Graeme Wood

Icon

Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, , ,

Mercenary Hires Self, Has Fool for a Client

I reviewed Simon Mann’s memoir, Cry Havoc, for The National.

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Dh51

Everyone’s favourite kind of coup d’état is the bloodless one: El Presidente is surprised in his pyjamas, or while shopping in London, his trusted military aides turn out to be snakes, and he ends up, along with his loyalists, either under house arrest or in exile – padded at first, then increasingly threadbare as the secret accounts are frozen, one by one. Meanwhile, if you are an average citizen of his beleaguered country, not much changes. The money flows to anyone but you: meet the new Presidente, same as the old Presidente.

Simon Mann, one of the most famous living mercenaries, set out in 2004 to manage what he insisted would be a bloodless coup to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. But the Wonga Coup was so bloodless that it barely got started. Mann chartered a Boeing 727 full of armed men and planned to fly into the capital of Malabo, where an advance team led by the South African mercenary Nick du Toit intended to take over the airport. Mann hoped to install Severo Moto, the leader of a government-in-exile headquartered in Spain, as president, and in return reap millions in oil revenues.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, , ,

Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

By PETER GODWIN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, ,

Liberty Abroad

El sueño del celta.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Madrid: Alfaguara. 464 pages. $20.

Originally appeared in Bookforum.

Those who wish to see politics in everything frequently get their wish. The selection of a Nobel laureate in literature is a case in point. In 2001, the choice of V. S. Naipaul looked to some like a post-9/11 gesture of sympathy with America—even an endorsement of America’s incipient military rebukes to Islamism. Four years later, awarding the anti-American Harold Pinter looked like a rebuke to the American rebuke. And last year’s selection, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, looks like the most overtly political winner in the past three decades.

The attention garnered by other laureates for their politics has been, by and large, a byproduct of their writing. This is true of Pinter as well as of Gabriel García Márquez (a “courtesan of Castro,” Vargas Llosa once called him). But for Vargas Llosa, politics is his métier, and his best work, both fiction and nonfiction, is political to the core. As a result of his failed 1990 campaign for the Peruvian presidency and five decades of political journalism, we know that he espouses Thatcherite classical liberalism with a Latin American face. (Much of Vargas Llosa’s journalism remains unavailable in English; to confuse matters further, his collected early political writing, Contra viento y marea [Against the Wind and Tide], happens to share a title with the Spanish edition of the autobiography of the conservative Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris.) Now, with the release in Spanish of his seventeenth novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), Vargas Llosa’s political reputation is due for a reappraisal. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bookforum, , , ,

On the incompetence of the ANC

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

By R.W. Johnson
(Overlook, 702 pages, $40)

Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was “a good communist.” Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.

This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed R.W. Johnson’s reporting. The South Africa correspondent for the (London) Sunday Times and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Mr. Johnson has been a prolific critic of the ANC’s 16-year tenure in power. “South Africa’s Brave New World,” his political history of the post- apartheid era, amounts to a book-length indictment of the ANC. Its leaders come through as so corrupt, lecherous and violent that governance is not even an afterthought. “If we didn’t dine with thugs and crooks,” says one to Mr. Johnson, “then we’d always eat alone.” The book is a catalog of sins and rumors (footnoted, though often attributed to private sources or, for example, “old girlfriends” of ANC members). It is big and disorganized but filled with credible gossip—like the Trevor Manuel story—and therefore a delight.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Wall Street Journal, , ,

V. S. Naipaul in Africa

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review .

 

The Masque of Africa

By V. S. NAIPAUL
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

 

If you’re bothered by political incorrectness, discovering that V. S. Naipaul has written a travel book about Africa should have you ready to assume the brace position. It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers. According to his erstwhile protégé Paul Theroux, Naipaul once remarked that  “Africans need to be kicked” and said their continent is “obscene, fit only for second-rate people.” Anyone who has read his novels and travelogues knows that he despises illiteracy, violence, and above all the failure to bend the knee to literary genius. When Naipaul meets Africa, then, expect a train wreck.

 

Naipaul’s best and worst work has come from Africa. A Bend in the River, set in Zaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent, but Half a Life, set partly in Mozambique, must rank among the most sluggish victory laps by a recent Nobel Laureate. His present book, The Masque of Africa, is Naipaul’s first travel writing since 1998′s Beyond Belief, and it takes on the question of African belief—the fundamental views of the world held by people he meets in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa. For Naipaul the Uganda portion marks a return: he lived and taught there in the 1960s, a catastrophic period portrayed memorably by Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. He seems to have mellowed considerably since then. Theroux’s Naipaul was called upon to judge a campus literary competition and announced that the entries were so bad that he would award only one prize, called Third Prize. Now Naipaul mostly refrains from insulting his hosts and even singles out one as having “merit” as a poet.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, , ,

Joseph Kony’s Hike to, and from, Hell

The Lord’s Resistance Army has been kidnapping, brainwashing, and murdering unlucky adolescents in a remote corner of the Central African Republic.  The Ugandan military is trailing the LRA, sometimes killing them and sometimes not.

Click through to read my report for The National on the world’s most technologically outmatched insurgency.

Filed under: National, , , ,

A Desert Moistened

The classic evidence for a wet Sahara comes from the Tassili frescoes, a series of fifty Algerian cave paintings that depict humans living with crocodiles, buffalo, giraffes, and other animals that do not thrive in arid climates. Ten thousand years ago, it appears, our ancestors could have grown rice in the Sahara, or spent their weekends Jet-Skiing at their North African lake-houses. For millennia, they had no reason to fear their water running out, or their settlements’ being reclaimed by desert sands, or of water running out. What the new reports about this bizarre climatological period don’t much emphasize, though, is that the Sahara was wet during a period of comparative global heat, and that it became parched only as the planet chilled. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

@gcaw

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.