The author of ‘Against memory’ or ‘The opprobrium of hunger’ considers that the world has returned to a past that he thought was over and that it is the “most dangerous moment since the missile war in Cuba”
The poet Blas de Otero It was at one time, like many of the Spanish intellectuals who confronted fascism radically putting themselves on the other side, a lively follower of Chinese communism. It was then that he wrote a very short poem that some of us haven’t gotten out of our heads. It said “I went to China / to get my bearings a little”.
Raised as an ingenious play on words, the truth is that it was not exactly an orientation that China produced in the world, as corroborated by the impressive testimony that has been the recent novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez‘Turning back’, in which the story that the brothers Sergio and Marianela Cabrera lived in China as teenagers who were loved by their parents as faithful soldiers of Mao is told first-hand, and out loud.
That book, recently published by Alfaguara, has been an immediate success because it is great literature and because, furthermore, it removes the last bandage that shielded the Chinese past as a way to understand life and the world.
But it is true that many Spanish and world intellectuals and politicians looked at China as the talisman of knowledge and hope that were false or empty. Now we have to turn to intellectuals, people, but not parties, to try to understand what is not so easy to put in its place. One of the heads of the international intelligentsia to which this chronicler refers every time something seems tainted by an inextricable nebula is that of David Rieff, American, 1952, author of books on Cuba, on Bosnia, on humanitarianism, whose titles are completed with two that serve to understand recent controversies, such as ‘Against memory’ or ‘The opprobrium of hunger’. In addition, he has devoted exciting attention to collecting his mother’s works, Susan Sontag, who at that time of Blas de Otero also guided many of us about the uncertainties of humanity, although in no case did she come close to what those verses by the Basque poet meant.
A year ago I had the opportunity to interview Rieff, who then enlightened us about the consequences of the darkest moment the world was experiencing when the pandemic seemed like an army against everyone. So I sent him a message to say hello. “I greet you from a sunny and sad city.” This Monday was an equally sunny and sad day in Madrid and, from what I saw through Skype, in New York it had seemed like heaven, but in the world, marked by a real and symbolic war of disaster, life maintains the color of the sadness. Here’s what we talked about with an intellectual who embraces pessimism with tons of lucidity.
What is your state of mind about what is happening to the world?
It may be that I have a less distressing perspective, in the sense that I have always been a pessimist and disasters do not surprise me. What surprises me is the good news. Well, what can we say about the last two or three years? First, the return of pandemics, for the first time in a very serious way, since 1918, that is, a century. All the scientists I know say that pandemics will be a constant thing for humanity. Regarding the wars between states, it seemed that they had ended in 1945. Then there have been civil wars, the one in Yugoslavia… but now it seems that we are living in 1916. The Russian offensive against Ukraine is like from that time. That is to say: we have returned to a past that we thought was over. And we see that, from the 70s of the last century until recently, we were only on a pause. I see it like this. But, I’ve already told you, I’m a pessimist. And that doesn’t surprise me. It scares me, which is something else. I think this is the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis. Now it seems that the Russian army has made several mistakes, they believed that they would reach kyiv in three days and look what has happened. But Russia will not accept defeat and… I don’t know: there are its nuclear weapons and its chemical weapons. Will they use them? Hopefully not. But I’m not sure.
The past does not exactly repeat itself. But tragedy is the constant in human life throughout history
Feel fear? Do you feel that the past visits us again?
Not the past, not exactly. The past does not exactly repeat itself. But tragedy is the constant in human life throughout history. We know perfectly well that life is tragic. You don’t have to be Unamuno, or I don’t know who, to know that in our lives we have to go through horrible things. I think that in recent decades we have had a lot of optimism about public life, about history. But it turns out that there was a rift between our ideas about private life and our utopian ideas about historical development. Right now we are facing tragedy. It must be said that it is a problem, above all, European and American. Because a person who lives in Mali or Venezuela will think that it is not new that things go wrong. Well, given this, perhaps our grandparents’ generation would have thought: another war? Yes, it is like that every few years. But we thought that we had achieved a paradise in historical terms.
Paradise is over. Or, at least, it has stopped.
Paradise is over. What we thought was normal is over.
I do not sympathize much with the attitude of the European Union: it welcomes Ukrainians but rejects other immigrants and refugees
At least we have solidarity.
There is great solidarity with Ukraine, yes. Let’s see if that solidarity manages to rescue the Ukrainians. But I am not very sympathetic to the attitude of the European Union: it welcomes Ukrainians but rejects other immigrants and refugees. We have the right to have more important feelings for our neighbors, yes. But what about the others? They do not exist? We have thought that the main issue of the war is the humanitarian issue, but we would never have described Auschwitz as a humanitarian crisis. It would have been immoral to describe it as a humanitarian crisis. It was much more, it was very serious. Will this war end in a few months? Who knows, it is still difficult to see the post-war and how we are going to get along with the Russians. As if that were not enough, world trade, global food will suffer. We are in dangerous waters.
There are two contenders in this drama: Biden and Putin. For you, what roles are they playing?
I do not understand Putin’s decision, it seems self-destructive to me. Three months ago, the Finns did not think about NATO. Now it seems that 70% of Finns want to be part of it. The same goes for Sweden. Poland was a little sympathetic to Russia and is now extraordinarily helping to evacuate Ukrainian refugees. In other words: the result for Putin is very bad, now he has a weaker Russia. The Chinese do not strongly support it either. Russia will be poorer, with a wounded army, literally and metaphorically. Will they own a destroyed Ukraine? What a victory is that! I don’t understand Putin’s policy. His advisers may have lied to him or I don’t know. And Biden… Biden is very unpopular among Americans, possibly soon the Republicans will control one of the chambers and, if they manage to control both, that of deputies and senators, ‘comedy is over’, as the Italians say. There is ideological instability, Biden has no legislative successes, there is tremendous inflation… all of this affects the majority of Americans and they will vote against the government, not for the opposition. In any case, in the United States, international politics, well… Look: now they are negotiating with Venezuela! For me, the ones who will win with this war are Boris Johnson and Nicolás Maduro. Putin has rescued them both!
Skype has a feature: you say goodbye and the camera closes automatically. So Rieff’s predictions remain in the memory as a premonition containing huge doses of abyss.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.