Category Archives: Latin American Stuff
A Novel by Guillermo Sheridan
Do you like obscure subjects? Recondite knowledge, yes? Well, here’s a little post about a Mexican satirical Science-Fiction novel that’s been out of print for decades and is unavailable in English. Impressed? Thought not.
So, let us begin. El Dedo De Oro (The Golden Finger) is more satire than Sci-Fi. Its main thrust is the critique of Mexico’s one-party state. At the time of publication (1996), the PRI government only had four years to go, but had dominated Mexican politics since the 1920s (admittedly the party had mutated in that time, changing its name and its organization quite radically, but still maintaining its status as the sole party in power). The story is set in 2026. Mexico City is darkened by a cloud of smog so thick that helicopters have attempted to tow it away. The rich live in skyscrapers tall enough to pierce the cloud of pollution, the rest live in permanent semi-darkness under the smoggy murk.
A lot of the best Sci-Fi and fantasy holds up a mirror to contemporary life. The distance from the object offered by speculative fiction allows, I would argue, a better perspective on society than a lot of straightforward realist treatments. A more accessible example of this type of speculative fiction (for all you non-Mexicans) is China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. The portrayal of the fictional Dickensian/Peake-ish city, ‘New Crobuzon’, holds up a mirror to contemporary London that compares with strictly realist interpretations of Britain’s capital (Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, etc), which cannot (or won’t) offer the breadth of vision that Mieville does. Mieville’s city is a heaving, multi-cultural, grimy, violent place underpinned by hidden slavery and industrial strife. Its corrupt parliament, brutal Metropolitan Police (sorry, militia), Glasshouse (combination of Crystal Palace and Millenium Dome) and station that is a hub of a crumbling urban rail network – eerily familiar to users of the Northern Line – are some of the more intriguing parallels. All in all, the ‘step back’ that you take when exploring the fictional city, brings you closer to the real one. Back to Sheridan, though, enjoyable though this digression was.
A recent overview of Mexican Science Fiction in Strange Horizons magazine concludes that what little exists tends to be dystopian and at times satirical. Not surprising, given the history and politics of the country. El Dedo de Oro fits neatly into this scenario. The plot centres around an old, decrepit union boss, Hugo Atenor Fierro Ferraez. He is over a hundred and fifty years old and heads a council of four ‘Substitute Leaders’ who run the country behind the scenes. The actual presidents are, by 2026, so weak and powerless that the government party just clones them.
Hugo Atenor is based on a real-life political figure, Fidel Velazquez, leader of Mexico’s government-controlled trade unions (he was head of the union movement for over fifty years, until his death, aged 97). The satire on the old, lumbering, corrupt scumbag is wonderfully savage. In the novel, the old man’s power springs from his possession of a talismanic object; the golden finger of the title. This object (a statuette of a pointing finger, made from pure gold) has a spooky effect on Mexicans; it makes them subservient and obedient to its wielder. Any Mexican who wields it, has power over his compatriots.
Again, the finger has a political significance [see this on the Dedazo]. Hugo Atenor keeps the source of his power jammed up his rectum. It is when making love to his teenage Argentine pop-star girlfriend, Solida Soleil, that the finger is taken from him. At the point of orgasm, the old man suffers a serious spasm which causes him to be rendered unconscious and for the finger to shoot out of his ass and smash into the bedroom wall – along with a snake-like cable of shit that points toward the finger. When Solida emerges from underneath the comatose, walrus-like centenarian monster, she assumes he is dead and decides to leave before the police find out (and blame her for his death). She finds the finger cleans it and takes it with her. The hunt is then on for this allegorical mcguffin, which takes the plot to all kinds of strange places.
The strength of the book is in the pungency of its satire and its ear for dialogue and different registers of Mexican Spanish. It is, I’m afraid, an almost impossible book to translate (the Mexican political in-jokes would be baffling to most readers). I loved it. How refreshing to read something so angry, so political, so fucking defamatory… no British writer or publisher would ever dare imagine a book like this. Not ever .
El Cuarto Reich by José Palomo
José Palomo Fuentes (1943 – ) wrote his satirical comic-strip El Cuarto Reich (The Fourth Reich) in exile. A successful cartoonist in his native Chile, he was forced to leave his homeland after the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet’s junta to power. He was right to flee. Cartoonists had become politicised by the Chilean experience in a way that was hardly comparable elsewhere. Sure, the US had the underground commix trying to exercise their constitutional right to say the word ‘fuck’ and show some genitals in their comics, but in Chile they were caught in a propaganda war. A war that turned brutal after the generals took over.
Jose Palomo, co-founder of the humour magazine La Chiva (The Nanny Goat) left for Mexico where he still lives. There he used his art to take revenge on Pinochet and his regime (and the wider problems of Latin American poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship and US imperialism). El Cuarto Reich is his savage, bitter riposte to the forces of reaction. It is set in an imaginary (archetypal?) Latin American republic and includes all social classes. At the top, there is the dwarf-like dictator (a thinly disguised Pinochet) and his functionaries. The press corps (there to field easy questions) are part of a controlled and pliant media. There are soldiers, secret policemen, riot squads, and shanty towns. Endless shanty towns filled with the poor and destitute.
Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, does it? The humour, however, is there in every strip; dark, satirical, graveyard humour, punctuated with the allusions, exaggerations and vulgarity that all great graphic satire carries inside.
In El Cuarto Reich we have torturers and secret policemen in gaberdine coats, their pockets always dangling an electrode plug, in case they have to torture somebody on the go. They all wear T-shirts emblazoned with telling English language slogans: ‘Status Quo Loyal Force’, ‘Fort Bragg North Carolaina’ and ‘Fort Benning Columbia Georgia’ are the most common. It is common knowledge South of the border that Fort Bragg is where the School of The Americas is based. This particular school trains foreign army personnel in counterinsurgency techniques including torture. Torture and psychological warfare manuals from Fort Bragg have been used by right-wing military juntas throughout the region.
The dwellers of the shanty towns are also present in numbers. The shanties are dilapidated, full of flea-bitten dogs, crumbling schools, sewage pipes leaving rivers of filth running through the streets. Above there is always a police helicopter, watching. Hunger is commonplace. In fact the capitalist system demands its presence. According to the Neoliberal economists who stalked the continent some decades ago, poverty is needed to drive wages down and encourage investment. Poverty in Latin America was a requirement of economic policy. As one of the poor people observes, cookery books are subversive texts in the Fourth Reich.
There are other characters to be found in this land. The rich widow in her stretch limo, lecturing her chauffeur on the moral depravity of the poor, the dictator’s wife (the Primera Lady), trying to cover up an ugly reality with pretty flowers, the combi buses, belching out smoke, the children asking questions in school (and you shouldn’t ask questions in the Fourth Reich), the riot police ready to crush the demonstrators that gather in the main square.
As I write, there are riots going on in Egypt and the Arab world clamours for democracy. They could do worse than look across the water, at nations with two hundred years worth of experience of resisting dictatorship, most of whom have left the days of military dictatorship behind. In any event, I hope your Fourth Reichs are swept away by history, that only the works of satirists like Palomo remain to prove they ever existed.
The end of hostilities in 1917 led to the single most stable and monolithic systems of government in the 20th century. The triumphant revolutionaries did one thing extremely well: hold on to power. In terms of their social agenda, however, the legacy of Revolution was a mixed bag.
Revolution is tricky to define, more so if applied to any particular conflict. Most definitions go for the idea that a revolution fundamentally reorders power relations within society, a reordering that must benefit those from below, that it must eliminate the ruling elite and establish a new governing class. In terms of Mexico, however, a lot of the scholarship sees the Revolution as incomplete or even non-existent. Sociologist Adolfo Gilly considers it an interrupted revolution, others not even that. For more insight, you could do worse than consider one of British higher education’s hidden treasures; a generation of Mexican historians that are the undisputed world’s best (Alan Knight, Brian Hamnett, Will Fowler, Hugh Thomas).
The failures of the Revolution were many. It did not end the most basic inequalities, poverty remained widespread, land reform (apart from the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas) was piecemeal, insufficient and badly implemented, corruption was never seriously tackled and the state party system was undemocratic. The ruling party (The PRM, which later became the PRI) won every presidential election from 1920 to 2000, held every single governorship until the mid 1980s and would win upwards of 90% of seats in parliament (Mexican vote-rigging techniques are legendary, but it would take too much space to deal with here. A later post, perhaps).
Despite these drawbacks, the Revolution did make a huge difference to many. The end of debt peonage, nationalization of the American oil companies, education, health and public works programmes benefited many. Women were also freer from traditional gender roles. One important area was a new cultural assertiveness that the revolution brought to Mexicans.
This assertive revolutionary culture had both internal and external causes. In the 1920s, the end of WWI saw the end of European dominance in the economic and cultural sphere and the rise of the United States. Outside Europe, WWI was (is) seen as an elitist clash of empires, and this has a negative effect on how Europe is viewed.
Latin America as a whole also undergoes rapid changes including industrialisation and the growth of economic prosperity (especially in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile). This trend leads to a new assertiveness by Latin Americans as they develop their own cultural identity (cinema, radio, music -Carlos Gardel-, poetry -Rubén Darío- ).
Another important international influence was the Russian Revolution and its art and culture. A split began to develop between an old, elitist culture (identified with Western Europe) and popular new forms (US and Latin American).
Mexico led the way in terms of Latin American culture. Influenced by the Revolution, people began to re examine their own roots: What was it to be a Mexican? The government played a leading part in promoting a new culture. Nationalism became a key feature of this promotion. José Vasconcelos, first director of SEP (education ministry) was a central figure in promoting cultural policy. His aims were:
a) To make culture more nationalistic
b) To explore the Indian past and bring it to the mainstream
c) To fight illiteracy (cultural missions and schools crucial in this)
Mexico is now seen as home of the “cosmic race”, indigenous culture promoted as authentic. Revolution glorified as an epic struggle between good an evil. Campaigns against foreign influences (jazz, horchata, women’s flapper fashions), and more importantly against the Catholic Church.
Muralists were one of great cultural forces in revolutionary creative arts: Diego Rivera (married to Frida Kahlo), José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros are the three big names in this artistic movement. Influences on these included Indian techniques and designs and Soviet muralism (art in public spaces, for the people rather than shut away in galleries and collections of the elite and the rich), painted huge buildings; themes too on a heroic scale: Indians, peasants, workers as heroes. Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa are glorified as champions of the poor (even as they were being marginalized politically). In architecture this spirit is mirrored in the new UNAM university campus: buildings are laid out using the pre-Hispanic cities of Monte Albán and Teotihuacán as a blueprint, to create spaces reminiscent of the Aztec past.
By contrast, most novelists are cynical about the Revolution and its outcome (Azuela, Rulfo and later Fuentes). Although most of these writers produced nuanced, intelligent and acute portraits of the conflict, the literate novel-reading elite was always a small minority and unlikely to upset the status quo. In fact the SEP promoted many of these critical novels, showing an openness to criticism and dissent in literary salons that was not tolerated in the mass media. Eventually, however, the dam was going to break.
It all happened in the 1940s, a golden age of Mexican Popular culture: cinema genres (musicals, charro westerns, Luis Buñuel) also championed the music of José Alfredo Jimenez, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete: Mariachi music is born. The development of press magazines and the comic book industry saw the country become increasingly literate and westernized. Radio serials (romantic tales, forerunners of telenovelas) grew alongside the music-hall comedians who made the transition to the wireless medium (Cantinflas is perhaps the best known of these). SEP begins to publish and promote the work of Mexican writers such as Mariano Azuela’s novel Los de Abajo (The Underdogs). Culture became increasingly independent of government; irreverent, questioning and sometimes critical, it reflected the Revolution (and Mexico itself) as a multi-layered and contradictory place.
November 2010 sees the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: The first major social re-ordering of the 20th century. Its impact abroad was huge, causing panic among elites and putting a glint in the eye of the workers of the world. Mexico predated the Russian Revolution by 7 years and its successes and failures were pored over by Lenin, Trotsky and others.
The conflict itself can be (very simplistically) divided into three main stages. The first was the overthrow of the long-standing dictator Porfirio Díaz. Díaz, in power since 1876, was a poster-boy for 19th century Liberalism. He opened up the country to foreign investment, cleared Indians from their land, allowed a wealthy elite to dominate (over 80% of Mexico’s farmland was owned by a mere 840 families). When in the run-up to the 1910 elections Díaz said he would welcome opposition, a lawyer named Francisco Madero took him at his word, standing against him on a popular platform. The dictator promptly had him arrested.
Escaping to exile, Madero called for an overthrow of the regime. Emiliano Zapata, a southern peasant leader, answered his call as did the northern bandit, Pancho Villa. Together, they overthrew Díaz the next year. The old dictator went off to Paris and exile. What Mexico did next was tear itself apart.
Madero was too cautious to satisfy his supporters, too radical for his opponents. At heart, Madero was a liberal too, believing that merely through just laws a more equal society could be made. He freed the press, which was controlled by his opponents, and they began to lambast him. Zapata and Villa wanted radical change and land reform. They did not get it. Soon they retreated to their heartlands to defend their gains. Both refused to disarm and submit to the new order.
The second part of the Revolution now begins. In 1913, Madero was overthrown by general Victoriano Huerta, who promised to restore the values of Porfirio Diaz (though not Porfirio himself). Madero was deposed, arrested and murdered in mysterious circumstances. Villa, Zapata and the northern governors Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza rise up against the usurper. Huerta is defeated the next year and goes into exile. Villa and Zapata ride into Mexico City at the head of their armies.
The triumphant revolutionaries were split into two groups. The more radical, Villa and Zapata, wanted land reform and social justice. Carranza and Obregón were more conservative, in the Madero tradition. The third stage of the Revolution involves the power struggle between these groups.
To begin with, Villa and Zapata are left in charge. Carranza takes his troops and retreats to the port of Veracruz (which controls most of the income from foreign trade), Obregón cuts a deal with the CROM anarchist trade union central. Slowly Carranza and Obregón begin to win ground eventually defeating the forces of Villa and Zapata, which again retreat to their rural strongholds.
The 1917 constitution marks a formal end to the fighting. The constitutional convention of 1916 again saw a split between radicals and moderates. The radicals won most of the key battles: an eight hour working day, minimum wage, the right to be paid in cash rather than tokens or company store vouchers were all gains enshrined in the constitution as were land reform, secular education and the control by the state of all sub-soil deposits (which led to the nationalization of foreign oil companies in 1938) and no re-election. The governments in power were, however, moderate in character. Both Carranza and Obregón served terms as president. Villa and Zapata were both murdered by government forces. Obregón himself was assassinated as he campaigned for a second term in office, something specifically forbidden by the constitution.
Most Mexicans look back on this period with mixed feelings. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Revolution was betrayed, that all the violence (approximately 1 million people died in the conflict) achieved so very little. All the idealists in this story (Madero, Villa, Zapata, Obregón) died violent deaths well before their time. Only the scumbag dictators, Huerta and Díaz, lived full lives into their dotage. If nothing else, the study of Mexican history teaches you one important lesson: life ain’t fair.
It should also teach you something else; that Zapata lives, that his cry of ‘Land and Freedom’ is still relevant today. That politics is a struggle where you never truly win or lose. There is always a new generation on both sides ready to fight every battle.
So, Feliz aniversario, amigos Mexicanos.
¡Sufragio Efectivo, No Reelección!
El Santo Vs Tetona Mendoza (Jis & Trino)
Mexico has always played its part in the underground comic’s scene and its own indigenous comic book culture (inventors, so they say, of the photo-novel). Free from the neanderthal Comics Code Authority (but not their own Education Ministry) they carved their own particular furrow under the radar of the Anglo industry (Sergio Aragonés being the honourable exception).
Fast forward to the 1980s, a decade where the Mexican Comic-book industry is in meltdown and the press is being assailed by economic crises. One newspaper, the left-leaning La Jornada decides to take on this situation; advertising revenue falling, rapidly declining readership, particularly among young people, a stagnant, old-fashioned newspaper industry. They decideto take a gamble. At a stroke La Jornada killed off the traditional Sunday ‘funny pages’, up to now filled with syndicated cartoons from abroad. Gone were the twee, badly translated US strips (Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Peanuts, Blondie, Garfield). In their place arose Histerietas: a 6-page weekly showcase for rude, noxious, prurient Mexican underground comix.
It is hard to imagine now the influence that this weekly supplement had. The strips chosen were dripping with attitude, swearing, blasphemy, sex and disrespect for authority. In a society with very traditional norms of behaviour (particularly in the press), it revolutionized attitudes and (as the editors hoped) sold by the bucket load. Santos ran to three best-selling anthologies, lasted for over a decade and was even mooted as a major animation series.
The star turn in the Histerietas stable, was an experimental narrative cooked up by two cartoonists from Guadalajara; Jose Ignacio Solorzano (Jis) and Jose Trinidad Camacho (Trino). Their page-long strip El Santos Vs Tetona Mendoza soon acquired a cult following. At the heart of the strip is the protagonist/hero, Santos; a disrespectful parody of the famous (in Mexico) 1960s wrestler, El Santo. From the outset, this appropriation of a popular icon and its transformation into a comedic character laid down a marker. A line in the sand for a new generation ready to overthrow previous sacred cows. Either that or they found something really funny about the overblown, macho superhero of previous generations. The new Santos by contrast, is a whining childish figure who is totally besotted by the female wrestler, Tetona Mendoza (tit-woman Mendoza).
The structure of the strip is particularly interesting. The (full) page is usually divided into two sections. The first is given over to a formulaic narrative that begins with a stock phrase: “One day Santos was…”. Whatever Santos is doing (playing with his Barbie dolls, trying to develop telepathy or writing his memoirs), he is interrupted by El Cabo (a police constable) who brings a problem to his attention. Santos and Cabo then set out to solve the problem. And fail. Each of the artists, Jis or Trino, may write the strip up to a certain point, leaving the other to develop the storyline from where the other left off, usually in a totally different direction. This rather chaotic element to the story structure is reinforced in the second half of the strip.
The second half of Santos is devoted to a number of one-off single-panel gags dealing (tangentially in some cases) with the subjects tackled in the first half of the strip. These are also written alternatively by Jis and Trino. The last of these is always the Epilogue, which tries to bring the whole narrative together. The strip also boasts a huge cast of characters (Peyote the assassin, Godzilla, the devil Zepeda, the Gutierrez piglets, Red Riding Hood, the Sahuayo zombies, Susi San Ramon, Lupe the Siren… I could go on).
I love this strip (and have immortalized it in academia -vol 25,2006), because it did what the best of underground culture does. It gave a voice to youth who were struggling in a world with few opportunities. It gave them something to call their own within a media landscape that did little but alienate and repel them (if you’ve ever watched Mexican TV you’ll know what I mean). It is also incredibly funny, fresh and original in its execution and style. It might not be the greatest artwork in the world, you might not be able to understand a word of the layered, dense Mexican vernacular, but it lightened the load for a generation of Mexicans. Pure joy wrapped in printer’s ink.
If there was ever one comic book writer who should be a shoe-in for a Nobel Prize for Literature, it is Argentina’s Carlos Trillo. Not that I want to have a go at the Nobel’s (OK, so they never gave Jorge Luis Borges the main gong, but they can make up that insult to Argentine letters by honouring Trillo –so there!).
Trillo was born in the 1940s, Juan Domingo Perón was running the show. Bad, do you think? It’s just about to get worse. When Trillo begins to write professionally in the 60s, the political system is swinging wildly from democracy to dictatorship and back again. Political turmoil was perhaps the result of a steady economic decline. For authors it was a troubling time. Even if you could escape censorship today, that is not to say that a coup next week might look on your writing and/or politics differently. One early lesson was learning to write in censorship-proof language; a code to be deciphered by reading between the lines.
Argentina has always had amazing cartoonists and the 1960s were no exception. Trillo began his collaboration with illustrator Horacio Altuna and between they produced some truly biting political satires. One of the best is their first: Charlie Moon.
The eponymous hero of Charlie Moon is an adolescent growing up in the 1930s depression-era America. Charlie is a hobo, living by hitching rides on trains, taking short-term jobs and trying to make his way in a hostile, uncaring world. Charlie observes (usually in silence) the middle class snobbery, racism and barbarity of a society that despised its poor. On the surface, it is a devastating critique of the US and its economic system (There is some justification for this kind of a reading, given the ignoble US role in Latin American affairs). There is, however, another way of reading the text: Charlie becomes Carlos and the critique is not ostensibly about the US, but how the poor live in Argentina. Where Chekhov told writers to write about their own village to aspire to universal themes, in a dictatorship you have to use universal themes to talk about your own village. Charlie Moon is high art. Art produced under dangerous conditions.
Just how difficult the conditions were to become, was typified by the fate endured by cartoonists Hector Oesterheld and Enrique Brescia, murdered by the bloodthirsty Videla dictatorship. Many of their relatives were murdered too. Trillo had collaborated with Brescia and others. As many cartoonists, he had to find refuge in fantasy and SF to escape the censors. With Altuna he invented the doors of Mr Lopez (a humorous fantasy). And the SF cosy catastrophe, The Last Playtime.
Mr Lopez is a fat, middle aged pen-pusher who is bullied by his wife and pushed around by his boss and work colleagues. He does, however, have an escape. Every time Lopez goes into a toilet cubicle, he goes into a parallel dimension. In that parallel dimension, he will go through adventures that relate to and comment on his own experience and society’s attitudes. The Last Playtime is set in a world where all the adults in the world have died as a result of biological warfare. The children are left to sort out their own lives and soon fall into the same patterns as their elders: The children of soldiers have access to guns and can control the food supply –everyone else works for them. Eventually the biological agent wears off and some of the children become sexually mature. This maturity, which leads to love, becomes a way to liberate the young from self-imposed dictatorship.
In his latter years Trillo has seen his work translated into English. His masterwork (and for this alone he should be ‘Nobelled’) is his writing on The Big Hoax (artist: Domingo Mandrafina). It is a work that is hard to describe. It is at once a magical-realist fable, a filmic noir thriller and an evocation of Bolero music. It is the tale of Donny, a PI who gets involved with the niece of the dictator of an imaginary Latin American island. Their story is told/manipulated by the Island’s writer of radio soap operas. Its Garcia Marquez meets The Maltese Falcon. (With Robert Mitchum in a starring role). A truly amazing piece of storytelling (its sequel, The Iguana is in the shops too!).
So that’s my nomination. Did he do more fun stuff? Yeah. With the Catalan Jordi Bernet he wrote Clara De Noche (a Belle du Jour spoof) and his most recent work, Spaghetti Bros. is a fun tale of New York Italian mafiosi It’s all good stuff. Maradona may have the ‘ Hand of God’, but not the one he uses to write comic-books. Another Argie has that one..
In the greater scheme of things, the decline of the novel is perhaps one of the least of our worries. If we shift the focus from the hand-wringing world of literary matters, however, there is a huge underlying problem with reading as an activity (or, as the government likes to call it, a key skill). The central issue is the sheer number of our fellow citizens who suffer from poor reading abilities and illiteracy. For the individuals involved, this can be a crushing setback to their lives. Without reading and writing you cannot search for work, surf the net, pass your driving test or even check your utility bills for the inevitable mistakes (what is it with British Gas bills?). Oh, and you will be unable to enjoy the latest Iain Banks or Will Self either.
The most vexing aspect of this problem is that it can be extremely difficult to teach adults who have problems with literacy. They have often been written off as stupid or lazy and have therefore become very defensive and hostile to the process of learning. What they fear, above all else, is to face humiliation in a classroom setting. Again. People with literacy problems are overwhelmingly from deprived backgrounds, with family histories of low educational attainment. Figures also show that adult literacy problems are major problems within the prison system. Poverty, crime and educational dysfunction; all a heady mix of problems that are seemingly intractable. Is there no hope of a solution to all this?
Luckily, I never ask such leading questions in the middle of an article without having some sort of answer to hand. The answer I have is not new and has been applied in many countries that want to educate a lot of people without much money. It involves, get this, FREE BOOKS FOR PEOPLE THAT NEED THEM. It is a fairly simple idea when you come to think of it. One of the indicators of deprivation used in the UK to measure child poverty, for example, is households where there are no books. It is estimated that about 10% of children in the UK grow up in such households. If there are no books around, how can children (or their parents) develop their literacy skills or get into the reading habit?
Now, there are probably a number of very good reasons why people have no books. Maybe you work as a librarian and cannot face the things in your own house, perhaps you favour minimalist interior design and see books as mere clutter, but apart from these excellent excuses, overwhelmingly the answer is simple; people don’t have books because they are just too poor to buy them.
As usual when faced with a problem, your handsome interlocutor takes a solution in the maw of the most dangerous communist regime he can. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example. His government has given away schoolbooks to poor families since he came to office in 1998. The results in increased literacy have been staggering. Furthermore, this programme has been hugely popular with the poor. So there you have it, free books for the disadvantaged. Good innit? And that’s all there is to it. A policy that will popular, good for the educational attainment of the poorest members of society and relatively cheap. Bring back free school milk and cut fuel taxes as well and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a winning manifesto. Are you listening, Gordon? Because I’ve done all the hard work for you. No, thats OK, no need to thank me. Just punch that creep Milliband in the face and post it on YouTube. That’ll do me.
One tiny problem. It won’t be possible to give away school books, as there are, in effect, no nationally agreed subject curricula (different exam boards, you see), so if you write a Physics textbook to suit one exam board, it might not cover areas included by other boards. Furthermore, the UK has a very important educational publishing industry that might get upset if you start giving away the merchandise. The next best thing is to give away novels. My idea would be to give away ten volumes a year for five years to families that qualify. They would have to go to their nearest public library to pick up their books Once there, the librarians could go to work signing them up for a library card, directing them to literacy courses and children’s reading groups (for their kids, obviously) and other useful things.
Together with their books they should be given advice about setting up a family bookshelf, setting times for family reading. Even some DIY advice on how to make a bookshelf for your home. Ideally recipients of this programme would end up after the five years with a family bookshelf containing about fifty novels by a variety of authors. Enough for any family to be getting on with. Welcome to the National Literature Collection. These books could then be produced in a single collection (hardback volumes would look classier) that would look and feel attractive so people would feel proud to display and collect them. The books themselves should highlight the best of British and world literature, have a number of titles specifically for children (particularly adventure stories for boys) and collections of British short stories, plays and verse.
Got the idea yet? Free books leads to increased levels of functional literacy, more people getting the reading habit, which leads to more books being consumed, which leads to greater numbers of books sold. No downside at all. Oh, and it’s cheap. Distributing and printing these books will cost, what? Five million, if that? Peanuts when compared to bank bailouts and other tax-funded bagatelles.
Because of copyright restrictions, most of the novels used should be in the public domain (although agreements with living authors should allow contemporary works to be included). Sadly, copyright for a lot of 20th century literature is held by rapacious trusts that charge publishers a fortune to use the author’s work. Avoiding authors like John Betjeman and James Joyce is therefore wise. Just for fun, I’ve compiled a list of titles that I would use…
National Literature Collection
1 Collected British Verse
2 Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, As You Like It (Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
4 H. P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu Stories
5 Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate
6 Grimm’s Fairy Tales
7 George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
8 William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
9 Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers
10 Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
1 Collected British Humour
2 Shakespeare – Othello, King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona (Annotated)
3 Anna Sewell – Black Beauty
4 Emilio Salgari – Sandokan
5 Virginia Woolf – Orlando
6 Herman Melville – Moby Dick
7 Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
8 Robert Louis Stevenson – Kidnapped
9 Magnus Mills – The Scheme for Full Employment
10 Anthony Trollope – Barchester Towers
1 Collected British Theatre
2 Shakespeare – The Tempest, Richard III, Henry V(Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol and Other Stories
4 Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
5 Oscar Wilde – A Picture of Dorian Gray
6 Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
7 Jorge Icaza – Huasipungo
8 Lewis Carroll – Alice Through the Looking Glass
9 Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
10 Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
1 Collected British Prose
2 Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, A Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens (Annotated)
3 Homer – The Iliad
4 Wu Ch’ung We – Monkey
5 George Eliot – Middlemarch
6 Ken Saro Wiwa – Lemona’s Tale
7 Richmal Crompton – Just William
8 Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure
9 Jerome K Jerome – Three Men in a Boat
10 Kurt Vonnegut JR – Cat’s Cradle
1 Shakespeare – Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing (Annotated)
2 Jane Austen – Emma
3 Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
4 John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress
5 Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders
6 Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurian
7 LaFontaine – Selected Fables
8 Sherezade – Tales of the 1001 Nights
9 Charles Kingsley – The Water Babies
10 John Galsworthy – The Man of Property