Friday, 27 January 2017

Primo Levi and How to tell a story



There was a piece in the Guardian on the distrust of statistics and the rise of emotion in politics. It made  a division between statistics and emotion. The overall sentiment of the piece placed statistics on the rational, scientific end of the spectrum, emotion on the other end - the end inhabited by Trump, Brexit and the swivel-eyed loons.

But statistics are emotional, they are value laden, and they carry within their numbers the values. Every morning I listen to the Today Programme on Radio 4, and I hear statistics on the economy, on growth, on GDP, on exports and imports and trade balances, all of which are passed off without a hint at the ideologies, or the destruction they represent. Economic growth is an abstract entity that has destruction embedded within it.

And of course, this way of talking is something that is relatively new. It has been accepted with barely a whimper or a questioning of where it comes from. And it determines our everyday lives, or rather the destruction of our everyday lives.

Numbers also have emotional value. This week the UK Supreme Court ruled that Article 50 (which will lead to the UK leaving Europe) could not just be passed by our unelected prime-minister, but would have to be passed by parliament.

Then yesterday, the disastrous Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, said that all labour MPs would have to vote with the Conservative government for Brexit when Article 50 came up for the parliamentary vote. If waving a white flag is the best policy the Labour Party has, then the 24% they got in a recent opinion poll is looking quite good, really, all things considered.

Except of course, it's not a white flag for Corbyn. Corbyn was always against Europe. while 'campaigning' for the Remain side Corbyn gave the EU a mark out of 10. He's never given anything else a mark out of 10 as far as I know. Not Trident, not the minimum wage, not higher taxation, not immigration, never.

But the EU got a mark out of 10 and the mark Corbyn gave was 7 (or 7.5) out of 10.

That number means something. In the 1950s after Stalin died, Chairman Mao said he was 70% good and 30% in error. Actually he said this under pressure. Mao thought Stalin was fucking great as far as Russians go but couldn't say it due to internal pressure. After Mao died, as China  stabilised politically and started on its path to world economic supremacy, Mao was also given a mark of 70% good. But here 70% meant he was a fucking psychopath nutbag who brought the country to the brink of ruin (or to complete ruin if your life was destroyed in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution).

So 70% or 7 out of 10 can mean many things. Seventy per cent at school is an A grade. In Corbyn's case (he has a deputy who waved a copy of Mao's little red book in parliament in 2015 remember - so he knows these things) 70he's s% means the EU is a disaster and you should vote to leave. Except he couldn't just say that could he.

It's not statistics that matter so much as the voice, and the story that accompanies them. Numbers on their own make for a boring story or at least a story that doesn't engage us. A litany of statistics will often patronise us, at best might lecture us, but they won't involve us.

It's Holocaust Day today, and the evolution of the telling of the Holocaust story in images, in stories, in museums is an example of this (Janina Struk's Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence is a great book on this and on the real uses of photography and the real power of photography both for evil as well as for good).

In the book, Struk tells how in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the horrific images and figures of murder at the hands of the Nazis were shown around the world. It didn't always have the intended effect. The piles of emaciated, diseased bodies dehumanised the people they had once been, the statistics were too much, Everything was too much. The images that were supposed to be anti-Nazi mirrored the anti-semitism of Nazi propaganda in some ways. And, according to Struk, people resented the propaganda, because that was the voice in which it was presented. The images were true, the figures were true but it was seen as propaganda both in Germany where it was shown, but also in the cinemas in the USA and the UK.

It told the story, but it told the story badly, and from a distant, non-personal point of view. But ways of telling stories changed and became more effective. So now in museums commemorating the holocaust, rather than (or in addition to) the horrific images, you also hear about the lives of real people, of real jews and the lives they led before they were brutally starved, mistreated and murdered.

When I taught ESOL one of the main challenges was how to change the minds of a significant minority of students who had been given the view that the holocaust was a good thing and that the only thing wrong with it was that Hitler didn't finish the job because then Israel wouldn't exist (somebody had told them this).

The statistics, the pictures, the cold hard facts of history never did the job. They were abstract, they lacked humanity, they weren't interesting. What was interesting were stories that resonated with students; "Do you love me" from Fiddler on the Roof resonated with the girls. Part of it goes like this.


(Tevye)
Golde I'm asking you a question...

Do you love me?

(Golde)
You're a fool

(Tevye)
I know...

But do you love me?

(Golde)
Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked YOUR cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

(Tevye)
Golde, The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day
I was scared

(Golde)
I was shy

(Tevye)
I was nervous

(Golde)
So was I

(Tevye)
But my father and my mother
Said we'd learn to love each other
And now I'm asking, Golde
Do you love me?

(Golde)
I'm your wife

(Tevye)
I know...
But do you love me?



And for the boys, it was Primo Levi's chicken story from the Truce. Levi has been liberated from Auschwitz and is taking the most circuitous route back to Italy imaginable. He's ended up in the USSR and he's marching from one refugee camp to another and one of his friends, Cesare, decides he's had enough of walking along an unwavering straight road with no end in sight. Cesare wants a chicken. A roast chicken. And he wants it now.No matter that he doesn't speak Russian and he has no money. He wants a chicken and he's going to get it from the village he has seen in the distance.

So Cesare goes to this village and after getting shot at and persuading the locals they are not dangerous, get down to the business of bartering some old plates for a live chicken.


'He grumbled and swore. Was it possible that it was so difficult to understand what a chicken is, and that we wanted it in exchange for six plates?  A chicken, one of those beasts that go around pecking, scratching and saying 'coccode-e-eh:' and rather half-heartedly, glowering and sullen, he put on a very second-rate imitation of the habits of the chicken, crouching on the ground, scraping first with one foot and then with the other and pecking here and there with his hands shaped like a wedge. Between one oath and the other, he also cried 'coccodee-eh;' but this rendering of the chicken's cry is of course highly conventional; it is only heard in Italy and has no currency elsewhere?

So the result was negative. They goggled at us with amazement. Why, for what conceivable reason, had we come from the ends of the earth to play the fool on their square? Hopping mad by now, Cesare even tried to lay an egg, pouring far-fetched insults on them all the while, so rendering the meaning of his performance even more obscure.'

With the locals getting more and more disturbed by Cesare's mad chicken dance, Levi saves the day by drawing a chicken in the dirt.

'...then an old woman sprang out of the hut, her eyes alight with joy and comprehension; she stepped forward a couple of paces, and in a shrill voice pronounced: "Kura! Kuritsa!"

She was very proud and happy that she had been the one to resolve the enigma. From all sides laughter and applause borke out and voices cried "Kuritsa! Kuritsa!"; and we alos clapped our hands, caught up in the game and in the general enthusiasm. The old woman curtsied, like an actress at the end of her performance; she disappeared and re-emerged after a few minutes holding a hen already plucked. She dangled it under Cesare's nose, as a double check; and when she saw that he reacted positively, she loosened her hold, collected the plates and carried them off, 

Cesare, who understood these matters because he had once had a stall at Porta Portese market, assured me that the 'kurizetta' , the little hen, was fat enough, and worth our six plates. We took it back to the hut, woke up our companions who had already fallen asleep, relit the fire, and ate it with our fingers because we no longer had any plates.'

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