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Archive for July, 2008

Parallel Worlds: The Science of Alternative Universes and our Future in the Cosmos (2005)

by Michio Kaku

Penguin Books, 428pp

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who seems determined to bring the complex ideas and theories of his field to a much wider audience, and if the evidence of this book is anything to go by, then it is a field that we as a race should be paying closer attention to.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees called Kaku’s book “an exhilarating romp through the frontiers of cosmology” and that is the best summation of this book that I can find. It is a romp – taking in Newtonian physics, black holes, wormholes, time travel, alternative dimensions, parallel worlds and string theory. There were passages that in this book simply left me scratching my head – in a good way – and there were ideas and philosophies here that have had me thinking for days. It does what every good introduction to a new field of study should do – excite our interest.

In many respects this book is filled with more awe and wonder than most science fiction novels (and Kaku name checks a few), and contains as much speculation as those books might. Only in this instance Kaku backs up his wild theorising with science and the potentialities of science. At the end of this romp you will be left believing that time travel is possible, and that out there somewhere there is another version of you and another and another, ad infinitum.

The most troubling aspect of Kaku’s work, though, comes towards the end when he begins to discuss the question of God and His place within this cosmology. Kaku is not expounding a Christian view, but he offers a way in which God might be possibly within a scientific realm – for:

“Whenever Einstein was creating his cosmic theories he would always ask the question, how would I have designed the universe? He leaned toward the idea that perhaps God had no choice in the matter. String theory seems to vindicate this approach. When we combine relativity with the quantum theory, we find theories that are riddled with hidden but fatal flaws: divergences that blow up and anomalies that spoil the symmetries of the theory. Only by incorporating powerful symmetries can these divergences and anomalies be eliminated, and M-theory possesses the most powerful of these symmetries. Thus, perhaps, there might be a single, unique theory that obeys all the postulates that we demand in a theory.” (P.357)

All the flukes and coincidences and “events being just at the right time” (our planet being just at the right distance to support life, the planets being in just the right orbits to stop earth being hit by passing space debris etc) indicate to some that there must be divine intervention in play. If there is a divine hand, than to explain everything within this grand theory there has to be the further postulation that mankind is not special, that we are just biological beings that rise and fall like everything else.

And this is the final powerful truth that Kaku shows: that cosmology by its very nature must be concerned with the end (as well as the beginning) and that therefore it becomes a mournful elegiac science.

Kaku’s book is well worth a read, containing the basics of all the major branches of cosmology and particle science. It is a work that will produce questions and send you off looking for more answers. It is as powerful in that sense as philosophy, and this time you can back the thoughts up with facts – just don’t expect them all to be right.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

by Mohsin Hamid

Penguin Books, 209pp

Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 international bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007, tells the story of Changez (the Urdu for Genghis), a possible terrorist meeting a possible CIA agent in Lahore. “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” So begins Changez’s monologue that charts the rise and fall of this man, from Princeton University, to employment in a prestigious firm, his love for a fellow New Yorker named Erica, to the increasing suspicion he feels after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, and the escalating conflict in his home country of Pakistan, which he watches from across the Atlantic, powerless to help.

Of all the novels published about 9/11, and the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim countries, Hamid has produced one of the best. John Updike – usually the master of character creation –in The Terrorist (2006) or Don DeLillo in The Falling Man (2007) – usually the master of American Diaspora but failing here – have all attempted to cover the momentous events of that September day. Where Hamid succeeds is that though 9/11 is a central moment of this novel, unwittingly altering Changez’s destiny, it is not a driving force of the novel, the character is not involved with it. When the Trade Center falls he is halfway around the world, in Manila, watching it on television like everyone else. Hamid has not constructed a novel about 9/11, but a novel about a person affected by the events, and that is ultimately more powerful.

The collapse of the World Trade Center provides The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s most shocking moment.

“I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” (P.83)

What distinguishes The Reluctant Fundamentalist is its monologue form. Changez is relating his tale to an American who may or may not be CIA and Changez may or may not be a terrorist. Hamid plays with this form, having fun letting the audience second guess what actions may next occur. The duality that this text invokes is mirrored through the possibly radicalisation Changez undergoes and the loss of mind that befalls Erica. At the end of this superbly powerful narrative every character is left hanging off metaphorical and literal cliffs (or having gone over them) that one is reminded that this is simply not a story of a rise and fall, but is concerned with events that happened after the fall, for falling is only but the beginning of one story.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is already published in Penguin Books, and I am certainly that in twenty years time this novella will be included in the Penguin Modern Classics range. Hamid’s novel is that good.

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Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006)

by Heather O’Neill

Quercus, 373pp

A Short Review

In Lullabies for Little Criminals, Canadian author Heather O’Neill introduces to Baby, a twelve year old girl whom lives with her drug-addict father Jules, as they move between apartments, hotel rooms and rehabs in Montreal. As Baby’s relationship with her father fractures and he falls ill she is moved to children’s homes and juvenile detention centres, where she falls into a life of petty crime, then drug addiction and finally prostitution as she befriends and lives with a pimp named Alphonse. The world that Baby inhabits is a difficult one, full of the downtrodden, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and the sexually perverse. Though O’Neill’s story is a powerfully downbeat one that sometimes sucker punches you, there remains a magic to this story, full of magical imagery:

“[The apartment] had the same smell of wet clothes and pot that our last apartment had. It smelled as if a florist shop had caught on fire and all the flowers were burning.” (P.2)

Because of this, at times, O’Neill’s debut novel can seemingly become swollen and obtuse, a tad unrealistic. It seems to take away from the horror of Baby’s situation. However, Baby is our narrator, at some point after the events of this novel has taken place, so a certain allowance can be made here. Might this not be how Baby is choosing to remember events? To sugar-coat some of the nastier moments with a touch of light?

The main problem I have with O’Neill’s novel is the final chapter. After Alphone’s death from heroin, thereby freeing Baby from her duty as a child prostitute, she is reunited with her father, leaves Montreal with him to have a tearful reunion with long forgotten family members and a happily-ever-after (we presume) finale. This all seems to happen in the one day. I wonder if O’Neill has been hampered by the publishing need of giving this bleak tale a huge ray of sun at the end, for the fear that her novel would be otherwise unsuccessful. It does not seem that Baby would ever be able to escape the life into which she has sunk and drowned. In her short essay at the end of the Quercus edition of this novel, O’Neill talks about having a junkie friend when she was twelve and of living in the area of Montreal that this novel is set in – this is what provides the book with its sense of authenticity. The rest of it reads like an imagining of what could have happened to her if she had stayed.

Lullabies for Little Criminals was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2008, coming after a string of Canadian awards, including winning Canada Reads in 2007. It deserves much of the praise showered upon it, and is a fine debut novel, that marks O’Neill out as a writer to watch if she can escape the downtrodden streets of Montreal where Baby should still be walking.

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Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

by Chinua Achebe

Picador Edition, 233pp

Also available as a Penguin Modern Classic

Anthills of the Savannah see Achebe returning to similar territory as his last novel, A Man of the People – politics of post-colonial Africa. Whereas A Man of the People saw events leading up to a coup, Anthills of the Savannah is post-coup. A charismatic young Sandhurst trainer army officer, known only in the novel as Sam or His Excellency, has been swept into power in the troubled state of Kangan. After he is defeated in a vital referendum, his role as dictator becomes unsteady, and there can be no other response but more violence.

The novel follows three characters through this maelstrom. Chris Oriko, the Minister of Information and Ikem Osodi, a poet and editor of a newspaper, and Beatrice Okoh, a Minister of Finance and Chris’s girlfriend. These characters, drawn together under His Excellency’s web, have to fight for their very survival as the state of Kangan is plunged into chaos.

Whereas A Man of the People allowed us to witness the build-up to a coup through the eyes of just one figure, the naive Odili, Anthills of the Savannah’s greatest strength is its disparate view points and experimental style. As I noted in a previous review, A Man of the People was Achebe’s first attempt at a first person narration. Anthills of the Savannah takes this one step further – three first person narrations that fill the first half of the novel and then a switch to third person. This experimental form proves a great advantage for Achebe, as it allows him the power to oscillate between contrasting viewpoints, and proves a great tool for heightening this already tense novel. At one point we are inside Chris’s head, desperate to know what it is Beatrice is really thinking. It is this mastery of the form that earned Anthills of the Savannah a Booker Prize nomination in 1987 (beaten by Penelope Lively for Moon Tiger).

Achebe concerns himself with the questions of how such situations are allowed to arise in Africa. Chris Oriko poses at the opening of the novel:

“…looking back on the last two years it should be possible to point to a decisive event and say: it was at such and such a point that everything went wrong and the rules were suspended. But I have not found such a moment or such a cause…” (P.2)

If Chris Oriko has not found it, the rest of the novel is an exposition that would seem to indicate that it is not there to be found. Events are caused by a confluence of other events, many times simply trivial, sometimes even apparently unconnected. And yet the characters in this novel strive to find a meaning. Ikem Osodi, the poet, seeks his meaning in words.

“Chris keeps lecturing me on the futility of my crusading editorials. They achieve nothing. They antagonise everybody. They are essays in overkill. They’re counter-productive. Poor Chris. By now he probably believes the crap too… The line I have taken with him is perhaps too subtle: But supposing my crusading editorials were indeed futile would I not be obliged to keep on writing them? To think that Chris no longer seems to understand such logic! …Perhaps I should learn to deal with him along his own lines and jog his short memory with the many successes my militant editorials have had.” (P.38)

But Ikem is silenced; the newspaper is taken away from him. Words do not explain or justify the actions committed in and against Kangan and its people. Beatrice opens his eyes by telling Ikem that his politics and his knowledge:

“I tell him he has no clear role for women in his political thinking; and he doesn’t seem able to understand it.” (P.91)

This accusation shakes Ikem’s world view to its very foundations, though he does admit:

“I can’t tell you what the new role for Woman will be. I don’t know. I should never have presumed to know. You have to tell us.” (P.98)

This is important. When the words and actions of Ikem and Chris have failed, it is the words and actions of Beatrice that will alter civilisation in Kangan. Ikem’s girlfriend gives birth to their child, and Beatrice organises the naming ceremony. Ordinary the naming of a child would be a man’s task, but with their men dead or still fighting the women name the child. A male guest responds:

“Do you know why I am laughing like this? I am laughing because in you young people our world has met its match. Yes! You have put the world where it should sit…” (P.227)

The men of Kangan have fought and died, but it is the women that shall inherit this earth and have to rise upon it. Here we see the role of woman in the world, something Ikem could not see or express with words, and what Chris, the man of action, would never have fought for.

In the middle of Achebe’s novel there is an extract from David Diop’s poem Africa:

“Africa tell me Africa

Is this you this back that is bent

This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation

This back trembling with red scars

And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun” (P.134)

We are bought full circle, back to the arguments Achebe has been making since Things Fall Apart. That Africans accepted the subjugation from the west too readily, that they did not put up a fight. And now, with a back still trembling with red stars, they allow this to continue, under dictators and tin-pot rulers. They are complicit in their own shame. Achebe at the end of this novel seems to be saying that African society needs to be integrated, with women as important as men, as the poor as level as the rich. It is an idealist view that brings about “The bitter taste of liberty” David Diop’s poem concludes with.

Anthills of the Savannah still remains Achebe’s last novel, twenty-one years after its first publication. It took him twenty-one years to write (though he wrote poetry, essays and children’s stories in that time), and so by this reckoning we should be about due his next novel. Last year in the Guardian newspaper he admitted to writing one, but following a car crash that left him paralysed in 1990 he stated that it was difficult to write for very long each day. The five novels Chinua Achebe has published so far have been deep, intelligent novels, engaged with Africa’s history and political life, and one wishes to hear his view on the way that country, and particularly Nigeria, has lived in the past twenty years. It is a safe bet to say that it will be damning, political, and relevant. Chinua Achebe is a writer of immense standing, and reading his five novels I have been struck again and again at the depth and poetry of his language, and the insight he provides into, for me, an otherwise unknown culture. He is fully deserving of the title of “The Father of Modern African Writing” which was bestowed upon him when he was awarded the 2007 Man Booker International Prize.

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A Man of the People (1966)

by Chinua Achebe

Heinemann Publishers, 149pp

This book is unavailable in the Penguin Modern Classics range

Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novella, A Man of the People, was selected by Anthony Burgess as one of the best novels in English since 1939. So reading this work one comes with high expectations. It is present day (1966) in an unnamed African nation and a well educated man is about to meet the countries leader, Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga M.P., or M. A. Minus Opportunity as he is sometimes known. Our hero Odili Samalu is ambitious, and as his life becomes entwined with Nanga’s, his sense of ambition inflates.

Upon its release the Nigerian poet and playwright John Pepper Clark declared “Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup!” Later that year, Nigerian Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu seized control of the northern region of the country as part of a larger coup attempt.

Reading Achebe’s political satire on the same day as the Zimbabwean elections were internationally called a disgrace was an odd convergence of fiction and reality and a prescient reminder that Achebe is a writer with a keen socio-political awareness and that his involvement with Nigerian politics at the time would have placed him in a position to witness the corruption and scandal that can more some African politics.

A Man of the People contains two firsts for Achebe as a novelist: this is the first time he attempts comedy and satire – much of the doom and portent of Things Fall Apart has now gone – and this is also the first time he has chosen to write in the first person. This form of narration works well, placing us directly in Odili’s head, writing after the events of the novel have transpired – so we know from the outset that he cannot win the election race in which he places himself. But the build-up to it still retains much tension, and the bloody dénouement even manages to shock with its sudden, unexpected deaths.

But Achebe is as interested in telling this dramatic (albeit comic) story as he is in exploring the deeper questions of how such deeply repellent men such as Nanga can remain in power. In an early sequence of the novel, when Odili meets Nanga again for the first time in decades and from where he secures his first job with the leader, Nanga is wowing the crowds, leading Odili to muse:

“Somehow I found myself admiring the man for his lack of modesty. For what is modesty but inverted pride? We all think we are first-class people. Modesty forbids us from saying so ourselves though, presumably, not from wanting to hear it from others. Perhaps it was their impatience with this kind of hypocrisy that made men like Nanga successful politicians while starry-eyed idealists strove vaingloriously to bring into politics niceties and delicate refinements that belong elsewhere.” (P.11)

Odili, at the start of the novella, is one of those starry-eyed idealists:

“As I stood in one corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the minister I felt intense bitterness welling up in my mouth: Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation.” (P.2)

Odili is one of those men that sit at home feeling he knows how things could be improved, if only he had the chance. Nanga gives him that chance. Knowing and now seeing firsthand how Nanga’s government is betraying the common man, Odili and his friends strive to do something about it:

“That first night I not only heard of a new political party about to be born but got myself enrolled as a foundation member. Max and some of his friends having watched with deepening disillusion the use to which our hard-won freedom was being put by corrupt, mediocre politicians had decided to come together and launch the Common People’s Convention.” (P.77)

Only as we know and they know, the enterprise is doomed to failure. The subsequent reprisals launched by Nanga leave one in no doubt that the country is corrupt, where everybody is on the make, and that where there is no overall law – just tribal groupings – that the corrupt will always win. Only Achebe has one final twist of the knife, and to spoil that would be wrong.

It is interesting to compare this book with Achebe’s more famous works. In No Longer at Ease, Achebe’s only other contemporary novel (at this stage in his career – another, Anthills of the Savannah, would follow in 1987), we see a Lagos that is still an African city in thrall to Western ways. The unnamed country of this novel is almost devoid of white men, and though the political figures in this work have all had a British education, though are not keen to retain those Western ideals. The country in this novel is one the white men have clearly abandoned – as was done all over Africa in reality – so that tin-pot dictators such as Nanga can come to power and be overthrown by another power hungry figure indecently quickly. There is no sense of permanence here, no sense of history of tradition. In Things Fall Apart we saw a culture whose history was ingrained in the very skin of its people. In A Man of the People, history has no relevance, and the mistakes are destined to be repeated.

Achebe’s novel is a deeply satirical one, in tune with modern African politics that retains much of the resonance it must have had for a 1960s audience as it does to us, forty years later.

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Arrow of God (1964)

by Chinua Achebe

Picador Edition, The African Trilogy, from which page numbering comes.

This book is unavailable in the Penguin Classics range.

Arrow of God – often paired with Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, as part of The African Trilogy – is a book with a troubled gestation and a difficult publishing history. Achebe had planned, as I noted in the review of No Longer at Ease, to originally compose a trilogy (giving substance to the decision to create The African Trilogy) but Arrow of God is not the third part of Achebe’s trilogy. Whereas Okonkwo and Obi Okonkwo (hero of Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease respectively) are grandfather and grandson, the hero of Arrow of God, Ezeulu, has no biological connection to these men nor does he even belong to their tribe. Even Achebe admitted in his introduction to the Picador edition of the trilogy, that Arrow of God “is not the missing story of my father’s generation.” (p.11)

So if Arrow of God is not the novel he was expected to write, nor does it now exist as Achebe originally published it. I do not know when Achebe revised this book, but the second copyright inscription is ten years after its first publication, in 1974. In his preface to the second edition, reprinted in the Picador edition, Achebe offers this by way of explanation: “I have become aware of certain structural weaknesses in it which I now take the opportunity of a new edition to improve.” (P.317) Without the original edition to compare I cannot make further comment upon this.

The story of Arrow of God is closer in tone to Things Fall Apart than No Longer at Ease, taking us as it does to 1920s Nigeria, to a country where the white man’s presence is no longer just felt, but lived under. The tribespeople that we last saw in Things Fall Apart ostensively (for the most part) stick to their traditions, but have come to a compromise with the “fetish” of the white man. They are a Christian people with pagan ways. Achebe describes it thus: “It is an enrichment of the old story of Africa in its initial struggle for its land and mind against the ruthless invaders from the West.” (p.11)

The white men who have come to Nigeria have not changed much from the district commissioner, George Allen (from Things Fall Apart) whose book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger is required reading for Arrow of God’s Captain Winterbottom. The book says:

“For those in search of a strenuous life, for those who can deal with men as others deal with material, who can grasp great situations, coax events, shape destinies and ride the crest of the wave of time, Nigeria is holding out her hands.” (P.352)

Nigeria is not just a country to pacify and convert; it is a proving ground for the white man. Captain Winterbottom, arriving in Africa late, has missed much of this, for “the work of pacification was done in these parts” (P.351) but he is not beyond resorting to those methods again. As he says to a new recruit who believes in methods of compassion and understanding of the native culture:

“I see you are one of the progressive ones. When you’ve been here as long as Allen was and understood the native a little more you might begin to see things in a different light. If you saw, as I did, a man buried up to his neck with a piece of roast yam on his head to attract vultures you know… well never mind. We British are a curious bunch, doing everything half-heartedly. Look at the French. They are not ashamed to teach their culture to backward races under their charge. Their attitude to the native ruler is clear. They say to him: “This land has belonged to you because you have been strong enough to hold it. By the same token it now belongs to us. If you are not satisfied come out and fight us.”” (P.354 – 355)

In the heart of this speech is the cause of the conflict that engulfs the district of Umuaro. Against Captain Winterbottom stands the Chief Priest Ezeulu, a man also not unfamiliar with dishing out petty cruelty to achieve ends:

“Whenever they shook hands with him he tensed his arm and put all his power into the grip, and being unprepared for it they winced and recoiled with pain.” (P.319 – 320)

What we witness through the course of this novel is the petty erosion of Umuaro culture, the subsuming of traditional ways by modern Western forms. It happens slowly, insidiously, without the people noting it. Only when it is too late do the people of Umuaro notice; Ezeulu says:

“Let me ask you one question. Who bought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? We went to war against Okperi who are our blood brothers over a piece of land which did not belong to us and you blame the white man for stepping in? Have you not heard that when two brothers fight a stranger reaps the harvest? How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five… Five. Now have you ever heard that five people – even if their heads reached the sky – could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there, how then did they find the way? We showed them and we are still showing them.” (p.454 – 455)

The scene for an epic fight between these two men – Winterbottom and Ezeulu – is set. Only as in Things Fall Apart the resolution is not the one a Western audience might expect, in Arrow of God especially. It is this reason that led Angus Calder to suggest that Arrow of God succeeded Things Fall Apart, and that book he claimed to be the most important of the century. I personally feel that Arrow of God is a less successful novel, though it is still a very strong one. Achebe, as in his first novel, is very good at painting a portrait of a very different society, but whereas in Things Fall Apart there was a stark poetry, here there is a wealth of detail but to a lesser effect.

The title Arrow of God comes from an Igbo proverb in which an event or a person is said to represent the will of God, and in the struggle and acquiescence of African traditions to Western ones, Ezeulu standing against it for the good of his people, is struck down. Before long, so will his land.

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