12 October 2017

Black, No Sugar

Karnak Café
by Naguib Mahfouz

This was my first experience of reading Mahfouz. Like most works in translation, it loses some of what one presumes to be its characteristic quality when rendered in English. Arabic is a notoriously difficult language for translators to work with.

I thought this was a pretty good book. When reading fiction from cultures beyond the Western world (and Japan), especially in translation, it is important to moderate one’s expectations concerning style, form and technique; the novel – and even more so, the short story – are alien forms in most of these cultures, and the writers are learning (mostly from outdated Western European or Russian models) as they go along. In terms of stylistic and technical development, Karnak Café, published in 1971, might have been written forty years previously; it makes one think of Goodbye to Berlin with its engaged but faceless, cipher-like first-person narrator. Or maybe Kafka without the absurdism (and the jokes).

But Mahfouz get a lot of things right; there’s a lot of art and insight packed into this slim novel. Its timeline covers a few months or years on either side of the Six Day War of 1967, a conflict whose outcome deeply shocked and humiliated Arabs, and particularly Egyptians, and which is known in Arabic as al Naksa, ‘The Setback’. As a Sri Lankan, I have had to live with the erosion of the rule of law, civil society and freedom in my own country, which began in 1970 and continued well into the present century. In Egypt, this all happened much faster and was, no doubt, correspondingly more surreal and nightmarish. Mahfouz captures those qualities of the process well, together with the astonished paralysis of those who suddenly find everything – one’s job, one’s relationships to other people, the customary and legal boundaries one has always respected, one’s moral code itself – swept away by the malfeasance and corruption of the state, which has for largely spurious reasons declared people like yourself its enemy. He also shows how this malfeasance and corruption infect everything they touch, most particularly their victims.

It happens almost naturally, in everyday life, to ordinary people: in this case, the habituées of a Cairo cafe run by a retired belly-dancer, Qurunfula. We follow the progress of their condition through anxiety and terror to hopelessness and ultimately, acceptance and subornment. A number of incarcerations and interrogations are reported, but always in retrospect – accounts given by the victims after their release, in conversation at the cafe, with the worst abuses and atrocities decently veiled in allusions and ellipses. Yet enough is revealed, and commented upon, to have caused some Arab reviewers to describe Karnak Café as ‘Mahfouz’s angriest book’.

Qurunfula herself is an obvious metaphor for modern Egypt, desperate to retain her integrity yet given to falling in love with unsuitable characters and entertaining implausible hopes. Her various would-be lovers seem to represent the various ideas Egyptians have had about their country and its politics; in the end, she has either done with them all, or they have, seemingly, done with her; yet as the novel ends she is somehow full of hope for the future.

Considering the state of Egypt today, almost half a century later, that is probably the saddest thing about this distinguished literary work from an equally distinguished author.

14 August 2017

Hardwired Hallelujahs

The “God” Part of the Brain
by Matthew Alper

Allow me to save you the trouble of reading this book by describing it to you.

Matthew Alper notes that the spiritual/religious (his formulation) impulse is universal among humanity, extending to all cultures and periods. From this he deduces, probably correctly, that spirituality/religion is an evolved function of our species. Evolutionary biology tends to agree with this premise, but has been unable, so far, to explain why the function, or rather functions, evolved. What use are they to us in the lifelong struggle to survive and reproduce successfully?

Mr Alper has an explanation. He wrote it down. This book is it.

The first half consists of a brief rundown of the history of the universe, ending with the evolution of consciousness in Homo Sapiens. The content of this section spans physics, cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, biochemistry and evolutionary biology. It is replete with scientific howlers (matter turns into energy if you accelerate it fast enough) but the overall picture it paints is reasonably correct. From it, the author derives a materialistic and naturalistic worldview – also fair enough, though highly debatable. Based on this worldview, he deduces that we must have a religious/spiritual (yes, I’m getting tired of these slashes, too) instinct that is hardwired into our brains. This does not necessarily follow, although I agree with Mr Alper that it seems likely.

But then he goes further, stating his conviction that there must be a particular site in the human brain (the eponymous “God” part) devoted to religion/spirituality (would that be one part, then, or two?) And he says there must be genes for it too, since everything physical in our bodies is manufactured according to the instructions encoded in our genes. That’s right, gentle reader: Mr Alper would like you to believe you have a gene for religion and one (maybe the same one) for spirituality too. Just like, you know, there’s a gay gene and a music-loving gene and a boogie-chillun gene and suchlike.

Mr Alper then devotes a very short middle section to explaining why he thinks our brains evolved a “God” part. His explanation: we are the only animals that are conscious of our own mortality, and the fear and anxiety arising from the knowledge that we must die are so crippling that, just to allay our mortal timorousness and get on with the necessary tasks of making a living and making babies, we evolved the ability to tell ourselves a pack of lies about sky fairies and life after death, and believe them. This is actually quite a good idea, though there are, to my mind, more persuasive explanations for the existence of religion. I have my own – doesn’t every atheist and agnostic have one?

The second half of Mr Alper’s book (as an editor, I appreciate the symmetry of structure) expands, extends and attempts to reinforce his thesis. After reading a chapter or two farther and finding that the error count and the nonsense level were rising exponentially, I quit. Mr Alper’s pedantic, pedestrian, repetitive style had long since soured on me by then; if my only concerns with this book were literary, I would have quit before the end of Chapter Two.

Don’t waste your time with this ‘cult classic’. It’s rubbish.

Photo credit: Godong/Getty Images. Borrowed from here.

15 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (5)

The story of Ceylon tea begins with coffee – the first crop successfully adapted to plantation agriculture in the central hills of the island. It was coffee, not tea, which first made fortunes for British proprietors and speculators in Ceylon, financed the establishment of a modern government and administration in the colony and made possible the rise of an educated local elite and middle class. As a famous historian remarked as recently as 1980, ‘almost every salient feature of modern Sri Lanka can be traced back to the coffee era.’ After the collapse of coffee, tea inherited the cleared plantations with their fine bungalows and resident labour forces, the mercantile trading system, the up-country road network, the railway and Colombo’s modern harbour, all of which were originally brought into being to serve the coffee enterprise.
       This, the fifth (and last) in a series of excerpts from my soon-to-be-published book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, takes readers back to the early days of coffee in Ceylon.

11 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (4)

Few people, even in the tea trade, now recall the report of the commission appointed by the United Front Government of 1970-77 to inquire into the workings of plantation agency houses and broking firms. The commission, led by LSSP stalwart Bernard Soysa and the leftist intellectual Kumari Jayawardena, had a strongly Marxist and nationalist orientation and was evidently prejudiced against the industry. Its report, published after much delay in May 1975, made numerous charges, both general and specific, of collusion among plantation-industry capitalists, the intent of which was to loot Sri Lanka of the proceeds of its key industries, for the benefit of a few, mainly English beneficiaries. The report caused a sensation when it came out and provided the State with the excuse it needed to nationalize the estates and remove them from agency-house control – though as it turned out, the state still needed the agency houses after all.
     The following excerpt from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation describes how the Agency House Commission Report was received by the government and the trade, and what happened next.

22 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (3)

When told that I was writing a book about the Ceylon tea trade, the first question many socially-aware friends asked me was ‘What are you going to say about the estate workers?’ A pertinent question: the status of Sri Lankan plantation workers and their treatment at the hands of estate owners, the general public and the State are heavily fraught and controversial subjects. My answer – that I would deal with the workers and their troubles as truthfully and fairly as I was able – was often met with a sceptical smile. Wasn’t my work being sponsored by the tea trade – the putative oppressors themselves? I could only counsel my friends to wait and see.
       This, the third in a series of extracts from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, begins the story of the plantation workers. The tale commences not in the age of tea but in the coffee-planting era that preceded it. From here, the story is carried through the rest of the book, becoming one of the principal strands out of which the narrative is woven.

11 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (2)

The Great Depression of 1929-39 added to the already considerable troubles of colonial Ceylon. The country’s vital tea industry was severely tested as world prices plummeted and production restrictions were imposed on estates. This second excerpt from my forthcoming book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation deals with some of those impacts, and the impetus they gave to tea marketing in the Thirties.

An early achievement of the Tea Propaganda Board: Song of Ceylon,
directed by Basil Wright and narrated by Lionel Wendt

The Slump & The Song

07 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (1)

It is slightly over a year since I began work on a history of the Sri Lankan tea industry, which will be published next month as part of the celebrations being held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of that industry, which falls in 2017. The book will be titled Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation.
     The publishers of the book, the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association, have given me permission to post selected excerpts on this blog in advance of publication. Below is the first of these excerpts, taken from a chapter that describes the early maturity of the industry, around the end of the nineteenth century.

26 January 2017

Rx: Failed

The Great Degeneration
by Niall Ferguson

Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too, including our own in Sri Lanka) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.

This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.

The Great Degeneration was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.

So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall, he is right.

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of ageing, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism and brainfucked by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.