From rugby’s victims of Argentina’s dirty war to the search for Chinese survivors of the Titanic, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Dozens of sports books land on my desk every year. Few, though, have ever packed the gut punch of The Silenced, an extraordinary story that was finally published in English last week. It tells the shocking true tale of what happened when one of the finest rugby teams in Argentina defied the state. Anyone who still believes the dastardly deceit that sport and politics shouldn’t mix should read it – and hastily repent.
It begins with an interview with Raúl Barandiarán, the sole survivor of the original La Plata 1st XV rugby squad from 1975. Every one of his 20 teammates, the Italian author Claudio Fava writes, were murdered: “gunned down, assassinated, ‘disappeared’, in an attempt to tear a generation – an entire squad – out by its roots”. [continue reading]
HBO’s Exterminate All the Brutes Is a Radical Masterpiece About White Supremacy, Violence and the History of the West
“The very existence of this film is a miracle,” says its creator, Raoul Peck, in the final episode of Exterminate All the Brutes—and that might be an understatement. A four-part experimental documentary that takes on the unwieldy, bitterly contentious subject of white supremacy since the so-called Age of Discovery, Brutes is unorthodox in both content and style. Drawing heavily on the work of leftist academics, the series also incorporates scripted passages and animations that serve as guided meditations on human suffering more than as visual aids. It may well be the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television.
Best known in the U.S. for I Am Not Your Negro, his Oscar-nominated 2016 film that paired the words of James Baldwin with a collage of images of the racist culture that Baldwin was critiquing, Peck has been making difficult films about cataclysm and revolution for almost four decades. While he has frequently focused on his home country of Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he spent much of his childhood, he’s lived all over the world, and his films have dramatized everything from the youthful adventures of an anticapitalist icon (The Young Karl Marx) to the Rwandan genocide (Sometimes in April). The unifying factor is not just an obsession with injustice—racial, economic, imperial—but also the history of resistance to it. [continue reading]
National Security Archive
On the eve of the 45th anniversary of the military coup in Argentina, the National Security Archive is today posting declassified documents revealing what the U.S. government knew, and when it knew it, in the weeks preceding the March 24, 1976, overthrow of Isabel Peron’s government. The documents provide evidence of multiple contacts between the coup plotters and U.S. officials. “[Admiral] Massera sought opportunity to speak privately with me,” U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Robert Hill reported in a cable sent one week before the putsch after meeting with a leading coup plotter. “[H]e said that it was no secret that military might have to step into political vacuum very soon.”
The documents posted today record the U.S. government knowledge of the plotters, their preparations for the coup, and their potential plans for what State Department officials described as “military rule for an extended duration and of unprecedented severity.” They show that the U.S. “discreetly” advised the military more than a month before the actual coup that Washington would recognize the new regime, and that then CIA director George H.W. Bush briefed President Gerald Ford on a “possible” coup in Argentina almost two weeks before the military deposed Isabel Peron. [continue reading]
Longevity is the real prize for which writers strive, and it isn’t awarded by any jury. For a book to stand the test of time, to pass successfully down the generations, is uncommon enough to be worth a small celebration. For a writer in his mid-70s, the continued health of a book published in his mid-30s is, quite simply, a delight. This is why we do what we do: to make works of art that, if we are very lucky, will endure.
As a reader, I have always been attracted to capacious, largehearted fictions, books that try to gather up large armfuls of the world. When I started to think about the work that would grow into Midnight’s Children, I looked again at the great Russian novels of the 19th century, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Dead Souls, books of the type that Henry James had called “loose, baggy monsters”, large-scale realist novels – though, in the case of Dead Souls, on the very edge of surrealism. And at the great English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, Tristram Shandy (wildly innovative and by no means realist), Vanity Fair (bristling with sharp knives of satire), Little Dorrit (in which the Circumlocution Office, a government department whose purpose is to do nothing, comes close to magic realism), and Bleak House (in which the interminable court case Jarndyce v Jarndyce comes even closer). And at their great French precursor, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is completely fabulist. [continue reading]
Zhaoyin Feng and Yitsing Wang
When the luxurious British passenger ship Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean in April 1912, thousands of people fell into the frigid waters. Only one of the lifeboats that escaped the sinking ship turned back to search for potential survivors. In the darkness, the rescuers found a young Chinese man clinging to a wooden door, shivering but still alive. That man was Fang Lang, one of six Chinese survivors of the Titanic, and his rescue would go on to inspire a famous scene in the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.
But their miraculous survival was not the end of their ordeal. Within 24 hours of their arrival at the immigrant inspection station in Ellis Island, New York, they were expelled from the country because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a controversial law that barred the immigration of Chinese people into the US. The six men disappeared from history – until now. A documentary film that has just premiered in China, The Six, shines a spotlight on their identities and lives, 109 years after the doomed voyage. [continue reading]