Barnes & Noble Review

Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

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.


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.

Wall Street Journal

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.

Barnes & Noble Review

V. S. Naipaul in Africa

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review .


The Masque of Africa

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.


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.

Atlantic Monthly

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.

Atlantic Monthly

Indirect Hit

At $600,000 per Tomahawk cruise missile, the cost of whacking Ayro ran into the low millions. It would have been a bargain at twice the price. Somalis, victims of two decades of war and state breakdown, can bid farewell to a murderous madman, and their hapless provisional government will enjoy at least a slight boost in their efforts to quash the Islamist insurgency and repair the country. (Though turning Mogadishu back into a functioning city will be about as easy as turning foie gras back into a functioning goose liver.) For the U.S., however, the dividends from Ayro’s death will be more modest.

Atlantic Monthly

A Farewell to Arms

What could be more stirring than the sight of a few thousand Durban longshoremen standing up against one of Africa’s great despots? Consider me duly stirred. But this triumph of organized labor in South Africa has a worrisome side as well.

The dockworkers’ refusal to unload the weapons earned them the solidarity of South Africa’s truckers, then its Anglican archbishop, and finally its High Court, which sent the An Yue Jiang back to China. What’s alarming is that the High Court would likely never have been asked to rule on the issue had it not attracted so much international attention. The reason: the shipment was probably legal. Its bill of lading, “leaked” last week to South African media, concealed neither its cargo nor its destination. One can’t be sure what the Zimbabwean Ministry of Defense intended to do with the three million rounds of AK-47 ammo and thousands of rockets and mortars, but it can’t have been good. However, the Chinese and Zimbabweans were open about their cargo, and it appears that they followed all necessary protocols to send it along.

Shipping agents load and unload the machinery of death all the time — think not only of arms shipments, but also, if you want to be green about it, mining equipment that will almost certainly help poison streams and destroy villages. With few exceptions, the shipping agents send them along and allow countries’ own customs departments decide what should or shouldn’t be allowed in. The Durban longshoremen are essentially policing their customers in lieu of a morally adequate customs force in China, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. The unions’ diligence is admirable in this case, but it sets a dubious precedent.

The job of spotting wicked shipments should belong to customs agents, not to the moral whims of private individuals or unions (who, by the way, always have a stake in the deal). Viktor Bout, the arms-dealing sociopath alleged to have supplied weapons to almost every conflict in Africa, has a point when he says that he is just a taxi driver: no one expects a taxi driver to scrutinize his fare and decide whether he’s on a morally righteous outing. Likewise, we’d be enraged if postmen expressed their political preference by refusing to carry letters with RNC return addresses. True, there are strict laws that criminalize mail fraud. But it’s not the postman’s job to find the mail fraud: he’s there to deliver the mail, without prejudice.

In extreme cases — this is one — we do want shipping agents to exercise their judgment. We’d be even more enraged if the taxi driver unquestioningly drove a man with a ski mask and assault rifle to the local pre-school. But these extreme cases are exceptions, not models. One can imagine a (very fickle and inefficient) system in which private logistics companies are expected to scrutinize their cargo, and to eat the costs of carrying shipments that a transiting country’s dockworkers collectively decide to reject. Perhaps that would cause the price of odious shipments to rise — not an unwelcome development, and maybe a bit like “odious debt.” But for now, as long as I’m unsure whether those private moral policemen would be a courageous South African union or Viktor Bout, it’s still safer to put the authority, as well as the moral burden, with the countries of the shippers, consignees, and their ports of transit. Longshoremen bear enough burdens already.

Originally appeared at