The problems with this book begin with the second word of the title, recur in the subtitle and never diminish until Meredith limps home with a final pThe problems with this book begin with the second word of the title, recur in the subtitle and never diminish until Meredith limps home with a final paragraph attributing the problems of what he might as well just call "the dark continent" to the personal failures of Africa's leaders and elites. I'll detail these criticisms in a moment, but first I want to identify the book's fundamental failure: it gives no attention to *Africans* as anything other than a faceless mass; to make matters worse, he's not particularly adept at decoding the significance of the statistics he sprinkles in from time to time when he can tear himself away from recounting the excesses of Mobutu or Amin or Toure (most of which are real enough). He doesn't seem to know anything, or give a damn, about ordinary Africans. He misses everything that made the two weeks I spent in Tanzania a couple of years go fascinating and, despite the chaos of trying to figure out when the next bus might arrive, etc., not entirely dispiriting.
I want to make it clear that I'm not romantic about Africa. I know too many Africans and too many people who have spent extended time in various places on the continent, to downplay the many many things that have gone wrong. It can be very difficult to recover any of the hope that greeted independence when looking into the near- or mid-future. On that level, I'm not disputing some of what Meredith, a journalist who spent many years in Africa, concludes.
Nonetheless, I'll stand by the one star. As I probably should have done before reading this book, I've consulted colleagues who know more about the literature of Africa than I do, and been informed that I should have started with Frederick Cooper's history of the same time period. It's up next.
Now to the specifics behind the snarky first sentence. The invocation of "fate" is part and parcel of what seems to me a fundamentally dishonest intellectual strategy based on downplaying the importance of a global political economy in which the interests of the African people were, at best, secondary. His presentation of the colonial order is borderline nostalgic: while he's at least sharp enough to figure out that Belgium didn't do a good job in the Congo, he gives the British high marks for their treatment of their colonies, gives the French slightly grudging respect--he is, after all, British--and pays next to no attention to the impact of international markets on African economies. Although he gives passing attention to the scramble for Africa and the absurdity of the national boundaries imposed on the continent--which created many of the problems that render a "nation" like Nigeria ungovernable--he largely ignores them once the magic moment of "independence" arrives. From that point on, Africa's problems are attributed to the bad behavior and flawed character of its leaders and the unbridled greed and stupidity of the elites (which pretty much deserve his scorn). His rhetoric is contemptuous, dismissive; he lavishes endless paragraphs on details concerning the palaces and cars, and the brutality with which the leaders treated their opponents. He clearly takes great pride in debunking the status of almost every one of the leaders who brought Africa out of the colonial era. He's ever so pleased with himself that he doesn't believe a single good word about Nkrumah or Kenyata. Meredith has a bit more trouble condescending to Tanzania's Nyerer, who he's forced to admit was not personally corrupt or stupid. But he manages well enough. He repeatedly glosses over complex historical situations by attributing all of the problems to the character of leaders. One of many many examples is his treatment of the Six Days War between Egypt and Israel, which receives less than a paragraph. He's utterly incoherent in his treatment of Mobutu, who he praises as an ally of the US who established stability in the Congo just a few pages before returning to the Friday Night Creature Features festival on the beasts of Africa.
I finished reading this because I'm looking for factual information; there's a bit mixed in with the drivel. But it would have been a much better idea not to have picked up the book in the first place....more
Note: Kicked the rating up a star after a very useful conversation with Wyl Schuth. Westad is European, so I'm ratcheting down my irritation with theNote: Kicked the rating up a star after a very useful conversation with Wyl Schuth. Westad is European, so I'm ratcheting down my irritation with the style a bit.
Difficult book to evaluate fairly. On the one hand, the subject matter is critical. The Cold War, which Westad traces back to its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century, wasn't just the US vs. the USSR or the West vs. the East or any other set of events that can be adequately explained in bipolar terms. So, by giving extended attention to events in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Westad performs a useful service. In the course of reading the book, my sense of the complexity of the Cold War came into a much sharper focus than it had previously. Often, he offers valuable phrasings, as in the distinctions he makes between Nativist and Marxist revolutionaries. He untangles the chaos in the Congo and Indonesia very clearly. And he's consistently excellent when he demonstrates how a large number of important decisions were made in blissful ignorance of crucial facts.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced Westad really views the other actors in the story as important in themselves. The structure of the book and the choice of stories circle around the decisions being made in Washington and Moscow and, to a lesser extent, Beijing. Ultimately, it feels like what happened in Cuba or Angola or Indonesia or Afghanistan interests him mostly because of what it reveals about Superpower policy-making (and the shortcoming thereof).
It doesn't help that the book is pretty badly written (and/or edited). Someone should have caught the sentence fragments and subject-verb disagreements. There aren't a lot of them, but they're a real distraction and many sentences aspire to clunkiness. (If Westad's not a native English speaker/writer, I'll offer at least a partial apology.) And I found it extremely annoying that many references to scholars aren't footnoted, including at least a few direct quotes. The book won the Bancroft and on some levels I can see why--I don't know a better introduction to the topic. But it's hard to recommend to anyone other than specialists....more
A significant contribution to the emerging genre of what the protagonist would call American-African, as opposed to African American, literature. AdicA significant contribution to the emerging genre of what the protagonist would call American-African, as opposed to African American, literature. Adichie, whose book Under a Yellow Sun is a solid collection of stories organized around the Biafran war, moves back and forth between Nigerian (mostly Igbo) characters growing up on the continent, encountering the frustrations of life in London and the U.S., finding their varied paths to success, and returning back to a home which is both familiar and profoundly changed. Most of the American African books that have moved me--Teju Cole's Open City, Mengistu's The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears--are set in the U.S. with Africa provided a psychic and culture point of reference. Adichie complicates that and weaves her own commentary into the novel via her protagonist Ifemula's blogs: one devoted to an NAB (Non-American Black)'s baffled engagement with race in America, the other providing a returned expatriate's commentary on life in Nigeria. She mixes in some sharp observations on the tribal and national differences and at every turn, she places the peculiar rituals of courtship, marriage and dating at the center. Ifemula dates a black American Yale prof, a rich white guy from Maryland, all the while doing an extended dance with her adolescent love Obinze.
I was off and on on the romance plot(s) and didn't really buy the ending, but this is definitely a book worth reading. I'm thinking about teaching a class on American African lit (maybe mixed with English African lit a la Zadie Smith) and this will be one of the touchstones....more
Reads like the first book of what's likely to be a series of autobiographical writings. Ending with Ngugi embarking upon his higher education, soon toReads like the first book of what's likely to be a series of autobiographical writings. Ending with Ngugi embarking upon his higher education, soon to be followed by a literary career that ranks with those of Achebe and Soyinka among African writers of the independence generation, the book focuses on the details of a childhood lived in a confusing transitional time. Ngugi provides sharp portraits of Gikuyu life--the complex family structures, the joys and sorrows of childhood played out against the half-understood background of the Mau Mau and English oppression. There's little that will surprise anyone who's read Weep Not, Child (one of Ngugi's finest early novels), but it's definitely worth the read. Looking forward to what I assume will be volume 2....more
An honorable book on an important topic, What is the What provides a clear portrait of the Lost Boys of southern Sudan. But it never really caught firAn honorable book on an important topic, What is the What provides a clear portrait of the Lost Boys of southern Sudan. But it never really caught fire for me, reading a bit like a fictionalized compendium of news articles. And I'm not sure why Eggers decided on the frame story, which centers on a home invasion/robbery perpetrated by African Americans. Yes, there's tension between Africans and black Americans, but most of the whites Achak encounters are fairly sympaethic and it muddles the racial politics in ways that didn't ring true to me while perpetuating some stereotypes.
The reader of the audiobook did an outstanding job, keeping the narrator's accent on point throughout and varying the speaking voices of other characters nicely....more
Hemingway can be an irritating son of a bitch and this book is near the top of the "here's why" list. A memoir of Hemingway's hunting expedition to EaHemingway can be an irritating son of a bitch and this book is near the top of the "here's why" list. A memoir of Hemingway's hunting expedition to East Africa--an area I spent two weeks in recently--, Green Hills shows absolutely no awareness of the colonial history that structures the relations between the hunter and the numerous Africans who make his pleasure possible. There are a few moments when Hemingway realizes that the men who accompany him are every bit as skilled and courageous as he is, but those are surrounded by countless scenes where the white supremacy is simply embedded in the reporting. What makes that doubly irritating is Hemingway's belief in his own honesty. Yeah, well. Part of my response is no doubt tied to the fact that I'm not a hunter. My own experience of the wildlife of Tanzania was simple awe; I didn't feel the slightest inclination to kill it. I do understand that for Hemingway, hunting involves an aesthetic of attention and care that parallels his approach to writing. And it's clear that there's a good bit of irony in his portrait of himself as Great White Hunter--he screws up roughly as many shots as he makes and he describes his feelings of shame, but ultimately it all comes out as celebration. Stylistically, there are far too many moments when you can't tell the difference between Hemingway and Hemingway parodied. Far from his best writing.
I was surprised to come across the famous passage--often excerpted out of context--in which Hemingway mediates on Huck Finn as the source of American literature. It's a great set piece, oddly situated.
I'm moving on to the short story collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro, written after the experiences described in this book had some time to marinate....more
Disappointing. Achebe is universally and justly honored as one of the crucial elders of African literature; Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease stDisappointing. Achebe is universally and justly honored as one of the crucial elders of African literature; Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease stand at the head of what's become a vibrant tradition. I was hoping for a retrospective book equivalent to Wole Soyinka's "Of Africa." This isn't it. As the title suggests, There Was a Country combines a bit of memoir with a brief history of Biafra, the Igbo nation which was defeated in a civil war with Nigeria that lasted from 1967-70. In addition, Achebe includes previously published poems which reflect on the prose. Sadly, other than the intrinsic interest of hearing what Achebe's up to, there's nothing here that deepens our understanding of Biafra and his portrait of his childhood and education during the transition from colonialism to independence is entirely familiar. Far too much time is spent on what reads like gossip about the various people who Achebe knew in the world of African intellectuals and Igbo politics. Maybe a specialist would get something out of it, but there's simply not enough information to raise the portraits above cliche. Similarly, Achebe's reflections on the sorry state of Nigerian politics today don't offer anything beyond the obvious message of "we have to get this mess cleaned up and the first step is stopping corruption." True, but nothing that's not already obvious.
The book does serve as a reminder of the Biafra war, which should be much-better remembered than it is....more
Having been familiar with Wainaina's writing in periodicals, I was looking forward to this book when it was published in 2011. I started reading it thHaving been familiar with Wainaina's writing in periodicals, I was looking forward to this book when it was published in 2011. I started reading it then and got a bit bogged down, thinking "okay, this is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" transferred to Kenya." I set it aside and came back to it when I embarked on a trip to Tanzania (one country south of Kenya) in late December. Being able to juxtapose Binyavanga's writing with the actualities of East Africa was perfect. Kenya's different from Tazania in some salient ways--many of them relating to the profound difference between Julius Nyerere, the most inspirational of the African independence leaders, and Kenya's much more problematic leadership; some of them having to do with the fact that Tanzania doesn't have a tribe equivalent to the Gikuyu. Nonetheless, most of what Binyavanga describes was immediately recognizable--the profound problems of making a transition to a colonial educational system which, despite its obvious complicity in indefensible exploitation, provided a first rate education for a small number of Africans, to an underfunded and not well thought out "African" system. His descriptions of traffic, the chaotic negotiations between languages--when to speak English, when Swahili, when a tribal tongue--the vibrant craziness of the streets.....I was entranced and educated.
All of that is built around Binyavanga's personal journey, which takes him from Kenya to his mother's home in Uganda, to South Africa as it journeys out of apartheid, to the US where he's taught at Union College and Bard. In some ways it's a recognizable kunstlerroman showing the development of the artist as he teeters on the brinks of various abysses. The portraits of other Africans--some Kenyan, many not--he encounters along the way are deft. Love what he does with the place of pop culture, music especially, in the growth of his consciousness.
Stylistically, Wainaine's frequently brilliant. There are poetic flashes that really are Joycean--and not in the imitative sense I'd originally thought. It's a style that incorporates the multiplicities it's negotiating, in a sense an heir to Amos Tutuola's Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
I read this alongside the work of two of Wainaine's elders: Nigerians Wole Soyinka (Of Africa) and Chinua Achebe (There Was a Country). It's striking that Wainaine says almost nothing about Islam. For him, the key issue is the growth of tribal antagonism in Kenya--the electoral campaigns that pitted the Cikuya against more or less everyone else. Tanzania, as far as I could see and from what I heard, has relatively little tribal conflict (or for that matter antagonism between Christians and Muslims). Thinking this through.....
What keeps this from being a five star book is that it bears some fairly obvious signs of cutting and pasting in some of Wainaine's journalistic work on Africa. There are chapters that essentially reprise his reporting on Togo's participation the World Cup, etc. that are fine in themselves but don't feel like they're part of the same book. Didn't regret reading them, but I would have liked a slightly greater sense of--coherence isn't quite right since the material's fundamentally incoherent--maybe shape........more
I read this book when I was in Tanzania, hearing the call to prayer from the local mosques in pretty much every city or village I visited, which was aI read this book when I was in Tanzania, hearing the call to prayer from the local mosques in pretty much every city or village I visited, which was appropriate given Soyinka's emphasis on the clash between the monotheistic religions and indigenous African spirituality (especially the Yoruba religion he grew up in). (I'm going to review another book I read in Africa, Binyavanga Wainaine's Someday I Will Write About All of This in a moment, and the two books form an extremely useful dialog; finishing up Chinua Achebe's There Was a Country, which is the third of what amounts to a triangulation of my reflections.) Soyinka is, of course, one of the towering figures of African literture--along with Ngugi and Achebe one of the triad that framed my understanding of Africa in transition from colonialism to the current chaos, or maybe chaoses plural). Of those, Soyinka stands out for his insistence on African religion/spirituality as a radical alternative to the forces that enslaved the continent from both the north and the west. He's fully aware of the legacy of western/Christian slavery, but he gets it out of the way quickly in this book, saying in effect "yes, we know; but fixating on it gets us nowhere in dealing with what must be dealt with." He's properly insistent that Islam's historical culpability and continuing participation in oppressive practices be unflinchingly acknowledged. (I learned some things about maroon/resistance communities in Persia that I had no previous clue about). Repeatedly, he insists that the Yoruba approach provides a way of avoiding the destructive binaries that have created so much destruction in recent years. Similarly, he has no patience for the strong men and dictators who have made African democracy a farce.
In part because his earlier work shaped my thinking, I'm in agreement with Soyinka. The continent, and those who pay attention to its real wisdom, would be well served by taking the Yoruba approach to inclusiveness and humility seriously. But it's not easy to see how that could happen in the world of corporate power and Jihad. Not so much a failing of the book as a sobering fact of geopolitics.
I did get a bit tired of Soyinka repeating the same fundamental point about Islam, especially in the final chapters which too often leave the continent for excursions into the problems of Islam in France, Germany, etc. Through the first half, this was getting a "this is the place to start reading about Africa" review. I wasn't exactly let down, but the last half didn't live up to the promise.
Still, not a bad place to start reading about contemporary Africa....more
Open City is cousin to the sub-genre of the "flaneur," a French word referring to the "lounger" or "stroller," someone who walks aimlessly through citOpen City is cousin to the sub-genre of the "flaneur," a French word referring to the "lounger" or "stroller," someone who walks aimlessly through cities gathering impressions and sharing his/her thoughts. Written by a Nigerian-born writer who moved to the U.S. in 1992, it's an extremely interesting contribution to the literature of New York City, where roughly 2/3 of the action takes place, and the global/multicultural strain of contemporary American fiction. Cole's protagonist Julius, son of a German mother and Nigerian father, is a psychologist who frequently gives himself over to lengthy meditations on subjects sparked by his surroundings. He's a classical music afficionado, distant from popular culture as well as from jazz; there's a moving scene near the end in which he listens to a performance of Mahler's Lied von die Erde. While the title refers primarily to New York (and, save a brief excursion to Queens where he encounters the marvelous New York City panorama at the Queens Museum), Cole clearly wants us to think about the ways in which the continents are interlinked: there are scenes in Nigeria and Brussels and characters from the middle east, China, and Japan.
Now for the problems. Although there are a few memorable side characters--Julius' Japanese-American mentor Dr. Saito, a clerk at a internet cafe in Brussels--the book is really about the narrator's consciousness, which doesn't really change much. In the absence of external action, I wanted more sense of internal struggle/tension. There's not a lot of difference between Julius' perceptions in the first half of the novel (which concludes with a passage nicely echoing the end of Joyce's The Dead) and the second half (which ends less successfully for me). When Cole does introduce "big" plot elements, they didn't work well for me. I'll phrase this to avoid spoilers, but both his encounter with two young men in his upper west side neighborhood and his final conversation with a friend's sister from Nigeria felt contrived to me. I'll definitely read Cole's next novel....more