Reviews of Books, Films and More
Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ Grogan
by Edward Paice
HarperCollins, London, 2002. (Paperback, 470 pp)
There is something rather unsettling about a book that relates so much of East Africa’s colonial history with so little mention of the ‘natives,’ who appear in these pages only as nameless and voiceless porters, servants or labourers. This is, to be fair, not a history but a biography: of Ewart Grogan (1874–1967), a British imperial adventurer and entrepreneur whose impact on Kenya was almost as formative as the impact of his hero and early mentor, Cecil Rhodes, on what is now Zimbabwe. (Kenya, however, at least avoided the indignity of ever being called ‘Grogania.’) It is, arguably, also apt that the natives should appear here as anonymous and generally passive, a mere accessory to the story of empire: for that, it seems, is how Grogan saw them. He was, on Paice’s account, a prodigiously energetic, stubborn, and in many ways visionary man. The visions, however, all turned on the economic potential of a ‘virgin’ land. What unsettles 21st century sensibilities is that seeing a place as ‘virgin’ entails—much as in the earlier colonisation of the Americas—seeing its existing human population as largely beside the point.
“El Hombre que Amaba a los Perros” (“The Man Who Loved Dogs”)
by Leonardo Padura (2011, Tusquets Editoriales, Barcelona; 765 pp)
There are three main dog lovers in this well-crafted reconstruction of the exile and death of Leon Trotsky: Trotsky himself; Ramon Mercader, the Catalonian communist recruited by Moscow to assassinate him, and Ivan, a young Cuban whose literary ambitions have been reduced to sub-editing on a veterinary magazine when, in 1977, he meets the dying Mercader on a beach outside Havana and eventually becomes the reluctant narrator of the assassin’s tale. The narrative manages to generate suspense despite our knowing in advance the sticky end that awaits Trotsky. Equal skill and scrupulous research are brought to the wider, historical canvas, which features ‘live’ excerpts from the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow show trials as well as snapshots of Kruschev-era Russia and the mass exodus of Cuban citizens from that island in the mid 1990s.
“The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull (1973, Pan, London; 253 pp)
In Uganda’s far northeast, bordering Southern Sudan and Kenya, the Kidepo National Park offers visitors a rare experience of African wildlife undisturbed by people. Road access is still difficult, but upmarket tourists can charter a light aircraft to fly in to a luxury tented camp where the abundance of game is matched by the abundance of culinary comforts. People who have made the trip say it is unforgettable. Now largely forgotten, however, is the human cost of creating this safari wonderland.
“Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” by Jeremy Scahill, (Serpent’s Tail, 2007, 550 pp); “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” by John Lanchester (Penguin, 2010, 239 pp)
Here is an interesting contrast in efforts at persuasion.
“Blackwater” is a worthy, liberal critique of one of the creepiest facets of our age: the outsourcing of state violence to “security companies” and “defence contractors”—correctly outed in the subtitle as “mercenaries.” This topic deserves serious and widespread attention but, alas, this book has little chance of persuading anyone not already convinced of Blackwater’s intrinsic creepiness. It is unlikely even to add significantly to the armoury of facts and arguments at the disposal of those already so persuaded, because it is such a tiresome read. I could not get past Chapter Two (a disquisition on the family, early life and character of the company’s founder and proprietor, Erik Prince).
An abridged version of this review essay, also discussing Paul Collier’s new book The Plundered Planet, appears on the Nation Media Group (Kenya)’s Africa Review website.
‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
by Deborah Brautigam, OUP (2009), 397 pp
Part of the Western world’s emotional response to China’s ‘rise’ has been a general alarm lest the Yellow Peril swarm across Africa in search of loot. It is as if there were a kind of Monroe Doctrine etched upon Western European and American hearts and minds: Africa is the proper sphere of influence of the white-majority Powers, ours alone to lecture, structurally adjust and bless with charity. No sooner does a Chinaman appear upon the savannah (actually, they’ve been around for decades, but few Westerners noticed them before) than we conclude that his ‘insatiable appetite for resources’ has brought him to strip-mine the continent, encouraging dictatorship, rampant corruption and exploitation along the way. Despite its unpromising title—how much longer must we endure Dragon, Tiger and Great Wall clichés?—Deborah Brautigam’s book is a useful antidote to such hysteria, correcting not just inherent bias but gross factual errors circulated by a string of prestigious media houses, international financial institutions, private think tanks and NGOs.
‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’
by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books 2008, 376 pp
Richard Dowden has been in and out of Africa for nearly 40 years as, variously, a primary school English teacher, journalist (Times, Independent, Economist, Channel 4) and, latterly, Director of the UK’s Royal Africa Society. He clearly knows and cares a great deal about the continent, and this raises expectations of a work that boldly borrows Africa’s name for its main title. But what we get here is a kind of scrapbook: a blend of personal memoir (“Africa is different,” a chapter about teaching in Uganda in the early 1970s, is one of the most engaging), potted modern history and selective reportage on twelve individual countries, with rather little connecting thread or effort at synthesis. We end up clear about the author’s emotional commitment, his desire to see Africa prosper, his belief in its potential. We hear his opinions, often barbed, on numerous people, issues, places. Yet somehow this doesn’t add up to the coherent whole that the title seemed to promise.
‘The Case for God: What Religion Really Means’
by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head 2009, 376 pp
Visiting the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence half a dozen years ago my daughter, whose eight years of life had been spent in China, asked her mother who the guy hanging on the cross was. To the brief explanation that followed Tian Tian reacted with the genuine shock of one from whose eyes the scales have fallen, revealing the banality of the world: “God was a man!!!???” We took this at the time as intuitive, pre-teen feminism (Why not a woman, an Earth Mother figure?) Recently recalling the event, Tian Tian clarified that, on the contrary, her remark was ungendered: what boggled her mind was the thought that God could begin to resemble, let alone be, anything so idiotic as a human being. Before she could read more than a handful of English sentences, she had grasped an essential thread of Karen Armstrong’s theology; and, as we shall see, that almost certainly had much to do with growing up in China—and not just because of the relative dearth of Christian icons there.
‘The Boys Are Back’ (Dir: Scott Hicks; Screnplay: Simon Carr, Allan Cubbit; Screen Australia, November 2009)
Twenty years ago Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction (1987) offered a reminder of Eve’s role in the destruction of earthly paradise. Women, it warned us, prey on the natural innocence of men and if you don’t watch out they will bust your balls and boil your kid’s pet rabbit alive. Widely acclaimed as ‘slick’ and ‘classy’, this was the 1980s’ clearest cinematic expression of heterosexual male fear and resentment of the object of desire.
The Boys Are Back is a more thoughtful and provocative piece by far—a study in male virtue not only overcoming emotional adversity but finding fulfilment beyond the civilizing grip of petticoats. Thrown in for good measure is the more predictable sub-theme that Australia is a less suffocating place than stuffy old England.
I come a decade late to the American political drama-soap, The West Wing, and regret taking so long to catch a show that is as captivating as Star Trek, which had me glued to the TV set 40 years ago.
The star ship Enterprise spent the Cold War zipping about the universe fighting evil, but it was not that which made it compelling so much as the informal camaraderie of its egalitarian and inclusive crew—a Russian, a Japanese, a Scotsman, a black woman with long legs, and a cute alien with pointy ears—all, of course, under American captaincy. It offered a brilliant, if distinctly narcissistic, vision of what American world leadership would be like. The BBC’s best home-grown rival offering at the time was Doctor Who—still going strong—about an old bloke who travels round the universe with a young woman assistant in a 1960s police box. It was a post-imperial eccentricity that would not sell well beyond Dover.
West Wing, I now see, boldly went where TV seldom went before: into a universe where audiences are presumed to include intelligent life.