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A Witness to Genocide.

I was going to be good this year. I resolved on New Year's to rise every morning at five and read for an hour before my kids got up. There's simply too much to read, too little time, and too many interruptions; I needed a strategy, a routine, to conquer the pile.

Alas, I can count only two dozen mornings in 1993 when I kept my vow - a batting average of .066. What's worse, there's no one to blame for all the strike outs, except sloth, the great conspirator.

And so the book list on my desk stares at me as it sprawls over four single-spaced computer sheets, lumped into categories from "Activism" to "U.S. Foreign Policy," and amounting to 295 worthy titles that I had compiled from perusing book catalogs and reviews. Of these, I managed to read perhaps two armloads full - some in a leisurely manner over the course of the year, some cramming for this assignment over the last few days.

Happily, I have several to recommend. And to recommend a book, or to buy a book for a friend, is one of the finer exercises in reciprocal pleasure, akin to baking a rhubarb or blueberry pie from scratch, and sharing it with company.

I began the year with fiction, relishing Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (Dutton). This wonderful, devastating novel tells the harrowing story of a girl named Bone, who is abused by her stepfather until her mother leaves not him but Bone herself. I loved the book for its realism, the vivid characters in Bone's extended family, and Allison's magnificent capturing of regional diction - as well as for the crucial theme and redemptive ending.

I also read some poetry, the most urgent being The Man with Night Sweats, by Thom Gunn (Noonday). The formal verse put me off at first, but I grew to appreciate its power, especially in the latter section of the work, which conveys the pain and sorrow of love in the time of AIDS, the slow and agonizing deaths of the poet's friends, and the irredeemable loss they have created. "Now as I watch the progress of the plague/The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin/and drop away," he writes in "The Missing."

"Lament," the longest poem in the book, begins, "Your dying was a difficult enterprise." This tragic poem is about a friend who "lacked the necessary ruthlessness,/the soaring meanness that pinpoints success." In heartbreaking detail, Gunn recounts the painful hospital treatments and the final crushing moments of his friend's life, when "your lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained,/ did all your breathing now."

Several other AIDS poems have enormous power, including "Words for Some Ash," "Memory Unsettled," and "To a Dead Graduate Student," whose "unique promise - /checked at random,/killed, wasted. What a teacher you'd have made."

I would be remiss if I did not mention Adrienne Rich again. In preparing for the interview with her in this issue, I had the college kid's pleasure of devouring as much of her work as I could find, and I'd like to underscore the importance of What Is Found There. Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (Norton). Start there, and it'll lead you to many joys, surprises, inspirations, and awakenings.

In the nonfiction category, I'd like to recommend several big political books. First, Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. From the Middle Ages to 1870 (Oxford). When my daughter Katherine reaches the age of fourteen or so, I'm going to give her this book, for it explains how women for hundreds and hundreds of years have had to fight the same battles over and over again: the battle to be recognized as intellectual equals, and the battle to assert their own rights as women. It is a depressing and an inspiring story, as Lerner uncovers a great deal of hidden history and profiles hundreds of courageous women who have striven for equality throughout the years.

Similarly, Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Little, Brown) is a work of excavation and empowerment. In part, this is the story of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy in America, as Takaki documents the racism explicit in the words of the Vikings, the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and other traditional schoolbook heroes. Takaki shows how Native Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and Jews all suffered systematic discrimination, and he draws useful parallels among these groups.

But Takaki is not content to write a story of victimization. Taking a leaf from Howard Zinn, he shows the resistance that each group put up against the discrimination and exploitation.

"These people offer hope, affirming the struggle for equality as a central theme in our country's history," he writes. "This is the story of our coming together to create a new society in America."

To create a new society in Latin America is the goal of Jorge G. Castaneda's Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (Knopf). This intimidating but rewarding work examines the history and the prospects of the Left throughout Latin America.

Superficially, those prospects aren't good, he notes. The fall of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of Eastern Europe, the decline of Cuba seem to have placed the Left "on the ropes or on the run."

Ironically, however, the end of the Cold War marks a "particularly propitious" moment for the Left, he argues. There is "a silver lining for the Latin American Left in the vanishing socialist cloud" - most notably in the possibility that the Latin American Left can now rid itself of its communist stigma: Since it no longer can be accused of taking orders from Moscow or Havana, it can now lay a better claim to authentic nationalist credentials.

Castaneda demands that the Latin American Left shed some of its other skins: It should renounce armed insurrection and antidemocratic behavior and embrace a vision of a reformist Left that works with grass-roots movements at the local level. And it should revise its view of the United States its eternal enemy. (Here, I wonder whether the author isn't being naive; he says the end of the Cold War will obviate the "excessive reaction" by Washington to any leftist or nationalist stirrings in Latin America; Haiti clouds that claim.)

In a persuasive if comforting section, he argues that the Left need not hold power to exercise it. By agitating at the grass-roots and intellectual levels, the Left can force the various governments of the region to act more democratically and more humanely. Now is an especially good time for the Left to prosper, he argues, since the free market has devastated the economies and the living standards throughout Latin America.

One excellent case study of politics, economics, and the environment in the Third World is Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines, by Robin Broad with John Cavanagh (University of California Press). In vivid, first-hand accounts, the authors document the devastation of the environment by local companies, multinationals, and their allies in the ruling elites.

"The forests are disappearing, and so the soil of our rice field is being washed to the sea," one peasant woman tells the authors. "There will be no soil left by the time our children are grown. What, I wonder, will become of them?" This book is noteworthy for the distinction it draws between environmentalists in the West, who are primarily concerned with pollution and waste after production, and environmentalists in the Third World, who are primarily concerned with the destruction of the resources they need for survival - destruction that occurs before production.

Like Castaneda's, this work gives the lie to the regnant free-marketeers in Washington. And it offers hope that an exciting grass-roots movement for sustainable development and environmental sanity is emerging from "the plunder economy."

I am haunted by Bosnia. Throughout the year, the U.S. indifference - the Left's indifference! - to the horror in the former Yugoslavia has gnawed at me. And so I turned to two books to inform myself more fully of what is going on, and to wrestle with the dilemma of what to do.

What is going on is genocide. Roy Gutman, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner from Newsday, was the first U.S. reporter to expose Serbia's use of concentration camps and the mass rapes. In A Witness to Genocide (Macmillan), Gutman has collected his dispatches from November 1991 through June 1993.

The Serbian atrocities are ghastly: torture, castration, rape, forced cannibalism, immolation, random execution on a mass scale. The casualness, as well as the brutality, of the perpetrators appalls: When one Serbian police chief was asked why he herded Muslims into cattle cars, he answered: "None of the refugees asked for first-class carriages."

In the author's note, introduction, and epilogue - which together span forty-three pages- Gutman refutes the complacent theory that says everyone in the conflict is equally brutal; he points an unwavering finger at the Serbs. And he holds responsible the governments of Western Europe and especially the United States for allowing the genocide to go on.

"Western governments had written off Bosnia and had not bothered to tell the public," he writes. "Like spectators of a television miniseries, the United States and Europe continued to watch passively as the crimes were being committed."

While Gutman reports the genocide, Zlatko Dizdarevic explains what daily life is like in Sarajevo. Dizdarevic is the editor of Sarajevo's daily newspaper, and in Sarajevo: A War Journal (Fromm), he has collected his columns from April 1992 through August 1993. This is writing in its most engaged state: powerful, poignant, dry, wry, furious, defiant - each piece a well-hewn essay.

"It has been an exceptionally calm day: only six dead and ten wounded," begins one of his columns, with typical irony. "Only in a joust with the absurd can we find a shred of sense," he says in another.

He details the dangers and deprivations of being under siege, and he shows the U.N. peacekeeping troops to be worse than useless. But what keeps him going is the ingenious daily resistance of the citizens of Sarajevo. Two anecdotes stick out: In one, residents manage to tie a loaf of bread to a string and throw it past a sniper to friends below. In another, residents unfurl a huge banner from the top of a building. "Thanks to this huge curtain that now flutters gently in the summer breeze," Dizdarevic writes, "the killers in the hills can no longer see pedestrians on the main thoroughfare. That's how the city's worst snipers have been blinded."

In his introduction, entitled "Madness Against Reason: A Note to the American Reader," Dizdarevic lays down the gauntlet: "I am compelled to broadcast a warning: There are sick people in this world who now understand that they are dealing with a public that, when it comes to international politics, is egotistical, incompetent, and unrealistic. We are witnessing the renascence of Nazism and Fascism, and no one is willing to call a halt to it.... Messrs. Ghali, Clinton, Mitterrand, Yeltsin, Major, and others: Know that it is you and you alone who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of children in Sarajevo."

Have we on the Left - have we at this magazine? - come to grips with this genocide? In these waning days of 1993, I'm afraid our responses have been incoherent at best, indefensible at worst.
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Article Details
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines.
Next Article:Sarajevo: A War Journal.

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