Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Billards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll

Book Review
Billards at Half-Past Nine (1959)
by Heinrich Böll

   Another Nobel Prize for Literature winner (1972) that I'd never heard of before I started reading a book during the 1001 Books project.  Despite being extremely prolific, popular and politically correct (he was a life long anti-Nazi)  and well read in his native German tongue,  I think it is fair to say that his audience in the United States is limited, and perhaps non-existent outside of literary specialist audiences: teachers, students, serious fans of modern literature in major cities.

  Boll was from Cologne, a town famous for it's Catholic tourism and generally indifferent to hostile to Nazi rule.  Nazi-ism was viewed as a foreign ideology by the burghers of Koln, and Cologne also bore the brunt of a horrific allied bombing campaign during the war that leveled much of the city.  German critics dubbed his work Trümmerliteratur (the literature of the rubble).  It was literally the case that Cologne was rubble after the war, and it was a particularly tough pill to swallow for a population that would have preferred the Nazi's not come to power in the first place.

  Billards at Half-Past Nine takes place during the course of a single day, but the characters spend much of the book thinking about the past.  Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and the result is difficult to follow in the same way that many modernist novels are difficult to follow.  I found myself pulling up the Wikipedia plot summary simply to get my bearings.   All of the narrators are either members of or involved with the Faehmel family, a family of architects, Heinrich, the father, and designer of a significant local abbey, Robert the son, who destroys the abbey as part of a pointless, last ditch effort to defend the home land during the dying days of World War II, and Joseph, son of Robert, who is also an architect but only starting out in his career.

   I don't mind confusing modernist fiction, but I still am not used to the disorientation that always accompanies the first hundred or so pages of these species of novel.  Modernist technique makes novels more like work and less like leisure, and for some audiences I think that is preferred, because it makes the novel "more significant."   But it doesn't make reading very fun.

Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century by Richard Bourne

Book Review
Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century
by Richard Bourne
p. 2015 Zed Books (UK)

  An eye popping fact about the history of Nigeria is that Nigeria has never had a census.  Ever.   Maybe that fact doesn't tell you everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it does give you an idea of how hard the basic facts about Nigerian history can be to pin down.  Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century is a valiant attempt to provide a general reader level introduction to 20th century Nigerian history, but Richard Bourne faces a struggle on many different levels.  The best he can hope to do is identify issues in Nigerian history, he doesn't even presume to provide answers.

  As is the case for many areas of the global south, Nigeria traces its very existence to a decision made by English colonialists.  Present day Nigeria includes three very different regions.  First there is the Muslim north.  Historically, the Muslim north was the heartland of the Sokoto Caliphate, a Muslim empire that united various Emirates of the Hausa people.   The Hausa speak an Afro-Asiatic language, part of the same language family that includes Arabic and Hebrew.  The Hausa/Sokoto had a horse riding, war making aristocracy.  The English colonialists were enamored of this leadership, and colonialism was a very quiet presence in this part of Africa, to the point where Christian missionaries were kept out of the area in the early and middle parts of the 20th century.

    The second major group in Nigeria are the Yoruba, who live in the south and the west of the present day country.  The Yoruba never had a centralized government, but they were a sophisticated people and early converts to Christianity.  White settlers simply couldn't survive for very long in this part of the world, and thus Southern Nigeria was spared the indignities faced by native peoples in Southern Africa.

   The final major ethnicity/people of Nigeria are the Igbo, who occupied eastern Nigeria. Like the Yoruba, the Igbo were quick converts to Christianity.  They were also the great losers of the post-Indpendence power struggle.  The so-called Biafrian civil way (that's why he's called "Jello Biafra" resulted in the death of millions of ethnic Igbo and resulted in their exclusion from power for decades after.

  And then there are multiple smaller ethnicities.  Oh, and the Yoruba speak a Bantu language, and the Igbo speak a language from the Niger-Congo family.   All three major native languages are from different language families, so Nigeria is something like having equal portions of English speakers, Chinese speakers and Native Americans.  The independence movement in Nigeria was muted, perhaps because the British presence was so muted.  Only Yoruba elites in the South had a genuine desire for independence in the way that you typically think about those ideas in the 20th century.  The North, fearing the potential for domination by the Christian south, actively resisted independence and only became independent at the very moment before Nigeria was formed as an independent state.

  The complex ethnic make up led to an even more complicated electoral system, with multiple checks and balances to ensure that no one group could control the other. This complicated electoral system was perhaps not the best idea for a society experiencing democracy for the first time, and several military coups became the defining feature of post-indpendence life.   The coups were enabled by the discovery of enormous oil wealth, which quickly became the major source of income for the Federal state, and a major source of contention for those negatively impacted by the development of said resources.

 The frequent oscillation between military and civilian rule wasn't great for the Nigerian people, but nor was it a worst case scenario.  It is very, very, very fair to say that any statistics that come out of Nigeria are dubious, so while figures purport to show a decline in income in post-independence Nigeria, it's possible that either the initial numbers were wrong, or the newer figures were wrong, or both.  Additionally, the Nigerian state essentially sits on top of these very distinct regions/ethnic groups, and it is debatable how much of an impact the coups and elections had on the great mass of the Nigerian population, who were still living in traditional village settings.

  A theme which emerges from Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century, is that Nigeria is better compared to India in terms of it's historical experience with Colonialism than it is to other African nations.  The Nigerian independence movement was most inspired by the Indian example, and Nigeria maintains an uneasy relationship with other West African states, with Ghana appearing to be almost a "rival."

  Another theme of 20th century Nigerian history is a high level of buy-in from the people and elites of the various composite ethnic groups, major civil war aside.  It's not hard to look at Nigeria and see the Sunni's and Shias of Iraq, eternally at cross purposes, but that hasn't been in the case here.  Even the recent eruption of the Boko Haram seems to have been taken in stride, and dealt with in a way that respects the difference of the Muslim north and the Christian south.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Summer Will Show (1936) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

File:Sylvia Townsend Warner.jpg
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Book Review
Summer Will Show (1936)
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

    The most striking difference between the 2006 and 2008 versions of the 1001 Books list is the exclusion of books by authors who placed multiple titles on the 2006 list in favor of non-English language, unrepresented authors.  A major theme of the 2006 list which is eclipsed in the 2008 list is the emphasis of books by English language women authors who are commonly excluded from the canon.  Sylvia Townsend Warner is a good example of an author from the group.  Summer Will Show is a little-read, historical novel about the French Revolution, written about a wealthy English woman who becomes a lesbian radical.

   Warner is so little read today that all of her major books are published by the New York Review of Books publishing imprint.  The NYRB is a who's-who of neglected 20th century authors, and I can only presume that their criteria for publication is a lack of interest from bigger publishing houses and a solid critical reputation.

    Warner is so little read today that only one of her books even has it's own Wikipedia page.   There have been perhaps less than ten titles in the 1001 Books list that lack an independent Wikipedia page.  Obscurity aside, there is much to admire in Summer Will Show, namely a strong female protagonist who engages in a lesbian relationship and forsakes a life of leisure in rural England for a position on the barricades of the French Revolution.

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