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.

Africa · Books · South Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.

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.

China · Taiwan

Taiwan’s election earthquake; HK Occupy showdown, Paul Theroux and Ha Jin interview links

Taiwan’s massive local elections unleashed a seismic change in the island Saturday while Hong Kong’s Occupy protests got more violent and desperate on Sunday and Monday. While these are two major events in places close to each other, the reason I’ve linked them in the same sentence is because they both have a big influence on China.

Taiwan’s elections saw the opposition DPP win the majority of municipals, including the capital Taipei, and counties, several of which were formerly strongholds of the ruling and pro-China KMT. The KMT now only holds 6 of these municipalities and counties, down from 15. For years, the KMT has depended heavily on boosting ties with China and it hasn’t worked out well. Frankly that has virtually been the KMT’s only strategy in the past few years and it’s no surprise that many Taiwanese have gotten fed up. Along with this, economic inequality, low salaries and social problems like forced relocations for property developments have continued to get worse. While my family has traditionally been pro-blue, I can’t say I was disappointed in this.

Meanwhile Hong Kong’s Occupy protesters’ showdown with the police didn’t go down too well with the public, the police and the government. By directly confronting and charging the police, the movement has certainly shifted from being non-violent and can no longer use that as a shield. Furthermore this allows Beijing to be smug and feel justified in labeling the protesters as radicals and troublemakers intent on causing chaos. The adult initiators of the Occupy movement, who actually have not had much control over the protests in the past two months, have said they will give themselves up to police this week while calling on protesters to leave the protest sites. That might be a wise choice for now as it will allow the movement to regroup and think about new tactics rather than degenerate into a more desperate and undisciplined group.

Alright, enough about politics.
Hong Kong’s SCMP interviewed two major authors – Ha Jin and Paul Theroux.

Ha Jin is a Chinese writer who’s written several novels in English and teaches creative writing at a university in the US, where he’s lived since the mid-80s. His latest book A Map of Betrayal is about a Chinese spy in the US who works for the CIA and has built a life and family there, and is unable to fully belong to either side. It seems like an interesting read so I’ll check up on it in future. The SCMP author sees a parallel with Ha’s life, including the fact he is an exile from his own country.
Because he has openly criticized the Chinese government especially for Tiananmen, he has been refused visas by China, including last year when he wanted to return to see his dying mother. It’s a terrible situation to be banned by returning home by your own government, which is ironic when patriotism is so often promoted as an ideal by said government.
Ha’s books haven’t been too controversial but haven’t shied away from covering tough issues such as the Cultural Revolution and the Civil War that ended in 1949. Ha is a strong admirer of the US, which he says is a good place for him and his family, and he openly supports the Occupy movement in Hong Kong. He also signed Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto calling for democracy in China in 2008 (for which Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, was jailed).

The SCMP also interviewed Paul Theroux who made the astonishing claim that he feels “lost” in Hong Kong due to how “impenetrable” it is. This seems peculiar given Theroux has traveled the world including across Africa and Asia, and has actually written a book set in Hong Kong. He is an interesting sort, though quite irascible in his writing and a bit contrarian in the interview, and surprisingly humble such as laughing off instances where people have heard about his wife or sons but not him.

Africa · Books · China · Travel

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.

Africa · Books · China · Travel

China, Africa, and Genghis in books

Peter Hessler has come out with another literary gem on China as his highly commended Country Driving really does not disappoint. Hessler’s third book proves to be quite an eyeopener. It has his usual thoughtful and poignant prose about regular people in China but it also sheds some light into concepts like “guanxi” and how local governments make so much money. What I like about Hessler is how he tells the stories of regular people like peasants, students or factory workers and makes them so interesting, showing their struggles and dreams whilst highlighting the dynamism, the humor, the harshness and even inanity of life in China, all the while being sentimental but not overly so nor idealistic. Even the banal things are a pleasure to read about. In Country Driving, he first writes about his road trips in Northern China as he follows the Great Wall and drives through several provinces. The middle part is about his time in an isolated village north of Beijing where he buys a holiday home and befriends a husband and his family. Finally, he goes to Zhejiang and meets two entrepreneurs who open a factory that manufactures bra rings. Each part is good, especially the last one which touches not only on the running of the factory, but the mercenary aspects of prized employees, the politics and economics involved in creating economic zones, and the rigors of factory work. People who’ve read Factory Girls, written by Leslie T. Chang, his wife, will find some of this familiar, because the incredible dynamism and optimism of young Chinese workers, many who’re just young teenagers, is the same in Zhejiang as it is in Guangdong.

Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s story of his journey across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, was blunt, fascinating and just a great read from beginning to end. Just don’t expect a sunshiny book of adventure and leisure, as it got quite pessimistic at some parts, especially in his return to Malawi, where he spent some time teaching in the 60s, as Theroux got quite harsh on the state of Africa. The book is heavy on history in the beginning, covering Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, then gives way to more personal musings in East Africa heading further down South. Deeply disappointed, rather appalled, at the lack of development and possibly regression, he sees throughout East Africa, Theroux looks at a village in the bush at one point and thinks that maybe this is the only way of life where people thrive in Africa, a stirring critique of sub-Saharan Africa’s ability to adapt to modernity. It’s understandeable if the unsavory connotation of this part (Oh look, Africans can only live well in the bush) comes to readers’ minds at first, but the book is much deeper and thoughtful than that. Also, perhaps while we’d all like to think we have nobler perceptions than that, at least we should save any reservations for after making a similar trip to those parts. There are a lot of memorable exchanges Therox has with people, such as when on bringing up South Africa’s Communist Party, a South African, an immigrant from Bulgaria, exclaims, “If you live in a democratic country and you are a Communist, there is something wrong with you. You must be crazy!” Another one, maybe less amusing but still notable, happens in Zambia as several locals criticize Indians for their business acumen. Theroux’s pessimism and bluntness isn’t directed only at Africans, as he confronts an American female missionary over her anti-homosexual stance on a train in Mozambique. It’s kind of fitting, in an unfortunate way, that at the end of his long continental journey in South Africa, he loses his main luggage to unknown after it’s left in a Johannesburg hotel safe while he travels to Cape Town.

Historical fiction is a favorite of mine, especially military fiction and Conn Iggulden’s Genghis – Bones of the Hills was my latest read in this category. It follows Genghis Khan, who else obviously, after he has invaded deep into the land of the Chin (China) who is now confronted by a new foe from the west. The Khwarezm Shah oversees a wealthy Islamic empire that straddles the trade routes in what is now Central Asia, controlling grand cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand. The Great Khan had sent envoys to this shah who were rejected, executed actually, and the plot/history predictably unfolds as you’d expect. Victory doesn’t come easy for the Great Khan and there is an interesting followon campaign concerning the Shah’s son who becomes some sort of mullah and attracts a whole band of Muslim warriors in a jihad against the Mongols. In addition, there is a campaign by Genghis against the Assassins, the famous extremist sect who struck fear in the whole Middle East, including Saladin, whilst based in their impenetrable fortresses. The writing is decent, the characters are varied, but one of the most striking parts of the book is the tension between Genghis and his oldest son Jochi due to the question of the latter’s true paternity. This is the third book in Iggulden’s series on Genghis. The latest one being Empire of Silver which comes after this one.

Africa · Books · Travel

Discovering Theroux

I’m reading Paul Theroux for the first time and just barely one-third of the way in, I can see why he’s such a renowned travel writer. He’s blunt and not afraid to make strong statements, though not spiteful or too exaggerated. In Dark Star Safari, Theroux is traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town, going through such tourist hotspots as Sudan and Ethiopia. From the start, he describes Africa as desolate, dangerous and awful and sets off on his journey “expecting misery [and] braced for the appalling.” At one point, he disses African cities, saying even at their best, they seemed like “miserable improvised anthills.” If you think, as I did at first, that all this meant the book was going to be a diatribe against Africans and an exposure of how appalling the continent could be, you’d actually be mistaken. He makes each place he visits seem interesting and rich in history, at least up to where I’ve reached, and with the people of Sudan, describes them with a lot of dignity than what’d one would normally expect. So far, I’ve managed to learn a lot about Rastas in Ethiopia, who the only warriors to break a British infantry square were, and the origins of the word “faranji,” a word that is used as far East as Thailand (slightly varied). Of course, he doesn’t hesitate to pull punches such as reminding a Sudanese of his government’s then-ongoing war against the South, when the person tried to lecture Theroux on  US responsibility for deaths in Afghanistan and Palestine (via Israel).