The alternative book review
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
(Bloomsbury ISBN 9781526638243)
Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate and doyen of African literature, is best known for his plays, poems and essays. A longtime anti-corruption activist, he has endured imprisonment and exile. His novels are rare beasts – Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is just his third. Written at the age of 86 and in the midst of a global pandemic, it is an astonishing achievement.
The plot centres around four men who, in their student days, formed an idealistic group – the ‘Gang of Four’ – certain they could rid Nigeria of corruption. Now, in middle age, two of them, Duyole Pitan-Payne, an engineer, and Kighare Menka, a surgeon, resolve to re-form the gang. They try to track down the remaining members, Badetona, an accountant, and Ferodien, a mysterious figure who has seemingly vanished. The plan is to put Menka’s home village in northern Nigeria on the map by building a state-of-the-art medical facility for the victims of Boko Harem. However, powerful forces in Nigeria’s deep state are desperate to thwart the scheme.
Told principally through dialogue that leaps off the page, the book is a riotous widescreen entertainment, crammed with vivid characters and full of Soyinka’s trademark wit.
Events tumble over each other dizzyingly – a public beheading at a bus-stop, arson at an elite country club, a gruesome trade in body parts, and a fatal bomb attack. The whole rich stew boils over in a monumental family battle over funeral arrangements that segues into a revelation that pulls together the narrative threads in a way that completes the arc of the novel and delights the sated reader. PW
by Ibrahima Balde and Amets Arzallus Antia, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker
(Scribe, ISBN 9781913348519)
Renowned Basque improvisational poet Amets Arzallus Antia met Ibrahima Balde one day in the central square in Irun, as he helped a group welcoming refugees with coffee, conversation and advice. Balde expressed the difficulty he had describing his life, particularly as his limited schooling meant he couldn’t write. And so a new role emerged for the poet: transcribing Balde’s narration of his extraordinary and heartbreaking journey from Guinea’s capital Conakry to Mali, Algeria, Morocco and Libya, to search for his little brother, Alhassane, who had left home to seek a better life in Europe.
Balde’s narration is concise and unemotional, but its lightness of touch belies the weight of worry and expectation he has carried since the age of 13, when his father died and he became the eldest male ‘in a house without hope’. Burdens, both physical and psychological, feature throughout the narration, from the crates of fruit and bricks that he has to carry to earn enough money to fund his journey; to the horrific torture inflicted on him in Libya, when he is forced to stand for hours in the glaring sun holding rocks up above his head, knowing he will be shot if he drops them; to the guilt he feels at his inability to support his family.
So, when he is hoisted up onto a rescue boat from the floundering dinghy at the end of his journey across the Mediterranean, there is a momentary sense of relief. For now, at least, someone else is carrying his weight for him. But for Balde, as for the many thousands in the same precarious situation, the future remains uncertain. A happy ending cannot yet be written. JL
World Politics since 1989
by Jonathan Holslag
(Polity Press, ISBN 9781509546725)
The penny-plain title of Jonathan Holslag’s book is a fair indication of his methodology. Beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall, he proceeds in straightforward chronological fashion, tackling his time-frame decade by decade.
While it is markedly stronger on description than on analysis, World Politics since 1989 is scrupulously non-didactic and pleasingly omnivorous in its scope – covering globalization, the environment, the rise of China, the machinations of Putin’s Russia, Trump and the surge in rightwing populism, among much else.
Holslag gives us the marquee events – Tiananmen Square, 9/11, the financial crash, Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic – but he is meticulous in providing the connecting tissue framing these cataclysms. His aim is, as he says, to ‘familiarize the reader with the milestones of recent world politics, but also to tell something about the road in between’.
We get the customary Western perspective on world affairs but also, and more valuably, Holslag examines Western attitudes from non-Western standpoints, encompassing both state and non-state actors. It is refreshing to read a political history that gives serious weight to the view from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
If there is an overarching mood in this thoughtful and multifaceted book it is a pervasive sadness. Holslag mourns the way the surge of optimism that swept the globe following the end of the Cold War has given way to disappointment and disillusionment as politicians and statespersons have manifestly failed to rise to the challenges of the past three decades. He asks: ‘What the hell happened?’ The answer: decades of hubris and complacency happened. It is difficult to argue against his damning conclusion. PW
Patriarchy of the Wage
by Sylvia Federici
(PM Press/Spectre, ISBN 9781629637990)
Sylvia Federici’s writings have been ignored by many feminists because of her close association with the discredited Wages for Housework campaign. However, a misguided campaign should not undermine the perspicacity of her analysis.
Patriarchy of the Wage brings together her essays, published elsewhere from the 1970s onwards – part of an ongoing, troubled dialogue with Marx: recognizing on one hand the importance of his methodology and critique of the capitalist system in providing the analytical tools for understanding women’s exploitation; and, on the other hand, his failure to address the unpaid reproductive labour provided by women which was a hidden but major contribution to capitalist profit. Hence the definition of work from a feminist perspective becomes critical.
Unpaid sexual services within marriage and paid-for sexual services outside of it also constitute work but the implication that the latter, were it not for criminalization by the state, is an option for working-class women does not sit well with the view that prostitution is nevertheless a form of violence against women.
While the campaign for equal pay has yet to achieve its goal, I would have liked an analysis as to how it fits with Federici’s view that ‘the struggle for the wage is at the same time a struggle against the wage, for the power it expresses and against the capitalist relation it embodies.’
This book is not as ground-breaking as her earlier Caliban and the Witch, which showed how the disciplining of non-conformist women was an essential part of feudalism’s surrender to capitalism. RG