"Africa, for nearly a century, was governed with the iron hand of European colonial economic interests: these ran Africa as though it were a torture-chamber. Africa has known the iron rod, the whiplash, thumb-screwing and removing of testicles: Africa has been humiliated one way or another. I am not saying anything new if I add that whether British, French, Belgian, Spanish, Portugese or Italian, the colonial mafiadoms which, on behalf of the civilised world, administered the colonies barbarously, savagely, never considered it expedient to allow the same democratic rights as they themselves had, both in their own countries and in their privileged positions as rulers, viceroys or governors. For the colonies, they created a small elite that, in a world of make-believe behaved as though they were on a par with their European classmates, their university colleagues. But wait. ... Are you saying that Africa is the same or nearly the same torture-chamber as it was when the colonials were here? Or are you saying that African dictatorships are but a re-creation of the same methods and things these career-soldiers learned from their colonial masters during the toughest struggles?"
"Or something like that."
Stylistically this book is something of a prose poem. Nights slither like snakes, days break open. Politically, this is an indictment of the failures of petty despot dictators (Mohamed Siad Barre Jaale Siiyad in fact - though the plot does not follow history exactly - who seized power and formed a military junta with the assistance of China and the Soviet Union based on the ideology of 'scientific socialism'), who like the colonials before them, cloak themselves in academic and religious morality while carrying out the same barbarisms learned from colonial times. Worse still, it is an indictment of the people who permit it to happen with inactivity, with lack of education (to wit, the part about the General surrounding himself with illiterates in order to force all 'security' business to be conducted via oral tradition in order that no paper trail be created) and beast-of-burden acceptance. There's a wincing exchange that takes place between a butcher and a goat that just wraps up the whole plot in one succinct page: the General is the butcher, the people of Somalia his goat that he prods, threatens, mistreats with the knowledge that he's just going to kill it in an hour anyway, but he has to remind it of its place.
Farah doesn't spare the colonials, and he doesn't spare modern nation-states who continue to meddle just as hamfistedly, if not quite so openly, in the political spectrum (the Chinese cigarette and match factory, the Soviet Marxist 'help' by training the Security forces in KGB tactics).
And Farah doesn't stop there - he also laments the plight of women, both as victims of political torture, social subjugation and religious/educational inequality. This is a dense, thoughtful book and I think the heavy handed poetic prose is the only thing that keeps you somewhat detached from the abject horror of what he's describing.(less)
This is so good. I knew virtually nothing about Siberia, except its dubious identity as the receptacle for millions of Soviets exiled to toil in the g...moreThis is so good. I knew virtually nothing about Siberia, except its dubious identity as the receptacle for millions of Soviets exiled to toil in the gulags. It is 1/12th of the planet's landmass. It has such a rich, millenial history, and a checkered one. People lost in it went mad, lost the ability to speak Russian, people imprisoned there rarely escaped. It is a giant climate meltdown waiting to happen. It's been the source of economic resurgence for the nation. There were so many informative things in this book (particularly the history between America/Siberia) that I had to read it slowly. Frazier himself seems to display all of the truculent/enraptured poles of temperament with his subject matter (culminating in this sixteen-year-long mission) that are the comforting hallmarks of great travel writing - the kind seen in O'Hanlon, Theroux and Bryson.
Travel anywhere one is an outsider, especially to interiors where one's 'outsiderness' is grossly apparent is one of the most demeaning and exalting acts an American can engage in, I think. I felt acutely for Frazier's commitment and failures in learning the Russian language, which is an exquisite frustration to try to become capable in.
All told, I think this is/should be a classic of the genre.(less)
This is a desert island book. I think that I could immediately re-read it and find things I didn't discover in the first reading. The amount of detail...moreThis is a desert island book. I think that I could immediately re-read it and find things I didn't discover in the first reading. The amount of detail is astounding, the way in which items appear and then re-appear, the giant puzzle of how everyone and everything fits together, and the way in which Perec can make a sudden short burst of lives appear, bookended between two exhaustive descriptions of various rooms, is something of luminous wonder.(less)
I don't think a one or two sentence review will suffice for this book - this is the sort of thing you could do an entire dissertation on. Art, Religio...moreI don't think a one or two sentence review will suffice for this book - this is the sort of thing you could do an entire dissertation on. Art, Religion, Eastern mysticism, Western self-centrism and self-determination, the role of the artist in religion, in politics and in the building and falling of empires, a hefty dose of historical education...it's a dense, educational but really entertaining murder mystery.(less)
This book is like reading a 700 page epic distilled into 300 pages, but each "act" of the book is wholly different and inspired. I thought it was bril...moreThis book is like reading a 700 page epic distilled into 300 pages, but each "act" of the book is wholly different and inspired. I thought it was brilliant; I was moved to tears by the end, following the Essex-inspired Act 2 with whaling, komodo dragons, madness and starvation. (less)
This ranks up there as one of the best books I've ever read, I think. There were times that her repetition became a little overbearing, but what a rid...moreThis ranks up there as one of the best books I've ever read, I think. There were times that her repetition became a little overbearing, but what a ride. There is one phrase that, if not a subtle nod to Geoff Dyer's final pages of The Missing of the Somme, should be:
The light with which she is so familiar has shone for hundreds and thousands of years, and it will always be there.
Perhaps that is what is meant by ‘lonelyness’ — knowing that even at your moments of most exalted emotion, you do not matter (perhaps this is precisely the moment of most exalted emotion) because these things will always be here: the dark trees full of summer leaf, the fading light that has not changed in seventy-five years, the peace that lies perpetually in wait.
This was a beautifully contemplative novel written in my favorite Scandinavian style - very concise, with clever surprises tucked into single sentence...moreThis was a beautifully contemplative novel written in my favorite Scandinavian style - very concise, with clever surprises tucked into single sentences. The way in which the book opens leads the reader to a point of view unfavorable to Helmer, with his cold detachment from his dying father, the lack of compassion present in his care, and then there is a paragraph in which the entire perception we are given of the father/son dynamic sharply pivots. That same kind of sudden pivot happens many times throughout, with his neighbor, with the neighbor children, and with his house-guest and mother. Despite the very confined setting and the feeling of timelessness in which the characters operate, there is a quick pacing and these small seismic shifts between them which gives the novel perfect momentum.
This book did a marvelous job at skewering the American public's jingoisms for war and "the troops", and the gulf of empty disconnection between them...moreThis book did a marvelous job at skewering the American public's jingoisms for war and "the troops", and the gulf of empty disconnection between them and soldiers, even while the soldiers are being sumptuously celebrated.
The beauty of this book is in its unflinching realism and the devastating accuracy of its observations. There were so many parts that I underlined.
And...moreThe beauty of this book is in its unflinching realism and the devastating accuracy of its observations. There were so many parts that I underlined.
And the story of the book itself is amazing. It was published and recognized immediately for being great; and even upon its review in the New Yorker in 1965, the same year of its publication, it was already out of print. And so it goes; it was loved by "all the right people" but never found fervor enough to launch it upward in fame - a parallel with the story that is so painful, it's almost comic.
Read this book. It is so affecting, I can't really even verbalize how it affected me. I think if you are the sort of person who loves language and who loves books, this one will put to words not just a story, but an ethos which is so close to the bone, and so difficult to articulate, that you will just be in awe that Williams managed to do it, and did it with such gravitas and tenderness on the part of William Stoner, and such unsparing remorselessness on the part of Edith Stoner.
This was a beautiful, wonderful, mind-expanding book. I found myself re-reading whole sections just because the writing and the sentiment conveyed wer...moreThis was a beautiful, wonderful, mind-expanding book. I found myself re-reading whole sections just because the writing and the sentiment conveyed were so lovely that I wanted to make sure I remembered them. It's a book that bears re-reading.(less)