Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Geologists as heroes

Last year, after backpacking for days through the bright white granitic rock in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, my friends and I began descending to our point of departure near Bishop, California. As we made our way down Piute Canyon, we began to see outcrops of sedimentary rock, weathered bluffs so red they might have been out of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. This startling contrast got me wondering how that red rock got there.

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada Photo: T. Gething

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada
Photo: T. Gething

Annals of the Former World, John McPhee’s vast, extensively researched collection of five books about the geology of the continent, answered my question. In the fourth book of the series, Assembling California, he writes: “Soon we were dropping toward two thousand feet, among deeply weathered walls of phyllite, in color cherry and claret—the preserved soils of the subtropics when the unrisen mountains were a coastal plain. Geologists call it lateritic soil, in homage to the Latin word for brick. All around the Sierra, between two and three thousand feet of altitude, is a band of red soil, its color deepened by rainfall that leaches out competing colors and intensifies the iron oxide.”

The Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, the result of the Pacific Plate colliding and grinding against the North American Plate. The range began lifting some three million years ago like “a raised trapdoor,” according to McPhee, sloping gently to the west toward its hinge somewhere under California’s Central Valley and with “a plunging escarpment facing east.” It’s still rising.

18895344Written over a span of twenty years, between 1978 and 1998, McPhee’s Annals is a chronicle of geologic discovery. The book began as a series of New Yorker articles in which he set out to describe a geologic cross section of the continent by traveling along Interstate 80. In the process, McPhee not only ranged across thousands of miles but billions of years. His attention turned inevitably to the revolutionary theory of plate tectonics that was then shaking up the field. Imbedded in his subject like fossils layered in stone was the history of our growing understanding of the earth’s mechanics.

In the first book of the series, Basin and Range, McPhee crosses Nevada with Princeton University geologist Ken Deffeyes. Stopping at road cuts to inspect the exposed rock strata, Deffeyes explains the basic concepts of plate tectonics, which leads McPhee into the history of geology as a science and the pioneering observations of James Hutton. In Scotland, in 1785, Hutton shook up the established order by asserting that geologic evidence showed the world to be much, much older than the 4,000 years theologians, basing their claims on biblical scholarship, reckoned it was. The development of plate theory in the last half of the 20th century was just as unsettling, finding staunch proponents and skeptical opponents in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much still needs to be learned about the earth’s core, mantle and crust, the vulcanism of hot spots and the movement of continental plates, but plate tectonics are now accepted as the geologic engine of mountain formation, continental drift, the spreading and subduction of the ocean floor, and the shattering earthquakes that occur where plates meet.

Today, you can watch a fifty-minute National Geographic video on YouTube that explains, somewhat sensationally, the latest thinking on plate tectonics. But what McPhee managed to capture in his twenty-year project was the fascinating intellectual chase of the scientists who helped establish the theory. In Suspect Terrain, the second volume in the series, looks at anomalies in the Appalachians with Anita Harris, a skeptical petroleum geologist, as McPhee’s guide. In Rising from the Plains, David Love pieces together the puzzling results of mountain formation and the disappearance of ancient oceans in Wyoming as plates collided. In Assembling California, Eldrige Moore carries on where Ken Deffeyes left off, addressing the seismic activity that has shaped, and is still shaping, the West Coast. And finally, in Crossing the Craton, Randy Van Schmus helps unlock the secrets of the Canadian Shield, the Precambrian craton that runs beneath the Middle West and contains some of the oldest remaining rock in the world (3.8 billion years).

No one writes with more clarity and enthusiasm about arcane terrain than John McPhee. What could easily become dull or geeky in others’ hands is a lively and at times humorous account of numerous road trips with brilliant, eccentric geologists who dedicated their lives to their science. By shadowing the men and women who have been leaders in their respective fields, McPhee delivers insights on the powers of observation, trial and error, multi-dimensional problem-solving, perseverance and obsession, and the iconoclasm that breeds breakthroughs. Being a geologist apparently leads to ambivalence about things that appear solid if not permanent, conflicted attitudes regarding man’s impact on the environment, and a changed perspective on time.

There are moments in this book that truly highlight our insignificance in the scheme of things. Just as new telescopes have revealed the mind-boggling expansiveness of the universe, improved isotopic dating techniques have shown how old our planet is. Great mountain ranges have risen and crumbled and been overlaid by new mountains. Continents have amassed and split apart and amassed again. Oceans have widened and narrowed and disappeared. Mass extinctions have occurred numerous times and may well happen again. As McPhee so eloquently tells us, time functions on two very different scales, the human and the geologic:

“In like manner, geologists will sometimes use the calendar year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambrian runs from New Year’s Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds….Geologists live with the geologic scale. Individually, they may or may not be alarmed by the rate of exploitation of the things they discover, but, like the environmentalists, they use these repetitive analogies to place the human record in perspective—to see the Age of Reflection, the last few thousand years, as a bright sparkle at the end of time….

The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations—two ahead, two behind—with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time….Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their beings and affects them in various ways. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all of the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialized themselves to death.”

John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World shows geology as a heroic quest for knowledge and geologists as heroes who have rewarded us with a deeper understanding of the world and of mankind’s tenuous place in it.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Quotes, Reviews

Summer in the Sierra Nevada

IMG_3670

Photo credit: P. Lane

My hiking buddies and I recently completed our annual weeklong backpacking trip into the wilderness. This year we branched out from the beautiful Pacific Northwest and travelled down to the Sierra Nevada. None of us had hiked there before, and we’d heard great things about it. We selected a 60-mile loop that took us onto a section of the John Muir Trail, which stretches 210 miles between the Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney. Of course, I took my Kindle along, because after camp is set up, dinner eaten and the day’s ration of bourbon sipped, it’s still only 7 p.m. I wanted to read something tied to the place, and what could be more appropriate than John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.

Muir, the Scottish-born, Wisconsin-raised naturalist, conservationist, and founding president of the Sierra Club, first arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. As an excuse to wander far and wide, sketching and taking notes on the geology and botany of the mountains, he joined a group of sheep-herders moving their flock to the high-country pastures to graze. Muir annotated this trip in detail but didn’t actually publish the journal until 1911. By that time he was a celebrated man, the friend of the railroad baron Edward H. Harriman (who persuaded Muir to write about his life in the first place) and President Teddy Roosevelt (whom Muir persuaded to preserve the Yosemite Valley as a national park).

Greatly influenced by the transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir’s journal of that first summer is filled with wonder and awe at the pristine wilderness he found in the Sierra. This wonder, however, is tempered by his scientific training (he had studied the natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), a curious and observant mind, and a keen ability to describe what he saw. For the armchair traveller, his journal makes a splendid introduction to this spectacular high-country wilderness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Here are many fine meadows imbedded in the woods, gay with Lilium parvum and its companions; the elevation, about eight thousand feet, seems to be suited for it–saw specimens that were a foot or two higher than my head.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: T. Gething

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized they are mostly hidden. Sheer precipices three thousand feet high are fringed with tall trees growing close like grass on the brow of a lowland hill…. Waterfalls, five hundred to one or two thousand feet high, are so subordinated to the mighty cliffs over which they pour that they seem like wisps of smoke, gentle as floating clouds, though their voices fill the valley and make the rocks tremble.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The air is distinctly fragrant with balsam and resin and mint—every breath of it a gift we may well thank God for. Who could ever guess that so rough a wilderness should yet be so fine, so full of good things.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The surface of the ground, so dull and forbidding at first sight, besides being rich in plants, shines and sparkles with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspar, quartz, tourmaline. The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work…”

—John Muir

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Quotes

Austen, Balzac and the “dismal science”

I’m about halfway through a light summer read—French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which so far has been thoroughly accessible and engaging.

18736925Piketty’s surprise bestseller, which in 577 heavily footnoted pages analyzes centuries of data, is an important new assessment of economic growth, capital formation, wealth and income distribution. As you might expect from the title’s nod to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the book has been praised by liberals and attacked by conservatives, although it seems to me those who have nitpicked Piketty’s data are overlooking the forest for the trees.

As Piketty says numerous times in the book, even if you disagree with the exact percentages, the trends are difficult to refute. Over time, the distribution of wealth has followed a U-shaped curve. From the start of the Industrial Revolution to the eve of World War 1, wealth and income inequality remained at consistently high levels. Then, between 1913 and 1970, due to the century’s political, social and economic cataclysms, both values declined to their lowest levels. But since 1980 they have risen again, according to Piketty to levels approaching those at the end of the 19th century. Whether inequality is good, bad or inconsequential remains to be seen, but I suspect Piketty will spend the second half of the book arguing that it’s bad.

My appreciation of Piketty’s presentation has been enhanced by his use of literature to supplement his research, in particular Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot. There’s something reassuring about an economist who finds anecdotal evidence for his thesis in the humanities.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

The point Piketty makes is that Austen and Balzac demonstrated an acute awareness of money—especially the amounts of wealth and income needed to be a person of means—that readers of the time would not fail to understand implicitly.

“In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, money was everywhere,” Piketty writes, “not only as an abstract force but above all as a palpable, concrete magnitude. Writers frequently described the income and wealth of their characters in francs or pounds, not to overwhelm us with numbers but because these quantities established a character’s social status in the mind of the reader. Everyone knew what standard of living these numbers represented.”

Austen’s protagonists, for instance, fully understood the levels of wealth and kinds of income, whether from rents or investments (certainly not from labor among the upper class), their suitors possessed. Piketty asserts that modern-day writers, after a century of inflation and the consequential loss of our monetary bearings, cannot assume their readers share the same understanding of money. (I remember worrying about this when writing Under a False Flag; the 1972 dollar amounts of CIA covert actions in Chile seemed so paltry, I was afraid they would look ludicrous to the reader.)

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Piketty continues: “One could easily multiply examples by drawing on American, German and Italian novels, as well as the literature of all the other countries that experienced this long period of monetary stability. Until World War I, money had meaning, and novelists did not fail to exploit it, explore it, and turn it into a literary subject.”

Money does sometimes play an important role in modern novels, but in a way that probably strengthens Piketty’s argument. Think The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby’s wealth must be shown through the commodities consumed—shirts and cars and house size. And in more contemporary novels, money is often imbued with nebulous, shifting, post-modern meaning. Think JR by William Gaddis or Money by Martin Amis. Money becomes a concept, an illusion, that has little to do with defining social status and everything to do with gaming the system or the reader.

Piketty is not arguing for a return to the gold standard; he is simply making the point, in preparation for other more important points to come, that economic growth before World War 1 was slower, inflation was virtually non-existent, and investment income (the return on capital) grew faster than income from labor, thus enabling wealth and income inequality to remain high. It’s a situation he fears we are returning to, as most economic forecasts for developed nations indicate a slowdown in growth to rates approximating those of earlier centuries.

It’s complicated stuff, and there’s much more to it than I have touched on here. Piketty does a fine job explaining his thesis, building a persuasive argument in clear, logical steps, but perhaps what we need is a new Austen or Balzac to show us what this rise in wealth and income inequality really means to society. Or is one already out there? If you think so, please let me know. Meanwhile, I may go back to the originals with newfound appreciation.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Commentary, Reviews

Arguably, our great loss

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”

Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.

In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.

12618752Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)

Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).

In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyist of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.

Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.

Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.

7332753For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.

And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”

Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.

I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Quotes, Reviews

The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

After watching David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, I became fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. As a high-school kid I slogged through Lawrence’s expansive and detailed memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and followed up with some of his other writings, even his translation of the Odyssey.

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabi...

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab revolt forces in the Battle of Aqaba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose camera crew captured some of Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, was largely responsible for the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In sold-out post-war lectures, Thomas depicted Lawrence—in his flowing Bedouin robes—as a dashing figure, a chivalric knight waging a guerrilla war for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Turks.

The romantic legend appealed to a war-weary Britain. Lawrence’s own popular account, Revolt in the Desert, only fed the fever and became a bestseller. But the psychological price of his war exploits and celebrity soon caught up with him.

Lawrence became shy of publicity and sought escape in an ascetic’s life. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and entered the Royal Air Corps as a private, only to be publicly exposed. Forced to change his name again, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. He recounted this post-war military experience in his memoir, The Mint. When he died in 1935, aged 46, after crashing his motorcycle to avert two boys on bicycle, the Lawrence of Arabia legend became secure. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” Winston Churchill said. “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”

Sooner or later someone is bound to challenge such hyperbole; in Lawrence’s case it took about thirty more years. In 1969, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpson attempted to pry beneath the legend. Based on classified documents released by Britain’s Public Records Office in 1968 and on interviews with people who played roles in critical episodes of Lawrence’s life, the book proffered more questions than answers. As its sensational jacket copy states: “Archaeologist, author, savant, soldier, intimate of poets and kings, an intellectual who was also a man of action…or pathological liar, homosexual, Irish nobody, traitor, a Foreign Office lackey in fancy dress?” More documents, including many of Lawrence’s wartime dispatches, have since been declassified, and more research done on the war in Arabia and the disastrous 1919 peace conference in Paris that determined the region’s fate. Their addition has enabled journalist Scott Anderson to provide a balanced reassessment of Lawrence’s influence and accomplishments in his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Lawrence in Arabia

As the subtitle promises, the book’s scope is broader than a biography of the man. The Lawrence of Arabia legend (as if an Englishman, despite the robes, could ever be of Arabia) is recast in the context of the ambivalent role Lawrence played in what was essentially an imperial gambit. Anderson weaves the story of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt with those of an international cast of characters representing the many factions wrestling for a piece of this oil-rich land. Primary focus is on the rivalry of the European powers and the Zionist movement that mostly sprang from Europe and targeted a homeland in Palestine. Front and center are the political machinations of the British and French, in the guise of diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, whose secret agreement would seal the fates of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran—assuming the Triple Entente won the war and wrested these territories from the decaying Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

English: Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduce...

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduced from http://www.passia.org with permission.

Where did Lawrence stand on this land grab? At first he and the Cairo-based intelligence unit he worked for advocated a policy of Arab liberation under British tutelage. They wanted to nullify French claims on Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) by keeping the French out of the Arabian campaign. To this end, Lawrence’s superiors encouraged Emir Hussein of the Hashemite clan to revolt with the promise of an independent Arab nation that included Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence was sent to join the Arab guerrillas to ensure that British interests prevailed. But, according to Anderson, Lawrence’s growing wariness of the political machinations taking place in London and Paris to undermine their promise to the Arabs led him to secretly reveal to Emir Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal, the nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Was this treason or a shrewd manipulation to spur the Arab prince to press his campaign toward the capture of Damascus?

As Anderson makes clear, Britain was not the only nation, and Lawrence hardly the only emissary, in the region conniving for position. From Jerusalem, the German spymaster Curt Prüffer instigated Islamic jihad in British-ruled Egypt. Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn ran a spy network in Turkish-controlled Palestine to aid the British, whom he believed the best guarantors of a Jewish homeland, while his colleague and sometime adversary, Chiam Weizmann worked the corridors of power in London. Even the Standard Oil Company, through its representative William Yale, was negotiating oil rights with the Turks while providing oil to both sides of the conflict. Later, after America entered the war, Yale would keep the U.S. State Department abreast of British and French military and political maneuvers.

Anderson succeeds in showing how the duplicitous and cavalier decisions of crumbling empires at war brought about the muddle of the modern Middle East. Lawrence, who understood the religious and tribal complexities of the region, failed to win his case for an independent Arabia including Syria. After the capture of Damascus, which effectvely ended the Arabian campaign, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became public, Lawrence left the Middle East, never to return. Suffering from what Anderson describes as post-traumatic stress disorder, this brilliant, arrogant and ascetic warrior-scholar believed he had betrayed the Arabs he had fought beside. “Blast the Lawrence side of things,” Lawrence wrote in a letter using the alias T.E. Shaw. “He was a cad I’ve killed.” Anderson tells a compelling story that brings greater political and psychological insight to the Lawrence legend, but the enigma of the man endures.

8 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Two rivers, two views of empire

Two well-written histories about Europe’s scramble for Africa provide a fascinating study of how perspectives change with time.

Alan Moorehead was a renowned Australian journalist who began his career reporting on the Spanish Civil War and the North African campaign during the Second World War. After the war, he turned to narrative history and published one of his most highly acclaimed books, The White Nile, in 1960.

TheWhiteNileThe White Nile follows that great river’s course through the last half of the 19th Century, beginning with Richard Burton and John Speke’s 1856 expedition to find the source of the Nile and ending with Britain’s suppression of the Mahdist Revolt in the 1890s.

Tracing the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria is a story of heroic feats of endurance and hardship. In addition to Burton and Speke, it includes two names familiar to every child: the missionary Dr. Livingstone and the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. These men were soon followed by Samuel Baker who sought to tame the river for steamboats and General Gordon who sought to introduce the (British) rule of law to the Sudan. Barely a decade later, the Mahdi’s siege of Khartoum and Britain’s race to rescue General Gordon and then at Omdurman to avenge him involve two other famous Brits: a young Herbert Kitchener and an even younger Winston Churchill.

Moorehead is a gifted writer who presents a riveting, novel-like narrative replete with well-researched details about these colorful figures. His own travels up the Nile during the war and while researching the book provided a first-hand experience that shows in his fine descriptions of the land and his appreciation of the early adventurers’ accomplishments.

Moorehead wrote The White Nile as independence finally came to the “protectorates” Britain established in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. He isn’t an apologist for empire, but he still believes in the positive elements Britain brought with its governance. He describes the flourishing slave trade that Burton and Speke encountered (Arab traders had plundered East Africa for ivory and slaves for centuries, much as European traders did from West Africa). And he rightly asserts that Britain’s increasing influence through its missionaries and civil administrators helped put an end to that trade.

His book, however, remains largely one-sided. He acknowledges, for example, that Stanley used repeating rifles to massacre Bumbire warriors armed only with spears on the shore of Lake Victoria, yet he admires Stanley’s ingenuity to transport (on porters’ backs) a steel boat in sections to the lake. He makes plain that Stanley was not a humanitarian even by Victorian standards, yet he lauds his drive and efficiency.

What a difference in perspective forty years can make. The British Empire may never have been as abusive as the one American journalist Adam Hochschild describes in his 1999 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, but one suspects that if Moorehead were alive to write a history of the Nile today, it would require another dimension—that of the Africans who lived under British rule.

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone i...

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone in Ujiji, 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Figures like Stanley might come under greater scrutiny, too. The Scottish orphan, who changed his name in America and made his name by “finding” Livingstone, doesn’t get off as lightly in Hochschild’s book. As Moorehead tells, this tough-as-nails explorer was the first European to descend the Congo River (after definitively charting the source of the Nile). But, as Hochschild tells, he later returned to oversee the rapacious development of the Congo Free State at the behest of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

KingLeopoldsGhostKing Leopold’s Ghost recounts the harrowing story of the most egregious form of exploitative colonialism in the continent’s history. You already know something of this if you have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for it was King Leopold’s large-scale and deceitful pillaging of the Congo’s resources that both books describe. The horror indeed.

Disguised as philanthropic development to end slavery and bring Christianity to the Congo, the mercenary king created a kind of serfdom that might as well have been slavery. Through a brutal regime of European administrators who used terror and forced labor to extract ivory and rubber, Leopold made millions (billions in today’s dollars) in profit. The horror included hangings, beheadings, the severing of hands, and whippings that often killed. Women were held hostage, raped and traded as chattel. Children were starved and worked to death. And whenever any resistance occurred, retribution came in the form of destroyed villages and mass killings. Hochschild estimates that between 1885 and 1908, due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate, the population of the Congo River basin declined by half, from twenty million to ten million.

The story would be dismal if it were not for the brave missionaries and human rights organizers like Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, Alice Seeley Harris and Roger Casement, who risked their reputations, and some their lives, to bring these abuses to light. Hochschild also strives to weave into his story as many African voices from the era as he can, although there are many fewer than he would have liked. Most were silenced by death.

Moorehead wasn’t wrong to tell, in a gripping fashion, the  story of Britain’s role on the Nile, but as history it was incomplete. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King said. Hochschild’s important book lends credence to that claim.

18 Comments

Filed under Reviews

The trick of translation

In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a man spends his life laboring to write chapters of Don Quixote. The result is an exact duplicate of the original by Cervantes but for one difference: “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical,” the narrator explains, “but the second is almost infinitely richer.”*

Successful literary translation epitomizes the same paradox. Gabriel García Márquez, taking Julio Cortázar’s advice, waited three years for Gregory Rabassa to be available to translate Cien años de soledad into English. When Rabassa finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez purportedly pronounced the English version to be better than the original. (Was he being sincere or was he playfully echoing Borges’ paradox?)

RabassaRabassa is an award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese into English. In 2006 he wrote If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, a memoir that charted his serendipitous course from academic to translator of many of Latin America’s great modern writers: Cortázar, García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Jorge Amado…the list goes on.

Rabassa is rather sly about the process of translation, but he provides some intriguing clues as he describes the challenges he faced with specific works and authors. Successful translators, it appears, have a gift for conveying the genius of an original work while making subtle decisions regarding style and word choice in the “target” language. Think of the difficulties capturing colloquial dialogue, nicknames, puns, the rhythms of sentences, even the nuance of titles. Imagine, for example, if Rabassa had titled García Márquez’s masterpiece, A Century of Solitude.

Rabassa’s contemporary, Edith Grossman, who translated a much-praised version of Don Quixote, in 2010 published a book-length essay on their shared art, Why Translation Matters. Where Rabassa insinuates, she makes plain: The translator is an underpaid, underappreciated but critical agent in the exchange of cultural ideas. The Renaissance would not have spread across Europe without scholars translating works from Latin and Greek; the Enlightenment ideas that shaped modern democracy, the scientific method and the Industrial Revolution would not have transformed the world without the endeavors of translators.

Grossman sees works in translation continuing to influence writers today. For example, García Márquez’s discovery of William Faulkner and Franz Kafka in translation shaped his own works, which in turn influenced a generation of European and American writers’ experiments in magical realism.

GrossmanGrossman, who also teaches, relates a story that demonstrates the originality and importance of good translation. When her class was reading Autumn of the Patriarch, one student asked who they were reading, Rabassa or García Márquez. “Rabassa, of course,” she replied. “And García Márquez.”

Such is the conundrum: a great translation is, like Menard’s Quixote, the same yet different, at one with the original and yet another. The next time you read a good book in translation, consider the extraordinary transcendence you are experiencing thanks to the translator.

*Excerpted from J.L. Borges’ Collected Fictions (Penguin, 1998), translated by Andrew Hurley.

8 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Tlatelolco and Bolaño’s debt to Poniatowska

On October 2, 1968, just ten days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of some 10,000 students at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, in the heart of the city. At least forty-four people were killed (the actual number has never been determined) and hundreds wounded. Thousands were detained and over 1,200 arrested, some to be imprisoned for days and months without trial.

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Then as now, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas contained a 16th Century church and pre-Conquest ruins, surrounded by urban housing projects and government ministries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The massacre exposed the enormous rift between the government, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for forty years, and Mexico’s youth. The government, which was so anxious to portray Mexico under its leadership as an emerging industrial democracy, instead revealed to the world its own dark, corrupted soul.

La escritora Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska (Photo credit: Casa de América)

Journalist Elena Poniatowska understood the significance of the tragedy and quickly went to work collecting the testimony of people who were there. In her 1971 book, La Noche de Tlatelolco (in English retitled Massacre in Mexico), she weaves together hundreds of eye-witness accounts to create a tapestry of horror. (Government documents released in 2001 would corroborate much of what Poniatowska described: that army snipers on rooftops began shooting into the crowd on a pre-arranged signal. Worse, they showed complicity for the order to fire at the highest echelons of the government.)

The accounts of the massacre occupy the second part of her incredible book. The longer first section uses the same narrative technique to explore the origins of the student movement. Like a documentary filmmaker, Poniatowska interweaves individual narratives to create a larger, more complex and heart-rending collage. She records the distinctive voices and their amazing stories without editorializing. By letting the voices speak for themselves, she captures the movement’s optimism, idealism and naiveté, as well as the manipulations of some of its leaders and the consternation it created among the older generation.

This is oral history at its finest and most powerful, and I believe it had a direct influence on an aspiring young writer who would emerge as one of Latin America’s great modern novelists: Roberto Bolaño.

the-savage-detectives-roberto-bolanoIn The Savage Detectives, Bolaño uses the same techniques to produce a similar documentary effect. His young Mexican narrator of the novel’s first section, Juan García Madero, possesses all of the idealism and naiveté, even the postured ennui, of those young people from the 1968 student movement.

In the second section of the novel, like Poniatowska Bolaño creates a collage of interwoven narratives to tell the larger, sadder story of the dissolution of the “infra-realist” poetry movement and the disillusionment of its two leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. There is even a narrator in this section based on a legendary woman mentioned by Poniatowska who, during the student protests of ’68, remained on the university campus by hiding in a bathroom for weeks after the army evicted the students and shut it down. Bolaño takes that story and riffs on it in his own inimitable way, turning the woman into a poet whose voice adds more cumulative details about the demise of Lima and Belano.

The narrative arc of Poniatowska’s non-fiction and Bolaño’s fiction is the same. From ebullient, youthful optimism the reader travels across the emotional spectrum, while a compelling gravity draws each story to its inevitable outcome, culminating in violence, disbelief and dismay. Both books, one through meticulous reportage and the other through febrile imagination, brilliantly capture the history of a generation.

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

There is little new to tell about World War One. John Keegan, Hew Strachan and others have written comprehensive, well-researched histories of the conflict that resulted in 20 million casualties and set in motion the turbulent waves of nationalism that dominated the 20th Century. Barbara Tuchman wrote vividly about the diplomatic failures that resulted in the headlong rush to war. For firsthand accounts of the trenches, nothing compares to the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.

But in this finely written account Adam Hochschild achieves something new by contrasting key proponents of the British war machine with the pacifists who attempted to stop it. From the suffragette and worker movements came a few brave souls opposed to the purblind patriotism that swept the nation and encouraged millions of young men to march to their deaths. The object lesson of Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, the Pankhursts, and the 6000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight might be: individuals must stand firm in their convictions to change the world. But the parallel truth is more frightening: when a nation confronts a perceived threat to its existence, voices opposing it are muffled, propaganda overwhelms truth, and civil liberties go by the board–even in great democracies.

We like to think we would have confronted the politicians and generals whose arguments for persevering in a senseless war grew weaker and weaker with each disastrous campaign, but the more likely truth is that we too would have condemned the opponents as treasonous cowards and marched with the rest toward the great debacle.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews