Saturday, March 30, 2013

233. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (FP: 1869) translated by Anthongy Briggs (Penguin, 2005; 1392) is divided into four volumes and an epilogue and other extras. The reviews were carried out in the volumes and this is to consolidate for easy reference.

Volume I: This 313-page volume introduces the reader to the Bolkonskys - Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky, the father; Prince Andrey, the son married to little princess Liza, and Princess Marya, the daughter; the Rostovs - Natasha, the daughter; Nikolay, the son; Petya, the younger son, Vera, the eldest daughter; the Kuragins - the scheming Prince Vasily Kuragin who, unable to outwit Pierre (later Count Bezukhov of his inheritance), married his daughter, Helene, to him and was about to marry his son, the troublesome Anatole to Princess Marya because of Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky's riches but he failed. There was also the scheming Anna Mikhaylovna and his son Boris. (continue here)

Volume II: In this part, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky comes home the day his wife delivers and dies. This took the Prince into a period of gloom only to fall in love with Natasha Rostov and get his heart broken after she falls in love with the careless Anatole Kuragin. Pierre (Count Bezukhov) hears stories about his cheating wife, Helene, with his friend Dolokhov and challenges him to a duel of which both survives but Dolokhov left with a bullet wound. Pierre could be said to be the most frustrated person in the novel. He is seeking the meaning of life but finds that even for those who claim they have found the way, their lives is antithetical to what they preach and unable to reconcile how this could be, Pierre reverts to his earlier life of heavy drinking and gloom. This is after he has been introduced to Freemason and found its teachings lacking in the lives of its adherents. However, Pierre who comes back to live with his wife again after the separation that resulted after the duel, cannot resolve the meaning of his feelings for Natasha and knowing that his Prince Andrey is engaged to her, he left Moscow to Petersburg. (Continue here)

Volume III: Volume III begins with a critical analyses of the human condition and human nature and man's place and role in world events and history and the misconception and false attributions that is fraught in our analyses of causes. Tolstoy's essay discusses predestination, man's role in humanity's history and the belief that man has control over historical events. Tolstoy agrees with (or Nassim Taleb rather agrees with Tolstoy) on man's epistemic arrogance regarding man's quest to understand events. He argued that man, with the benefit of hindsight, pretends to understand historical events when in fact he understands nothing and only isolates some actions as having caused such events because he can now, post-facto, look back and select any of the numerous causes and claim boldly that what he has identified is (or are) the real (true, actual) cause(s) of the event, when in actual fact what he has found played no role or played a very minute role in a series of sequential actions that culminated into that event. This was the third characteristic of a Black Swan event as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (continue here)

Volume IV (and Epilogue): Volume IV begins with a life in Petersburg after the abandonment of Moscow. It also shows how the Russians struggled to uplift themselves from the clutches of French culture and its recherche lifestyle. It should be noted that this is a period where the speaking of French is seen as the ultimate achievement of Russian gentry. However, this invasion blossomed in their hearts a sense of belonging and a sense of patriotism that traverse all aspects of life, including language.

Life in Petersburg initially seemed to be unaffected and untouched by the invasion of Moscow; the aristocrats still held their parties, loose talks still flew around, and all thoughts of war and death were suppressed. However, as the news of Moscow's abandonment gradually filtered to the people, a general despondency overcame the people.

In Moscow, Pierre who had been arrested and accused of arson, for helping a woman who was being robbed by a French soldier, and has refused, initially, to declare who he was escaped execution by providence; but he couldn't escape witnessing the death of several others. Pierre was taken as a prisoner and was later rescued by the guerrilla unit of Denisov and Dolokhov, a mission that led to the death of Piotyr Rostov, the youngest Rostov who, following the footsteps of his brother, Nikolay, had enlisted himself and set out to defend the fatherland and had at that moment enthusiastically galloped into death when he allowed his youthful exuberance to override Denisov's military advice. (continue here)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Volume IV: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Volume IV (1035 - 1256) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (FP: 1896) and translated by Anthony Briggs (Penguin, 2005; 1392) begins with a life in Petersburg after the abandonment of Moscow. It also shows how the Russians struggled to uplift themselves from the clutches of French culture and its recherche lifestyle. It should be noted that this is a period where the speaking of French is seen as the ultimate achievement of Russian gentry. However, this invasion blossomed in their hearts a sense of belonging and a sense of patriotism that traverse all aspects of life, including language.

Life in Petersburg initially seemed to be unaffected and untouched by the invasion of Moscow; the aristocrats still held their parties, loose talks still flew around, and all thoughts of war and death were suppressed. However, as the news of Moscow's abandonment gradually filtered to the people, a general despondency overcame the people.

In Moscow, Pierre who had been arrested and accused of arson, for helping a woman who was being robbed by a French soldier, and has refused, initially, to declare who he was escaped execution by providence; but he couldn't escape witnessing the death of several others. Pierre was taken as a prisoner and was later rescued by the guerrilla unit of Denisov and Dolokhov, a mission that led to the death of Piotyr Rostov, the youngest Rostov who, following the footsteps of his brother, Nikolay, had enlisted himself and set out to defend the fatherland and had at that moment enthusiastically galloped into death when he allowed his youthful exuberance to override Denisov's military advice.

But Dolokhov's role in Petya's death, and his whole behaviour in the affairs of men, is vile, to say the least.  He's not much different from Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. He is evil in a coy way. His treatment of Nikolay Rostov, gambling him out of several thousands of roubles and enforcing payment, after Sonya (in love with Nikolay) had rejected his proposal and after Rostov himself had taken him home and nursed him out of his duelling wounds. Dolokhov played to the fancy and exuberance of young and totally befuddled Petya, taking him on dangerous spy mission and finally taking him to the frontier where there was likely to be heavy artillery, leading to his death.

Pierre (Count Bezukhov) having being released from the French would fall sick but upon recovery will be told all the events that had taken place in his absence, including the death of Helene, his (ex)wife, the death of his close friend Prince Andrey, and the defeat of the French, who were at that moment retreating and escaping from Russian guerrilla assault. His release, his recovery, his near death experiences and his (near) witnessing of deaths of those close to him, such as Platon Karatayev, and the miserableness of life triggered the enlightenment Pierre had been searching for. He suddenly discovered that man was made for happiness and happiness lies in man and that there is no situation where a man can be happy and perfectly free neither is there a situation where he should be unhappy and not free (page 1179); he discovered that the infinite, the eternal, the great are in everything around him and he need not search faraway as he had been doing; that even in those places where he sought for happiness the 'workaday trivialities' he detested could still be found; he found his answer to his question in the eternal presence of God. After Pierre's discovery - this enlightenment - that happiness is not in the faraway places, dealing with people and his workers became easy. 

Nikolay Rostov will save Princess Marya and this would be the beginning of a salvation that would take his family from financial ruin. This meeting, though purely by happenstance, will lead Nikolay to think of Sonya and his relationship with her. A series of events would lead Sonya to break up their engagement. For Nikolay unlike Countess Rostov, it was not a matter of Marya's wealth. But it will take a long time, the Countess's insistence, the Count's (Count Rostov) death, and a huge dose of humility and discipline for the two to meet again after Nikolay, upon the death of his father, slid into poverty when he inherited his father's debt which far outweighed the properties he bequeathed.

In Volume, Tolstoy continued to provide further explanation for is multiple-causes hypothesis. He strongly wrote against the belief that events triggered by unique single causes. He states that several coincidences working together cause an event and no single person can decide an action or fate. As an example, he explained that the Russian manoeuvre and its results were not caused by Kutuzov alone.

He also explored, elaborately, the inaccuracies and illogicality in the thesis historians posits for the war in the practice of their profession in general. He addresses them and sought to provide alternative interpretation of events, giving different but broader reasons for certain historical incidences. For instance, he says that historians having described Napoleon as great attribute every decision, action or inaction of his as good, great or genius including his desertion of his troops (a major military faux pas), which historians describe as being the work of a master tactician.

Tolstoy's essay is argumentative, complex, and compelling. For instance he writes, and this permeates throughout the novel especially when he is using analogies to explain his point or when using such detailed descriptions as a preamble to the emotions and behaviour of his characters,
When a man sees an animal dying he is seized with horror. What he himself consists of, his own substance, is being visibly destroyed, ceasing to exist before his very eyes. But when the dying creature is a man, and a man deeply loved, there is more to it than the horror experienced at the extinction of life: it feels like a laceration, a spiritual wound, which, like a physical wound, may heal up or may prove fatal, but it always hurts and shrinks away from any abrasive external contact. [1196]
This is not a consequence of translation (which sometimes even water-down the beauty of the prose). It is Tolstoy's writing style, keen observation, and intellect that is at work here.

In debunking historians preferred analytical methodology of single-cause single-person heroism, Tolstoy compares Napoleon to Kutuzov; he listed the great things Kutuzov did, including no less saving of Russia, but was still referred to as a 'scheming courtier' afraid of Napoleon because he would not allow the Russian army to totally annihilate the French army and arrest of Napoleon. Kutuzov, having observed events and relying on his abundant experience considered the spending more men to achieve an end they were achieving with minimal loss pointless and unnecessary. The Russian army had at the time lost about half of its strength just chasing a retreating and defeated French army and Kutuzov saw no reason why a spent and exhausted army should be further burdened with a war which they are not sure to win, should it ensued, and which would increase the losses on the Russian side. Yet, Napoleon, the man who left his troops in the lurch, the man who went off to kill people in Africa when it was not necessary, is rather given the accolades of great man and genius.

Thus, an uncelebrated, frequently chastised Kutuzov left the army when he realised that his powers had waned; especially the Tsar said he was displeased by the slow progress of events (meaning not annihilating the French and arresting Napoleon) and was therefore coming to the war front himself; because Kutuzov was unwilling to cut-off the French, thus allowing them to escape. Kutuzov saw the aim of the war on the French as the salvation of Russia and nothing beyond that; when the Tsar (Alexander I), upon arrival at the war front, talked about the saving of Europe, after Russia has already been saved (thus taking the war abroad), Kutuzov realised that his end has come and there was nothing left for him to do. He therefore resigned into civilian life.

The effects of the war were felt in the Volume IV. It showed man's willingness to fight back from devastation. However, there was nowhere where the effects of the war were felt more than on the lives of Natasha and Marya; Natasha losing an ex-fiancé, a brother and later a father; and Marya losing a brother and a father. Even Countess Rostov, who didn't care much when Prince Andrey died, perhaps because of the pecuniary benefit that might come the family's way should Marya marries Nikolay, was totally devastated when her son, Petya died. But even these individuals grew out of their sorrows and sombreness, with time.

Epilogue (1257 - 1358)
The Epilogue is in two parts: first it tells of the lives of some of the novel's major characters after a lapse of seven years: Nikolay married Marya; Pierre married Natasha; both had children and there was some sort of stabilisation and back to normalcy of family life and the nation's life.

However, the chunk of the epilogue brings together, somewhat repetitively, most of the arguments Tolstoy had been making in his essays, expanded on others to include new threads. In his essays, he discussed the concept of power, what makes people (the masses) behave in a certain way - what are the causes of events? Tolstoy says that there are several commands but those that meet the right circumstances and are likely to coincide with an event are interpreted as the cause of that event whereas the numerous orders and commands not obeyed or carried-out are forgotten. This is a truncated sort of data where only observations meeting a certain criteria (those that meet events) are observed and therefore could lead to bias in judgement, if the observer (historian) does not bear this in mind.

He also discussed free will as against the laws of necessity and the relationship between them and how they affect judgement. On the existence of free will, he writes
If every man enjoyed free will - in other words, if every man could do what he wanted - the whole history would be a tissue of sporadic accidents. [1342]
He stated that certain factors determine what we ascribe to an action - free will or necessity. And this includes the relationship between the man committing the act and the external world; his relationship to time; and the relationship between him and the causes which led to the act. For instance, he says that if a man commits murder and has gone on to live calmly and innocently in society for over twenty years, his action would more likely be described as a necessity. Alternatively, if he was arrested immediately, he would have been judged to have committed the crime from his own free will. Thus, expanding the inter-temporal space (& in the examination of historical events) shows that man is ruled more by necessity (or laws) than by his free will. He says that free will is the unexplained part of actions (perhaps like the errors which capture other unexplained factors in any regression model). Tolstoy argues that there is an inverse relationship between free will and law of necessity
[I]f we consider the situation of a man with maximum known association with the external world, a maximum time-lapse between his action and any judgement of it and maximum access to the causes behind his action, we get an impression of maximum necessity and minimum free will. Whereas if we consider a man with minimal dependence on external circumstances, whose action has been committed at the nearest possible moment to the present, and for reasons beyond our ken, then we get an impression of minimal necessity and maximum freedom of action. [1351]
In all these, Tolstoy was arguing for an appropriate methodology (or so it seems) for the study of history, historical events, and historical personages. He was looking for a scientific approach that is robust and precise and not subject to the writer's whims and hubris, his epistemic limitation and opacity.

Conclusion
War and Peace is a tome of Russian life at that period in time, Russian culture, history and the newfangled ideas (in mathematics, mechanics (physics)) that were coming up then. It shows how a country began to look inward to itself rather than external. A cultural revolution? Perhaps. Tolstoy showed the life of a country and the lives of the people in the country and how the war changed both lives. His essays were compelling but repetitive. His analogies, symbols, metaphors, were deep and excellent. His introduction to every chapter is beautiful. War and Peace is lived not read; it is experienced, and the reader will come out differently, with new thoughts and challenging questions.

Its weakness could perhaps be attributed to the writer's passionate, and eagerness to expose the faults fraught with textbook histories provided by historians and their methodological approach to historical analyses, which led to repetitions. But each repeated idea came with a new analogy to further expound what had previously been said. 

Though the characters were numerous (some say over hundred), and there were several real historical figures, it was never confusing for some families kept appearing; they carried the novel. Others like Boris Drubetskoy and her mother Anna suddenly tapered off, without a mention almost throughout the fourth volume; their role having ended. Regardless, of the number of characters, Tolstoy showed that he understood them. Sometimes one's facial expression, his demeanour, is enough to leave a huge impression on the reader; an example being that young French soldier who was forced to execute those accused of arson in Moscow and the other who was given the duty of killing Platon Karatayev, when his weakness prevented him from further travel.

If you will read only one Russian novel, read War and Peace.
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Volume I, II, & III

Monday, March 25, 2013

Volume III: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Volume III (665 - 1034) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin, 2005 (1392); FP: 1869) translated by Anthony Briggs begins with a critical analyses of the human condition and human nature and man's place and role in world events and history and the misconception and false attributions that is fraught in our analyses of causes. Tolstoy's essay discusses predestination, man's role in humanity's history and the belief that man has control over historical events. Tolstoy agrees with (or Nassim Taleb rather agrees with Tolstoy) on man's epistemic arrogance regarding man's quest to understand events. He argued that man, with the benefit of hindsight, pretends to understand historical events when in fact he understands nothing and only isolates some actions as having caused such events because he can now, post-facto, look back and select any of the numerous causes and claim boldly that what he has identified is (or are) the real (true, actual) cause(s) of the event, when in actual fact what he has found played no role or played a very minute role in a series of sequential actions that culminated into that event. This was the third characteristic of a Black Swan event as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

For instance, Tolstoy says it is wholly untrue and a characteristic of hindsight  (or what Nassim refers to as Epistemic Opacity or Arrogance or The Triplet of Opacity) and a result of flawed methodological approach employed by historians when they undertake the analysis of events in discrete units that the Russian Generals knew exactly what they were doing when they retreated towards Moscow and when they later abandoned it. According to Tolstoy, every man plays a tiny part in any great event and that those who are usually deemed great men to whom great events are attributed to are nothing more than pawns or tools history uses to write itself. He describes how events are predetermined and how it is impossible to influence or change the course of an action. He writes of Napoleon:
Every action they perform, which they take to be self-determined and independent, is in historical sense quite the opposite; it is interconnected with the whole course of history, and predetermined from eternity. [671]
It is this interconnectivity of smaller actions across several millions of years and of people, that determines what happens on any given day. Thus, according to Tolstoy there was not one single event that could be fingered as being the cause of the 1812/13 war between Russia and France and that the Russian victory at Borodino and their subsequent retreat beyond Moscow, the withdrawal of the French from Moscow and the fear that gripped them as they also retreated to Smolensk (in Vol. IV), and the sudden boldness of the Russian army and the guerrilla tactics they wreaked upon the French army are not necessarily fortuitous but rather have no specific cause. Any attempt by historians to find causes for these would be an exercise in futility. To back his thesis Tolstoy asks what would have happened if the people had refused to fight when Napoleon asked them to? He argues that the war feeling in the French army had reached such a fever-pitch that if Napoleon had said anything different from declaring war on the Russians, he might himself have been charged upon. He says that several incidences came together at the right time and burst into uncontrollable exudation of energy. He refers to this as a kind of 'law of coincidences'.

He compared this phenomenon with history; where historians break events up into discrete units for analysis though no event can have a unique beginning since all events are continuous and results from other actions coming before it. He used this in explaining how wrong it is to use a tiny part of the whole to explain the results of the whole; for instance, how Napoleon's life is used to explain the revolution instead of the total sum of every individual's will. For instance, Tolstoy says that it is wrong to ascribe the defeat of the French to Napoleon catching cold, as historians do; according to him, the defeat of the French was long settled. He says that great events are caused by a series of events working together and not by the will of of an individual. Assuming that the defeat to Napoleon's army at Borodino was because he contracted cold and therefore couldn't get his orders carried out, then it is also because his valet didn't get him his boots on time leading to him getting cold etc. but this is not so. Again, he questions why an army that has captured a city will not preserve its provisions but will loot its treasures or why the French did not push towards Petersburg when it has the military strength for it.

Tolstoy also explains that sometimes it isn't those who are deemed great who played the most important role in great events just as a part of a machine that unhinges itself and make loud clanging noise is not necessarily the most important part of that machine. He blamed historians for seeking out causes and for identifying 'great men' or 'heroes'. He discusses the fallacy of human deductions, which in search of solutions break down continuous motions into discrete units for analyses and end up misunderstanding events. He makes his explanation using the tortoise and Achilles as a case in point and also blames the lack of appropriate methodology for such pedantic hubris. In discussing this Tolstoy mentioned a new branch of mathematics, possibly calculus, which unknown to the ancient now
allows for infinitely small quantities and by doing so creates the basic conditions of motion... [911]
It is this suddenness with which Tolstoy's story evolves into a discursive essay that makes this book an important treatise - a treasure tome - of life in Russia in the 19th Century. His subject matter are wide-ranging as seen in his varied analogies which ranges from the fields of mechanics to mathematics to Opera and Cinemas.

Another theme that runs through the 3rd Volume is the trinity concept of  love, forgiveness, and death; or more specifically, love, forgiveness at the point of death. As the French approached Moscow, the Russian aristocrats, unwilling to surrender their recherche lifestyle, migrated to Petersburg and other areas leaving behind the peasants and serfs. This is a period where the French cultural influence on Russian life was very palpable. In fact even as as Russia was going to war with France, there were those glitterati high-society people who still revered France (example are those who patronised Countess Bezukhov's salon); though this was counterbalanced by the personages who patronised Anna Pavlovna's salon. Regardless, the general mood of the people was one of hatred towards the French to the extent that the to be caught speaking French, which was common, is to be suspiciously looked upon as a (potential) spy.

However, not all Muscovites could separate their umbilical cords from their homes and Old Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky is one such person. He suffered his first stroke when he moved from Bald Hills to Prince Andrey's house at Bogucharovo but did not survive the second attack. However, what is more significant here is not the Old Prince's love for his home and the fatherland and his anger over its possible desecration by the French. The significance of his death is in his declaration of his confused and withheld love and appreciation towards Princess Marya, his daughter, to whom he had always been unduly harsh. On his deathbed, the Old Prince asked for forgiveness and blurted out his filial love for his daughter, which for some reason was expressed only in vitriolic vituperation.

But the Old Prince was not the only one who saw the importance of love at the point of death and the uselessness of a life fraught with hatred. He was not the only one whose understanding of life blossomed exponentially at the point of death. His son, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, also did. After he was hit by a bullet in the stomach that would prove fatal, Prince Andrey was sent to an infirmary where he met Anatole Kuragin whose leg had at the time been amputated; this being their first meeting after Anatole's deception of the former's fiance, Natasha Rostov. Prince Andrey's emotional reaction towards Anatole was one of love and forgiveness. And when he - Andrey - later found himself in the presence of Natasha, a woman who rejected his proposal, he would ask for forgiveness and declare his love for her. Natasha would be by his bedside, tending and turning him and treating his wound day and night. 

Similarly, Dholokov meeting Pierre for the first time after the duel that resulted when he was accused of having had an affair with Helene (Countess Bezukhov, Pierre's wife) asked for forgiveness, with teary eyes, for any misunderstanding that might had occurred between them in the past. Thus, on the battlefield and on the deathbed each realise how fickle life is and how meaningless the things we fight for or against are when death will neutralise everything, like anti-matter. In the face of death, love prevailed over hatred.

However, unlike the others who saw life's futility when they were near death, Helene (or Countess Bezukhov - Pierre's wife) excluded everybody from her deathbed. Prior to that she continued to lead her high-society life, dissolved her marriage to Pierre after joining a church and married two different individuals at the same time. Instead of this polyandrous behaviour causing societal isolation, Countess Bezukhov was admired for her boldness, panache, and intelligence. Pierre on the other hand was blamed and lambasted as continued his search for life's meaning and for the ingredients of happiness. He had also not resolved his feeling for Natasha Rostov but have identified that his destiny and Napoleon's are interconnected in a mysterious way. He has found (rather been told) that Napoleon is the anti-Christ whose name, when arranged and numbered in a sequence, the sum of which comes to six hundred and sixty-six (666), the number of the beast John mentioned in Revelation. Pierre has also found that if he Frenchified his name and add his origin and do some elimination his name l'russe Besuhof will also come to the same sum as Napoleon's. Believing that he has been chosen by destiny to be the destroyer of the beast, he set out to defend Moscow, in whichever way he can, even as the Russian army retreated beyond the city and the city was ensconced in conflagrations and looting by the French army.

Pierre is one person who is difficult to understand and appreciate as he wastes his wealth and his life on a wife who he does not love and she in turn hates. Pierre is a conundrum. His representation is based on life itself. Can we really understand it? For instance he sold one of his estates to raise a militia for the war. Though he was unsure of his participation and usefulness of the war, he went to the war front to observe events and came face to face with death and was almost taken a prisoner but for a cannon ball that came hurling past. Later, Pierre will be arrested for arson, after he fought a French Officer who was busily robbing a woman of her necklace; later (in Vol. IV) he will by providence escape execution and become a prisoner.

Another important observation, which runs through the whole book, is Tolstoy's ability to capture mob-thought, describing the complex of decisions, positions, and thought-processes that go on to influence mob action. For instance, Tolstoy describes the general mood as the French approached Moscow and the various opinions that were bobbing around. This phenomenon is balanced by his detailed description of the minutest action such as the sun rising behind someone's back or how a tiny bit of biscuit fell from the Tsar's hand, rolled into the crowd and caused excitement among the masses. This also supports his thesis that millions of tiny actions are the cause of any event.

Finally, Leo Tolstoy portrayed man's quest for wealth and how it influences decisions and rules actions. Countess Rostov's eagerness to safeguard the family's lifestyle and protect the next generation of Rostovs led her to take certain decisions, which were not unique of the time. Countess Rostov, upon hearing that Prince Andrey was dying from war wounds, saw God's providence in this because earlier she had read a letter from Nikolay Rostov, his eldest son, about meeting Princess Marya, Andrey's sister. Should Prince Andrey die the Princess will become the sole heir and should he marry Nikolay, as the countess is working tirelessly to see it come through including manipulating Sonya (her niece) to break her engagement to Nikolay, then wealth of the Rostovs will be restored and their father's profligate behaviour wouldn't matter.

The story blooms in this volume.
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See also: Volume IVolume II, & Volume IV

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinua Achebe, Nov. 16, 1930 - Mar. 21, 2013

For now the fact that one of the doyens of Africa's men of letters, Chinua Achebe, is dead is no longer news. ImageNations intentionally kept off the fray of all the earlier expressions of condolences. Yet, it would not be absolutely right to stay off forever. For most non Africans the only African book they have read and to which they will quickly refer a reader is  Things Fall Apart and the fact that the book was translated into 50 languages and was made a reading requirement also worked to boost its popularity. However, my favourite novel of his is Arrow of God. The third book in what later became known as the African Trilogy, which comprised the two mentioned books and No Longer at Ease. There are several Africans who have also not read beyond TFA; though I will appeal to them to read the others.

My favourite proverb in his book goes like this 'the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.' This proverb is profound. There is no one who has read any of Achebe's book and can't quote you a favourite proverb or two. Achebe's achievement is so glaring that one needs not to repeat them. Even if he hadn't won anything at all, there are several novelists today who were inspired by him including the veritable Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. He will be sorely missed but then death is an end that will come for all. The question is his place in the literary culture in Africa and the world is forever etched. Achebe's Books Reviewed Here on ImageNations:
  1. Things Fall Apart
  2. No Longer at Ease
  3. Arrow of God
  4. Anthills of the Savannah
  5. A Man of the People
  6. The Trouble with Nigeria
  7. Contemporary African Short Stories (as an Editor)
His books are deceptively simple to read but has complex political and socioeconomic underpinnings. The only regret is that he never got to win the Nobel; sure tells you something about awards. Fare thee well, Achebe. Damirifa due. This is a picture of Achebe two years after his debut novel, TFA.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Volume II: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Volume II (315 - 664) of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin, 2005 (1392); FP: 1869) translated by Anthony Briggs concentrates less on the war with France and more with the shenanigans and trickery of the elite and those who pretend to be. There was also a lot marital unrest with, cheating, ranking highest.

In this part, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky comes home the day his wife delivers and dies. This took the Prince into a period of gloom only to fall in love with Natasha Rostov and get his heart broken after she falls in love with the careless Anatole Kuragin. Pierre (Count Bezukhov) hears stories about his cheating wife, Helene, with his friend Dolokhov and challenges him to a duel of which both survives but Dolokhov left with a bullet wound. Pierre could be said to be the most frustrated person in the novel. He is seeking the meaning of life but finds that even for those who claim they have found the way, their lives is antithetical to what they preach and unable to reconcile how this could be, Pierre reverts to his earlier life of heavy drinking and gloom. This is after he has been introduced to Freemason and found its teachings lacking in the lives of its adherents. However, Pierre who comes back to live with his wife again after the separation that resulted after the duel, cannot resolve the meaning of his feelings for Natasha and knowing that his Prince Andrey is engaged to her, he left Moscow to Petersburg.

Boris Drubetskoy and Nikolay Rostov are still in the army, finding ways to move up higher the ranks. Boris is determined, like her mother Anna Mikhaylovna, to engineer his way into elitism even if it has to be to marry into riches and this he did by marrying Julie Karagin. In the military he did everything that will see him rise including holding the Russia's enemy, Emperor Bonaparte, in high esteem. For him, not born a count or prince, he must force his way through. Boris is balanced perfectly, or somewhat, by Nikolay Rostov who is extremely patriotic and sought favour in the Tsar and Russia and is prepared to die for both for they are one and the same thing. He is much more open-minded and does not need to do anything extraordinary to be respected. But he will still do anything for his mother, Countess Rostov. However, when it comes to marriage he wants to be his own man and this means marrying Sonya, a woman with no dowry, as the countess describes her. This wouldn't have been a problem but the profligate lifestyle of Count Rostov is sending the family into ruin and unless Nikolay marries into riches the family will fall off the social status and have to live in poverty. Nikolay himself cares less about that but the countess does.

Prince Andrey falls in love with Natasha and is prepared to marry her against his father's wishes. But he wants to travel through Europe to recuperate from depression that came upon him following the death of his wife. And Natasha is flighty. Her decisions are guided by her heart and once if flutters her mind also flutters. She is very much unlike Sonya who was prepared to go through everything, including taunts from her benefactors - the Rostovs, to marry Nikolay. when Anatole promised her love, Natasha was ready to elope.

Tolstoy has a way of writing both at the micro and macro level. He describes both the unit and the heap. However, what is more interesting is his unique understanding of the human condition. He clearly articulates the injustices that abounds in the world; where people who do great things and plays important roles are despised only for those who praises the most but do nothing to be rewarded. He also shows how people are quick to despise you if you fall out of favour and will quickly come around to support you, pretending that they never despised you, if you once again finds favour with authority. Suddenly, Helene's relationship with his brother Anatole is forgotten and is rather regarded as the most intelligent person one could meet. She who cheated on his husband Pierre was rather pitied and Pierre was lambasted and had it not been his riches, something he really don't care about, he would have become an outcast. Kutuzov was respected until Tsar Alexander showed no favour in him; there and then he became the enemy until he once again found favour. This is what makes this book worth the read: Tolstoy's understanding of the world and the way it works.

Volume II ends on a new preparation for war against France, as Napoleon's determination to invade Russia takes on a whole new meaning. This leads to the call-up of Russia's old Generals. This is not just a novel. It is a thesis of life.
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See also: Volume I, Volume III, & Volume IV

Sunday, March 17, 2013

232. Interventions - A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan (with Nader Mousavizadeh)

Interventions - A Life in War and Peace (Allen Lane, 2012; 383) is Kofi Annan's memoir focusing on an aspect of his work at the United Nations. As the title sounds, the book sought to provide some sort of explanation and reasons behind how 'interventions' became a UN policy. Like all memoirs, the book sought to provide certain reasons for which certain actions were taken. Regardless of the fact that most memoirs - including this one - are a way of putting the author in some good standing and explain away, with hindsight, the importance of the author's actions taken some time ago and as in the case of George Bush's Decision Points remove an indelible stigma that has become associated with them; regardless, there is still something to learn. If one reads between the lines, one is likely to grasp the author's intentions lurking behind.

In the case of Kofi Annan, there are several areas in the book which one could easily argue with. It also shows who the string-pullers are. For instance, the US influence on the UN was palpable and though Annan mentioned one or two instances where he put up some form of struggle, which he liked to describe as independent thinking, it was clear that the US did whatever they wanted - with or without UN sanctions, including their invasion of Iraq. Yet, the fact that US and UK controls the UN is common knowledge. The real shame comes when Annan, describing the bad governance in Africa wrote
In 1965, the white-minority government of Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) unilaterally declared independence from Great Britain, thwarting the British intent on building a multiracial system as part of the decolonization process.  From 1970, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo led an armed rebellion against the white minority government, with victory for the freedom fighters arriving in 1980. [167/68]
The question is what was Annan expecting, that the blacks submit to white minority rule? Wasn't there a form of apartheid system in Zimbabwe then? And wasn't apartheid South Africa voting to elect their presidents? He went on to state that 
But the perils of this personalized form of rule only became fully apparent from the late 1990s, when he [Robert Mugabe] launched a series of aggressive and disastrous land reforms. [168]
From here, Kofi Annan went on to talk about some of the things western media has been talking about regarding Mugabe. It was clear that Annan, in his position as a UN Secretary-General, would dislike Mugabe with passion and cherish Mandela, to the extent as quoting him. But posterity will be the judge. Whether disastrous or not, which several researches have stated otherwise, Mugabe was bold enough to address the land issue. In South Africa today, the land issue is still hanging around their necks: blacks are still the lowliest of the low. The recent shootings of miners should have shut Annan up. The fortunes of black South Africans didn't just change because Mandela became president and because of his belief in institutions. If the institutions have systematically made blacks poor, it must be fought. And that is what Mandela did not do. Today, the elemental structure of apartheid still exist. It doesn't break down because a black man broke the mould and became president, or that once in a while a black person breaks through and become rich. Acquiescing to the rich Afrikaans for fear of crippling the economy, at the time, does nothing to the many blacks who were and are poor. What Annan wrote is not different from what one might hear on BBC or CNN.

Annan talked about poor leadership in Africa and this is a fact. But the book is loudly silent on the early crop of charismatic African leaders who were overthrown and/or killed by Western machines. Annan conveniently forgets that Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by the Belgians and the Americans installed Mobutu Sesseseko. He forgets that Emperor Bokassa and Idi Amin were all supported by the West. He forgets that Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup. Now here is the linkage: If the vilest of the vile were supported by the West - from Mobutu to Idi Amin to Mengistu, what kind of example was set for the aspiring leaders of the time? Idi AminThey merely copied the early ones who did business with America and co. After all, Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni came after and Ghana witnessed several coups after Nkrumah's overthrown. In his writing Annan took the safest route out; thinking that because he is African, he can blame Africans and be deemed bold. He mentioned Mobutu but not how Mobutu came to be. He compared and contrasted the leadership problem in Africa and blamed it continent's underdevelopment. In fact, he claimed that this cause of Africa's underdevelopment - poor leadership - is known by all but for diplomacy sake, all are shying away from it. He talked of how a research he asked done produced the same reasons (colonialism) for Africa's woes and then ordering for a new research that will blame leadership. Here I laughed because as a researcher myself, what you want is not to prejudice the findings of a research. If you know the direction of your hypothesis why conduct the research?

He made that age-old and fickle comparison we all do with Malaysia that at independence Ghana was better than Malaysia but Malaysia has developed and Ghana is still trapped in the quagmire of poverty. Yet, like everybody does, he forgets that Dr Mahathir, credited with developing Malaysia and bringing it to its current state, ruled for 22 years, albeit winning successive elections. In Africa, he would have been described as an autocrat, just like Mugabe is. Again, Annan talked about how China has lifted its people out of poverty; what he forgot is that China didn't do this because they are democratic.

Again, Annan spoke glowingly about the establishment of the ICC, despite what Robin Cook said that the ICC was not established to bring to book the prime ministers of the UK and the presidents of the US. According to Annan, it was established to try human rights abusers from countries with weak judicial systems. He even talked about the role of the ICC in Libya and others. He mentioned that a person has to be reported to the ICC before he could be arrested. Now we know the rate at which peaceful demonstrators could easily transform into rebels with weapons; so who is qualified to report a person to the ICC? These rebels who are fighting the government (as in Libya)? Or is it the president who wants power (as in Ouattara against Gbagbo)? Why wasn't Ouattara also arrested when it was clear that he and his forces were not passive participants but also committed serious atrocities? Can Annan justify this? The ICC has become the judicial wing of western imperialism. If they come militarily and they fail, they will put some people together to charge you at the ICC, and because people have affinity for law and order you are more likely to be arrested. It was so in the case of Qathaffi until he was assassinated. In fact, who decides whether a country has the right structures to try human right abusers? The statements by Luis Ocampo, the ex-prosecutor of the ICC, are common knowledge. This is what Jimmy Carter writes in his book Our Endangered Values - America's Moral Crisis
The ICC charter, signed in 2002 by 139 nations, was carefully drafted to prevent punishment of Americans for genocidal acts overseas, provided US courts will address such crimes. However, the United States is now attempting to force subservient nations to guarantee blanket immunity for American military personnel, contractor employees, and tourists. [106]
And they got this blanket immunity when they went round threatening African countries to sign the Non-Surrender Treaty. According to Annan himself, a US judge once referred to the ICC as a kangaroo court. Will the US charge itself for human right abuses in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries where drones are killing citizens? What can the UN do about nation-states like the US, UK who use the ICC as a tool to get their stooges into presidential positions (as France did in Cote d'Ivoire)? If Annan fails to answer these pertinent questions, then in the ICC, he has created a weapon and handed it over to the bosses of the non-super-power countries to use it as and how and when they deem fit.

Annan talked about the UN's 'intervention' in Libya when we know that those people fighting the government weren't 'peaceful demonstrators'. That is not an intervention, it was an invasion. Annan equated demonstrations with underdevelopment. And here he writes like a BBC journalist describing the London economic riots as having been perpetrated by 'hooligans' and 'neighbourhood gangs' and a demonstration in the Arab and Africa regions as 'uprisings, springs, awakenings, and demonstrations'. What I would want to know from Annan and his UN is that were they going release a report on Libya in relation to the strides it has made in its economy before they were invaded?

On the myriad problems confronting Africa's agriculture Annan writes;
This is not because of lack of effort by Africa's farmers but lack of knowledge, resources, and infrastructure to support their hard work. A uniquely "green revolution" would have a positive impact not only on food security but also on many of the other challenges facing the continent. [206]
These problems exist. However, Annan once again conveniently forgot to mention, in this part - only mentioning it 42 pages away - that humongous subsidies Europe and America give to their farmers that has effectively destroyed the livelihoods of millions of Africa's rice and cotton farmers, creating massive trade imabalances. According to Dambisa Moyo (author of Dead Aid, whom Annan namelessly addressed in several paragraphs of his book)
In 2003, US cotton subsidies to its farmers were around US$ 4bn. According to Oxfam cotton farmers receive more in subsidies than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso...[Yet, Dambisa writes] the livelihoods of at least 10m people in West and Central Africa alone depends on revenues from cotton, including some 6m rural households in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Mali, and Zimbabwe. [116]
In the United States alone, the total amount of farm subsidies stands at around US$ 15 billion, and that number is rising. As a share of farmers' income, subsidies rose from around 14 percent  in the middle of the 1990s to around 17 percent today. The 2002 US Farm Security and Rural Act gave US farmers nearly US$ 200 billion on subsidies for subsequent ten years... The Europeans are just as protective. The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) eats into around half the European Union's budget of Euros 127 billion (direct farm subsidies alone are worth Euros 40 billion), and EU subsidies are approximately 35 percent of farmers' total income. [115]
This is the type of globalisation Annan is preaching. Even when he talked about this unfairness on page 248, it was only in passing and only when he was adressing Dambisa's concerns. Yet he spent time to talk about a 'unique African Green Revolution', putting the last two words in inverted commas. And this is where the interest lies. The Africa Report No. 47 February 2013, on Philantrocrats states that:
In 2006, the Gates Foundation joined with the Rockefeller Foundation to found the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). It is African-led and US funded: US$ 165 m out of its US$ 400 m startup budget came from Gates Foundation. It also boast of Kofi Annan as Chairman of the board. [27]
And Annan talked about AGRA in his book and how they seek to end food insecurity on the continent. What more will lift people out of poverty than fair trade? But this is not the end; AGRA is championing the introduction of GM foods into Africa, which will make Africa dependent on foreign companies for its food needs. In the report Annan is quoted as saying that the choices between GM and non-GM is a 'decision they (African governments) will have to take'. The report went on to state that the Gates Foundation has a US$21.3 m stake in Monsanto, the makers of the GM food in question. Now with all the scientific tug-of-war between GM foods and the recent French studies showing its clear linkages to the development of tumours, is Annan saying that without GM, Africa shall not be food secured? Such a blunt swipe of the pen shall no longer be borne unquestioned. If Africa cannot depend on non-profit oriented Western countries for infrastructural development, how can it depend on capitalist companies whose primary objective function is profit-maximisation and payment of huge bonuses for its food needs? On the issue of trade and aid Annan mounted a strong defence for aid, when we all know how aid cripples a country and maintains underdevelopment, and in more places than one the reader is likely to think that he was directly addressing to Dambisa Moyo's thesis.

Annan clearly showed in this memoir that it is America's rules. The section on America's invasion of Iraq for weapons that didn't exist was so much filled with details and explanations regarding Saddam's behaviour and trickery (on disarmament) that one come out feeling 'then Saddam deserves it'. In fact, he writes that in order to be able to engage both sides of the global divide, he avoided an outright condemnation of the illegality of the invasion. This is one who has early on in the book condemned the whole African continent and its presidents (except Mandela). He writes, even when he has clearly witnessed how post-invasion Iraq has become a hub for terrorists,
I had expressed this view, in less direct ways, on other occasions in the past. I had up to that point always sought to retain my ability to engage both sides of this deep global divide by avoiding an outright condemnation of the illegality of the war. But it was no longer possible to sustain this position - even if a television interview was a less than ideal venue for saying that the emperor had no clothes. [357]
According to Annan, Bush told him that the world will be a safer place without Saddam; I guess it is with people dying everyday from explosions. It is sad to note that Annan described the terrorists on the streets of Damascus as youth pleading for accountable government, when we all know that they have been armed by other governments to cause mayhem, when we know that what is going on in Syria has nothing to do with accountable governance but rather nation-state who want a regime change (having implication for a broader geopolitics). Did America support the Shahs of Iran? Besides, why aren't they talking about Saudi Arabia? Are they democratic? This is absurd. This is and out-of this-world hypocrisy.
Nowhere did a regime resist this change more fiercely, or more doggedly, than in the Syrian capital Damascus. Over the course of a bloody year that began in March 2011, the world witnessed the youth of Syria take to the streets week after week pleading for a better, more just, more accountable government. [368]
Finally, Uhuru Kenyatta has won the presidency in Kenya, what has Kofi Annan to say? Will he go back and lambast him or will he blame African leadership, so myopically defined that it is good when it suits their interests.

In this book Annan showed his affinity for diplomacy which made him a great diplomat; he glossed over obvious problems, obvious reasons, obvious causes and pretended not to know the deeper causes, which is unbelievable coming from a man of his stature. He wrote like a western journalist assigned to cover issues outside America and Europe. He sees things in isolation and spoke of issues in discrete terms without regards to globalisation and imperialism. It is as if a country's decisions is independent of other countries' and that one can do as it wishes without any interference or grumbles from another. Africa's poverty is not linked to the skewed trade policies; America's interest is not related to its treatment of countries; when NATO and America invades Libya it is to protect the 'peaceful demonstrators', etc. Annan glossed over issues and causes; in some parts his assessment and analyses are superficial at best.

This is not a book I would have ordinarily read but it is also good that I did. After all, such books open the reader's mind and eyes to the real happenings in the world. Makes you know that those Africans whose bread is buttered in the West would always speak Western lingua. Recommended.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Library Additions

The rate at which I acquire books has declined. Now I look carefully, think a zillions times through before I make a decision. Now all books I purchase have to meet my reading objectives; though these same criteria was used in times past, I wasn't insistent. I don't know if I can maintain that discipline this year since I can justify why every book was purchased. Within the last week, I've purchased the following two books:
  1. Smouldering Charcoal by Tiyambe Zeleza. My Book and Discussion Club is reading this book for the month and together with Tolstoy's War and Peace, will be the only two books I will read in March. The only thing I know of Zeleza was his essay in the anthology Fathers & Daughters titled Memories of Death and Other Stories. The back page of the book reads "This compelling story which lays bare the corruption and tyranny which bedevil many African countries, yet celebrates the forces of renewal that are germinating in the teeming slums and rural hinterlands."
  2. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. All my friends on twitter know how I adore this writer. I discovered Nassim on the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when I was aimlessly roaming and sightseeing. On my right I saw a used book stand and, as always, I was attracted to it. Scanning through the titles, I saw Black Swan. I immediately recollected the Black Swan movie and became suddenly interested. If I should confess, it is because I never got to understand the movie, so upon seeing the book, I thought my problem had been solved. After all, books always provide better elucidation than movies, at least for me. It happened that this is not a story. But it is a book whose micro-reviews and synopsis promises a lot. I glanced through and purchased it. After reading the book, two or three weeks later, I became a Nassim aficionado. This is a book that makes nonsense of most of the things I've learnt. Again, I like books and theories that take a radical look at life. I consider them bold. Since, then I have watched every single Nassim video on the internet and have set up a prompt-mail system that sends me a mail if anything new pops up. I have listened to every video of his that discusses Antifragility. So when I saw a copy at the duty-free bookshop at the departure section of the airport (Ghana's airport), I knew I will definitely get the book. And so this is it. I've purchased this book. It will count towards my non-fiction and subject-matter reading this year; however, and more importantly, this is a book - like all of Nassim's - that should be studied. From the blurb: "In Antifragility, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be build in an antifragile manner. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better." Need I say more?
Once in a while, you come across a book you just fall in love with. I've come across an author, whose works inspire me. I may not understand part, but I will persist for I see an epistemological revolution of which I want to be part.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Volume I: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I'm toddling my way through Tolstoy's tome, War and Peace (Penguin, 2005; FP: 1869; 1392). If I complete it, which I will, it'll be the longest book I've read. Because this book, and another, are perhaps going to be the only two books I'll read this month, I will have to update my reading progress to create blog content.

Reading at a rate of at least 50 pages a day, it took me some five days (from March 2 to March 6) to complete Volume I of the four-volumed work (at a staggering 1392 pages and small font). This 313-page volume introduces the reader to the Bolkonskys - Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky, the father; Prince Andrey, the son married to little princess Liza, and Princess Marya, the daughter; the Rostovs - Natasha, the daughter; Nikolay, the son; Petya, the younger son, Vera, the eldest daughter; the Kuragins - the scheming Prince Vasily Kuragin who, unable to outwit Pierre (later Count Bezukhov of his inheritance), married his daughter, Helene, to him and was about to marry his son, the troublesome Anatole to Princess Marya because of Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky's riches but he failed. There was also the scheming Anna Mikhaylovna and his son Boris.

Pierre's father is wealthy and Pierre is his illegitimate son. However, old Count Bezukhov dotes on his son. He has sent him to Moscow to decide on what he wants to be but Pierre, weak in will (though a giant of a man) fell into friendship with the enigmatic Dolokhov and Anatole. Boozing and gambling became their game and a prank on a police officer - tying him to the back of a bear - saw the three separated: Anatole was sent to the military, Dolokhov was reduced in rank and Pierre was banned from Moscow. Not only that; this behaviour of his exacerbated his father's health leading to his death. On his death, both family and non-family members began scheming on how to inherit Count Bezukhov's wealth. Prince Vasily Kuragin's wife is the daughter of Count Bezukhov, Anna Mikhaylovna claims the Count was his son's godfather and therefore was fighting for Pierre.

The only one who seems oblivious of all he scheming going on Pierre himself. In fact, all through the Volume I, he was almost an imbecile. His marriage was forced upon him, his wealth was fought for him (by Anna), and even (eventually) his career was imposed upon him (by Prince Vasily).

After inheriting such wealth from his father - making him one of the wealthiest man in Russia - Pierre's, or Count Bezukhov's, position in society was given a huge boost. Suddenly, even Anna Pavlovna, a woman whose parties seem to be the meeting point for Russia's who's who, now appreciates everything Pierre says. The bootlickers are on the prowl seeking to benefit from Pierre's youthfulness, innocence, ignorance and his I-don't-care attitude. Money was the least of all the things he thought about, even when he had not become wealthy and was dependent on his father. This, coupled with the fact that he wanted people to be happy, led to people surrounding him and milking him at every turn. 

In addition to the scheming life of the socialites, with their arranged and wealth-induced marriages, is the war between the allied forces of Russia, Austria, and Germany against Napoleon's forces. However, Napoleon has entered Russia. Now even the Tsar - Alexander - is scared and presumed wounded. Boris, Nikolay Rostov and Prince Andrey are all eager to achieve something for themselves. But by the end of Volume I, the Russian soldiers, led by Kutuzov, have retreated from the battle at Austerlitz and Prince Andrey - who has left his pregnant wife with his father - has been captured by the French. Rostov is dejected, seeing the defeated troops and knowing that the battle was lost.

From all indications, Tolstoy associates himself with the Russians by his use of the first person possessive plural pronoun 'our' at certain places. Tolstoy examines the thoughts and aspirations of his numerous characters. Though the book is a tome, though some consider it a novella when compared to the longest novels ever written, it reads fast. The war descriptions are lucid.
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Saturday, March 09, 2013

DISCUSSION: What is the Novel and Should it be Redefined?

source
Every genre of art - music, painting, novel, poetry - has unique characteristics that define it. For instance, the basic requirement of a sonnet is that it should have fourteen lines - octet and sestet or vice versa; a haiku should have three lines (Long-Short-Long, traditional Japanese format), seventeen syllables (in the traditional Japanese format), one enjambment and one stand-alone line. So too has the novel. There should always be the plot, which builds up gradually, gets to a climax and then the denouement. Thus, a novel should rise, peak, and fall. Besides, a novel should have a central character or characters whose story is told - there is always a protagonist. We know who the protagonist is in Things Fall Apart and that this very novel follows the rise, the climax and the fall.

But what if a story does not follow this format? Does it cease to be a novel or should the novel expand to include it, just as poetry has expanded to include free-verse or blank-verse. Veronique Tadjo's As the Crow Flies is a story difficult to review, to talk about and to define. It's a mosaic of numerous vistas of life from several angles. Each chapter is somewhat independent from the other. It's like poetry and like prose. A chapter can be as long as a line. It has no single character running through it. Is it therefore not a novel? Writers like Ayi Kwei Armah do their own thing. In Two Thousand Seasons, there is no unique character whom one could say the story is about. The story is about an idea, an idea to find a path and the character - as in the personality not the person - required to find this path. Most critiques have said this book is not a novel because it doesn't follow the novelistic format. It almost starts and ends the same way. There is no building of tension and a resolution of that tension. Another writer who breaks out of the mould is Kojo Laing. All his books are unique. His first 'novel' Search Sweet Country starts and ends without any huge tension and denouement, though he delivers a huge punch at the end of the book. The story is almost horizontal. There are several characters and none is the main character unless you make the country a character. And to some extent, similar statements could be said of Bessie Head's A Question of Power; even Toni Morrison's Beloved has similar characteristics, though it focused on one woman.

How therefore should such a book be referred to? If they are not amenable to the requirements of a novel, do they still become a novel? Or they should be referred to as something new? Or the novel should be redefined? What is your take on this? 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

231. Dead Aid - Why Aid Makes Things Worse - and How there is another Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo

Dead Aid - Why Aid is not Working and How there is another Way for Africa (Penguin, 2009; 208) by Dambisa Moyo takes a revolutionary look at how Africa's development is financed and whether aid has had any significant impact in Africa to merit its continuous existence.

Divided into two parts - A World with Aid (Part I) and A World without Aid (Part II) - Dambisa argues, with researched facts and figures to support her argument, that aid, instead of lifting the majority out of poverty, does nothing of that sorts and that  it could even make countries become poorer and become encumbered and frustrated with debt and its servicing. In Part I, she discusses the Myth of Aid, provides A Brief History of Aid, shows why Aid is not Working, and why it could be The Silent Killer of Growth. Her arguments are compelling and would make the reader think twice. Though I'm not capitalist in thought (I'm what one might refer to as a Social Capitalist - using a country's resources - human and material - to generate the necessary capital to trigger development, instead of relying on globalisation which can destroy a country) Dambisa's argument made me think some more. 

She describes the changing focus of aid as it shifted from infrastructure to poverty reduction in the late 1970s so that almost 50 percent of aid went to poverty reduction compared to 5 percent in the previous years. Regardless of this, poverty rates over the succeeding years skyrocketed and growth rates plummeted. The premise for Dambisa's Dead Aid thesis is that though several trillions of aid money have been pumped into the continent, there is nothing to show for it. Rather, African countries are so much riddled with debt that between 1987-1989 the cost of debt servicing became more than aid inflows to the tune of US$ 15 billion resulting in the net outflow of finance from poor countries to rich countries. According to her, donors give money to whoever is there to be given to. It matters not who the person is. In the Cold War, aid was used as an incentive to attract and maintain alliances (or allegiances); so that leaders like Mobutu Sesseseko, who was an American ally and who replaced Patrice Lumumba - after the latter's assassination, got enough aid money that he is famed to have been richer than his country. Idi Amin, regardless of his tyranny, was supported. Mengistu of Ethiopia was provided with aid by the Russians to keep his allegiance. Even 'emperor' Bokassa, whose coronation cost US$ 22 billion, was 'aided'. Thus, the character and the type of government was irrelevant. This, coupled with the long-term  repayment period of such 'soft' loans and their below market interest rates meant that most leaders saw such funds as extra money, instead of loans that are repayable at a point in time. Consequently, they became corrupt and appropriated the funds to themselves with nothing to show for. Yet, this didn't prevent them from receiving more money from developed countries. The greater the poverty, resulting from misuse of aid funds, the more aid was doled out to alleviate poverty. Furthermore, most of these donor agencies worked within a financial period and any unspent funds means that one's budget will likely be reduced in the new financial year. This unfortunate situation created a scenario where donors chase begin to countries for loans.

In the 2000s aid became a rockstar project with Bono, Geldof, and co playing lead role. These individuals appealed to the conscience of guilt-tripped developed countries, who see the contrast between the rich and poor too stark to be comfortable, to provide more aid to release the masses from the clutches of poverty. The solutions to Africa's problems were searched for from all sorts of sources except from Africans. Everybody thought they had the magic wan to cast poverty into oblivion and this magic wan is more aid, which according to Dambisa, led to more debt and graver poverty and then back to more aid. 

In discussing why aid has not worked and is likely not to work, Dambisa traced aid from when it was used to lift Europe out of poverty after the Second World War in the Marshall Plan. But she provided the reasons why that aid worked for Europe. Europe had institutions that worked effectively; their GDP to aid ratio was minimal, sometimes 2 percent, unlike what most African countries have at the moment where it is around 70 percent in some countries. Again, the aid was targetted and was provided for a duration. However, in Africa all these are lacking. Aid has become the main source of money; the institutions are not working and governments misuse loans because they are assured of its flow. She further argued that even the so-called International Development Assistance (IDA) graduates - countries which used to depend on aid but no longer does, including Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland and Botswana - Dambisa argued that the aid-GDP ratio of such countries were small. Besides, they also embarked upon aggressive open-market policy and trade that made them competitive and that aid in itself has nothing to do with their current state.

She further argued that conditionalities, which was attached to aid to make aid work by focusing loans, never worked and that in most situations where compliance to these conditions were far below 50 percent, disbursements would be over 90 percent or almost complete. This clearly shows that the main idea of aid is to give aid. In discussing this she stated that economic growth is a precursor to development and not the other way round as most donors and developed countries are wont to think. She argues that people hardly think of the type of government if they are hungry and it is only when development takes place that people will begin to think of the type of governance they have. Dambisa boldly stated that even democracy, at an early stage of a country's development, can hamper development as "democratic regimes find it difficult to push through economically beneficial legislation amid rival parties and jockeying interests." According to her "what poor countries at the lowest rungs of economic development need is not a multi-party democracy, but in fact a decisive benevolent dictator to push through the reforms required to get the economy moving (unfortunately, too often countries end up with more dictator and less benevolence.)" This is an argument I completely share with and that which resonates with my thinking. For instance, Dr Mahathir, credited with transforming Malaysia's economy served for 22 years and during that period transformed the the basic structure of the economy. Imagine what might have been had his leadership been curtailed by any of those elections he won. Again, no one can doubt China's development now. The cynics can say all they want but China's aggressive growth - responsible to the drastic decline in world poverty rates - cannot be denied by anyone. The linkage between aid and corruption was lucidly discussed. Besides, a country that is heavily aid-dependent is not accountable. This is because since the people didn't contribute to this revenue, and the government knows this, the people are unable to demand accountability from the government and the government remains unaccountable to the people, leading to financial misappropriation. Logically, because most wars are fought over control of resources, aid can and do influence civil wars; it also has its inflationary consequence to the recipient country.

However, Dambisa didn't leave off there like most writers do: she didn't just diagnose the problem; she offered solutions. Though the reader - like myself - may not completely agree with her solutions, they are - again - compelling. First, she argued, that countries should seek high credit-rating and borrow at commercial rates. Here the risks alone will force governments not to misapply the funds. Besides, since it's tax revenue that would be used to finance it at maturation, the people can demand accountability. For instance, failure to repay will mean a downgrade in credit-ratings leading to a higher cost of borrowing. Another solution proffered is the development of a country's domestic and international bond markets to raise the necessary capital. Again, if a country fails to repay its debtors, those from whom it has sold this promisory notes, it loses out of the market. Improving investor climate through the provision of infrastructure, removal of bureaucracies, improved legal system and others will attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which will boost a country's resources. Here she discussed why China is becoming more attractive than the traditional West; the Chinese offer something for aid. The rails, roads, housing units are built and the people see them, unlike the West who will request changes in governance system knowing that people will need to eat first before they will begin to ask questions. However, in all the solutions Dambisa discussed, the one bothering on levelling the field for trade was what I leaned to the most, especially when she discussed the negative market-protection practices by the US and Europe where huge subsidies given to their rice and cotton farmers distort international prices, pushing poor African farmers out of the market. She writes
In the United States alone, the total annual amount of farm subsidies stands at around US$ 15 billion, and that number is rising. As a share of farmers' income, subsidies rose from around 14 percent in the middle of the 1990s to around 17 percent today. The 2002 US Farm SEcurity and Rural Investment Act gave US farmers nearly US$ 200 billion on subsidies for subsequent ten years ... The Europeans are just as protective. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) eats into around half the European Union's budget of Euros 127 billion (direct farm subsidies alone are worth Euros 40 billion), and EU subsidies are approximately 35 percent of farmers' total income. [115]
The effects of these ginormous subsidies means that African farmers, who are poor and receive no such subsidies, are unable to compete with these farmers and are therefore crowded out of the market leading to chronic poverty. She writes
In 2003, US cotton subsidies to its farmers were around US$ 4 billion. Oxfam has observed: 'America's cotton farmers receive more in subsidies than the entire GDP of Burkina Faso, three times more in subsidies than the entire US aid budget for Africa's 500 million people.' Yet, the livelihoods of at least 10 million people in West and Central Africa alone depend on revenues from cotton, including some 6 million rural households in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Mali, and Zimbabwe. [116]
Dambisa's book will move the reader to think and think again. She also discussed why donors continue to give aid though they know it isn't working. This is a classic book that all finance ministers in Africa should read, even if they disagree for then they can disagree with cogent reasons and not mere speculations about the role of aid in development.

Coincidentally, I read Kofi Annan's Interventions - A Life in War and Peace after reading this book. In some sections Annan tried responding to some of the issues Dambisa has addressed, most importantly why aid is dead. In fact, so direct were the responses that one could say that Annan was directly referring to Dambisa's work. According to Annan, Dambisa's Dead Aid thesis might have been reasonable if it had been posited by 1975; currently, according to him, it is no longer valid. He stated that the data post-1975 shows that aid is working and that more aid is needed (contrary to Dambisa's view, needless to say). According to Annan, Cold-War aid was aimed at obtaining allegiances (agreeing with Dambisa) but post-Cold-War aid comes with conditionalities. However, Annan failed to address Dambisa's argument that even when these conditionalities have not been halfly implemented, the loan would have been almost fully disbursed. In this argument and counter-argument, I believe Dambisa is more convincing though her arguments have merit it is also difficult to completely agree with her. These are excerpts of Annan's responses
Some are of the view that aid does no good and is frittered away by corrupt governments, or that aid can actually do harm. They quite rightly question the impact of, for example, over $1 trillion of aid transferred this way to Africa over the last fifty years. Between 1970 and 1998, when the majority of aid these transfers were made, the share of the world's poor people living in Africa rose from 11 percent to 66 percent. The implication is that aid is without value and should end. Trade and private investment should replace it, the argument goes, given these have proved the prime means through which countries have achieved sustained economic development in the modern age. [Interventions; 247]
He went further to state that
There are significant flaws in this argument that must be exposed. First, the characterization of aid as without value is based primarily on pre-1990 figures, when most of the total aid sum was transferred. These figures utterly misrepresent the current role of aid. There is a fundamental difference between development aid given during the Cold War and aid given since. Before 1990, most aid money was designed to buy allegiance in the context of the superpower struggle, not international development. Foreign donors showed little interest in the ruling styles of the benefactors and saw no reason hold them to account for corruption. [Interventions; 247]
Annan proposal is more aid, at least 0.7 percent of the GDP of developed countries should go to aid; further he talked about the involvement of 'Hollywood actors and rock stars' in aid. These are two extremely divergent opinions for the same objective - development.

Yet, this is a book, that needs to be read by all. She comes from a point of understanding. She knows her numbers and knows her Africa. She talks as a businesswoman who believes that Africa needs to do business will talk. She is a complete capitalist and after having worked with Goldman Sachs et al. it comes as no surprise.
______________
About the author: Dambisa Moyo holds a Doctorate (D.Phil) in Economics from St Anthony's College, Oxford University; her 2002 dissertation is titled "Essays on the Determinants of the Components of Savings in Developing Countries". In 1997, she earned a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She also earned a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Finance and Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Chemistry from American University in Washington DC.

Moyo worked for the World Bank as a Consultant and at Goldman Sachs where she worked in debt capital markets and as an economist in the global macroeconomics team. In addition to this work, she is the author of How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - and the Stark Choices that Lie Ahead (2011) and Winner Take All: China's Race for Resources and What it Means for the World (June 2012).

Moyo has travelled to more than 50 countries over the last decade, during which time she has developed a unique knowledge base on the political, economic, and financial workings of emerging economies, in particular the BRICS and the frontier economies in Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Her work examines the interplay between rapidly developing countries, international business, and the global economy, while highlighting the key opportunities for investment. 

In 2009, Dambisa was named by TIME Magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World," and to the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders Forum. Her writing regularly appears in economic and finance-related publications such as the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. (Source)
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