The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Wednesday, August 13 2003, 11:28 PM
When suburban liberal Californians discover the miserable social underclass of this world, the innocence can appall. Transforming previously-known media images of violence and endless vistas of poverty into immediate impressions of sight, smell and emotional encounter may produce words, but most witness literature ends in failure. Sympathy translates into empathetic voice that attempts to enunciate the highly elusive voice of internal experience; even at its best, sympathetic witnessing remains reportage, not an understanding of others' individual or social experiences. Failure is endemic to the genre and reading 'these are the terrible things I saw there' travel books can become a study of such failure. And yet any refusal to look steadily at these violations of human rights would be far worse than a poor book.
The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, written by a Californian who spent a year teaching English in Pristina, is such a failure. Paula Huntley, a marketing executive from Bolinas, accompanied her law professor husband during 2000-2001 as he worked on the Kosova legal system. They arrived as temporary residents, lived in an upscale neighborhood rented out to internationals working with NGOs, and returned to Pacific vistas eight months later. Internet readers who read her journal of her experiences encouraged her to publish it as a book. Those who would encourage publication of lamentable and pollyana-ish lines like "I am living in a fascinating country. I have never felt so alive" exhibit dubious judgment. What makes this account fascinating is less Huntley's own fascination and much more the neo-liberal ideology that lies tangled in the text. Huntley emerges as a kind and caring teacher, one willing to share her emotions with readers, but then, demonstrating a pleasant personality is not the nub of matters.
As her husband labors towards reform of the Kosovar legal system and its integration into Euro-American norms, Huntley looks for an ESL teaching position, evidencing no awareness of the parallels between their chosen work. To learn English here is to learn the means of integration into a neo-liberal global economy. Huntley easily finds a position at a private English school whose owner confirms this function in her hiring interview "You can teach our students more than English. You can teach them how to live together, with others, in peace. You can teach them how to work, how to build a democracy, how to keep trying no matter what the odds. You in America know how to do these things, and you can teach us.one of these values of peaceful cooperation, work, democracy, or perseverance are intrinsic to or more prevalent in the English language, rather they are accessible through all languages. If basic social values truly do need to arrive through intermediate-level English courses for university students, then civilization is indeed shot to hell.
As she progresses with her teaching, Huntley reports that she is "Filled with a certainty that what I am doing here, teaching English, is a good thing. Not that I think that the English language represents a superior culture. No. We are learning from each other how best to live." Yet it is unclear how Huntley engages in equal learning exchange, inasmuch as she never learns Albanian. The English that she is teaching, with its internationally-marketed proliferation of media, images and texts, represents access to cosmopolitanism. Albanian, a language with a far more limited range of newspapers and magazines, becomes a provincial in the global media economy. For Albanian-speaking students in Kosovo, attending an English class despite its near-unaffordable $25 monthly tuition becomes "a crack in the thick walls of their isolation." The language/class consciousness that informs Huntley's teaching journal is engaged in denial of its manifest politics that configure global language hierarchy to economic domination. Inability to speak English represents cultural provincialism and isolation, a classic marker of missionary mentality. Given that an estimated third of Kosovar Albanians over age 10 are illiterate in their own language, native-language literacy ought to be given first educational priority.
In Huntley's description, English studies become a territory within which a class of students can hold discussions of national stereotypes, leading inevitably back to stereotypes that Kosovar Albanians and Serbs have of each other -- and of themselves. A product of a segregated small town in Arkansas during the 1950s, Huntley realizes that there are limitations to education's abilities to support liberal ideals of tolerance. Perhaps because she can identify no other effective answers available to her beyond her role as an ESL teacher, she cannot break through a voice that comes to resemble a flat version of Orwell in Burma: "My students listen carefully to everything I say, and believe that, because I am an American in Kosovo, helping them, I am both knowledgeable and wise. Their faith in me is frightening...But I feel so inadequate, am so inadequate." Orwell wrote from a self-reflexive consciousness that well realized the nature of his early career as a British colonial sub-officer, even as he so famously shot an elephant in order to maintain his authority status in the face of personal inadequacy. In passages like the above, however, Huntley is the missionary goddess, rhetorically elevated by student-natives while internal voices warn her of her inadequacies.
Fortuitously, Ernest Hemingway rescues her from this dilemma. Finding a copy of The Old Man and the Sea in Pristina's only foreign-language bookshop, Huntley runs off reproduction copies for an extracurricular Hemingway Book Club. It is at such moments, this one involving international copyright violation, that the disturbing quality of absent deeper political reflection becomes so apparent. Although students in eastern Europe and elsewhere commonly read from copies run off at the local photocopy shop for want of financial wherewithal to purchase soft-cover copies, this remains illegal under the prevailing intellectual property regime that 'free market' legal principles seek to enforce. In the present case, the Hemingway estate attorneys presumably will not mind given the advertising value received from so few photocopies. Foreign-language book supply is one of the most critical teaching problems in eastern Europe: not a word of criticism appears here. Rather, Huntley offers commiseration with a hapless student who drops his copy into a mud puddle and is hard-pressed to find money for a replacement. Such shifts of responsibility that transform a broad problem of social organization into an individual consumption problem are endemic to free-market capitalism, and education becomes an integral sector of that systemic transformation.
Hemingway studies are not what they used to be in the United States, but American cultural hand-me-downs seem to get re-use in Kosova. Since a Hemingway plot often functions as a container for its internal violence, with an explosive moment and reflective denouement, the recent history of Kosova does lend Hemingway readings certain appropriateness. In the hands of Huntley's students The Old Man and the Sea becomes an allegorical text of Kosovar society. They identify the Old Man with the courage and endurance of their society, while the sharks attacking the Old Man's prize marlin appear as the Serbian military. Nationalization of the novel's text renders it a cross-cultural means of translating, displaying and possibly displacing their own trauma. Since political allegory continually shifts, who will be the sharks for a next generation of Kosovar students? The IMF and WTO bid fair candidates.
The moments at which Huntley's journals ring with conviction are those where she reports the stories of Kosova Albanians who suffered or fled the Serbian forces, or women who were raped. Kosova is a heavily masculinist society and the journal entries reflect the consciousness of a US woman, one accustomed to functioning in the public sphere, encountering the pervasiveness of this oppression. Watching the end of a rally of Hashim Thaci's ultra-nationalist PDK party, she writes of "thousands and thousands of young men, traveling in packs as they left the stadium, with fierce eyes and grim, determined mouths. And everywhere the blood-red flag with its black double-headed eagle." Even at such moments of descriptive clarity, Huntley cannot bring herself to name the proto-fascist phenomenon she sees. Although war-time KLA leader Thaci now employs the language of state pluralism -- fluent English -- to ensure favor with the European Union and the US State Department, whose envoy Robert Gelbard once described him as a terrorist, it appears a grim exercise in political hypocrisy. An understanding of the murderous xenophobia towards minorities -- such as suffered by Kosovar Serbs, Gorani and Roma at the hands of now-dominant Kosovar Albanians -- lies at the violent nexus of nationalism and masculinism.
Huntley concludes as she began, a cultural missionary with a Kennedy-era faith in overseas voluntarism as a Western-directed mode of change and civilizational uplift. The book concludes with a lengthy list of volunteer placement agencies for any reader so inspired by her tale. Huntley herself is continuing her personalized philanthropic foreign aid through a fundraising website (http://www.hemingwaybookclubofkosovo.com/) to obtain US university scholarships for her former students turned charity dependents.
Much of the US public that bothers to follow foreign affairs has a strange habit of learning distant cultural and political geographies only through crisis; much of the same public forgets past crisis geographies to learn about new ones. Five years is a long time for public memory and the height of the Kosova conflict was in 1998. The American empire has turned its eyes elsewhere, towards the Middle East: there is no oil under Kosava, only large numbers of desperately poor people atop it. Two-thirds of the population is unemployed; charitable Western NGOs and car theft rings are among the largest industries. Sinkholes of global poverty, such as Kosova, will continue to cycle through violent outbreaks and force their way back into international attention. The current policy stasis that maintains a fiction that Kosova is a Serbian province under United Nations administration will collapse, sooner rather than later. Whatever emerges in Kosova's political future will not be defined by who has had the best English lessons. Or as one of the students in this book says, "I don't think my story will have an American ending."
The Hemingway Book Club is available from Jeremy P. Tarcher