West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir

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Blum wants to relate the major experiences of his life as an American leftist, from protesting the war in Vietnam to supporting Ralph Nader's 2000 Presidential campaign.

William Blum

Charlie Bertsch

Monday, December 23 2002, 11:37 AM

It's hard to dislike a book as sincere and direct as this one. But the title might lead you to believe that William Blum is trying to do more than he is, which could result in disappointment. The problem is the word "memoir." Technically, West-Bloc Dissident is precisely that. For better or worse, though, mention of the genre conjures up unreasonable expectations these days.

To be sure, this is a great time for memoir. Now that people have reconciled themselves to the idea that every text is a fiction, they're buying up non-fiction titles like Krispy Kreme doughnuts. And autobiography is leading the way. But it frequently comes with a twist. Sure, Dave Eggers is telling his life story, but A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is also a tour-de-force of lighthearted self-reflexivity. Frank McCourt's even more popular Angela's Ashes is a case study in the exaggerated lyricism of people whose ancestors and white supremacist uncles wear kilts. Even Bad Subjects is in on the trend, with Co-Director Joel Schalit's Jerusalem Calling, which fuses his first-person tale of "growing up complicated" with extended philosophical ruminations. Like the potentially life-changing Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Timeset the benchmark for autobiographical writing that's simultaneously fiction and non-fiction, contemporary memoirists use the confessional mode because it allows them to do things that the conventional novel will not.

And that's what makes West-Bloc Dissident so refreshing. Blum doesn't seem to be interested in doing any of those things. He merely wants to relate the major experiences of his life as an American leftist, from protesting the war in Vietnam to supporting Ralph Nader's 2000 Presidential campaign. Blum's prose is never showy. And his commitment to truth " or at least what those post-everything intellectuals call a "truth effect" " frequently deprives his story of drama. The chapter on his time in Chile is a perfect example. Blum explains how he got caught up in the excitement of Salvador Allende's Socialist experiment, helping in his own small way as a foreign journalist to counter the right-wing's relentless attacks on Allende's government. Anyone who knows the basic facts about the subsequent coup d'etat that drove that government from power and thousands of people, Allende included, to their graves will anticipate the climax to Blum's tale. Only we don't get one. Blum leaves the country before the 1973 elections that triggered the coup. He informs us what happened to some of his fellow American leftists, but refuses to imagine a scene that he didn't witness personally.

There's real humility in Blum's approach to personal and political history. Although it might be nice for him to step back every once and a while to place his tale in a broader context, his decision to construct a largely chronological narrative has its merits. For one thing, West-Bloc Dissident largely avoids the progress-minded storytelling that shapes every incident to fit the last chapter to come. There's not much closure at the end of Blum's memoir, no grandfatherly advice to young radicals. Instead, we're left with a reminder that the 1960s are still with us, along with a sense of optimism. Blum never betrayed his political values, despite the many temptations to do so. In the midst of this second coming of Nixon-esque paranoia, we would do well to follow his example.

West Bloc Dissident is available from Soft Skull.

Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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