Tuesday, 29 June 2010

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Truman Capote


Well, you won't be surprised to hear that this is not very much like the movie. I seem to recall the movie is some kind of half love story or something. Yes, well, the short story is not. In fact, it's quite a sad meditation on feelings of belonging and home. It's about this writer, whose upstairs neighbour, who he becomes friendly with, is a young woman who is sort of high class prostitute. She doesn't feel at home anywhere, and is looking for a place where she feels safe, like Tiffany's. It is sad, and kind of literary. Not so much like the movie.

There were other short stories in this book, which were enjoyable too, if slightly odd. One was about a Haitian child/teenage prostitute who falls in love and gets married. Honest to god, what is Truman Capote doing writing about this? Wasn't he like mega wealthy and as gay as possible? How did he hit upon this as a subject about which he knew something? Anyway, it was sort of weirdly romantic tale of child abuse. Now that's not something you get every day.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

This one won the Booker this year. It got quite famous as far as literary novels get famous. The sides of buses carried adverts for it saying 'Stop talking about it and start reading it' which I thought was quite funny. So anyway, I've read it. It's about an assistant of Cardinal Wolsey's, called Thomas Cromwell, who, after Wolsey's fall from grace, takes over as a helper to Henry VIII in his attempts to ditch Katherine for Anne Boleyn.

On the one hand, it was kind of a ye-olde-strong-on-the-plot historical novel; on the other, it was kind of literary. The plot part told how Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith's son who ran away to fight in wars on the continent. He got all tough and brilliant and spoke a ton of languages and got very close to the king. This was kind of fun front seat of history stuff, it was interesting how they loved to eat thin sliced apples in cinnamon, and how people dropped dead of various diseases left and right. I found it a bit dubious that everyone was supposed to be terrified of our hero, but then he was as written totally sympathetic. But the literary-ish stuff was lovely. Here's a good bit – mid historical drama, it's suddenly: “He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming.” It's also kind of a love letter to London, in the way she writes about it.

One thing I found very weird was that it's called WOLF HALL, right, but we never get to freaking Wolf Hall. It's mentioned, but it's not even important. Not even metaphorically. Not so far as I can tell. Maybe I'm missing something.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder


This one was a true story about a man called Paul Farmer who has had a lot of success in improving public health for the poor. It all began when he went to Haiti during college, and was appalled. Impressively, bit by bit, he managed to set up an extremely good public health system in a very poor area in Haiti. His work spread to other countries, and he's had a wide impact. Apparently the way in which TB was being treated globally was encouraging the development of MDR (multiple drug resistant TB) which is obviously very dangerous. The central problem in treating it was that the drugs were deemed too expensive, and managing patient lifestyles (food security, etc etc) too difficult. He managed to get the drugs made cheaper, and also entirely shift the paradigm for what was possible in monitoring patient lifestyles.

So all very impressive. He is really dedicated to the idea that you ought to work for the poor, because that's a good in itself, a clear area of moral clarity. He doesn't think you should work for money, or even for a feeling of personal efficacy (which was interesting, as I'd just been feeling jealous of just that aspect of his life!). In fact, he himself feels deeply guilty when not focused on working for the poor. I have often noticed that when Americans come to Africa they are amazed by the poverty. They can't believe it is possible, or should be allowed. They just think it shouldn't be possible, and is some kind of insult to the world. Which is maybe the right way to see it, but it's also a very first world, naïve view. But whatever. He still saved thousands and thousands of peoples lives. You can't argue with that.

Well maybe you can a little bit. It was an interesting book, but I had a couple of difficulties with it that made it a slightly uncomfortable read. For one thing, I'm not really sure I think that much money should be being spent on health. I'm not sure that there's any point in just keeping people alive, basically through donations, without creating jobs, environmental sustainability, political stability etc. You shouldn't just be pumping up population levels, because that will just make all the other problems worse, which will mean more issues for health, and thus more donations etc etc. So I'm not sure it's actually the right priority. I know it sounds really cold, but if I was running a government, I'd spend much more money on education than on health. I think education starts to feed back and fix problems on its own, in a way improving health just doesn't. Though then the books tells how one of Farmer's clinics was bombed by the Shining Path guerillas, because they thought that these small improvements of the poor's life just delayed the necessary revolution. I can't deny I do sort of see the logic. So that made me feel a bit Pol Pot.

Monday, 14 June 2010

THIS SEPTEMBER SUN by Bryony Rheam


I realised a couple of years ago that your average American and I were very different, in that a 30 year old American has seen versions of themselves and their lives in books, and in films and TV, thousands of times. In fact, they rarely see anything that isn't about some version of their life. Whereas, for a Zimbabwean, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen me or someone like me represented in the arts, or in media. In fact, as a Zimbabwean in the diaspora, I can't think when I've ever seen me. Until I read THIS SEPTEMBER SUN.

Ms Rheam was born in 1974, and thus this is, thankfully, not another how-we-survived-the-war white person story, because like me she doesn't really remember the war. This book is about life in Zimbabwe since Independence, and then about life in the diaspora - London to be exact - with a classic what-am-I-doing-with-my-life story line, that I am familiar with not from fiction but from the actual diasporic Zimbabweans I know.

Basically, the book tells the story of a young girl, Ellie, who is very close to her grandmother. She leaves Zimbabwe to got to university in the UK, and her gran dies. She comes back and gets involved in reading her gran's letters and diaries, and the second half of the book is largely flashbacks to her grandmother's early life, when she moved to Zim from the UK and had a tortured romance. It ends in the present, with the young woman getting married and moving from London to Mocambique.

The book is in general very well observed. At one point, for example, Ellie rejoices in sleeping in a Zimbabwean bed, noticing particularly how the sheets smell of sunlight, from being dried outdoors. Occasionally there did seem to be a little too much tolerance of the sentimental cliche; she closes one chapter by saying something along the lines of how she loved her daughter, but just didn't know how to show it. Oh dear.

I went to a talk with the author, who seemed a very nice woman. She said that she is struggling to get her book published outside Zim, and she thinks it is because no one wants personal stories, or romances, from Zim - they only want political tales, and the obviously topical. There was a Shona man there who lectures I think at a University in Zim, and he said he had never really read any white Zimbabwean literature before, and how he felt it ought to be on the syllabus, as minority work. It was very sweet, because he was explaining to us what he learnt from the book about the white community; that it's a very small one, and that people are constantly leaving it.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

GULAG ARCHIPELAGO (Contd)


This book has taken me months to read. This is not because it is boring, but because it is so sad it is hard to keep going. It is sad like real life is sad, because the sadness has no rhyme or reason or moral. If you didn't read my earlier post, GULAG ARCHIPELAGO tells the story of the death camps that existed in Stalinist Russia from the 1930s onwards, and is written by a man who survived them. Obviously, the state was not keeping good records of what was going on – indeed, they were trying to cover it up – and most free people did not know what the camps were like. Solzhenitsyn clearly strongly felt that all the people he met should not have died entirely unmourned and in vain, so he set to record as much of it as he could, based on the people he himself met, and those others met.

The cover has a quote from the Preface "For years I have with reluctant heart withheld from publication this already completed book: my obligations to those still living outweighed my obligation to the dead. But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately." It got seized because a woman he entrusted part of the manuscript to broke down after A HUNDRED AND TWENTY HOURS of interrogation without sleep, and revealed its location, and the poor woman was so distressed by the betrayal that she killed herself.

What's perhaps saddest about the book is the way in which he's clearly writing about events that are so current. He gives lots of tips about how to survive prison – like practical stuff about surviving the thirst when they feed you only very salty fish and a half mug of water a day, and about how you must give away anything of value right away, as a man who has something to lose is a man who fears, and that's lethal – really sort of awful grim advice – and it's clear he's doing this because many of the people reading will be going to prison themselves.

Guess how many people were in the Gulag at any time? Answers on a postcard. Oh, okay, I'll just tell you. SIX TO TWELVE MILLION. And this is not prison, this is death camps. Often, you'd spend a month in a transport, with a hundred people in a railcar meant for twenty, and corpses thrown out at every stop (this is when you get the fish and water and nothing else), and when you get to the end of the line in Siberia, there is nothing there. Nothing at all. You are just going to build the camp right there. But it's -30C, so you can't dig into the ground, you just lie under tarpaulins in thin clothes (the guards steal all your warm clothes) and are sent to work everyday. And all you get to eat is fish, and just flour, that you wash down with SNOW. So obviously, almost everybody dies.

The authorities know that the public are aware that there are a lot of arrests, but they want to keep the full scale secret, so when it comes time to transport prisoners – one example given is a thousand a day, from one medium size town – they move them all at night. The government fears there'd be an outcry if the public are able to grasp the full breadth of the arrests. They used to write 'Meat' or 'Bread' on the cars(of which there wasnt much of either) so people would even be encouraged by thinking there was food in the country. One of the saddest parts of the book is when he tells you all about how once when they were changing trains, he and the others were hidden between two cars, and they got to listen to music from a nearby bar, and hear people laughing, and how they were all so incredibly happy. He goes on and on about this, like it was a highlight, and it was only twenty minutes.

In one cell, before going to the death camp, there were a lot of scientists. The reason for this is lots of intelligensia got sent to death camps authomatically, because they were bourgeoisie traitors etc. But once the government got rid of all the scientists, they realised: fuck, we don't have any scientists. So they called them all back. Our man Solzhenitsyn only lived to tell the tale because on his prison card for occupation he wrote 'nuclear phyisist.' And their records were so bad, they believed him. Their records were so bad they often didn't know if you were supposed to serve 10 or 25 years, so they just kept you for 25 years on general prinicples. I mean obviously only if you actually managed to live that long. Anyway, so in this cell, they used to have 'Cell 72 Scientific Society' that met every day after morning bread ration by the left window. Can you imagine?

Just the only last thing that really killed me, is that lots of people in the cells were WWII veterans. Can you imagine making it through the war to end up in a death camp? Our author was one. And he tells such grim stories about the war – how once he saw a Russian whipping a German who he had roped up to his carriage, like a horse. And he tells us how he did nothing about it. Solzhenitsyn feels that prison purifies, which is interesting. Lots and lots of people went insane, but if you don't, he says you are purified. When he gets out, he honestly can't grasp where other peoples' problems are coming from. He says 'What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I'll spell it out for you right now. Do no pursue what is illusory – property and position: all that is gained at the expesne of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If you back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see,and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all.' And I try and hear him, because you get the very clear idea that he's walked a long hard road to get somewhere.