Africa · Books

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

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Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.

Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.

Books

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

Books · China

Party Members- book review

Modern China can be a nasty, immoral and crude place. All of this is amply illustrated in Party Members, a crass tome that its own author, writing under a pseudonym, described as a “one long dick joke.”
Basically, protagonist Yang Wei is a petty Chinese Communist Party bureaucrat muddling through life without any joy or meaning until one night, he gets some sense slapped into him, figuratively, by his … penis. From that moment, his “member” starts giving him tips and advice on how to get ahead in Chinese society, exploiting underlings, sucking up to bosses, abusing the poor, discarding his wife, and being corrupt like hell. Yang Wei transforms from a nobody into a somebody, while his “member” grows in length until it becomes disgustingly like a person. As Yang Wei grows more successful and his “member” becomes more assertive and nasty, Yang questions whether he is being dominated by it or it is being driven by his own dormant urges. But then, a fateful collision with a little girl, who then suffers the tragic fate that many Chinese accident victims experience after they get knocked down (if you’ve read news about China, you know what I mean), marks a turning point for Yang Wei.
While I intensely dislike China and much of what its government and society stand for, I found this book a little disturbing, even if some of it was entertaining and a lot of the corruption, immorality, and violence does happen for real. Yes, Chinese bureaucrats are often lazy and corrupt, a lot of men keep mistresses and a lot of women actively cultivate sugar daddies, and people let their kids pee and crap everywhere including in restaurants, but the problem is the book spells it all out. The plot gets more vile and while I don’t want to go into detail, rape, murder and a bizarre and disturbing transformation are involved.
The book may have been intended to be a direct over-the-top satire of contemporary China but the laughs and lessons easily get lost amid the vileness.

Books · China

Chinese Rules- book review

Chinese Rules- Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China is one of those business books about China that have been popular in the last few years. The author Tim Clissold might be familiar to a few people since he also wrote Mr. China, a well-known part-memoir about his business dealings in China, which I haven’t read.

Chinese Rules starts off with Clissold being called into action in his native England to help rescue a carbon-trading deal gone wrong in China. Clissold had relocated back to his homeland with his family after 20 years in China, but is eager to go back. The business deal in question involves the selling of carbon credits by a Chinese firm from its two new power plants, not exactly a topic to get anyone’s pulses racing. Nevertheless it is a potentially lucrative business and vital too, given the environmentally conscious time we live in. Not surprisingly, all kinds of nonsensical and frustrating situations occur, but a deal is accomplished despite an embarrassing baijiu (Chinese hard liquor) episode with the English boss of the firm that hired Clissold for this deal.
Spurred by this achievement, Clissold and a female associate decided to go into the carbon trading business in China. They get funding from Bill Gates’ Millenium Foundation, then look for a carbon credit seller in China whom they can trade from. Which is when things get really juicy.

Clissold and his associate soon find a Chinese partner to work on a deal to buy and trade credits from a power company. The Chinese middle-woman is a fine example of the disingenuousless prevalent in society and business in China. She acts and looks like someone at the top of her game, as Clissold himself says, but she turns out to be unreliable, shifty, arrogant and greedy. Eventually, Clissold manages to dump her from the deal and handles negotiations with the Chinese company directly. There is more lack of communication and delays, though the deal takes off and they are able to sell off some credits.

Throughout the book, Clissold introduces his Chinese rules such as the “art of war” is vital to the Chinese way of handling conflict (indirectly rather than direct) and the trying of new things by taking gradual steps. These sound sensible but he also describes rules that are ambiguous and not directly related to business such as that China is a civilization masquerading as a state and how history has made China prize stability. These are not exactly false but the deeper lessons that Clissolds thinks that these rules impart – that China – are a bit whimsical.

To present the rules, Clissold describes several important events in China over the past two hundred years. It seems contrived and makes the book more of a history text than a business book. I am sure some people may benefit, though since I am already a bit familiar with the history mentioned, I did not learn anything new.

As if the main ordeal above wasn’t enough, there is another deal near the end involving a Chinese fruit juice mogul who owes an insurance company money. Clissold is hired to get back the debt which involves no lawyers or court orders, but constant pandering, passive aggressiveness and maneuvering. Going to the courts would never have worked, Clissold says, but getting the provincial governor involved and putting up with a whole year of negotiations did, since it allowed the mogul to save face while coming up with a solution.

According to Clissold, this is the proper way to deal with Chinese. He’s an expert with decades of experience in China and published books, but frankly in my humble opinion, I think that is nonsense. He is a fine writer and describes history and events very well, and he seems to have a strong appreciation of China, but it is dangerous to be suggesting that people need to scrape and bow when doing business with China, which his “Chinese rules” imply.

Inexplicably, Clissold is convinced in the end, despite how this sorry affair turned out, that China is the future.
The only thing I am convinced about is how full of bullcrap the country is in many ways and that it would be appalling if Chinese norms and practices, as the book illustrates quite clearly, were to influence the world.

Books · China

From the Ruins of Empire- book review

Pankaj Mishra is a respected non-fiction writer from India who has written several nonfiction books about India, South Asia and Asia. From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia), the first book of his that I’ve read, is a sweeping historical account of several major Asian intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century who challenged European imperialism at a time when its power loomed over much of Asia. Asia was largely subordinate, with India and most of Southeast Asia colonized by European powers, China defeated in the Opium Wars and bullied, Iran subdued, and the Middle East ruled by the Ottomans, who themselves would see their empire torn up by the Europeans after World War I.

Several of these intellectuals, besides challenging European domination and trying to revive their ailing countries, also shared a vision of pan-Asian unity. Mishra is a bit liberal by including Turkey as an Asian country because if anything, Turkey has been trying hard to become part of Europe via EU membership. That aside, the historical account of various countries across Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Iran, is compelling.
One of the more intriguing Asian thinkers profiled is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who traveled across the Islamic world -Egypt, Iran, Turkey – agitating for a pan-Islamic sphere. Due to recent events, I couldn’t help think of ISIS while reading this part though al-Afghani seemingly had a more benign vision that alternated between tradition and modernism or democracy with Islamic elements. However, the desire to modernize while being able to retain Islamic characteristics is a struggle that is still true today throughout the Arab region (I admit I am not an expert on the Middle East or the Arab region).

Other major thinkers/activists include Chinese Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who is admired in China and Japan. Mishra does well to bind the stories of these disparate individuals by linking them to a similar purpose and a common foe (Western powers). The end of World War II saw European colonization brought to an end in Asia and the “rise” of China and India and Japan makes for a tempting vision of Asia rising. There is a trace of sympathy and admiration for China, who Mishra sees as having risen to a power, though he is also aware about the injustices in that country. Mishra concludes with the thought that Western dominance is short-lived but admits that deep challenges remain, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Personally, I think he is too optimistic about Asia and the end of Western dominance, but the book is still a fascinating and informative read.

Africa · Books

The Lower River- book review

Paul Theroux is one of the biggest names in the travel writing world, but his books are not for those looking for fun and uplifting writing. His most recent novel The Lower River illustrates this perfectly.

The Lower River, published in 2012, is partially based on Theroux’s real-life experience, being set in a remote village in Malawi. After Ellis Hock, a retired American businessman, is divorced by his wife of three decades, he then decides to close his store and return to the one place he was ever truly happy – the village of Malabo in deep southern Malawi where he served four idyllic years as a Peace Corps member fresh out of college. You can sense where this is going.

Hock flies to Malawi, reaches Malabo, meets the village “head” whose grandfather knew him, and then decides to stay for a while to do good work like rebuild the village school where he taught at decades ago. Soon, he realizes that his magnanimous venture will not work out and that the village is no longer the same as it was the last time Hock was there. Things soon take a dark turn and Hock, who comes down with malaria, becomes trapped in the village. He is isolated, weak, desperate and comes close to breaking down several times. There are late-night tribal secret society rites, orphan villages full of feral kids and a mysterious compound hidden in a border zone, that amplify the sense of dread and despair.

The novel is a compelling read, with each twist pushing Hock into deeper and darker trouble. Hock’s naivete, fueled by his mid-life crisis, combines with third-world poverty and culture clashes to create a chilling outcome. No doubt, there is a trace of Heart of Darkness in this.
However, what Theroux really wants to do is present a few themes common to Africa such as the prevalence of Western development aid and its effect on locals, with the messianic complex of some whites in wanting to “save” poor Africans, also known as the white man’s burden, and conversely, the question of how much progress African communities have made.

He partially succeeds though some parts in the book like the village of wild orphans seem too outlandish (I don’t think these actually exist but Malawi really does have about a million AIDS orphans due to a high AIDS rate killing off many adults). The Lower River paints bleak pictures about Africa and the foolishness of Westerners like Hock who want to save the third world, however sincere they may feel, without really understanding the realities on the ground. Despite the cynical nature of the book, Theroux gives a sound description of Malawi, when Hock arrives and spends a few days in the city of Blantyre, and Malabo that does well enough to present a stark image of the places.

Granted I’ve only read a couple of Theroux’s books, but reading through Dark Star Safari, in which he traveled from Cape Town to Cairo, you might even think he hated traveling and didn’t give a damn about the third world, especially Africa. But his complaints seem to stem from genuine care about the places he writes about and not mere arrogance, and he is often right in a lot of his observations (I enjoyed Dark Star Safari a lot actually), as pessimistic or cynical as they seem. And with his years spent living and working in Africa (Malawi, Uganda), he has substantial experience of sub-Saharan Africa and the issue of development.