The life before us.

“The life before us” is a very special book, not only due to its content, but also to the story surrounding it. It was thanks to it that, for the first time in French history, an author could circumvent the rules to win the Goncourt Price twice, as it can only be awarded once in a lifetime. “The life before us”, by Émile Ajar, won the same year it was written, in 1975. What the jury ignored was that the psedonym Émile Ajar didn’t belong to its impersonator, Paul Pavlowitch. The truth was only revealed in the suicide note left by Roman Kacew, better known as Romain Gary, who had already been awarded with the Goncourt price in 1956, and who was the man behind Ajar. Later on, he would explain the process of the creation of Émile Ajar in “Vié et mort d’Émile Ajar” -”Life and death of Émile Ajar”- (1981), which was published posthumously. Kacew/Gary/Ajar committed suicide on December 2nd 1980, at 66, by shooting himself. He left a note in which he stated specifically that his death had nothing to do with that of his ex-wife Jean Seberg the previous year, and that Émile Ajar was himself.

romain gary

Writing under pseudonym was a habit for Romain Gary, and he did so under the names Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, besides Ajar and Gary itself. As Ajar, he wrote four works which became well known, and he ironically entitled the third one “Pseudo”. Paradoxically, Gary was accused of imitating Ajar’s style: “I’m a pseudo-pseudo!” he would later laugh.

“The life before us” introduces us to Momo, a child who lives in a run-down urban neighbourhood, Belleville Boulevard -Edith Piaf’s birthplace-. There is a high concentration of immigrants in it: North-African Muslims, black Africans from every nationality, Eastern-Europeans… They know and respect each other and lead their daily lives as anyone would. Momo lives with Madame Rosa, a retired prostitute of Polish Jew origins and who lived the WWII and was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Germans. She takes long-term care of the sons of other prostitutes who are unable to tend to their children properly due to their jobs, and first met Momo when he was three.

Among others, we meet Madame Lola, a transgender prostitute and former boxing champion in Senegal, whom Momo is very fond of, as she’s very kind and motherly. Mr. Driss is a café owner, in whose café several important scenes of the novel take place. There, Momo regularly meets old Hamil, a street carpet vendor, for his lessons about Muslim culture and the Q’ran, as it is Madame Rosa’s wish for the kids to maintain a link with their respective cultures. This is attained through the means available: Momo is in charge of taking 3-year old Banania (Turé) to Bisson Street, where most black Africans live.

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At the time, Momo is around ten, although doubts are raised about that and Madame Rosa, with whom he feels a very strong link, is in her late sixties, but very ill. Madame Rosa is quite a character; she keeps a portrait of Hitler under her bed, so that when she’s feeling down, she can remind herself of what she has been put through and cheer herself up just for having survived all that. Her famous sex-appeal has bidden farewell long ago and she has several ailments, some of which she tries to conceal, as they may hinder her life and that of her kids, including Momo. She keeps secrets, but Momo knows, and suffers. We will walk downstairs with Madame Rosa and Momo, and into Madame Rosa’s basement, where she retires when woken up by nightmares. The place is crammed with memories, Jewish paraphernalia and secrets; it is there where we will witness the most dramatic moments in Momo’s life.

In 1977, Moshe Mizrahi brought the novel to the big screen -Madame Rosa-, featuring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa.

la vie

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The interbellum years II: the crisis.

Hoover came into power 1929. A critical year. He believed that technology and expertise would lead USA to a permanent state of prosperity. Industrial production had increased by 30% during the last ten years, but the characteristic prosperity of the 20s was an illusion and ended in financial disaster. In 1929 the unemployment rate rocketed and 60% of families fell below the poverty line. Several factors contributed to this long crisis:

  • structural weakness of the banking system.

  • Inability of borrowers to repay loans, which lead to a epidemics of bank failures.

  • Unequal distribution of wealth and income (23-29 the income of the wealthiest 1% increased dramatically). Concentration of resources in hands of the wealthy, who didn’t need to spend their money. As a consequence assembly line production, which was aimed for a very different niche, remained stored and the stock surplus lowered prices, which was in turn translated into unemployment and financial failure for the companies. No unemployment insurance: the relief burden fell on state and municipal governments and private charities. Crisis hit during a shift from traditional industries to newer (steel and textiles to processed food, auto-mobiles and tobacco, heavily dependent on the stock market).

  • Farm prices depressed since the end of WWI, when European agriculture revived.

  • Rural consumers stopped buying farm implements and defaulted on their debts putting pressure on the banking system.

  • Protectionist measures: residential construction rose in 1924 and 27 and plummeted in 1929. One of the reasons was the restrictions to immigration. Republican tariff policies damaged foreign trade.

  • Economists and bankers introduced measures founded in past experiences no longer relevant.

  • The Federal Reserve, in order to curb stock market speculation slowed down the growth of the money supply then allowed it to fall after the crash, producing a liquidity crisis. Reduced amount of money available to consumers to spend.

  • USA, UK and most countries in Europe and Latin America insisted on clinging to the Gold Standard after WWI: each currency had a fixed value in relation to gold. It made their economies slow down.

market crash suicide

The Stock Market Crash took place in October 1929. As a result, Hoover was blamed and the new way of life was named after him by his opponents: shanty towns built by the homeless was called Hoovervilles. There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the country during the 1930s and hundreds of thousands of people lived in these slums. Newspapers were called “Hoover blankets”, and empty pockets inside out were “Hoover flags”.

hooverville

Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929; most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased the demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and consisted of tents and shacks. The authorities did not officially recognize these “Hoovervilles” and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private properties, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity.

According to Hoover recovery was just round the corner. But the reality was that families lived on soup and beans only, without meat and fresh vegetables for months. Family providers were in question and they walked long distances looking for a job while their families had to stood in line for hours waiting for a relief check. The crops rotted in the fields, as prices were too low to make harvesting worthwhile. The blacks were the first to lose their jobs and Mexican Americans were deported. Those who were poor before the crisis subsisted better because they were used to subsisting in poverty, but middle class was hit hard. Many professionals and white collars refused to ask for charity and those who fell behind on mortgage payments lost their homes. As health care declined, people stopped going to the doctor, because they could not pay assistance. Banks approached collapse and customers rushed in to withdraw their deposits causing bank failure.

Nunca seremos los mismos

Inmigración. Encendemos la tele y ahí está. Nos repantingamos en nuestros sofás y vemos el cuerpecito sin vida de un bebé en la playa. Vemos el camión frigorífico aparcado a la orilla de una autopista, lleno de cadáveres, a la reportera húngara dando patadas a hombres, mujeres e incluso a niños. Vemos a las angustiadas familias caladas hasta los huesos bajo la lluvia, con sus hijos llorando a su lado, envueltos en bolsas de basura para evitar congelarse en la calle, ya que las autoridades les niegan un techo bajo el que cobijarse. Vemos a cincuenta personas en una lancha de goma cruzando el estrecho que separa África y Europa. Vemos las playas de Lampedusa, repletas de cuerpos abandonados allí por la marea, los cadáveres de aquellos que un día invirtieron todo cuanto tenían para comprar un billete a ninguna parte. Después, salimos a la calle y oímos: “ por qué no se quedan en su país”, “y eso qué tiene que ver conmigo”, “no me interesa”. Qué poca memoria tenemos…

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Foto 1: Españoles en un campo de concentración francés.

Foto 2: Inmigrantes “ilegalesespañoles capturados en Venezuela.

Es muy saludable ejercitar la memoria y la empatía, y eso es lo que hago, de mano del escritor González de la Cuesta.

NSLM

“Nunca seremos los mismos” cuenta la historia de varios personajes anónimos inolvidables como Manuel, Lola, Marga y Rodrigo, y la de otros no tan anónimos, como el afamado y querido poeta Antonio Machado y el presidente de la República, Manuel Azaña. Con “Nunca seremos los mismos” asistimos a los últimos días de Machado en Collioure, desmoralizado, roto. Vemos como la guerra convierte a España en un sitio peligroso para aquellos que formaron parte del bando perdedor y que fueron forzados al exilio para poder sobrevivir. Huyeron sólo para encontrarse con una Europa igualmente fragmentada, a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Y fueron rechazados y despreciados de igual manera por el gobierno francés, que no les dio una dulce bienvenida. Esta novela nos hace bajar de nuestra torre de marfil construida con el olvido y nos recuerda lo que se siente:

huían de su derrota, de la muerte que se cernía como una sombra sobre ellos como una sombra (…) y eso (…) les hacía sentirse como una piltrafa de la Historia. Porque ellos eran personas normales, profesionales que amaban su país, su familia y sus amigos (…)”

nada les produce tanta desolación como la contemplación (…) de miles de personas pugnando por atravesar la frontera (…) las autoridades francesas no están poniendo mucho de su parte por aliviar el sufrimiento de esas personas que sólo quieren un lugar donde vivir y estar seguros. Es más, parecen dispuestos a impedir la entrada masiva de españoles a su país (…) a golpe de culata, empujones, insultos (…)”.

Una vez penetras en el mundo de la diáspora, nada volverá a ser lo mismo. Tú nunca volverás a ser el mismo. Dejas atrás tu país e intentas adaptarte a uno nuevo, donde tu cultura y tu identidad son cuestionadas a cada paso, y cuanto más te adaptas -para poder sobrevivir-, más te separas de tu hogar. Esto es aún más agudo en el caso del exilio motivado por un conflicto bélico. Tú cambias, pero tu país lo hace de una forma drástica, dramática, sin vuelta atrás.

Estas experiencias son vividas por Manuel, Rodrigo y Marga. Dejan su país para no volver, porque aquel país que conocían y amaban ha desaparecido para siempre. Junto a ellos sentimos la aguda punzada de dolor por tan inmensa pérdida, su lucha denodada por sobrevivir y su gran determinación. En su periplo se enfrentan no sólo al rechazo experimentado en Francia, sino que en su camino lleno de dignidad e iniciativa, también hay lugar para la solidaridad y el apoyo transnacional proveniente de ciudadanos anónimos que cobrarán un gran significado en sus vidas: Viveka, Mss.Cameron, Pilar… La crueldad y la indiferencia que muestran las autoridades de los países por los que pasan contrasta con la actitud de las personas de a pie, como suele suceder siempre.

Las ciudades por las que van pasando están descritas a la perfección, y uno puede imaginarse en ellas, a finales de la década de los años 30 y principio de los 40, en una Europa convulsa y en Estados Unidos durante el ataque a Pearl Harbour. Prosiguen, inasequibles al desaliento, con sus vidas, pero algo se ha roto en su interior y sufren la angustia de quien ha sido arrancado de raíz de su hogar y expuesto a la incertidumbre de una vida nueva.
rubber boat

Sí, hemos estado en la misma lancha de goma, compartiendo el mismo espíritu que conduce a todos aquellos que huyen de la atrocidad. Y no hace tanto tiempo de aquello. De la huída de un país herido de muerte, de la violación sistemática de los derechos humanos básicos, del hambre y de la muerte, de un conflicto fratricida. Éramos ellos. Y nuestras cunetas dan buena cuenta de ello, aún repletas de cadáveres de aquellos que -como Lola- no pudieron cruzar la frontera y fueron ejecutados y enterrados ahí mismo, en fosas comunes. Están por toda España. Justo ahí, bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques, en los prados. Y, como dice esa famosa frase de Jorge Santayana, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo». Es bueno no olvidar. Recordemos.

Día de difuntos de 2015, en recuerdo de todos aquellos que continúan bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques y en los prados.

Interpellation and otherness

Not only does colonialism embrace physical coercion, but also a set of beliefs to support it. It interpellates the colonial subjects by incorporating them in a system of representation by which the individual subjects come to internalise dominant values of the privileged part of society and think about their place in it in a particular disempowering way, which favours the colonisers. Interpellation, a term developed by Althusser, describes the way/s in which dominant ideas are made one’s own and how society determined views are expressed “spontaneously” by the colonised subjects. As colonial discourse also work through gratification (Althusser, Foucault), it makes the individual’s sense of worthiness depend on their representation of their assigned role with regards to the coloniser’s. We must bear in mind that discourses don’t reflect pre-given reality, but constitute and produce it.

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In colonised locations, natives are usually required to work on the coloniser’s behalf, thus the language of the metropolis must be learned by them. Teaching English in India was argued as necessary in order for the natives to take English opinions (Macaulay). The result is the so-called mimic-men (V.S. Naipaul): they learn English, doesn’t look English and aren’t accepted as such. They are anglicised natives. They are expected by the metropolis to identify themselves with the middle-class bourgeoisie of the coloniser rather than with the indigenous masses (Franz Fanon), and although it may seem to expected to happen that way during the first stages, this fact is usually reverted later on, once native intellectuals they gain perspective. It is the next step, when native intellectuals can be regarded as a threat for the metropolis and when they can rewrite history from a post-colonial point of view.

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The construction of otherness is significant for national representation, as identity is always defined in relation to something else. Borders are designed by people, and so are nations. They are fabrications, not natural phenomena. The myth of the nation serves the purpose of making people think of themselves as part of a greater collective, a sense of belonging that national symbols help to create. The invention and confection of history is central to the creation of nations and to colonialism. In reality there are so many versions of history as there are narrators.