Thursday, January 01, 2009

Remembering Heartbreak

In 1984 and 85 i spent a good deal of time in Nicaragua where i learned spanish, volunteered on farms (planting potatoes and talking about Salvadoran guerilla's need for very good watches), taking thousands of photos and cutting coffee, amongst other things. This photo of Umberto, one of the worker-owners of the coffee farm where i worked for a few weeks, is one of many i hope to scan and share in the coming year. Having injured my leg one day, i hung back from the coffee fields and spent the day helping Umberto roast coffee for us cortadoros. Sadly, the coffee was wretched. But it was flaboured uniquely with the very fresh fruit of our labours. I can taste it still. My visits to Nicaragua are now over 20 years in my past and yet they remain vivid in my heart and inspire me still. When the revolution succumbed in 1990 to US aggression, i was deeply saddened and have carried that complicated sadness within me since. The complicated emotions, perhaps not surprisingly, included anger. I had risked my life to make some small contribution to the revolution. And i'll never forget being shot at by contras packing US-supplied M16s. Though terrified while under fire, the emotion that has lasted is profound anger (tinged with indignation - I recall standing, the morning after the first attack, over the site from where the contras had been shooting. The spent M16 shell casings lay all about and i gathered a few up - strange mementos.)

This anger was refreshed as i listened to Harold Pinter's 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech which Democracy Now featured this week on the occasion of Pinter's death this past christmas eve. Pinter spoke of Nicaragua:
The Sandinistas weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance, and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilized. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. 2,000 schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one-seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
I share Pinter's analysis. He describes perfectly my own sense of things in that time. (And his mentioning of the eradication of polio reminds me of the day i went deep into the Nicaraguan countryside, everyone heavily armed, to deliver the polio vaccine to villagers living far from the highways. It was a moving day.) This speech sparkles with the kind of truth to which the phrase "speak truth to power" refers. This is the kind of truth that is so disastrously absent from mainstream media. It is the kind of truth i witnessed in the coffee fields and homes of revolutionary Nicaragua. It is the kind of truth that has sustained me over the past quarter century of activism to be a better person and help make a better world.

Pinter also includes in his speech an excerpt from a Pablo Neruda poem that has held profound meaning for me for almost thirty years. In this stanza we see Neruda's genius in knowing that there can be no poetic embellishment that is more meaningful than the heartbreakingly simple decription of the last line:
And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
I know i will listen to and reread this speech several times in the coming weeks. I need the reminder of the truths of which Pinter speaks. It cracks my heart open once again. It has always struck me as an irony of the human heart that broken-hearted is the only way one can live - for it is through the cracks that we let in truth and love and through which our compassion can flow.

Below is the one of the two excerpts that Democracy Now featured. The second excerpt is here. And you can watch all of Pinter's speech on YouTube here (though the sound quality is distracting). The two Democracy Now episodes that include Pinter's speech are here: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 and Wednesday, December 31, 2008. The Democracy Now website also includes complete transcripts of their shows and the relevant parts are here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). You can read all of Pinter's speech at the Nobel site here (and it includes downloadable PDFs in Ebglish, French, Swedish and German).

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