Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Brother, My Executioner by F Sionil José

F Sionil José’s novel, My Brother, My Executioner, is set in a period of Philippine history whose international significance is worthy of wider knowledge. The author’s Rosales novels describe the life of a Filipino family over several generations. Rosales is a fictitious town, but its location is quite real, as is the history that unfolds around it. Rosales is in Ilocos, in northern Luzon, whose people are seen by many Filipinos as a race apart. The events that form the backdrop to My Brother, My Executioner are the Huk rebellion.

It’s the 1950s. Don Vicente is a Rosales landowner and he is ill, close to the end of his life. He reminisces, recalling the immense suffering of his wife who presented him with multiple miscarriages. But he did have a son, Luis, born of a poor woman is a small village called Sipnget. So, unlike others from that poor place, Luis received an education courtesy of the fees his rich father could pay. He became a writer and moved to Manila to pursue a self-contained,and ultimately selfish life.

Luis writes for a magazine owned by Dantes, a rich businessman with a reputation for ruthlessness. Esther, the boss’s daughter, fancies Luis, but her advances are not reciprocated, except intellectually. Personal tragedy threatens.

Luis is also worshipped by Trining, a teenage cousin who shares some of his roots. When Luis’s father notes their affinity and also identifies the convenience that their marriage would facilitate. Luis seems quite happy to do the right thing. Trining has her way with him and promises to bear him a dozen children. The first is soon conceived.

But it is when Luis makes a visit to his father’s house, a rare excursion beyond Manila’s city limits, that he also decides to look up his estranged mother. He visits Sipnget to find his home village levelled and burnt, its inhabitants ‘disappeared’, its crops destroyed. The Huk guerrillas have been there and the military, amply aided by local militias have cleansed the area. The militias, of course, are controlled by Luis’s father and they have driven his mother from her home.

Luis resolves to publicise the injustice. He researches the events, writes an article and publishes. But when vested interests question his facts, his motives and allegiances, he finds himself challenged on many fronts.

In another twist in the scenario we meet Vic, Luis’s half-brother. He was a freedom fighter during the Japanese occupation. While collaborators made money, he fought with the resistance that sought liberation from foreign rule. Now he is the commander of a Huk unit, a leader of a communist insurgency, if I might use a word that would be employed today to describe indigenous resistance. Vic operates near Rosales.

The Huk rebellion is an era of Philippine history that surely deserves wider analysis and discussion. It became a hotspot of the early Cold War. Events in Korea occupy the 1950s limelight, of course, but the Philippine rural guerrilla war was perhaps a precursor of what we now call Vietnam. The United States was involved, of course, and when the rebellion against the landowners was defeated under President Magsaysay’s leadership, he became an internationally-renowned champion of the North-American brand of freedom. In 1980, F Sionil José received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and creative Communication Arts.

Given this history, a history that is incidentally wonderfully described by Benedict Kerkvliet in his book The Huk rebellion, there ought to be more than ample scope for the novelist to create tension, conflict and surprise. Unfortunately, the denouement of My Brother, My Executioner is a tad predictable. The tragedy is eventually too personal, its obvious metaphor becoming a punch pulled. Little is made of the potential conflict between the inheriting Luis and Vic, his guerrilla-commander brother. The book remains an engaging and enjoyable read, but the drama of its setting seemed to promise much more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Music Of The Primes by Marcus du Sautoy

The Music Of The Primes by Marcus du Sautoy is not a book for the faint-hearted. The author may be a populariser of mathematics, but certainly in this book there is plenty of substance that would maintain the interest of the specialist and also enough technicality to cause the general reader to pause. The book is a brilliant piece of work, however, so all must resist any temptation to skip. The Music Of The Primes is a glittering account, superbly paced, of an unfinished story.

From the very first page it demands to be read, so much so that like me you will probably finish it in two sittings at most. Marcus du Sautoy regularly refers to prime numbers as the atoms of our number system. I have some reservations with this metaphor, but I was willing to live with it. For the uninitiated, a prime number has just two factors, one and itself. It cannot be exactly divided by anything else. The list begins 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and continues ad infinitum. The sieve of Eratosthenes established that fact a couple of thousand years ago. But, despite many lifetimes of trying, we have never successfully been able to predict whether a particular number would be prime, or conversely, exactly where the next prime number might be. They seem to be distributed randomly throughout our number system, all odd except for that initial 2, the odd-one-out pair that spoils it for every other even. 

 The Music Of The Primes relates how mathematicians have closed in on the mystery of how these numbers occur without, as yet, managing to crack the complete code. Marcus du Sautoy describes some of the great contributions to the understanding of prime numbers. The names Fermat, Gauss and Euler figure regularly. But it is the great name of Riemann that emerges as the lynchpin of this story, his Conjecture being the unsolved problem that currently occupies many a brain, the one million dollars in prize money offered for its solution oiling the machinations. 

Riemann turned the search for prime numbers on its head when he used complex numbers to reposition the problem. Complex numbers, by the way, are at least in part imaginary and, though they don’t exist, no self-supporting bridge would stand up without them. His now famous Conjecture was that evidence of the existence of prime numbers would line up in a predictable way in a four-dimensional space created when one two-dimensional complex number was plotted against another, the latter being the solution to a particular power series called a zeta function equated to zero. His problem was that he couldn’t prove that things lined up in precisely the way he predicted. He had strong hunches that he was right, but, lacking proof, a conjecture is what it remained. And people have been trying to prove it for a century and a half. 

 Prime numbers are now big business, of course. Public-private key encryption now oils the wheels of internet commerce and the security it offers is based on the possession of quite huge, quite astronomically large prime numbers. Find a few new ones and you could make a very good living. If you want to taste the complexity of the task, then spend no more than five minutes finding the two tree-digit factors of 8051. Imagine then the work involved in identifying two 200 digit prime numbers that combine to a Rivest, Shamir and Adelman security key. Reading this superb book will provide further insight. It will also illustrate very well the value of pure research conducted by specialist academics. 

When the accountants complain that programmes have no apparent immediate application, it is worth remembering how advances in human knowledge made over two hundred years ago are only just finding wide application in fields completely unenvisaged by their inventors. Without the knowledge they developed in their apparent vacuum, of course, the modern-day application may never have been conceived. Just imagine where the human race might be two centuries from now if Kurt Gödel’s ideas have become the basis for all mathematics. Read this book and then imagine.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky

It is almost twenty years since Noam Chomsky published Deterring Democracy. Its contemporary context is an important starting point in the understanding of its position since most of the material seeks to analyse and contextualise United States foreign policy in the post-War years to the early nineties. In 1991 the United States under George Bush was embroiled in the First Gulf War. I must stress the word “first”, since this gives a clue to the book’s eventual prescience.

Also in 1991, a dim and distant past when the new millennium was not yet a talking point, a bi-polar world, whose permanence and assumed conflict provided the framework for all political analysis, was already being transformed. The Soviet Union had already ceased to be, but the years of Yeltsin’s IMF poverty lay ahead, as did those of Putin’s new pragmatic if demagogic prosperity.

Regimes of all political stances came and went in Central and South America. But all of them were classified as good or evil by the Manichean filter of the age. Occasionally, a convenience of political pragmatism offered re-branding, as in the case of Jamaica, where Michael Manley, a leader once undermined as a leftist was reinstated with eternal backing after Edward Seaga’s neo-liberal experiment predictably burnt out. Chomsky’s record of Manley’s second era being that of his violin phase is extremely succinct. He was put up by the left, but played by the right.

Descriptions of prevailing issues in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala figure large, of course. But Chomsky also visits the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Europe to illustrate his central point. And it is a point that he makes and re-makes, a point that he still makes today. His analysis, simply put, is that an alliance of elite interests involving legislators, the powerful and those who own and control big business drives the US foreign policy agenda. The elite’s sole aim is to preserve and further its own power, influence and prosperity. The fact that it does not always speak with a consistent voice is merely evidence that within the group there remains competition. Indeed, the group is neither particularly stable nor permanent. It is rather a loose alliance of interest, perhaps heavily reliant on birthright, but not determined by it. Notions of freedom, democracy, individual or collective rights and even development are peddled, attached like advertisers’ catchlines to the same product every time it is recommended. To maintain its ascendancy, this ideology that fosters profit via power needs an enemy to provide a shield behind which it can hide its pursuit of self-advancement. The Soviet Union sufficed for most of the second half of the last century, but since then others have had to be identified to fulfil this essential role. It will not require much imagination to identify the current dark threats.

The population at large, meanwhile, has to be sold these ideas. When threat of nuclear war between super-powers loomed large, it was not difficult to fix the framework. How much easier is it now, when the current all-powerful, all-pervading enemy might just be within and among us? This low-intensity, back-burner threat continues to mask the activity that fuels an ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth. The people of the democratic, individualistic West are perfectly willing to stand by as recession bites, banks declare deposits worthless, pension funds dwindle, retirements recede and wages stagnate while those who perhaps cause these strictures luxuriate in ever-increasing, often self-granted rewards.

And, in a truly prescient passage, Chomsky describes this submissive, passive mentality perfectly. “For submissiveness to become a reliable trait,” he writes, “it must be entrenched in every realm. The public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products. Eduardo Galeano writes that ‘the majority must resign itself to the consumption of fantasy. Illusions of wealth are sold to the poor, illusions of freedom to the oppressed, dreams of victory to the defeated and power to the weak.’ Nothing less will do.” In this context, is it any surprise that the average contemporary consumer knows more of celebrity gossip than political option?

Deterring Democracy is packed – perhaps over-packed – with detailed evidence. Chomsky makes his point repeatedly and forcefully. I was once privileged to co-host the author as chair of a London conference. At first hand I can vouch for the sincerity and passion that underpins these views. I can also vouch for the solidity of the evidence upon which they are based.

Noam Chomsky is not anti-American. It is the exploiters of self-seeking power and self-deferential influence who deserve that label. Noam Chomsky is a man of the people, intensely humanistic and fundamentally democratic. He seems to maintain that if people turn their backs and refuse to acknowledge the obvious, they will have foregone a real opportunity to realise something more sustainable than the current illusion. And, along the way, they will probably have said goodbye to their principles, along with their bank deposits, pensions, retirement and freedom. At least they can talk about their woes on their latest-model mobiles, if, that is, they can still pay the bill. When you read Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, give its arguments a chance to register. Then see if they ring true.