We continue our countdown of the finest moments in 2015’s global culture
Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera
The arts’ tireless preoccupation with the apocalypse is not always a winsome one; it can seem the most indulgent of fantasies, a retreat from harder thematic demands towards the prospect of a great cleansing of the human slate. For Mexican writers, however, the apocalypse is not something quite so distant, for the apocalypse is something that Mexicans have been dealing with for years as an essential component of their day-to-day lives. Ever since Roberto Bolaño catapulted the Mexican (or perhaps, more generally speaking, the South American) post-national zeitgeist into wider view with his epochal 2666, Latin American fiction and the Latin Americas themselves have been revealed as occupying a social and civil crossroads.
Bolaño, lyrical in scope and grandiloquent in voice, was no shrinking violet in humour; violence or sex (all of which a reader can gorge themselves on in 2666), and even he could not fully convey the extent to which Mexico has become the prototype of a nation in which all federal and local regulations are deliquesced and sublimated to the macroeconomics of white powder. It is Mexico that has its economic lifeblood enslaved by cocaine, the safest asset of them all, and so it is the Mexicans’ country, not the Americans’, that embodies the purest and most unregenerate strains of capitalism. Theirs is the New World.
It is perhaps not surprising given how much Signs Preceding the End of the World, arriving as it did in a year full of very good fiction (The Vegetarian, The First Bad Man, Quicksand, The Book of Aron), has the potential to remind those who’ve read 2666 of that great work, that it finds itself at the top of 2015’s literary list. But this is a blessing in a sophomoric disguise, for the comparisons end at the obvious: Herrera meditates like Bolaño did on the nature of a border, and on the way in which a lack of grounding institutions within a national framework shrouds the future of its citizens in a horrible absence of security.
The writers share an ability to take the reader on rapid empathic flits between viewpoints; an ability shared so closely between the authors that they seem to have drunk it from the same bottle. Yet, Herrera commits plenty of his own footprints in Signs Preceding… . Herrera, for example, has a gift for concision that Bolaño never did. His vision of Latin America, less suffused with Bolaño’s obstinate revolutionary pride, allows for discrete presentations of a regular population’s desperation. Herrera’s greatest gift, however, is Makina. Few heroines have been as steely, and fewer still among the characters of 2015 remained so committed to their authors even when plonked squarely into a world so disposed against their independence of spirit. Just as the border between the United States and Mexico separates (as well as unites) capitalism’s avatar from its most invidious anti-success story, Makina stands symbolic of the essential intimacy between the increasingly blurred-over and underworlds of Mexico, affirmative of their distance and proof that they may, in fact, have been made for each other.
In this sense, Herrera exhibits another facet of vision distinct from his Chilean-born next of literary kin. Signs Preceding… is full of very real signs of a new world forming in the West, and the highest praise that I can afford it is that it speaks of a literary continent rising in equal step with it. Whether it will ultimately stand with 2666 in eventual esteem cannot be determined so soon, but Herrera’s work stands as a proud addition to the extraordinary canon of Latin American fiction: much needed, as it looms up in a world where the counsel of the visionary is becoming all important in the face of the murk.
Asfa-Wossen Asserate, King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia
This is a memoir of God in human form; Haile Selassie, scion of Zion, the Makkonen of Rastafarianism, and possible descendent of King Solomon. Ethiopian-German, Asserate’s biography captures, in a colour that could be no more dazzling than that of the Emperor’s own life, Selassie’s position at an intersection between a number of unlikely liminalities. He appropriated Napoleonic splendour in the service of African self-actualisation, stood for absolute monarchy as a means of driving his Ethiopia beyond the confines of its feudal tradition, and can also be accredited with the reluctant and conditional dismantling of Ethiopia’s slave trade (largely under the pressure of the League of Nations).
Texts such as this one, which in itself forms an interesting counterpoint to Kapuscinski’s Downfall of an Autocrat, tell bewitching tales of the recent history of an emerging continent. Though he distanced himself from the idolatry of the Rastafari, Selassie willingly purposed his ‘pure Semitic’ appearance and ‘Sphinx-like dignity’, to make himself the conduit of every appeal: as the ruler of pomp and grandeur, as the foretold Christian saviour, as the international man, and as much and as little African as European.
Drawn eagerly to the methods, more than the mere trappings of Western modernity, Selassie brokered a kind of determinism for Ethiopia of which there were many elements to be less than delighted with, however ‘proud’ the bondsmen of Addis Ababa were of their chattel servitude. Yet, apart from his deistic veneration, Selassie’s tale is a vital thread in the emergence of Africa as neither a necessarily Third World nor a West-beholden charity case. He did not design himself as an Ethiopian Bonaparte in fealty, but to proclaim African independent rule as a credible prospect.
Beyond its ability to provoke consideration of Selassie’s saga as one in a continent’s growing developmental library of them, King of Kings stands as an achievement for its ability to marshal the story itself. For Haile’s story is no ordinary one, even for a king. Within its progression there is resistance to Italian invasion and welcome international fame as a result; exile; a fractious relationship with Marcus Garvey; and, a certain position of prevalence in intellectual designs for the growth of an entire global frontier, for which he acted as an international envoy. And yet, among the progressivism and the hero-worship was a dogged inability to parse the virtues of democracy; a reluctance that ended Selassie’s designs for a progressive Ethiopia along with Selassie himself, upon his death.
So fascinating, even ridiculous, in the very real tale of Selassie, is the way in which Asserate’s objectivity in the face of it remains absolute and unwavering. In truth, Asserate does justice to the multifarious nature of his subject’s life and times by resisting them — though in a way, cheapened by the work’s reductive subtitle.
Translated capably by Peter Lewis from the original German, Asserate’s depiction is a festival of endnote and archival goodies. While facing such weighty subject matter, balance in portrayal is as notoriously difficult as it ever was. The supportive machinery is there to let a writer be obsequious with the desire to muddle context, by presenting all African determinism as wholly and inherently good (largely by making it all counter-European, which Selassie was not). At the same time, net disdain for Selassie’s ideological shortcomings and outright pragmatic failings as a ruler, has not only a sound degree of current support (Kapuscinski’s still worthy, aforementioned work) but classical support as well (Waugh’s Black Mischief, which is less so).
That Asserate emerges from the work a true intellectual, having kept his nerve on both sides of a given debate, means that he emerges carrying a true picture of a remarkable man with him.
Sargent: Portraits of Artists & Friends
This cultural countdown may thus far have seemed somewhat unfairly stacked against the virtuoso. Hideo Kojima set out another pack of resplendent hounds to the frontiers of photorealistic action gaming, only for us to have his MGSV consigned to second place in favour of a game made on a cheap RPG maker. The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, plotted by the compass of incredible cinematography and a great many hand-built contraptions in the latter’s case, regrettably suffered here at the hands of independent horror. The whirr surrounding the virtuoso can obscure the fact that, placed in conjunction, the virtuoso and the craftsman are often equally adept, differing from one another not in substance, but only in approach.
Our day is an age of a certain sturm und drang, albeit more of a Shakespearean variety: plenty of furore, Instagram and Twitter wielded freely to conjure up storm and fury over next to nothing, signifying little. This makes it all the more important that a counter-critical consensus exist, and that’s why 2015 in painting (Exhibition) is John Singer Sargent’s year. Ninety years after his death, he is due one.
It can be lost, among all its sniping and retrieval of hatchets, that journalism is in some sense a form of scholarship, which is itself a form of love: a form of self-love, you’d be forgiven for thinking, given the amount of time I’ve spent speaking meta-tastically about my own countdown in John Singer’s capsule. But it is the beauty of love, and love committed to print in particular, which keeps work like Sargent’s safe for the perusal of coming generations.
Sargent’s work was out of favour with the critical establishment of his day. Already passionate for the promises of Cubism, he fell into a slight and unwarranted obscurity. Upon the point at which Richard Orman resurrected him first for the New York Metropolitan and then at London’s National Portrait Gallery, the abounding gifts of this sublime craftsman were brought to bear in a time more prone to giving them the favour they deserve.
No skill as prodigious as Sargent’s deserves to be written off because it is unfashionable; and the riches of this exhibition, recorded more conclusively in this piece (https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2015/05/20/exhibition-review-sargent-portraits-artists-friends/), provide a tonic many among the public desire in an age of perpetual, commoditised modernity in art (with the ‘modernity’ taking precedence over the ‘art’).
A key part of any present, and the key to the health of any future, is how that present treats its past. Based on Orman’s efforts here, one of the abiding comforts we can take from our turbulent present is that we are still treating the past, or at least certain parts of it, very well.
If you didn’t get to see it, I really wish you could have.