Category Archives: Books and reading

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.

Advertisements

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: 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: For Two Thousand Years

Mihail Sebastian published this book in German in 1934, and it has only now been translated into English.   It is a salutary read.   You have to remind yourself that he could not have known what was going to happen.   He may have had a premonition, he may have feared it, as many of the characters in this book live in fear, but he could not have known that the Holocaust would happen.   This is a book about Jewish life in Romania in the 1920s.   It certainly gives the lie to the idea that there was no co-operation with the Holocaust by the inhabitants of countries invaded by the Nazis.   The antisemitism is visceral,   It is violent and brutal.   People are assaulted on the streets because they are Jewish.   People are denied education because they are Jewish.   People are injured and killed because they are Jewish.   There is no question about it.   Jewish people were not safe in Romania in the 1920s.

The question posed by this book is simple: what to do?   Some people fight back.   There are riots, especially at the University.   But that is not the solution.   Some people, within the community, argue for the Zionist position.   Some of them argue that the Jews must return to Eretz Israel because it is only in a homeland for the Jews that they can be safe.   Some people set out on heroic journeys to get there.   Interestingly, very little is made of the argument that this is the land granted by God to “Abraham and his seed for ever”.   The argument is much more practical – this is a place in which Jews can be safe.

The flaw in the argument is exposed by the Marxist Jewish characters in the book.   Although the Jewish settlers call themselves Palestinians that is the on thing that they are not.   There is already a settled Palestinian population and they have to be dispossessed.   The other terms used in the book by the Zionist characters, the Marxist characters argue, are far more accurate – “settlers” and “colonists”.

These arguments are put forcibly in the book, without any conclusion.    There is nothing to say who is right or wrong.    Of course, these arguments are very relevant today.   70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, we have not found a solution to them, a compromise with which people can live peacefully.   This is essential to the survival of the State of Israel and to meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people.   People involved in the Peace Process should read this book.   This lack of a conclusion is part of what makes this book a fascinating record of its time.

The other thing that is fascinating is that the antisemites are not necessarily shown as villains.   In the course of the book, one of them becomes a friend of the narrator and cannot see that there is anything wrong, or anything to ashamed about, in boasting that he led some of the rioters who made particularly vicious attacks upon individual Jews.   The narrator, of course, is shocked but does not end the friendship.   Although they are thugs, the anti-semites are not dismissed out of hand.   Some of them are depicted as intelligent people – even leading academics.

There is also an interesting description of the development of the Romanian oil industry in which the narrator and his antisemitic friend play a not insignificant role.   The destruction of the ancient plum orchards symbolises the ending of a way of life.   This is not to be irrelevant for the central question of the book, which is this: How are the Jews going to survive.

We, of course, know the answer.   Those who went to Israel survived, but stored up trouble for the future and brought about a conflict which has not yet been resolved.   Those who remained, for the most part, did not survive.   The author did survive only to be killed in a motoring accident at the end of the war.   Mihail Sebastian has left us a searing account of European antisemitism, giving us a lesson that we must not forget.

For the Joy of Reading: A Whole Life

Never believe that any life is so ordinary that it is just boring.   This is the proof that this is not the case.   Nothing much happens in the life of Andreas Egger apart from an avalanche, a war, building cable cars and meeting tourists, but that is not to say that it is boring, inconsequential.   It is, in many ways, an uneventful life but that does not make it ordinary.   Robert Seethaler demonstrates this quite conclusively in this novella.   It is, I suppose, a brief life.   Seethaler does not make the mistake of calling it that.

So what is it that makes this book a joy to read?   It is certainly not that it is thrilling.   It is not the life of someone who made an impact in the world.   It is the story of someone who did not achieve a great deal, of someone who passed through the world leaving hardly a mark upon it.   In other words, it is the story of the vast majority of us.   We make a difference in small ways, in ways that are not remarkable, in ways that do not have much of an impact on history.   It is a simple story, simply told.

When I say simply told, that does not do justice to the writing.   This i an extraordinarily beautiful story, and the translator, Charlotte Collins, has done a remarkable job.   Every phrase, every sentence counts.   They tell the story of a life beset by hardship, patience and endurance, a life of love, compassion and simplicity.   It is a wonderful book.   It is a book that people should read – as simple and compelling as that.   You should read it.

For the Joy of Reading: Norse Gods

What is it about the Norse Gods that make people want to read about them?   Neil Gaiman says that Marvel Comics are to blame.   This is certainly how he came to the stories, through Thor as the superhero.   I think it is slightly more complicated than this.  These are very human gods.   For a start, we know that they are not going to live forever.  they are going to die on the day of the great battle at Ragnarok, the end of the world as we know it.   They feast, the drink vast amounts of alcohol, they kill their enemies, they sleep around.   In other words, they are like our ruling classes, our history makers because we do not notice those who do not draw attention to themselves, who do not have adventures but who do the essential things like growing food and disposing of our excrement.   This, however, is not heroic and these gods certainly are.   They are also quite stupid.

Loki may be cunning, but he is not wise.   Thor may be strong but he is not intelligent.   Freya may be beautiful, but she is selfish.   And so it goes on from the least important to the most powerful gods, like Odin and Frig.   The point however is that this is a tragedy, because it ends in the downfall of the gods, and it is of cataclysmic proportions.   These are heroic figures in the terms of Greek tragedy.   It also helps that the stories are spellbinding and that Gaiman knows how to tell them.   [This, of course, is not a surprise].

But it is more than that.   These are stories that are deep from the consciousness of the far north of Europe.   It is possible to imagine them being told round the campfires as the ice retreated some 12,000 years ago.   These were people who lived with the knowledge that the ice could destroy them.   These were the people who lived through the long dark of the winter nights, trying to keep warm and fed.   These were the people who knew the importance and the threat of fire.   Their fears and their courage in the face of this environment are there in these stories.   It burns through them, and it has resonances in our lives.

But most of all it is Ragnarok, the battle between the Gods and their enemies, that we fear because we fear the destruction of our world.   This fear has penetrated to our culture that no longer believes in the Norse Gods, because it is there in the Book of Revelation – the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon, war in heaven, Armageddon, the end of the world.   The Norse myths speak to us of our fears, and that is why we still listen to these tales.   It is why they speak to us.

Neil Gaiman has done us the enormous favour of making them accessible to the next generation.