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Neoinklings: alienation and otherness

9 June 2018

At our June Neoinklings literary coffee klatch, most of the books we discussed had to do with people or groups of people being alienated from each other.

David Levey had borrowed my copy of 1968 in retrospect (my review here), and returned it, saying that he had found most of it too theoretical, as I had, but was interested in one chapter, on transgender people, which was more immediate. I would have liked to have discussed the theoretical aspect a bit more, but then others arrived and the subject shifted.

Val had been reading Between Mountains, a kind of love story set in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession (1991-2000), A war correspondent and an interpreter at the war crimes trials at The Hague develop a relationship, but interpreters’ work is confidential, and so they are not allowed to talk to journalists, and this hampers their relationship.

The book also has lots of descriptions of things that happened in the wars, and how people responded to them. Some of them brought back memories from 20 years ago, when it described the monks of Decani Monastery in Kosovo:

In Visoki Decani the monks lit beeswax candles and chanted. They watched the Serbian offensive, the looting and burning of the town. They took in people who came to their door, Serbs afraid of the KLA, Albanians afraid of the Serbs. They heard the gun battles as the Serbian forces advanced. Every Thursday they opened the coffin of their founder and released into the air the scent of roses. They remembered the days when tourists came to look at their ancient frescoes, which were once reported on television to paintings of UFOs bringing life to earth, our DNA seeded from outer space, and they thought they had enjoyed these tourists despite it all. They chopped wood, cleaned the stables, and did HTML coding for their web page, where they implored other Serbs to talk to the Albanians, just sit down and talk. They prayed that, when the day came, and it might be soon, they would make a good death.

Twenty years ago one of the monks, Fr Sava Janjic, would write a kind of daily diary of the monastery on internet mailing lists, in which such events were described. So we were given a monk’s eye view of the conflict and the news from Kosovo in a kind of blow by blow account, and the summary above seems fairly accurate, except that it tends to imply that the violence was mainly from the Serb side. The monks urged all sides to seek a peaceful resolution, but there were too many conflicting vested interests.

Apparently this is what got some of the tourists excited about UFOs:

What got tourists at Decani Monastery excited about UFOs

That led on to some discussion of the role of the media and public relations firms in stoking ethic hatred. The British firm Bell Pottingert doing such things for their clients in South Africa was still recent enough to be at the forefront of everyone’s memory, It led on to mention of another book, The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington. Huntington describes how the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession got started:

The breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia moved toward independence and pleaded with Western European powers for support. The response of the West was defined by Germany, and the response of Germany was in large part defined by the Catholic connection. The Bonn government came under pressure to act from the German Catholic hierarchy, its coalition partner the Christian Social Union Party in Bavaria, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other media. The Bavarian media, in particular, played a crucial role in developing German public sentiment for recognition. ‘Bavarian TV’, Flora Lewis noted, ‘much weighed upon by the very conservative Bavarian government and the strong, assertive Bavarian Catholic Church which had close connections with the church in Croatia, provided the television reports for all of Germany when the war <with the Serbs> began in earnest. The coverage was very one-sided’… Germany pressured the European Union to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and then, having secured that, pushed forward on its own to recognize them before the Union did in December 1991.

For more on the role of PR firms in igniting ethnic hatred, see here.

This led on to ethnic and religious conflict and the kidnapping of people, especially children, in Nigeria, and Tony McGregor mentioned a book his daughter had been reading, What Sunny saw in the flames, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Someone also mentioned Pale Native by Max du Preez — memoirs of a journalist, but one who was trying to extinguish the fires of ethnic hatred rather than igniting them,

That got us on to how racial conflict started in South Africa, and the relations between Dutch and Khoi in the Western Cape in the mid-17th century. Janneke Weidema said that went back to the history of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain and told us something about that.

I mentioned another book I had read recently, The mysterious flame of Queen Loana. by Umberto Eco. I had thought the title referred to a monarch of a place liker Hawai’i, but it turned out to be the title of a comic book. It’s about a man who suffers from partial memory loss — he can remember abstract things he learnt, but not personal relationships. Hr goes back to his grandfather’s home where he grew up, and looks through the books and comics he read as a child and his school essays, and finds that it is like researching the biography of a stranger.

He grew up during the Second World War, and so he wondered how he had reacted to Fascism and the Fascist indoctrination in schools.  He saw some of the school essays he wrote as a child, and saw his text books about the noble Italians as opposed to the degenerate Ethiopians and Jews. He was a member of the Balilla Boys, the Italian equivalent of the Voortrekkers, and wondered if he had been a proud or reluctant member.

Janneke told us some stories about the German occupation of the Netherlands, and how their friends and neighbours tried to hide Jews from the Nazis, and how some Jews never dared go out of doors until the war was over

And, back in the Cape Colony, Tony McGregor asked me about a book that debunked the Nationalist mythmaking about Slagtersnek. The Nationalist myth was that a heroic Afrikaner, Bezuidenhout, stood on his white dignity and resisted arrest by Hottentot soldiers. But the author, J.A. Heese, did some genealogical research, and discovered that Bezuidenthout was resisting arrest shooting at the soldiers from a cave with his half-caste son. It had nothing to do with “white dignity” and everything to do with not wanting to pay tax. The book is Slagtersnek en sy mense, by J.A. Heese (Kaapstad, Tafelberg, 1973).


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