An at-times horrifying read, but in the end a truly inspiring biography and a great portrayal of the awful ways war affects children and young adults....moreAn at-times horrifying read, but in the end a truly inspiring biography and a great portrayal of the awful ways war affects children and young adults.
"War Child" is not for someone inclined to freak out at explicit descriptions of violence and misery, or famine-level poverty, hatred (at times racial hatred) and frustration. Jal has lived through a lot and here he does not shy away from describing any of it, from the blood and guts to the racial tension and hatred.
Jal was a child soldier with the SPLA (antigovernment rebels, at the time predominantly Christian/Animist) in Sudan and witnessed the rape and murder of members of his family. After the war despite the kindness of several strangers, he had a ROUGH time getting "rehabilitated," finding his behavior was affected in all sorts of ways by his past; he had a tendency toward violence, an automatic impulse to steal when he could, an inability to concentrate. I imagine that from the perspective of anyone who's ever worked with the children of trauma or immigrant populations, this book would be invaluable. It's also just an amazingly human story. The author's style is stilted and clearly colloquial at times, which means you'll be learning many terms from the languages of Sudan (often terms that are cobbled together from several languages, or have an unclear meaning). That, and the book's snapshot of village life in Sudan even outside of the context of war, add up to a book that is absolutely not to be missed.
Also, the last fifth or so of the book has a lot to do with Jal's music career; indie artists are advised to check it out. Because he could not get play from Nairobi radio stations, against all odds Jal and his friends got a grant and released his album and one of his friends', self-produced, self-promoted, basically no help from any music industry sources until Peter Gabriel gave him a vote of confidence at Africa Calling. At one point Jal describes giving well-attended concerts in London and then sleeping on park benches. Good to know it's not just the U.S. where the corporate music promoters are brain-dead sleazebags who wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass.
Jal is a Christian (raised a Christian, became an atheist during the war, then was "saved") and I am most emphatically not (though I was raised Roman Catholic). Jal's faith is critical to his rescue from despair, but he doesn't especially preach. Descriptions of his music necessarily carry some expression of Christian joy, particularly his early work which was more explicitly Christian -- before he started writing about his war experiences. If you can't handle that, you probably won't like the last part of the book. I think one of the strongest messages Jal presents is how he learned to not be prejudiced against Muslims, after a lifetime of hating them with all his heart (the war in Sudan was for all intents and purposes a war against Islamic and Christian/Animist populations, though its roots go deep into OIL). So avoiding his faith would have been thoroughly disingenuous, and I'm glad he's been honest about it here. It also means that if you ARE Christian, there will be a lot for you to like about the last part of the book, which ends on a SERIOUS up note and an inspiring sense of hope despite the fact that there is some HARROWING reading preceding it.
This is a great book. It gets four stars instead of five only because the narrative lags a bit during the time of the author's "rehabilitation." This...moreThis is a great book. It gets four stars instead of five only because the narrative lags a bit during the time of the author's "rehabilitation." This process is very interesting but somewhat opaque from the author's perspective. I think that observation is an important part of the puzzle in rehabilitating child soldiers and other victims of trauma, but it also makes for a less interesting book. Nonetheless, a great memoir about a tragic and horrific series of events, told with an engaging voice. I highly recommend reading this alongside Blood Diamond by Greg Campbell.
Also...no, I didn't really read the Vietnamese edition. My Vietnamese is as rusty as my Serbo-Croatian. I don't know why that's the version that Good Reads insists on pulling up.(less)
It pains me slightly to give this book four stars, because while parts of it are amazing, and all of it tells an amazing story, too much of it tells a...moreIt pains me slightly to give this book four stars, because while parts of it are amazing, and all of it tells an amazing story, too much of it tells an amazing story in overwrought, hand-wringing fashion.
The main problem with it is that it begins as a fairly objective, fairly reasonable and very well-told history of South African history pre-World War II (which is when the racism that would become Apartheid was not formalized). It then turns about halfway through into a hagiography of the poor. It's also a hagiography of Mandela, which I feel like I've heard a thousand times. The real messy story feels like it's avoided in favor of pouring out overwrought prose about how hard it was to be black during the Apartheid era. I'm already fairly clear that it blew pretty seriously. That's why I'm reading a book on South Africa in the first place. Lapierre hits too hard on the same old messages of martyrdom, which makes this book not an effective history.
Don't get me wrong...I don't think "objective" makes a lot of sense when it comes to Apartheid, racism or Afrikaans-dominated South Africa. But I also don't need to be beaten to death with overheated, overwrought, hand-wringing prose about the troubles of the poor. I read a LOT of books on Africa, and I see the kind of heartfelt, weepy prose engaged in here to be borderline condescending. It's not intended that way, sure. But certainly many African writers express a deep-distaste for the handwringing of the West vis-a-vis Africa, and
I understand that Lapierre (and presumably his translator...not sure if this was written in English or French) are trying to communicate the agonies of being poor and black in South Africa -- which are EXTREME today and were vastly moreso during the Apartheid era. But I found the overdone prose in certain sections to be somewhat insulting.
That said, however, Lapierre's heart is in the right place, and it's the most accessible (and actually LEAST overwrought) thing I've read to-date on South Africa. The struggle the black South Africans, Mandela included, went through is amazing. I do wish there had been less hagiography and more, for instance, about the Zulu nationalist movement to the North, which opposed the African National Congress, and the criminal elements that flourished in the slums in the context of rampant soul-crushing poverty; it is in THOSE elements, it seems to me, that South Africa's contemporary troubles have their origin.
We can attack the white Afrikaaner fascist racist murderers all we want. But as Michael Moorcock said, "All tyrants are pretty much the same, but there are many kinds of victims." By spending the second half of this book making the racist demons as demonic as possible and the black South Africans saintly, I feel Lapierre has missed the real story in the ongoing triumph and tragedy of the struggle in post-colonial Africa overall, not just in South Africa. The result is an immensely readable book but one that's a bit hard to take seriously as history, insofar as it concerns the Apartheid period itself (after World War II).
Speaking of which, why is this subtitled "The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa?" The author's intention is to establish that the period from the landing of the first Dutch settlers on the Cape to the establishment of pluralist democracy is *ALL* the birth of South Africa...but out of context, it's a little bewildering of a subtitle. It seems like it misleads the potential reader a bit.
The book still gets four stars, principally because I think it's SO accessible that I hope it'll be read by people who wouldn't tackle a denser book or a more nuanced history about South Africa. The struggles the black South Africans and the Apartheid-opposing whites, Indians, those of mixed race etc. went through should be known to every person of conscience everywhere in the world. Therefore, my nitpicks aside, if a zillion people read this book the world will be a much better place, and for that alone it gets some extra credit.(less)
A great autobiography by a Moroccan writer who did not learn how to read and write until he was 20. Poverty narratives tend to run along similar lines...moreA great autobiography by a Moroccan writer who did not learn how to read and write until he was 20. Poverty narratives tend to run along similar lines regardless of which culture they are from; this is very reminiscent in some ways of Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets. What makes it so powerful is the intense flavor the author's writing brings, and also the utterly credulous way in which he describes his emotions. The result is a searingly immediate and beautiful portrait of poverty, desperation and ambition. It's gorgeous.
Interestingly: The version I read was translated by Paul Bowles from a version rewritten by Choukri in colloquial Moroccan Arabic or Moghrebi. The original memoir had been written in classical Arabic, which Bowles does not read. Bowles then translated Choukri's Moghrebi version and discussed the nuances of the text with Choukri in French and Spanish. Weird, huh? The result is a strangely blocky translation that careens from present to past tense -- I can only assume that there's a colloquial sense that this conveys, which is why it got left in.
Anyway...great book, wonderful if you're interested in Morocco, North Africa in the 1950s, poverty, petty crime or just the desperation and exultation of human experience and growing up. I loved it.(less)
I loved this meticulously researched book by The Economist's man in Africa about the attempt by a group of mercenary adventurers to stage a coup in Eq...moreI loved this meticulously researched book by The Economist's man in Africa about the attempt by a group of mercenary adventurers to stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea. Along the way the story touches on Mark Thatcher, Margaret's son, and the novelist Jeffrey Archer (maybe). It's a fascinating story, well told, and infuriating when one considers both the politics involved and the overriding problems of Africa because of exactly the type of post-colonial economic neo-colonialism and corruption described in this book.(less)