Sep 062020
 

My dog’s health is declining. I won’t go into detail, but the latest development is that she has started to limp, on alternating paws. One of these days, I shall have to take her to the vet’s for the final solution. She has had 12 good years and will have a painless death. I will be heartbroken.

Not everybody dies painlessly. People in concentration camps, for instance… In Finland there was a terrible civil war in 1918. All I knew about it, until I read Kjell Westö’s novel The Wednesday Club, was that the “Whites” beat the “Reds” and saved the country (for the Germans, except that the Germans lost everything after WWI). Frankly, my ignorance was more due to lack of interest than to anything else. I mean, who cares about Finland? (Until I read the Wednesday Club, that is.)

But before I continue about the Wednesday Club, I would like to draw your attention once again to Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Don’t read about the book, just go get it. I mean, what are pandemics for if not for enlightenment?

In Finland, after the 1918 civil war, there appear to have been concentration camps in which thousands of people died, not from wounds but from maltreatment.

Kjell Westö’s novel is not about the concentration camps as such, but about how the winners of the war told their story. He describes the crippling shame felt, still in 1938, by women who had been raped in concentration camps in 1919. The author seems to be suggesting that since, in 1938, Finnish society had not yet started to understand what crimes had been committed by the winners in 1918, they were already busy excusing Nazi crimes, endorsing fascism and overlooking the ghastly moral consequences of easy fixes. I find the narrative very compelling, because I recognise it. I recognise the pattern.

My personal history links me to South America and to Palestine, where so much injustice has been inflicted and endured that I am almost in favour of endorsing euthanasia for entire populations to spare the victims more misery. After all, to quote Jane Fonda, “they shoot horses, don’t they?”

Your personal history might link you to Algeria or Egypt; or Iran; or India. At the moment, everything seems to indicate that in Russia, murdering Putin’s political opponents is just a cup of tea. Navalnyj, whatever else he might be, is nothing if not astoundingly brave, a hero and a martyr. In the West, we also have martyrs, Julian Assange, for instance.

But what about the rest of us? How did our governments react to Operation Condor and the vicious and systematic slaughter of anyone vaguely “leftist” in most of Latin America (not least in Central America). How did we react here, for that matter, to the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930-s and the pogroms and subsequent extermination of Jews? How did our governments react to the Vietnam war? In retrospect, have Bush Jr. or Tony Blair or José Aznar expressed any shame about the war on Iraq and its aftermath? On the contrary, it would seem that the US and the UK are hell-bent on preventing crimes committed by the state from being exposed, cf. the Julian Assange case, which in reality is about defence of a free press. I quote the N.Y. Times:

From the start, the charges against Mr. Assange have raised profound First Amendment issues because his actions are difficult to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from those of traditional news organizations. It would be unprecedented in American law for such activity to result in criminal convictions, so press freedom advocates have denounced the charges against him and have been watching the case closely.

The winner is always the one to tell the story. But even after a winner has had to leave the scene, he or she will rarely express shame. Shame is felt primarily by a perpretrator’s victims, who have often had to do things they, the victims, feel are indefensible.

The Latin American dictators and their henchmen (and their far from innocent wives) have shown no regret, no shame when questioned by the press or by judges. Not a jot of it. On the other hand, those who survived torture and many years’ imprisonment …, well, you can imagine.

On this cheerful note, I can recommend a whole stack of very good novels. Tonight I particularly wish to direct your attention to José Saramago. Any of his novels will probably astound you. I love his elegant irony and humour, as well as his penetrating insight. I believe the man must have been extraordinarily intelligent. His most important work may have been Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira). I would also recommend, for the sake of the reader’s sanity, the somewhat more cheerful follow-up Seeing (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez). If you cannot read them in Portuguese, read them in Spanish, if you can, because most of them were beautifully translated by his Spanish wife.

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