15 agosto 2008

Don't be fooled. China hasn't changed

In The First Circle, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has political prisoners in Stalin's gulag tell a story about Moscow's hellish Butyrka prison. One day, a young captain takes the emaciated inmates of cell 72 to a version of paradise. Barbers spray them with eau de Cologne, laundresses dress them in silk and chefs provide them with their first decent meal in years. When they go back, they find the authorities have painted their cell in bright colours. Previously forbidden books and packets of cigarettes are scattered around the room. In place of the four-gallon slop bucket is a gleaming toilet.

The prisoners cannot understand their good fortune until the guards usher in a 'Mrs R', an American 'lady of great shrewdness and progressive views' who is clearly meant to be Eleanor Roosevelt. The governor tells her that they are not dissidents but rapists and murderers the Communist party of the Soviet Union in its magnanimity has decided to rehabilitate rather than execute. She does not ask to inspect any of the other cells and leaves, 'convinced of the falsehood of the allegations spread by malicious scaremongers in the West'.

As soon as she has gone, the prisoners' lice-infested rags and four-gallon slop bucket return.

The Communist party of China has beautified Beijing for the Olympics. The Organising Committee for the games has ordered one million cars from the road and told factories to shut down, so foreigners will believe that one of the most polluted cities on earth can hold 'the green Olympics'.

The president of the Olympic Committee gabbled his appreciation. Jacques Rogge, a sports' bureaucrat who appears to have learnt nothing from the 20th century, lauded China's 'extraordinary' efforts. The statistics proved the authorities had done everything that 'was humanely possible', and the statistics never lie.

Greenpeace, so harsh on democratic countries, was as excessive in its praise. After registering a few reservations, it declared the dictatorship's work was 'tremendous' and 'positively unique'. Beijing was providing 'important lessons to other Chinese cities'.

The eyebrows of Jonathan Fenby, who has just published The Penguin History of Modern China, shot up at that. When the games are over, the factories will reopen, he said. The Olympics will have secured a few long-term benefits - more homes and workplaces will burn gas rather than coal - but when set against China's vast pollution problem these gains will be tiny.

As every serious writer knows, the legitimacy of the dictatorship rests on its ability to deliver ever-rising living standards now that its Marxism is dead. Environmental concerns will always be trumped by the party's survival instinct. Thus, President Hu Jintao reverses a programme to close coal mines. He has to, an official tells Der Spiegel, because China's inefficient industries 'need seven times the resources of Japan, almost six times the resources of the US and almost three times the resources used by India'. Thus, when the leaders of the G8 announce a wish to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Hu and India's leaders see a plot by the rich West to handicap Asian rivals and refuse to accept the target.

Because the communism of Stalin and Mao is dead, however, the scale of the catastrophe need not be a secret circulated only in samizdat pamphlets. There are voices within China free to argue that the country is ignoring her own as well as the world's long-term interests. Pan Yue, minister of the environment, warned in 2005 that the economic miracle 'will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace', and he had the evidence to back up his claim.

China has 16 of the world's 20 filthiest cities. The Gobi desert is expanding at a rate of 1,900 square miles a year because of deforestation and over-farming. Approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages. The state-run Xinhua news agency reports that pollution is poisoning the aquifers. Eighty per cent of the sewage dumped into the Yangtze is untreated. Effluent, human and industrial, has driven one third of the native species of the Yellow River to extinction. About 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water, cancer rates are rising and there are about 1,000 demonstrations a week against the effects of pollution.

The gullible admire dictatorships because they think the great leader and his politburo can cut through objections and force the recalcitrant to obey orders, and we have had no shortage of fantasies about the better China that would come if only the party embraced greenery.

In The River Runs Black, a book every environmentalist needs to read, Elizabeth C Economy points out that the fantasies can never be realised. Even if the centre wanted to change policy, its writ does not run in the provinces. Local officials are in the pocket of or related to factory owners and ignore inconvenient decrees. If the courts, the press or doctors in local hospitals complain, they silence them. Change is impossible without democratic reform - which is as far away as ever.

Solzhenitsyn's Mrs R was incapable of believing the worst and preferred to live in a daydream. Stalin's goons did not need to fool her because she had already fooled herself. Today it is just about possible to imagine rich, post-industrial societies switching to renewable energy and nuclear power, although optimists should note the Republicans' success in using Obama's refusal to allow offshore oil drilling against him. But it is inconceivable that the emerging powers of China and India will abandon fossil fuels when there are no cheap options.

Rather than despair, not only the International Olympic Committee and Greenpeace but also Western governments and the European Union pretend that the Potemkin Olympic village in Beijing heralds a new China, and miss the blackened rivers and skies beyond.

As the planet warms, I'm damned if I can see an alternative to despair, but I do know that wishful thinking isn't it.

14 agosto 2008

Christianity's foundation is that Jesus Christ is a cosmic Ctrl+Z

How to ... undo things

Guy Browning

Without doubt the greatest innovation in computing is Ctrl+Z. Pressing those two little keys undoes what you've just done. And, if you keep pressing them, they keep undoing things. It's like living life in reverse, with the added thrill that you'll get things right next time. Real life has no such key. Nothing you've done can you undo. That's why many people choose the safe option of doing nothing. Opening your mouth is the equivalent of sending an email: there is no way of retrieving what's been sent. Instead of you being able to unsay what you've said, others undo their relationship with you.

The western way of doing things is progressive, and we find undoing anything deeply countercultural. But if you work on the basis that everything carries the seeds of its own destruction, wilful deconstruction will inevitably lead to something new, so undoing is not so bad. Wrecking ball operators are generally happy in their work.

Divorce is life's biggest undoing, apart from getting out of the insurance you didn't know you'd signed up for when you bought your new dishwasher. There's a catch-22 in divorce. If it goes through smoothly and amicably, then you probably shouldn't have divorced; if it's bitter, protracted and unpleasant, then you probably should have. Undoing things is difficult, but leaving things undone is equally troublesome. We tend to regret the things we haven't done more than the things we have, possibly because the unknown consequences of the former are more tantalising than the mundane consequences of the latter.

The only way things that are done can be completely undone is by the total forgiveness of the person to whom the thing has been done. This means total surrender of the will of the perpetrator to the grace of the victim. Christianity's foundation is that Jesus Christ is a cosmic Ctrl+Z. Buddhism encourages you not to be idiotic in the first place.

Breast enlargements, like conservatories, are reversible, but trying either casts a shadow over your judgment. Good judgment resides in deciding what doesn't need doing, buying, reading, seeing, learning, hearing, visiting, fixing or eating. And if they really do need doing, you can always undo your undoing.

12 agosto 2008

Um Dia na Vida de Ivan Denisovich

RIP Alexander Soljenitsine (1918-2008)

Neste Verão de tantas festas tão felizes... o tratamento da morte de Alexander Soljenitsine pelas televisões foi, no mínimo, discreto — este texto foi publicado no Diário de Notícias (8 de Agosto).

Diz-se que, televisivamente, o período de férias é propício a temas ligeiros e “refrescantes”. Será, sobretudo, um tempo que apela a atitudes mais descontraídas e descomplexadas... Por que não? Aliás, em nome dessa democrática ligeireza, permito-me reivindicar para o cronista a possibilidade (e, já agora, a legitimidade) de ceder à tentação de evocar apenas algumas impressões dispersas. Não serão exemplarmente veraneantes, mas tentam compensar a sua falta de rigor estatístico com a mais humilde boa vontade no sentido de compreender o mundo à nossa volta.
A questão é esta: porque é que cada vez que se começa a falar em televisão da “boa disposição” e do “divertimento”, começo a ver passar no ecrã personagens hiper-sorridentes a garantirem-nos que estão avassaladoramente felizes só porque têm um copo de whisky na mão e estão num ambiente em quase não conseguimos ouvir o que dizem... Será que eles ouvem o que estão a dizer?
Não vi ninguém a mostrar-se feliz por estar a ler um livro ou a escutar Mozart... Mas também, reconheço, não há maneira científica de provar que tais actividades possam ser mais empolgantes do que assistir a esse prodígio muito estival que são alguns pobres touros a serem espetados para gáudio das plateias (é assim que se diz, não é?).
No meio disto tudo, por estes dias de tão abençoado Verão, morreu um senhor chamado Alexander Soljenitsine, por mero acaso Prémio Nobel da Literatura e um dos seres humanos do século XX que teve a força, o talento e o génio para construir uma obra contra as atrocidades do comunismo soviético. Eu sei que as televisões deram a notícia, mas foram de tal modo contidas e pudicas na forma de a dar que, a certa altura, me pareceu que “Soljenitsine” podia ser o nome de algum banhista apanhado por uma corrente mais forte... Ou um jogador de futebol a elogiar o “mister” e a proclamar a justiça do resultado... Depois, percebi que não, que era só a má vontade do meu olhar. Mais ainda: reconheci que não precisamos de Soljenitsine nenhum para sermos felizes. Há quem não precise, pelo menos. Eu ainda estou a aprender, mas prometo empenhar-me cada vez mais.

João Lopes, Sound + Vision

E para quando traduções do russo?

04 agosto 2008

New Translation: HAMMER & TICKLE

A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. "What's it like in there?" asks the visitor. "Well," the devil replies, "in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives."

"That's terrible!" he gasps. "I'm going to check out communist hell!" He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. "I'm still in the free world, Karl," he says, "and before I come in, I want to know what it's like in there."

"In communist hell," says Marx impatiently, "they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives."

"But… but that's the same as capitalist hell!" protests the visitor, "Why such a long queue?"

"Well," sighs Marx, "Sometimes we're out of oil, sometimes we don't have knives, sometimes no hot water…"

An essay by the author, Ben Lewis, on Prospect Magazine.

Estaline vai na sua limusina, sozinho com o motorista. «Vou fazer-lhe uma pergunta», diz ele ao motorista. «Diga-me sinceramente, está mais ou menos contente desde a Revolução?»

«Sinceramente, menos», responde o motorista.

«Então porquê?» pergunta Estaline, de crista já levantada.

«Bem, antes da Revolução, eu tinha dois fatos. Agora só tenho um.»

«Devia estar contente», diz Estaline. «Não sabe que em África andam completamente nus?»

«A sério?» retruca o motorista. «Há quanto tempo tiveram a Revolução deles?»

03 agosto 2008

A peek at the diary of ... John Cleese

His non-lordship is not amused. Did I mention I turned down a peerage? I do like to bring it up, even though it was only a CBE. Still, one less thing for the wife to demand half of. It does so help me to talk my divorce through with the general public. All my other divorces have been delightful, so the problem can only be with this wife.

Thank God for my new girl. We met at a New York power breakfast - I go to a lot of power breakfasts for obvious reasons. Yes, I'm 68 and she's 34, but these gaps contract over the years. By the time she's 46 I'll only be 80.

My seduction strategy is to continue giving regular quotes on our "very warm friendship" while stressing we do not know how the warm, muggy friendship will develop. I'll use words such as "stimulating" and "charming" and "incredibly bright"; 34-year-olds love guys who talk like that, and she can't be in the slightest bit freaked out by my intensity. I'm planning to surprise her by turning up at her office to take her on a mini-break with my dear friend Michael Winner and a wonderful prenuptial lawyer.

The real mystery is why I haven't heard back from Barack Obama, whose speeches I've offered to write. Was going to let him know about the dukedom I rejected, but then the only possible explanation hit me. My wife's got to him first. Poor bastard.

the best short stories of the season

Chris Ware

Franklin Christenson Ware is an American comic-book artist and cartoonist, best known for his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth. He has drawn for many publications, including the New York Times and the New Yorker.
· Powerless

William Boyd

Born in Ghana in 1952, Boyd won the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham awards in 1981 with his debut novel, A Good Man In Africa. Other celebrated works include Any Human Heart. His ninth novel, Restless, a wartime thriller, was published in 2006.
· The Things I Stole

Alice Sebold

Published in 1999, her first book, Lucky, was a memoir of her rape as a freshman at Syracuse University. Her debut novel, The Lovely Bones, followed in 2002. It became an instant bestseller and is being made into a film by Peter Jackson. Her second novel, The Almost Moon, was published last year.
· For The Life Of Her

Julian Barnes

Barnes is the author of two books of stories, two collections of essays and 10 novels, including Arthur & George. In 1981, he received the Somerset Maugham award for his first novel, Metroland. His most recent work is Nothing To Be Frightened Of, an exploration of mortality.
· 60/40

Tessa Hadley

Hadley teaches literature and creative writing at Bath Spa University. Since her acclaimed 2002 debut novel, Accidents In The Home, she has published two further novels and a collection of short stories, Sunstroke.
· Because The Night