The last battle of the Spanish Civil War: My review of Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

ub_tejero_coup_etatFollowing his unconvincing meditation on American atrocities in the Vietnam war in “The speed of light” Javier Cercas returns to his own country’s history for his latest work. “The anatomy of a moment” revisits the theme of the Spanish Civil War and its consequences that Cercas so brilliantly explored in “Soldiers of Salamis”. However in his new book he eschews fiction, even the “post-modern” variety that he practices, which blurs the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Instead he employs a part philosophical, part journalistic meditation on the 1981 attempted coup to overthrow Spanish democracy.

“The anatomy of a moment” focuses on the three parliamentarians who refused to duck when the Civil Guard who invaded the Cortes opened fire. They were Gutteriez Mellado, a former Francoist general now deputy Prime Minister, Santiago Carillo, head of the Spanish Communist party, and Adolfo Suarez, the outgoing Prime Minister. Suarez is above all the hero of the book – in Cercas account a Francoist functionary and “provincial non-entity” who grew into the architect of democracy and a giant of Spanish history. The author returns again and again to the image of Suarez sitting alone on the prime minister’s bench as the bullets fly around him, one of only three people prepared to risk their necks while those with more impecible democratic credentials cower behind their desks, as most of the rest of us would naturally and rationally have done in similar circumstances.

Parts of the book are difficult – the author talks to the reader as if they are already au fait with the history and politics of Spain. This leads, I thought, to a richer experience than books which spoonfeed the reader the historical background: in the end you feel you have earned the understanding you have achieved.

In places the book has the characteristics of a non-fiction thriller as the details of both the coup, led by senior elements in the army, and the countercoup, led by the King, are plotted. The book is also very moving, particularly regarding the travails of Suarez in later life, and a deeply affecting coda when the author reflects upon the life and politics of his own father.

The book is also deeply political, rejecting a current view prevalent in Spain that the rupture between Francoism and democracy was false and that Suarez ensured that those who had power under the dictatorship retained it under the constitutional monarchy. Cercas argues instead that the rupture was real and that Suarez was a “hero of the retreat” from dictatorship. That the author is prepared to set out such forthright opinions on this and other aspects of the coup add to the pleasure of the book: it is widely researched, deeply opinionated history, provocative, but not gratuitously controversialist. It demands the reader thinks while keeping them entertained.

A great book.

Brilliant, but not the whole story: Empire of the Summer Moon – Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

PortraiThis book is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of the Commanche nation. Its intensely exciting and sympathetic to Native Americans in general and the Commanche in particular. However it is also intensely violent, taking a clear sighted, almost forensic, look at the practices of Commanche war-making, particularly their routine use of rape and torture.

(Speaking as a Celt myself) the author draws a not unreasonable comparison of Comanche warfare to Celtic warfare of a bygone era to undermine any racist presumptions about the origins of warriors cruelty. He also notes the intensely political purpose behind Comanche terrorism on settlers and buffalo hunters, and that Texan warfare was itself brutal and racist. However while he spends time describing Comanche violence in some detail, he frequently skates across comparable white violence – explicitly avoiding a deep discussion of the Sand Creek massacre for example.

The author appears to like and admire Quanah, particularly the Quanah of later years who struggled to lead his people in peace after years of violence. Quanah described himself as having been a “bad man” but in later life he appears to have become a warm and generous one with little animosity to whites. However the author’s real hero in this book seems to be the enigmatic Col MacKenzie, Quanah’s nemesis, rather than Quanah himself. One should be grateful to the author for bringing this fascinating man and his role in the violence of the era to greater public attention: for all his crankiness he stands in a much more positive light that the strange, and more infamous, figure of Custer.

For those interested in Hollywood history the author notes how the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah’s mother, was the inspiration for arguably John Ford’s greatest Western, The Searchers. However he doesn’t mention that MacKenzie seems to have been Ford’s model for Lt Col Kirby Yorke in Rio Grande, another one of John Wayne’s classic roles: the climax of that film – the Colonel leading his troopers into Mexico to attack the Apache on Sheridan’s orders – is something that the author mentions MacKenzie actually did when not fighting the Comanche.

It is a book that can comfortably sit alongside Dee Brown’s classic “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” and which complements it, providing greater detail to some aspects of that book and a deeper understanding of the politics and attitudes of white America to Native Americans in the course of their conquest.

Domestic servitude: a 21st century system of violence against women and girls

Speech to RMT Union meeting to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls
25 Nov 2013

Thanks very much for having me here. I’ve very honoured to be here and just wanted to say a few words on just one of the issues that sustains violence against women and girls in this country and in the rest of Europe.

A month or so ago the Guardian ran an expose of the use of forced labour in Qatar to build the infrastructure for the World Cup. At the root of the problem there is what is called the Kafala system, which is a sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers to such an extent that even in the most abusive employment relationships, up to and including forced labour, the workers cannot changes jobs or even go home.

It is a cynical system to facilitate medieval levels of exploitation.

It is also essentially the same system that the UK government has in place for migrant domestic workers to this country.

All slavery is violence. It affects more women than men, though not disproportionately so: as I mentioned the thousands of forced labourers bleeding and thirsting to death in Qatar are mostly men. But domestic slavery and servitude is a sector where women are overwhelmingly enslaved and abused.

And it is a sector were the trafficking of women and girls, and by trafficking I mean specifically the movement of women and girls into systems of forced labour and exploitation, is frequently legal. The UK has its system of domestic workers visas tied to employers, and this de facto legalises the trafficking of people for forced domestic work. It does this by explicitly saying to migrant domestic workers that if they leave the employment of the person to whom their visa is tied, no matter how abusive or exploitative that employer may be, they will be deported. And that places in the hands of unscrupulous employers an enormously powerful threat to hold over the head of any vulnerable worker hoping to improve their own life and that of their family through hard work.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, to his credit employed a domestic worker who had previously escaped from an abusive employer and he sometimes makes reference to how this gives him an insight into contemporary slavery. But if the same domestic worker today was to escape from an abusive employer, following the changes in regulations regarding migrant domestic workers’ visas brought into being by Mr Cameron’s government, she would probably be deported rather than protected.

The system of tying domestic worker visas to employers is common place across the Gulf states as well as in the UK. As with the construction workers of Qatar this system is in place to facilitate the abuse and enslavement of vulnerable domestic workers. A year or so ago an Indonesian domestic worker was executed in Saudi Arabia without having had either legal representation at her trial or consular support. Referring to this case, one colleague asked me “Imagine for a moment that woman was guilty of whatever capital offence she was accused of. Can you imagine the level of abuse that someone like her, from one of the gentlest communities in the world, must have gone through to drive her to some act of violence”.

Consequent of this Indonesia stopped its nationals from travelling to Saudi for work. Saudi now seeks to source its slaves from East Africa, principally Ethiopia and Kenya, though Ethiopia has just recently also introduced a travel ban for its nationals.

Ensuring decent work for domestic workers is an essential challenge in the wider struggle of ending violence against women and girls. Yet the UK, along with the government of Sudan, refused to support a new international convention on decent work for domestic workers when it was formulated at the ILO a year or so ago: and when you are on the same side as the government of Sudan on a human rights issue, you are probably on the wrong side.

The UK’s failure to support decent work for domestic workers runs contrary not just to its proposed anti-slavery and anti-violence agendas. It also runs contrary to its development and anti-poverty agendas. Across the globe women are struggling for better lives for themselves and their families by travelling the world in search of work, frequently domestic work. The remittances they send are vital not only for the future of their families but for the development of their countries. In the months and years to come the remittances of Filipino domestic workers are likely to be more important than the efforts of foreign aid agencies in the reconstruction of their country following the devastation caused by the typhoon there.

David Cameron must see how vital the work of such domestic workers is to all of us in Europe following his employment of a migrant domestic worker to help him care for his family while he carried on the hectic schedule of leading the British Government. For many other people across Europe such workers provide essential support without which they would also find it difficult to cope.

It’s time to start valuing domestic workers not by mere words but by actions, and this country, and all of Europe can start by removing the systems that facilitate the routinized use of violence against them.