For the Joy of Reading: Devil on the Cross

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a phenomenal writer.   It is such a great shame that so many people will not even attempt to read him because they cannot pronounce his name.   That is just so foolish.   he is one of the seminal writers currently living, and Devil on the Cross is extraordinary.   It is partly a satire of post-colonial Africa.   It is certainly a denunciation of neocolonialism.   It is devastating in its critique of capitalism as it works in Africa and across the world.   This may be the real reason why people do not want to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o.   They do not want to confront what has been done to Africa, and the racism that is endemic throughout the capitalist world, the so-called First World.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o forces on his readers, not through a tirade, but by carefully presenting his story.

This is the story of Wariinga, a young woman, full of ambition until she meets a rich old man, who seduces her and leaves her pregnant.   She does this with difficulty, but one day is a disaster.   She loses her job because she refuses to become the mistress of another old man and loses her home by an illegal, violent eviction.   So she decides to make her way to Ilmorog, her parents’ home.   On her way to the taxi rank, she receives an invitation from the Devil to a thieves’ convention in her home village.   She gets a matatu (a minibus) to her home, meeting various people who decide collectively that as they are going to Ilmorog, they may as well accept the invitations they have all received to the event.

The thieves at the convention are all stealing from their own people to enrich foreign corporations and are the stewards of capitalist exploitation in Kenya.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduces us to the corrupt, the venal, the exploitative, the oppressive and the downright murderous capitalists of modern Kenya.   He shows us, through Wangari, another passenger on the matatu, how the ideals of the Land Freedom Army, who fought for the independence of Kenya, have been betrayed in the post-colonial neocolonial settlement.   He shows how the collaborators with British colonialism came to dominate the government, through control of the structures of government.   He shows through Muturi, a further matatu passenger, how resistance is possible.   To that extent it is a highly political novel.

But it is also a love story.   Wariinga meets Gatuiria, a young man, on the matatu.   Slowly, they fall in love and decide to get married.   Gatuiria encourages Wariinga in her ambition to become a mechanic, in which she succeeds.    Then they go to meet Gatuiria’s parents, and that is the climax of the novel.

One of the things that comes through quite clearly is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a very good grasp of the New Testament.   Much of the thieves’ convention narrative is a riff on the parable of the Talents, and it does not make comfortable reading.   That also applies to the Devil’s version of the Beatitudes.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o exposes our shame in using the Bible to dominate.   As Desmond Tutu put it, “when the whites arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land.   Now we have the Bible, and they have the land.”

The final thing to say is that the women characters, especially Wariinga and Wangari, are very strong.   And the ending is a feminist battle-cry.   This is an extraordinary book by a consummate writer.   You would be very foolish to decide not to read it because you cannot pronounce the names.   That would be your parochialism and your loss.

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For the Joy of Reading: Mandela: His Essential Life.

This book does exactly what it says on the tin.   It takes the 95 years of Mandela’s life and pares it down to a short, readable biography.   If you want detail, then read Anthony Sampson’s “Mandela” or of course Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Dare Not Linger: the Presidential Years”, edited by Mandla Langa.   There is, moreover, no-one better placed than Peter Hain to write what is essentially a brief life.   Peter Hain’s parents, Walter and Adeline, were anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, who fled to the UK in 1966, following years of persecution.   Peter, himself, earned the undying hatred of the apartheid regime by organising the opposition to the tour of the UK of the South African rugby team in 1969, and forcing the South African cricket team to cancel its planned visit for 1970.

So the first thing that has to be clear is that this is not a neutral biography.   Peter Hain grew up knowing Nelson Mandela, through his parents, and went on to play a significant role in the international struggle against apartheid.   Nor is this a neutral review.   I have been acquainted with Peter Hain since 1968, and I served as Chairperson of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee during the 1980s.

Having established the credentials of the author (and the reviewer) what is there to say about the book?   Although it is short, it is insightful.   Hain’s description of Mandela’s childhood in the Eastern Cape, it is essential to the understanding of the man.    He was an aristocrat, who became the head of the clan Madiba when his father died..   He was brought up from 9 years old by Jongintaba, his father’s cousin and the Regent of the Thembu Kingdom.   This is often portrayed as an idyllic life, herding cattle, because Mandela had fond memories of it, but it was a life of rural poverty even for those who held important positions in Xhosa society.   It was here, however, that Mandela learned the concepts of duty and service to his people.   It was here that he learned the history and traditions of his people, and underwent circumcision to become a man, in accordance with ritual.

Mandela eventually made his way to Johannesburg, avoiding an arranged marriage.   It was here that he met his friend and mentor, Walter Sisulu, joined the African National Congress and became committed to securing the right of the majority of the South African population to participate in the government of their country.   Throughout the course of the book, Peter Hain guides us through the development of Mandela’s political ideas, succinctly and accurately.   Hain does not gloss over any of the difficulties here.   When Mandela helped to found the ANC Youth League, he was an Africanist.   This was a position that he changed because of his experiences working with Indians, Coloureds and Whites in the struggle against apartheid.   Once he had become committed to building a non-racial South Africa, he did not waver from this position.

Nor does Peter Hain shy away from Mandela’s personal difficulties.   His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a committed Christian with no interest in politics and, although they had three children, it soon became clear that they were incompatible.   Evelyn left him.   Then he met Nomzano Winnie Madikizela, who was much younger than him, and they got married.   Meanwhile Mandela’s political opposition to apartheid was developing.   He was banned, tried for treason and eventually acquitted.   Then following the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the ANC and other organisations, he went on the run, and set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military organisation of which he was Commander-in-Chief.   He went abroad for military training, returned to South Africa and was eventually captured.   He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without a passport.   Then the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe was captured at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, and Mandela was put on trial alongside them.   Peter Hain guides us through these momentous events and the subsequent Rivonia Trial with great skill, summarising the key moments.   Mandela’s speech from the dock with its ringing declaration of “if needs be, I am prepared to die” reverberated around the whole world.   The judge, Quartus de Wet, did not impose the death penalty.   He sentenced the Rivonia trialists to life imprisonment.

The story now breaks into two segments.   There are the struggles in prison to secure their dignity as individuals.   There was the struggle outside the prison, in which Winnie stepped up to the mark and confronted the power of the apartheid state.   Some of the struggles in prison seem to be quite ordinary.   There was the fight to be allocated long trousers.   African men were given shorts to wear because they were “boys”.   Indians and Coloured were allowed to wear long trousers because they were not black Africans.   Whites did not enter into the equation because they were kept in a separate prison.   There was apartheid even in the gaols.   There were also differences in the food made available, depending on your racial classification.   If this seems petty, it is because the authorities were petty, and these struggles were essentially to secure human dignity.   Peter Hain is very good at explaining these confrontations and Mandela’s relations with the warders, eventually winning them over.

Meanwhile outside the prisons, Winnie faced harassment, banning, detention, humiliation and torture.   She was eventually sent as an internal exile to Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she did not speak the local language (Sesotho).   Everything was done to try to break her.   Peter Hain shows the stresses and strains which she endured, and how the 27 years of separation ruined their marriage.

The struggle against apartheid intensified in both South Africa and internationally.  Inside the country, trade unions, although illegal, were being formed by the black workers and Black Consciousness was making itself felt.   Internationally, led by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the campaign for boycott and sanctions was gaining momentum.   And then, the Portuguese Fascist government, following military defeats in Africa, collapsed.   Angola and Mozambique became independent, and the children of South Africa refused to be taught in Afrikaans, leading to the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   Peter Hain is very adroit in explaining the significance of all these events, and how they were game changers.

By the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime, trying to face down growing internal unrest and growing international condemnation, were forced into covert negotiations Mandela.   Peter Hain is adept at explaining the formation of COSATU, the rise of the UDF and the collaboration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan with the apartheid regime, trying to resist the growing demand for sanctions.

There is one point of accuracy in which I disagree with Peter Hain.   Govan Mbeki, one of the Rivonia Trialists alongside Mandela, was released by PW Botha in 1987, not by FW De Klerk in 1989.   I know this, because on the day of Mbeki’s release I was being greeted by his son, Thabo, at the ANC International Solidarity Conference at Arusha in Tanzania and I congratulated Thabo on the release of his father.   This, however, is a minor error in the narrative.

Peter Hain then takes us through the tumultuous years from the release of Mandela to his inauguration as President.   The defining factor was the need to avoid civil war.   It cam very close.   10,000 people were murdered in those four years.   Agents of the apartheid state tried desperately to stop the process of democratisation.   Peter Hain makes it very clear that it was Mandela’s steely determination that held the line and enabled the process to go forward.

I know that Peter Hain’s brief account of the election is substantially correct because I was there.    We even had a drink together in a hotel bar once the count was over.   Peter Hain’s account of the presidential years is also on target, citing the need for reconciliation as the most pressing.   This however did not mean that the truth was to be ignored which is why Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The last two chapters are called “Mandela Magic” and “Legacy Betrayed?”.   The very titles tell us what they are about.   “Mandela Magic” deals with the charm and charisma of the man, which is unquestionable.   He won over all of us who had the privilege of meeting him.   “Legacy Betrayed?” is about Peter Hain’s view of how South Africa has developed under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s successors as President.   It is not a view with which I would substantially disagree.   It is, however, for you to make up your mind about that.

Peter Hain has written a very brief biography (196 pages) of Nelson Mandela..   It covers all the basics.   It does not avoid any of the difficulties, such as the controversies around the behaviour of Winnie Mandela.   It is a succinct account of a long and complex life.   It is a very good book.

 

For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.

For the Joy of Reading: Falcon of Sparta

Conn Iggulden is a reliable writer of historical novels.   What you will get will be readable, pacy and exciting.   That is certainly the case with Falcon of Sparta.   This is the story of the Anabasis, the march of ten thousand Greek soldiers across the Persian Empire   It was this march that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Persian Empire was vulnerable.   This was the march that opened the way for the conquest by Alexander the Great.

The story begins with a dynastic struggle.   Darius II, the Great King of Persia, dies leaving two sons.   The elder son, Artaxerxes, succeeds to the throne but does not eliminate his brother Cyrus because of the intervention of their mother Queen Parysatis.   This however is after Artaxerxes has made his intention clear by murdering Cyrus’ bodyguards and imprisoning the Prince.   Cyrus is then released and prepares for war, recruiting 10,000 Greek mercenaries to march with him on the Persian Empire’s capital.

All of this is a matter of the historical record, but most people will probably not be familiar with ancient history.   So I am not going to give any of the details of the march, the battle of Cunaxa or what happened afterwards.   What is important is that one of the Greek leaders was called Xenophon, and he was a pupil of Socrates, the philosopher, who is a peripheral character in this book.   Xenophon was the author of the “Anabasis” the only record of this campaign.   We have to believe what he says, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.   What we do know is that the army under his command survived and that gives his account credibility.

What Conn Iggulden is take the Anabasis and weld it into an historical novel, seeking to understand what his characters thought as the events progressed.   We meet some unpleasant characters, like Tissaphernes, a Persian noble loyal to the Achaemenid dynasty and to Artaxerxes, the heir of the Great King, but also self-serving, devious and vicious.   Then there is Queen Parysatis whose argument that Cyrus is the only heir as Artaxerxes does not yet have children proves to be fatal.   [Incidentally, if Artaxerxes of the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther this throws a whole new light on the viciousness of the Achaemenid court].   We meet the Greek generals and soldiers, who throw themselves into an attack on the Persian Empire for money, but also for revenge.   Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea resonate throughout this story.

So what you have is an exciting historical novel, an easy read into the history of the ancient world, and the fall of the Persian Empire.   I wonder if a series about Alexander the Great will follow.

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.

For the Joy of Reading: Ghost

This is a collection of 100 exceedingly spooky short stories edited by Louise Welsh.   The subtitle says it all: “100 Stories to Read with the Lights on”.   Putting aside the question of how you are expected to read anything at night with the lights off, this is not a collection that you can read at one sitting.   There are 100 short stories and the book is over 700 pages long.   You are only going to read two or three at one sitting, depending on the number of pages.

This is a fine collection of authors ranging from Pliny to Jackie Kay and James Robertson.   If there seems to be a preponderance of Scots, that is because they are so good at scaring the wits out of you.   I guarantee that once you have read it, you will never forget Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet”.   This book includes classics of the genre such as “Whistle and I’ll Come To You” by M.R. James, and stories that I had not read before such as “The Sagebrush Kid”.   These stories range from the whimsical to the deeply malevolent, from “The Canterville Ghost” to “John Charrington’s Wedding”.

This is a wonderful selection, well worth dipping into on a dark night when you want to scare yourself silly.   But do not read too many at once.   You do not want to wake up catatonic.

For the Joy of Reading: Hings

The problem with writing in Glaswegian is that you limit your audience.   The advantage is that you write in a vibrant, poetic, exciting language that gives you a feeling for the street, for the everyday speech of an extraordinary people.  There will be some people who will not make the effort to read these stories, and that will be their loss.   Chris McQueer is a genius at the writing.   He has lines like “Look pal, if ae wanted tae hear an arsehole talk…ah wid’vd farted”.  How can you not like something that reflects Glasgow pub patter so well.   And, if you don’t, take that as fair warning not to read this book.    Because the language is far worse than that, as is the everyday language of Glasgow.

These stories have a wonderful logic, of which Myles na Gopaleen and Gerard Hoffnung would have been proud.   [And if you don’t know who I am talking about, Google them because I can’t be bothered to explain.   Or as Chris McQueer would undoubtedly say “arsed”].   You can feel the characters on a trajectory to, not necessarily, disaster but to a sort of unavoidable future, whether it is Postman Pat, stoned out of his mind, Sammy having been given a samurai sword or Maureen, Annie and Daz ending up in Tokyo because they were filmed by Japanese tourists in Easterhouse.   Chris McQueer is Billy Connolly on speed, with a touch of the Sean Connery gravitas to make it believable.

Sammy is one of the characters who appears in three of these stories, and we follow him from his Da dying of food poisoning, through the funeral to his uncle’s Christmas present.   As Sammy says, it is mental.   Big Angie, the bowls player, is the one who dominated this collection of short stories for me.    This is partly because she is the main character in the longest of these short stories, and partly because she is not as hard as she seems.   She is a comic creation on a Falstaffian scale, and not just because they are both fat.

Anyway, if you have not got by now that this book is a treat, then you never will.   So I will “haud my wheesht”.   Just read it, unless you are a “prissy wan” offended by bad language.   Because this has bad language at Point 15 on the Richter Scale.