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Juliana Fredman
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

Clandestines is a collection of short stories operating as a psychogeography of social and revolutionary movements from the late 1980’s on, mapped by a radicalized Irish anti-authoritarian. Moving from the Old to the New World, the stories track the convulsions of the global system and its revolutionary undercurrents through the experience of our erstwhile story-teller. His astute observations embellish reporting, advocacy and tall tales of unpredictable characters and communities to construct an optimistic, perhaps quixotic take on these end times. At its heart it is a testament to hope for the world vibrantly illustrated by hand drawn maps and black and white photographs.

The first section of the book details radical movements in Europe. The initial stories take place in the squatted communities of Berlin during the twilight of the Cold War. It is full of vivid descriptions of anarchists hopping eastward over the Berlin wall to escape the western riot police, “welcomed by East German border guards with tea and biscuits” when not battling the bullen on Mayday. Back in the squat, 20 hour sessions of ideological gymnastics necessary to organize anything will get a belly laugh from anyone familiar with consensus decision making. Many of the stories are hilarious and more useful for it. A young voice, enraptured with enticements of life and hopeless love among the barricades, evokes a lost space that became more about lifestyle than in-depth political struggle. Still, because we are watching through the eyes of a teenage rebel engrossed in the business of actually creating another world, this eulogy to the heroic phase of the Autonomes and the European squat scene registers powerfully just how much the terrain of youth culture and street politics has shifted since the end of the Cold War.

At a rainbow gathering in Croatia we travel with an older, worldlier protagonist, looking for a bit of R&R after the G8 mobilization in Genoa. He balks at the apolitical nature of the participants, plotting his smart comeback if “another naked yuppie computer programmer from Munich calls me ‘brother’” and lamenting the evolving plans of the tribe to impose their next gathering on the “unsuspecting” residents of the Brazilian Amazon. The story grapples with how lifestyle too often replaces politics and creates reactionary simulacrum of radical space. We have seen the “counterculture” of the 1960’s repeatedly conflated by the mainstream media and baby boomer pundits with the real social and political movements of that era. There is a cautionary note here surrounded by a story of boredom and nudity in the wilderness: “one more push, idealists, if you want to be revolutionaries.”

Bumpy trips

Indeed, this thread runs throughout the collection. There is a common understanding by the narrator of his own romantic proclivities, which simultaneously inspire and hamper him. Working on a banana boat while crisscrossing between Europe and Central America, he imparts enthusiastic histories of the reign of pirates in early capitalism. However, his Filipino and Chinese workmates are often underwhelmed by his musings on Atlantic proletarian life. “There is no mystery to the sea, it is simply the ocean and we are a metal box floating on top of it. And it is dangerous, stupid even. We are all fools, and we do it only because we have to.”

It is in the New World that the movement embodied in this experience by the Zapatista’s radical autonomous organization reaches a zenith and where our interlocutor has lived for the last decade. These narratives engage with issues that preoccupy activists globally. At the Third Encuentro in Brazil the confrontation between proponents of horizontal organizing and participatory democracy and those who would have reform within existing hierarchies is animated. However, some of the best stories in this section are told during seemingly interminable, bumpy trips through Central America. “Tales From a Vanquished Pier” is a fantastic yarn that slides easily into hilarious absurdity. “The Chicken Bus Diaries” offers a sober view of changes wrought in the years between the twilight of Sandinismo, when our pirate was a bright eyed young solidarity activist, and the new millennium, by which time the neo-liberal counterrevolution had taken its pound of flesh and created a pressing need for new tactics.

Western activism has spawned numerous academics, a cadre of journalists and a million filmmakers, yet we are sparse in the tradition of storytellers and bards. There is not a contemporary literary tradition among those engaged in struggle, as there is in the global south. Clandestines perches between these. In the more edifying passages, the desires of the participant narrator to instruct can undermine the integrity of the stories. But most of the time we have a very funny map of a committed life and a guide for whom writing is “a joy, not a chore.”

AK Press, 2006