Whenever a new friend is perusing my bookshelves, I always find myself mentally cringing when they reach a certain point awaiting the persistent judgm...moreWhenever a new friend is perusing my bookshelves, I always find myself mentally cringing when they reach a certain point awaiting the persistent judgment-laced query: "why do you have so many biographies on dictators and mass murderers?" It's a hard question to answer, if only because it means I have to unpack nearly a decade's worth of my own jumbled thoughts on idealism, social upheaval, human fallibility, and the inevitability of revolution; a task which often leaves the questioner glassy-eyed and drooling as their thoughts turn toward more comfortable musings. That's no fault of the listener though, but more a reflection of my own imprecise grasp of my own ideas. I don't have a fully formed ideology of any sort, but rather a hodgepodge of ideas that I weave together and take apart with the tenacity of an obsessive-compulsive arachnid. This rejection of dogma is, I think, rooted in the lessons learned from the chronicles on my Shelf of Tyranny- our history is chock full of recent examples illustrating the power of an idea to cause much upheaval and while I make ample time to read of success stories (my Shelf of Liberation is directly above my Shelf of Tyranny) I feel that there are more lessons to be learned through the failures. In the case of the Cambodian revolution and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, there are learning opportunities by the score.
Chronicling the rise of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) through, first, the struggle to end French colonialism, then to overthrow the monarchy of Prince Sihanouk, and finally to oust the military junta that took control following Sihanouk's abdication, author Philip Short places the revolution firmly in the context of a national history of struggle against outside invaders and the historic distrust for its Vietnamese and Thai neighbors. Likewise, he traces the evolution of the CPK's ideology back to its historical root in the French Revolution, by illustrating the commonalities between those two bloody epochs- the lack of an industrial class of workers made organizing the proletariat impossible so most of the organizing work was shifted onto the illiterate peasants in the countryside who were taught that they did not need to know the particulars of communism but merely needed to adopt the revolutionary struggle into their hearts, entrenching ignorance into the party platform, the struggle was primarily against the monarchy and the corrupt advisers and hangers-on who had found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the peasantry. Most interesting to me, though, is Short's analysis on how Therevada Buddhism and its emphasis on the abnegation of personal desire and the self created the environment that would allow hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, mainly those forced to evacuate Phnom Penh after its capture by the CPK, to starve to death as they were forced into the countryside to work in the rice paddies as penance for their privileged lives under the old regime.
Put together from dozens of interviews with surviving CPK members, unprecedented access to historical archives, and news sources of the day, Short also does an amazing job at illustrating Cambodia's delicate position as a pawn between the Sino-Soviet struggle to control the Communist International, as well the love-hate relationship with its communist neighbor, Vietnam, a mercurial relationship that could flare into shootings and cross-border raids even as the two countries were working together to throw out American forces. All in all, this was a highly worthwhile read that served to broaden my understanding of modern Cambodian history. If Short gives short shrift to examples of the genocide, it is only because most books on the era already focus primarily on the atrocities and not the events that made such atrocities inevitable.
For those who seek information on the genocide, the amazing 1984 film The Killing Fields has already said all that needs to be said on the subject, and if the enigmatic Pol Pot never steps from the shadows to be analyzed as thoroughly as I had hoped, Short makes clear that this is due to Pol's obsession with secrecy and his desire to never be the face of the party, just the man pulling the strings from behind the curtain. There are tantalizing bits of biography that enter the text, such as the schizophrenia that plagued his wife, but throughout the book the Pol we are treated to is devoid of personality and is shown to be a leader with one goal in mind- revolution at all costs- a singular focus that would allow much to be done in its name.(less)
Holy vituperative rage, Batman! The descriptions of this book that I had read on Goodreads in no way described the acerbic bitterness of Kincaid as a...moreHoly vituperative rage, Batman! The descriptions of this book that I had read on Goodreads in no way described the acerbic bitterness of Kincaid as a writer. Each page is one brutal indictment after another. Nothing escapes her ire; from the English masters who colonized the island to the fat and pasty tourists who visit for a chance to sample the "exotic" backwardness of island life and who cluck their tongues reprovingly at the corruption that is endemic to island governance. "Fuck you," she says (via my poor paraphrasing), "Of course the government is corrupt- it is modeled in your image. We are only what you made us. It is you who taught us how to rob from our people and deposit their money in off-shore bank accounts. It is your value system that taught us that Capitalism is valued above everything else, even clean water and decent healthcare."
I'd like to give her a hug but that would only be giving her an opportunity to stick the knife deep into my vile honky back. It'd be easy to get wrapped up in her bilious venting at the expense of her message, but this would be a criminal oversight given that her point- the complete and utter barbarity of imperialism and the long-term consequences of imperial behavior- is just as important today as it was when written in 1988. To understand the violent rage that is piling up inside even the most peaceful Iraqi, to understand what can spur someone into the ultimate act of nihilism- suicide bombing, one needs to look no further than Kincaid's justifiable hate.
I think that just one short quote can better express the level of anger that I am trying to describe. Here's Kincaid talking about the collapse of the British Empire:
"...the English have become such a pitiful lot these days, with hardly any idea what to do with themselves now that they no longer have one quarter of the earth's human population bowing and scraping before them. They don't seem to know that this empire business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable can equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better. And so all this fuss over empire- what went wrong here, what went wrong there- always makes me quite crazy, for I can say to them what went wrong: they should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so you can imagine the destruction of people that came from that. The English hate each other and they hate England, and the reason they are so miserable now is that they have no place else to go and nobody else to feel better than."
The book is about Antigua, but one could ctrl+F the text and replace every "Antigua" with any other US holding (Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, etc.) and it would apply just as well. The cultural hegemony inflicted, even passively, by the haoles/gringos/yankees- the stripping of language, culture, history, of identity- is a universal activity and each instance can lead to explosions of rage which would then be used as an example to justify further repression. All of this is revealed in its most brutally ugly form in the incredibly short pages of this book. It wasn't what I expected when the K@ told me I should read it, but I am sure glad that I did.(less)
You know those books that you think you know even before you read them. Those books that seem to strike those happy chords in your heart and call out...moreYou know those books that you think you know even before you read them. Those books that seem to strike those happy chords in your heart and call out to be your bosom buddies based on nothing more than an impression of their cover? That's how Krishnapur and I were for those months it sat on my shelf before I got around to it. Yet when I recently got around to actually cracking the spine on this Booker winner, I found that I had no clue what I was in store for.
Rather than a brutal retelling of colonial history, of the harsh realities of life under the British yoke, this was more of a look at the psychology of imperialism- of the justifications that the Brits (and currently the Americans in Iraq) threw up in order to shield themselves from the guilt of their repression of the indigenous peoples. These excuses range from the glory of spreading Christianity among the dark heathens, to developing a better understanding of the pseudoscience of phrenology, to the bringing of rational science to a people who would rather sacrifice a goat than build their dikes higher and prevent flooding. That Ballard can compose such a story while avoiding having any actual native characters (aside from the faceless masses waiting to storm the building that forms the titular Siege) is a tribute to his skill as a writer. Better than anything, Ballard drives home just how banal this evil was and how unwittingly it was perpetrated upon their Indian subjects in the name of progress.
The time is the early 1860s, the setting is a fictional cantonment in a Hindustan still ruled by the East India Company. The Indian army is in revolt because the new bullets they were issued are greased in animal fat to allow for easier loading. The military can not understand why this is upsetting for their Hindi soldiers, because loading the weapons entails using ones teeth which is a violation of their vegetarian ways. So the sepoys (Indian soldiers) revolt and trap the Brits in the local government headquarters and begin a months-long siege.
Over the next several hundred pages, Farrell unravels the various foibles of these ladies and gentlemen, who have relied for so long on their servants for everything that they can't even fathom a reality where they must do their own work. Things swiftly devolve into a miasma that reminds me of nothing so much as Pride & Prejudice with Lord of the Flies (which is fitting, given the recent popularity of Austen adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Pride & Predator).
Farrell's style is long-winded and occasionally a bit too pedantic to allow me to give it that ever-elusive fifth star, but the stunningly complex characters that he weaves together into an increasingly chaotic rabble all, at one point or another, manage to get you invested in their continued survival. It's odd to see that, no matter how willfully blind they are to the native's complaints or how unconsciously racist these people are, I still care about whether they survive to return to England and feast upon the Queen's crumpets or whatever it is that Brits do in their spare time (I imagine that it has something to do with dog's bollocks).(less)