Category Archives: Books

Picasso’s War by Russell Martin


One of my favorite pasttimes is reading. While I never feel quite up to writing a full review of the books I read, I do like to at least write down my thoughts, so that I can remember better what I read. From time to time, I’m going to share the thoughts I have on some of the books I’ve read. Today, I’m posting my thoughts on two books I read a while ago, Picasso’s War and A Whale Hunt.

Started reading: ~05/01/03
Finished reading: 05/26/03
Notes written: 05/28/03

This book tells the story of Guernica, the famous painting by Picasso. It tells the whole story, starting with the events that lead to the creation of the painting and following Guernica as it moves from museum to museum, becoming ever more the important symbol it has become today. In the telling of the story of Guernica, we come to understand better the current political climate in Spain and the Basque Country, and why things are still so difficult in the region, why some things are so difficult to forgive.

Any history of the painting Guernica necessarily starts with the town Gernika and the Spanish Civil War. This book does an amazing job of recounting that market day when the town was destroyed by German bombers, when the fleeing citizens where gunned down by machine gunners flying overhead. A sense of outrage filled me as I read the recreation of that day, based on accounts of people that were there, an outrage that left me angry at the governments that did this, that let this happen by ignoring events in Spain. Even though I was only reading about it nearly 65 years later, I still felt an anger that can only pale to that felt by the people that went through this, who’s grandparents were there, and it helped me understand why people are still angry today.

After the bombing comes Picasso’s creation. The book follows the efforts of the Spanish Republic to get Picasso to paint something for its exhibit at the world fair in Paris and the creative process that led to Guernica. We follow the painting from Picasso’s studio, to the world’s fair, to New York where it is held in safe keeping until democracy returns to Spain, and finally to Madrid, where it currently resides. We learn that efforts to get the painting to the Basque Country, to be displayed near the site that inspired it, have been met with rejection. That this symbolic act of reconciliation between the Basques and the Spanish government has yet to occur.

The story of Guernica is very much a history of the modern Basque Country. Guernica has become the modern symbol of the horrors of warfare, resonanting not only with the Basque people, but also with the Japonese, the Germans, and other peoples who have first hand witnessed these horrors. It is a telling fact that the US asked a reproduction of Guernica at the UN to be covered when the resolutions on military action in Iraq were being brought to a vote. This painting symbolizes all that is horrible and aweful in war, all of the suffering that occurs. In telling the story of the painting, Picasso’s War reminds us that all wars result in suffering, and that forgiveness is not easy.

A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan


Started reading: ~02/27/01
Finished reading: ~03/14/01
Notes written: 03/27/01

This book describes the observations and experiences of a journalist who decides to spend a significant amount of time with the Makah as they prepare for their hunt of the grey whale. Significant is something like at least a year, or so it seems (I don’t think it is ever explicitly stated). He gets to know the tribal members, especially those directly involved in the hunt, and meets many of the other people involved, including the protesters. The book focuses on Wayne Johnson, who is the captain of the hunting crew and who is also the person that seems to have the most to gain from the hunt in the sense of what the hunt stands for, from a tribal perspective: Wayne is, in some sense, lost, and it is through the hunt and the responsibilities he has during the hunt that he attempts to find his place in the tribe and the outside world, much in the same way that the tribe is attempting through the hunt in the first place.

We meet many people of the tribe, most of whom are in favor of the hunt, though the tribal politics rears its head and ostracizes some of the members. The story begins when the tribe first announces they are going to hunt a whale, and goes through their efforts of finding the right kind of gun to do a humane kill, of building a canoe, of training for the hunt, and of actually hunting the whale. Not much is said of why they are using the gun, a point that made many people feel that the hunt was not traditional. It seems that the Makah wanted to make the hunt as humane as possible, and the traditional way would have been to harpoon the whale and attach floats that would slowly weaken the whale until it died of blood loss and exhaustion. So, while the hunt was not conducted in the most traditional form, it wasn’t done so because they wanted to keep the whale suffering to a minimum. In addition, it is mentioned that the Makah always adapted to new materials that they encountered that helped in their hunts.

In the middle of the story, the author makes a pilgrimage to Mexico, to a bay where the grey whales are known to migrate to and where they birth. During this trip he learns quite a bit about the whales and their relationship with humans, about the white hunting trade that occurred there. He meets some of the protesters who are based in California and we learn a bit about why they are fighting the hunt.

Overall, we are learning about how the tribe learns from the hunt, from their efforts to prepare and from the final hunt itself. They attend meetings with other whale hunting groups in the world, and invite them to the reservation. They have a big feast after the hunt in which many people, mostly other tribes, come and celebrate. The hunt is mostly viewed as a restoration of their customs and as an affirmation of their individuality as a culture. At times, one feels that part of the purpose of the hunt is just to be defiant, to tell the world that they are tired of being told what to do and that they are going to do what they want. However, they do get all of the legal permissions that they need to conduct the hunt.

In the end, it is hard to say what they accomplished. Certainly, at least temporarily, the tribal members felt more pride in being Makah. The children were proud of their ancestry, they wanted to participate in a hunt. The world learned something, though not necessarily positive, about the Makah. And Wayne Johnson was able to accomplish something, to do something for his people, to find a place for himself, at least for a time. Only time will tell if this will be the beginning of a mini-renaissance for the Makah, but it seems that it at least has the potential to be so.