Roving thoughts and provocations

Reminiscing About the Night Before

Charles Simic

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

One of the sorrows of our modern age is that so much of the life one knew in one’s youth has completely disappeared, or is on the verge of disappearing. It wasn’t always like that. For most of human history, one could count on one’s favorite dishes and songs still being around when one became old. Not anymore. One evening recently, thinking about this melancholy subject, I was wondering, for example, what happened to the delicious Manhattan clam chowder that was once on the menu in every restaurant and corner luncheonette in the city, when my mind drifted—first to different neighborhoods in New York where I lived, then to small piano bars, now nearly extinct, where I spent many an evening drinking and listening to music.

Cambodia’s Perfect War Criminal

Stéphanie Giry

David Hogsholt/Getty Images

The July conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch—the gaunt-faced, fever-eyed 68-year-old head of the Khmer Rouge’s leading torture center—by a special UN–Cambodian criminal court has been seen as a breakthrough in international justice. Years in the making, the trial was the first international criminal case brought against an official of the Pol Pot regime since a Vietnamese show trial in 1979. And despite mixed legal procedures, the conflicting approaches of Cambodian and international lawyers, hearings in three languages, budget shortages, corruption scandals, and political pressure, it was widely considered fair. Yet it is unclear how much the Duch case will have advanced the long-delayed efforts for justice against the Khmer Rouge, not least because Duch himself seems to have come out of the experience less repentant than he was when it began.

La Stupendissima

Martin Filler

Metropolitan Opera

Joan Sutherland, the Australian-born prima donna assoluta, was nearly the last survivor among the top sopranos of the twentieth century. Yet Sutherland, who died on October 10 at the age of 83 at her home in Switzerland, is now not so highly regarded in some quarters as her foremost contemporaries, even though in purely technical terms she outstripped almost all of them.

Her voice was as big as Leontyne Price’s and nearly as big as Birgit Nilsson’s; she could spin out haunting pianissimo effects akin to Renata Tebaldi’s fabled morbidezza; and her trill was not only better than Beverly Sills’s, but the best in the business since Luisa Tetrazzini, who retired when Sutherland was a child. And for clockwork consistency, she could sing rings around the incomparable but erratic Maria Callas. Sutherland’s reputation has languished because of her apparent desire to preserve her vocal resources at all costs.

Tea Party à la française

Mark Lilla

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

It’s strike season in France. Nearly every year around this time you begin to hear the whistles and drums and the loudspeakers bleating out the chants: “On va gagner, on va gagner! OUAAI!!! OUAAI!!!” In a country obsessed with the loss of national memory and shared experience, the annual strikes are, along with the Tour de France, one remaining public ritual reminding the French that they are French—not “European,” not workers of the world united, but French.

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson

www.news.cn/Xinhua/Liu Weibing

Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting didn’t exactly crush this hope, but it did put things in a much more sober perspective.

The excitement began in late August, when Premier Wen Jiabao toured the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen. The one-time fishing village was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its transformation into a Special Economic Zone, where Chinese officials have tested out economic reforms. Mr. Wen used the chance to advocate “political reforms” as well. Most of the time, political reform is a fairly empty phrase in China, almost always meaning a push to make the current system more efficient and slightly more responsive to ordinary citizens’ wishes, for example by opening complaint hotlines or neighborhood centers to make it easier to apply for government services. It never means what some hopeful westerners assume: transformation of China’s authoritarian system.

A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link

STR/AFP/Getty Images

It would be hard to overstate how much the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on October 8 has meant to China’s community of dissidents, bloggers, and activists. Not only has it lifted their spirits tremendously; many also view it as a possible turning point in the long struggle to bring democracy and human rights to their country. Their ebullience seems unaffected by the hostile reaction of the Chinese government, which has called the Nobel Committee’s decision “obscene” and an “insult to China.” Chinese authorities have spread the message in China’s state-run media that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal serving time in prison, but without quoting even a small sample of the words or ideas that have caused him to be there; and they have escalated their harassment of Liu’s friends and colleagues.

On Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize: An Open Letter

Chicago’s Magnificent Macbeth

Garry Wills

Lyric Opera of Chicago

This month at the Lyric Opera of Chicago there is a production of Verdi’s Macbeth to knock your socks off. Barbara Gaines, the director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, has done spectacular productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but this is her first opera work, and she has thought deeply and creatively about the text, both verbal and musical. Take the scene where the murdered Banquo’s ghost shows up at the castle banquet. Macbeth, out of guilt, sees the ghost, but no one else does. How do you stage that?

Buildings on the Big Screen

Martin Filler

Todd Sheridan

The static art of architecture and the kinetic art of motion pictures might seem antithetical mediums, but films can be enormously helpful in explaining buildings to laymen and professionals alike. Certain architectural works—the photo-resistant designs of Alvar Aalto come to mind—are difficult if not impossible to understand in still imagery, and are made fully comprehensible only through films that move around and inside them. The first Architecture and Design Film Festival, being held in New York today through Sunday, offers a rare opportunity to see in close succession more than forty examples of the genre.

Politically Incorrect: Brazil’s Clown-Elect

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Brazil is a country given to extremes. It’s a nation that combines rapid technological development with the continuity of popular traditions, urban growth and modernization with long-established rural culture. Such contrasts also come through in politics. On the one hand, the country is known for its huge voting population of 135 million and its secure and very fast electronic vote-counting system. On the other hand, the candidates get more bizarre by the year. This year’s novelty act was Tiririca, the stage name of Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva—a singer, composer, comedian, and clown. Tiririca recently joined the somewhat obscure Partido da República [PR] and was promptly elected federal deputy with the largest number of votes ever recorded in the state of São Paulo.