (at that time, more interested in the NATO bombing of Serbia). Most entries are about the connections he keeps making whenever he hears about tunnels or about the Mont Blanc. It is a very different contribution to the literature on the Mont Blanc. And a touching reminder than when crossing the Alps, we should take our time.


November 30, 2011

A movie on trade union emotions (on a strike day)

I am back to the UK, just in time for today's national strike in defence of pension entitlements (I was at the big rally in Birmingham), which makes it the appropriate day to review a movie I saw last week in Paris. The economic crisis has already been the opportunity for a few good movies, documentaries and not, but this is the first, to my knowledge, with a trade unionist as hero.

Michel, a grandfather in his fifties, is a CGT délégué syndical in Marseille docks, a romantic speaker who likes to quote Jaurés and speak at length. The limits of his working class solidarity ideals are put to the test twice when the crisis hits, and he negotiates a redundancy deal. First, when the names of the twenty redundant workers are to be drawn, should he add his own name in the draw, despite being protected from dismissal on the ground of his union function? He does, and he draws his own name, landing into unemployment. But the bigger test comes when he and his wife are violently burgled – the thieves are after the collection made for them by work colleagues, which would have made their life dream possible, a holiday at the Kilimandjaro (Les neiges du Kilimandjaro is a 1970s French pop song). Michel discovers soon that the burglar is a young workmate, made himself redundant, only carer of his two younger siblings. Should he tell the police? Or would that make him a petit bourgeois and a class traitor?

The movie is beautifully acted and is carefully directed by Robert Guédiguian, who knows Marseille intimately. He may not know, or pretend not to know, the French social system equally well: the draw as a system to select redundant workers is unheard of; social benefits do not work that way in France, not to speak of the care system for children. But it does not matter: I have to accept that this is not a movie on the regulation of employment relations, but a movie on trade union emotions. The inspiration of it is not a real story, but a poem by Victor Hugo, Les pauvres gens.

As researchers we often forget the poetry of unionism and its emotional side. There are some exceptions, like a few studies on solidarity (e.g. Rick Fantasia) and the studies of the ‘politics of anger’ (see the excellent analysis of Solidarity by David Ost). Indeed, today in Birmingham anger was the dominant feeling: how else to react when pensions of cleaners, nurses and teachers are cut, while bankers’ bonuses taxes are removed and business jets taxes postponed? But I would say that an increasingly broader range of emotions are at play nowadays. In fact, the social movement of 2011 in the western world, the one I had witnessed emerging in Madrid, is even defined by a feeling: indignation. Indignation is different from anger: it is not a reaction to a personal affront, but (according to Spinoza’s Ethics) ‘hatred towards one that has injured the other’ (not me!). It is a disinterested feeling, not easily explainable rationally, as in the case of 93-year old Stéphane Hessel.

The movie by Guédiguain is a poetic and touching portrayal of a whole range of emotions that affect a worker's and a unionist’s life. At times it reminds even of Ladri di biciclette. Maybe a bit sentimentalist: le Monde has written that the grace of Guédiguian's cinema is 'tirer de la fracture du monde ouvrier un outil qui fracture le cœur des bourgeois'. But there is art in this way of breaking middle class hearts with the broken working class. The movie won this year’s edition of the LUX prize, on which I commented last year and which is one of the few things the EU does well right now.


November 27, 2011

Westwind: on two Germanies, twentytwo years later

Movie image
Title:
Westwind
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I saw this beautiful German film in Paris, at the opening of the German film festival, which requires two preliminary notes.

Paris, while having a very strong (not necessarily positive) self-identity, has more open eyes on the rest of the world than any other city. Berlin is more European, but with very little attention to other continents. London may be more cosmopolitan, but you struggle to find any movie, books or music that is not Angloamerican.

In Paris, they are everywhere. Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Théatre d’Europe at the Odéon, with a rotating direction by different directors from different countries (the first was the unforgettable Milanese Giorgio Strehler). At the Odéon, a beautiful monument that was occupied for years after 1968, and which by the way is just out of my window, two years ago I saw an exhilarating German Swiss Hamlet directed by Mathias Langhoff, half in French and half in English, and this year I saw a reading of Toni Negri’s last play, Prometeo (a rant on alienation and multitude, as you would expect, but at least with some humour). Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Bouffes du Nord, directed for decades by Peter Brook (he just left and I was lucky to see a few of his shows recently) in an amazing essential setting and offering the most universally cosmopolitan programs. Some of this may be due to the large expatriate population in Paris, like the Americans romanticised by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and to the millions of tourists, which explains the unbelievable success of a stand-up comedy like ‘How to become Parisian in an hour’ by Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main D’Or (very funny, but very basic - or in other words, for Americans). But it goes a bit deeper than just expatriates and tourists. My experience of Paris may be biased towards the Quartier Latin, but I have the feeling that nowhere else people know about other places as much as here.

In particular, there is a deep mutual understanding with Germany, which has historical reasons and should be remembered when assessing the current Merkozy phenomenon. French and Germans do not often agree - but they understand each other. See the interest in the last issue of Esprit, ‘La France vue de Berlin’ (which is actually more a ‘Berlin vu de France’). Or the success, every year, of the festival of German cinema, at the Arlequin cinema. It is sad that very little more than the most commercial German films (e.g. Goodbye Lenin, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Complex) nowadays make it to foreign cinemas, and fortunately here in Paris they have a stronger following – not just by the many Germans in Paris.

Westwind, by Robert Thalheim, opened this year’s festival and it is an appropriate German celebration. It tells the story of two sisters from the DDR (specifically, from a small unknown town near Leipzig) on a summer camp on the Hungarian Balaton lake in 1988, meeting (something absolutely forbidden) boys from Western Germany (Hamburg, for maximum contrast), one falling in love, and facing the crucial dilemma of whether to escape to the West with them... 1988 was the last summer the two Germanies were clearly split: the following summer, the human flow to the West via Hungary will have started, and by the autumn the wall will have fallen. I spent in Eastern Europe (Poland, with a stop in divided Berlin) the 1989 summer, and this film catches very well the atmosphere of the end of an era, with good irony on DDR absurdities but also on western mentality. It does not work much as a romantic comedy: the west German boys look so stupid that one wonders what the girls could see in them – but maybe this actually strengthens the topic of the ‘wind from the west’, which was stronger than the attractiveness or not of individual westerners. The film is more successful as a classic ‘escape’ film – even though it seems to underestimate the consequences of escape for eastern Germans. German ‘Ostalgia’, besides some trite celebration and tourist exploitation, continues to be artistically productive.


November 21, 2011

PSG & the rise of the French far right

Follow-up to Polish fans' political own goal from Around Europe 2010-12

Polish football “chuligani” (I love Polish spelling and declination of English words, one of my favourite being “hot dogi”, reminiscent of Venetian history) scored one more political own goal on the 11th of November, Polish national day (Independence). They took part in an extreme right demonstration, turned it into a major guerrilla with the police who stood between them and antifascist demonstrators... and maybe, hopefully, from next year these traditional 11th of November neo-fascist marchs will be banned. The Polish Right still defends them, including the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, which used to be very serious... and their crisis goes on.

Fiers de nos couleurs... oui, mais quels couleurs?Extreme right’s affairs with football fans are not a Polish prerogative, though. A special case in this landscape are the supporters of Paris Saint-Germain: I went yesterday to check out at the Parc des Princes, but they do defy any easy interpretation and would require more extensive research (there is quite some literature on it actually, e.g. D. Bodinas et al., “Racisme, xénophobie et ideologies politiques dans les stades de football”, Raisons politiques, 1, 2008; N. Hourcade "Supporters extrêmes, violences et expressions politiques en France", in T. Busset et al. (eds.), Le football à l’épreuve de la violence et de l’extrémisme, Antipodes, 2008).

The Boulogne end of the Parc des Princes took the name of Kop of Boulogne in the 1970s, imitating Liverpool’s fans, and it became increasingly infiltrated with neo-nazi skin-heads. But the weird stuff started in the 1990s, when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) actively promoted its matches to wider groups (sounds like educational “widening participation” policies...), by handing out discounted tickets to the other end, Auteuil. The Auteuil end became popular with ethnic minorities... ooohps, you can’t use such racial wording in France: youth of African and especially North African descent. Tough rivalry between the Kop of Boulogne and the Virage Auteuil quickly developed. Since then, the intriguing specificity of PSG’s fans is that they spend more time fighting against each other, than fighting against other teams’ counterparts.

Things went increasingly nasty during the last ten years, with major accidents such as during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2006, with anti-semite aggressions and one Kop Of Boulogne fan killed by a police bullet. After further violence in 2008 Sarkozy even threatened to dissolve the club. Recent years saw major ‘security plans’ being introduced. While, unlike in Italy and Poland, no compulsory ‘fan ID card’ has been introduced, photographic identification is required to attend the two ends. Fans obviously protested against the changes, Auteuil's even going on strike for a while. Many fans moved away from the two ends, to the Paris stand. A part of Auteuil fans have moved to the H blue stand, where I watched first-of-the-league PSG against second-from-bottom Nancy. Nancy won 1-0, and in the H stand they were not happy, although still mostly busy with chanting the name of popular manager Kambouaré, threatened with sacking, and replacement with Ancelotti, by the new owners (from Qatar) and new director Leonardo. Auteuil's defence of Kambouaré looks like resistance against new foreign plutocrats, by the best of black France... ooops, you can’t use this word in France: a citoyen from Nouvelle Calédonie. I must say that in no football stadium in Europe I have seen such a melting pot as in the Parc des Princes, nicely contrasting with the frightening whiteness of many British stadia.

And the extreme right? The Front National was directly accused of involvement in the 2006 accidents during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv, but nowadays, it tries hard to present a more respectable face: unlike the Polish right, it avoids being mixed with nazi-skins and hooligans, although it keeps a paramilitary ‘security service’. The problem is that this strategy seems to be rewarding. Opinion polls put the new leader Marine Le Pen at 15-20% ahead of April’s presidential election. This could allow her to improve the record result of her father: 17% in 2002 and a surprising qualification to the second round. Ahead of that election, polls put Jean-Marie Le Pen at only 8-10%, because half of his voters were too ashamed to confess voting for him. Marine Le Pen appears as more ‘respectable’, so one hopes this 15-20% corresponds to all actual support and she will not double the forecast on voting day. But this respectability makes her more dangerous: in fact she is miming very well Sarkozy 2007, and the differences between the two are more and more blurred...


November 13, 2011

Hallelujah

Follow-up to Berlusconi's decay and the rise of debtocracy from Around Europe 2010-12

Italian people could not restrain from celebrating despite the not-so-rosy prospects. And in the occasion they confirmed some national stereotypes: musical creativity through a performance of Händel's Hallelujah in front of the presidential palace, and not so much sportmanship towards the defeated...


It is worth watching a full Hallelujah performance:


...although it is the last words of a very different Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen's, from a different but not totally off the topic context (sex), that come to my mind:

And even though it all went wrong

I will stand before the Lord of Songs

With nothing on my tongue than Hallelujah


November 12, 2011

Saint–Denis, between kings and stade de France

I have noticed that Saint-Denis is not even mentioned in the majority of foreign tourist guides of Paris – despite being the nearest of all out-of-town destinations, on the way to the airport, and hosting one of the most important monuments of the whole of the France, the Basilique - and the Stade de France. The Basilique de Saint-Denis, formerly Abbey, now Cathedral, is a gothic masterpiece. Maybe not as monumental as Notre Dame de Paris, not as charming as Chartes Cathedral, not as precious as the Sainte-Chapelle; but a masterpiece nonetheless and built before them, by the visionary Abbé Suger, and therefore, in a way, more important for architectural history; only a couple of decades earlier, the style was Romanesque: see Saint-Germain-des-Prés for contrast. So , unlike in central Paris or Versailles, no tourist crowds, and the visitors are in large majority French – on the 11th of November, bank holiday, mostly families with children needing to revise their history lessons.Cathedrale

And what a place for revising history. Besides architectural history, the Basilica is an open book of sculpture history, and above all of French history. Here are the tombs of all but three French kings, covered by statues that show the evolution of sculpture from the Middle Ages to the neoclassic. The most beautiful are the Gothic ones, surprisingly realistic and human. Then, when French kings took the bad habit of invading Italy, there are the renaissance ones, including classic architectural elements. The Bourbons stopped the habit of monumental tombs, but after the 1815 Restauration Louis XVIII recovered the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and with ostentatious pump erected a monument to them too – with still their heads on. The cathedral currently hosts also the photographic portraits of the tombs by Antoine Schneck, which highlight the human dimension of the works, and also their human-like sensitivity to time and their perishable elements, starting from the noses.

The reason why Saint-Denis is not popular is outside the Basilique. This is a poor banlieu, strongly working class. The Plaine Saint-Denis was in the 1960s one of the largest industrial areas in the world (here they say the largest, but I don’t believe such hyperbolic statements). In the 1950s it hosted slums of Portuguese and North-African immigrants, of the kind portrayed in the recent, much disputed movie Hors-la-loi. Nowadays a very large part of the population is of African (North or West) descent. Politically, Saint-Denis has been uninterruptedly communist since 1944 – and to give an idea of how hegemonic the Left is, the city council opposition is... socialist. Saint-Denis even hosted the offices of the communist newspaper L’Humanité, an impressive building by Niemeyer, which the newspaper, in dire financial straits, had to sell last year.

Stade de France: France-USADespite its poverty and its bad reputation (highest crime rate in the Paris region, riots in 2005), Sant-Denis is not unpleasant, though, with the largest market in the whole region and, unsurprisingly a wide range of ethnic shops and ethnic food outlets.

Where one the factories were, since the World Cup 1998 there is the Stade de France, now surrounded with office buildings. It hosted a Football World Cup Final as well as a Rugby World Cup Final, but also riots in the occasion of a France- Algeria friendly in 2001. I went to see the friendly match between two mediocre football nations, France – USA, a boring 1-0. The stadium was nearly full. The first two terraces were full of white fans and tricouleur flags, but where I was, up in the third, cheapest (10€) terrace, the large majority were of black and Arab descent. At the minute of silence for WWI Remembrance, only the first two terraces stood up. But also the last one was silent, except very isolated whistles. And during the match all supported the bleus, even the fans carrying out-of-place Algerian flags, although maybe with a preference for the players of foreign descent, who are anyway the majority. An acceptable degree of intégration républicaine, I would say, despite the economic inequality.


November 08, 2011

Berlusconi's decay and the rise of debtocracy

Sixteen months ago, with the majority of Italians, I celebrated Berlusconi’s loss of control over a parliamentary majority - but with a bitter aftertaste. Since then, he has further weakened by more scandals, more economic difficulties, more international pressure, more electoral defeats and more defections. Yet he managed to scramble through a number of confidence votes and instead of his end we have witnessed a long agony, a revolting process of rotting and regurgitating parliamentary defectors on either side.

Today he has finally announced his intention to resign soon, immediately after the new budget law. It cannot be excluded that, after having survived all possible political near-death one can imagine, he might survive again. Over the next weeks he will certainly not spare efforts or money in order to re-buy some MPs, for a further extension of his rotting process in government, whether still as prime minister personally, or (no substantial difference) through his formal replacement by the loyal Angelino Alfano.

But whether he ends within weeks or a bit later, the bitter aftertaste of last year has become stronger, and nobody really is celebrating in Italy today – despite a multitude having waited for years for this day. The end of Berlusconi is not necessarily a move to something better, even if it is difficult to imagine something worse. It looks more and more, in Italian history’s terms, like a 25th of July rather than a 25th April. The reference is to the 25th of July 1943, when Mussolini was forced to resign by his own party’s Council and was arrested – but while millions of Italians celebrated the apparent end of the war and fascism, there were more almost two years of further, and more horrific, war, fascism and Nazi occupation, and Mussolini, having been liberated by the Germans, only ended on the 25th April 1945 (the Italian national day, which part of the Right wants to cancel).

Just as fascism could go on after the 25th of July, thanks to German troops, it looks like Berlusconi might be replaced not by a democratic turn, but by a technical government supported by large part of his party and of the opposition, under direct control from EU institutions, and possibly led by Mario Monti, former Internal Market Commissioner. I listened to Monti at a Conference in Warsaw three weeks ago, when he said that, ‘in a way’ what is happening to Greece and Italy is actually ‘the biggest success of the Euro’. By this point the Polish audience was checking whether their simultaneous translation headphones were working properly, but Monti went on explaining his original idea of ‘success’: without Euro, it could not be imagined that Greece and Italy would ever undertake the difficult, long-needed reforms they are undertaking now...

After many governments (starting from Bush, and until Slovenian Pahor last September, but still counting) have been taken down by the crisis, Berlusconi’s would be the third taken down specifically by the Euro crisis, in just a month. The Slovak government fell on the Euro-rescue, but as Slovakia is not itself in a debt crisis, Slovak democracy is proceeding on its course and Radičová will be likely replaced by Fico, who with all his limits is probably the best the weak Central Eastern European left has produced in many years. The problem is what is happening to Greece and Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain.

The fact that the ‘markets’ and the EU could not accept the idea of a referendum in Greece and forced, after the approval of new austerity measures, a new coalition government to be led by, surprise, the former deputy president of the European Central Bank says it all about the degree of democratic governance. Sure, a referendum on fiscal issues is inherently absurd (because taxes are not a binary matter of YES-NO) and it is even unconstitutional in Greece (and in Italy), but a general address referendum on the Euro is useful if reforms are to be carried out with the people and not against them. As Chatzistefanou and Kitidi have put it, the birth country of democracy has now shifted to debtocracy. Politically, Italy is following exactly the same path, even if economically it is still not in the same mess.

Over the Summer, the European Central Bank sent two confidential letters to the Spanish and Italian governments, stating the conditions for its intervention in defence of their sovereign bonds. Now, creditors do have the right to set conditions, but those letters went much further than anything creditors can ask. They even included the requirement of constitutional reforms, violating this core of democratic sovereignty. And they included labour market liberalisation measures with no link to public debt and with no evidence of economic benefits – in fact, if Italy liberalises dismissals, Fiat will save a lot of money when shutting its factories down, but unemployment and public expenditure will go up. In Bruno Amable’s words in today’s Libération, this is new European absolutism: replacing elected democracy with neoliberal bureaucracy.

Last Friday, it was the round of the European Commission to send a letter to the Italian government, setting up, with an insultingly arrogant tone that I would never be allowed in my feedback to even the worst students, 39 corrections or additions to the plan Berlusconi presented in Brussels last week. I am not defending Berlusconi: he really made a fool of himself denying that Italy is in any crisis (given that ‘restaurants are full’) and even recycling measures already passed or promised in the past. I am not defending any national honour – that has been destroyed by Berlusconi before the EU. But the tone of the letter, asking for full responses within a week (!) and thereby factually keeping him in power for longer shows who has the power now. It is not Berlusconi, in advanced state of decomposition. The Italian centre-left, which is pleased by the EU’s and the markets’ treatment of Berlusconi, has nothing to be pleased about. It may have to deal, soon, with a much more difficult opponent than Silvio – maybe, we will miss the times when we had such an easy opponent as him.

Not all is lost. As Philippe Schmitter said at last week’s conference on the public realm in honour of Colin Crouch, there are still elections, and governments still lose them. Italy and Greece (and Slovakia) will have elections soon. But unless we rebalance, globally, the powers between creditors and debtors (in the old language, between rich and poor), and European institutions remain unelected, those elections will not matter much.


November 01, 2011

A great book and a good movie on the Spanish failed golpe of 30 years ago

anatomia de un instanteReview of:

Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)

and

El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)

World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).

Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.

The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.

The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...

El 23-FThe movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.

The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.


October 30, 2011

Do zobaczenia Warszawo

Polish autumnAt the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes. University library - best contemporary building in town

Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising.Supreme Court & Krasinskich Palace Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.

Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.

Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).

During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.

Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...

With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.


October 26, 2011

Polish fans' political own goal

Football in Central Eastern Europe has some cultural specificities, rooted in a more artisan style, political subtitles under communism, lower incidence of media and sponsors, and stronger oral traditions – see the instructive ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. With westernisation, much has changed, but sometimes in unexpected directions.

Widzew Lodz fans in actionWhen I was in Poland in the 1990s I was tempted to go watch the football, but never actually went despite the very cheap tickets. The level of the game was disappointing but especially the fans were not recommendable. Not because in Poland there were more violent hooligans than in Italy in absolute terms – if any, the opposite would be true. The problem was the ratio: in my home town's San Siro, there would be maybe 1,000 potentially violent hooligans, hidden among 80,000 totally (well, almost totally) normal people; it is enough to know some basic geography of the stadium and you don’t have anything to worry about. In a Polish stadium, there will still be just 1,000 potentially violent hooligans – but only 500 ‘normal’ spectators...

Things have moved on. Sportwise, Polish football is still in dire straits and does not remember the great team that arrived third in the World Cups of 1974 and 1982. Over the last twelve European or World Cups, Poland has qualified only three times, and even then has always gone out immediately. They did qualify for Euro 2012 – but as hosts. The clubs are even worse, given that the best Polish players have gone the same way as the plumbers - abroad. No Polish team has qualified for the Champions League in sixteen years. Add to this regular corruption scandals and there is not much to enjoy.

But in terms of attendance things have moved on, although not necessarily improved. In the last few years a few modern stadia have been built – for Euro 2012 but also for the richest clubs like Wisła Kraków and Legia Warszawa. They are very rarely full, but still attendance, and ticket prices, have increased a lot, together with the average income in the country. Legia fans strip off after a goal - despite winter temperature

More recently , football fans (kibice or in slang kibole) have also become a political actor. As in many countries, they are permeated with extreme right groups, but the novelty is that in Poland they have unanimously organised in support of one party (the rightwing Law and Justice, PiS), or, more precisely, against one party (the ruling liberal Civic Platform, PO), responsible for heavier policing in and around the stadia, but also not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. In the last election campaign, the liberal prime minister undertook a bus campaign journey throughout the country – and everywhere he would be met up by organised football fans disrupting his events and shouting ‘Tusk, ty matole, rząd obalą ci kibole!’ ('Tusk, you fool, these fans bring down the government’). The Right, on its side, started idealising football fans as an example of modern patriotism. Senator Romaszewski, a famous former dissident, even compared the football fans beaten by the police to the workers of Radom and Ursus violently repressed by communist security forces in 1976. One week before the election, when a police car killed a fan in Zielona Góra at the end of a speedway match (speedway is nearly as popular as football in Poland), the tension reached dangerous levels.

However, if football fans may have brought a few thousands votes to Kaczyński’s party, they lost many more to him. In the last election of the campaign, PO broadcasted a TV ad showing violent football hooligans in action and concluding ‘they go to vote – and you?’. According to surveys, the main reason why voters abandoned Law and Justice was the football fans. To stay in football talk, the fans scored an own goal of massive proportions.

On Sunday I went to see Legia Warszawa – Widzew Łódź. In the mid-nineties this was the decisive match for the title, but since then the two teams followed the economic fate of their cities: Warsaw's wealthy modernity is reflected by the new stadium in the beautiful Łazienki park, while Łódź is depressed, fighting to avoid relegation in an old stadium in decay. Still, the rivalry between the two largest Polish cities is very strong and Łódź is still often labelled as ‘Jewish’ by fans of other cities. Legia’s are particularly nationalist and anti-semitic: last month, in the Europe Cup match against Hapoel tel Aviv they exposed a large green banner ‘Jihad Legia’, and around the stadium Ku Klux Klan signs started to appear. There have been some cases of violence too. The shameful peak was reached by the Legia fans three weeks ago: they went to a match of the youngest team of Warsaw rivals Polonia, just to verbally abuse and physically threaten them: a team of nine-year old kids had to run in tears from the pitch to the changing room and be protected by the police...

This Sunday was not so bad fortunately. The specificity of Polish fans is that they shout rhythmically without any interruption, but they have an extremely limited vocabulary – which, on the positive side, means that I did not hear any racist slogan. The impression is that the large majority has absolutely no clue about politics.

Polish fans seem to have gone through a sort of specific natural evolution determined by their specific natural environment. Given that the quality of the game is so poor (a 2-0 with just three shot on goal, on a Sunday afternoon when, elsewhere, Balotelli was destroying United and Milan was recovering from 0-3 to 4-3), the fans have developed the special attitude of not caring at all about what happens on the pitch. They only care about themselves and, possibly, the opposite fans and the police. Goal opportunities, missed balls, referee decisions would not affect the level of noise in the match. They keep shouting in the same way regardless of whether the result is 0-0, 0-3 or 3-0 – a quality which actually gained them the title of best fans at Euro 2008, and has been recently admired by Manchester City fans who adopted the customs of Lech Poznań’s ones. A second natural evolution of football fans in Poland is resistance to low temperatures. On a very cold autumn Sunday, when Legia eventually scored (the only events that they seem to notice), a good number of them threw their white Legia shirt away, remaining happily topless for the rest of the match while I was freezing despite two sweaters (and in Poland they don’t sell Glühwein like in the German stadia).

There was indeed one change of attitude of the fans during the match, but not related to football. Five minutes into the game, when Legia's players first reached the opposite end of the pitch, they were met by intensive fireworks fire from Łódź fans. The match was stopped for a few minutes and security forces reacted by charging the visiting fans and forcing them further away from the pitch. At that point the Legia end, in political solidarity with their counterparts, changed the target of their insults from the visitors to the police, and the hitherto uninterrupted ‘Łódzka kurwa’ roar was replaced by the slightly more sophisticated ‘jebać policię – kurwo zostaw kibica’ (sorry, I can’t translate these ones, without violating University rules on obscene language and having this blog shut down immediately).

The fans are not just a problem for Kaczyński – they also are for the football clubs, who unsuccessfully attempt to attract the middle classes in the new stadia (especially through prices, already higher than in Germany and Italy although much lower than in the UK and Spain). There is an intrinsic contradiction, though, between the methods used to control the hooligans and the aim at attracting new fans and their families, willing to spend more money and cause less trouble. As in Italy, Polish authorities have had the bad idea of enforcing compulsory ‘team fan cards’ to control who enters the stadion. This segregates fans from the beginning into ‘tribes’, and constitutes a barrier to the occasional neutral fan. I had to get this card in Italy for AC Milan, and I was a bit annoyed to be forced to get one also for Legia Warsaw, a team I do not support (I prefer Polonia Warsaw, and the KKK signs are at odds with my life promise that I would only support Inter Milan the day they play against the Ku Klux Klan). At least, the Polish card is made instantly by just showing an ID card, unlike the Italian one that, like everything in that country, needs a mountain of paperwork and a long wait. Most of all, however, I miss the informal, Volksfest style of German stadia, and the less tribal setting of Italian stadia in the 1980s. I remember seeing a few Milan – Napoli back then (how do I remember? you don’t forget Diego Armando Maradona), and the fun of bartering with the numerous Napoli fans sitting around, given the large population of immigrants from Naples in Milan. Variety is lost, homogeneity has been enforced – in Poland, even politically.


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