Book Reviews

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month we review a series of documentary comics explaining the major philosophies of our time, and look at two very different ways the Western media can approach the Third World.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Eggheads for Beginners

Mao for Beginners
by Rius and Friends

Trotsky for Beginners
by Tariq Ali and Phil Evans
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Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative UK: £1.95/US: $3.95 (each)
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[image, unknown] Translating some of the world's most complex ideas into cartoons is a very democratic concept; comics are, after all, accessible to everyone. Children have been known to read them.

It can be a service to thinkers of all ages. No longer need that house of cards that forms your fragile picture of the struggles between Lenin and Trotsky be swept away yet again by more immediate concerns. There it is, fixed on the page in black and white. Fetch the kids from school, kick the dog, look for your other sock and then back to the action where the comrades are still waiting to battle it out.

Mexican cartoonist Rius started the series off with his highly entertaining Cuba for Beginners (see NI No. 80). The explanatory bubbles have already settled round half a dozen or so thinkers from Marx to Freud and are at present hovering threateningly over Charles Darwin and Jesus Christ.

Reducing their seminal thoughts to neat packages makes a lot of marketing sense. But a disadvantage of High Street merchandise also applies: the excitement recedes after the point of sale. Actually using your digital pencil sharpener is considerably less satisfying than drooling over it. And for all their attractive simplification the books still have to be read - and that can be a wearing business.

For the `documentary comic' is a medium that is difficult to keep under control. It usually has a very disjointed story which is so dry that it needs the pictures to give it a bit more flavour. When the media are artificially mixed like this you have to work hard to keep them in balance and ensure the blend is acceptable. A good cartoon can be easier to take in than a book, but a bad one is many times more difficult.

Trotsky for Beginners suffers from visual overkill. Collages of photographs, engravings and cartoons explode on every page and rapidly stun the brain. The text that is squeezed between them comes in mercifully small mouthfuls but is actually no more appetising than most other trotskyist writing. I cannot say that in the end I have retained a great deal of it; the temptation is to jump from one visual to the next and only take in such words as stray into the field of vision. It is certainly very good to look at. But I think more likely to be a coffee table book for the cognoscenti than a crutch for the ignorant.

Rius is a rather older hand at this game and in Mao for Beginners the words and pictures work much betterintandem. I found his version of Marx, produced a few years back, a terrible struggle and I suspect that he did too. But here he is on much firmer ground, probably because Mao's story has all the sweep and cast of a Hollywood epic and will doubtless appear as one some day. Here in advance we have some of the stills from this heroic tale, illustrating a light and comprehensible text.

Ironically, in productions like this it is the words which turn out to be the critical component. The same is true in other media. J. K. Galbraith at the outset of his economics television series was surrounded by a terrifying array of audiovisual supports. He looked around at all the flashing models and diagrams and shrugged his shoulders. `If all else fails,' he said, `I could always explain things.'

Well, if comics don't work you could always try books.

Peter Stalker

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Has anyone here been raped and speaks English?

[image, unknown] Index on Censorship
by Book author
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Writers & Scholars International Ltd
Annual Subscription: UK 9/US $18
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Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?
by Edward Behr
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Hamish Hamilton (hbk) £7.95
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Edward Bahr's memoirs, entitled Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? was a disappointment despite its promising title. A foreign correspondent for Time-Life and then Newsweek, Behr seems unable to decide when to drop the hard-bitten image of the world-weary correspondent and reveal a more cony passionate heart. The book suffers from many of the problems visible in much of the western media's foreign reporting: a lack of cultural sympathy, an unremitting search for a scoop that grossly over-simplifies political and social problems and a lack of general analysis. Even an historic meeting with Mao Tse Tung seems to be savoured more for its sensationalism than for its content. Basically an anecdotal autobiography, it lacks the passion of a Cameron or Bloodworth.

Index on Censorship performs a unique service to the cause of free expression. As well as chronicling details and case studies of banned and imprisoned writers, film-makers and artists, this excellently produced periodical provides an opportunity to read the works that have incurred the wrath of repressive governments. It has become a showcase for some of the finest and most powerful writing from the Third World and eastern Europe: essays, poems, satire and songs that are almost impossible to find elsewhere in print.

When asked how intellectuals in Africa view the future, one prominent writer replied that it was usually through prison bars. Despite enormous cultural differences, the struggle is often essentially the same whether it takes place in Africa, Latin America or Asia. By their special role as interpreters and transmitters of culture, writers can find themselves at the forefront of official persecution; censorship is evoked rarely to protect progressive policies but to hide mismanagement, ideological poverty and, above all, bureaucracy. At least in the pages of Index, which appears six times a year, the voices of those protesting against injustice and abuse can be heard and their work can be appreciated. For anyone who wishes to broaden their knowledge of the arts world-wide or to understand better the psychology of repression it is essential reading.

Jean Roussel


False Start in Africa
...being the book that shook black Africa's elite

RENE DUMONT is an oracle for the Third World... His classic work l'Afrique noire est mat partie shook the continent of Africa.' So said the New Internationalist ten years ago. When the English translation came out in 1966, renamed False Start in Africa, the shockwaves spread.

`I honestly believe,' proclaimed New Society's reviewer Colin Legum, `that the greatest single contribution the United Nations Development Decade could make towards the fulfilment of its objectives would be to spend £1 million towards putting a copy of Dumont's book into the hands of every African in a position of authority and of every foreign expert concerned with financial and technical aid.'

The governments of Egypt, Zambia, Madagascar, Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Mexico and almost all of the ex-French colonies of Africa have sought his advice. Chou-En-Lai welcomed him in China, and Pham Van Dong to North Vietnam. Tanzania's Nyerere is a disciple. Even Fidel Castro listens.

'Fidel was so infuriated with my criticisms,' says Dumont, `that he threw his cap on the ground, which normally means five years of imprisonment for the person lie does it to. If he stamps on it, it means fifteen years.' That was the end of that visit. Almost exactly five years later, all but three days, Dumont was invited back to Cuba. Castro was ready to listen.

How did Dumont rouse such wrath and such respect? First of all, he refused to fall into either of the common political postures of the time. He rejected the rightwing sneer that there was bound to be chaos irredeemable now that the Europeans were no longer in charge. Instead he demonstrated, with heartbreaking detail, how the colonisers had deliberately distorted African economies and pulverised morale.

The `human haemorrhage'of the slave trade, forinstance,had inflicted death on `between 60 and 150 million men' either through capture or the wars brought on by the raids. Leaders of rebellions had been roasted over slow fires. As a result, the African proportion of world population has plummeted from a fifth in the eighteenth century to a twelfth today.

The technology that Europe could have introduced was withheld: a self-sufficient Africa was the last thing the colonisers wanted. Could the celebrated European educational system not save Africa? Black students returned to Africa replete with the intellectual benefits of the Sorbonne or the dreaming spires of Oxford reflected in their eyes.

Dumont was one of the first Europeans to argue that replacing a white elite with a black one would do nothing to heal Africa's wounds. Though books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Brown Sahib had been written by Third World writers, the European Left generally considered it indelicate to criticise the Western-educated leaders of the emerging nations. For Dumont, sycophancy was false friendship. To deny the present mess or merely to look indignantly over one's shoulder at the imperialism that helped cause it was to abrogate responsibility for tough and positive action now.

Dumont saw plenty that could be done. Mobilising the peasants' energies was crucial. The 'trickle-down' theory fashionable in the sixties only worked negatively: empty images of luxury filtered down to deepen social divisions and inhibit national progress. Dumont worked from the bottom up. He saw that there could be little incentive to stay in agriculture when `one hour of work for a cotton labourer would bring him about three-tenths of an inch of ordinary cotton cloth' while a few easy hours per day at a desk could bring a member of the urban elite a life of champagne parties - and a Mercedes to drive him there. Basic education, agricultural reform, small-scale technology that used cheap machinery but provided many jobs, and the encouragement of peasant leaders who could organise presssure groups were essential if the underprivileged majority were to have faith in self-reliance.

In parallel, on the international scene, he advised poor countries to join as `trades unions' in order to negotiate with the rich world from a position of strength - as OPEC did. Nearly twenty years later, Dumont is fighting the same battles against new generations of bureaucrats, with the same meticulous severity. The examples in False Start may be out of date: the principles remain valid.

Anuradha Vittachi

*See NI 96 for an updated interview with Rene Dumont.

False Start in Africa (Deutsch 1966) is currently out of print.

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