A sometimes-scattered though always lyrical meditation on art and artists as witnesses to war, terror, and other dark hallmarks of our time.
Imagine that the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano—quoted at points here—had taken an interest in art and its way of interpreting and resisting history, and you have at least a flavor for Sentilles’ (Breaking Up with God, 2011, etc.) essayistic approach to some of the horrors of our time. Working through the art of one of her students, who had been stationed at Abu Ghraib, and through a conscientious objector in World War II who had been painting since youth, the author delivers small, apothegmatic pieces that sometimes approach prose poems and sometimes fit rather loosely in the narrative frame. While the statement “seventy percent of the earth is covered by water—our bodies made of nearly the same percentage” is surely true, it doesn’t add materially to how we understand the form of torture known as waterboarding, the larger issue under discussion. Sometimes the author’s refractive approach works very nicely, though, as when she observes that Stradivarius’ violins were made from defective wood sold by the Turks to their sometime enemies, the Venetians, an example of art rising from war, albeit an indirect one. It is also worth remembering, as she does, that U.N. officials covered up a tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, on display at that body’s headquarters, before Colin Powell delivered a speech making a case for war on Iraq in 2003. That war is destructive and displacing is well-known; that it yields accidental moments of beauty is, too, but Sentilles has a good eye for those arresting glints, for oddments such as the fact that the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar, California, was, in 1942, “the largest city between Los Angeles and Reno.”
The collage effect does not always serve the narrative well, but Sentilles offers plenty of facts and stories worth reading.