Last week I saw the film, The Artist, by French director Hazanavicius (already a name that could fill a novella). The story is deliciously simple. A silent movie star refuses to crossover to the talkies and thereby loses his position through stubbornness. He even rejects the helping hand of an up-and-coming starlet doing well in the new medium and who also happens to worship him. But he ends up down and out and almost dying in a pyre of burning film rolls. A tragedy is barely averted until our fallen hero finally accepts the love of his successful admirer, and together they become a dance duo and make film furore. Ginger and Fred, Redux. The film is black-and-white and without a line of spoken dialogue. For 90 minutes, we the viewers watch breathlessly to a modern silent film. What I found the most special was how even though the star completely rejected the new innovations, he retained my sympathy. Here, a cliché was broken through: the idea that humans should embrace all new technology as quickly as possible. That the world is there to be improved. Adjusted. The hero said no and it was a no that came out of an existential emergency.
Only at the end, is the true tragedy of our anti-hero revealed.
Let me just say that this ending revolves around the question of being a foreigner. In this case, someone who does not speak the language and must therefore mask this fact as much as possible. You often see this with people whose first language is not English when they try to have a conversation: increased body language, mimicking, grinning, belly laughing and eye rolling. It all becomes a bit more dramatic to avoid that feeling of powerlessness. We become more mime artists than smoothly moving actors.
Nation-forming lives off illusions. The shared language creates the illusion of unity wherein we can share our movements. By not understanding Greek, it makes us immune to the suffering they experience from the financial crisis. Now we look at our southern part as if it’s a silent movie. We see the gestures but miss the words. Imagine if we did have a shared language and that we could talk via Skype to Greeks, Italians and Portuguese. All our northern myths would go up in smoke. The European project always avoided the idea of a shared language out of fear of one language dominating. The idea that all of civilization would speak French is just not very appealing over in London. So we were not allowed to understand our southern neighbours. And now that they are in an emergency, we don’t want to understand them. The solution is for primary school students in Western Europe to learn at least one South European language (Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish) and for those in the southern part to learn one North European language (Dutch, German, Danish). English would be mandatory for all. Only then will sound finally fuse with images.
You took the words right out of my mouth. The Artist is a beautiful film. After it finished, I kept sitting and mused about the importance of the Word. Last month I was at an international writers’ conference. As is usual these days, the discussion was organised around three themes – ‘Dream and Reality’, ‘The Outsider’ and ‘Home’ – and we all had a chance to give a short response. There were 15 of us: writers from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil. Women, men. Moslim, Christian, atheist. Majorities, minorities – the writer from Turkey was Kurdish. I was one of the last to speak. Not a surprise: male, white, blue eyes and not the youngest. Dutch is also no longer an advantage ever since a certain political party rose to influence. I had to wait a long time before I could have my say. So I listened closely. But it was only during the second round I really noticed something: all the writers spoke perfect English. And their short and concise statements were all made with the same American accent. It was if their sentences were written by Barack Obama’s speechwriter. How can this be, I wondered? The Lebanese, a loud and colourful young lady in tight leather pants, eventually spat out the answer: ‘That’s how we learned it in Beirut at the International School!’
I was reminded of my years in Curacao. The better off – locals, Americans, Venezuelans, Cubans, French, Argentinians and very many Dutch – all sent their children to the International School. For 15 000 dollars a year each, they received an excellent education from American teachers. Since many of my friends had their children at the International School, I often attended school festivities around Christmas or Thanksgivings. The children put on plays, made music (country music) and danced – in the best American tradition and under the banner of the American flag. The evening would end with cheese cake and cola.
Most of my writers’ group were raised and educated in this way. Whether black, brown, yellow, white or somewhere in between, did not matter. Many write in English. The Nigerian writer, now living in Washington, could no longer even speak his native language. ‘But I can understand my mother,’ he said. It was the same for the Malaysian writer.
Is this the world of tomorrow? The new literature?
‘Where is your home?’ was asked for the final round. ‘Where I die,’ said the Lebanese writer resolutely. Where did she want to die? ‘In the arms of the man I love’. Nice thought. But a platitude. The only writer with a different tone was the Iraqi. He sought refuge across Asia before finally ending up in the Netherlands. Six years in an internment camp, with the last two near Zwolle. He spoke a comic mixture of English and Dutch. It made him utterly authentic.
I was reminded of the time we first met, Abdel, at the literature festival in Asti. Over dinner I heard you speak Moroccan with your wife. When Jan Geurt Gaarlandt and I reminded you of Rotterdam, we all began speaking with rolling r’s. Later in the convent’s courtyard, you were interviewed using flamboyant Italian. No fake American, no sameness. You were just you: a Dutch Moroccan who feels at home in Italy.
For me, you are the world of tomorrow, Abdelkader. I actually speak French at home with my wife. She also loved The Artist. And laughed about how the most beautiful film about Hollywood was made by a Frenchman.