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The Gods of Tango. A novel by Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina De Robertis.

During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.

Photo: Gabriela Padhila

Photo: Gabriela Pailha

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.

De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.

Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.

For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Women vs. The Drowned Hulk

Roman-Catholicism
During a recent visit to The Republic of Ireland, the Papal Nuncio to that country, Archbishop Charles Brown, was interviewed by The Irish Independent. He was asked about the future for women as priests in the Church, and replied “The Catholic faith exists in part because of the tradition of the faith, and the tradition on that point is totally clear, completely clear. The Holy Father has spoken on that and I don’t think as a result we’re going to have women priests.”

Seventy-seven percent of the Irish population is in favor of allowing women to become priests. Democratic ideals, though, are not quite what the Church has in mind in its dealings with its flock. Indeed the flock has no authority at all. So those Irish will just have to live with the continuing top-down male rigidity with which Catholics world-wide have had to contend for the last 2000 years.

Archbishop Brown, who is American, is no doubt aware of a similar upsurge in support for women in the priesthood in his own country. He is, one would imagine, as recalcitrant on the matter on the Lower East Side, where he was born, as he is in Dublin.

Traditions change, and faith changes, as has been made abundantly clear during the two millennia of the Church’s history. Large social changes and important thinking have brought about tectonic shifts over the centuries, which the Church has resisted at almost every turn. Galileo, for example. Scientific inquiry. Voltaire. The French Revolution. Democratically elected governments. The Pill. Just to name a few. In response, an undemocratic bureaucracy elected by no one, with no accountability to the vast majority of the members of the organization, renders iron-clad restrictions that are based on centuries-old received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about the existence of God.

The restrictions are basically made out of self-interest, in order to keep the bureaucracy in a position of power. I think the rabidity of the Church’s current insistence on certain matters of faith, morals and politics shows its defensive fear…and its anger at being so ignored by the populace. The priest/bureaucracy rests like a drowned hulk between the faithful and the burning light of their faith. Even the simplest one-to-one personal relationship in the Church, the institution of Confession, places a priest between a believer and his or her God, a priest who turns the wish for forgiveness on the part of the believer to whatever purpose he may wish to impose. The only activity that you can undertake without a priest invading the moment is silent prayer, and I imagine many popes, archbishops and local pastors have gone to their graves unhappy about that.

Terrified by an onslaught of women bringing well thought-out change, new levels of heartfelt love, charitableness and perhaps even humor to the institution, these men have put their foot down…again. So, women will have to bide their time for maybe a few centuries more. Maybe.

But I have a modest proposal. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the priesthood is itself the problem. Becoming a member of it could very well infect the new women priests with the hardening of the Church’s arteries that has made the institution so nuttily inconsequential. Women, why do that? The Church is beside the point. Many of the previous faiths that have been destroyed by the Catholic Church had very prominent places for women, and they were faiths based on pagan-animist respect for nature, the stars, the planets, fruition, love and sensual beauty. As Shakespeare put it, “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

That’s a faith I could buy into.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about the Catholic Church versus a world-famous artist, will be published later this month.

Piazzolla, Before & After

Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla

In Argentine tango, there is “Before Piazzolla” and “After Piazzolla.”

Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized tango in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at the huge Olympia Theater in Paris, while barely thirty people — and many of them loudly hostile — would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.

Astor brought into tango many elements of sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary poly-rhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires — as fine as surely they were — could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment.

But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer.

The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of my ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless — he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music…”

Carlos Gardel

Carlos Gardel


There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Charley”, as Astor called him, was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.

Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot, which required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.

Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Charley became pals.

Astor told Charley that he played bandoneón. As a result, the singer and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Charley on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Charley thought so well of Astor that he gave the boy a bit part in El día que me quieras. Gratefully, Vicente Piazzolla, an amateur wood carver, made a small carving of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, which Astor delivered to Charley.

Charley was killed in a fiery airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. Many years later, Astor received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawnshop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”

Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight. But when Andrés came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.

In his memoir, Astor writes, “I never lost hope that I would find [the carving] and that whoever has it some day would call me.” That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection — equally to the young prodigy who delivered it and his mentor the immortal star who died with it — than almost any such gift ever could provide.

Terence Clarke’s recently completed screenplay Astor & Charley is based on these events. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil…25th anniversary edition

Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.

Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.

Alev Lytle Croutier

Alev Lytle Croutier

I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.

We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.

“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.

“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”

We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.

We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.

The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.

“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.

In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.

This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.

In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:

“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”

This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.

“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”

The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.

Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

No Irish Need Apply

NoIrishOn 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

battle_of_algiersThe two best films ever made about The Casbah also happen to be two of the best films ever made.

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.

Pepe+le+Moko+3One 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.

12_mireille_balin-theredlistAnother 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.

Saadi Yacef as El-hadi Jafar (Second from left) and Brahim Hagiag as A li le Pointe (Right)

Saadi Yacef as El-hadi Jafar (Second from left) and Brahim Hagiag as A li le Pointe (Right)

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.

battle-of-algiersThere 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.

Pablo Neruda and The Perilous Andes

Pablo Neruda in 1949, prior to his escape from Chile.

Pablo Neruda in 1949, prior to his escape from Chile.

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.

Pablo Picasso (L.) and Pablo Neruda, Salle Pleyel, 1949.

Pablo Picasso (L.) and Pablo Neruda, Salle Pleyel, 1949.

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 is doing the research for 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.