Time: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2023

“We will sell no wine before its time,” Orson Welles proclaimed in sonorous tones in his famous Paul Masson California wine commercials from 1978 to 1981. The motto and those ads became an oft-parodied media trope in the late twentieth century, a meme before memes were invented, when bootleg outtakes of an apparently drunk Welles circulated widely, gaining a second comedic life for the advertising campaign.

Historians sometimes have difficulty in determining how to categorize and periodize historical events. The mere chronicling of short-term, discreet historical events known as evental history—histoire événementielle in the French Annales School—needs to be superseded by the study of long-term historical trends, structures, and collectivities (the longue durée), the broad evolution of economies, societies and civilizations. Once established, the historical long haul—the histoire totale—can then be subdivided into convenient medium-length combinations of events; decades and centuries when more thoroughgoing socio-economic-cultural changes can be studied. Thus the much-vaunted or maligned 1960s becomes the “long 1960s” (1955-1975) as the significant history before and after the actual chronological decade of the 1960s are incorporated. The “long 1940s” spans roughly from 1933 to 1955, and the “long 1970s” overlaps with the “long 1960s” from 1965 to 1981. Periodizing such “long” decades are above all flexible and frequently conjoined, with historians often debating when to start and end a particular period, and what to include in or exclude from their study.

As the Orson Welles/Paul Masson slogan implies, the proper demarcation of time for an historical study is crucial, with the discipline of history preferring more natural historical periods to the simplistic use of standard calendar definitions. The “long eighteenth century” thus spans from the English Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815), with some historians extending the period to 1660-1830 in order to encompass broader socio-economic trends. The “long nineteenth century” begins with the French Revolution in 1789 and ends with the start of the first World War in 1914. But the “short twentieth century” starts in 1914 with the first World War and ends in 1991 with the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, and might be subtitled “the rise and fall of Soviet Communism.” Here again natural historical periodicity is key, even as historians argue over the specific dates in question.

Take for example the Italian Years of Lead from 1968 to 1988, a 20-year period of political and social unrest highlighted by the birth and reign of terror, respectively, of the far left Red Brigades and the far right Armed Revolutionary Nuclei. This was in the context of popular workerist/autonomist organizations and movements to the left of the Italian Communist Party and much smaller neo-fascist groupuscules to the right of the Italian Social Movement party. Within the context of the “short twentieth century” and Soviet Communism’s beginnings and demise was the era of Joseph Stalin’s rule from 1922 to 1952. Of all the Communist dictators—Mao, Tito, Castro, Sung, etc—Stalin was easily the most brutal and bloody, presiding over millions of corpses created by forced agricultural collectivization and economic industrialization, a Ukrainian famine, several mass political purges, and numerous political show trials and executions.

[As for the historian-explicated “long decades” and “long centuries” cited above, the self-defined, self-perpetuating dynasties of West and East have them beat. China was ruled by the Shang (16th-11th century bce), Zhou (1046-221 bce), Han (202 bce-220 ce), Song (960-1279 ce) and Ming (1368-1644 ce) dynasties. Europe had the Houses of Romanov (1613-1917), Oldenburg (1101-1917), and Habsburg (1020-1918), not to mention the British (1066-present) and Dutch (13th century-present) monarchies. These capitalist “long duration” periods and, less so, the feudal dynastic spans are the meat and potatoes of my history-based nonfiction inquiries as well as some of my fiction work.]

I write nonfiction essays and fiction books, specifically speculative, near-future, and science fiction. But I’m seventy years old. I have a limited time left on this planet and, in a way, my life is my own personal periodization. I anticipate having only one more novel in me to write.

This next and perhaps final novel is a departure from my usual fiction efforts. I’m switching from the future to the past, specifically 1968. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year I got leftist politics and so this novel attempts to encapsulate my experiences with that year and the 1960s in general. I’ll also hope to elucidate certain “truths” of the era while keeping the process lively and entertaining. My protagonist, who I’ve made a white Western European cis male to avoid claims of cultural appropriation, has a story of political intrigue and mayhem as a National Autonomous University of Mexico student set in Mexico City prior to the 1968 Olympic Games. When the Mexican State gunned down an unknown number of protesting students in Tlatelolco Square. Prior to Mexico’s momentous student uprising, this protagonist travels the Western world to highlight other aspects of the effervescent 1960s. The plot is further drenched with action and politic, fascists and Situationists, and sex, drugs and rocknroll.

I started the book maybe ten years before, dropped it, and returned to it a year ago. I’ve been writing it ever since. I’ve never been prolific but I have been consistent. The historical research is daunting. But I intend to get a rough draft out and to various editors in three to four years. Given my mortality, it’s now a race against time. Lately, I’ve been remembering my residual  Christianity that counts us lucky at eighty years but admonishes that no one knows the hour. I’ve outlived my parents and I’ve had a few serious illnesses. I’m healthy now but I’m also in a hurry.

My rush is being impeded by several factors. I’ve already mentioned the research I’m doing for the book. I’m slowly, painfully reading through the miniature library I’ve accumulated to backdrop the story. The plot comes first, and even if the writing goes more slowly then is my usual pace the story can be altered as I dig up and apply the historical details. Currently I’m reading through Elena Poniatowska’s stunning Massacre in Mexico with its haunting oral micro-histories. More serious is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. My main character—pretty much all my characters in Mexico—speak Spanish so my lack is a definite disability. I have to do an impossible task, write an authentic story of a time and place without knowing the language that authenticates it. I am hoping to learn some basic Spanish. I constantly rewrite what I write, but since I’m not very good about editing my own writing I always need to hire an editor for beta reading, proofreading, copy editing, line editing, substantive editing, mechanical editing, and developmental editing. If and when I finish this novel I’ll need to hire an editor who speaks Spanish.

Finally, the sheer complexity of this story threatens to sink my efforts. When I first conceived the idea for this book I sketched out four plot lines: (1) the protagonist’s story prior to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in  Mexico; (2) his travels around the US and Western Europe earlier in 1968; (3) his back story growing up; and (4) a parallel plot about a UC Berkeley researcher who encounters evidence of a centuries-old entity that embodies the essence of revolution. The researcher chases down this revolutionary demiurge through photographic evidence during key historical uprisings—Paris Commune, 1871; Russian Revolution, 1917; German Spartacist uprising, 1918; Shanghai Commune, 1927; Spanish Revolution, 1936; Hungary, 1956; Cuban Revolution, 1959—to interact with the novel’s protagonist and witness Tlatelolco.

One of the plots of Paco Ignacio Taibo’s detective novel An Easy Thing is the search for Emiliano Zapata, the folk hero and a leader of the Mexican Revolution—very much alive and rumored to be hiding in a cave outside Mexico City. This element of magic realism aligns well with the science fiction/fantasy bent of the novel’s fourth plot line. But because of my desire to base the novel firmly in the history of 1968 and of the Tlatelolco massacre I abandoned the fantasy element early on.  Even without this however the story’s intricacies are discouraging. Do I switch back and forth between plot elements or do I lay out each plot discreetly from beginning to end? The former threatens to muddy the plot with convoluted flashbacks and flash forwards while the latter simplifies things to the point of trivializing the reading experience.

So what’s left is whether I have the time to finish this project. Emerson’s aphorism that it’s not the destination but the journey only goes so far in assuaging my anxieties. Running out of time is up there with losing my memory or suffering a debilitating accident or disease which prevents me from completing the book. All high level fears for me. But all I can do is write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page until I’ve written the book. Or I have nothing left to write.

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