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Journey to the Ends of Anarchy: A Review of Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of An Irish Exile

John Tarleton Jul 4, 2006

Clandestines: The Pirate Journals Of An Irish Exile
By Ramor Ryan
AK Press (2006)

When traveling activist Ramor Ryan started working on his new book, he envisioned writing a political tract comparing the demise of traditional top-down leftist politics with the subsequent rise around the world of a new generation of decentralized, grassroots social movements that seek to transform power more than to seize it. Fortunately, Ryan ended up doing something entirely different: telling stories.

From the squats of Berlin to life as a deckhand on a Central American banana boat to the perilous mountains of rebel Kurdistan to an exhausted, mud-soaked slice of Zapatista utopia, Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile is a rollicking travelogue. Ryan knows the traveler’s secret of being open to the moment and trusting whatever it brings. His poignant tales of defeat, desolation, betrayal and lingering hope are told with both humor and a canny insight into the human spirit.

Many of these tales end with bizarre twists – like the dictatorial banana boat captain who unexpectedly offers some absurd advice on the secret of happiness – that linger on in one’s mind. His then (1989-90) and now (2005) memories of Central America also give his larger narrative a painful twist as he returns to find societies that had once seemed on the verge of revolutionary transformation wrecked by war, neo-liberalism and the drug trade.

“This is a catastrophic region,” He writes. “Darkly violent places survive tenuously on remittances sent back from migrant family members working illegally in the U.S. and other countries. Nicaragua, the flagship of the failed revolutionary project, is like an orphaned child fallen in with a bad gang of glue-sniffing street kids.”

However, the least overtly political chapter in the book is perhaps the best written as he tells the story of a dismal Guatemalan port town and a group of lovesick housewives who cling to fading hopes that someday their immigrant husbands will bring them to the United States.

Beneath the artful storytelling, the author probes the Big Question that bedevils radicals of all stripes at this juncture in history: how do you transform a fundamentally flawed system that seems impervious to change? His witness to the cooptation and/or defeat of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Sandinistas, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Brazilian Workers Party is sobering and leaves one longing for a new approach.

While Ryan wears his anarchist politics on his sleeve, the book never descends into a screed. If anything, he is overly vague about his politics. What is anarchism – a defiant posture toward an unjust world? An attempt to work freely and cooperatively with others? An archipelago of politicized sub-cultures scattered on the margins of the global shopping mall? How can such an amorphous movement pose a serious challenge to business as usual? None of this is made clear. If you’ve spent time in “free, rebel spaces,” you will know.

The most inspiring example Ryan can point to is the Zapatistas autonomous municipalities in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Unfortunately, this chapter, Diez de Abril, is only 12 pages long and it doesn’t explore whether the mutual aid that has flowered in Zapatista communities is due at least in part to their circumstances – isolated, impoverished, land-based communities in which neighbors must work together to survive – and not so easily replicated in modern, consumer societies where activists as much as anyone else tend to lead highly atomized existences.

Despite Clandestines’ limitations, the book is a delightful read. Hopefully, Ryan hasn’t used up his stock of entertaining stories.