Varlam Shalamov’s prose of the future

For the last couple of weeks I have been steadily working my way through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a newly-translated collection of tales drawn from the author’s experiences at the most notorious outpost of the Soviet Gulag system. Perhaps not everyone shares my fascination with prison literature, but I found these stories remarkably fresh and closely observed.

One of the closest things to a statement of purpose from Shalamov comes at the opening of the 1960 story “The Necktie”, when the narrator asks himself how he can make his story “a piece of the prose of the future”:

In the past and at present a writer needs to be someone like a foreigner in the country he is writing about if he wants to be a success. He has to write from the viewpoint—interests, vision—of the people he grew up among and from whom he got his habits, tastes, and views. A writer writes in the language of those in whose name he speaks. And that is all. If a writer knows his material too well, the people for whom he is writing won’t understand him. The writer will have betrayed them and gone over to the side of his material.

You mustn’t know your material too well. Every writer in the past and the present had that defect, but the prose of the future demands something different. It will be professionals with a gift for writing who will speak out, not writers. And they will tell us only about what they know and have seen. Plausible accuracy is the force behind the literature of the future.

Shalamov was not a foreigner in the country of the Gulag: he was very much on the side of his material. In his stories he does not explain too much about the camp system, but simply recounts the actions of its participants, and this is usually all that is really required to understand how it works. As the translator, Donald Rayfield, observes in his introduction, “Despite his own assertion…Shalamov knew his material perfectly, and he wrote in a way that everyone can understand.”


Richard Bush on Xi vs Trump, or, who is the real Maoist?

Richard Bush from Brookings has come up with the best point-by-point comparison of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, the two most important global political figures of the present moment, that I have yet seen.

Some of these points may seem obvious by now, but there is always value in a concise and clear summary, and I thought this was exceptionally concise and clear. I also largely agree with it. I have lightly edited the bullet points below for clarity:

The similarities:

  • Ambition. They each have grand and similar ambitions for their countries: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and making America great again.
  • Self-regard. They each have a high estimation of their own ability to lead their countries and confidence that they can overcome all obstacles. Each believes he is above the law and each in his own way. Xi has worked to ensure that the courts are subordinate to the Communist Party and to create extra-judicial mechanisms. Trump wants a law-enforcement system that is loyal to him.
  • Nationalism. Each is tapping into nationalist sentiment. Xi plays on the public’s desire to restore China to a global leadership role. Trump plays on the fears of white people about non-whites, both immigrants and native-born.

The differences:

  • Institutions. Xi basically accepts China’s political institutions. He believes they work and that they can be improved. Much of what he has done is to restore the Party’s leadership role. He is confident about his ability to work within China’s institutional structure. In this regard, he is very much like Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, but like Liu, he wants the CCP to penetrate most sectors of Chinese society. Donald Trump rejects the role of institutions and the limits they place on himself. He regularly criticizes America’s governing institutions and works to undermine them. In this sense, he is something of a Maoist.
  • Program. Xi Jinping has a much more systematic vision of what he wishes to accomplish and how to get there. Trump thinks in terms of slogans and does not appreciate the contradictions among his various goals. Each leader appears to be a populist but Xi is a genuine populist and Trump is a sham populist.
  • Discipline. Xi Jinping is very disciplined in his leadership style. Trump thrives on chaos, which he does everything to create, and he cares very much about his image and whether others respect him.

The whole speech on US-China relations from which this is drawn is very much worth reading.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Miles Davis – Big FunSometimes you just don’t hear things the first time. When back in the day I first heard Big Fun and a lot of other 70s electric Miles, it all seemed noodly and pointless. Returning to it today, I find it has become one of my favorite examples of this era of Miles: beautiful, gentle, almost ambient.
  • Nina Simone – Let It Be MeA live set from very late in her career. She does not (of course) sound like she did in the 1960s, and her voice shows a lot of wear. But it’s still a stunning performance; I particularly liked the title track and “Baltimore.” Is there a reason her version wasn’t the theme song for The Wire? Too obvious?
  • Sun Ra – The Cymbals/Symbols Sessions. Some of my favorite small-band Sun Ra recordings; keyboard-heavy workouts from 1973 with ripping horn solos and grooving bass work from Ronnie Boykins. The 16-minute “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” is a stone-cold late-night classic. Five tracks from these sessions were reissued in the 1990s as part of the “The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums” collection, but the heroic work of the Sun Ra Archive has improved the sound and unearthed another six tracks in similar style, which are very much worth hearing.
  • Orchestra Baobab – Tribute To Ndiouga DiengA new album from Orchestra Baobab is a cause for celebration, even if the occasion was the death of one of their original vocalists in 2016. But the Afro-Cuban rhythms and liquid guitar work sound as good as ever. Irresistible.
  • Joe Venuti & Earl Hines – Hot Sonatas. Violinist Joe Venuti recorded some of the first and most famous duets in jazz in the 1920s in partnership with guitarist Eddie Lang. Pianist Earl Hines also recorded “Weather Bird,” a great duet with Louis Armstrong, in the same decade. The two played together for the first time on this delightful 1975 recording, showing just how full of life the 1920s chamber-jazz style could still be.

There are laws of history, and they work in China’s favor

The latest issue of Bill Bishop’s excellent Sinocism newsletter pointed out an interesting speech by Kevin Rudd analyzing recent Xi Jinping’s official pronouncements on foreign policy. Here is the section that jumped out at me:

There is a second element to the June 2018 Conference which grows out of the first. It is Xi’s deeply Marxist, dialectical-materialist view of history based on permanently evolving “contradictions” between what dialecticians call thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In Xi’s view, this in turn gives rise to defined “laws” of historical development which are both prescriptive and predictive.

This may sound like old-fashioned Marxism. That’s because it is. The intellectual software of generations of Chinese leaders has been shaped by this conceptual framework for interpreting and responding to what they define as scientific, objective reality. And Xi Jinping belongs to that tradition. Remember he has already convened special study sessions of the politburo on understanding both dialectical and historical materialism in the past.

According to the conference report: “Xi suggested to not only observe the current international situation, but also review the past, summarise historical laws, and look towards the future to better understand the trend of history.” Furthermore, according to the same report in Xinhua, to obtain “an accurate understanding of the overall situation, Xi underlined not only the observation of detailed phenomena, but also a deep appreciation of the essence of the overall situation in order not to get lost in complexity and the changing international situation.” Xi concludes on this count by stating that “throughout human history, the development of the world has always been the result of contradictions intertwining and interacting with each other.”

Once again, all this will seem more than a little arcane. But in the ideological dialect of the Communist Party, it seems to mean several things. First, that there is nothing random about what is unfolding in the world today. Second, these reflect certain immutable laws of political and economic development. Third, the business of Chinese foreign policy is to use this dialectal prism to understand precisely what is happening in the world today, why it is happening and what to do about it. And fourth, applying these disciplines to the current period, it means that the global order is at a turning point with the relative decline of the US and the West, with this coinciding with the fortuitous national and international circumstances currently enabling China’s rise.

This sounds very much like a conclusion that I also have come to: Xi Jinping’s thinking really comes out of a 19th-century social-science worldview. He has a high degree of confidence that objective laws governing the workings of society and the economy exist, that knowing these laws does not pose any particular philosophical or practical difficulties, and therefore that these laws form a solid basis for government policy (see my post “Reading the Communist Manifesto with Xi Jinping“).

Since the Chinese Communist Party has figured out these rules, it can have a high degree of confidence in the success of its policies. Far being a cynical post-truth manipulator like Putin, Xi gives every sign of being a true believer in his brand of pseudo-scientific, authoritarian, developmental Marxism. His confident nationalism in foreign policy and confident interventionism in economic policy are both underpinned by a high degree of epistemic confidence that he knows how the world really works.

Should China be in the Global North or Global South?

I’ve never been a big fan of the terms “Global North” and “Global South,” which in some quarters are used as synonyms for “developed” and “developing” economies. This is mainly because their actual meanings are too disconnected from their literal meanings. If the south of the globe means anything, it means the southern hemisphere. And yet the “Global South” is conventionally understood to include China, which is, let’s face it, in the northern hemisphere. To me, it doesn’t seem to clarify things to use a term from geography in a way that makes its geographical meaning incoherent.

So I was interested to come across William Polk’s new book Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North (thanks to a nice review by Malise Ruthven), in which the conventional identities of the Global North and Global South are slightly altered. He calls the Global North “the relatively rich, advanced, and formerly imperial powers” and the Global South “the relatively poor, traditional, mostly former colonial peoples–here, specifically those of the Muslim world.”

Yet China and Russia are, in his view, unquestionably members of the Global North, along with usual suspects Britain and France. Not being a small-minded geographical pedant like myself, he does not focus too much on the fact that both are located in the northern hemisphere. What seems to matter for Polk is that they were clearly imperial powers, who acted toward Muslims in ways not very different from the imperialists of Western Europe. Here is an example:

When the Northern powers set out to conquer and control the Muslim South, they saw Arabic as a sort of defensive wall. It encircled nations and united generations. The Chinese, Russian, British, and French imperialists each tried to suppress it and to replace it with their own languages. …

In dealing with the Chinese-dominated Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia, Chiang Kai-shek went even further than the British and French imperialists. Following revolts in 1933 by the Kazakh peoples and the proclamation in 1944 by the Uyghurs of the short-lived East Turkish Republic, Chiang decreed that there were no such people as the Turks, even though the Chinese had a name for them, Chantou. He said that they were just part of the “greater Chinese race.” He tried to force Turkish speakers to give up their native language and learn Chinese. Chiang’s successors in the People’s Republic of China still employ his policy: they are linguistically “denationalizing” the Uyghur people.

At the same time as Chiang was suppressing the Uyghurs, Joseph Stalin was tightening the linguistic screws on the Asian peoples who had been conquered by the tsars. The better to dominate them, the Soviet Union divided what had been the common written language (Ottoman Turkish) “horizontally” by converting all written materials from the traditional (Arabic-based) script first to Latin in 1926– 1927 and then to Cyrillic in 1936.

I have to say that this grouping makes some sense to me. It is useful to recall that the only only major nineteenth-century imperial power whose borders are largely unchanged today is China.

China is these days unquestionably a great power, whose relationship with other developing countries is not exactly one of equality. The term “Global South” was originally coined in the 1970s, when it was more plausible to see China as differing from other developing countries mainly in its size. I wonder if Polk’s book might mark the beginning of a rectification of these names for groups of countries, for a time when it seems more appropriate to put China in with other large economies and great powers.


The size of a problem matters

Dominique Fong at The Wall Street Journal has checked in on Ordos, Inner Mongolia, and found that China’s most famous ghost town–the new district of Kangbashi–is still, well, pretty ghostly:

Local officials had hoped to attract a million people to the new area, nearly matching the size of the old city 20 miles away. Architectural showpieces—a museum in the form of a giant metallic bean bag, a library resembling a shelf of books, a sports stadium reminiscent of a modern Coliseum—were built as attractions. Officials have since reduced their population goal to 300,000, and they are just halfway there. An early resident, Hu Richa, has been waiting seven years for more neighbors. Still, he says, “There’s barely anyone living here.”

The city has spent 14 years planning, erecting and maintaining Kangbashi, which has the distinction of being one of China’s best-known “ghost towns”—gleaming but sparsely populated new urban centers adjacent to older metropolises. Built by the dozen across the country, the new areas reflect—and were meant to accelerate—China’s economic boom. As the country’s growth has slowed, many of them have become serious liabilities, deep in debt, with little prospect of full occupancy anytime soon. …

According to a study by Lu Ming, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 272 new districts across China have been built with borrowed funds near existing cities. Other researchers, using different definitions for ghost towns, find smaller numbers, but all agree that there is a serious problem.

While I don’t really disagree with anything in this piece (in which one of my colleagues is quoted), I have to say that I find the limited analysis a little frustrating. The ghost town phenomenon has been extensively reported for several years now, and yet the Chinese property market strangely refuses to collapse in the way that these reports always suggest it should. Construction starts have been growing pretty consistently for the past two and half years, and have actually accelerated some this year.

At this point in the China story I feel like saying “there is a serious problem” and stopping there is not really sufficient. It is of course not wrong to point out that China has lots of capital misallocation and has been heavily reliant on expanding debt to drive growth. But many people have correctly identified problems in the Chinese economy, and yet they have not been correct about the trajectory the economy would take.

In my view, outside observers of China have not been so good about understanding 1) the actual size of problems, 2) the constraints on policymakers’ ability to address problems. It is easy to suggest that problems are extremely large or cannot be easily solved, but it would be better to put more effort into identifying just how big problems are and how they might be addressed.

The ghost town phenomenon is a good example where the relative size matters a lot. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests these huge clumps of unused housing are concentrated in northern China, in areas more reliant on resoure extraction and heavy industry. The property markets in these areas are certainly troubled, but they are also a relatively small part of the national total. The construction and sales recovery of the last few years has been driven mostly by southern and central China, where populations are growing and inventories are in fact quite low.


Pointless opinions about everything

Of late he had become especially tired of pointless opinions and was trying to get rid of them. He would catch himself thinking as everyone does: too hot, too cold, too green, too fat, too spicy, ugly building, old slippers, loud music, homely woman, fat man. Not, he thought, that one couldn’t discriminate but it had grown boring to get in a dither over rehearsing opinions about everything. To the degree that he had gotten rid of this propensity he felt a bit lighter and more fluid.

That is from Jim Harrison’s novella “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” which is in his 1978 collection Legends of the Fall. I found this piece generally weaker than the other two novellas in the collection, “Revenge” and the title story, which are excellent. But I liked this passage, despite the fact that I am in the business of having and expressing opinions. Not all opinions are worth getting riled up about.