“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”
Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.
They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.
Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”
He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.
“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.
“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”
“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.
A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”
Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”
“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”
Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Your seeming so foreign.”
Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.
“The great one, who played so out of tune.”
“Yes. My father was a fan.”
“He was a musician?”
“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”
“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”
“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”
“Just the comedy?”
“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”
“He’s gone, your father.”
“A few years ago, yes.”
“And he enjoyed your playing.”
“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”
“Where did it come from?”
“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”
“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”
“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”
“He sold it.”
“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”
“And in yours, the Communists won.”
Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”
“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”
“This year, it’s fifty years.”
“And the piano’s been there…”
“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”
“Why haven’t you ever played it?”
Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”
“No. Rodney, I…”
“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”
Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”
“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”
“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”
Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”
The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”
“Do you remember which ones?”
“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”
“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”
“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”
Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.
“It broke his heart.”
They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”
Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.
Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.
Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.
“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.
Marta insisted on making coffee.
“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”
A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.
“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.
Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.
Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.
(This story is one of 16, a collection titled New York, which will be published next year.)
Among the writers I know, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is almost always required reading. It is a treatise on the differences between gift-giving cultures (mostly tribal and now disappeared) and the commodity-driven cultures born of the Industrial Revolution (still predominant and thriving stunningly in the glut of digital information).
Tribal societies grew and prospered through giving gifts, which is a notion barely recognized in commodity-driven societies. The notion of the gift is that it is proffered freely and openly, and that the giver does not expect to have it returned exactly as it left him, if ever. Indeed, the ideal gift goes from the initial recipient to another and on to another, growing in emotional value for the givers and the recipients, if not in economic value.
With commodities, each item has a financial value, and without the agreement to exchange the item for something of equal value (money, for example) there is no exchange. The item remains the same as it has always been, hardly an acquirer of added feeling. Sitting on a shelf, it has no emotional value of any kind, and when sold, it is no gift, because it has not been given.
This is admittedly a crude explanation of Hyde’s fine essay. In its first 145 pages, he gives numerous examples of these two ways of running a society. There is even a chapter on the subject of usury that is the only piece of writing about the subject that I’ve found even remotely interesting (although, of course, there is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t bad.)
The second half of Hyde’s book is an attempt to point out how the making of art is the greatest gift of all. He does this through a description of the lives and work of two poets: Walt Whitman, who was the ultimate spokesman for the gift, and Ezra Pound, who eschewed the gift finally, in favor of imposed governmental order.
Walt Whitman’s poetry, Hyde explains, is the very essence of the kind of gift that an artist receives at birth, and the artist’s adding to that gift his or her own acquired craft as a creative spirit. Hyde also shows how Whitman’s very life was an exercise in gift giving, especially in the quite moving descriptions of Whitman’s care for and love of severely wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Ezra Pound recognizes the erratic and anarchistic ways in which art first emerges from the soul, something every artist experiences. But he feels that the work can only be perfected by a constant effort of what he calls “the will toward order.” The will that Pound so admired had much effect upon his life, especially when, smitten by Mussolini and the fascists, he broadcast diatribes in English on Italian radio against Jews, democracies and the American government. He was an American citizen, and this took place during the Second World War. So the troops, much less the American government, were not amused.
It is a curse upon every artist to have to deal with being ignored by the public, and most artists are indeed so disdained. I whine about it every day, at least to myself. Sometimes, when especially down, I let my friends know…loudly. I used to worry about this, and to think that I was most probably a fool for wanting to write. I write anyway because the process gives me such joy that I cannot bear to miss more than one day.
But in 1983, when I first read The Gift, I realized that being ignored made my writing flourish in an important way. “To convert an idea into a commodity,” Hyde wrote, “means, broadly speaking, to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee.” If this is so, the fee is a barrier to what the act of writing can actually produce. It stunts the writing. The fee is a fine.
I spent decades in business selling things, while at the same time writing at lunchtime and at night. Being paid for my services was thus so ingrained in my thinking that the idea of giving my written work away was laughable to me. As Samuel Johnson once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
But very little money ever came to me from all those words. Everyone I know who writes has labored in the desert of not being published. Some have perished in that dry landscape. Others continue wandering there, and I encounter them all the time. You become especially lost if you have bought traditional publishing’s idea that only through the marketplace does respectability as a writer become possible. So, corporatized publishing companies, a constant eye on sales figures, the literary agent’s assurances of no-possible-advance/no-publication, and all the attendant fees paid to all these entities come into play, leaving most writers to go on wandering.
Hyde writes about several authors and their perceptions of the gift they have been given, which they wish to pass along. One of them, the novelist and mariner Joseph Conrad, puts it this way in his famous preface to the novel The Nigger of The Narcissus:
The artist appeals…to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation…
Hyde gives us a summation of this process in a wonderful paragraph from The Gift:
The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world in general.
Incidentally, Hyde does feel that there can be an understanding between these two poles of activity, in which the gift and the commodity can accommodate one another. The chapter on usury interested me as much as it did because Hyde talks about how usury under certain circumstances can be the way in which a commodity can become a kind of gift.
For myself, re-reading this book after a 10 year hiatus from business, during which I’ve written three novels and three story collections for very little money, was a welcome gift that allowed me to justify to myself all those nights I spent dreaming things up and writing them down.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published later this year.
The word “café” has immediate associations for everyone. We all know what one is, and in every major city in the world you can arrange a meeting with an acquaintance by simply suggesting a certain café around the corner, a baroque favorite in some odd neighborhood or the famous cafe you’ve read about that’s noted for the literati who frequent it, the film stars, the politicians. The aroma of coffee or pastry comes to mind immediately as does, of course, conversation, maybe even intrigue. The very word “café” is so well known in almost every language, the sound of it so suggestive of sensuous pleasure and intimate communication, that it barely needs definition anywhere.
When I first heard the word I thought it referred to jams or jellies, as in the French confiture. Or to a candy or pastry shop, as in the standard Spanish word confitería. But I was in Buenos Aires at the time, and in that city a confitería is far, far more than what’s contained in either of those definitions. It is the very essence of what a café should be.
I knew this the moment I first walked into one.
The confitería has everything that its French or Italian compatriots provide, plus much else. It is a café and a bistro, an ice-cream shop and a bakery, a wine-bar and a beer-hall, all in the same very well-appointed light-filled room. Sometimes it will even include tango, a feature of which very few cafés in the world can boast.
A morning can be spent in a confitería in conversation over a sultry omelette or the smallest, most delicious of croissants, called in Buenos Aires medialuna (i.e. halfmoon). A confession of love or angry disavowal can be made. A plate of fresh fish and potatoes can be yours right away. An afternoon can be spent in the beginning of an affair. Lovely pastas pass by on trays carried by thoroughly engaging waiters. An evening’s solitary reading of a novel can be enhanced by talk over a good steak about that novel with someone you’ve never met before. Customers come and go. The traffic passes by outside while the observant patron reads or talks, asks for another coffee or an ice cream. (Argentines militantly insist that their ice cream is the best in the world, and I don’t argue with them. The dairy products in general of Argentina are among the best I’ve ever had, and I think that’s due to the fact that the entire cattle population of the country is still range-fed.) A glass of Mendoza malbec is just right with a triple sandwich of fine ham and Argentine Swiss cheese, brought to you once again by a most attentive waiter secure in his profession.
If the confitería is the essence of the idea of a café, the Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires is the essence of the confitería.
The Avenida de Mayo is a major thoroughfare in Buenos Aires. A shopping street, it is almost always glutted with automobiles. Its sidewalks are lined with deciduous trees that, during the summer months offer relief from the humidity that rises up from the Plate River. In winter, the street reminds me of the many paintings by Impressionists like Monet and Caillebotte, of rain in Paris. The streets in those paintings are slick, the trees having lost their leaves, their branches reaching into the sky like broken fingers. There is nonetheless considerable warmth in the paintings, because the Parisians are so devoted to light and color, even in the dead of winter. As the light fades in late afternoon, Buenos Aires, like Paris, gains color with electric light, making Winter night-time Buenos Aires one of the most visually arresting cities in the world.
The trouble is that Buenos Aires didn’t have the artists that Paris had. But it did have the Cafe Tortoni at Avenida de Mayo 825, a place that Toulouse Lautrec, Degas or Renoir would have understood and cherished.
No matter the season or time of day, the quiet of the Tortoni’s interior belies the swirl of traffic outside. It is, sadly, a favorite on the tourist scene. The Tortoni has a daily smattering of these . . . porcine, slovenly wanderers from everywhere, in hiking shoes or sandals, floppy shorts and T-shirts that advertise American cell phone companies or German football teams or meaningless software products. But really they’re just a smattering.
The Tortoni itself barely notices. The real clientele here are porteños, citizens of Buenos Aires who one senses have been frequenting the Tortoni for most of their lives. They read the papers in the morning light coming through the large windowed doors of the café, light that spills across the tables, warming the disputatious information in the newspapers in a quiet glow.
This is a café in the grand style, founded in 1858 by a Frenchman named Tounan and named after the famous café in Paris. It is filled with nineteenth century French and Italian wood work, with one of the most beautifully ornate bars one could hope to see. Beveled mirrors make the café seem larger than it is, even though it is already quite a sizeable room, as do the crystal chandeliers, of which there are many. There is a good deal of brass as well in the fixtures, and the café is dotted with glass cases that contain the memorabilia of the many writers, politicians, intellectuals, singers and other luminaries who have made this their usual café.
For contemplative and intimate talk, it is a café without equal, and the conversations are many. The Tortoni is a place where business is done at lunch between portentous-looking bankers and lawyers, where directors and money people talk about the next film project or where a mother and her children will pause for an ice cream and a sweet. Wine fuels the talk here in the late afternoon or evening, and that talk has come over the years from such as Federico García Lorca, Robert Duval, Carlos Gardel, Jorge Luis Borges, Artur Rubinstein. Luciano Pavarotti, Hilary Rodham Clinton and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Rubinstein even once played the piano here! Lovers meet here too, frequently, over a couple of cafes dobles and the fluttering intertwine of fingers and whispered words. Indeed love appears as a distinct possibility at The Tortoni simply upon walking into the place. A coffee here is much more affordable to an illicitly amorous couple than an afternoon’s hotel room and its hour of hastened caresses. The final denouement may not take place in the café, but almost everything leading up to it does.
Tango is the blood with which Buenos Aires pulses, and great writing adds to that blood. The Tortoni has been a place for both, sometimes separately, sometimes in concert with each other. One of the most famous meetings here took place in 1933 between the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and the legendary tango composer and singer Carlos Gardel. Pirandello, the author of Six Characters In Search Of An Author and many other plays, novels, short stories and essays, was an intellectual. One need only look at the sheer bulk of the work he produced to realize that this was a serious man, and according to eye-witness reports from the Tortoni on that evening, he was also distant and cheerless. He was being feted at the café by the local literati when the celebrated Gardel arrived.
Gardel was a very different sort of fellow from Pirandello. Like Pirandello a man of the theater, he was a performer, not a writer. So his efforts were public and very elegantly flashy. Carlos Gardel was one of the best dressed men of his time. When he went on tour to Great Britain, he regularly shopped on Savile Row with his friend the Prince of Wales, later to be King Edward VIII. He was a friend of the great of every calling. Charlie Chaplin was a fan. He regularly dined with Igor Stravinsky. Enrico Caruso told him that he, Gardel, was the opera star’s favorite singer.
Gardel had come to the Tortoni that evening in order to meet Pirandello. He arrived in a Packard limousine dressed in his best, wearing one of the signature fedora hats that were specially made for him in London. He was accompanied by two of his guitarists and, taking the three chairs immediately in front of the Italian playwright, they sat down and performed several of Gardel’s most popular tangos. The hundreds of onlookers in the cafe burst into great, spontaneous applause upon the completion of each number, the sort of applause that greeted Gardel everywhere he went. Pirandello looked on, his white beard motionless in the glitter.
When Gardel was finished, he grabbed Pirandello’s hand, shook it with great enthusiasm and waved his guitarists out the door to his limousine, that had remained waiting at the curb. The Packard disappeared into the night, Gardel on his way to another club, another assignation.
After the applause and shouting died down, Pirandello turned to one of the others at his table and asked “Who was that?”
“Well, señor,” the man replied, a little non-plussed by the question. “It was Gardel!”
“The greatest performer of tango in the world!”
“Ah!” Pirandello sighed. He sat back in his chair, waving a languid hand before his face. “Bravo . . .”
Gardel died on January 24, 1935 in a disastrous plane crash, having gone against his own better judgment, the only time he’d ever been on an airplane. He’d reluctantly agreed to the flight because of a must appearance that his advisers had insisted was essential to the tour he was on at the time.
Tango lives for betrayal. It is a celebration of private pain and individual sorrow. Gardel sung all that, and his death itself was in a way a tango . . . a man betrayed by his friends, who lost his life with a single gesture that went terribly wrong.
Edward VIII’s disgrace when he abdicated the English throne on December 10, 1936 would probably have been more understandable to Gardel than his ascendancy to the throne. The King’s embarrassment would have allowed Gardel and his tango common ground on which to discuss a lost youth, a misspent life, frustration in love, all the things about which tangos are composed. A pleasure-seeking, occasionally witty and rather foolish nobleman, the Duke of Windsor became an icon for squandered opportunities, living a very desultory life, more or less rejected by his family, in the capitals of the world, awash in wealth.
In terms of personal style, he was much like Gardel, except that Gardel was not rejected. He had been born illegitimately and had gained his first small fame, later to be worldwide, as a street singer in Buenos Aires. As such he had not had a great deal to lose, even though he became a very wealthy man. The Duke of Windsor did have much to lose, and he lost almost all of it . . . except for the few yachts he owned, the many houses and apartments around the world, the estates and limousines and of course his lovely American wife.
Gardel, on the other hand, did lose everything . . . the ultimate tango.
His spirit breathes in the Café Tortoni, in the very coffee you drink, the sweet you have for breakfast, in the murmurings of the other customers and the soft morning light coming from the Avenida de Mayo. The photos, paintings and plaques that carry his image and that are hung in various places throughout the café commemorate the many hours he spent there talking, laughing and, of course, singing.
A great café is always truly of its own setting. It represents the domain it inhabits, and the custom and style of that setting. Perhaps the finest tribute to the Café Tortoni can be found in the words of the late and much celebrated Argentine linguist and writer José Gobello, who observed that you can find in the Café Tortoni the entire city of Buenos Aires.
In San Francisco, a child pulls a carrot from the ground. Thus the result of the kind of education that may save the world.
Because of drastically reduced government investment, the prestige that should be enjoyed by public primary schools has been humbled by their physical surroundings. The use of asphalt in the outdoor facilities is the usual. Perhaps at one time, your neighborhood school had a lot of trees and other greenery on its property. But such things need sustained care, and that care requires a constant flow of funds, while asphalt is more or less a one-time fix. Given the reduced level of support by so many state legislatures, scarce government monies that could be used for a school’s outdoor environment – and the teaching of science – are shunted away to other things. This results in learning facilities that often resemble the cellblocks at Guantanamo.
This need not be so, if Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle have anything to say about it.
When her kids were little, San Francisco’s Bucklin-Sporer wished to change the environment on the grounds of their school.
“It was a very direct experience. My children were in a public school near our home…Alice Fong Yu…a Chinese immersion school. It was 1997, and my youngest was 5. The school was new. A wonderful place, really, except it had a schoolyard that was a single blank piece of asphalt, edge to edge, surrounded by a cyclone fence.” She describes the pupils as running around like caged animals. There was ample room for what Bucklin-Sporer calls “the alpha kids” to play as strenuously as they wished. But the play structure, intended for climbing, swinging and other full-body exercise, was a dismal construction with a single slide – made of plastic – and numerous faculty monitors forcing the kids to get in line, to go up the structure in one direction and to come down in another. “Even the kindergarteners were tired of this routine after about 15 minutes.”
Despite the hardtop surface and what Bucklin-Sporer describes as the “Macdonald’s-like” play structure, was this playground otherwise a nice place? “There were benches along the cyclone fence or backed up against the building, and you’d see all these kids, many, many of them, sitting shoulder to shoulder.” Bucklin-Sporer thought that giving children the opportunity to interact face-to-face should be one of the important tasks of fruitful social development, and that side-by-side regimentation was the very antithesis of that. “A little like chickens in a roost,” she says.
One of the things that Bucklin-Sporer also noticed when she saw this arrangement was ”a strange empty lot” just beyond the school grounds, from which a large sand dune arose. The lot was not being used for anything, and there are so few such empty plots of land in San Francisco that this one provided her with the kernel of an idea. “It was obviously being cared for by someone,” she says. A few oak trees and some Italian stone pines had been planted. There were eucalyptus trees as well, and Bucklin-Sporer met a woman from the San Francisco Zoo one day, collecting leaves from these trees to feed the koalas at the zoo. “I’d even see meadowlarks up there…and who sees meadowlarks in the middle of a big city?”
Sadly, the dune was a repository of dead cats as well, of old batteries, rusted car doors and other industrial detritus left there by thoughtless citizens. Bucklin-Sporer nonetheless realized what a gem this sand dune could become, were there to be a garden on it. Best of all, she learned that the lot was owned by the school district. “The place had tremendous potential. It was half a city block in size, and there was even a water faucet up there.” The Alice Fong Yu pupils would participate. In fact, with proper guidance, they could be the ones building the garden. Not only would the garden soften the experience of being outside during school hours; it would also be a most natural and appropriate venue for the study of science.
Bucklin-Sporer asked the school principal – “a very forward-thinking woman named Liana Szeto, an unusual blend of steely resolve and openness to new ideas” – if it would be possible to start “a little project up there”, as she put it. She thought she would be able to get the parent association at the school to donate some money toward the making of such a garden…she figured she would need about 500 dollars. “We would build a funky little chicken wire fence to protect it. We’d build some raised beds and fill them with dirt for planting. Have a couple parent workdays…you know, parents and kids pushing wheelbarrows around, mulching stuff.”
How long did it take? “No time flat.”
This was a small project intended for use only by the pupils of Alice Fong Yu. At this point, it was by no means clear what educational purpose the garden would ultimately serve. “As we had not engaged in any planning (who knew?) there was no vision on how the new garden was going to be used. There was no notion of the teachers’ using the garden for teaching themselves.” But right away, the output of vegetables, fruits and other green items from the garden was phenomenal. “So much food!” Bucklin-Sporer says. ”Greens. Root vegetables. Lettuce. Carrots. Some of these pupils had never seen a carrot in the ground before. They were amazed.”
In these early moments, the garden was entirely extra-curricular. But Bucklin-Sporer realized that the two endeavors – classroom lessons and the garden – could be aligned with each other, for the greater benefit of the students themselves and their education in science.
Once having constructed the garden at Alice Fong Yu, a big surprise for Bucklin-Sporer came with the support of the teachers. Although they may not have realized initially how much of the science curriculum could be taught in a garden, they recognized the enthusiasm for the garden exhibited by their pupils. “They had great forbearance, and eventually they recognized the potential for hands-on science. We loved our teachers.” Because it was a Chinese-immersion school, most of the teachers were Chinese, although the students came from many ethnic backgrounds. The teachers were very dedicated professionals, and even the care with which they dressed for work was impressive. “The women would wear high-heels even up in the garden. (Laughter) I would kid them about aerating the soil.”
With all this, Bucklin-Sporer still was not prepared for the level of community that the garden provided to the pupils, teachers and parents alike. The garden became the venue for end-of-the-year school parties, school music events and other presentations. It was, she says, a golden time and a great deal of fun.
But early on, the garden was not an integral part of the science curriculum, and the principal, Liana Szeto, though enthused, wished to know what else could be done with it. “I wanted something that would affect the science teaching curriculum directly,” Bucklin-Sporer explains. “I’m not a teacher though, and I didn’t know how to do it.” So she began working with the teachers at the school. She studied what was being done in the classroom. “I have a pretty good understanding of rudimentary botany, for example, natural history…the various kinds of science that are being taught at the primary level. I began thinking of all that and how it could be applied to the garden itself.”
Did the teachers mind being asked about what they were teaching? “Not at all. In fact they loved it, and embraced the idea of having a partner to teach the kids science. At that time, I was that partner, and the teachers were quite willing to venture out into the garden with me, and to use it as an outdoor classroom.”
Bucklin-Sporer also knew that the idea of a garden on school grounds had ample precedent. The history of gardens especially in rural American schools in the 19th century is a rich one. World War II’s Victory gardens provided significant examples of what can be done by individual citizens on a local level. She was also aware of other school gardens here and there in San Francisco schools.
“Five or six of them. So I began reaching out to those schools. We had a little conference. We tried getting something bigger going. But at that time, there just wasn’t the enthusiasm, particularly among the teachers at other schools. There were 75 primary schools in the San Francisco system, but not many of their teachers were gardeners themselves. So, system-wide, not much was happening.”
But indeed two series of events took place at that time to mark a real and positive advance.
“A little organization called the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance was forming. It had started as the board of the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center, a public school in San Francisco’s Marina district. Nan McGuire, a local community advocate, was the head of the board at the time, and had spearheaded their effort to do a big renovation of their playground space, from the worst cracked asphalt nightmare to a lush and very beautiful garden. It was done entirely with privately raised money and with a very dynamic principal named Lynne Juarez. It was beautiful, but it cost $400,000, and once it was in place and grandly successful, the board asked, ‘OK, that’s fine, but what do we do now?’”
It was then, in 2003, that Bucklin-Sporer and the Tule Elk Park board learned about Proposition A. Basically intended to upgrade the physical plants of the primary schools, to fundamentally improve access for physically challenged students, to modernize retrograde structures and so on, the proposition would soon be on the San Francisco ballot. With others from the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, Bucklin-Sporer began speaking with members of the San Francisco Unified School District about the proposition, asking whether some of the Prop. A monies could possibly be set aside for the greening of primary schools. They argued that, as long as asphalt was being dug up to be replaced with more friendly access for those who needed it and a more humane environment for all students, why not provide some real greenery?
“They were interested, but they had no idea really what a green schoolyard was.”
Then began the effort, over several months, to teach the school board about the concept. Nan McGuire, Bucklin-Sporer and a Berkeley writer named Sharon Danks, among others, began tirelessly attending school board meetings. (Danks is the author of Asphalt to Eco-systems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and a thorough-going advocate of schoolyard greening.) They explained that changing a school playground into a greened schoolyard involved digging up some of the asphalt on the school grounds to expose the earth, planting that area, providing a soft-scape rather than a hard one, sometimes building wooden beds for food crops, planting native borders, installing bird baths, planting trees. Everything, in other words, that would make the schoolyard a far more livable place.
The board liked what it saw, and told the green schoolyard people that indeed there would be money in the bond to be used for such projects, although it would be a miniscule amount, less than 1% of the monies that would be raised overall. And of course, as with all such bond measures, there was a big “if”: the bond had to be passed by the voters.
Basically, though, this was good news to the green schoolyard people, even though the funds were to represent so small a percentage of the total. The tiny piece of the pie was at first dismaying to them…until they learned that the less-than-1% would be about 5 million dollars.
Proposition A passed. It would take three years for the greening of multiple schoolyards to get underway. Since then, two more school bond propositions have been placed on the ballot (one in 2006, the other in 2011) and both have passed. The same less-than-1% formula has applied in those bonds, just as small a percentage as previously. But taken altogether, the three propositions amounted to 14 million dollars for greening.
“We were amazed,” Bucklin-Sporer says. “It was enough money for us to fulfill a dream, of putting gardens in every San Francisco public primary school.”
It was at this point that Arden Bucklin-Sporer met a young woman who was applying for a position at Alice Fong Yu as a garden educator, whose name was Rachel Pringle.
“I had recently moved to California, for an internship with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy,” Pringle says, “and a friend of mine had told me that she had heard of a paid part-time position opening up at a school in San Francisco.”
Pringle already had the idea of greening in her blood, having grown up on a farm on the east coast. Her youth in the outdoors provided some of the most formative moments in her life: the farm itself, summer camp, traveling with her parents, camping in the mountains. “I got a masters degree in conservation biology from the University of Pennsylvania. I had realized that environmental education could potentially have a great deal of influence in the schools. It could be powerful.”
Pringle’s friend told her that the contact at Alice Fong Yu was a woman named Arden Bucklin-Sporer. For Pringle, the job sounded like the perfect mix for her interests in biology, conservation, agriculture, farming and environmental work…all things with which she had grown up and that had fueled her entire education.
She got the job, and became the new garden educator at Alice Fong Yu.
Meanwhile, Bucklin-Sporer left Alice Fong Yu, to found and head a new organization called Preparing the Ground, which brought together the growing number of garden educators from around the district to share ideas and best practices, as well as to inform the district about how to manage the growing number of gardens. Eventually, Preparing the Ground and San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance (SFGSA) merged under the Alliance’s name, and Bucklin-Sporer was its first Executive Director.
Pringle stayed at Alice Fong Yu school for four years. But she wished to learn about non-profit organizations as well, and how they are run. She wanted to foster her own broader professional skills. “I knew that the garden concept at Alice Fong Yu could work for one school. But I wanted to see if it could work for many schools.”
Pringle was Bucklin-Sporer’s first hire at San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, as a program manager. It was a desk job in education, rather than what Bucklin-Sporer calls “the boots-on-the-ground idea” that is the norm in green schoolyard education. But it was an important desk job because of what was to come.
After the final Prop A bond was passed in 2011, San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance realized that the work of designing and creating green schoolyards was actually finished. They had succeeded in that primary task. But now there was an even more compelling one. They wished to activate those new schoolyards as actual outdoor classrooms.
In 2012, SFGSA became an independent non-profit organization called Education Outside. Committed to advancing the teaching of science outdoors in public schools, it is this organization that, hand in hand with the San Francisco Unified School District and its teachers, allies the school gardens with the standards-based science curriculum mandated by the state of California. Bucklin-Sporer remembers how, in the earliest efforts of the Green Schoolyard Alliance, they were told by teachers that they would welcome a garden in their schools, but not if they had to maintain the garden themselves. There were few active gardeners among the teachers. They would need help, they said.
Starting in 2007 with a staff of two (Bucklin-Sporer as Executive Director and Pringle as Program Manager) the organization now employs 35 people, and its signature program is The Corps for Education Outside.
“Post-bond arrangements had to be made,” Bucklin-Sporer explains.
“We were setting up the organizations and offices to support the district-wide surge of green schoolyards. And all the while, we dreamed of having this great corps of young people that would go out into the public schools and teach all the kids about science…show them the environment, teach them about the natural world, assist them in becoming eco-literate and environmentally responsible. Really, it was to help them develop a deep and endearing bond with the natural world. To love it!”
The passion in this dream is self-evident. But when Education Outside explained the idea to philanthropic organizations, principals and teachers, they took pains to describe it in systematic terms that demonstrated that the greening of public schools was far more than just a dream. The Corps for Education Outside would be established as an integral part of the science-teaching curriculum in the San Francisco public schools. They would be the help that so many of the teachers in the district had said that they needed. Education Outside thought of them as a Teach-Environmental-Education-for-America corps. “These Corps members would be college-educated individuals, from everywhere in the country, trained in educational standards, behavior management, land restorative practices, horticulture, leadership,” Bucklin-Sporer says. They would be paid $25,000 a year, with benefits, and would be expected to fulfill a two-year commitment.
This 2014-2015 school year, Education Outside will employ 26 Corps members, and Pringle is in charge of them. As the senior director of programs, she handles the finding and hiring of Corps members, and their training. She is also the initial contact for schools that wish to have an outdoor science curriculum, and she places the trained Corps members in those schools.
In 2008, Arden Bucklin-Sporer was seated at her desk at Education Outside, when the phone rang. An editor from Timber Press in Portland, Oregon was on the other end of the line, and explained that she had heard about the green schoolyard movement, had read about it, and was wondering whether there was any thought about writing a book.
“I looked over at Rachel and said, ‘Hey Rache, you want to write a book?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ That’s how long it took us to agree on the project.”
The book was published in 2010, and How To Grow A School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers is the most compendious, detailed and practical guide to the greening of a schoolyard that exists. It begins with a thoughtful appraisal of why green schoolyards are necessary to a child’s complete educational experience. Following chapters cover everything from design ideas for the schoolyard, to budgeting, fundraising, how to keep the garden healthy, planting, harvesting and cooking in the garden, and year-round garden lessons and activities. The most useful chapter, titled “Developing Your School Garden Program”, details the process through which a school or a school district can set up such a program efficiently, thus saving the participants from the trial and error difficulties through which the Green Schoolyard Alliance innovators had to go.
One of the real pleasures of this book lies in the quality of the writing. Neither Bucklin-Sporer nor Pringle are professional writers. But the ease of style in this book makes the reading of what could have been a dry science education tome into a real pleasure. The book is also amply illustrated with photos from several San Francisco schools, examples for educators of California state content standards, a list of resources (with an emphasis on California organizations, but with many others located around the U.S.) and even a chapter devoted to garden recipes.
Lori Shelton is the senior project manager for the bond program at the San Francisco Unified School District. As such, she manages the green schoolyard portion of the funds that came from the three school bond propositions. “I make sure that projects be created for the greening of the schools, and that they be maintained per the desires of the voters of San Francisco.”
Asked to assess the effects of the green schoolyard concept so far, Shelton is unequivocally upbeat. “It’s hugely successful, in large part because of the efforts of people like Arden and Rachel and the other advocates for this kind of education. After the 2003 bond was implemented, the voters said ‘This is a great idea, and we want to continue it.’ So the 2006 and 2011 bond votes speak volumes about where this program has taken us.”
Shelton does offer a cautionary note for the future, which has to do with the sustainability of the various green schoolyard projects once they are completed.
“It’s going to be up to the individual schools to put together teams and to develop ideas of how to sustain the green schoolyards over time. Sustainability in this case means basic maintenance. Things age. They break down. If we want to continue saying that we’re a success, we’re going to have to provide for appropriate maintenance. It’s critical.”
Asked her opinion of what is most important about Education Outside and the San Francisco Unified School District model, Bucklin-Sporer is succinct.
“Two things. This is an incredibly well thought out program that adds a lot of educational value for not a lot of money per pupil to every school. Also, it is a do-gooder, save-the-world kind of an idea. Our Corps members are learning a lot, they’re doing good and they’re appreciated. They’re like pied pipers to the kids in the school. They’re adding great value to so many of those kids’ lives, and that’s inspiring to me.”
Asked the same question, Pringle talks about innovation in teaching.
“A garden is dynamic, a dynamic teaching tool. We think these outdoor classes are critical to elementary education. There are many individual schools around the country that have green schoolyards. But we’d like to be known for having pioneered a whole new phase of green education in schools, in which such schoolyards are in every school.”
As the school garden movement has gained momentum, noted writer/storyteller Beatrice Bowles has written about ways in which gardens inspire an appreciation for nature and for science, in children who live in cities. (Bowles was for some years a member of the board of the Tule Elk Park Child Development Center.)
“Now more than ever, as spaces for children to explore and appreciate nature are shrinking, school gardens create real oases in the urban hardscape. In these gardens, children experience nature’s beauty, learn nature’s laws, and improve their own health by growing their own fresh food. Education Outdoors’ school gardens are the best I have seen anywhere.”
At this writing in 2014, 43 primary schools in San Francisco have been implemented with green schoolyards, and 30 more are in the pipeline. The goal is to have all 75 San Francisco public primary schools greened, by the end of school year 2017.
On a recent St. Patrick’s Day, a Latino friend whose family has lived in Arizona and California since before 1848, asked me “What immigration problem?” He leaned far over the cappuccino on the café table between us, shook his head slowly and then looked up at me once more, a smile on his face. “Are they talking about all these gringos that have been showing up around here?”
He refers to California — where we both live — and the Southwest as “Occupied Northern Mexico.”
Recently the nation has been in the throes of a debate about immigration. The immigrants being identified by the right wing of the Republican Party as threatening to the American consciousness and economy are mostly Central Americans, more specifically Mexicans. They are uneducated, we hear. They take jobs that should be reserved for American citizens. They don’t speak English. They got here illegally, and are coming in droves.
In their Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace write about the 1842 founding of a new political party in New York — called the American Republican Party — the main platform of which was anti-immigration:
What tied these disparate groups [merchants, professionals, editors and shopkeepers] together was a shared Protestant culture, a nostalgic belief that New York City had been a far better place just after the Revolution, and the conviction that the evils now afflicting it — rising rates of crime, pauperism and immorality — were foreign imports. The party wanted to extend the naturalization period to twenty-one years.
The particular group that offended the party then was the Catholic Irish. In the previous four years, about 60,000 of them had immigrated to the United States — almost all of them to New York City — to escape the economic and religious policies of the Protestant British government toward the Irish in their own, now long-occupied, country. The problem was far worsened by the Irish Potato Famine of following years, during which one-fourth of the population of Ireland left that country, most of them coming to the United States.
By the 1980s, the Irish in the United States had for the most part transformed themselves. In The Columbia Guide to Irish American History, Timothy J. Meagher writes, “The achievements of Irish Catholics now did not merely surpass Irish Protestants but carried Irish Catholics finally into the highest reaches of the American economic hierarchy … They appeared to have made it everywhere.”
The Irish, of course, are no angels. One need only read about the Civil War draft riots in New York City in 1863, during which Irish gangs took the opportunity to lynch many black people whose release from slavery, they felt, was the cause of the draft that was forcing their boys into the war. Also, a look at the history of the desegregation of public schools requires the telling of how Boston Roxbury Irish attacked yellow school buses taking black kids to white schools in 1974. There are many such stories.
Nonetheless, things had changed, and as it was with the Irish, the current hate-ridden xenophobia about illegal immigration will prove to be ill-advised.
Central American immigrants do not particularly want to leave their homeland. But as with the Irish, local economic conditions, issues of personal safety, and an atmosphere, in their countries, of government indifference to their plight, make travel to the United States a necessity. Surprisingly, the values that the Republicans say they espouse — the importance of family, daily prayer, a belief in hard work, insistent religious comportment — are indeed espoused by a great many Central Americans entering the United States. One would think that these are the kinds of people that the Republicans want.
But the Republican right wing’s flailing for power seems more a clear effort to bring about radical social re-engineering (getting rid of Planned Parenthood, for example, dismantling women’s rights, re-demonizing gay people, destroying what is a balanced –and popular– national health plan and imposing Christian sentiments on what is basically a pluralistic, democratically-elected, secular government), and less an embracing of democracy and its ideals. It voices its pious nostrums in order to wrest that power to its party’s agenda, while the Central American immigrants are here simply to practice their version of the American dream, which has always been the democratic ideal in this country.
Because of that, I believe, these new immigrants will formulate much of the history of this country in the 21st century, as the Irish Americans did in the 20th.
The stories in Terence Clarke’s collection Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell tell of the Irish in contemporary San Francisco.
Pépé Le Moko and The Battle of Algiers make such similar use of the fabled old Algiers neighborhood that there are a few exterior rooftop shots in both films that seemed to me to have been taken from almost the same place. Each of the films has a gritty black and white graininess that somehow emphasizes the otherworldly danger that exists for the protagonists. But while Pépé Le Moko is a romantic gangster pic featuring Jean Gabin as perhaps the most appealing jewel thief in the history of cinema, The Battle of Algiers is a political film that, justifiably famous in its own time, is now remarkably of our time as well.
The first time we see Pépé Le Moko, we see only his hands. But it’s clear as the camera pans upward that this fellow is one of the best-dressed men anywhere, much less The Casbah. When it finally arrives at a full shot of Jean Gabin’s face, we also learn that Pépé Le Moko is a man of rugged but beautiful looks and a rogue of very significant interest. Gabin was a major star of French cinema in the thirties and afterwards, unusually so given his very large and bulbous nose. But, as with Clarke Gable and his enormous ears, you don’t notice Gabin’s imperfection because of the intense sensual authority he brings with him even when he’s not doing much of anything on-screen.
Gabin simply fills the role of Pépé Le Moko, an intrepid thief who has had to leave his beloved Paris under trying circumstances, and is now hiding from the French police in the complicated, turbulent warren of The Casbah in Algiers. He is the personification of Ernest Hemingway’s famous definition of courage, that it is “grace under pressure”. He also has a very humorous glint in his eye, especially when he’s engaged in slang badinage with his pals or with the police inspector Slimane who, although Pépé’s pursuer, also thinks of him as a friend, a man to be respected. Pépé is as well a great lover. One of the Arab men in the quarter says of him that the day Pépé Le Moko dies, there will be five thousand widows in The Casbah.
One of these widows will be Tania, an Arab girl of questionable morals who is in love with Pépé. Played by the French singer Fréhel, Tania is a woman of mercurial emotions who will do anything to save her relationship with the thief. She’s a wonderful character, so remarkably beautiful and intense in her feelings that one can both understand Pépé’s attraction to her and his need to maintain a distance. Given the right circumstances, this woman could destroy a man like Pépé. He doesn’t realize it, but she is his match.
Another woman does show up, the be-jeweled French aristocrat Gaby who, slumming one night with friends in The Casbah, meets and immediately falls in love with Pépé, Played by Mireille Balin, she is icily reserved and very upper-crust. But you can see just in the way she looks at Pépé that he fascinates her. Gaby’s eyes glisten with pleasure with every glance she takes at him. It’s Pépé’s pursuit of her that brings about his undoing and eventual capture, with the help of Tania, by the police.
The film was directed by Jules Duvivier with a script notable for its very hard-boiled and sarcastic wit. Duvivier also wanted a gritty look to his setting, and the interior shots all have a very authentic feel for anyone who has ever walked in an old Arab “suk” neighborhood of winding passageways, stairways leading who knows where, doors shut to anyone outside and the feeling of dangerous intrigue just beyond the next turn in the alley. Duvuvier’s Casbah is actually a set constructed for the film, but its authenticity makes you forget that. Light and dark clash in this Casbah, literally, the lighting a precursor to the later grimy underworld of film noir.
Pépé owns this neighborhood, and when he steps out of it in search of Gaby, he is immediately vulnerable. The Casbah is romantic and threatening, the best place for the protection of this classy criminal’s flaunting of the law. The bright light of day outside The Casbah—and his desire for Gaby—bring about his destruction.
The Battle of Algiers is another matter, although it was indeed shot in its entirety in Algiers and The Casbah. There are thieves in this movie, too. Indeed one of them is the leading man, Ali la Pointe, a rugged-looking youth played by an amateur Algerian actor named Brahim Hagiag. But Ali is no picturesque rogue. He’s a two-bit criminal, not worth much, who ends up in jail for a botched crime. While serving his sentence, he begins to learn about the terrorist insurgency (an actual event that lasted from 1954 to 1962) against the French colonialists in Algiers, and the police force that protects them. The National Liberation Front, or FLN, is run by a commander named El-hadi Jafar, who is also played by an amateur actor. But this actor is special, because his actual name is Saadi Yacef, who was himself one of the leaders of the real insurgency that eventually succeeded in ridding Algeria of the French.
In prison, Ali becomes a confirmed FLN man, and once out, one of the first things he does is to kill an Algerian pimp for whom he used to work. The FLN views the criminal underworld as a kind of enforcer for the French against the Algerian poor, so they must be gotten rid of. Ali also becomes involved in the assassination of French policemen and in arbitrary bombings in the French quarter. As superbly played by Hagiag, Ali la Pointe is a young, foolish man, almost a simpleton, who becomes a hardened soldier in so relentless a way that he ultimately terrifies you.
There is only one professional actor in this film, a Frenchman named Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, in charge of the 10th Para-Division, French army paratroopers who are brought to defeat the insurgency. Martin’s portrayal is memorable because the colonel is ultimately a technocrat, although a murderous one. He analyzes the situation clearly and coldly, and moves his men about the city with intent precision and murderous force. He wears fatigues throughout and a pair of air force–style sunglasses that make it difficult to see his eyes. But the sunglasses are perfect because you can see the colonel’s eyes and, despite the emotional distancing that the glasses symbolize, his eyes are sinister beyond belief.
This is a very dangerous man. Colonel Mathieu speaks in a monotone. He is always in control of himself. He never falters. At one point (speaking quite softly, actually) he says “The problem, as usual, is first the enemy.” He pauses a moment, then continues. “Second, how to destroy him.” You had better listen, because Colonel Mathieu will succeed.
Here too, the film is shot in grainy black and white in so physical a way that it almost appears as a genuine documentary of actual events. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, has such a clear understanding of street battles that the American edition of this film contained a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel film was used in the production. The portrayal of the terrorists and their tactics, especially effective in this urban situation, made the film into something of a bête noire in France, where it was considered to have molly-coddled the Algerian enemy. (It was released just five years after the expulsion of the French from Algiers.)
What’s interesting here is that the French and Colonel Mathieu actually win the battle of Algiers. They hunt down Ali la Pointe and his commander El-hadi Jafar who, with a few others, are hiding in a space between the walls of a Casbah apartment. The terrorists refuse to come out, and are killed by a detonation planted in the apartment by Colonel Mathieu’s men. They don’t stand a chance.
But the Algerians did get rid of the French eventually. This film was based on an account of the insurgency that was written by Saadi Yacef, the actor who plays the doomed El-hadi Jafar, while a prisoner in a French jail. After the French defeat, Yacef, now an Algerian government minister, approached Pontecorvo and, with government assistance, suggested he make the film. It won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
One ironic occurrence in the film’s influential history is that in 2003, it was given a special screening by the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon. It was thought to be a corrective to those who might think that the then-current situation in Iraq had no precedent. One wonders if the people in The Pentagon who saw this very fine film ever heeded its ultimate warning of what can happen to implacable colonialist forces who do not understand the people they are colonizing.
The news a year ago that the Chilean government exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains, to determine whether or not his death was caused by poisoning, brought a new, but not surprising, twist to Neruda’s life, even forty years after his demise.
Neruda died just days after his friend Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was murdered in the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Neruda had been in poor health for some years, and it was assumed that he died of natural causes that perhaps were worsened by the emotional trial of losing such a close compatriot and friend.
But Neruda was no stranger himself to extreme punishment for his political views, and rumors have circulated since his death that he too was murdered while in hospital after Allende’s death, also on direct orders from Pinochet. The current ongoing government inquiry aims to determine whether Neruda indeed died on his own, or was assassinated.
Neruda was almost killed in 1949, when he was already a world-famous poet and a senator in the Chilean congress. Having been elected as a Communist, he had then been asked by Gabriel González Videla, the leftist candidate for president in the 1946 elections, to become his campaign chairman, while maintaining his seat in Congress. Neruda agreed and, bringing the Communist vote to the leftist coalition supporting González Videla, he helped ensure González Videla’s victory.
Once in office, however, González Videla abandoned the very supporters that got him elected. He not only failed to enact the policies for which he won office, he actively turned against them. The ongoing Cold War between western democracies and the Soviet Union brought great pressure upon González Videla, causing him, essentially, to betray his own electorate. He became the trinket of and enforcer for the Chilean wealthy and the U.S. (especially American mining and other corporate interests in Chile.) Disgruntled national figures like Pablo Neruda were basically marginalized.
Pablo Neruda was an extremely colorful, humorous and celebratory man who was not about to take such treatment without a response. He wrote an inflammatory article for a Venezuelan publication, in which he denounced González Videla’s presidency. On January 6, 1948, he stood up on the floor of Congress and delivered a stem-winder of a speech in which he accused the president of political betrayal, cowardice and even genocide against his own people. González Videla had re-opened a concentration camp that had been used by an earlier president to incarcerate homosexuals. Located in the appropriately named coastal town of Pisagua (Pisswater), the camp was famous for its miserable, even murderous conditions. In his speech, Neruda gave the names of all 628 prisoners being held there, many of them miners from the Atacama Desert region that had elected Neruda. (This region later became world-famous for the 2010 rescue of miners who had been trapped underground for 68 days.)
Within weeks of this speech, González Videla got the Chilean Supreme Court to strip Neruda of his senator-ship. His home in Santiago was set ablaze, causing him and his second wife Delia del Carril to go into hiding. In March 1949, after a year spent in isolation in various safe-houses around the country, Neruda had to run for his life. He escaped from Chile into Argentina, on horseback – escorted by a group of local trackers – through the high reaches of the Andes Mountains. It was the beginning of winter, and during this harrowing crossing, Neruda came close to death on a couple of terrifying occasions. He did make it to Argentina, however, and eventually was re-united with Delia in Paris.
On April 25, 1949, at the World Congress of Peace Forces at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Neruda was introduced to an astonished audience. Everyone – including Gabriel González Videla – had assumed that he was dead. Amused by the opportunity to put that rumor to rest, Neruda reveled in the introduction he was given, by none other than Pablo Picasso. The audience erupted in sustained, noisy applause.
Now, there is controversy about the exhumation of Neruda’s remains. All the principal players in the 1973 military coup are dead, and democracy has returned to full strength in Chile. So, some commentators say that there is little good to be served in bringing up those murderous times yet once more. But there is at least one thing that will be served quite well. Ultimately, history seeks the truth. If Pablo Neruda died of illness, it leaves Augusto Pinochet innocent of at least one gruesome crime. If Neruda was assassinated, Pinochet’s legacy will be darkened even more than it already is…and appropriately so.
Incidentally, I first learned of Pablo Neruda’s escape when I began researching his life for a novel I planned to write about him. For me, the challenge lay in how to write a novel from the point of view of one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. This was either extreme hubris on my part or plain nuttiness. But I wanted to present Neruda’s vivid, unruly imagination, and to show how it could both exacerbate and ameliorate the extreme danger in which he and the others found themselves, deep in the disastrous mountains. That was the plan. That’s what the novel would describe.
Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His fame now is greater than ever.
Terence Clarke has just completed a new novel titled The Splendid City, in which Pablo Neruda is the main character. The novel is an imagining of Neruda’s 1949 escape from Chile. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.