Monday, 9 March 2009

Holiday in CAR

Have you heard of Bangui? No? Never mind. How about Bossangoa? Does the name ring a bell? No? I guess I shouldn’t bother with ‘Barberati’, ‘Carnot’ or ‘Bambari’. All of these are towns (or cities) in a country called ‘Central African Republic’ or ‘République Centrafricaine’, in French. I am not making this up. This country does exist and, as the name suggests, it is situated in Central Africa, five hundred miles north of the equator. It is a landlocked place, surrounded by countries like Cameron, Chad, Sudan, Republic of Congo, and last (but not least) Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Republic of Congo). It was the former French colony of Ubang-Shari, which, upon its independence from the French in 1960, became ‘Central African Republic’ or CAR.

What did you say? Sounds interesting? You would not mind visiting it? Well, if it is the ‘real’ Africa you are looking for, according to one website, Central African Republic (CAR) may just be your ticket, ‘a country of staggering rare natural beauty, with some of the world’s most amazing wildlife’. It is slightly smaller than Texas, which makes it pretty big—Texas, as we know, is pretty big—the additional bonus being there are no Texans in CAR, although they would definitely consider visiting the country with their families and children (who are called Chardonnay-Mercedes and Tyler-Morgan) soon as there are decent eating joints opened in CAR, serving hambergers or grilled T bones or, for that matter, any flesh incinerated at 325 degrees. You can watch the gorillas and elephants in the Dzanga-Sangha National Park, situated in the south East Corner of the country, provided, of course, you manage to get there. The people of CAR, comprising more than 80 tribes or ethnic groups, are open, friendly and generous. You visit them in their huts and they will be very happy to share with you whatever tree-roots they happen to be sucking on to. CAR remains, sadly, the most underdeveloped, disunited and poverty-stricken country in Africa. Which, you will have to admit, is impressive. It is quite an achievement to pip so many other worthy contenders in that continent to the post and emerge a winner. And—here is a surprise—the country should be, in fact, prosperous, rich as it is in important minerals such as Uranium, and dimonds.

Let us look at the history of CAR in the last hundred years. The French occupied it in the 1880s. Why did they go there? You can make your own guess (rich source of minerals and dimonds is a clue). The French occupied an area they imaginatively labelled as the ‘French Congo’ (after the river Congo), which consisted of what is now CAR, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. The French, of course, were not the only European thieves looking to loot Africa: Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom also wanted a share of the booty. They, the French, labelled what is now CAR Ubang-Shari, because most of its territory is within the basins of the rivers Ubang and Shari. Its capital was Bangui. What was French Congo called before the European occupation? Who knows? We are not interested in trivia, are we? Over the next several decades, the French, like all self-respecting European imperialists, proceeded to systematically siphon off wealth out of Ubang-Shari. In the first decade of the French rule, slave-trading was rife, carried out by local African satraps and tribal rulers, with whom the French formed dubious treaties and whom they provided with weapons to carry out raids. Which, come to think of it, is understandable. Why would you go, uninvited, to distant lands unless you have ambitious, honourable aims such as governing the natives (who did not know how to feed themselves unless a banana dropped off a tree) in the European style (with important but necessary modifications so as to accommodate their inferior culture and intellect), and ramming Christianity down their throats (50% of the country’s population, as a result of tireless Christian missionaries beavering away, has become disciples of J. Christ, while 35% still, stubbornly and ignorantly, adhere to what Christian websites describe as ‘indigenous beliefs’; the remaining 15% have become Muslim). It was only fair that the natives showed their gratitude for your noble endeavours. What the French also did—another frequent hobby of the colonialists—is to arrange, then rearrange, then arrange again the geographical map of the country (and the area), not, of course, bothering to take into consideration trifles such as the wishes of the people, which, if you give it a thought, actually made sense: if the natives had the initiative, they would have done all these things themselves. Since they were obviously not up to the task someone else was going to have to do it for them. In 1890s, the French determined the boundaries of the French Congo with the neighbouring ‘Congo Free State’, an ironic name for a country which was, for all practical purposes, privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium—he was the sole shareholder, to use today’s parlance—and which included the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of Congo, the DRC (how the Belgians plundered the natural resources of DRC and treated the natives is a story for another day), and the Germans who were controlling Cameron. In 1899, the boundaries with Sudan were fixed. Then, in 1905, the French united Ubang-Shari with Chad; in 1910, it was joined with the Republic of Congo and Gabon to become French Equatorial Africa. They ceded the Western region of the basin to the Germans, and were given, in turn, a free hand in Morocco; but ‘won’ it back from Germany during the First Great War. And that is how Ubang-Shari remained— as part of French Equatorial Africa—till 1945. 1945 was a momentous year in the twentieth century. It was the year in which Hitler, following his own dictum—‘If you win you don’t have to explain; if you lose, you shouldn’t be there to explain’—bid adieu to the world, and, after a brief interlude during which millions of Japanese were murdered by the Americans, the Second World War came to an end. The Europe—and the Europeans would have everyone believe, the world—was rid of the German nasty. Many of the European colonies decided that it was about time the colonialists went back to where they came from. The Ubang-Shari was no exception. The French, were forced to form local assemblies, and eventually, a decade later to be more precise, in 1958—the year in which French Equatorial Africa was officially dissolved—, grant independence. The French initially encouraged a Roman Catholic Priest called Barthelemy Boganda (he was taken away from his farming family, after his mother was beaten to death by the colonial police, and raised by the Roman Catholic priests) to be the leader of the local assembly, but tried to curb him when, to their annoyance, he did not tow their line and began to espouse totally unacceptable ideas such as Black emancipation and complete autonomy. Nevertheless, that is what happened, and, in 1959, the country was on the verge of getting its independence with Boganda poised to be its first president. At this critical juncture Boganda was conveniently killed in a plane crash. From then on, it has been a sad, though predictable, African story of one coup d’etat after another, with a cavalcade of rapacious, grandiloquent, and clinically insane leaders, propped up from time to time by their former colonial masters. What has been going on in the CAR, however, is, let there be no doubt about it, its very own mess. After Boganda was killed and enshrined into the country’s collective conscience as a great martyr—the myth of Boganda has grown exponentially over the decades, and the miracles attributed to him probably rival those of Jesus Christ—the French supported David Dacko. Dacko was a corrupt, nepotistic, and profligate ruler, who wasted country’s resources, and, within five years of independence, despite the French aid and increasing production of diamonds, CAR was staring down the proverbial barrel. Dacko then opportunistically turned to Mao, who was looking for openings to increase his sphere of influence, and requested interest-free loan. An alarmed France decided that Dacko must go and be replaced by a pro-West dictator. The man they chose was Colonel Jean Bedel Bokassa. Dacko was usurped in a French-assisted coup d’etat, by Bokassa, who was to declare himself, a decade later, Emperor Bokassa, and his piss-poor country, which he had plundered and despoiled, an empire. He too was removed in a French-backed coup (Operation Barracuda), the first of its kind in Africa in which foreign troops were used to remove a leader in power. While the emperor was visiting Libya, seven hundred French paratroopers invaded his palace and seized control of the capital. And who was the man who replaced the mad emperor? David Dacko. Decko’s second stint proved to be short-lived, and soon he was removed by General Andre Kolingba, who promptly suspended the constitution and ruled with a military Junta for years. Kolingba was replaced by Ange-Felix Patasse, who matched all of his predecessors in corruption and sectarian politics, if not insanity. In the last decade or so, there have been more coups in CAR than you and I have had hot meals. The current leader of the country, General Francois Bozize, is a veteran of several coups: having been involved in more than one unsuccessful coup over the past two decades, before achieving his lifetime ambition and staging a successful coup in 2003 that removed Ange-felix Patasse. Bozize now finds himself in the same unenviable position as that of Admiral Karl Donitz, between Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender in the Second World War: presiding over utter ruins and having little control over large part of the country. The country is completely torn apart by the civil war that has raged since General Bozize grabbed power. On the one side are the government forces, while on the other side are the rebel groups, three of them. Needless to say, the rebel groups do not see eye to eye and probably hate one another more than they hate General Bozize. Wait! Did I give you the impression that there are two sides to this conflict? There is a third party. They are the bandits. Hordes of bandits roam the countryside, looting, pillaging and killing innocent people. The rebels say they have taken up arms to restore democracy, and they are going to save the population from the bandits and the evil government forces; all that they ask from people is money. The government declares that they are going to ensure security and usher in stability by putting a stop to all the coups—an ironic declaration from a man who can start a coaching class on how to start a coup—which means they are there to protect the people from the nasty rebels and the bandits; all they want from people is money. That is exactly what the bandits want too. If people do not pay the rebel taxes, they are obviously supporting the governmental forces and deserve the most severe punishment. If they cannot afford the government taxes, that is an incontrovertible evidence that they are in cahoots with the rebels and an enemy of the state, deserving swift extermination. The bandits do not care whom you are supporting; if you do not have money to give them, they will kill you; they will kill you anyway if the fancy takes them. The result? More than 300,000 people have been forced out of their homes in the last five years; one fifth of children die before their fifth birthday; and the average life expectancy is forty years. In large parts of the country, especially those controlled by the rebels and preyed upon by the bandits, there is no health care—Meningitis, Sleeping Sickness, Yellow Fever and many other infectious diseases people in the developed world have not even heard of are endemic; as is violence. The infrastructure is non-existent, with less than 500 miles of paved roads in a country one and half times the size of the United Kingdom. CAR, one of the richest reservoirs of natural resources and diamonds, languishes in poverty, as no investor has the guts to invest in a country where it is easier to start a rebellion than business.

Here is a description of what happened in one of the villages attacked by the government forces, as given on the BBC website:

“One such village, Beogombo Deux, is completely deserted. Crumbling walls, punctured with the occasional bullet hole, are covered with thick vegetation. The school house stands empty, with writing still on the blackboard.
The village chief, Jacques Berte, explains that government soldiers visited the village and accused its inhabitants of helping local rebels. ‘We were sitting peacefully at home in the evening when they burst into the village and started shooting at us. It all happened so quickly. We didn't know what was going on,’ he says. ‘The first person to die was my oldest son. He was just 19. He had only been married for six months….and it happened right in front of me. ‘They let me go because they thought I was too old. But they shot my boy. The bullet hit him in the back and then came out his chest. He just fell down and died. Another man tried to run from his house and they shot him in the back. They went inside and found his older brother and a boy. Then they took them both outside and shot them.’”

It is indescribably sad that there are parts of the world where people are being killed for a goat or a mattress or a saucepan; that there are parts of the world where people are living like animals in bush. Now the Bozize government has invited the opposition parties and the rebel armed forces for peace talks and Bozize has gone on a spree of signing ceasefire agreements. The aim, ostensibly, is to form a national, consensus government until the next presidential election. Will it work? You hope so for the sake of the poor people of this country, for whom successive decades of corrupt regimes have brought nothing but misery. However, one look at the rogues participating in these peace talks, everyone of whom has blood on his hands, makes your heart sink.

You have become quiet all of a sudden. Do I detect a waning of enthusiasm for visiting Central African Republic? Never mind. As an old Texan saying goes, you should not let so much reality in your life that there is no room left for dreaming.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Book of the Month: Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s third novel, is an ambitious tale of interlinked narratives.

The novel opens with the pacific journal of a mid-19th century traveller, and leads the reader, via a collection of letters of a 1930s’ wisenheimer from Belgium, a conspiracy-thriller set in 1970s’ American fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, a contemporary memoir set in modern-day UK, an archival interview of a 'fabricant' in the nightmarish future of cloning, rampant consumerism and 'corpocracy', to the oral testimony of a tribesman belonging to the post-apocalyptic future where the earth has become barren. All the sections, except the Half-Lives: The First Lucia Ray Mystery—an ‘acknowledged’ fiction—are intense first-person narratives.

The narratives, each an independent, well plotted and utterly riveting novella by itself, are connected with others by motifs, some of which obvious, some more subtle. Thus, the first section of the novel, the pacific journal of the stolid and relentlessly conscientious San Francisco notary Adam Ewing, which intriguingly ends in mid-sentence—a trick Mitchell pulls of fairly consistently throughout the novel: each section ends on a cliff-hanger—finds its way, eighty years later, inside Chateau Zedelghem, in Belgium, where it is discovered by the cad and self-styled genius Robert Frobisher, the most endearing protagonist of the novel, who is working as an amanuensis for an expatriate British composer while working simultaneously on his own sextet—the Cloud Atlas. The letters Frobisher writes to his friend, the scientist Sixsmith (his name, one suspects, is a play on the structure of the novel), are found, decades later, by Lucia Ray, a young, intrepid journalist working for a gossip-rag, Spyglass, after Sixsmith, whom she fortuitously meets in a malfunctioning lift, is murdered by the henchmen of the all-powerful corporate company he is working for when he is about to pull the plug on their multi-million dollar project of nuclear power plant because of the serious design-flaws which pose grave environmental threats. This ‘fiction’ is presented to the eponymous narrator of the novel’s next section—The Ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish—a bibulous publisher in the present day England who is on the run from his creditors, and who finds himself tragicomically incarcerated in a home of dementia sufferers after he suffers a mini-stroke, thereby not getting round to read the mystery to its dénouement. Mitchell then propels the reader without much warning into the dystopic world of Sonmi~451, a genetically cloned, inferior, ‘fabricant’ who subsists on soap and serves the ‘purebloods’, the ruling class within the dominant ‘corpocracy’, in a country ‘formerly known as South Korea’. Possessing a ‘soul’ because of an operation, Sonmi~451 is the accidental leader of a rebellion that is quashed most brutally, and she is executed. In this section, which is presented as an archival interview of Sonmi~451 prior to her execution, she describes watching a 'disney' [a movie] from the last century titled 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish'; her dying wish is to see the end of this movie, the only time she has experienced unadulterated joy. The sixth section of the novel, its most direful, takes place on the Big Island of Hawaii after 'the fall' [of civilization]. The earth has become a wasteland and is peopled by primitive tribesmen fighting internecine warfare. Amidst this desolation survive remnants of civilization that have some idea about the humanity’s past achievements and apogee. Somni~451 has become the Goddess of the tribesman, Zachry, who narrates the story in a thick dialect—making this section, at times, difficult to read—the origin of which is anybody’s guess.

In this pan-global—each narrative takes place in a different corner of the earth—, time transcending—the novels opens circa 1849 and within 300 pages the reader has ‘travelled’ centuries—daisy chain, with its—to quote a term adored by the academia—polyphonic spree, Mitchell gives a virtuoso performance. In an interview Mitchell readily admitted that the novel began with what he called the ‘Russian Doll’ structure. Said he: 'The main issue I had to approach was how to make the various novellas fit inside each other and to come up with ways of making the preceding narrative appear as an ‘artefact’ of the succeeding narrative. And the thing was to do that thematically, so the whole thing wasn’t a butcher’s shop exercise with stories meaninglessly presented in a gimmicky way, without adding up to much.'

The recurring motifs of the novel do run the risk of appearing gimmicky, even contrived, at places. The wayfaring of the comet-shaped birth-mark on the back of Somni~451 on more than one character is dismissed by Timothy Cavendish, who is perusing the manuscript of Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, as 'far too hippie-druggie-new age.'

Those obsessed with style haul Mitchell over the coals for not having found his own voice—his excellent debut novel, Ghostwritten had attracted similar criticism—but that is in fact the brilliance of this novel: each narrative, set apart in time, space and culture, has its own language which is vividly emblematical of the epoch it is describing. Mitchell is unapologetic about ventriloquising different voices. He declared in an interview: 'It’s a built-in advantage of the first-person narrative—you can use cranky language or even over-literary language. So you can commit all these ‘sins’ and not only are they not sins, but they add to character.' Cloud Atlas is an example of that, times six.

Those amongst us who believed Ghostwritten heralded the arrival of a major literary talent, will find the belief reinforced by Cloud Atlas. This is story telling of the highest order. Read it, and be captivated.