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Chronicler of turbulent times: Salman Rushdie’s THE GOLDEN HOUSE

Salman Rushdie, The Golden House (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 370 pp., ISBN (hardback) 9781787330153
The Golden House is Salman Rushdie’s thirteenth novel and eighteenth book. The Indian-born, today US-resident writer is now aged 70, and it is now almost three decades since the worldwide polemic over The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel, marked him down as controversial for life. The new novel catapults him into the Trump era and finds him engaging novelistically with a number of the critical issues of our time.

It would be a mistake to see the Rushdie of today as an ‘Indian writer’: he has been too long out-station. His more recent work is the product of globalisation and cultural hybridation, of a chronicler of our times who ‘belongs’ in no single place. The Golden House, while set mostly in New York, reaches back in part to Rushdie’s origins, narrating the chequered fortunes of a wealthy, Manhattan-resident migrant family, the Goldens, originating in Bombay/Mumbai (as it happens of Muslim background although religious issues play almost no role in the novel).

Generically, the new novel is notable in its author’s canon for totally eschewing magic realism, the genre of which Midnight’s Children, his second novel, is considered a textbook exemplar to rival Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad. Rushdie’s more recent efforts include the fantasy-imbued The Enchantress of Florence (2010) and the One Thousand and One Nights pastiche Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015), both magic realist and neither of them among his most successful creations. I have argued elsewhere (on this blog, entry of 22 December 2005) that Shalimar the Clown from 2005 – which uses magic realism only sparingly – may actually be Rushdie’s best, or at least best-written novel. In The Golden House, it is realism that rules. The novel is cast as a first-person narrative, with as narrator not a member of the Golden family but a neighbour and associate of Belgian origin, named René and aspiring to the status of film director (though other characters get to speak in the first person via the device of embedded monologues).

Meanwhile, the most prominent characteristic of Rushdie’s writing in this novel is allusiveness: much as in his rock-era novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1997), whose photographer narrator, Rai, René in some ways resembles, the text is imbued with quotation and allusion from multiple cultural sources, indiscriminately of high-culture, low-culture and hybridated provenance, drawing on literature, visual art, comic books, Indian epics, popular music – including, as I note elsewhere (on this blog, entry of 14 January 2018), a fair crop of Bob Dylan references – and, above all and with an intensiveness without precedent in the Rushdie canon, cinema. Indeed, there are passages bristling with allusions to the likes of Federico Fellini, François Truffaut or Luis Buñuel that look like nothing if not the monthly programme of the onetime Cambridge Arts Cinema, a venue avowedly oft-frequented by Rushdie in his days as a King’s College undergraduate. Among other things, this novel must surely be read as its author’s tribute to the cinema, a summa of the seventh art – and be it added, not in exclusively Eurocentric or Western-oriented fashion, for among Rushdie-René’s cast of directors we also find Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Bengal’s Satyajit Ray.

The narrative is structured around the lives and deaths of the three adult sons of the protagonist, the fugitive ex-Mumbai businessman known as Nero Golden. Those sons (all given Greco-Roman names which they later distort) are, respectively, Petronius (Petya), diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Apuleius (Indianised, in a Satyajit Ray allusion, as Apu), a fashionable painter, and the youngest, Dionysus, who reduces his name to D. All three Golden scions come to a problematic end, Apu on a visit to India and Petya and D In Manhattan. Apu is eliminated by Mumbai gangsters; Petya falls at the hands of irrational violence in its American guise, victim of a mass shooting by a crazed gunman. It is D’s fate, however, that lies closest to a preoccupation at the heart of this novel, namely its author’s response to a number of the controversial cultural and ideological issues currently facing Western society.

The issues evoked include extremisms of both right and left. On the right, Rushdie tackles the gun lobby, the ‘Gamergate’ scandal, and above all, the rise of Donald Trump, thinly disguised as ‘the Joker’, whose campaign rumbles in the background and culminates in his election, to the horror of René and, surely, through him Rushdie. René laments apocalyptically: ‘after the election the Joker – his hair green and luminous, his skin white as a Klansman’s hood, his lips dripping with anonymous blood – now ruled them all’ (p. 348). On the left, the novel weighs in on identity politics, including transgender issues and their impact on language, and on the trend towards campus censorship.

D’s partner, Riya, works at a (fictional) Museum of Identity, herself as an Indian-Swedish American having no one identity. The narrative charts in detail how D becomes gradually aware of his transgender identity and eventually commits suicide under multiple pressures, as well as Riya’s ambiguous reaction to his death and partial forswearing of identity politics as she resigns from her job. The portrayal will not necessarily please the transgender community, but this is a novel, not a tract, and there can be no doubt of Rushdie’s openness to engaging with the issue. Rushdie also wrestles – and directly so, as writer – with the controversial question of transgender pronouns. An associate challenges D: ‘You should think about pronouns … If you’re giving up he, who steps in? You could choose they’ (p. 111). Rushdie/René chooses the strategy of referring to D in his earlier stages of transition as parenthetically masculine ([he], [his]) and at a more advanced stage as italicised female (she, her); nowhere is resort had to invented pronouns like ze, though their existence is mentioned. Thus we have sentences like: ‘I still used the male pronouns when I thought about [him], though that felt increasingly wrong, and so as a gesture towards [his] ambiguity I put them in square brackets’ (p. 246). The chosen strategy may work on the page, but would not be reproducible should the novel be read from live.

Rushdie said in 2015 that ‘we are living in the darkest time I have ever known’  – -, specifically with censorship in his sights. His new novel appears at a time characterised, notably but not only in the US and the UK, by increasing rejection in ‘liberal’ circles, especially academic, of that very free speech of which Rushdie has been an icon for three decades, and also by the practice of ‘sensitivity checking’ (i.e. novelists submitting their manuscripts for ideological approval by presumed representatives of minority groups), a trend which we may presume he has not followed. The Golden House engages with the campus censorship issue only once, but in an eloquent paragraph whose examples could all or nearly all be shown by research to refer to real cases.

The paragraph revolves around René’s parents (who would both be killed in a car crash), old-school academics who find themselves shocked at the new student generation’s rejection of free speech. The examples include cancelling a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues because it might offend transgender students, banning of Pocahontas costumes at Hallowe’en, no-platforming of apostate Muslims because ‘their views were offensive to non-apostate Muslims’, and ‘their colleague on TV with a twenty-year old female student screaming abuse into her face from a distance of three inches because of a disagreement over campus journalism’ . The ‘apostate Muslims’ allusion might appear to target Rushdie himself, but in fact relates less to him than to other lapsed Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are not welcome on campuses. In terms that might recall Winston Smith’s recoiling from Oceania’s totalitarian generation of children in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, René chronicles how his parents note with despair that young people have become ‘pro-censorship, pro-banning things, pro-restrictions’: ‘how did that happen … we’re beginning to fear the young’ (pp. 28-29).

With almost three decades having passed since the outbreak of the so-called ‘Rushdie affair’, The Golden House, and indeed all of its author’s work, stands as an emblem of intellectual and artistic freedom. Now as in the past, Rushdie is not afraid to tackle difficult issues head-on. Meanwhile as another anniversary of the fatwa approaches, it is not easy to be sanguine about the prospects for writers and the arts. As I was about to put this review on-line, news broke that the Manchester Art Gallery had ‘temporarily’ removed one of its best-known paintings from view, invoking gender politics ––waterhouse-why-have-mildly-erotic-nymphs-been-removed-from-a-manchester-gallery-is-picasso-next . If one looks back from 2018 to 1989, yes, it may be concluded that Rushdie himself survived (and went on to build up a massive œuvre), and so did The Satanic Verses (no Western country has banned it). As to whether artistic freedom will survive, the jury is out.

Bob Dylan and Salman Rushdie – Dylan allusions in Rushdie’s ‘The Golden House’

Salman Rushdie is known to be a long-term Dylan admirer (indeed, Dylan is even quoted in ‘The Satanic Verses’), and in 2017 effusively welcomed the songwriter’s controversial Nobel Prize in Literature. I have been following Rushdie’s Dylan allusions, across a large part of his fiction and non-fiction, for some time, – notably with reference to his rock-era novel ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’:

and now bring the matter up to date with the Dylan harvest from his latest novel, ‘The Golden House’ (I did the same for the preceding novel, ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’, on this blog – entry for 9 October 2015 –  at:

‘The Golden House’ (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), set mostly in New York, is a novel of contemporary life in which the Indian-born author addresses a whole range of current issues, from the rise of Trump to transexuality and identity politics. Despite Rushdie’s fame as practitioner of magic realism, it is written entirely in realist mode, with a first-person narrator who is an aspiring film director. As is typical with Rushdie, the text is shot through with cultural references, to books, films, songs and more, straddling high culture and mass culture, and amid this throng of allusions I am pleased to locate half-a-dozen, explicit or implicit, to Bob Dylan, in what is Rushdie’s first novel since the Nobel conferred a new gravitas on Dylan the songwriter.

Bob Dylan is mentioned by name twice (pp. 12, 27) as a former – if ‘long gone’ – resident of the part of Greenwich Village where the Golden family (the book’s main protagonists) live. There is also a reference to the famously demented Dylanite A.J. Weberman (p. 35) and his habit of searching through his idol’s trashcans.

Next, we are told that one of the Golden family, Petya, a young man diagnosed with high-functioning autism, boasts among his achievements that of knowing Dylan lyrics by heart, and proves it by reciting in its entirety one of Dylan’s longest songs, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. It is not the first time Rushdie has cited this song: it also makes a bow in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and ‘Fury’. Here, Petya is said to recite it ‘as reverently as if it were a companion piece to [John Keats’ poem] “La Belle Dame sans Merci”‘ (p. 44), with Rushdie thus weighing in, it may be a shade late in the day, on the ‘Dylan vs Keats / popular art vs high art’ debate that at one time wracked the Anglophone academy.

Later, Petya engages in a melodramatic twelve-hour one-person walk across Manhattan, at which point the text exhibits a number of embedded quotations from Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – uncredited, but too many to be anything but deliberate (again, Rushdie has quoted from this song before, in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’). The narrator imagines the walk proceeding with ‘the sound of a tambourine at each footfall’: then come an explicit reference to a ‘tambourine man’ and the phrases ‘the haunted, frightened trees’ (p. 201), ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’, and ‘to dance. Beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free [Rushdie’s punctuation]’ (p. 202), all straight from a Dylan song which Rushdie may be reading as invoking the kind of parallel reality into which his afflicted character Petya retreats.

A final Dylan reference, again uncredited, appears in the run-up to Petya’s death at the hands of a demented gunman, when the narrator retrospectively asks: ‘Was I the only person in the Golden house that day who heard the beating of fatal wings, the proleptic sighs of the guilty undertaker, the slow falling of the curtain at the end of the play’? (p. 281): the ‘guilty undertaker’ hails straight from of the first line of Dylan’s ‘I Want You’.

Once again then, in ‘The Golden House’ Bob Dylan is numbered among the multiple textual influences on Salman Rushdie’s writing, and receives his due from a major literary chronicler of our time.

Note added 2 February 2018: I have now given ‘The Golden House’ a full review on this blog – entry for 1 February 2018.



It may come as no surprise to students of Edgar Allan Poe to learn that a book-length study now exists on the translation worldwide of the Boston-born author’s most celebrated poem, ‘The Raven’, but a few eyebrows may be raised by the authors’ affirmations concerning the cultural importance worldwide of Poe’s declamatory gem, with its headcount of translations at 700 and rising.

The book, published in Brazil and downloadable at:,

is a multilingual project combining an expository portion in Portuguese with international bibliographical information and translations in their original target languages. The authors suggest that ‘The Raven’ is in all probability ‘o texto poético mais traduzido do mundo’ [‘the most translated poem in the world’], and may even be ‘o poema mais seminalmente intermidiática da história’ [‘the most seminally intermediatic poem in history’] (p. 11). Details are:

Helciclever Barros da Silva Vitoriano, Sidelmar Alves da Silva Kunz and André Luis Gomes, Mapeamento mundial de traduções do poema ‘The Raven’ de Edgar Allan Poe: Um estudo preliminar (1853-2017) [‘A world map of translations of the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe: A preliminary study (1853-2017)’], Brasilia: Universidade da Brasilia, 2017, 516 pp.

A summary of the research behind this volume was offered as a paper at a conference in Brasilia in November 2017:;revistaintercambioA;paginas;index

The book offers a detailed bibliography of translations of ‘The Raven’, running to at least 45 languages, also including criticism on the translations where it exists. The languages most strongly represented include, as is to be expected, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Russian, but also present are Arabic and Chinese, as well as Corsican, Basque, Albanian, Vietnamese, Latin and many more. It concludes with the full texts of a goodly number of translations in the public domain in multiple languages.

This book will most certainly prove an invaluable reference for the future study of the inexhaustible subject of translating Edgar Allan Poe. I also note that it frequently and favourably mentions the 2014 multi-author study Translated Poe, edited by Emron Esplin and Margarida Vale de Gato (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press / Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield), to which I am pleased to be a contributor (see entry on this blog for 29 October 2014).


I am pleased to inform the world that Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg), where I live, has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2022. It will share this honour, bestowed by the European Union, with Kaunas, the former capital of Lithuania.

Esch (population: 34 000) is Luxembourg’s second city after the capital, with an industrial past (steelworks are still operative), and is the seat of the country’s university. It has a vibrant cultural activity, with venues including the municipal Theatre and Conservatorium, the Rockhal concert venue, and the Kulturfabrik arts centre (photo below), as well as an established annual Flamenco Festival. 30% of the population is international, the most numerous communities being Portuguese, Italian and African. Esch will be spearheading a consortium of municipalities in southern Luxembourg and across the border in France, which will share the hosting of activities.

A campaign ‘I Support Esch 2022’ is already under way and I will surely be backing it!

For more details, see:  and


‘Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote’ – Bob Dylan, 1989

Bob Dylan, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979-1981, Columbia 2017

Part I

Trouble No More, the thirteenth and latest volume in Bob Dylan’s long-running sequence of archive releases, The Bootleg Series, covers the years 1979 to 1981. In its full deluxe edition, in 8 CDs, one DVD, a booklet with liner notes by Rob Bowman replete with biblical  pointers, essays by Penn Jillette and Amanda Petrusich and a book of souvenir photographs, the set documents what has often been seen as the most controversial of all the singer-songwriter’s many avatars, namely his ‘religious period’.

The world of music drew its breath in 1979 at the announcement of Bob Dylan’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, accompanied by the release of ‘Slow Train Coming’, an album consisting exclusively of new compositions in a religious idiom. The album reached No 2 in the US charts and featured Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on guitar, as if to sweeten the pill. However, it was rejected out of hand by many of Dylan’s long-time admirers. It was followed by two other Christian-themed albums, ‘Saved’ in 1980 and ‘Shot of Love’ in 1981, which were less commercially successful. ‘Slow Train Coming’ also opened a period in which Dylan performed nothing but religious material in concert, though eventually he softened his stance to restore some older songs to the setlists. ‘Shot of Love’ contained a number of non-religious songs, and palpable was the relief in Dylan circles when his album of 1983, ‘Infidels’, proved to be free of overtly Christian material and finally marked the errant idol’s return to the fold. In later years and indeed until fairly recent times, Dylan continued to perform some of the songs from this period in concert, but treating them as elements from his back catalogue without privileged ideological significance.

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 enriches the official Dylan canon with copious servings of material,  mostly live (also studio outtakes), complementing the three studio albums from this period. The live material is selected from different dates and venues, except for discs 7 and 8, which enshrine an entire concert (London, 27 June 1981, with some non-religious material); discs 5 and 6 are a compilation from different concerts in Toronto in 1980. The title ‘Trouble No More’ appears to be not from Dylan but from a blues number with that title by Muddy Waters. There are some previously unreleased compositions, and many of the songs appear in multiple versions. For some, this set will mark total saturation with the ‘religious Dylan’; for others, it will be infinitely fascinating.

As the authors of the set’s two essays admit, for a whole host of Dylan devotees ‘Slow Train Coming’ and its successors marked a crisis point. I remember myself the reactions of numerous friends and acquaintances, ranging from desperate disillusion to angry rejection. There were those who now saw Dylan’s earlier work as retrospectively tainted and started to divest themselves of their Dylan collections; those hitherto Dylan completists who conspicuously refused to buy ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’; those who defiantly declared ‘I just ignore the words and listen to the music’, or responded ‘He always did quote the Bible anyway’;  and even those who spoke openly of ‘the death of Bob Dylan’. Equally, these were others who, influenced by the then still uncontested hegemony of Marxism in left-wing circles, rejected the new Dylan for being religious tout court, while others objected specifically to the conservative political connotations of the particular form of religion Dylan had embraced. I myself published a highly critical article in a Portuguese journal:

–           ‘Bob Dylan: Do Radicalismo à Reacção’, Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, No. 13 (Feb 1984), pp. 45-75 (only available in Portuguese) – on-line at:

berating Dylan for what seemed an inexplicable conversion to values he had once opposed – but in which I made the mistake of supposing the conversion to be final and irreversible. That article was written in 1983 but published in 1984, by which time the unpredictable Bob had disabused me of my error with the release of ‘Infidels’.

It might be added that if one looks objectively today at the lyrics to the three albums, if those to ‘Slow Train Coming’ do indeed at certain points reflect a conservative evangelical ideology (though laced with social protest that would to some paradoxically recall Dylan’s early 60s work), those to ‘Saved’ are far more emotionally focused on the sensations of salvation, while ‘Shot of Love’ can be read as a dramatic monologue, the product of an internal struggle within someone not entirely sure if they are a Christian or not. All in all, the three-album sequence is very far from constituting a homogeneous propaganda tract. Many, even if not all, of the songs on the three albums read as decent pieces of writing acceptably up to Bob Dylan’s usual standards. The recurrent biblical references constitute the songs as intertextual by default. From this period, ‘Every Grain of Sand’, much returned to live in later years, is generally recognised as a major Dylan song, and in that register I would add, at least, ‘In the Garden’, and, in its multiple versions, ‘Caribbean Wind’.

Now, we may ask what the cultural significance might be of the release of this set at this particular point in time, almost four decades on. Many of the live performances are of the highest quality, with Dylan, his band and his back-up singers creatively on edge, emotionally vibrant and musically and vocally concentrated. Today, the Marxian ‘opium of the people’ dismissal of religion has been largely supplanted in Western liberal circles by its polar opposite, the ideology of ‘respect for religion’, which taken to extremes can mean placing anything religiously motivated beyond all criticism whatever. Between one extreme and another, ‘Trouble No More’ raises in acute form the issue of the reception of religious art by those who are non-believers. The world is invited, after all this time, to focus on the religious Dylan at a time when the issue of ‘how to react to art that one disapproves of’ has perhaps never been so charged.

We are living a historical moment at which Western civilisation’s historic commitment (if Western civilisation still exists) to free expression and artistic freedom is under unprecedented attack – in multiple spheres, from universities to the theatre, visual arts and music – and in which certain ideological blocs appear to have thrown all notions of aesthetic value out of the window. The conversion of a certain Californian educational institution, which I shall not name, from free-speech redoubt to hotbed of censorship (as exemplified in recent events there) serves to remind us that today those who consider themselves liberals, be they students or academics – the kind of people whose equivalents 40 or 50 years ago would have been Dylan acolytes – are now more often than not in the forefront of the new puritanism. The ever more frequent reasoning, in more than one ideological camp, is: I disagree with this artwork, so I eliminate it; I disagree with this person, so I shut them up. In extreme cases the two positions are conflated, and the result is: I disagree with you, so I eliminate you (it may not be that difficult to find examples).

I am not aware that anyone at the time actually wanted Dylan’s religious work banned or destroyed. However, in the times we live in, to reposition that religious work on the world stage may prove a salutary act, suggesting to those of us who rejected it back then that perhaps we were not setting such a good example when we said no to a part of an artist’s work that was aesthetically substantial and gave rise to unforgettable performances, simply because we did not approve of its ideological connotations. Had we been more tolerant then, perhaps the world might be a more tolerant place today.



I continue with some more detailed comments, targeted on harder-core Dylan loyalists.

The packaging of this set is – like the music – mostly excellent, though the quality of some of the photos in the booklet (‘Bob Dylan – Pressing On: Photographs and More 1979-1981’). leaves something to be desired. The nine discs have been designed with a suitably retro look and sport various combinations of just three appropriate colours, red, black and gold, suggesting solemnity and passion. Rob Bowman’s notes are detailed, enthusiastic and helpful, with Dylan’s multifarious references to the King James Bible admirably pinpointed, but for some unknown reason stop at Disc 4 – so there is no guidance for the last 4 discs or the DVD, an unfortunate omission surely.

The number of tracks on the 8 CDs is officially 92, but becomes 89 if one excludes a radio check and two band introductions. All the tracks are previously unreleased with the one exception of ‘Ye Shall Be Changed’, taken from The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3. There are, if I have counted right, 13 songs never before officially released, some of them in more than one version. Of these, ten are Dylan compositions and three are cover versions. There is also ‘Trouble in Mind’, left off ‘Slow Train Coming’ but released as the B-side of the ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ single in the US (as Rob Bowman points out) and also (as he does not point out) as the B-side to ‘Precious Angel’ in the UK. Some of the previously unreleased numbers are not totally unfamiliar thanks to cover versions (‘City of Gold’, ‘Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One’) or Dylan lore (‘Yonder Comes Sin’); others (‘Stand By Faith’, ‘I Will Love Him’) were new certainly to me, and I imagine to most.

Of the three cover versions, ‘Help Me Understand’ is a Hank Williams song, while ‘Rise Again’ is a gospel number also covered by Elvis. The most intriguing cover, however, appears on CD 8 (second disc of the London concert), in the shape of ‘Let’s Begin’, a Jim Webb song. To my knowledge this is Dylan’s only known cover of Webb, who as author of compositions like ‘Wichita Lineman’ has certainly staked a decent claim to being a major twentieth-century songwriter. Unfortunately, as the notes stop at disc 4, no further light is shed on the matter.

There are so many good performances, studio and above all live, on this set that to single out individual tracks might seem almost invidious. However, a list of standout tracks might include ‘Covenant Woman’ on disc 1, ‘Pressing On’ on disc 2, and ‘When You Gonna Wake Up?’ and ‘In the Garden’ (disc 8, London); or both versions, live (disc 2) and studio (disc 4), of ‘Caribbean Wind’, with lyrics varying both between each other and from the version that appeared on Biograph (for Dylan geographers, they respectively cite Curacao and Trinidad where the earlier release namecheck Nassau); or, again, the two passionate versions of the hitherto unknown ‘Cover Down, Pray Through’ (disc 4 studio, disc 5 live). On a less perfect note, there are lyric errors on the live versions on disc 2 of ‘In the Summertime’ and ‘Every Grain of Sand’, and would it really not have been possible to choose word-perfect performances of both? (the studio take of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ on disc 4 is error-free). As for the non-religious songs on discs 7 and 8, doubters may note that these are excellent versions, with, notably and thanks also to Dylan’s back-up singers, especially harmonious translations into the gospel idiom of two classic songs that are particularly suited to such a transformation.

The DVD consists of a video entitled ‘Trouble No More: A Musical Film’, directed by Jennifer LeBeau and made up of concert footage interspersed with sermons from a preacher played by US actor Michael Shannon, plus ‘extras” material in the form of further concert material. Dylan’s performances – not identified – come over as intent and moving, both on Bob’s own part and that of his musicians and backup singers. Outstanding numbers include ‘Precious Angel’, ‘Saved’ and, with an epic harmonica solo, ‘What Can I Do For You?’ The DVD also includes two songs that to my knowledge have never appeared as official Dylan audio releases: the traditional ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’, in two versions (incomplete in the film, complete in the extras), and, in a powerful duet rendition that marks the film’s closure,  the oft-recorded standard ‘Abraham, Martin and John’.

All in all, the material of this set appears as a revelation and a challenge, a clarion call at a difficult moment in history for Dylan’s admirers to engage in critical dialogue with a corpus of work from a period in his songwriting career that is not the easiest to handle, but which, approached with an open mind, may prove surprisingly rewarding – another phase in the creative life of one of the greatest artists, in any medium, of modern times.


Review of: Tim Z. Hernandez, All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017

‘Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita,

Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María,

You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be “deportees”’

Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)’


Almost 70 years ago as I write, on 28 January 1948, a Douglas DC-3 plane transporting – or, more accurately, deporting – a contingent of Mexican migrant workers from the US back to Mexico caught fire and crashed at Los Gatos Canyon, outside the town of Coalinga in Fresno county, California, killing all on board. That disaster gave rise to a song composed by folk icon Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)’, which has been covered over the years by numerous artists. However, only in the second decade of the twenty-first century did someone carry out the project of researching the incident and of endeavouring to properly identify the deceased and trace their histories. That person is the California-born Hispanic-American writer and academic Tim Z. Hernandez, his labours part-financed by the University of Texas at El Paso. The result is a moving and richly detailed setting to rights of the collective memory surrounding that plane wreck.


Woody Guthrie composed the words of ‘Deportee’, but the tune, based on a Mexican ranchera melody, is by an otherwise little-known musician and friend of Guthrie’s, Martin Hoffmann. Guthrie himself never performed or recorded the song: in 1948 he was already ravaged by the Huntington’s chorea that would end his life in 1967. ‘Deportee’ was first popularised by Pete Seeger, and over the years notable versions have included those by Judy Collins, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Nanci Griffith and (in a Spanish-language adaptation) Tish Hinojosa. The song has also been performed live by Bob Dylan alongside Baez. It is universally recognised as a folk standard, but only now, with Hernandez’s book, has the story behind the song been told in a form in keeping with what it has always more than merited.

The victims of the crash were 32 in all: 28 Mexican migrants (27 men and one woman), plus four Americans (the pilot, his co-pilot and his wife acting as stewardess, and the security guard). The migrants were braceros, seasonal agricultural labourers who had toiled picking Californian fruit. They were not necessarily illegals, but if not they were workers with no settled status or residency rights (as the song puts it, ‘Some of us are illegal and others not wanted’). They were being deported back to Mexico in accordance with the cyclical back-and-forth system imposed by the US authorities: short-term seasonal contract, return to Mexico, new seasonal contract and so on. The deportation by plane was unusual, the means of transport commonly used being bus or train. The nature of the system is summed up by a US Agricultural Labour Bureau employee, whom Hernandez quotes without comment: ‘We are asking for labour only at certain times of the year, at the peak of our harvest, and the class of labour we want is the kind we can send home when we get through with them’.

Guthrie’s song affirms that the Mexican victims were nameless (‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane’, ‘The radio says they are just deportees’). Hernandez’s book shows that this is not exactly the case: the newspaper and radio reports did in fact name some (not all) of the passengers (not always correctly). This does not detract from the fact that the Mexican crash victims were treated as effectively nameless, their remains consigned to a mass grave with a marker reducing them to ‘28 Mexican citizens’, their families never officially informed, and their lineage and histories untraced.

Tim Z. Hernandez’s book is the product of a five-year labour. He did not manage to trace all of the deceased, succeeding with a total of six (four braceros, all men, and the American pilot and his wife). The project thus remains unfinished, but what emerges is an impressive cross between testimony and oral history. For the braceros, through interviews with the surviving relatives and neighbours of those located, conducted using a handheld audio recorder, he builds a picture of their working and family lives and personalities – in detail ranging from the courtship of Luis Miranda Cuevas from Jocotepec in Jalisco state, with his plans to engage a mariachi at his wedding, to the love for baseball of José Sánchez Valdivia from La Estancia in Zacatecas state – as well as imaginatively reconstructing the course of the fatal events, from the boarding of the plane to the aftermath of the wreck. The tale concludes with a first-hand account of the consecration, on 2 September 2013 at the Holy Cross cemetery in Fresno, of a collective headstone, finally naming all 28 deceased Mexicans and thus mitigating the anonymity of the mass grave. Their story, however, remains incomplete, the bare bones of the facts still needing to be fleshed out by imaginative empathy: as Hernandez says in his preface, ‘To stumble upon a plane crash is to stumble upon the broken and fragmented shards of stories, and to have faith that from these clues our own glaring humanity offers enough light to fill in the unknown’.


All They Will Call You is both a carefully researched, sensitively written collective homage and an act of historical reclamation of events till now remembered almost entirely through one single song. It is a book that deserves a wide circulation; and in view of the subject-matter and the author’s origins, and in the interests of its wider accessibility, if a translation into Spanish is being considered that would be an indubitable plus. Its tale from almost 70 years ago is also disturbingly pertinent to our own times – to today’s conflictive politics, as expressed in the US in the presidential plans for a border wall, and in its sibling nation the UK in the newly precarious future awaiting migrant workers, with European fruit-pickers in particular now risking a draconian seasonal permit regime. For both Anglosphere states, today’s readers of Hernandez’s book may, for 2017 as for 1948, more than legitimately echo Woody Guthrie’s question in ‘Deportee’ (italics mine), ‘Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?’



Hernandez’s book is also reviewed at: Sasha Khokha, KQED News, 13 July 2017,

‘Immortalized by Woody Guthrie, “Deportees” Who Died in Plane Crash Are Nameless No Longer’,


See also: *(in Spanish) David Brooks, ‘Deportee/Deportados’, La Jornada sin Fronteras, 15 May 2017,

*Diana Marcum, ‘Names emerge from shadows of 1948 crash’, LA Times, 9 July 2013,

*Malia Wollan, ‘65 Years Later, a Memorial Gives Names to Crash Victims’, New York Times, 3 September 2013,


It is also interesting to note that an article published this year traces a recently discovered further  instance of Woody Guthrie’s solidarity with the Hispanophone world, namely the series of anti-Franco songs which he wrote (but did not record) in 1952:

Will Kaufman, ‘Woody Guthrie’s Songs Against Franco’, Atlantis (Spain), XXXIX, 1 (June 2017), pp. 91-111,



Reseña: Tim Z. Hernandez, All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2017

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita,

Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María,

You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be “deportees”’

Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)’


Hace casi 70 años, el 28 de enero de 1948, un avión Douglas DC-3 que transportaba – o más bien deportaba – a un contingente de trabajadores migrantes mexicanos desde Estados Unidos de regreso a México prendió fuego y se estrelló en el Cañón de Los Gatos, en las afueras del pueblo de Coalinga en el condado de Fresno, California, provocando la muerte de toda la gente a bordo. Ese desastre dio origen a una canción escrita por Woody Guthrie, ícono  de la música folk, ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)’ [‘Deportado: Desastre de avión en Los Gatos’], que ha sido interpretada a través de los años por numerosos artistas. No obstante, fue sólo en la segunda década del siglo XXI que alguien emprendió el proyecto de investigar el incidente y de intentar la correcta identificación de los fallecidos y trazar sus historias. Le cupo esa tarea a Tim Z. Hernandez, escritor y universitario norteamericano de origen hispánico, nacido en California, beneficiando en la última fase del proyecto del apoyo de la Universidad de Texas en El Paso. El resultado es una rectificación conmovedora y detallada de la memoria colectiva que rodea el desastre.

Woody Guthrie compuso la letra de ‘Deportee’, pero la melodía, basada en una ranchera mexicana, es la obra de un músico y amigo de Guthrie, por lo demás poco conocido, llamado Martin Hoffmann. El propio Guthrie nunca grabó o interpretó la canción: en 1948 ya se encontraba muy debilitado por la corea de Huntington, enfermedad que acabaría con su vida en 1967. El primero en popularizar la canción fue Pete Seeger, y entre las múltiples grabaciones realizadas desde entonces se pueden destacar las de Judy Collins, Joan Baez, los Byrds, Nanci Griffith y (en una adaptación al español) Tish Hinojosa. También ha sido interpretada en vivo por Bob Dylan, al lado de Baez. ‘Deportee’ se ha ganado un reconocimiento universal como tema clásico del género folk, pero sólo ahora, con el libro de Hernandez, ha sido posible contar la historia que subyace esta canción de la manera que se merece.

Las víctimas de la catástrofe fueron en total 32: 28 migrantes mexicanos (27 varones y una mujer), más 4 norteamericanos (el piloto, su copiloto y su esposa actuando de auxiliar, y el guardia de seguridad). Los migrantes eran braceros, trabajadores agrícolas estacionales que habían faenado recogiendo frutos californianos. No eran forzosamente ilegales, pero aun así eran al máximo trabajadores sin estatuto permanente o derechos de residencia. Como declara la canción, ‘Some of us are illegal and others not wanted’ [‘Algunos somos ilegales y a otros ya no nos quieren’]. Estaban siendo deportados de regreso a México según el sistema cíclico de ir-y-venir impuesto por las autoridades estadounidenses: contrato de temporada, regreso a México, otro contrato de temporada, etc. Que la deportación se realizara en avión era insólito, pues los medios de transporte más usuales eran el tren y el autobús. La naturaleza del sistema puede resumirse en las palabras de un funcionario del US Agricultural Labour Bureau, citadas por Hernandez sin comentario: ‘We are asking for labour only at certain times of the year, at the peak of our harvest, and the class of labour we want is the kind we can send home when we get through with them’ [‘Buscamos mano de obra sólo en determinadas temporadas del año, en el punto alto de nuestra cosecha, y la clase de mano de obra que queremos es aquella que podemos mandar regresar a casa cuando ya no la necesitamos’].

La canción de Guthrie afirma que las víctimas mexicanas fueron tratadas como gente sin nombre: ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane’, ‘The radio says they are just deportees’ [‘Ustedes no tendrán nombre cuando viajen en el gran avión’, ‘Dice la radio que sólo son deportados’]. El libro de Hernandez demuestra que eso no fue exactamente el caso: en realidad algunos de los reportes de periódico o radio nombraron a ciertos pasajeros (no todos, y no siempre con ortografía correcta). Esto no altera el hecho de que los mexicanos víctimas del desplome fueron tratados como efectivamente sin nombre: sus restos fueron consignados a una fosa común con una única piedra reduciéndolos a ‘28 ciudadanos mexicanos’, sus familias nunca fueron oficialmente informadas, y sus historias y antecedentes se quedaron sin identificar.

El libro de Tim Z. Hernandez es el producto de una labor de cinco años. No logró rastrear a todos los difuntos, teniendo éxito con un total de seis (cuatro braceros, todos de sexo masculino, y el piloto estadounidense y su esposa). El proyecto queda así incompleto, pero surge sin embargo como una impresionante síntesis entre testimonio e historia oral. Para los braceros, a través de entrevistas con los sobrevivientes parientes y vecinos de los fallecidos localizados, realizadas usando un grabador audio de bolsillo, restablece el retrato de su vida familiar y laboral y sus personalidades – desde el cortejo de Luis Miranda Cuevas, de Jocotepec en Jalisco, con sus planes de contratar mariachi para su boda, hasta la afición al béisbol de José Sánchez Valdivia, de La Estancia en Zacatecas -, además de reconstruir el decurso de los últimos sucesos fatales, del momento del embarque a las primeras secuelas del desplome. La historia concluye con un reportaje de primera mano de la consagración, el 2 de septiembre de 2013, en el panteón de la Sagrada Cruz (Holy Cross Cemetery) en Fresno, de una piedra tumular colectiva, finalmente nombrando a todos los 28 mexicanos fenecidos y así atenuando la anonimidad de la fosa común. Su historia, no obstante, siempre tiene que completarse, pues hace falta dar vitalidad a los hechos usando empatía e imaginación. Como resalta Hernandez en su prefacio, ‘To stumble upon a plane crash is to stumble upon the broken and fragmented shards of stories, and to have faith that from these clues our own glaring humanity offers enough light to fill in the unknown’ (‘Toparse con un desastre de avión es toparse con fragmentos de historias, y tener fe que a partir de esas pistas nuestra flagrante humanidad ofrezca luz suficiente para rellenar lo desconocido’).


El libro All They Will Call You es, por un lado, un homenaje a una colectividad, fundamentado en una investigación rigorosa y redactado con sensibilidad, y, por otro, un acto de reclamación histórica de eventos que hasta ahora se conocían casi enteramente a través de una única canción. Es merecedor de una amplia circulación, y en ese marco, llevando en cuenta su temática y en aras de maximizar su accesibilidad, se puede afirmar que en caso de que haya una traducción al español bajo consideración, eso constituiría innegable ventaja. A la vez, la historia que cuenta de hace casi 70 años ahora surge como, de forma perturbadora, altamente pertinente para nuestros tiempos. Piénsese en la conflictividad al nivel político que caracteriza nuestra actualidad, reflejada en Estados Unidos en el proyecto presidencial de muro fronterizo, y en su país hermano Reino Unido, en la amenaza de futura precariedad que se cierne sobre los trabajadores migrantes, y muy en particular los recogedores de frutos que ahora arriesgan vivir bajo un régimen draconiano de permisos de temporada. Para ambas tierras de la anglosfera, quien hoy lee el libro de Hernandez bien puede, tanto para 2017 como para 1948, hacer legítimo eco de la pregunta de Woody Guthrie en ‘Deportee’ (cursiva mía): ‘Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?’ – ‘¿Sería ésta la mejor manera de cultivar nuestros frutos tan ricos’?



Para otra reseña del libro de Hernandez, véase: Sasha Khokha, KQED News, 13 julio 2017,

‘Immortalized by Woody Guthrie, “Deportees” Who Died in Plane Crash Are Nameless No Longer’,


También de interés:

*(en español) David Brooks, ‘Deportee/Deportados’, La Jornada sin Fronteras, 15 mayo 2017,

*Diana Marcum, ‘Names emerge from shadows of 1948 crash’, LA Times, 9 julio 2013,

*Malia Wollan, ‘65 Years Later, a Memorial Gives Names to Crash Victims’, New York Times, 3 septiembre 2013,


Notemos igualmente que un artículo de este año retrata otra faceta, hasta ahora desconocida, de la solidaridad de Woody Guthrie con el mundo hispano, concretamente la serie de canciones antifranquistas que escribió (aunque sin grabarlos) en 1952:

Will Kaufman, ‘Woody Guthrie’s Songs Against Franco’, Atlantis (España), XXXIX, 1 (junio 2017), pp. 91-111,