§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: January 2009

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Onitsha by JMG LeClezio (translated by Alison Anderson)

It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I really connected this novel with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun which was based on the Biafran War in the 1960ies where the eastern part of Nigeria, primarily represented by the Igbo people, were hounded into succession and an attempt to found their own state. Or that I began to wonder why so much of the literary output of Nigeria (besided Adichie, Chinua Achebe in the previous generation and Chris Abani more recently)—at least that which has got attention in the West—comes from this area of the country.

LeClezio’s novel spans the time frame of Achebe and of Adichie, with the novel beginning in 1948 when its main character, Fintan, first travels to Africa and 1969 when Fintan travels to France where his father is dying and from there, one speculates—since he resigned his teaching job—to Nigeria.

Fintan is 12 when he travels with his mother on the Holland Africa steamer from France to Nigeria. Mother and son are unusually close and both write on the ship—the mother (Maou, short for Maria Louisa), bits of evocative poetry and Fintan, a chronicle called “A Long Voyage”. On the ship with them is the new British DO (District Officer) at Onitsha—where they are headed—giving the reader a preview of the racial and cultural disconnect they’ll encounter at their destination.

In addition, we have the strange circumstances of their own voyage. In the 30ies Maou had married Geoffroy, an Englishman, in her home country, Italy. Shortly after their marriage he goes off, presumably to Africa, promising to send for her which he does only after his child is 12 years old!

Fintan resents the father he’s never met and doesn’t like him in person and we’re at first on his side as his father seems to be as insensitive as the other British functionaries in the local colonial government—including the DO met on the ship. Gradually, though, as Fintan toughens up his feet and runs with a local boy, learning the ways of the forest and the river, we learn of Geoffroy’s passion for the ancient myths and legends of the people who first settled on an island in the Niger. His interest borders on obsession, is deemed inappropriate by local whites. When Maou speaks up about British mistreatment of the people at the British club, she’s ostracized and the powers that be decide they have to go.

The point of view shifts almost imperceptibly between Maou and Fintan. LeClezio excels in characterizing the place, through descriptions of the sights and sounds of the forest and the river and the love of the land and the people that grows in mother and son. The sections that represent Geoffroy’s thoughts are printed in a different font to indicate a shift; at first they seem irrelevant to the contemporary world, though gradually people and events from the past seem to merge with those in the present. Readers hardly experience Geoffroy except through his research into the mists of history, though his sections communicate his intense emotional involvement with that past. Gradually, though, as Fintan comes to acknowledge and respect his father's understanding of the past, we see the small family of three standing implacably against the colonial establishment in what is a powerful, because understated, indictment of colonialism.

The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathon Alter

I admit to reading this one because Obama was reading it and because so many pundits have been citing similarities between the Depression in the 30ies and Roosevelt’s first 100 days of New Deal legislation and the situation currently faced by our new president. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities between the two presidents and between the two situations—which doesn’t mean the book isn’t not only interesting but timely. By the way, I agree with the author that this time around 100 days won’t do it. And even with Roosevelt, as Alter says, his most significant legislation, Social Security, passed later in his Presidency.

While the book tends to zero in on the 100 days, the author obviously found that, writing to a general audience, he had to give considerable background on Roosevelt—which he does in a series of short chapters which I found fun to read even though I’m fairly well read on Roosevelt the person and the president and have recently read a good complete biography (Edwards, FDR). In most chapters there was an anecdote or fact that I’d not heard before so I couldn’t accuse Alter of just regurgitating what other writers have written.

Alter makes much of the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that Roosevelt’s primary asset was not his mind but his “first class temperament”—that the title of the first book I read about Roosevelt (by Geoffrey Ward). However, Alter does honor the suggestion, made by Edwards among others, that it’s not clear whether Justice Holmes was talking about FDR or about Teddy Roosevelt. But temperament is an important issue in the book and timely because so many have noted that one of Obama’s greatest assets is what most call, these days, his “unflappability”. In temperament they may not be all that similar, but for both Obama and Roosevelt, likability is an important part of the appeal and the ability to talk to “the people” (not just the politicians) in a way that clarifies complex issues and involves the listener in solutions is of critical importance.

Alter gives considerable space to Eleanor in this book too: her despair at giving up her privacy to become first lady, her discovery of a new and historically significant role for the first lady, and her function in keeping FDR in touch. Because of his paralysis, the extent of which the American people did not know, Roosevelt was more vulnerable to what we now call the “bubble” the President exists in. In the 30ies Eleanor began traveling the country and the world, going down in coal mines—and eventually into war zones—to talk to “ordinary Americans” and bringing her insights back to the President. From the first, Roosevelt recognized the danger that the President grow “out of touch”, reminding us that Obama’s fight to keep his Blackberry isn’t just his technology fix, but his recognition that Presidents can easily become bubble-dwellers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

I read Zakaria’s last book, The Future of Freedom, which focused on what it takes to make what we call a “liberal democracy”. First and foremost it takes a population with enough money to be taxed, because only if the government depends on votes from a population with a real stake, does the government have to be responsive to the people and pay attention to other pillars of liberal democracy like the rule of law, the separation of church and state, public opinion, the market economy etc. So countries in the grip of poverty don’t have a chance until a market economy provides a reasonable per capital income for citizens. A corollary is that rich countries where the wealth comes totally from minerals (like Saudi Arabia) are not democracies and the rules do not serve at the will of the people.

So I was interested in this one. I hear Zakaria frequently on the political talk shows and mostly he makes sense to me. My only question about this one is whether his views have changed in the light of developments in the American economy since the book was published last May.

Zakaria’s thesis is that the future will not determined by solely by the one remaining superpower, the US, but also that the US will not sink into obscurity and lose all influence. What’s critical is “the rise of the rest”. In other words, far from seeing China taking over the superpower spot, Zakaria sees the rise of a significant number of powerful countries in the future: China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and others. The US will continue to be enormously influential, but there are some traps it needs to avoid. Zakaria compares the fall in influence of Britain and discusses how the situation with the US is different. But mostly he warns that the US will have to welcome “the rest”, learn more about them and pay attention to their interests in their decision making.

I suspect the book, is among other things, advice to the new American administration—even though Zakaria didn’t know who would be president when he wrote it. I did see a picture of Obama, though, getting on a plane with this book in his hand.

The House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

I spent the summer of 1965 in Monrovia, Liberia. My daughter was born there in August. The Peace Corps had sent me in June because the maternity hospital in Sierra Leone had had problems with childbed fever. I worked in the Peace Corps office as office assistant to the doctor and nurse. In the Sinkor section of Monrovia, I went to Cooper’s Clinic. The doctor was a short, middle aged man who came to check on my daughter and me one morning in the wee hours dressed, in a cutaway coat, striped pants and top hat. He was a member of Liberia’s upper class, the Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves who originally settled what was, before the 1950ies, the only independent republic in West Africa. Sierra Leone had a similar class, called Krios, who descended from freed slaves brought from British America, but because Sierra Leone had been a British colony, the Krios hadn’t run the country, only worked in administrative positions under the British. They’d found themselves in the minority, though, with independence in 1961, and the largest tribe, the Mende, held the presidency and other important offices.

I was intrigued when I first heard of Cooper's book. She's an Americo-Liberian, driven from her home by the civil war in Liberia, who's now a reporter for the New York Times. It's easy to find email addresses of Times' reporters so I wrote to her and discovered that she is from "that Cooper family", that she too was delivered by Dr. Cooper in his Sinkor clinic, some months after my daughter.

I read her book almost in one sitting, fascinated. I had this picture in my mind of Monrovia in 1965, sort of like a run down Southern town. With stop lights! (Freetown at the time had only one stoplight). In the back of my mind was a garden party I'd seen once where the guests were all dressed like they stepped off the set of Gone with the Wind--Scarlett O'Hara gowns and cutaway coats. Then there was the scandal that summer, a ritual murder with the latest investigation news every morning in the newspaper until one day President Taubman walked in the closed it all down. Rumor had it that the VP was involved. Sierra Leone seemed to me much safer and more civilized in those days, newly embarked on representative democracy as it was.

Cooper's book took me back to the place, but from an entirely different point of view, that of an upper class girl, from the "Congo people" (In Freetown there's a "Congo River" so named because some of the freed slaves came from the Congo; it was generally assumed, evidently, in both places that all the freed slaves from the western hemisphere had originally come from Congo.) All the rest of the people--those I'd heard Americo-Liberians in a restaurant once refer to as aboriginals--were "country people". Cooper characterizes life in the big house on Sugar Beach as privileged. Like the majority of aristocrats everywhere they had servants and treated them well. The children depended on him and loved them. They recognized that "country people" didn't have their advantages. They didn't have forebearers who'd come over on the equivalent of the Mayflower; they didn't have relatives in the top echelon of the government. A unique advantage Cooper recognized was that she grew up black and privileged, with no taint of either slavery or colonial domination in her past. Not only did she escape the discrimination experienced by blacks in the US, but there wasn't any colonial past which had burnt into the people that white people were superior.

Cooper's idyllic childhood was interrupted when Samuel Doe, a renegade army officer, raided the Presidential Palace, killed the president (he who had been the VP remembered as being silently accused of involvement in ritual murder) and took over the government. Within days, Cooper saw her cousin, the foreign minister, executed on television along with other high government officials. Soldiers came to Sugar Beach where she was living with her mother and siblings, and threatened them (earlier she'd explained that "rogues" often came to steal from the house, but they weren't called "thieves" because that word was reserved for government officials who stole). Now the soldiers were on a drunken rampage and Congo people no longer had the upper hand. Cooper's mother went to the basement with them if they agreed not to rape her daughters. In no time at all, they were all on a plane to America. Where life was not nearly as easy and where everyone asked her where she was from and then "Where's that?" Money was short. The daughters lived alternately with mother and father (now divorced) while one or the other went back to Liberia to see family or salvage what they could from land and houses that had not been confiscated.

Finally after a frightening accident during the invasion of Iraq, where she was embedded with American soldiers on their way from Kuwait to Baghdad, Cooper decided it was time to go back to Liberia. "If I'm gong to die in a war," she thought trapped in a Humvee, "it should be in my own country."

I really connected with this book, partly because I had had some experience in Liberia and partly because Cooper tells her story very well. I was even interested in her childhood fears (of heartmen who'd chase you down and cut your heart out) and her adolescent crushes in a Liberian public school and her attempts to fade into the woodwork in successive American schools.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Riders by Tim Winton

I’ve liked what I’ve read of Winton (Cloudstreet and Dirt Music) and this one is no exception. The main character, Scully, is from Freemantle in Western Australia. He’s a big, unattractive guy, a laborer whose skills are currently put to use renovating an old Irish farmhouse which had taken his wife’s fancy on a visit to Ireland. His wife, Jennifer, who’s pregnant with their second child, is in Australia with their 7 year-old daughter, Billie, typing loose ends for their planned move to Ireland.

On the day—shortly before Christmas—when his family is supposed to arrive at Shannon, Billie is alone on the plane, scared enough that she can’t even talk to tell her father what happened to Jennifer. The airline shows Jennifer arrived at Heathrow but didn’t continue on to Shannon. Scully, panicked and not thinking clearly, takes off after her, Billie in tow, and they end up on a frantic trip to London, a Greek island where they’d lived happily before Ireland, Paris, and Amsterdam. The third person narrative shifts occasionally from Scully to Billie’s point of view, particularly as the former gets more and more out of control (he’s accused of murder (wrongly) in Greece but runs anyway and in Amsterdam he’s arrested, drunk and dirty. At one point—after he’s stolen money from Irma, a good-hearted but screwy woman who’s clearly attracted to him and wants to help, Billie practically takes control, appropriating the money. Scully gets more and more desperate, chasing women on the street who look like Jennifer, while Billie, devoted to her father, doesn’t particularly want her mother back.

Gradually, partly through Billie’s point of view, the reader gets a picture of Jennifer, as a woman, more educated than Scully, with a yen to be an artist, but evidently without the talent. Whether she ever loved Scully is unclear, but during what he sees as a romantic period of living in Europe, with Scully working on house renovations with other illegals to get them money, Jennifer’s been seeking out more sophisticated friends, artists and writers and wannabes like herself. The child she carries may not be Scully’s; in fact, there may not even be a child….

Two somewhat blatant associations clarify the meaning of Scully’s desperation. The first is the poem, “On Raglan Road” by Australian Patrick Kavanagh which is quoted in the text. The poem is about a man who “loved too much” and “wooed not as I should a creature made of clay”. An angel who loved like that would lose his wings, concludes the poem. The second reference is to “the riders”, a group of gypsies in Ireland—travelers, that Scully sees and is attracted by early in the novel and then again at the very end when, on New Year’s night he follows Billie out into the snow to the ruined castle near their Irish farmhouse. There some riders have paused, but this time Scully rejects the itinerate life they lead—and presumably the traveling he’s been doing himself.

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Like the man who “rediscovered” this memoir and was instrumental in having it republished in 1983, I was impressed with the quotation by Hemingway on the cover to the effect that she “can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers”. There’s a breathless quality to the writing: there are delightful and original figures of speech and there’s wisdom gained from a childhood where mentors are as much the elders of the African tribes she grows up with as that of her own father.

A herd of elephant, as seen from a plane, has a quality of an hallucination. The proportions are wrong—they are like those of a child’s drawing of a field mouse in which the whole landscape, complete with barns and windmills, is dwarfed beneath the whiskers of the mighty rodent who looks both able and willing to devour everything, including the thumb-tack that holds the work against the schoolroom wall.

Safaris come and safaris go, but Makula goes on forever. I suspect at times that he is one of the wisest men I have known—so wise that, realizing the scarcity of wisdom, he has never cast a scrap of it away, though I still remember a remark he made to an overzealous newcomer to his profession: ‘White men pay for danger—we poor ones cannot afford it. Find your elephant and then vanish, so that you can live to find another.’

Markham grew up on a coffee farm in British East Africa (later Kenya) where her father also kept horses, as gradually training race horses captured his [and her] interest full time. There was no mother (you have to read elsewhere to discover that her mother and elder sibling left Africa early on and returned to Britain). Her playmates were Africans and so were her mentors. One child she played with ended up her principal servant and companion in adult hood—and called her “Memsahib”. Her childhood influences were probably more African than British. When she was nearly 18, her father’s farm failed and he went to try his luck in Peru. She decided to stay and became a successful horse trainer herself until she met Tom Black who inspired her to learn to fly, though her eventual inspiration to take up flying seriously was the death of hunter and flyer Denys Finch Hatton in his plane. By the mid-thirties, she was flying passengers and the mail, rescuing the injured and taking them to safety. Eventually, with Baron Blixen (husband of Karen—Isak Dinesen) she joined the “big white hunters” on safaris, scouting for elephant by plane, though to her credit, even then she hated to see the elephants killed. She never mentions husbands, lovers or child. Nor does she mention Karen Blixen. Only her love for Africa and her work with horses and with planes.
Once I finished the book—which I enjoyed very much—I looked up Beryl Markham on the net, primarily because I was interested in her life and in the information she left out (what happened to her mother… the men in her life…) and discovered there is at least one biographer who says she didn’t write it, but that it was written by her third husband, Raoul Schumacher. Her other biographer stoutly denies the charge.
I can’t arbitrate that controversy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Beryl Markham lived until 1986 in Kenya; she’s been living in obscurity and near poverty until the revival of the book brought her some notice and some money.

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathon Swift

I don’t think I read this as a kid, or if I did I only read the Lilliput part, though I did remember that Gulliver also met big people who treated him like a little doll. Those were parts 1 and 2. In part 3, he visits a number of different places trying to get home. He encounters people whose dedication to science makes them incapable of doing anything practical and some humans who never die but continue to age, being “written off” by their culture when their contemporaries die so that the live a painful and miserable death. Finally, in part 4, he lands in the land of the Houyhnhnms who are rational horses who don’t even have words for lie, deceit, murder, etc. There are also Yahoos, and they look just like Gulliver but are assumed to be completely irrational because all they do is scrap and fight. Gulliver is finally forced to leave because he appears to be a Yahoo—even though he’s made friends among the Houyhnnms. He makes his way back to England and turns in revulsion from his wife and children and all other humans, being so traumatized by the Yahoos and his own sense that he’s really one of them.
The satire is funny, even when you don’t track down all the specific references to Swift’s contemporary world, but the last part where Gulliver is revolted by the Yahoos and their behavior is no longer so funny. The reader is tempted, like Gulliver, to revile one’s own kind who, even 300 years later, are still busy lying, cheating and making war.